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Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall 3)

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Natasha Little as Elizabeth Wykys Cromwell, Thomas’s wife, who dies of sleeping sickness early in the series

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Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza rescued from an abject life by Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark (2015 Poldark 1): she is facing down Heidi Reed Elizabeth while Ross turns away

Dear friends and readers,

I acknowledge the unfairness of comparing these two mini-series airing at the same time on the UK BBC and US PBS, about which much fuss is being made. Wolf Hall as written by Peter Straughan (with the acknowledged presence of Hilary Mantel) is a throwback to true quality drama of the 1970s through say 2009 on PBS. It may carry on on BBC TV in Britain as many of their serial dramas do not make it over to the US. Wolf Hall has (relatively) long scenes between characters, longer utterances and dialogue weighty with meaning and wit, its model is ironic drama on the stage and great care has been taken with mise-en-scene, culled juxtaposition, flashbacks, and literal accuracies. The new Poldark as written by Debbie Horsfield follows the recent trend in mini-series to reach a wider audience (apparently 7.0 million no longer makes the cut) with short scenes, only rare excursions into longer developed scenes (but they are there, as in the long sequence at the close of Episode 4 from the time of Ross and Demelza’s love-making, marriage, and first time together through to the end of the Christmas visit); its model is action-adventure TV dramas (Master and Commander and Outlanders as the 1970s kept in mind The Oneddin Line and costume drama from the 1940s Gainsborough swashbuckling school),and cost-saving measures which make for crude and abrupt movements between shots, confused chronology and (without Graham there) irritating anachronisms.

I’ve been reading Jerome de Groot’s Consuming History: Historians and heritage in contemporary popular culture — spurred on by some panels at the recent ASECS  and what interests me here is how these two mini-series are presented as historical fiction films, based on history as well as particular novels De Groot writing about the resurgence of history in popular culture. At the same time as academics get ever more sceptical (post-modern) about what we can know of the past, and insist on disillusion and almost disbelief in documentary source, at least “interrogating” them, and self-reflexivity before they will give prizes to anyone; popular culture is devouring historical fiction and it is now respectable, making and going to historical dramas, costume dramas trying to make a comeback (if not based on older great books, based on recent very good ones).

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Is there a difference among historical fiction, historic novels (older written in the 18th century, say Tom Jones by Henry Fielding), and films and “real” narrative history. Yes – especially thoroughly researched history which is often thematic as well as narrative and well-documented. But for readers: do you read an older or historic novel differently from the way you read a historical fiction? More is it not so that historical fiction influences the average person’s conception the past and forces into reactionary historical narratives modern concerns.

Do these historical fictions then become part of the fabric of historical knowledge. Yes. In the case of Graham, he is bringing to bear also the strong pro-revolutionary currents of the 1780s and 1790s into discourse – that’s why the books still matter in some ways (also the proto-feminism and some other themes), Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a revision of common understanding of the Tudor era skewed by Bolt’s and the 1960s desire to worship Thomas More. Morrison’s Beloved is now part of our understanding of the effects of slavery – and the horrific reconstruction period for black people down south. I reviewed Heffer’s High Minds – historian writing popular narrative and it is Tory paternalism that is brought before us despite all his research.

Historical fictions, these 20th and 21st century books, the first four Poldarks and Wolf Hall —  on face of it differ considerably from one another and from fictions actually written in the era they are set; yet both are created from imitating these earlier fictions, what is familiar about the earlier literature of the era, and recent other historical fictions and films. There are long traditions in the representation of the Renaissance and the 18th century. Just to begin with the 1960s on (who has not seen Robert Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons, with Orson Wells, Paul Scofield, Robert Shaw, Wendy Hiller) they imitate Jacobean drama and what is felt is true of the 16th century classics (Machiavelli, Montaigne, More) we get these Elizabethan/Tudor political types as seething with subtexts, as all of them ever so intelligent, witty, ironic, guarded, making killing remarks that are funny. Similarly not to go back to Kitty (Paulette Goddard and Ray Milland) but just the two Tom Joneses (1960s and 1998), the 18th century is a time of sexual transgression, rebellions and riots, country life, manliness as building a world. The source here are also the 18th century novels, from Clarissa to Austen, and the French soft-corn porn too (who has not seen Stephen Frears’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses with the smoldering eyes of John Malkovich), and recently movies centering on traditionally heroic masculine males. (When a person writes a novel set in the 19th century today he imitates novels set in the 19th century and conventions about the 19th century that are found in historical fictions set in the 19th century; so Byatt’s Possession imitates George Eliot as seen through the Brontes.)

Now common sense tells us there were as many witty seething ironic and subtextual people about in say the 18th century as the 16th and just as many dullards, obtuse dense people at the court of Henry VIII as at the philistine court of George III who never made an interesting remark in their lives. Documents easily bear me out that Charles James Fox and Sheridan were far more into wit than Thomas Cromwell or Wolseley. In fact that is part of the power of say Thomas Middleton’s plays (a contemporary of Shakespeare): in Middleton’s famous The Changeling the man who is the evil cente of the play, Deflores (played brilliantly in the 1980s by Bob Hoskins in a BBC production) is not articulate and not very bright; worse yet is the silly heroine (played by a young Elizabeth McGovern in the same production) while the smart people (one played by Hugh Grant before he gave up on serious acting) are done in by Deflores. Deflores can’t and doesn’t want to make smart remarks. They are dangerous.

The great delight for those who delight in this sort of thing of Wolf Hall is the myth that everyone was supersubtle in talk and thought. It gave Hilary Mantel a terrific remit. Her novel (which I acknowledge I did not finish nor even start her Bring Up the Bodies, but which like some watchers I am now intent on rereading to where I left off and now finishing so as to enjoy the film adaptation the more). Her book imitates James Joyce in its self-conscious use of stream of consciousness, fills in with the expected rich furniture and strange doings of the Renaissance as seen in films, other historical fictions, “real” historical narrative, not to omit Shakespearean plays. She has also re-seen the paradigm given us by Bolt and the 1960s so now the ruthless thug politician (Leo McKern) is now true ordinary man, no better (though smarter and with more kindness and braver before the king) than the rest of us. It must be a winner.

The Poldark people have to make do with 1940s novels that mirror the dark times just after World War Two, and to give them credit, they are doing this far more authentically with the central characters than the progressive 1970s mini-series. And as Graham did, they are given voice to the marginalized and powerless, the abject, the lowest of the low, in a wide ranging perspective which includes underlying economic realities. The crime of poaching which leads to the death of one of the characters from epidemic typhus in prison was a disguised war of the propertied against the 99% of the era. Everyone knew it was a victimless crime, punished highly unevenly, the equivalent of Jean Valjean put away in prison for 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread in Les Miserables. We see the stranglehold of monopolies as Ross fails to make a go of it smelting and selling copper himself at prices that will keep the mine going and becomes a free trader (smuggler). So we need vast scenes of peoples not tight encounters of individuals.

I’ve written a more detailed comparison of one episode from each (the fourth Poldark, the first Wolf Hall) on my Sylvia blog (scroll down to the concluding three paragraphs) and so won’t go on at length — until that is, I’ve read Mantel’s books and seen all 8 Poldark episodes, but here would like to turn the depiction of the women in the new Poldark and Wolf Hall. For now I want to talk just about heroines of each. According to De Groot and Miriam Burstein the archetypes across historical fiction repeat themselves – whether the character is called Demelza, Anne Boleyn, or some version of Elizabeth. In short the heroine who is anti-ambition beyond marrying up, who does not act out agency, whose greatest happiness is with a partner, male (or female), being a mother, and virtues are loyalty is rewarded. Books side with constancy, prudence, obedience, domesticity (Katherine of Aragon, Mary Boleyn). Graham departs in giving us Demelza fighting for Verity’s liberty and then punishes her hard. Elizabeth seeking a life outside her family and ending up dead; Verity escaping to a kind of solitude of two in Falmouth.

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Scene from Wolf Hall
Hero and heroine scenes from both

For the supposed heroine of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the great and important book on Anne Boleyn is Retha Warnike’s The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn,– she shows the false constructions, where they came from, tries to disentangle this woman from myths, but go look at the popular historical fiction (The Other Boleyn Girl or Mantel’s Wolf Hall – I’ve not yet read Bring up the bodies). In Mantel’s presentation of Anne it’s as if Warnicke never wrote her accurate and moving portrayal of this woman,  caught up in a world of totally male hegemonic world where her family was out to sell first her sister and then herself corrupt coteries, a totally male and we are back with Boleyn as sly, amoral, wrongly ambitious, untrustworthy, deserving almost to be beheaded. I should bring up how in the 18th century Elizabeth Tollett wrote one of these Ovidian narratives deeply sympathetic to Anne, and full of the terror of beheading, but she sentimentalizes her.

We are hearing about the terrific performances of Rylance, Damien Lewis, watching Anton Lesser as More. But what of the women of Wolf Hall? Since she left off Amy Dorrit (Bleak House, scripted by Andrew Davies), Claire Foy has taken on ‘evil’ shallow ‘spoilt’ women — she did this kind of role for the 2010 Upstairs Downstairs, the pro-Nazi, Lady Percy, sexually exploiting the chauffeur. Angel face. But Foy is overdoing it, standing there stiffly; and Charity Wakefield as Mary Boleyn is mawkish (apart from the historical reality Mary was not acceptable at court once she had had a son by Henry who remained illegitimate — has no one read the recent history on these women?). The presentation of these women is not feminist — it’s typical historical fiction across the board. The heroine who is anti-ambition beyond marrying up, who does not act out agency, whose greatest happiness is with a partner, male (or female), being a mother, and virtues are loyalty is rewarded. Books side with constancy, prudence, obedience, domesticity. Graham departs in giving us Demelza fighting for Verity’s liberty but then the structure of the novel and everyone around her punishes her hard for trespass. She was not supposed to rescue Verity to choose her own life. And the actresses can’t do as well. Liz, More’s wife, has depth — but she’s all caution and prudence, won’t even read the Bible, sticks the prayer book as safer but she’s killed off by a dread disease of the era (sleeping or sweating sickness) — so Natasha Little (the great actress of the 1998 Vanity Fair) goes to waste — unless she’s brought back in flashbacks later in the series. By contrast, Eleanor Tomlinson has a complex role to play as did Jill Townsend for Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan in the 1970s. Elizabeth has a real ambition, for society, to rise in life; Caroline Penvenon has agency. The real sin among these women is the same as Anne Boleyn’s: when they are not loyal first and foremost. I admit my bonding thus far from the films is Demelza as played by Tomlinson and Liz Cromwell as play by Natasha Little. The books are different: I deeply enter into Verity’s case, bond with the intelligent Elizabeth but have not gone far enough for a second time into Wolf Hall or its sequel to grasp where I can find some purchase.

What is the definition of manliness in such films or their books? the heroes are Thomas Cromwell who takes More’s old place as the tolerant man of integrity; Ross Poldark who builds a home and world.  It’s curious to see how physicians, Dwight Enys (Poldark), Stephen Maturin (O’Brien’s sea-stories — to me Paul Bettany is perfect) are held in high repute in historical fiction and merchants (Stephen Vaughn of Antwerp, Antonio Bonvisi from Lucca, friends to Cromwell) in Wolf Hall.

For myself I still haven’t enjoyed a costume drama mini-series in the way I am thus far Wolf Hall and also only intermittently the new Poldark since some of Andrew Davies’ film adaptations in the first decade of the 21st century. Bar none (perhaps exceptimg Breaking Bad, better in its depiction of women, probably much more thematically important and relevant), Wolf Hall is absorbing, entertaining most of the time, usually intelligent (though not Anne or Mary Boleyn). Certainly Downton Abbey was problematic even in the first two years. The new Poldark’s closer reading of Graham’s depiction of the sources of Demelza and Ross’s relationship is teaching me why I so bond with these recurring two characters, Wolf Hall is pulling me into strange violent terrors of the 16th century, religious — you can’t mock the way Clive Francis as Francis Poldark or Paul Curran as Jud dared — a world without any individual rights. The savagery reflects our own era.

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

Way back in December 2014 I announced the publication of this volume, edited by James Leggott and Julie Ann Taddeo, in which my own essay on “Epistolarity and Masculinity in Davies’s Trollope Adaptations” appeared. I’ve now read the whole of the volume and had a chance to view some of the films I knew nothing about before reading it. In the Foreword, Jerome De Groot makes a strong argument for regarding costume drama as a central export of British TV, and when done as film adaptations of great books, truly fine movies; at the same time he brings up why and how they are dissed continually. I thought a review of its sections and individual essays would be of interest to those who love these mini-series as I do. Since the volume is quite rich (see the Table of Contents), I’ve divided this blog in three parts following the divisions of the collection. This review is of the essays in Part One: Approaches to Costume Drama.

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From Shoulder to Shoulder, a young Sian Phillips played Emmeline Pankhurst

Clare Monk’s “Pageantry and Populism: Democratization and Dissent: The Forgotten 190s,” is on the power, the liberal outlook, and variety of themes and art of the mini-series and costume dramas of the 1970s. She opens with an excellent demonstration (convincing) that the costume drama of the 1970s has been ignored, partly because it had a number of centrally influential highly liberal mini-series, only one of which has appeared on DVD, Days of Hope (it’s upbeat at last). Shoulder to Shoulder a significant contribution to the history of suffragettes and how they were treated is not wiped out but obstacles are still put in the way of re-digitalizing. Monk demonstrates the richness of the 1990s and a type of structure, pattern, cinematography, historiography is a development of the 1970s and lasted until 2003-4 when (alas) Mobil Exxon withdrew its support. She does not say but Eaton tells you that was when the bottom fell out of PBS. She also shows (I’ve know this for years as does anyone with some access to British TV) that only a small number of British mini-series came over to the US, the type that Downton Abbey comes out of.

The second essay by Thomas Bragg, “History’s Drama: Narrative Space in ‘Golden Age’ British TV Drama, also examines the 1970s, as a seminal period of costume drama: the sixties began it, and it was serious because of the simultaneous presence of the play of the week (Wednesday nights) and the reality that the people on the London stage were the same people on the TV in these plays. They began to cross over to the mini-series in the 1980s when British film having collapsed in the movie-houses (due to Hollywood’s popularity) moves into TV (e.g., My Beautiful Laundrette), writers and all.) Bragg’s thesis is not so admiring of the 70s, is a corrective. The 1970s have been credited with going-out-of-doors and several of the famous mini-series are repeatedly said to be photographed on location, out of doors, most famously Poldark. Bragg demonstrates that while the film-makers did indeed go on location and film some sequences there, these are few and far between. The central space remained the studio and built versions of rooms. At the same time though the uses of camera work changed: in the 1967 Forsyte Saga, a filmed stage play, the camera becomes a narrator, moving in and out of spaces; the rooms themselves are highly appointed visual versions of the era (made to seem accurate by specifically elaborate props). A strong use of mirrors, windows, and angles made the viewer aware there was an outside which was redolent of wide open spaces. Bragg argues this is the equivalent of how historical fiction works or had worked since Scott; the important scene within a confined area, carefully described objects and houses from the era, with occasional forays out to descriptive landscapes. This is interesting: how does one give the effect of a past time in a written fiction.

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A scene of the family group in the 1967 Forsyte Sage (early on, Episode 1)

Bragg suggests this way of filming changed again in the 1990s when TV film-makers no longer had to rely on older film techniques to film out of doors but could take their computer equipment, moving cameras, one tied to the waist of the cinematographers. Then he makes the point that in Downton Abbey, the one standing heir to all these older dramas, focuses on the outside. The way the characters are filmed, walking, talking, interacting the effect is that of a group of people say in a courtyard (as in Poldark when Ross when to market they filmed in a courtyard in Ealing Studios) — but the great emphasis is the house, the lands, the dominating wealth. Where in the 1970s Upstairs Downstairs do we see the grand houses, the outsides, the gardens? we don’t. Some film-makers wanted to give the impression of landscape more than others; I’ve been thinking about the 1972 BBC Emma: this would be one much less concerned to make it seems as if the story is filmed in a landscape but I can see how the disposition, way of filming, where arrangement of scenes is that of the 1970s Poldark, and Upstairs Downstairs.

James Leggott’s “‘It’s not clever, it’s not funny, and it’s not period!': Costume Comedy and British TV” makes this an unusual volume. Leggott is a BBC person; he teaches film and TV at Northumbria University and is chief editor (he started it) of the Journal of Popular TV. It’s on a topic I’m not qualified to evaluate: a kind of BBC and (in a way) elite costume drama that rarely comes over to the US: Blackadder was a rare cross-over and it appeared later at night on PBS; I watched maybe one or two. Jim used to like them when he was watching TV. He’d laugh and laugh.

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A remembered moment from Blackadder

Blackadder belongs to a sub-genre of hour-long and mini-series which make fun of serious costume drama; He mentions Upstairs Downstairs Abbey and Lark Pies to Cranchesterford (a mocking title). These types include Monty Python’s Holy Grail, on the one side, and Benny Hill on the other: low humor pretending not to recognize its own salaciousness, boy’s stuff. The Carry On movies come out of this: Carry on Cleo for example (mocking the Cleopatra movie). Leggott covers sitcoms: Brass, Dad’s Army, and others which are anti-war, anti-hierarchy. For those of us who didn’t see the full panoply of the 1970s costume drama we won’t recognize what’s rejected and made fun of. Leggott shows these deconstruct and expose the fallacies and harm; they are often attacked — as “not clever, not funny and anachronistic.” So what? Well, as he proceeds he shows that some viewers begin to believe the history they see in these programs; they really do and instead of getting the parody or critique the original shows ideas are reinforced. And some come out of a reactionary point of view very strongly. Apparently you can find British people who believe in the medieval period they see in these or the 18th century mock-ups. Not so much the Victorian.

Marc Napolitano’s “It is but a glimpse of the world of fashion: British Costume Drama, Dickens and Serialization,” attempts to show that the costume serial drama embraces many of the attributes of soap opera by looking at the techniques of serialization. Napolitano says the incessant reiteration of Dickens’s name as what early films were like because Dickens is so cinematic was an attempt to gain respectability; yes Dickens published in installments but his installments were words. What was influential was not so much the vaunted pictorialism of his texts but their open segmented narratives. Napolitano says Dickens’s novels are open-ended; and what we have in costume dramas from Upstairs Downstairs on is an open-ended story that can keep going. In fact, the continuity and themes are grounded in character and setting not story. They use a limited number of sets while an overarching story narrative which ties the season together. By contrast there are older film adaptations of specific books that no longer how long do have an ending because the books have an ending: Forsyte Saga and Pallisers. By chosing this open-ended structure, the writers and film-makers can respond to audiences and experiment. He’s really describing and defineing a television novel: that we have television novels nowadays. He writes in detail about The Foryste Saga, and Duchess of Duke Street. He mentions in a note Breaking Bad. Vince Gilligan had a general idea where he was going but at any point at the end of a season he could have pulled the curtain down; and he did pay attention to audience response and grew far more daring as he goes along. It’s the daring experiment that makes for the innovation. They dare not do that anywhere near as much on PBS, and we in the US get only a limited range of what goes on on British TV.

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A lesser known moving moment towards the end of Davies’s Bleak House: Sergeant George (Hugo Speers) caring for Sir Leicester (Timothy West)

Benjamin Poore develops Napolitano’s essay further — “Never-ending Stories: the paradise and the Period Drama series.” Beyond an analysis of structure he pointed to features we see after 2005 or so. The lead writer who becomes an executive producer and is the linchpin was in place by the mid-1980s. An emphasis on the workplace which makes the workplace a substitute for family (and not said in the essay remains pro-establishment utterly); source texts which are relatively unknown (like Zola’s novel, Gaskell’s short stories — My Lady Ludlow is narrated by a crippled servant in the book); production practices: the fully built complicated set and precinct (the house or department store and land or streets around it); a “warm bath” atmosphere — everyone kindly, communitarian — the new reassurance factor is strikingly different from the 1970s. He discusses Davies’s Bleak House as a half-way between the older forms and this newer one — alas it did not get enough audience and so now the BBC and ITV people want a “springboard’ rather than a classic book. Poore discusses pragmatic practicalities and how decisions are made based on commercial considerations and audience numbers.

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One of the quieter and feminine of the many epistolary scenes in The Way We Live Now, Georgiana Longestaffe (Anne-Marie Duff) writing to her Jewish lover while she is in the London house of the Melmottes

Mine comes next — “Epistolarity and masculinity in Andrew Davies’s Trollope films. Here rather than summarize or evaluate my own essay, and in order not to interfere with copyright (so I won’t put my essay on the Net), I offer Taddeo and Leggott’s summary of my paper in the volume’s introduction:

Perhaps the most subversive writer to examine, Ellen Moody argues, is Andrew Davies whose two BBC adaptations of Anthony Trollope’s novels, He Knew He Was Right (2004) and The Way We Live Now (2001), offer a liberal feminist interpretation of Victorian domesticity and masculinity. Moody closely analyzes Davies’s televisual techniques of filmic epistolary sequences, montage, flashbacks, and voice-over, critiquing and shedding light on the relationship between the original source texts and their adaptations. Davies not only undercuts the conservatism of these novels while exploiting conservative tendencies in heritage films, but also freely adapts Trollope’s male characters’ psychological experience as they cope with the demands the characters make upon themselves while they attempt to enact sexual ideals of manliness and achieve financial and social success.

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In Small Island, the mentally distressed Uncle Arthur (Karl Johnson) coming upon the Jamaican British solider, Gilbert (David Oyelowo)

The section concludes with Karen Beth Strovas and Scott M. Strovas on “music in the British Serialized Drama,” the first half of whose title is “What are we going to do with Uncle Arthur?” It’s more than an allusion to a music hall song and dance Sarah the servant does in the 1970s Upstairs/downstairs,” but is a trope: in Small Island, there is an aging working class man called Arthur, and the joke his while others around him regard him as a simpleton or treat him like one (as in the older programs; Mr Weston in the 1972 Emma is made into a sort of semi-salacious genial simpleton), Arthur is rather cunning, and more sophisticated in his tolerance and observation than any one gives him credit for. There are few essays on music in film of any usefulness — so few have the technical knowledge and those who do can’t write to make themselves understood and anyway write on classical music and history (musicologists). This pair of people manage to describe pieces of music with concrete words that yet eschew technical language. New terms have evolved: source music for music that the characters in the film are making, and underscore music for the music we hear but the characters do not. The thesis is that music is so important to all film, and even in the 1970s ones where it seems it was not used to provoke emotional response the way it is today. The mini-series used the 1970s Upstairs/Downstairs, the 2003 Forsyte Saga and again Downton Abbey. (Before people cry out against this obsession with DA, the people doing it make their materials available for study. The composers for DA have published material that is usable — the way Fellowes’ scripts and 2 of his companion books are scenarios and of real use.) These three mini-series can be used to analyse others — so here again we have a rare instance of the editors and write managing to produce an essay that those outside costume drama might find useful and general.

The Strovas show that what developed is a use of music beyond the opening and close themes. All three have theme music that begins and ends the show each hour, and is brought back in particular different ways to make emotional and thematic points. In the 1970s music was a tool to define and intensity the class conflicts of upstairs and downstairs — and conflicts were much much stronger, it was a polarization. Eventually upstairs took over when the hero became the son and heir, James as a tragic figure, but not so before that. What happened was a development whereby source material states explicitly some of the themes or underscore but in key scenes the two interact so as to musically enact emotions and thoughts and what’s happened. It is much more developed in Downton Abbey because they are more conscious of what they are doing and have more money than U/D did. DA uses music more psychologically and very effective it is — much more lush, but not drooling because of pace. Those who have watched the 2003 Forsyte Saga will know that operatic music is used a lot; the book and film take advantage of Irene being a piano teacher, musical and the wealth of the family leads to soirees and going to opera. The Strovas analyses the first encounter, sex and rapes scene to show our source and underscore music is used as a counterpoint. Sarah in U/D loves music hall and we see contrasts of her singing and dancing downstairs as the upstairs ones sit composedly. A scene at the close of the 2nd season of DA has Mary and Matthew playing the gramophone with a haunting love song at the time and an underscore that stops and starts as well as allusions to a show that flopped. The 4th season of DA used music a lot: Dame Nellie Melba came and sang Puccini; the black Jazz singer of course sang his songs and there was dancing. In both Forsyte Saga and Downton Abbey when a woman is raped, all music ceases where she is.

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Poldark 1975-76: one of four sets of paratexts that opened and closed the mini-series, each having images epitomizing the actions of the four episoces and accompanied by the same memorable alluring music

Ellen

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Demelza (Angharad Rees) climbing up on Ross’s (Robin Ellis’s horse), (1975 Poldark)

Dear friends, readers, and class,

This is a continuation of the lecture I wrote as a blog, Ross Poldark, the first phase, which takes into account my first blog on the book, Ross Poldark, Revenant, and on the 1970s mini-series, An 18th century Cornish Che Guevara figure. I’ve added a few thoughts on the first three episodes of Debbie Horsfield (script-writer and “creator”), Ed Bazalgette (director) and Eliza Meller (producer) of the 2015 Poldark which have not quite covered this first of the 12 novels. The stills are mostly from the 1970s mini-series as all I have for the recent one are a few promotional stills, which typically distort what are the characteristic images in any film.

Last time we emphasized the salient characteristics of Ross, which included the above categories, a sense of his rootedness in costume drama of the 1940s (Stewart Grainger) as well as his historical conditions: he is not the heir to the Poldark estate, Francis Poldark, the son of the oldest son, Charles, is. He thus comes home to a small inheritance of a ruined mine, home, neglected property, the young woman he had loved and thought himself pledged to engaged to that heir. He had been assumed dead, out of the way. To this I’d add he is an ordinary man, somber, serious, whose troubles are those that anyone of the 1940s and again 1970s might identify with today: he wants to integrate himself into his community, make a respectable living, is a responsible man with a depth of intelligence. His desire to do some good is what particularly dates the norms to the 1940s after WW2 and again before the Thatcher era.

Ross Poldark and Demelza may be seen as coming of age novels: our hero returns home from the wars, which he escaped his youthful rebellions to, and now he tries to make himself a life, to marry where he will be comfortable, a woman who provides a household (his choice to marry and Demelza too partly fits in with the first part of Amanda Vickery’s At Home with the Georgians where she depicts the male of the 18th century eager to marry a genuine home-maker, to begi his career as a respectable male). I wrote a separate blog on mining (& smuggling) in Cornwall with particular reference to Ross’s thwarted heroic efforts. In the first she grows up: she comes age 11-14 into the first minimally decent stable surroundings and people who treat her in a civilized manner since her mother’s death. In the second she too comes of age, partly by finding where she differs from Ross, who by the end of the first novel has become an unquestioned parent-husband-master, someone who opinion of her is all encompassing, who is her. She is to learn he has feet of clay. Jud and Prudie are in effect her surrogate parents.

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Where Jim Carter (in the background) has helped Ross fend off Demelza’s father and she protests against giving her meagre salary away

We omitted talk of Jim Carter, with Jinny, important presences and characters in Ross Poldark and Demelza. On some deep level Ross identifies with him, feels for him (as Ross does not quite for Mark Daniels). Jim is of the wretched of the earth, has been given little chance to develop his gifts, and has not had the individual esteem to refuse to return to the mine when he, like his father, develops lung sickness; still he does not make enough money as a tributer and poaches to put food on the table his manliness demands. This is not to blame him, but we are to see that he is not a flawless character. Jinny is not really happy with him; he will not listen to her greater prudence. He knows how dangerous poaching is (no matter how unjust the laws); she becomes subject to rape and even death when he steals out. Ross’s anger at himself for not saving Jim but persistent impulse to not behave in the amoral hierarchical ways of he gentry leads to his decision to marry Demelza. He will do the right thing. The community think he is sexually using her carelessly as any aristocratic male would; he proves them wrong. Central to the book is his learning experience at the trial, Book 2, Chapter 4.

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Jinny and Jim at their wedding listening to her father

Zacky
Zacky Martin

Also the rivalry with Francis. Quite apart from Elizabeth. My research into the period of the Renaissance through early 19th century shows such internecine quarreling and betrayals (Ross almost drowns Francis in their first encouner in the mine when Francis tries to open himself to Ross) occurred regularly between a male heir and especially a cousin, the son of the second son: I found it in Vittoria Colonna’s extended family, and in Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea’s brother, who murdered his male cousin Hazlewood in Northampton, and could not recover a life afterwards. Primogeniture is not a system to foster kindly feelings (as Austen said the system which demands none of a group of sisters “come out” until the oldest is engaged leads to animosity).

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Clive Francis as Francis as we first see him

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Frank Middlemas as Charles

Powerful scenes in Book 2 are the trial (covered in the last lecture) and Ross and Demelza’s plunge into becoming lovers: she desperate to avoid returning to her imprisoning home, he drunk, wretched, overcome with a need for human contact. She does not entrap him; she fears earning his contempt and he almost does react that way when in his mother’s dress he compares her to his mother. Book 2, Chapters 5-7. The careful slow believable and probable build-up; Demelza’s intense awakening and joy afterwards; his acknowledgment that this was not just “an expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” Elizabeth comes more for help with Francis who her own rejection of has driven from her and into drinking, gambling, promiscuity, debt, thinking to play on Ross’s love for her, but finds something has happened between the two and it is too late for her. To its credit the 2015 Poldark followed this trajectory including his decision to marry Demelza out of a liking and respect for her, that she had become part of his life, and the intensity of their congenial sexual encounters.

So the last phases of the book. Several inward looking threads:

1) Ross falls in love with Demelza, begins to appreciate her as an individual; he continues to love as this icon of aristocratic elusive beauty, Elizabeth. The love begins in the chapter of the harvest of pilchards, Book 3, Chapter 2; Graham may have written as well but he never wrote better. The greatness of it is it’s a recreation of the Daphnis and Chloe (Longus), Paul et Virginie (later 18th century), Tristan and Isolde archtypes interwoven completely with the detailed dramatization of a harvesting of pilchards by a community deeply in need of these fish to sell and to eat, in the context of a real Cornish cove. She packs a picnic supper. Much of the space is given over to describing the intensely important and ultimately successful catch through the use of the nets, yet our emotions are intensely with the each of our two presences.

‘Ross,’ she said, ‘dear Ross’ ‘I love you, he said, ‘and am your servant. Demelza look at me. If I’ve done wrong in the past, give me leave to make amwends.’ And so he found what he had half despised was not despicable, that what had been for him the satisfaction of an appetite, a pleasant but commonplace adventure in disappointment, owned wayward and elusive depths he had not known before and carried the knowledge of beauty in its heart.

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A famous shot from the 1975 series when Ross tells Demelza he will give her his name, marry her

2) The failure of Elizabeth and Francis’s marriage. She prefers her son, Geoffrey Charles, is not finally in love with him, and his failure to cope with the world she can be patient with, but not empathize or help. That they have had no further children is to be taken as a sign of unsatisfactory sex: an 18th belief is still wit hus that satisfying sex brings about orgasm and orgasm pregnancy. It’s a myth used in novels by characters to try to prove a woman claiming rape was compliant (in Richardson’s Clarissa, in Kleist’s Marquise of O) Elizabeth’s resurgent love for Ross comes out of her dissatisfaction. We see Warleggan waiting on the side; he has lent Francis money and bound him that way.

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Norma Streader as Verity: her close relationship with Ross slowly built up

3) The story of Verity — lonely, depressed, without feeling alive for herself (one of the many great chapters of Poldark series, all 12, is Chapter 14, when she returns to her room and faces what is her probable destiny: used but useful in her extended family. So ailing, she comes to stay with Ross and Demelza. Demelza fearing scorn holds off, but Verity wins her over by opening up her own tragedy to Demelza. Their shopping trip is to me a delight: like Ross’s trip to the fair in the first book, it enables Graham to present the 18th century world to us, shopping in the provinces, how people made their clothes. And we have a long trope of female friendship, so rare in male novels (hardly seen in most movies).

4) Graham has said that he did not plan another book, Ross Poldark was stand-alone, but I wonder if by the end of the book Graham knew he would continue: these latter two are the sort of thread that demand fulfillment. Demelza begins pro-active, diplomatically to question Ross to find out about this loss of love and hope Verity had known. Why start such a plot if you don’t mean to continue it into another book. Ross is right to worry about Blamey we are to feel too. A genuine gap between them. They will have male versus female reactions to primal experiences in later books. There is also what is going to happen to Jim Carter? Prudie and Jud kicked out of their jobs? will they continue alienated?

On average there was a three-year gap between Graham’s new books (not the rewritings) but Ross Poldark was 1945 and the very next year, 1946 Demelza. Jeremy Poldark appeared 1950; Warleggan 1953.

5) The last episode: Ross and Demelza are invited to Trenwith and almost torn apart by the pressure of the house and its history, the paintings, the sense of an ancient family Ross belongs to which she is outside of, but Demelza has a realistic success. She is helped to assert herself by Verity’s presence, by drink (she’s not perfect) and by her own native abilities against the spiteful Ruth Teague. Her pregnancy is actually a burden. Her first attempt at social class adjustment and we see in these scenes Francis instinctively kind and Elizabeth not deliberately hurting anyone.

One way to write a historical novel set in a given period is imitate the novels written in that period. Graham is imiating Emma where Austen’s Jane Fairfax plays so exquistely high culture music but Harriet says she prefers Emma’s poorer execution because the “performance” was so great. Also the songs easier. Elizabeth’s harp playing and use of Handel does take those who can enter a higher realm into it: that includes Francis (it is sad how their marriage fails). But Demelza’s folk approach is accessible, sexier and is liked by more. Demelza is getting back but before a sour note enters, Ross taps her shoulder lightly.

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As the novel ends Ross and Demelza achieve communion of spirits walking home in the landscape as Verity has walked by his side with him. Far from this ancient imposing house, with its picture, night and the “old peculiar silence” ceases to make a barrier and “becomes a medium.” Their different pasts and personalities “could not just then break their companionship for long. Time had overawed them. Now it became their friend”

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For next week: Demelza is not a sequel but a continuation. All the novels are continuation, continuing the story. Each one has a peculiar structure and themes of its own but they do not introduce a new set of characters who are dismissed from the action beyond the one novel. In Demelza Graham widens his purview to include the 18th century wold through a Cornish lends: topics will include medicine, law and justice, smuggling, banking.

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Aidan Turner as Ross working at his desk

The new mini-series, a few sketchy thoughts on Episodes 1-3:

I find I’m too attached to the novels after all and have a hard time judging this new one rationally. My worst complaint comes from the new dramaturgy: the scenes are far too short; in the modern way these begin at the end of a scene, are epitomizing, and have a momentary shot which suggest what was to happen and then we switch. The film editing feels crude: we move too abruptly from shot to shot.

Watch any 190s or 1980s mini-series: last night I was watching Barchester Chronicles, a mini-series from two novels by Anthony Trollope; what a striking difference from these new Poldarks; BC resembles the old Poldarks and The Oneddin Line. The three (BC, old Poldarks, and Oneddin) are all literate. Characters are presented with coherent thoughts; they talk to one another and express understandable ideas; debate issues. The scripts were hard-worked on and made sense. The writer does not have the time to develop complicated utterances or she fears the audience will not understand more complicated thoughts when not attached to something immediately personal.

Apparently some Poldark fans (on the facebook page) notice that the chronology from episode to episode is confused. PBS dumbs down by substituting bloody thrillers and situation comedies dressed up as costume drama (Doc Martin, Call the Midwife); the BBC carries on costume dramas of good books, with the alternative solution of having characters grunt at one another, and substituting scenic camera work (technology). It’s not the fault of the actors nor even the scriptwriter – though she appears to know little of the 18th century when it comes to underlying manners and attitudes nor director: the long hand of Mrs Thatcher, budget cuts, and despising of education is at the core of all this.

An overt feminism makes all the male characters order the females around peremptorily. That’s not how it worked. Alas the screenplay writer has not begun to read or understand some aspects of the actual male practical life of the era either, nor the 1790s revolutionary period — which the 1970s writers did. She gets wrong how men were paid; they did not get salaries but worked as tributers, entrepreneurs. The new Francis is made more sentimental and less cynical subversive — which is like the book, Francis’s wit (what are you being saved from? for?) which came from the book is gone, but perhaps the feminism of the producer and writer could not bear to show a man so careless of his wife, so easily promiscuous. Elizabeth in the book and in the 1970s movies was ambitious, cool, wanted to be seen, to go to London and shine in court (she never got the chance); they are sentimentalizing her too. Some of the face-book fans are happy that the portrait is more positive without examining why or how.

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Ruby Bentall as Verity and John Hollingworth as Blamey — good in these roles

The Verity and Blamey story is fairly told and even all the parts, but it needed to be spaced out much more. It’s like a near final draft that needs more interweaving and raison d’etre somehow. I can see that there is a real attempt at time to film scenes from the book that were not filmed before.

I find I miss badly some of the original incarnations: Clive Francis as Francis, Norma Streader as Verity, Frank Middlemas as Charles. We also in this first episode have more romance than money scenes; the gardens are overdone the landscape does not look like Cornwall; the music is inferior to the original episodes and the paratexts not so aptly chosen; they are not original, not thought out. Turner and Tomlinson are good — his is an attempt at a hard unsentimental conception. the Jack Farthing as George Warleggan has the tones of Ralph Bates; Nicholas, the father is gone, but Pip Torrens as the corrupt ruthless uncle, Cary, repeats the tones, notes and kinds of sayings about profit) the old Nicholas uttered. But a number of the actors are weak (especially Kyle Soller in the role of Francis as narrow, spiteful, not bright); Heidi Reed Elizabeth is presented as in love with Ross — nothing about her complicated desires for status, wealth, social life. They don’t know what to do about some of the characters that are not driven by love primarily so have Ross and Demelza sort of be around one another pointedly. They do not have the guts to show characters immoral and careless the way the first series did. Phil David (superb actor) as Jud is thrown away; his gnomic statements of pessimism personalized so lose their meaning. Lots of the working class characters simply in effect dropped. They don’t want comedy or at least not the kind the first series did — it’s melodramatic. To be fair, the original 1970s series often omitted Graham’s best lines, the darker melancholy sceptical ones. It did include the comedy.

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Ellis delivers a creditable performance as the narrow minded judge

On the other hand, it is also a different form of making movies; movies are made differently and I thought the third episode though also ‘dumbed down” used pictures again and movement beautifully to convey the love affair of Ross and Demelza. They are good actors.

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Instead of actors in a stage being filmed; we have figures in a large screen who are part of the wholistic picture, and much is conveyed through gesture, picture, angle of shot. Still, they don’t use montage cleverly (too much money?) and Horsfield has Aidan Turner charging through the landscape on his horse as if she doesn’t know what to do with the actor — the imitation of Colin Firth half naked in the water by Turner with Demelza as voyeuristic in the grass was embarrassing and broke the suspension of disbelief utterly.

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Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza and Aidan Turner as Ross

Eleanor Tomlinson’s portrayal reflects our modern mood (she begins in distrust) but it is to my mind closer to the conception Graham had than the previous Demelza — who reflected “sex kitten” moments in the 1960s films (Tom Jones) and was far more 1970s feminist as well as not realistic. It was anachronistic in the extreme for her to tell anyone she did not know who the father of her baby was, much less its real father, Ross. The beaten down, shy, but slowly emerging Demelza in 2015 reflects our own distrusts and sense of darker realities. There are a few scenes (too brief but there) from the book where they shop, he buys her a cloak, she prepares decent food for him, we see them eating and talking together (alas no dialogue).

There is much to like — very very much to be moved by. In the way of modern adaptations the film-makers take a back story and put it as prologue so we have “Ross in America” and then a scene from his parting with Elizabeth, after which here we are in the coach again. I had hoped for the death of Joshua (which opens the book) but not to be. Phil Davis is a great actor, he’s not comic like Paul Curran, but he’s in a way more credible as a presence than Jud. The actor for Jim Carter resembles the earlier actor.

I am warming to Aidan Turner and thought he has some really effective moments. One stays with me. Demelza is leaving, walking off with the dog, as Prudie has told her see what he said, you’ve more trouble than you are worth, and she looks up and there is Turner photographed on the horse against the sky, looking magnificent somehow. Memorable. There’s a different concept for Demelza for Eleanor Tomlinson; she is made more central to Ross’s decision to stay, not a thief, desperate in a more abject way. In the book he never thinks to go;

The politics are the not the progressivism of the 70s but mirror dark and grim British moods of today.

Thus far I am not sure it will become mythic: the first Poldark had something deeply original about it — the music, the different paratexts carefully chosen to capture important moments (closing of Grambler, Smuggling, killing the informer); time will tell whether that these 8 hours have captured a new original spirit equivalent or analogous to the older one. It’s at a disadvantage being second but Andrew Davies in 1995 knocked the 1979 P&P off the map. Maybe they are trying too hard. Since they are communicating pictorially, they need to have more nerve in filming bold sudden moments of magnificence (Ross on his horse coming up to Demelza and taking her back when she runs away). They try for subtle symbolism in the simplified dialogue: when at the close of third episode he tells Elizabeth he is not leaving Cornwall, he says he had lost something, and his way, and now he has found it; that something is symbolized by or is also Demelza on his horse behind him as his wife. His choice of her embodies his values and the way of life he wants to lead.

Ellen

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Elizabeth — she was not one to take risks

Dear friends and readers,

Would you believe this time I have had to cancel my second class? I was summoned by the City of Alexandria Court system, then called, and then left standing for jury duty. Two days gone.

So as I did last week, I am again putting my lecture notes on line and hoping to meet with my class on the following Monday and asking the class to read on through the second third of the novel. I preface this blog with one of my favorite shots of Jill Townsend as Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark, by this time Warleggan (second season, 1977-78). Perhaps it will help my class envision her. The expression on the actress’s face is in a less-guarded moment. When I was on the Graham message board, Elizabeth’s name was my pseudonym (though I never hid behind it), this image my gravatar. Her character is a complex central presence in all 12 books even after she vanishes from its stage (The Angry Tide, Book 7).

Last week I covered Graham’s life, career, and three perspectives one could use to understand how Winston Graham came to write the Poldark novels in the way he did:  he was an outsider to the elite establishment of England when he was young, he identified with the underdog, the vulnerable, ordinary people, and he developed a deep attachment to Cornwall and interest in the past. I presented A Forgotten Story as a twin to Ross Poldark, a kind of dark mirror in which we see the same landscape, movement into the past, type characters (Patricia as a Verity-cum-Demelza), patterns of analogous events and trope (interest in rape, here boyhood), with both books still having an undertow of conventionality.

I thought before starting to discuss Ross Poldark together I’d ask if anyone else has read any of these books or others by Graham? Then say how I came to read and to love these books and ask how you found the first third of Ross Poldark.

The fantastic success of the first mini-series in the mid-1970s had made me to want to watch it by the 2000s. I had begun to publish on films, especially film adaptations of great books, and so bought a digitalized DVD and watched the first episodes – maybe 1-4. While I was charmed (especially with Robin Ellis), I felt that the series was somehow leaving out so much, particularly the background history, and had more depths to the characters (especially Francis Poldark). I felt something come through from the mini-series which I was missing.

So I bought the 1970s little volume with the picture of the coast and left-over mine shaft, all in green) as the cheapest I could get, not thinking I would really like them. I looked at a first edition and saw it was presented as see this past place through a window:

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This has become a collector’s item

The Poldark novels still don’t have a high reputation – as most historical fiction and romance today still doesn’t even if it gets prizes like the Booker (Mantel’s Wolf Hall). When they are not the target of prestigious coteries, they may be derided as swashbuckling or boys’ adventure stories or bodice rippers and “romance” (use as a term of contempt). Far from this, I found Ross Poldark to have real depths of perception for the characters, an author who wanted to delve a usable past to show us where we come from and talk to us about our present through this guise or framing. Politically and economically and socially serious books — in the Victorian-Edwardian tradition.

I kept reading them almost addictively – as I once did Trollope’s Palliser novels while I was watching the 1970s Palliser series on PBS on a black-and-white TV. I had read Trollope before, he had a high reputation, as one of the Victorian great novelists. I read through to Book 10 (The Loving Cup) and then turned back to the 1970s mini-series.

As I re-watched and went on, I saw the differences, some flaws, but also how well the film-makers had done it, that some of the decisions they made though they weakened and made stereotypical the characters were great dramatically, particularly the sequence in the film where Demelza seeks an abortion; the whole sequence in the film unlikely but appealing to people in the 1970s, and the ending of the first season, the 15th hour where the people of the district rise in rebellion against ruthless enclosure, destruction of their property – the 1790s in England mirrored the revolution in America and France, only it was savagely put down by Pitt. And that through their use of Cornwall itself, where they filmed, what they filmed, the opening and closing credits, the music, plus the scripts for nuanced scenes and actors who fit the roles as people imagined them they had reached the level of a mythic product.

This is a little different from most people who love the Poldark books recently – since the 1970s my experience is most people watch the series first and then read the novels. They thus read the novels through the series and they don’t think of the real immediate context of World War Two, nor do they look at the historical context of 1780s and 90s. They are willing to admit to a romance of Cornwall, and treat the novels almost as a invitation to a tourist and to be sure they are redolent of Cornwall – but about the particulars, the mining, the fishing, the land, the politics, and later in Demelza the smuggling and riots over abysmal poverty and exploitations, and then again in Jeremy Poldark, the politics, courts, and all sorts of things that are historically accurate and I find wonderfully well done are not much discussed. Our four essays (one by me) include one on Cornwall (point to it on the syllabus), two on the history (mine and Nickianne Moody – no relation though she also writes on popular books about medicine and medical films and I do too), and one on a novel theme connected to today: rape in the Poldark novels.

So my idea as I said in my blurb is to cover the novels of course but also go into these contexts. We’ll watch a little of the mini-series which closely mirrors parts of Demelza, and one rousing piece mirroring Jeremy Poldark – the scavenger riot, how it came about, the smuggling and why– but as ways of visualizing the books and enjoying film adaptation and its pleasures. I do long to go to Cornwall, to visit it for a couple of weeks because the series is spot on with the ways the film-makers film it.

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Historical Fiction

In Poldark’s Cornwall (I’ll bring next time to share the pictures), when he turns to his novels, Graham presents strongly the reality that a historical novel is the vision of the writer (p. 148). “If there is no personal view, there is no art.” He knows that historians downgrade the historical novel because it colors or shapes history. He does not himself go on to say historians do the same.

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Launceston Jail which figures in the novels: a 20th century photograph

Briefly, the downgrading happened at the turn of the century – early twentieth. In the Victorian period historical novels were valued more than novels set in present time. They were thought harder; they were seen as richly political books about serious issues, and were written mostly by men. That’s part of what happened. Women began to write historical novels and being women they did change the genre to have a strong element of love, subjective life and these books began to be derided. Daphne DuMaurier, another Cornish addict, is not really respected today, but she has had such a strong success that at least she is not erased from histories of historical fiction. Then when men wrote them – like Patrick O’Brien, these came to be seen as boys adventure stories; politics were omitted and all you had it was said was scenes like that where Ross Poldark beats out the Carne father and brothers in the first third of Ross Poldark. Boys’ magazines featured these kinds of stories, and to make them palatable to families buying magazines sex was presented somewhat childishly, not with real adult depth and understanding.

It is also true that the sceptical disillusioned philosophies of the early 20th century deeply distrusted the idea that we can know the past or put together a narrative which at all reflects this. Ironically Graham’s fiction shares this disillusion, but he does not work it into his story’s action and writes historical fiction in an old-fashioned coherent narrative, depth psychological-biographical memories way. The past is another country; they did things differently there, and books that are respected take this relativithy and unknowingness and subjecivity strongly into account and use it.

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A drawing from the 17th century of this Renaissance castle-fortress on the shores of Cornwall

To turn to the specific types of historical fiction, Graham described and his defense.

Graham says: “if he [the historical novelist] is good enough he creates a world of his own which the reader comes to inhabit and finds it comparable with life rather than identical with it.” He also works as hard as he can to make his fiction accurate enough without making it a wooden historical school survey in disguise. He says that in his autobiography – I quoted it in my first lecture.
Graham divides the kind into three types: those which use actual historical personages as chief characters (I Claudius); second where historical personages are substantial figures but main characters are fictional (Scott); third where the characters are “entirely, or almost entirely fictitious” (Stevenson, and of course his own; so too Margaret Mitchell I’d say). He says in the literature there is a tendency to rate the first and second types much higher than the third and this is “pretentious rubbish.” Fine novels, works of art, and truths about history occur in all three.

There is nowadays a fourth type: the historical novel which features a marquee character. The use of famous fictional characters out of copyright. Sometimes an author becomes a famous fictional character. So Sherlock Holmes might show up in a fiction set in the 1890s; Jane Austen becomes a fictional character in mystery stories.

What I really like are the final paragraphs in this section (p. 149). Human beings have not changed “but their reactions to life patterns” have and do, and the writer must understand and try to transmit these to the reader. There must be geographical truth too as setting is often essential to the art of the historical novel.

Of enormous importance is to “select” what historical fact you use. I paraphrase him here (quoting some of his words too): You must do a lot of intense homework and reading. It’s” tedious to enumerate all the sources” of the Poldark books, long hours of research to illuminate this or that event, into “old newspapers, travel books at the time, parochial history, manuals, autobiographies,” contemporary fictions. He then goes over a whole slew of events in the first few novels which are rooted in history and business and economics and politics and geology (p. 149). We’ll come back to this bit by bit as the novels call for it.

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The Bastille before it was taken down as depicted in an 18th century illustration: it looms over

He says there is “the opposite risk, that of becoming too preoccupied with history. One can so easily detect the midnight oil, the desire to instruct. But novels are about life.” So even if you are “reluctant,” once you have “discovered something at great trouble, not to make the most of it, resist that. Writing historical novels are a recurrent discipline where you use only what is relevant to the moment of the living fiction.” What is not relevant is irrelevant. (p. 150). Here is the key to difference of writing wooden stilted books and living breathing ones.

Do people here like historical novels? Anyone? Do you like films set in historical times? Can you say why?

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Ross Poldark.

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18th century gentry family playing checkers — Louis-Leopold Boilly (1761-1845)

For today you were to read the first third; a brief outline-summary which assumes the reader has read the first third of Ross Poldark:

Elizabeth Chynoweth is important here, in this opening part and over the arc of all twelve books she is significant though she literally drops out at the end of book 7 (The Angry Tide); the taking in of Demelza, the first phase of Verity’s relationship with Captain Blarney (later renamed Blamey) so maybe Graham had ambivalent feelings about Blamey as wife beater, destroyer, and ex-alcoholic; Ross’s first attempts to secure a place and way of life once again on his land, the relationship with the Martins and Carters and his workers in general and with the gentry of which he is one. Personally he is much more comfortable with his tenants and mine workers, but he does have some deep friendships with gentry and members of his family. For my first online blog about this book I called Ross, the Revenant, and later, the abiding Renegade. Politically speaking he’s in French terms, a Girondist, a moderate reformer who wants a truly constitutional monarchy and representation in parliament in England and France.

That’s more liberal than the usual Whig: it is very much Fox’s position. Charles James Fox, famous head of the Whigs, never became prime minister but had power almost like it. Fox and Pitt are referred to: arch rivals with Pitt the Tory reactionary and Fox your liberal Whig. I’ve a review of a biography of Fox: David Powell‘s a man of the people: Fox as a man of genuine open-mindedness, real toleration and liberalism – Fox too (like Ross) was very unstereotypical in some parts of his lifestyle; Fox even married a woman who had been a prostitute, Ross is not as daring in next week’s chapters but he is doing something similar when he takes Demelza in

Prologue: Joshua and Charles Poldark and Joshua’s death.

Why is it effective to begin this way? Pp 1-10. Read the first paragraph or so.

I like the book for its tone and characters and outlook.  What kinds of things in the chapter help immerse us in the earlier time? Details of the setting which are not overdone. How about the relationship of Charles and Joshua? What is it? Who is Charles? Note how Graham slips in the history of the family, Ross’s boyhood so naturally. Of course the old man would remember back. You can work out the ages of all the major characters precisely. Ross was 10 when his mother died; he was the younger son, and he is 23 when he comes home.

Details come at opening of Chapter 4, p 66; we can begin to work out a family tree.

The level of people in the community and individuals who are interesting and believable emerge quickly. Note that Verity is the only one that has visited. Note Charles is embarrassed to talk about what has been happening.

What is troubling Joshua at this point? What does Charles hope for? What does Joshua count on?

There is a dark level to this that appeals deeply to me — as well as the kinds of ethical statements that naturally arise in the character’s thinking for he is a sound ethical man in his way. The younger man dies before the older; sense is he has lived richly and used himself up. But he has hurt others – world uttelry interdependent. When one man dies, it changes everyone, they may seem to be enacting the same roles but they are not. That’s one them of A Forgotten Story when Joe Veal dies – certainly wnen the boy, Anthony, loses his mother. (For those who have read the whole book, Ross, a revenant everyone thought dead.)

Opening chapters the carriage ride, pp 11-17 – again why is this a good device in a fiction? Note attention paid to weather, to the feel of the air, to all the objects around us. Why does Graham bring in a narrow mean character like Rev. Halse? There are people who don’t have a strong sense of self-esteem against this man.

What is his attitude towards Ross. He was insubordinate. How does Halse treat the American war? As a game.

What are some of the details we are told immediately about Ross? Taciturn, withdrawn, does not give himself away. He is lame.

Ross does not go home directly, but stops off first at a notary, a lawyer, very important man in the time, Nathaniel Pearce, pp 14-17 — he kept documents, if Ross wants to assert his reality, his place in the community, he’s got to have documents that give him legitimacy as well as property. Now this relationship is pleasant, not hostile, but Pearce like many people doesn’t work hard and does not take seriously what does not directly concern him. Pearce’s loyalty as we will eventually learn is not strong to his clients, but himself first. Nothing was left but the land and house and one non-working mine – the wondrous thing about Cornwall is people found they were walking on rising (neolithic stones and cliffs and waterways) and payable ground. Mining goes back to pre-history; we find trade routs from Cornwall to the Mediterranean. We’ll come back to this. I’ll have another short lecture like the one on historical fiction for each of our topics as well as books to recommend and online sites if anyone interested.

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Chavenage House as Trenwith

He comes to Trenwith and discovers he happens upon the engagement party of Elizabeth and Francis Poldark, the heir to the best property ? Pp 18-20. A powerful realization of these people – we believe in them all – or I do. Graham is big on aphorisms which capture ideas that are pungent; “Ill usage makes the sweetest of us vicious,” p 16. We might remember that ourselves today in reading about what others do in the news.

He discovers he had been presumed dead, the young woman he loved, was engaged to, is now engaged to the family heir, Francis. The Choakes, doctor and foolish wife. The Chynoweths, Mrs is eager to link her daughter to the safe heir of the family. After all this guy has gone off. What is Francis and Ross’s relationship to start off with – it was good and meaningful – the incident of Francis falling into the water anticipates and foreshadows much that is to come. What happens? Pp 40-46.

What do we learn about Elizabeth? I suggest that she is weak, swayed by a desire for security, not liking violence, not liking risk – she was portrayed very negatively in comparison to the character in the book as developed. She is a stickler for convention herself – how dare you speak about my mother this way? p. 12 at the wedding. Elizabeth is the type who will lie because it’s her mother; the book stands up for people who prefer to tell the truth or act according to it. She would not have taken a beaten waif in; she’d care more about her own troubles; she’d not have seen Jim Carter as a person with rights like herself.

And then home again home again, p 26: at last. Ross feels deeply the satisfaction pp 27-29 and yet so sick. What has happened? His house and land have been let go horribly. Very important characters in the early novels: Jud and Prudie Paynter. Who are they?

It may seem as if Jud treated with utter contempt and his derisory view of the world not accepted; but as book progresses Jud shows deeper loyalties than caring for a house when the chips are down, and his view of the world is partly strongly validated. The world; Taint fair, taint just, taint right.

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Aidan Turner as Ross just returned home

Chapter three, the world of Elizabeth and local aristocracy contrasted to working people – Jud and Prudie one type, a woman seen, his heart leaps: it’s Verity. P 34. What kind of person is Verity? Her relationship with Ross. My college students called her a female Ross. Does that seem right in some way?

I love the scene of them walking along on the hill, pp. 35-37. “They reached the edge of the cliff … “ It would help more than anything if she were to come and be with him, befriend him – 37. What counts in life is before us beautifully.

He uses the phrase “rising ground,” each of the Martins are shown in their social and economic roles . P 39 .What is Mrs Martin worried over? Reuben Clemmov is in effect beginning to stalk Jinny, spaller – she works on the surface lighter work separately out ore from junk, washing it, shaping it to some extent

Then Francis apologetic, wants to make Ross understand — but Ross can’t, p 44 – too fierce. But also knows deep pain, p 53 – it’s the death in his heart he feels. Engagements were understood to include a certain level of sex and we are left to guess what that level was. The word “virginal” is used of Elizabeth’s looks, but it’s not clear because they both know they went farther in emotion and physical life than that. Ross is partly responsible for this foreshadowing of Francis’s fate

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Ross rescuing Clive Francis as Francis who comes near drowning

Pp. 45-54- the wedding, the types there. What do they do? A cock fight. We see how carelessly cruel people can be – Warleggan’s cock gets a claw in its head and he does not allow it to die but to suffer agonies p 52. Aunt Agatha unexpectedly shows appreciation of this.

Our first look at the Warleggans, p 53 – what a name.

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Robin Ellis as Ross dancing with Ruth Teague

Chapter 5, pp 55-68 – the importance of this assembly is that here Ross hits rock bottom for the first time, a nadir in which he looks out at the world deeply bitterly and asks himself in effect if this is where he wants to be. He comes up with no, and he’ll give life alone as a farmer at first a go, and goes out to market and there meets Demelza – phase two — she is like a stray kitten rescued.

The mini-series did try to show this but they didn’t show the woman Margaret properly – they romanticized her and Ross. She is what she is, surviving as best she can and hangs on to Ross as she knows he is in need of something

Verity has become central to his existence for now and she asks a favor, she needs someone to take her, he drifts into old ways, what else is there? We see his deep camaraderie with men of lower class origins, with physical world, pp 57-58. What’s good about this is again it gives Graham a chance to make this world vivid, fleshly, full of water, sand, fish, people – the lower orders.

Then courteous fun – or dancing – the surface. The troubles people have is just ours: Verity can’t think what to talk of, she hasn’t got small talk – so her pigs and poultry are no more available than Blarney’s sailing or talk of mines –, p 61. The details are from historical research but they have been used as if the people were here and now.

Again Ross means to be nice to a girl who appeals to him because not so full of herself, seems sweet, but what he is not thinking of is how he will be grabbed – marriage is a woman’s career. He cannot see that in fact Ruth is tenacious and has an aggressive nasty streak – that’s why she stands out in part, pp 63-65

The same goes for Margaret’s coming up to Ross. He was not going to go with her until Elizabeth arrives, and it’s with Francis and Warleggans from their fancy house. Ross can’t cope with seeing this. He deserts poor Verity but luckily she was planning to stay with a local woman friend. P 67

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Ross’s first sight of Demelza (Angharad Rees in the role) trying to rescue her dog, and being beaten

Second phase: the coming of Demelza: extraordinary: how he saves her out of decent feeling, and how she almost loses out because she won’t desert her dog. In fact she was involved in the physical mayhem because she was protecting Garrick.

Garrick was the name of a beloved dog owned by the Grahams who had part of its tail missing. Very hard to film before computer enhancement. I’m just bowled over by the truthful depction of humanity from pp 70-84 – the best, the worst, what we often see.

How they organize themselves into different levels of sale. What people do to entertain themselves – it includes cruel freak shows.

The core the meeting with the child and his behavior to her – she has never had such disinterested kindness before. Now we get a second consciousness. Up to now we have had Ross and Graham our narrator, now we begin to see the world out of Demelza’s eyes. A child but a child who is smart and has known the worst, pp 82-84

Ross needs to buy animals to work his farm and goes to a monthly large fair in Truro. Such fairs were held and we get a remarkably lively description of such a place. But there is no sense of feeding information or the kind of sentence which so often introduces this sort of thing. Instead we are wholly in his mind with his troubles and his reactions and see only those parts of the fair that are of interest to him, where he goes. Graham writes these details in a suggestive way which gives us suggestions of the larger place: there are three areas to the fair, a heavy-duty expensive one for animal purchase, feed, implements; another for smaller goods, pots and pans, household stuff, scattered everywhere stuff for fishing, mining, crafts and so on. He does his business and is tired and goes on to a third area where drink, food and entertainment is to be found. More sordid stuff goes on here, and among other things he sees cock-fighting (which we witness at his cousin Poldark’s wedding to his ex-beloved Elizabeth) and then two animals, a dog and cat tied to together with something to hurt them and tease them and all the people around enjoying this.

Well of course yuk. We are told Ross likes children and so when a young girl hurls herself against these animals to free the dog, becuase it’s her dog, and for her pains is the victim of stones and kicks and curses and mockery, he rescues her. What a mess she is — not unrealistic, half starved, filthy and has been beaten by her father and/or brothers recently. He gives her a good meal and is going to dismiss her but remembers he needs a maid of all and hard work. As yet he has but three servants to help him bring his house back to order. So he offers to take her. He likes her and she him — but they half-quarrel over her dog who she wants to bring. He almost gets rid of her at one point because he knows this will bring him trouble, but then she will come cheap and clearly wants and needs to escape an awful home. Bringing her home, he puts her in a big bed of the kind she never usually gets. It’s here the abilty of the novelist comes out. No sense of us being taught what a box bed was but rather we enter Demelza’s mind as she goes to sleep in this half-built house.

He tries to contact a lawyer over what to do about her, but is thwarted and her father and brother show up two mornings later. A fight ensues — yes swash bucklnig for our hero beats three men with the help of his servant, but it’s realistic too. Reminded me of scenes of Billy Booth duelling in Amelia. The same male stupidities are presented (Graham thought knows they are and does not enter into them quite the way Fielding does). Really the old man is willing to sell the girl for 50 guineas. They bargain in the end and Ross offers to give the old man her salary and he will himself provide food and clothes and whatever education she might want.

Elizabeth is characterized as inadequate in deep way: no you must put the child back, you don’t want trouble. Right .A wonderful aphorism later by Ross is if you allow the world’s prudence to control you you won’t live right – Elizabeth again and again will make these sort sof choices. Are they so bad?
When he fights the Carnes, he is fighting this world, the foul beating man but also getting out his anger – kraken wrath at Elizabeth having said she does not love him. Well she doesn’t. Much later – in Warleggan he tells Demelza she is incapable of much love of anyone – she will love her son by Francis. She does not have the depths to help Francis become the man he could have been – his father despised and controlled him, and she sits at a distance, accepting him on the surface qualities, appreciating his kindness and understanding but not loving it and reciprocating.

The motif which binds these segments in the film visually and archetypally is that of the revenant. Again and again Ross leaves to go to a war, to rescue someone, he is driven away, missing, believed dead, and then returns — from the time of the marriage welcomed joyfully by his (often pregnant) wife. There are a cornucopia of shots in this vein. In the books I discover he is a wanderer again and again, restless, dissatisfied. Not the same as a revenant at all.

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Full length still: Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza growing up

This last part of Book One tells of Demelza growing up, slowly educating herself in Ross’s library, becoming part of the working household; how he does begin to buy her pretty girl things (like a cape and pelisse) but as yet sees her as a child. At the same time ugly rumors fly about how he’s keeping her. That he ignores this shows his character — a real arrogance some would call it; he just won’t listen to cant or let it control his existence. He will pay for this. Demelza will of course probably too – and she does. But her nature and time and Ross’s eventual business success – -begins in Warleggan win out.
Chapters 8-10 bring us Demelza growing up, a depictions of Jim Carter whose good and true nature wins Ross over too much, and his attempt to help them. This comes out of a slow build up of a depiction of mining which I’ll give a lecture on next week or the one after.

He visits Treneglos to see if he can work the mine that is on property lines they share, p 102. His one hope is to find copper or tin in a mine:

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1814 picturesque illustrations of a mining site in St. Agnes, Cornwall

Demelza growing up, p 104-5 –- we see this not from her point of view because Graham wants us to see things she cannot as yet. She is gifted intellectually and musically; she is optimistc, she throws herself into the lives of others and makes all better for all.

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The 1970s Jinny and Jim Carter marrying upon Ross offering them a cottage rent-free

What is the story of Jim Carter’s life – father died young and because of this he could not go to school, and now he is getting a bad disease. Pp 106-7: future was fearful – he knew death could come, but now without help he cannot afford to marry. He would be a protection against Clemmow

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Norma Streader as Verity asking Ross to come and talk and then she asks him to help her meet Blamey at Nampara

Ends on the beginning of Verity’s tragic years: We will see Verity, the sister of Francis, Ross’s beloved cousin and friend (she visits him regularly) deprived of the man she loves: Captain Blarny (Blamey in the film and Blamey as of Demelza). Blamey is feared by Verity’s father and brother because he was responsible for his wife’s death; he did beat or kick her once when she was pregnant and she went into a miscarriage and died, and for this he went to prison for two years. He has paid for the crime, sworn off drink (and keeps off it), and she loves him and we see he is decent and congenial.

If it were that Graham is urging us not to keep punishing people, I’d sympathize but in each case where this is the moral we shall see it is often a case of a man raping, beating, somehow badly abusing a woman. And it’s always justified by her bad behavior which never seems to emerge in violence on her side. We are told Mrs Blamey did not keep a good home for the Captain, nagged him &c

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For anyone interested here is my first blog essay on the whole book: Ross Poldark, Revenant

Ellen

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Jonny Lee Miller as the creature desperately trying to bring an exhausted Bernard Cumberbatch as Frankenstein back to life on the ice

Dear friends and readers,

Yes, I’ve just returned from watching the version of Nick Dear and Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein where Miller is the creature and Cumberbatch Frankenstein. The moviehouse had the version where Cumberbatch is the creature and Miller Frankenstein on Monday night. I didn’t know. Next year if my local HD theater repeats this duo, I’ll be sure and see Cumberbatch as the creature and Miller as Dr Frankenstein.

Not that I was at all disappointed: I have known since watching Miller in an episode of Prime Suspect (and in the difficult roles of Edmund Bertram in Patricia Rozema’s 1999 MP and Mr Knightley in Sandy Welch’s 2009 Emma) what a versatile, effective, deeply feeling compelling actor he is. In this intelligent adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel (and the novel is kept in mind throughout), the creature is far more central to the action and consciousness of the play than his creator. We see his birth from his point of view,

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Jonny Lee Miller as the monster being born

how he moves bewilder through a landscape of powerful machines and cruel people, to happening on the French family escaped from injustice and the kindness of the blind old scholar, De Lacey (Karl Johnson gets some comedy out of this role) to him, in succouring him, teaching him,

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so (except for Frankenstein’s horrified rejection of his creature and abandonment of him) it is a long time before before Cumberbatch returns to the stage. And Frankenstein is the far less astonishing presence, even if central to the emotional action-reaction at play’s center

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Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein pushing away from him what he has done

I’d just like to see how different would be the feel and meaning in the reversal; according to Michael Billington of The Guardian, considerable.

What Dear and Boyle did was pare down the novel to its doppelganger, and in their characters, their talk, their relationship all the themes of Mary Shelley are drawn out. Some of the matter is lost: the depiction of larger social injustice is not there and so the instinctive fears and savagery of human beings to one another is not outweighed; much of Frankenstein’s life and relationships: the depiction of education (critiqued), how Frankenstein began to try to recreate life partly in reaction to his mother’s death; his arrogance and lack of responsible behavior to others, the intense distrust of science. Frankenstein is someone not social (of course a no no), going off on his own. The emphasis of this twist is so 21st century. The role of Elizabeth is made to enact socialableness (a new word), responsibility, an attempt at kindness towards the creature, and that natural ways trump egoistic artifice. Naomi Harris is effective in the hard role in both versions (a side note, she played the black heroine to Cumberbatch’s white anti-hero in Small Island). ElizabethCreature

I suppose what is so compelling is the dialogue between the two, what’s said, but one is exhilarated even in a movie version by the staging, the use of machinery, the pivotal stage, the symbolic way each phase of the story is presented — matching the fantasy aspects of the story (for it is fantasy). I’ve been to the National Theater in London (with Jim) and seen a number of these creative productions: Aeschylus trilogy comes to mind, Henry IV part 2 (Michael Gambon as Falstaff), and at home on Bravo, the Yorkshire Mystery Plays. The material from Shelley is gothic, but the conventions here eschew anything like film noir or horror/slash movies. it’s really an intimate one-on-one play (not so different in this from say the Fly episode of Breaking Bad where we get a similar intense interaction for an hour between Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul as Mr White and Jesse respectively, with bodies entangled eventually too).

One of the best reviews is that of Paul Taylor of the Independent, only he is wrong to say the play ends so differently from the novel. Yes at the close of Shelley’s novel it seems the creature immolates himself on a pyre on a slab of ice, while Frankenstein expires in Walton’s ship but it seems to me this dying is not what is important: it is the the pursuit and the insight (emphasized by Shelley in her text) that the two creatures to live on are forever intertwined in their hatred and (due to Frankenstein) thwarted love.

He lives for my destruction. I live to lead him on

I haven’t any shots of Frankenstein pulling his sled after the creature (nor of Andrea Padurariu as the Female Creature Frankenstein is drawn to himself, but destroys), but I do of the creature’s desperation when he thinks Frankenstein may have died, and his loving attempt to bring Frankenstein back to life so they can up and move on again (see still at top). In this one the director had Michelangelo’s famous image of God and Adam in mind:

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Ice is central to the gothic and among the additions to Shelley’s vision, is that of body snatchers: the uses of corpses, poor people’s remains is brought out in comic pragmaticism when in Scotland Dr Frankenstein pays two Scots peasants to bring him materials. I thought of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Body Snatcher.

Perhaps Dear congratulated himself too much on having given the creature back his voice, for Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 production of Frankenstein (screenplay Steph Lady, and Frank Darabout, producer Francis Ford Coppola) with Robert De Niro as the monster and Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth and a bride-monster of Frankenstein, had an equally articulate poignant presence for the monster. Dear and Boyle learned from Branagh and De Niro.

It was a production and is now a film which shows how transcendent and variable the gothic can be. The New York Times critic made fun of it — a paradoxical measure of its transcendence (the monster is alive and peeved!) It’s very effective in this film production – – where they do intersperse some stills from the 1931 Whale Frankenstein (with Boris Karloff), but for once I will concede that I was aware how much more charged it must be to have been in the theater. I don’t often feel this in the HD operas which are directed for film; this is a play taking advantage of all the techniques and stagings possible nowadays of a theater in the round and live stage.

It’s worth while to listen to Dear’s description of a many year project and the book as providing a contemporary creation myth:

Ellen

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There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall … Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising … I was a stage rebel, Orwell a true one — Cyril Connolly, The Enemies of Promise

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Isaac Cruickshank, Royal Extinguisher or Gulliver Putting out Patriots

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Dear Friends and Readers,

This is the second half of my summary and commentary on Johnston’s Unusual Suspects (see Parts 1-4). This part of Johnston’s book will probably be more familiar territory to those who have read novels of the romantic and regency period, as well as their milieu and development (say in Gary Kelly’s survey). As women who wrote on behalf of radical ideas, 18th century versions of feminism, or reform were given a much rawer response than men, and there were automatically suspect nations (Chapters 7 & 8 of Part 4), so the novel was a suspect genre (Chapter 9). Johnston treats the novel from a political angle to suggest that the novel was not allowed to develop in ways that contextualize what is happening with a real understanding of social forces: publishers were prosecuted; what you wrote affected your career. In Scott’s attack on Bage we see female liberation allowed no play whatsoever. Johnston then moves into the silencing at the end of the 1790s: the destruction of Gilbert Wakefield was at the time understood as an example of what happens when a writer practices liberty of speech, freedom of the press. He uses Mackintosh to show what a man did who wanted to carry on; to see Mackintosh crudely as an apostate is not to see what happened.

We then follow a trail beginning with a man spying on Coleridge and Wordsworth and see how suspicion, the manufacturing of alarm, class and ethnic disdain operated on known individuals. I found these short biographies contained surprises: these were lives reseen by looking at the evidence used in previous studies from a new angle; that of how justified paranoia (they did have enemies) and ostracism shaped these peoples’ lives and a genuine humane sympathy with their politics. Johnston makes these people’s lives and choices make sense: the people are Coleridge, Wordsworth, Southey (he is especially insightful on Southey’s earlier radicalism), Lamb (on his brands of irony), Burns and Blake (how class disdain operates in both cases). The individual chapters are much longer and I include and link to some readings of the works (e.g., Wordsworth’s Borderers, Southey’s Letters from England, Lamb’s “Praise of Chimney Sweeps”) that Johnston just mentioned without going into.

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Chapter 9: Suspect Genres, the Novelist who was not: Robert Bage (1728-1801)

Johnston looks at the traditional genres, poetry, plays and the new one, novels for general effects from the political conflicts of the era. Story-lines were not allowed development, attitudes were castigated and ridiculed. Among the periodical set up to monitor the literature of the age the most important was the Anti-Jacobin (1798-99) which was very successful in achieving its aims of stopping people from writing clear protest poetry, and when they did, framing what they wrote as absurd, unacceptable, unpatriotic. Keats was hurt, Southey changed course; Coleridge and Wordsworth moderated themselves; others fled to Italy. Thomas Holcroft was a major victim. Plays were shouted off stage, censored in publications (the author not named); publishers arrested and made wary. Johnston sees this process as a destruction of what genres could have been like, one which marginalized potentially great practitioners. In the area of the novel the anti-jacobin novels won, Austen & Scott produce the respected paradigms; Bronte kind of rebellion romantic in feeling is not political or economic in ideology; Byron was silenced.

Robert Bage was a man rare for providing any ideological content, and one of those attacked by the Anti-Jacobin.

Godwin visits in June 1797; Bage was self-educated, admires Holbach, has friendships with Priestley and dissenting people; author of Man As He Is (a jaded aristocrat), and Hermsprong, Man As He Is Not (an American republican). Bage was a businessman running paper and flour mills who found war got in his way, he did have a long term contract but raw materials hard to get; long term contract supplying Hutton, in Birminghan, a friend and dissenter with paper. Long time association with Birmingham, Priestley crowd.

Johnston makes it clear Bage a reformer not a revolutionary in his first four novels. But what he did present was harangued against by Scott. Bage had departed from middle class novel norms by in one novel allowing a young woman who has made a romantic/sexual mistake to be rehabilitated into society. Scott explicitly wrote that ruined women must be stigmatized; in another a heroine prefers the harem to death; one heroine defends herself with a pair of scissors. Man as He Is expands out particular criticisms to suggest wider changes by gov’t policy. Johnston quotes Bage’s books to great effect and we get the dry witty quality of Bage’s strong critiques of corruption, war. Bage published anonymously; he was not interested in a writing career. Johnson argues that Bage’s revealing his last hero a aristocrat shows reader that such a title and money allows tiny minority of people to escape punishment, grow rich.

The gov’t of the day harassed him by excise taxes (directed to war); overcharged he gets his materials back only to have them seized again; he feels the effects of this constant harassment and interruption of his business; at one point he wrote he would like hanging himself. In reprints of his works Barbauld takes him to task for going against received notions and norms; Scott reprints worst Bage’s novels. We know that Austen had a copy of Hermsprong in 1796, in time for some influence. Johnston remarks how critics, and film makers today try to bring to bear in her novels positions only mentioned minimally by her and centrally by Bage. Conservative paradigms, Austen’s and Scott’s predominate by the end of the era; the effect of Barbauld’s collection.

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A University of Victoria theater production of Endgame

Part 5: End-games. Endgame as a title is an allusion to Beckett’s play; its literal meaning refers to when the game is called to a half, the last of the chess pieces so this is exemplified by the prosecution of Wakefield for daring to argue with the Bishop of Llandaff; his incarceration utterly unjust. Mackintosh stands in as the representative of radical disillusionment.

Chapter 10: The End of Controversy: Gilbert Wakefield (1756-1801). Wakefield exemplifies the book’s thesis: he died as a result of absolutely unjust incarceration after acareer as a controversialist who made the mistake of rising to broad principles in his attack on complacent bishop of Llandaff, Richard Watson, a bland, condescending sycophant (the David Brook of his day?). Before this, Wakefield had done battle with several people and used religious language. Wakefield did things like attack the war, Pitt and Grenville, and show how false is the idea that sedition in the UK is everywhere.

Wakefield had had a career among the dissenters, as a controversialist; would attack notion it was sinful not to go to church (thus exposing worship is social worship); he went further than his 6 central theses (includes idea that alliance of church and state is a fraud). He argued that the prosecution of the reform movement was meant to silence opposition to foreign and domestic policies. His defense was his peaceable scholarly character, his friends in high places, that the trial itself is wrong – irony he was visited by known and famous people and yet they could do nothing for him.

He was forced to be in jail for a long time before trial; put in Dorchester way outside where he came from and notorious for bad conditions; then put into solitary confinement for 16 hours day. All sorts of famous friends visited him. His great Juvenilian poem in appendix; most imitations are conservative in thrust, not his.

Wordsworth has him partly in mind in his planned Recluse, the “Solitary” figure: that outline of Wordsworth’s early career resembles that of Wakefield only Wordsworth didn’t publish (only is too weak a word).

Chapter 11: The Great Apostate: Judas, Brutus, or Thomas? James Mackintosh (1765-1832). I did not find this chapter as convincing: Mackintosh did not hurt as much and was following his own character and tendencies throughout. He did not change all that much. Mackintosh was always currying favor, trying to to build a career; e.g., when he left Scotland as a doctor; first he tries to make connections with all the main liberal editors, reformers, he failed. His original fame came from a polemic against Burke defending French revolution, Vindiciae Gallicae, strong but not as available linguistically as Paine’s. Hazlitt is quoted, but Hazlitt’s sketch shows Mackintosh to have been an academic intellectual at heart (eg. Discourse on Study of Law and Nations). He had attacked Pitt for abandoning reform in A letter to R.Hon. Wm Pitt, on his Apostacy. Pitt turned this around to be against reform itself. Pitt’s target and legislation a “free form vigilantism against anyone who wrote, or sol, liberal material of any stripe.” Mackintosh wrote that Pitt’s aim was to subsidize European monarcihes to overthrow the French, evoking from French our country is in danger (a levee en masse).

But after the execution of Louis XVI, Mackintosh found his name was used as a bad associate to have. Johnston himself resorts to a kind of coy arch talk about careerism as explanation for why Mackintosh’s Discourses offended; Hazlitt said Mackintosh was too much an academic at heart. He retired to study. Discourses was a moderate book, gov’ts are there to protect us with “security against wrong.” His prose appealing because of its personal and religious quality. He was attacked by his friends as a trimmer, but he had been that way all along. It was hard for people to see he was consistent. When he was awarded a judgeship in India, his record in India unimpeachably progressive: reform penal law, the police, against death penalty. He came home and has an honorable liberal record in his voting habit (p 222) plans an unwritten History of England from the time of the Glorious revolution (one was written in the 1790s and had been suppressed).

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In Letters to England, Southey has two long sections exposing and inveighing against the treatment of horses, especially the new techniques in breeding and training racing horses

Mackintosh was at the last active in founding The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

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Part VI: The Romantic Poets, the Police and the State of Alarm: Johnston uses a cartoon by Gillray, “New morality,” or “The promised Installment of the High Priest of the Theophilanthropes, with the Homage of Leviathan and his suite” (August 1798) and calls it “The Last Line-up,” to identify the individuals he’s now proceeds to draw portraits of.

Chapter 12: “A Gang of disaffected Englishmen: Spy Nozy and the Somerset Gang.” Johnston retells Coleridge’s famous half-mocking account of a spy sent to listen in on his, the Wordsworths’, and various dissenting and potential and real unusual suspects. The spies report is retold by Coleridge in a way that makes him sound like an innocent and the whole thing hilarious, but the spying was serious. What saved them was they were recognized (according to Johnston) as “disaffected Englishmen.” I admit this does not make much sense to me – the other people the gov’t went after were disaffected Englishmen. If they were discussing some serious issues, the man could have reported it by word of mouth. My guess is the gov’t saw they were poets and not organizers and would not attract followers or organize themselves. Spy nozy was the man’s interpretation of Spinoza: the incident shows class disdain – Johnston does not mention this. It does show the group were spied upon, monitored.

Chapter 13: “Whispering Tongues can poison truth: Coleridge and Thelwall, 1796-1798. This chapter is about a thwarted friendship and stunted growth of a group of people. Coleridge corresponds with and seems to be eager to have Thelwall and his family come and live there – it’s so cheap and they will spend their lives in this retreat. Thelwall so harassed and destroyed seemed eager to reciprocate but when he left Coleridge wrote letters discouraging him to come after all. What happened? Was Coleridge somehow pressured lest he involve the Wordsworths, himself chickened out?

We see that he thought the better of it – rightly feared the results for all concerned, that in fact that spy system was operating to disseminate any grouping, silence them all – but he comes out very badly in these letters as he writhes and turns. Thelwall and Wordsworth truer to themselves than Coleridge. Johnston produces a letter by Coleridge to a magistrate Chubb where instead of really persuading Chubb to help Thelwall live there, Coleridge insinuates Thelwall will be a risk. Johnston seems to me to misread a bit of Coleridge’s letter to Chubb: Johnston says Coleridge is promising to tame Thelwall by having Thelwall live near them; Coleridge’s words suggestthey will teach Thelwall to submit. There is a difference even if the outcome is the same.

This chapter has new material: Johnston directs the reader to Wordsworth’s dramatic poem or play (done in the 1950s), The Borderers, which Johnston characterizes as “one of the most searching examinations of post-revolutionary disillusionment and despair ever written, with insights worthy of Stendhal, and Tolstoy, many of them distilled from Wordsworth’s main source, Schiller’s Robbers.” It was read aloud by the group. Johnston goes over Coleridge’s ode “Fire, Famine, Slaughter” and shows it to be a startlingly brave revolutionary poem.

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Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland, by Thomas Girtin, circa 1797-9 “I think I see a second range of towers”: The Borderers (1797-99) (Mortimer to Rivers as they approach the ruined castle, Act II, scene iii)

My reading of this play: I first read some articles on The Borderers because it is more than a little incoherent and unreadable and exists in two slightly different versions with the characters renamed. To be played (at an American university) it had to be revised once again. I see in the play (which is called gothic by some) a number of the motifs that powerfully resonate today. The play’s villain wants to fool or drive this hero into killing someone — so as to make him share in some blood guilt and join this band of revolutionaries. The villain does believe the old man guilty of being part of the ancien regime and holding it up. In Wordsworth’s play the old man starves and freezes to death because the hero lives him on a heath to die since the hero hasn’t got the stomach or whatever it takes to kill him outright. So the play shows us an example of someone being murdered for his ideology. The 18th century parallels might be guillotined people, but the way Wordsworth writes has no specific reference. The characters do feel there is evidence against the old man, but there is no trial so the modern parallel is killing people using drones with nothing more than the evidence of surveillance, or captured people tortured or driven to “confess” The archetype is the blind Oedipus led by his daughter, Antigone. In Schiller’s play a villain drives the hero to stab his beloved (the heroine) through the heart.

In one of the Northanger novels, Horrid Mysteries, there’s a Rosicrucian scene of ritual introduction of a member to the sect, and one of the things the new member must promise is to kill whomever the group requires — whether the person is a relative or friend doesn’t matter. Unlike Wordsworth’s play, Horrid Mysteries does not bother to justify the demand at all — it’s not a serious book. Wordsworth’s play is. The use of the pathetic daughter makes the murder more abhorrent, but its justifications are spelled out too. Wordsworth has some characteristic gothic motifs, and understands why the outlaw might operate or feel this way, but he stands outside and condemns the outlaw who demands such an act and the act too. One problem with The Borderers than as political discourse is by using the fantasy elements of gothic, Wordsworth does not bring in the real French case — the allied armies massing in Europe to attack the new revolutionary group, the fomenting of counter-revolution in the countryside, some of the causes of the terror – which killed less people than the French 2nd republic did in 1870-71.

Johnson does persuade us of Thelwall’s tragic loss, how hurt he must have been, and how this sort of thing is done to people unanswerably. Excellent chapter hard to summarize to do it justice

Chapter 14: Wordsworth (1770-1850), The Prelude and Posterity. This chapter brings out the problem with the book: it depends upon assuming a counter-factual “what if:” Johnstone assumes Wordsworth’s Prelude would have made a big positive impact if it had been published at the time; he says at one point that all masterpieces do, and works exist in this ideal realm modifying one another – we are back in Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot’s probably dream world of a tiny intellectual elite which even they would disagree on.

He does show that the incident of the spy leading to the non-renewal of Wordsworths’s lease, despite all uncomfortable denials, made a great change in the Wordsworths lives: some good, they went to Germany, some probably bad, they lost a companion. He insists that Byron and Shelley would have been changed, their poetry different – for the better. And he brings out three different versions of a long passage in The Prelude showing Wordsworth was bitter and recognized justice and liberty killed insofar as powers could. The chapter also has excellent definition of hegemonic versus legal: the dangers to all these romantics come from the losses hegemonic pervasive control inflicts on them in all sorts of incalculable ways.

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PacoRibeira, 18th century Portugal

Chapter 15: More Radical than Thou, Robert Southey (1774-1843). This was an eye-opener for me. For the first time I felt I understood why Southey changed his outlook. It made sense of his satiric Letters from England: it fits into the trajectory. The chapter begins with how how originally Southey came to be radical beyond that it was in him to be “psychologically rebellious.” Johnston brings out how Southey was subject to adults and authority figures around him (more than such a person would be today); orphaned, lived with aunt and then uncle; buffeted by suspicion and discouragement. He was gotten into by his uncle, Herbert Hill, and then expelled from Westminster Schools for a a column in The Flagellant, a student periodical, where he exposed the viciousness of flogging. Headmaster sabotaged his admission to Christ Church, Oxford; uncle gets him into Balliol. Not keen on career choices. 1795 aunt kicks him out, uncle sends him to Lisbon. How from an American perspective the scheme for a Pantisocracy in eastern Penn is not outrageous unreal wild idea. Southey works hard to make it happen and in the process forges career as money-making writer; early work is readable and radical, Fall of Robespierre, Wat Tyler. Anti-Jacobin attacks him, but he did not organize and his poems also simply express unhappy emotional states. Others: “After Blenheim,” “Devil’s Thoughts,” and “History:”Southey wants to escape; Clio says the worse history gets, the more we should write about it; but Southey tired, Gilbert Wakefield case spells end of freedom of press (with Flower, on trial for sedition). Visits Wakefield & Flower, also attacked income tax. Now great relief when sent to Lisbon; departure for Lake District in 1803 a surrender.

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Chapter 16: Radical in Lamb’s Cloak: Charles Lamb (1775-1834). This chapter is enormously enjoyable because of the quotations and works referred to. Johnston opens with young Charles Lamb’s enthusiasm over Thelwall (accused of treason, acquitted and thereafter harassed and his career and livelihood and reputation destroyed) to Coleridge; identified viscerally, admired Thelwall’s bravery. Lamb’s reputation has suffered because of the spread of the adjective “gentle” and “gentle-hearted” beginning with Coleriage; Lamb asked him to blot the expression out of his “Lime Tree Bower my Prison;” sentimental obfuscation is a good disguise. Lamb was one of those attacked by Anti-Jacobin. His sonnets express emotion, are on friendship, which he needed. Johnston retells story of Mary’s murder of the mother and how Lamb taking on life-long responsibility for her limited his possibilities; 33 years as clerk for long hours in East India Company, endless moving. His early writing is virulently pro-French revolution found in extended runs of Albion, edited by John Fenwick (1801-2) – all anonymous. His signed self-presentation was highly self-protective; he shows how Jacobinism is used as a bad-mouthing word for people with humane decent agendas; Lamb in effect describes political profiling.

Lamb’s finest work though found in his later years in his essays. Thomas McFarland described these as in a style that manifests the politics of survival (p. 282), others called his ways “acquiescent protest” and “serious levity.”

I read “The Praise of Chimney Sweeps” and found it to be quietly savagely ironic; he seems to be celebrating what is horrific cruelty to these boys; a nightmare world which produces such creatures; “Modern Gallantry” explicit about how courtesy from males is only to limited group of upper class females; the rest are prey. You have to read the texts to get this.

Johnston argues that the idiosyncracy of Lamb’s style and perspective is another result of these decades of repression of all dissent, active republican politics. Lamb expresses outrage at social injustice rather than a considered political opinion. Thomas de Quincey writes of the tabooing of Holcroft, Godwin, Wollstonecraft, Hazlitt, there to offer up to hated and scorn, so Lamb’s way was to appear to care nothing for politics.

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Death of Robert Burns, engraving, Dumfries July 1796

Chapter 17: ‘A man for a’ that': Robert Burns (1759-96)

A moving chapter which presents Burns as having been far more politically and preciselyi radical and pro-French revolution than his works let on: Johnstone argues that the muddled feel of the texts is the result of a deliberate obfuscation Burns had to practice lest he lose his place or job, and a remarkable line by Burns: “for who can write and speak as thou and I – /My periods that deciphering defy (p. 303). Johnston says his views accord with Crawford’s but Crawford’s ODNB Life of Burns presents a far more complicated picture of a nationalistic poet as devoted to poetry as art and gathering texts and a human man with lots of failings. Here one can see that Johnston is skewing evidence by concentrating on a few years in the 1790s, and ignores Burns’s behavior towards women which was highly irresponsible (and surely callous and/or indifferent): Burns had sex sufficiently so often with so many women that he impregnated so many that it’s hard to keep count.

Burns is presented as someone writing sedition which he kept up even after authorities set upon him; he was far more vulnerable than English counterparts (more upper class): he would just have been fired, no need to stage a trial. The period covered is 1791-196: he quotes a contemporary explaining why Burns was isolated to some extent in his last years – after Edinburgh trip; “exiled from polite society on account of his radical opinions, he became sourer in temper & plunged more deeply into dissipations of the lower ranks…. “but this reads like bad-mouthing: Burn always drank & was promiscuous; he suffered depressions, he was ill; much of the argument depends on an analysis of select poems and how his enemies did what they could to ruin him: they could have been after him for his sexual misconduct, hatred of religious hypocrisy; that he gave some spoils due him as exciseman to the revolution is too much pressed; he followed what was happening abroad. Johnston tells of an incident where Burns tricked into exposure when he thinks all the men are going to aggressively assail a favorite woman – a dirty trick which reminds me of other accounts of upper class people humiliating lower class or vulnerable and sensitive people among them: Tom Branson tricked (Downton Abbey) or an incident in Dance to the Music of Time (where a bucket of urine is timed to spill over a door as the victim emerges), in Burney’s diaries at Streatham. Burns openly praised a theatrical epilogue praising Wollstonecraft and then worried because he knew he was monitored and at risk of losing job. The struggles “not quite ancient” which correspond to earlier are not French but local, Thomas Muir, later indicted, convicted, transported. A glued over piece of paper. The most effective parts of the argument come from the poems analysed, not well known – he identifying with someone imprisoned for debt, Esopus to Maria

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Frontispiece to America, A Prophecy (Blake was indeed prophetic — think of what is happening around the world today as a result of the present US’s oligarchy and military’s uses of power

Chapter 18: Blake’s America, the Prophecy that failed, William Blake (1757-1827). In this chapter again Johnston dwells on important personal kinds of experience others often overlook or don’t tell clearly.

Blake’s Jerusalem reminds me of Austen’s Plan of a Novel – actually the same use of private references, same pathetic lack of range, and same absolute rejection of mainstream cliches, tropes, values.

An incident in 1803 where Blake hustled a private out of his garden at Felpham for having insulted him (as Blake thought); for this Blake was arraigned and tried, with quotations that make him sound as ripe for hanging or transportation. Luckily, Hayley, Blake’s patron, was powerful in this area and got character witnesses, himself was a character witness, helped see Blake was arraigned as a “public nuisance” (though this reminds me of police moving into private people’s apartments and shooting them). Johnston says Blake was shocked into silence. Chicester assizes at time of Despard’s execution. Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond hostile to Blake, thought to make an example of Blake as a seditionist would be to shore himself up as unimpeachably patriotic after being part of groups advocating parliamentary reform. In later years Blake claimed someone had been sent to entrap him.

In London Blake completed 1st version of masterwork, Jerusalem: the people who were involved in this incident are immortalized in the poem – along with great names from European history, cultural history; reviewers didn’t like (or understand) poem or visionary art. Contrast to America, written 10 years earlier (1793), revolution anticipates French, weeping illustrations suggest Blake pessimistic about his prophecies; preface to Milton has clear version of poems prefacing chapters of Jerusalem. Johnston shows how America is a very odd sort of poem – not understood by most, combining revenge, private feelings, vast public allegory.

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An 18th century engraving of a debtor in the Marshalsea

Coda: Johnson answers the people who say, so what? and there is nothing unusual here, what did they expect, they deserved it. He begins with how Pitt was responsible for bad policy (Barrell in his review of Johnston’s book asks why Pitt is so respected and argues he was an awful prime minister; his early speeches on behalf of reform were political grandstanding). Johnston goes on to show how Pitt poked mean fun at writers he persecuted and stigmatized. He then reprints Liu’s heart-felt preface to a book on this period that these people matter: again he is discussing writing we could have had, are struggling to recover. Liu’s and other books include the writing we have that bears witness to the struggle and how it happened and so does Johnston’s. He urges us, let us recover what we can. It will show us how the people and their movements fail. Johnston calls this discouraging, but he is himself still a believer with Wordsworth and has faith in social man. We are to feel humanely for these people – multiply it out – recognize that such things do matter. He records and honor the ruined lives – we can see more deeply into what is half-there and into our own lives. He makes us see their works freshly in terms that connect to us.

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The US Occupy Movement in its early stages — still plus ça change, moins ça change; see my “No pretense of regard for life or humanity.”

Ellen

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It was a misfortune to any man to have been born in the latter end of the last century … The flame of liberty, the light of intellect, was to be extinguished with the sword — or with slander, whose edge is sharper than the sword — Hazlitt, The Spirit of the Age (1825), quoted by Johnston

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Dear friends and readers,

Today I finished writing a review I’ve been reading and working towards for several weeks. I didn’t mean to take such time with it, but Kenneth Johnson’s Unusual Suspects: Pitt’s Reign of Alarm & the Lost Generation of the 1790s is so good and important that I wanted to be able to place it in its scholarly as well as contemporary context — and so read other texts and reread some primary materials. This blog is not that review; rather like other blog-reviews I’ve done it’s rather a summary and commentary on details of the book intended to let readers know something of its content and to tempt them into reading it themselves. I tell the arguments and describe the lives and works covered. There’s a lot of worthwhile material here; as with other books I’ve shared on my blogs I’ll divide the blog into two parts to keep the reading from becoming too long.

Johnston tells stories of the ruined lives – ruined careers, thwarted writers, artists, politicians innumerable of the 1790s in the UK. His argument is that There was a widespread and viable reform movement shared by countless people across Great Britain, which was ruthlessly repressed, decimated — by Pitt the Younger’s establishment through violence, by manufacturing adverse opinion, by punishing people legally and socially, by trials for treason & sedition (or being a public nuisance or whatever would do) in the 1790s. He discussed people not tried for treason but penalized in common ways we are used to do (from the McCarthy era on), people in artistic and academic walks of life. Why did Charles James Fox never become Prime Minister? Was was Paine’s style not influential? Pitt’s Reign of Alarm did the job. An oligarchic and militarist foreign political world was shaped by Waterloo and treaties signed by Allies, put in place, in the UK a domestic better world put off for more than 70 years.

What Johnston’s makes book especially worthwhile are nuanced words in which he conveys the humanity, decency, genuine need for reform, the gross ruthlessness of those doing the destroying – in small things not susceptible of documentation – a new historicism indeed.

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James Gillray; Caricature of John Thelwall supposed speaking at a Correspondence Society Meeting

Part I: The Red Decade

Chapter 1 is called “Before and After Lives”. Johnston opens with Hazlitt’s Spirit of the Age as about how England missed its inspiration, was prevented by official reactionary ruthless determination to stamp out reform of any kind, individual prejudice, and cowardice (hard term). Johnston suggests coupling the terms romantic period and age of revolution (1776-1832) as twin terms is odd. He singles out as a double defeat two sets of acts: Pitt’s Gagging Acts (1795) and Sidmouth and Castlereagh’s Six Acts (1819). In the 1790s people were asking for extension of franchise, equitable districts, frequent elections, rights of men; in 1732 Tories vote with Whigs to increase electorate by 200,000 property owning males. Foot’s joke was rarely has reform given so little to so few. Even with the suppression it remained more important what happened in Norwich, Bristol, Sheffield, Belfast, Dublin, Edinburgh (periodical publications, correspondence societies, meetings, even conventions) than in Paris; nonetheless, it was not inevitable that ideas, acts of poets & others would fail while France was having its revolution; why should lurching of France’s monarchy towards a republic be a bad time?

He divides the decade of 1790s divided into four parts.

Nov 4, 1789-May 1792, Price praising French Rev to Pitt proclamation against seditious writings: Burke’s answer to Price, Paine’s to Burke, destruction of Priestley’s home

Dec 1792-Oct/Dec 1794 – active legal repression: trial conviction of Paine in abstentia; of London 12; conviction and transportation to Botany Bay of Scottish martyrs

1795: gov’t lost treason trials of 12 so re-groups, secret services modernized; protests against Pitt’s war (ruinous domestic economic effects). Gagging acts after attack on king’s coach – no public meetings of more than 50 persons (despite mass protest), no publishing criticism. Two acts, 1795 – no one can speak in public without gov’t approval if there are more than 50 present (Grenville); no publications that bring King’s gov’t into disrepute or censure.

1796-1800: mopping up operation, of radicals left standing: Wm Stone, John Thelwall … includes 1798 trial and imprisonment of Gilbert Wakefield (died of it) for libeling Richard Watson, Bishop of Llandaff …; 1800 a bill of indemnity protecting Pitt and his cabinet from claims

Thus was a reform movement grindingly shut down: Johnston reviews the arguments among a group of older scholars (Veitch, Thompson, Dickinson): was it large, organized or serious enough to be considered the beginning of British socialism, a failed form of proto-revolutionary activity; new voices (Barrell, Philip, McKee, McCalman, Radical Underworld) argue they they were socialist precursors.

What happened to these people? Johnston lists names of people: Death by execution or from imprisonment, itself and transportation; abscond, flight, immigration, exile; arrest and long periods of detention; financial damage and career ruination; gov’t harassment; psychological damage, physical harm; effective silencing, stopping publishing; orchestrated ridicule and libel; anonymous publication; disappearance from publication; change in topic and style; revision and erasure as juvenilia; move to conservative positions; public recantation, informing on others; direct monetary reward for informing, changing views. All his subjects have entries in the old DNB & ODNB – repressive hegemony of state ideological apparatus plays upon thoughts, ideas, actions

He wants us to appreciating the non-development of English literature – what didn’t happen – and the small mean private ways by which hegemonic control work; the endless ripple effects. If they went on to do other things, biographers, historians ignore or apologize for “youthful errors.” The materials are ambiguous and Gillray’s cartoons a good example of the difficulty of “reading” them.

He takes Amelia Alderson Opie as opening example: she moved from radical reform politics, to careful revision, to pious Quakerism – we can see the effects of repression registering on her — a full reprint of her memory of treason trials shows how fearful she was, how she identified with those accused, the unfair accusations… dangerous punishments, and her lone and lonely life at 80.

Chapter 2 is about John Thelwall (1764-1834) and Wm Goodwin (1756-1836). Thelwall is a usual suspect – against Thelwall the state acted directly by arrest, interrogation, imprisonment, trial, conviction, punishment and later also unusual suspect; he found how difficult it was to get out of political catchment, how the distinction between personal and political is non-existent. Godwin had to turn to anonymity, become a non-person to survive in his later years. Thelwall arrested as one of the 12 and Godwin’s Cursory Strictures laid out argument defense counsel used. While Godwin supported Thelwall in treason trial, later he wrote arguments gaved ammunition to gov’t bills of gagging and no assembly.

Johnston reviews lightly the central points of some of Thelwall’s speeches – they are intended as speech in action. His occasional best. The absurdity of presenting superstitious practices, to send peasantry to be annihilated in a crusade to restore the fallen despotism of France. Treason now means telling the truth to the shame and confusion of ministers. Thelwall presented himself as a target – let him be prosecuted; but after the acquittal, the way he was kept from any success was through means like a petty illegal smashing of a hall, frightening others who welcomed him, beating him up – all he could get was laughter at his plight.

Godwin Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft for which modern scholars have castigated him was a form of “grief-work” based on the principle that you could understand her best by knowing how she came to have her views in Rights of Woman; what happened was the rest of the world wouldn’t listen; abuse then never let up – I wondered if the mockery of Radcliffe was part of this way of coping with anything unconventional and in her case at moments Girondist radical. As with Lilian Hellman, friends (Mackintosh) rehabilitated themselves by attacking Godwin; he experienced the pusillanimity and opportunism of his friends: Mackintosh refused to name Godwin and only when Parr did did Godwin have opportunity to refute – and he comes off well – why are you attacking me and why now? – he sees how they are attacking him because of pressure of events around them but he refuses to meet them on the low road of personal abuse and his sarcasms too subtle to reach readership – he still had the remarkable nerve to talk about the value of Napoleon’s life.

Mathus’s famous thesis meant as a refutation of Godwin type argument that would provide for more people – the only result could be more would end up starving. Mathus a man of the left, went to dissenting academies, his father friend of Rousseau, enthusiast for Condorcet and Godwin. Godwin realizes the advocates could not find a doctrine more pleasing to them. In preface to Caleb Williams Godwin writes about “the modes of domestic and unrecorded despotism by which man becomes the destroyer of man” – hegemonic disciplining Johnston calls it. Are we condemned to despair things will never improve? – 4 pieces of controversial prose.

Thelwall had found it impossible to speak anywhere so now Godwin to publish. Now for Godwin publishing was his means of making a living. He marries Sarah Jane Clairmont, a widow with children of her own. Godwin publishes as William Scolfield Bible Stories, these sell well, but watchdog Sarah Trimmer seeing its liberal lessons of humane behavior says it has “very pernicious tendencies.” Fleetwood and Chaucer under his name don’t sell so he brings out juvenile library under pseudonyms – some sniff out – they are “creditable,” do not “pander to prejudice,” but educational and liberal presentations of stories and subject.He was destroyed as a writer; irony that he was denied a passport to join Holcroft in Germany; forced to remain in a country that couldn’t abide him.

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A painting of the riots aimed at Priestley

Part II: Forces of Public Opinion

Chapter 3 is titled Dr Phlogiston and is the story of Joseph Priestley (1733-1844). Everyone shocked, tut-tuts at destruction of home and lab of Priestley in Birmingham 1791 July; 5 day riot of king and country mob, more than 30 houses destroyed. Planned event from the start -– in effect an assassination attempt. He was at the time a famous scientist, discovered oxygen, nitrous oxide & 5 other elemental gases; a friend of Franklin, competitor to Lavoisier; also public intellectual – wrote 30 volumes. He was a dissenter; not popular because he’d speak his mind (so too Thomas Beddoes and Gilbert Wakefield). Spoke & wrote on behalf of American revolution. Identified Phlogiston, gaseous element produced by fire.

Johnston tells the history of the slowly evolving riot and its aftermath, showing it was gov’t encouraged, led, endorsed until it changed to proto-revolutionary and then only a few scapegoats punished. Attacked were 1) people at dinner 2) dissenters; 3) intellectuals and rich men. Riot against supposed revolutionaries, then Papist dissenters (!) and then on town’s economic and punitive elite. Priestly did preach a sermon of forgiveness, condescending and ironic, and much disliked by literature classes.

Riots enabled officials to bring Birmingham by customs and actions back into conservative fold. Birmingham independents and unitarians no longer found in positions of authority or publicly acting – how an alarmed reaction can be carefully orchestrated to end in Tory and Anglican party becoming strong. 1794 Priestley sees it is over for him in the UK and emigrates to the US where he refuses public position and carries on as private citizen; his sons join him; Cobbett ridiculed Priestley’s loss, later on he too found refuge in the US. Priestley rightly did not feel safe until Jefferson was elected.

Chapter 4, The Radical Moravian: James Montgomery (1771-1854). Born of Irish parents, in Scotland, his parents went to West Indies as missionaries when he was 8; precocious, wrote poetry, hired as counting house clerk by Joseph Gales in Sheffield; on staff of reform newspaper Register.

Sheffield was a radical place, base for societies and periodicals. There were riots in 1792, Montgomery writes essays on behalf of reform, religious poetry against war. When his employer was hounded out of England to Philadelphia where he founded a press; as the new editor in chief, Montgomery twice arrested: once for reprinting poem re-interpreted as offending. Sheffield Register now called Iris; he is arrested for reporting a troop behavior during a “riot”; 6 months, fined; had a bad time in prison, wrote poetry which shows his outlook and ill health; when he was released, his health was impaired. He goes on to write a series of periodical essays; 1795 The Whisperer or Hints and Speculations: these manifest the twisted kind of prose one writes when trying to say something and hide it at the same time; The Art of Shortening Life, and a 4 volume novel he destroyed. In his later years he devoted himself to good works, religious poetry, against slavery, on behalf of chimney sweeps. He writes a poem against Napoleon’s invasion of Switzerland; Byron preferred Montgomery’s Wanderer of Switzerland to Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads; the public agreed and bought it; he is respected and liked by Southey. Montgomery’s radicalism was not accidental but cut off.

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Part III: Keeping the University and Church Safe from Reform

Chapter 5: Friend of Jesus, friend of the devil: William Frend (1757-1841). Frend was drafted into army in American revolution; in 1775 he went to Cambridge, and began to agitate against Test Acts and exam system (these were sacrosant, they were the way egalitarianism was prevented, they kept these positions in the hands of an interlocking few coteries. Topics he debated debated included the rights of subjects to resist tyranny. Surprisingly perhaps Frend was successful in this milieu at first; he moves to teach poor children of the parish and mathematics for real. When he intensified his Hebrew studies, he no longer believed in the Trinity, and as an idealist began towork for a unitarian church to emerge.

Johnston claims thus Frend was surprised when the response to his arguments was to take away his teaching; he himself gave up two of his parishes as matter of conscience. He also wrote 3 works, each time widening his audience: Thoughts on .. Religious tests, to Rev. HHCoulthurst; then to Inhabitants of Cambridge and finally to Members of church of England. He was expelled; he could not understand why a constitutional critique and his goal of improving Christian knowledge no good.

At this point, Frend went to Germany and spends time with like-minded men, including Priestley’s son, Wm; in Belgium he is closer to events in France. Meanwhile at Cambridge Isaac Milner, Tory politican type takes over; they go after 5 faculty including Frend & 2 friends. The work prosecuted was his Peace and Union – a pamphlet arguing for compromise between republicans and anti-republicans and reform is pretending these things are acceptable. It’s the short appendices that matter: one where he imagines himself the women whose ¼ of salary suspended to pay for war that does them no good; the other remarkable argument that execution of Louis XVI none of UK’s business: they had cut a king’s head off for treason legally too. Startling. Some of the accusations were vague; he protested, his protests werer overridden; the existence of unproven alarm was grounds for prosecution; he is declared guilty and thrown out of university.

Frend then went to live in London and became member of LCS, wrote pamphlet on scarcity of bread and how to provide instead of gathering money for French aristocratic emigres. This is time of Thelwall’s speeches, exposure of exorbitant prices from war, monopoly. Frend would not disobey 1795 acts, though, and spent the rest of life teaching. His new career for money was a job working for actuarial assurance. He was befriended by Lord Byron’s wife, and continued to support good causes, against flogging, in support of reform bill 1832 and published Plan of Universal Education – tax income of Church of England to pay for it (forget that).

Chapter 6: No Laughing Matter: Thomas Beddoes, Sr (1760-1808). Beddoes was mentor to Humphry Davy, professor of chemistry, a forward-looking doctor of medicine who understood how it occurs and is shaped by its social context; he came from a politically liberal commercial family in Shropshire, was admitted to Pembroke, Oxford; studied on his own German, French, Italian; 1790s he wrote translations and reviews in the Monthly Review. 1792 A Letter to a Lady the way to reach the poor is to give them text to read that concerns them for real– private circulation. Prolonged geological researches in Wales; handbill against funding clergy escaping from French revolution – a kind spy system afoot ferrets it out – why he is not offered a salaried post. He was forced out of chemistry lectureship at Oxford; in Bristol later in decade his Pneumatic Institute suffered from conservative attacks. ODBN is misleading and sarcastic.By 1794 Beddoes needed help for this Pneumatic Institute for experiments with nitrous oxide, a therapy for TB; and did receive money from Wedgewood, help from Watt & Georgiana Spencer, Duchess. He was sufficiently well known to consider emigration of the sort envisaged by Coleridge and Southey (active with Coleridge in public meetings). Beddoes is an easy target by 1797-98; changes name of his institute, Preventative Medicine for Sick and Drooping Poor; then Hygiea addressing middle class in their style. He became a standard butt; died at 48 and his work lost to society for another 40 years

His 5 pamphlets exposed interwined issues of war, peace, political policies, economic scarcities and health of poor: A word in defense of the bills of rights; What would be the harm of a speedy peace?. He could not understand how people do nothing and wrote On means of relieving presence scarcity: this would be a system of soup kitchens. His Essay on Public merits of Mr Pitt was published by Joseph Johnson – how badly handled was the war; how much “human misery passes under medical inspection;” lastly, Alternatives Compared; or what shall the rich do to be safe?. These contained a remarkable series of questions that are utterly relevant to day: how far am I secure against false alarms, frauds, violence; do circumstances which I can control threaten deprivation of accommodation and necessities of life; unjust laws encroach on freedom. He makes it plain that real politics are quite mad if you were considering most people’s welfare; Pitt’s design to attack French revolution has made the crisis.

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LetterswrittenfromFrance
Broadview edition

Part 4: Other Voices, Other Places: The suspect gender.

A prologue where he suggests women who worked for reform or revolution as writers had it much worse: Wollstonecraft chief target and then whip as a name; and he goes over the destruction of careers of Anna Barbauld (her 1811 poem), Mary Robinson (he emphasizes her later writing and crippled state), Charlotte Smith (her originality marginalized) and Mary Hays (mocked by men and friends).

Chapter 7: Our Paris Correspondent: Helen Maria Williams (1761-1827). Williams led a remarkable life: he praises her in career terms: see her contacts, see how her “consort” Stone was a successful businessman. How many people survive being imprisoned by Robespierre and Napoleon? She is the best example yet of an interrupted misunderstood career partly because she carried on (with Stone by her side which Johnston does not sufficiently acknowledge). Johnston shows how Williams was an “up and coming star” of the 1780s, how her Letters Written in France record the changes, first hope and principles of the French revolution, then dismay at turns it took, then horror at reaction and reactions to reactions, nevering loses sight of the root causes of the terror. This is intertwined with history of her life and her strengths as a writer.

Most effective is learning about those who first distanced and then attacked her (from Piozzi to Seward to Boswell). We see the meanness of Laetitia Hawkins; how others used Williams to forward themselves, “Twill then be infamy to seem your friend” is the motto here (Pope, Rape of Lock, 132) What is valuable here is how he quotes Williams to great effect making the reader want to read her. Her texts include an unflinching horrifying scene of massacres by mass drowning. He goes over her poetry too.

Chapter 8 takes us to Suspect Nations: Let Irish men remain sulky, grave, prudent and watchful, William Drennan (1754-1820).

Again a prologue: how the Continental congress terrified authorities: it showed people organizing and finding a voice without having official state-sanctioned offices! Without any law allowing or controlling them – this was enough to call it treason – they looked and acted like legislative body, would gain respect,so the five leaders were arrested, convicted and transported to Australia 1792-94 (these were called the Scottish Martyrs). Mass demonstrations were quelled. The gov’s went after effective writers too: Joseph Gerrard, son of Irish planter in West Indies, educated under Samuel Parr, worked in Philadelphia with Tom Paine; Welsh people intimidated (David William; Edward Williams aka Iolo Morganwg); William Orr hung in 1797 – administered oaths to members of United Irishmen, wrote in Northern Star – charges totally trumped up and shown to be by satire showing emptiness by rev James Porter also hung, June 1798

William Drennan follow the trajectory of politician-into-poet. The Drennan Letters (culled from 1400 and published Belfast 1931, ed. D.A Chart) survived and contain detailed information about daily events in Ireland, 1776-1807. As a talented literary person he took brunt of attack, wrote to sister, brother-in-law, mother. After he was tried for sedition, June 26, 1794, he withdrew from active politics, where his metier public or open letter, ended an obstetrician. He had written a series of letters on behalf of reform: Of Orellana, an Irish Helot, likening helots to native Irish population, as a fellow Helot haranguing, rolling climaxes with Paine like language. Drennan argued for volunteer rather than constitutional convention (object is constitutional), quietly sought to establish a secret society (favored at the time – think of the Masons) – goal was independence for Ireland, republicanism, united Irishmen his idea. His writing was too; the United Irishmen was declared illegal as an organization and he arrested for sedition. Johnston quotes Drennan in published papers and letters. Informer was Wm Carey but he testified on his behalf and judge told jury to return a guilty verdict for the good of the tranquillity of Ireland, they said Not Guilty. When Wolfe Tone indicted for treason, that ended much overt political activity and writing.

He lost friends when he did not come forward,plus his inheritance, his family & friends suffered humiliations. He married a rich wife, met William Roscoe of Liverpool, and founded a non-denominational academy in effort to free education, edited Belfast Monthly. His poems project a lyricism of loss. His later poetry shows him an “aristocratical Democrat:” he is for republic, not a particular religious group; looked on in 1798 horrified at Irish masses cut down by English and Protestant allies.

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RobertHubert-GeoffrinDrawingforLunchpainting
Hubert Robert, Madame Geoffrin drawing (or perhaps writing) when she should be eating her lunch

To sum up this first half of the book, his opening section embodies the idea of book through Opie in old age, and two eloquent victims showing how one does not realize one can be destroyed by others means: Thelwall’s eloquence gives us central argumetns; Godwin exposes motivations for what was done to him by others. Thelwall destroyed in ways he could not foresee, Godwin betrayed and silenced; Johnston presents their thoughts to show their value and their works. Part 2 explains what is hegemonic control with Priestley and Montgomery as examples of what this means. We see this today through what is allowable on TV and how reporters do not tell the full story of an event, distort evidence to please the government and powerful who hire them. Part 3 is about keeping patronage in close-knit network; both Beddoes and Frend are destroyed university types: it’s a kind of ambiguous indirect destruction – and Beddoes still misrepresented, Frend not done justice to.

Part 4 allows us to see through the career Helen Maria Williams carried on with an achievement can be ignored as well as a picture of English views of revolution over its phases. Suspect nations include Scots, Welsh, Ireland – Johnston exposes real questions, real reasons these people were destroyed, imprisoned, silenced, intimidated (Porter’s anonymous articles on Orr who was executed) – in Johnston’s article he is showing how these people were not nationalists – that is somewhat lost sight of here – finding all sorts of individuals shows how wide spread these ideas – underlying is belief it’s continual repression that keeps better world from coming forth – that with power and arms and money you need only destroy leaders, frighten people, and then hegemonic control for mass – belief that change comes from individuals is central to this book.

I suddenly remembered Ann Radcliffe’s silence: was it more than her nervous nature? the liberal reform ideas underlying her book, especially open in her travel book. At any rate she becomes one of the women others.

Ellen

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