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Filmic rendition in Welch’s movie of the famous opening scenes of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend: opening shot of movie; Lizzie (Keeley Hawes) at center; John Harmon (Steven Mackintosh) back from the dead and drowned the last

Dear friends and readers,

Over the past 10 weeks I’ve been listening to Mil Nicolson (Librivox) read aloud Dickens’s last complete great novel, Our Mutual Friend while in my car. Alas, I didn’t get very far: I was hardly in my car after the 1st week of December, and I was that awkward with the thumbnail drive and the ipod, I kept re-listening to what I had heard. I managed to get near Chapter 20. At the same time though I did read a number of essays on Dickens’s novel and found myself remembering my first reading of the novel while I was in my thirties, when I reached the point of the strained marriage
of Bella Wilfhur and John Rokesmith and Dickens’s presentation of Rokesmith’s way of educating Bella out of her materialism and prestige-oriented values. It seemed to me a reverse of Ibsen’s The Doll House: he was tyrant and she obdurate pupil. I was pulled along by the ferocious rivalry of Headstone (his deep injuried) and the nihilism, arrogance of that expert needle artist, Eugene Wrayburn. Finally the abject Lizzie despised at some level by both and all but Jenny Wren, her loving self-annhiliation.

So I sought quick entry into the novel by way of Sandy Welch’s masterpiece film, a transposition (faithful), Our Mutual Friend. And I found I got closer to the book than I might have done in the text had I been able to read at night. (I no longer can most of the time.) Welch is (as she often is) faithful to the plot-design, keeps all major characters (and invents no new ones), keeps all the hinge points (central plot turning points), famous lines (well what there is of fame). She respects Dickens — and her audience. I just loved this film and writ here about it to suggest it is a deeply humane way reading of the novel and present another case for the greatness of costume drama and mini-series.

Welch’s film is deeply melancholy, sad and opens where Dickens’s does: the river. I remember OMF as being highly unusual for Dickens for its central exploration of sexuality twisted and gone wrong and the conflict of Headstone and Wrayburn, but this far in the book (Chapter 8) the idea that what is driving the world into sickness is not that everyone is longing to love one another and be loved — which is Welch’s particular emphasis.

Dickens’s book had stayed with me: I still remembered the opening on the river between Liz and her bird of prey father after all these years. The 2nd chapter of the Veneerings is generalized out to depict the dysfunctional — unreal, utterly insincere lying — basis of social life and the goals of those who practice dinners. The 3rd chapter gives us some understanding of what we saw in Chapter 1, and we meet Eugene (a do nothing, this type embitters Dickens so, only here we are allowed to see how hard it is to do something and how it’s all wrapped up in money and performance) and then 4th, Lizzie who can’t read because it would offend her father and she can only hope “to influence” if she gives up her inner life.

Dark and bitter and lost. I miss the use of the narrators in Bleak House (Esther Summerson versus the saturnine voice) and the use of 3rd person free indirect discourse in Little Dorrit. We are at such a distance from these figures we listen to and see thus far.

Welch’s film worked for me as all was presented as deep grief from Lizzie’s horrified bewildered point of view. The settings were most of them of narrow spaces, no room to turn, dark too, scary as allowing people to come up behind you and destroy you. Or abject public spaces.

It’s a world based on the river. Everyone gets their living off the river and around it. Even dredging up corpses. People throw themselves into the river or are thrown there.

It’s a world of garbage dumps. Of people making their living scavenging. The Boffins for years have run a huge garbage dump.


Mr Boffin (Peter Vaughn) showing Mr Rokesmith (Steven Mackintosh’s second disguise, now hired as Boffin’s secretary) his house and environs

In the film after the river scene and the party salon choral scene:


Lady Tippins (Margaret Tyzack) in the center

we cut to the scene in the public tavern which comes out of the river: In both book and film we encounter the hard indifference of behavior Miss Abbey Potterson (Linda Bassett in the film) could enact before Lizzie Hexam when Lizzie refuses to separate herself form her father, disliked by Miss Potterson as much for his low status and what people therefore think of his possible horrible crimes as these crimes themselves: he seems to kill poor people, throw them in the river and then retrieves them for money.

Dickens’s descripion of The Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters, like the use of caricature and abstraction, brings us right back to early Dickens. apparently there was such a pub; here is a later illustration by Sol Eytinge (From Victorian Web)

The house is alive, it’s a person or character in itself, a world built of meanings reflecting its significance in its surrounding by its physical characteristics. Stone had not illustrated it.

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Part Two of the film veered off to Welch’s emphasis. She presented the characters are intensely eager to reach one another, to love, to be interdependent. Three love affairs in Dickens which I remember as fiercely devouring, finally selfish, are here presented under the aegis of intense need and hurt. Eugene Wrayburn intensely needs Lizzie to give his life a meaning and him meaningful action (to teach her and Jenny to read). David Morrissey delivers a brilliant performance as a half-mad anguished Bradley Headstone, intensely sexually repressed and hating anyone who is not (especially women): he wants to take over Lizzie to prove his self-worth and loathes Wrayburn for dismissing him, laughing at him.


Headstone (David Morrissey) in his school

Wrayburn stands for the world. It’s hard to see if he has any concern for Lizzie (Wrayburn seems to) but the performance is sympathetic. At least I think so.


Paul McGann as the louche drone who is finally reclaimed

The third affair shows us Rokesmith falling in love with Bella whose kindness to her father is made much of. He takes the father out to dinner, and shows him respect. They have a beautiful day doing things like going to a museum, dressing up, courtesy interchanges; she has bought the father a new outfit all at once (Dickens makes the point that this man never before had a new hat and trousers at the same time). He loves her and she is beginning to see the man who is hovering over her with the same intensities as Headstone and Wrayburn has a heart.


Father-daughter, Mr Wilfur (Peter Wight) and Bella (Anna Friel)


John and Bella

The movie is filled with shots of people hugging one another. Jenny Wren imagines herself being beaten and beating others, but she is all loving kindness to Lizzie whom she has taken in as a seamstress and she needs Lizzie as much as Lizzie needs her.


Lizzie and Jenny Wren (Katy Murphy) hugging together

Thus far the Boffins are loving; even Wegg is respectful, enjoying his cake while reading The Decline.


Regret, anger, grief, alienation from one another: the Lammles (Anthony Calf and Doon Madkichan shortly after marriage

Against this the Lammles are obviously a sick couple, full of hatred because they have married perversely; Lizzie’s brother does stand out as inexplicable in character compared to the others. He throws Lizzie off for not accepting Headstone: he seeks status as well as money, We do wonder why? There seems no reason to — the day out of Bella and her father is not at all connected to having status and money; it seems one can pull this off as long as one has a heart. The Lammles have one only for themselves.


Marcus Stone’s illustration

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Lizzie’s brother, Charles (Paul Bailey), sent to school

A crucial moment in the book. Chapter 6, the scene where Lizzie comes home and tells her brother he must leave them to go to school full-time and stay away, and then the profoundly affecting/affective scene of Lizzie telling her father, his sudden (to me) unexpected murderous rage, taking his knife and stabbing the table, saying that if his son rejected him, he rejected the son totally and would smash (or some other word) that son, and Lizzie’s abject cringing horror.

The pictorialism of the scene remains in the mind: the outline of the girl cringing in horror more than terror for herself, the old man again a bird of prey at that table.

I took it that Lizzie is not afraid of her father, but we are to understand that though she insists to herself her father does not murder people, throw them in the river and then retrieve them to sell as corpses, at some level (not very deep) she believes it. And it could be he does.

At any rate she wants to separate her brother from him more to keep the brother from the moral contamination than even the shunning of the father that has begun as Rumor becomes explicit. She refuses to protect herself either from social isolation and pariah-dom and refuses to learn to read well and to teach herself because this would arouse the father’s jealousy and hatred and she no longer be able to influence him.

The complete self-sacrifice of this position is intolerable and the contradictions not improbable. If a girl were so electrified with moral horror, she’d not stay; if she had this kind of intelligence, how could she (like a Radcliffe heroine) refuse to acknowledge wrong-doing even to herself; if she refused to believe it, she’d probably be narrow, obtuse, filled with the usual family loyalty that is a species of hypocrisy (so I see it) and clan protection. By doing this Dickens does make such a scene. I would not call her an angel since her behavior is as morally imbecilic as the Radcliffe heroine of Udolpho faced with terror and refusing to run away because forsooth she has to be obedient to her aunt, some piety.

The brother is such a weasel and now I’m remembering this way he and we meet Bradley Headstone (whose second name refers to death, the graveyard, he’s a headstone, and also his great bodily strength — made of stone, his obtuseness). And that is the way Welch has the boy actor do the part in the film.

We see the breakup of families and how it happens and real internecine feeling.

The shunning by Gaffer by crowd or group mentality against his “pollution” as well as self-protection.

This is a novel and film for this decade — not thus far as to analysis of institutions but the way people are just turned into hideous poverty. I was watching DemocracyNow.Org last night and film of the Syrian people, desperately poor, being shot in the streets by their gov’t’s military forces, their home hovels. They have no access to the great wealth of their own country, it’s kept to the few, in this case including not only the elite of their country running it (1% indeed) but the US which gives millions to support that elite (ditto in Yemen, ditto Bahrain). And we need not go so far: the Tories are busy doing this all over England (impoverishing people, destroying jobs, social services, social institutions for public meeting) and the US gov’t here (billions for drones for surveillance, no money for people foreclosed or the least job).

The real trouble with the book is the picture is not attached to anything the way I have just attached it. Welch I think achieves this with her larger landscape pictures and use of choral commentaries (ironic, bitter) in the rich people salon and party scenes.

Did Dickens expect his readers to understand? or simply have an urge to rouse them against the conditions of their time? the problem is the readership is not Gaffer and Lizzie — they are not real people at any rate. I remember how Madame de Stael said the problem with writing novels is you have to appeal to readerships which don’t understand, will get offended, and get past conscious censorship too.

It appeals through inarticulated pictures and a dependence on the reader having the moral reaction which is comprehensive but the readers often do not 🙂 For example, readers online complain of Stone’s illustrations as ugly or weird or not pleasing. They are spot on — and a product of collaboration between Dickens and Stone. I’ve put a few of them into our albums.


Mr Wegg wants some of his body parts back; Mr Venus (Timothy Spall) charges

Mr Venus’s shop in the pictures scarcely captures the morbidity of the bodies. They are done in both the caricature and idyllic style. Headstone writhing on the floor is the latter:

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Peter Vaughn as Mr Boffin asking Wregg to become his reader


Crazed madness of Wregg (Kenneth Cranham) before Boffin’s new mansion

The dwarf is a disabled figure who turns up as an evil grotesque in Dickens — and again it’s bodily and again dwarves are often shown to be twisted people where they are blamed for having poison in them, not that their emotional state is a reaction to how they’ve been treated, which is much more the reality. A powerful black singer (Eric Owen) turned the anti-semitic portrait of a dwarf in Wagner’s Ring into a figure that resonated with justified resentment in a recent Met HD production, and the stance seems to have resonated in many heart and ear. I have never read The Old Curiosity Shop. I can’t think of any dwarves this morning. We have to try to remember disfigured characters perhaps to find an equivalent in realistic fiction.

I remember feeling for Jenny Wren who takes Lizzie in. I understood how she could come to love-hate her clinging devouring father.

Dickens’s Mr Boffin seems to me a male type that has disappeared. Literary types do disappear when whatever social reality that gave rise to them goes. He’s the male simpleton, usually or almost always working class. Such men were used in the Shirley Temple movies. I suggest they come from the strong culture of deference which at once deprived most males of higher education and taught them they would be punished hard if they did not appear happy and complacent and even ignorant of the terms of their lot. The type may be seen (paradoxically perhaps but neutralizing the archetype) in Walt Disney’s Snow White’s 7 dwarves. Dickens does improve this by suggesting Mr Boffin is socially insecure, sensitive, avoiding class hurts. Why else go to Silas Wegg? Mr Boffin feels he’s least likely to be despised, and his tiny sums of money appreciated. So there’s a little insight …

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Lizzie as Madonna saving the beaten Wrayburn

In Sandy Welch’s film, we have the uncommon case of a male novel turned into a woman’s film — for all the characteristics of women’s films are here, plus distinguishing elements of Welch’s art. Among these both are this peculiar emphasis on the large landscape as a scene of intimacy. We have one here: in the story Eugene Wrayburn as been in effect stalking Lizzie, trying to get her to come live with him outside marriage. He does it tenderly as if he cannot resist and needs her, but he will not marry her as beneath him. She our ideal woman of course knows it’s unthinkable for him to marry her so flees him, but does stubbornly hold out when he finds her out through bribing Jenny Wren’s father — Lizzie has been working as a seamstress for Jenny who took her in when her father died.

But his stalking her is just one stalking; he is stalked in turn, by Bradley Headstone who tells himself his intentions are all honorable. He wants to marry her. That means in reality crush her spirit utterly. He despises her as he daughter of the lowest of the low, a grave snatcher, perhaps a murderer, who drew bodies from the filth of the Thames. He would control and bend her to his will, with an iron mind. This is honor? This is marriage Victorian style yes. Bradley stalks Lizzie too but he also stalks Eugene who drives him mad by his mockery. Wrayburn won’t acknowledge Headstone is there and gets a thrill out of this stalking.

Wrayburn is a sick man, as sick as so many of the people in this novel are.

Unfortunately Welch softens Wrayburn as many do. What she does do — is make the film about people reaching out to one another, prevented from succeeding by the norms of the private property system, prestige, social performance. The madness of dysfunctional behavior if we were to consider what might make good people happy is pictured for us repeatedly in the landscapes. There are astonishing moments of a crippled man named Wegg dancing in the screen against garbage dumps, against rich houses. Most of the scenes are of garbage dumps, broken down places. Others are of the river, wet, stodgy, dangerous, glittering. Some are the corridors of the city, pictured as narrow labyrinth prisons (like a Renaissance painting). Only nature has beauty. Only there are people together intimately because away from the social group.

The colors are so rich. The film much reminds me of her Turn of the Screw, Jane Eyre, North and South in this use of landscape. Here, for example, is Lizzie reversing what her father did. Her father drew dead bodies from the river which he perhaps killed, and he sold them to doctors or anyone who would take them Ah ha another parallel for today: the animal torture business, people kidnap and enslave animals for experiments and if you protest for real, you can be imprisoned as an eco-terrorist. It also shows the ruthlessness of the medical industry then too.

She is going to save Eugene Wrayburn. She has found him smashed up on the wet grasslands (!?) just outside London, done in by Headstone who he Wrayburn did egg on to this.

It’s deeply felt and the book provides the depth behind the vignettes, each story fully played out with details and thought. I loved the music too, slow, rhythmic like a swaying boat in a river.

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In the feature Pam Ferris likened Mrs Boffin to a working class woman today who wins the lottery; she is better than that for she has a very good heart, and unlike Mr Boffin is never corrupted into even seeming mean
Some contemporary analogues and characters in other novels by Dickens:

Some of the description of Mr Podsnap (hardly there at all in the film) put me in mind of Newt Gringich, lines about his solid sliminess (words to this effect). He is not the lout the American politician is. Otherwise his narrow hypocrisy and obnoxiousness is probably an accurate rendition of a Victorian type still partly with us.

Miss Podsnap (not in the film) reminded me of Flora in Little Dorrit: made nervous and unsure of herself by never having been allowed to live or have any independence. I wonder if this type is found elsewhere in Dickens. If she reflects Dickens’s wife’s character, then considering he understood that, his leaving her feels worse. OTOH, I was not sure in either Flora or this Georgiana’s case I’m not reading sympathy into the character rather than derision.

IN the book, Riderhood comes to snitch on Hexam in order to get the award and both Lightwood and Wrayburn return to the Hexam residence. The picture of Lizzie weeping by the fire, her loneliness, her desperate circumstances is moving. She is this still picture of abjection and loss. We are not allowed to see inside her hardly at all in this book.

Rokesmith and the Wilburs are brought in very late: almost an afterthought, something that came to Dickens later. Yet a central group. By contrast, in the film adaptation the supposed murder of Harman comes first, and the character of Harmon to Rokesmith brought in very early. I’ve put a still of Steven Mackintosh talking to Bella after they are married on our website page. He’s a brilliant actor and really best at fierceness, anger and I think has just the right amount of intense sternness towards Bella for the part Dickens meant. I just wish his bitterness had been directed elsewhere or Bella had not been made into this shallow type; Welch changes that a lot, and makes Bella have a warm good heart which very quickly learns to be better once she leaves the Wilbur mother (a misogynist bully figure to my mind).

The surroundings are so oozy and ugly and eerie in the book, but then London was not nice place for most people and Wrayburn’s words about the desperate street life he saw Paris (people picking up garbage to make ends meet) probably I assume reflects what Dickens saw and wants us to realize are the real cities too.

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As I watched the first hour or so of the fourth and last part (thus half of it) of Sandy Welch’s OMF, it set me thinking more about Dickens’s OMF. The last part of Welch’s OMF moves very slowly: we have a longish sequence of each of our sets of characters waking: everyone getting up to face the day and what they see: Mortimer Lightwood gets up and Eugene not there; we see the desperate houses by the water, Jenny out anxious and deeply resentful but worried about her father; Wegg vowing vengeance — and we see the misery of the workers at the garbage dump (especially symbolic this); Bella looking at John in bed; Mrs Noddy sad in her splendid loneliness; the Lammles smoking nearby as they prepared to enter to offer themselves as replacements for the real friends the Noddys had (the crippled disabled boy is gone as well as Bella): Mr Riderhood finding Headstone bloodied in the grass near his house. Again when a series of climactic events where Mortimer discovers Wrayburn near death with Lizzie; Jenny’s father dredged up from river where he drowned; John outted as John Harmon finally, the Lammles refused, Headstone back in the school where LIzzie’s vicious brother now says he will have nothing to do with Headstone we get another such sequence.

One does not have time for this in the recent (by Andrew Davies) Bleak House and Little Dorrit films, or most Dickens films I’ve seen. Welch is registering a peculiarity about OMF, one which Christine Edzards tried to pull out of Little Dorrit by removing the idiosyncratic grotesques and concentrating just on two central figures as if the story were seen from their consciousness (Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clenham). It’s set up as a mystery with complicated plot, but that’s not what the text really lends itself to. It’s more a series of dramatic picturse linked through allegory. I noticed for the first time that the Podsnaps are totally omitted from Welch’s film, and how sidelined Mr Twemlow is. That’s in line with Edzards’s film. Mr Twemlow is a comic repeat of decency, only comically puzzled and the Podsnaps another set of grotesques, more hateful in their effect than the Lammles who are at some level (especially in Part 4 of Welch’s film) pathetic, as contemptible in our eyes as they ought to be in their own and the world’s were the world’s values humane. (At the end of the Part 4 the Lammles hook on to another innocent couple to live off them.)

I’ve been very moved by Welch’s film; I love how the characters finally come together — the sudden wild violence of Steven Mackintosh as “our mutual friend” — for he has provided the wherewithal to support Bella, by extension Bella’s father, the Boffins. On Welch’s account it’s John Harmon who is the Dickens figure in this novel, the alter ego, not the more dramatically riveting Wrayburn or Headstone.

All three are Dickens in a sense (Wrayburn what he rejected but impulses in him), but Harmon stands for what is good — as does Arthur Clenham, what is right. Seeing the book this way turns it on a pivot for me and makes it if not easier to get into and engage with at least growing out of a central vision underlying the later books. This time he’s simply made a quieter book.

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The green and lovely gardens surrounding the house John Harmon can provide the Boffins and Bella and his child with; we see Jenny and Sloppy join them in a picnic scene


Lammles forever playacting, forever to be humiliated hangers-on

When I came to the end of the film I was very moved. This is one of the great — of many great film adaptations done by the BBC or British TV — and occasionally by commercial groups for movie-houses. The idyllic ending for some had been prepared for in Part 3 when they reached out to one another (Bella and John’s beautifully unadorned marriage with just the father behind them walking in the park); the lousy ending for others by their egoism (the Lammles with their opulent wedding and now cold mean life). Welch had filled out Dickens’s characters with her projection of human need. I can only hope the new spirit abroad of making travesties which assume the audience has not read and would not even like the book fall down on the reality the audience they seek really is not keen on this genre for real – not done with depth of emotion and seriously conceived interaction between era, text, film.

The film also ends with yet another stalking sequence: now the fierce hateful Riderhood stalks Bradley Headstone. We do feel very much for Headstone: this man is a rat, a snake; David Bradley the actor who did the part looks like the actor who did Wegg: Kenneth Cranham. Both are older thin man with heads that can be made up to look skull-like.

Headstone says he never had a friend and when it’s clear that Riderhood (David Bradley — have I done justice to his performance) is going to suck him dry, he’ll starve. He walks away and Riderhood follows and of course what happens is the lonely desperate hurt man (whom no one would know any more than the people at the end of the film will know Lizzie) turns on Riderhood and takes him down to drowning with him.

So the antepenultimate scene of the film is the filthy scary greasy polluted waterways with bodies seen floating in it. Where we began. (The pipeline so touted that Obama did reject would take filthy oil down the center of the US to be exported; not to get any jobs for anyone in the US, and it would pollute). Have people heard of fracking? OMF is about 19th century fracking.

The penultimate scene is a montage partly scene from Mortimer Lightwood’s point of view — he is the only unpaired presence:


Mortimer Lightwood (Dominic Mafham looking down at Eugene in bed)

where we see Sloppy taken in by Jenny and they become a couple interspersed with Rokesmith and Bella and baby and the Boffins on a blanket. Mr Wifur seems forgotten here. (So too Lizzie’s brother but then he wanted to be.) We hear Eugene talk of how he might go abroad with Lizzie but Lightwood would miss him. The perspective on this scene is Lightwood as outsider but needing these people too. Wrayburn wants to go abroad for the wrong reasons: he’s ashamed. He should not be he’s told. Rokesmith rowing and his face seen.

I loved the last scene. After all Podsnap might have been in the social scenes: if the fat nasty man so gussied up is him. Well he and Lady Tippins and everyone are sneering at a party at Wrayburn for marrying this waterman’s daughter. They are disgusted. Why Lightwood stays with these people is beyond me — but it’s what makes us see them. Lightwood appeals to Twemlow and Twenlow has his great moment: they are shits, and what’s most their point of view is stupid and ugly. It’s articulated very generally: anyone who lives in accordance with what he or she thinks is the imagined respect of society is a fool for in a way there is no such thing. “Society’ is a shallow mirror we make up with our own minds, and anyway (to be particular) Wrayburn never cared for these people any way.

A curious contradiction: we are to grieve for Headstone for not having any friends but at the same time see that false friends and the world’s admiration is not worth the loss of your soul. The camera ends on Twemlow and Lightwood.

I liked that ending very much though I’m not sure it was Dickens’s emphasis. It seems to me to speak to 21st century people and come out of a particular perpsective often seen in the finest costume dramas made by women and a few men too.


Eugene and Lizzie’s hands holding tight to one another

In Welch’s film, the pair are never shown in close conversation — except one scene half suggestive itself where he is trying to get her to come and live with him. Even then it’s seen from
afar. It’s all vignettes. When Wrayburn talks, it’s to Mortimore
Lightwood; when Lizzie talks it’s to her brother, father, Abby, Jenny Wren, and except to her brother, it’s all reactive. We see Bella visit her but hear no conversation. In the book is it that we are made aware of how different in class and education they are?

Welch’s is quite different from Davies’s presentation of Amy Dorrit and Clenham: Davies fills in the relationhips, and in Dickens’s book while the scenes between Amy and Arthur are not dramatized, they are told in the third person indirect mode. (Too much is made of showing and not telling, until the 20th century the scene described was as common as the one dramatized.)

This film and book certainly made my spirits soar and validated what I know to be the correct view but one it needs strength to hold to because there are too many Lady Tippins and Podsnaps and Lammles about, to say nothing of their instruments and the hateful complicit angry people serving them too.

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At work in the garbage dumps of the film’s world — out of which money is to be made; the actor here when he pulls off his mask turns out to be Sloppy (Martin Hancock), the disabled young man Mrs Higden took in

Finally, we come back to the river. It is the case that in the 19th century the Thames River was (relatively speaking, say compared to today) stuffed with corpses. The vision that Our Mutual Friend projects is not a fantasy nightmare. Many ways to look at this, but I’ll content myself with being literary and say it’s another instance of how the gothic genre is as real, and can actually tell us more about what’s important in life than books which adhere to what’s called “realism” (Trollope is called realistic).

Unfortunately, we have no photos of people dredging the Thames for corpses or dropping them in, but I did see a reproduction which has something of the same meaning as Our Mutual Friend‘s real life symbols: at the Museum of Modern Art there’s a show on of murals by Diego Rivera (see just below for the LRB column by Hal Foster on this) and one includes “Frozen Assets:”

Our modern more decorous version of corpses at least here in the US (outside the US until very recently it was rare for the armies of capitalism to attack citizens outright — now drones are okay too inside the US) does not include soaked human bodies floating in or underneath our waterways as a usual thing. For dead bodies we must go to the streets where they are dragged off to the side, or better yet, hospitals (yes hospitals) where if the person is brought back, it’s with a huge bill. In a way what a black joke is there: the body brought back is priced (chattel slavery priced people too)

Anyway Hal Foster describes the Rivera mural impeccably:

“Frozen Assets is an inspired montage: Rivera based the vault on those he had toured in Wall Street and the hangar on the interior of the Municipal Pier on East 25th Street, while his skyline combines a few downtown banks with several new buildings in midtown, including the Chrysler, Empire State, McGraw-Hill, Daily News and Rockefeller Center (the last three of which were designed by Rockefeller favourite Raymond Hood). The allegory of this literal exposé is explicit: the building boom that gave us the great skyscraper city depended on the cheap labour represented by the subway drones and the sleeping bodies as much as on the stashed assets. In this not-so-divine comedy, the pier is a grey purgatory and the vault a brown hell, as much prison as bank (in this faecal cavern, Rivera almost suggests the anal sadism that Freud associated with money). Only the skyscrapers have any vitality, but their animation is fetishistic; indeed, Frozen Assets depicts a fetishisation of capital on a metropolitan scale, in which urban liveliness counts far more than the actual livelihood of working men and women; unlike the labouring bodies in the other murals, they are the real ‘frozen assets’ here.


Diego Rivera, Frozen Assets (1930)

It may be not be realized but today again aging people in the US fear nursing homes the way the poor in Dickenss’s time feared the poor- and work-house


Another death scene: Lizzie caring for Mrs Betty Higden (Edna Dore), Welch’s interpretation emphasizes the loving care, but the words are the terror Dickens gives the old woman

I understand there is a film adaptation of Edwin Drood “in the works”. I hope so for I’d like to see a good film adaptation in the tradition of the older ones like this of that last book. There is enough there to figure out an ending Dickens probably meant.

Ellen

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The governess realizes Miles is dead becomes frantic with grief (Turn of the Screw by Sandy Welch, 2009)

Dear friends and readers,

I feel I’ve had a full Henry James double season. First this summer, Roderick Hudson, then the biography of James by Fred Kaplan, and now as part of the course “exploring the gothic” I’m teaching and my study of the gothic for a paper on Northanger Abbey, I’ve slowly read James’s “The Turn of the Screw” and would to suggest an uncommon but recently endorsed view: the governess is neither simply a victim, utterly passive, nor pathological liar.

It’s convenient to begin with the older view of Oscar Cargill: he opens with rejecting documentary evidence of three different kinds. As a scholar of earlier periods, this is prima facie suspicious. I do not question documentary evidence unless I have evidence to show it’s made up. So for example, the argument that James made up the archbishop, lied in his story in the notebooks is unacceptable unless Cargill has evidence to show this. His rejection of James’s preface is wrong on the same grounds. He is calling James a liar in effect. I found four places in the story where Mrs Grose acknowledges the governess has seen the ghosts because the governess knows details about their appearance she couldn’t any other way and several where she says she believes the governess is seeing ghosts.

The argument the governess is a pathological liar won’t do also for the reasons Wayne Booth outlined in his classic The Rhetoric of Fiction in the 1950s. We can only go so far with unreliability; we can have an unreliable narrator whose judgment is misguided but if we begin to say the very narrator is a liar from the get-go we can believe nothing we read. We would have to reject the basis of most stories written since the popularity of unreliable narrators began (later 19th century). The opening gambit on Xmas eve has the narrator, Douglas, go out of his way to say the governess was the most aimable well-educated governess he ever met, that he liked her very much (almost loved her).

The arguments that dismiss the external documentary evidence provided by James remind me of the arguments which call Mary Shelley a liar and say she made her notebook entries up so Frankenstein is written by Percy Bysshe.

Also that what allows these readings of the tale castigating the young woman is that the other three chief character do not unambiguously admit to seeing the ghosts. As a reader of ghost stories, I know this is commonplace. Often the ghost only shows him or herself or themselves to one person, the one the ghost is harassing. This is true of Susan Hill’s Woman in Black which we recently read in my classes (a classic novella ghost story). It’s part of driving the central character mad and isolating him or her.


Quint and Miss Jessel (2009 TOTS)

That the governess misjudged and overreacts is true — she is another in the long line of unreliable narrators: Like Winterbourne in Daisy Miller, like Rowland Mallett, she is overreacts with conventional morality and, meaning to do some good, she makes things much worse. In her case though her situation against these sinister ghosts with no help from her employer is very bad.

My argument is that James is showing us how hard it is for us to deal with what we term unspeakable (Eve Sedgwick’s term) and unconventional sex. We deal with it very badly and make things worse — as we deal with mean teasing, money problems and class. On one level, everyone in the story, all the adults, cause Miles’s death. The uncle first of all. He wants to know nothing, will not even read the headmaster’s letter, left his valet, Quint, in charge of the house.


The plausible too busy man, who wants to know nothing, be told nothing, not be bothered (2009 TOTS)

He doesn’t care what happens to Miles. We have hints from Mrs Grose that Quint and the master were in the house together and shared clothes so probably the master has sex with Quint. Quint had sex with Miss Jessel and probably got her pregnant. He was “free” with everyone says Mrs Grose — so the other servants. That he was found dead on the road coming back from the pub shows he had enemies in the pub too. A roughhouse type, nasty, a Stanley Kowalski so-to-speak (the nightmare of the sensitive homosexual male).

Mrs Grose sometimes admits that she thinks Quint molested Miles but in front of the children she always draws back. She also does not want to get involved.


Sue Johnson as frightened Mrs Grose; sometimes she is sinister and complicit in this movie too (2009 TOTS)

Again and again she won’t admit she sees anything in order to turn away (this is the way the role is played in the 2009 film). So she is like her employer. No wonder he keeps her on.

Mrs Grose tells the story of Miles going off with Quint to the governess when the letter comes. We are to understand the school was a place of bullying, fag system, and Miles was part of this. The governess’s first response to say and do and ask nothing is not a good one, but she was told by her employer not to bother him and she has no rank to write the headmaster.

Miss Jessel was also to blame as when confronted by Mrs Grose on how Quint was with the boy, Miss Jessel said “mind your business.

The governess kills the boy too because she over-rreacts and hates homosexual sex and also child-abuse but because the children tease her and seem complicit, she sees them as allowing it and so regards them as evil too.


Flora

This is what happens by the way in the stories about priests’s molesting boys: it does not come out because parents fear their boys will be blamed.

One level of the story is this shows how “I am not my brother’s keeper” leads to evil

But another is, what can we do? Once Miles is molested, what can we do? to transgress on his psyche and insist he tell, confess, be abject is wrong the story tells us. It’s wrong to bully the boy this way and it doesn’t help. Here that James was himself a young boy with homosexual orientation suggests he identifies with Miles — and indicts society for the way it treats such a boy — and encourages him too (as a rich boy).


Miles

James also engages or identifies with the governess. It’s not until about half-way through the story that the governess seems to change from simply protecting the children. It’s an old motif of ghost stories the ghost wants to take the child away. About p 79 or Chapter 10-11 in my book she begins to want power. She begins to gloat over knowing more; she seems to want to penetrate (that’s the word) not just Mrs Grose but both children and she herself wants to possess Miles. She becomes an instrument of the evil infecting the house. She knows she would be called “mad.”

It’s around this time the letter business happens. Miles does want to contact his uncle. That shows the boy has a healthy instinct there. He wants another school. So the governess lets both children write but she hides their letters. She does not want their account to reach the Powerful Man. Then she writes a little later and Miles steals her letter because he does not want her account to reach the uncle.

A power struggle between Miles and the governess ensues. The children smell a weak woman who is sensitive and can’t cope with teasing so they play games with her by waking her, going into the garden and so on. At one point I think the text does show that Flora sees Miss Jessel and went off with her but won’t admit it — as she enjoys teasing the governess. It’s the incident where Mrs Grose is dragged out to the scene and, harried, the governess asks Flora if she saw Miss Jessel. Not in front of the children. Mrs Grose then shouts that Flora is an angel and pulls her away.

Flora is a survivor, not an angel.

Other themes of the story which relate to our world: Miss Jessel as governess. Since the master seems to know how she died and know about her going away, it might have been the master who impregnated her. It’s hard to tell. The governess sees Miss Jessel crying at one point and her immediate reaction is mean: she calls Miss Jessel “wretched terrible woman’ instead of empathizing .After all the governess is herself a governess: poor, played upon by the uncle-master. But in the next scene the governess does seem to have listened to a story told by Miss Jessel which made her see they are alike in situation. The Dear movie had Miss Jessel sitting at the desk in a way then precisely imitated by the governess to make the point they are a doppelganger. What saves the governess (ironically) is her overstrict morality and her loneliness.

So it’s about women’s positions too.

Class: the governess at first sneers at Miss Jessel for gong with Quint as “dreadfully low” and Mrs Grose too. This is the dialogue where I felt James laughing at them as a pair of clowns.

And sex. At times the story anticipates Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. The simplest statement about something else can be read as about sex because of the use of innuendo. For example,

To do it in any way was an act of violence, for what did it consist of but the obtrusion of the idea of grossness and guilt on a small helpless creature who had been for me a revelation of the possibilities of a beautiful intercourse (Chapter 23).

The governess is literally saying she would like to know what happened to the letter she had written Miles’s uncle, her employer.

But at the end it’s a tragedy too: the house is haunted. Evil things have been happening there for quite some time and ends in disaster. How did Miles die? In that final scene he turns and admit he sees Quint and calls him “you devil.” Maybe Miles has a heart attack because finally he is terrified of this ghost and doesn’t want to go with him. The Governess’s hysteria may given him a heart attacK. It might be she asphyxiated the boy by holding him so tight so as to keep Quint from grabbing him.

Now all this occurred 70 years ago. The governess told no one the true story and no one cared enough to investigate. It was in the uncle’s interest to cover it up. She went on being a governess and first told a young man she like who liked her 40 years later. 20 years ago just before she died she wrote what happened down, and now on Xmas eve Douglas brings this story forth.

But it’s not about the past. It’s about today.

I was bothered by something that did occur in my second class. It’s 21 males against 3 females. The first reaction some of the guys had what the governess killed the boy and their first impulse was to blame her because she was sexually uptight. In talking though other of the boys saw the larger picture and Russell Baker’s introduction about it’s being a story of child-abuse by the ghosts also helped. So did the film So I conclude the so-called Freudian Cargill reading is partly a strong symptom of the misogyny of our culture which hates single women especially those who seek to control male sexuality (there’s a hatred of Austen in Twain, Lawrence that comes from this). We despise those who can’t cope with teasing as the governess could not. out of this comes the feeling the children are just playing. Right: that’s Mrs Grose. (gross is the allegory behind that one).

I think also the unwillingness to confront that Miles talked dirty sex with other boys (that’s what he says he did) and maybe allowed Quints to indulge in sex with him comes out of the unwillingness even to discuss pederasty or homosexuality.

So moral panic kills but not doing something moral is wrong too. At the time when Quint was left in charge the evil began. Something should have been done then and again by Mrs Grose when Quint took over the boy. The boy was puzzled, confused, led to boast and try for power as an upper class male against the governess, but he was too young and weak physically if nothing else so died.

Ellen

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