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Culloden battlefield today

My dear, dear aunt,” she rapturously cried, “what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone — we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarrelling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers — Jane Austen as Elizabeth, P&P, Chapter 17 or 2:4)

Dear friends and readers,

A second of probably three travel writing blogs on what I saw and experienced of the Scottish Highlands from the Aigas Field Center. The focus the first day we left the center was archaeology and history: the first in order to reach pre-written history of life in the Highlands dating back to the neolithic age when these rings of stones (the most famous Stonehenge and Avebury in England) were first built. The second day we explored the landscape of the area, some of it reflecting deep past, other parts showing conservative efforts after a couple of centuries of destruction. The third and over three afternoons we went local, towns there now, commercial enterprises (whiskey distilling); and three women showed us their “gardens:” Lady Lucy across the grounds of Aigas; a crofter named Anne Macdonald on land adjacent to Aigas, and J-P (I never got her last name) who has created and manages an organic farm, making a place for bees, kitchen gardens, beer refinery, sheep, cattle and deer. Each talked to us for a couple of hours about how she spends much time in her life this way.

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Probably one of the more crucial events/dates in Scottish history is 1745 when a continuing civil war not just between those groups of leaders and their (often conscripted, forced) armiese supporting the Hanoverian dynasty from Germany fought those groups of leaders and their (equally forced, but as tenants, as clan members threatened by fire and death) armies of Scots, but rival and enemy clans of Scots trying to take over one another, and stray groups of mixed bands of men all fought in England and Scotland in the context of a larger global imperial war at sea and across lands from Europe. This global war affected the attitudes of the local generals and trading and land owning classes: where say England won here, or the Dutch there, anxiety and/or triumph changed the mood of events. The people under Prince Charles (the young pretender) got as far as Derbyshire, but turned back (the explanations for this are various). This third campaign (the 1690s in Scotland under Claverhouse, 1715 for James III) came to a head in Inverness on April 16, 1745. The Scots were not just technologically at a severe disadvantage; the terrain was vulnerable and several of the leaders were against fighting that day. Prince Charles prevailed out of pride and (it’s thought) an inadequate understanding of battle. Within 45 minutes there was a slaughter of a couple of thousand Scottish leaders and key followers; this was followed by an aftermath of flight by the Scots and brutal annihilation (the aim) by the Hanoverian authorities of the Jacobites (all Scots said to be in any way involved in the fight), which changed Scottish history forever. The country was decimated, emptied of people, their houses and villages destroyed. The books to read are John Prebble’s Culloden and The Highland Clearances. What was left was enclosed by chieftains turned landowners to put sheep in the place of people; and on top of that following myths of “Balmorality” by the upper class of England and lowlanders brought the ravages of deer to the landscape.


The heather along the line where these people stood and killed others or were killed themselves — as they dared not do otherwise even if they didn’t want to

Well we began our touring by spending much of Monday morning (8/14) at the Culloden battlefield where there is now an effective museum taking visitors through the phases of these battles. One room is set up so the visitors in the center see on all four walls the men killing one another while the sounds of battle echo very loud. In other a lit board shows the disposition of the bands of men. Halls take you through global and local events. I was struck by how small the Scottish shields or targets were, and how crude and (from the perspective of today’s huge guns) feeble, and (from the perspective of the professional Hanoverian armies with canon, real guns) ineffective, their axes and broadswords. It was the battlefield itself which is so moving. You can go out and walk along the line that was “no-man’s land” between the two armies before Prince Charles and Lord Murray’s Scottish armies so foolishly attacked from an indefensible vulnerable position. All along the way are rough rocks carved with names of clans or individuals who were killed.


A cottage on the Culloden plain at the time and left standing

We then (early afternoon) traveled back in time far (but not in geographical space) to Clava Cairns, a site of four rings of stones (each one bigger than the next as you walk from a fence), with free standing stones all around, from the Bronze age, about 5000 years old. These stones are not the huge standing stones of Stonehenge (or the type of time capsule for them seen in Craig na Dune in Outlander) but mounds made up of hundreds and hundreds of small stones. These are exceptional mesolith tombs from the Bronze Age. At the time the climate might have been subtropical so an agrarian culture had emerged. There are also the free-standing stones (more like Avebury) all around, and many outside a fence placed around the central circles: into picnic areas (where we had lunch), and the nearby surrounding hills. They were probably places where the people buried their dead. Coffins are thought to have been removed long ago. Very little is known about these people as they left no writing; it’s thought they (called Picts, a mixture of Scots and Irish) decorated their bodies (tattooed) and performed rituals around these stones. There is something uncanny, creepy about supposing (as the Ranger suggested) bodies were left in the open at first to be “de-fleshed,” and then the skeletons put in coffins or underground. It poured rain as we stood there and the ranger unflinchingly lectured on about what is supposed about these people’s customs and agricultural.


One angle on the largest mounds of stones, and the smallest circle seen from a distance (Clava Cairns)

The last stop on that day, middle to late afternoon we spent at Cawdor Castle. a vast castle-house only recently opened to the public. It is the place where Macbeth was said to have met with witches in Shakespeare’s famous play. John Lister-Kaye had said this place was owned by a friend of his and we should be sure and read all the plaques and inscriptions because they are witty. He and this friend had discussed together the cost of maintaining Cawdor and just about rebuilding Aigas, and (after much less renovation) he had opened his ancient home estate to the public. Instead of the usual solemn drone-like recitation of how serious and interesting (great, wonderful) all we were seeing is, they described in a wry truthful way, satirically reductive, the furniture, pictures, objects. His aunts had been indefatigable in making tapestries; he called figures in painting The Unknown This or that (according to function); there was a rare truthfulness, plainness, and when an object was nicer, it was done justice to against this context. The house was lived in until very recently and one felt this in some of the rooms (plugs, modern comfortable chairs). There are said to be beautiful gardens created and maintained by the Countess; there’s a cafe, a shop … Since the bulk of the standing house is from the later 19th century, one could say the group had covered Scottish history over the course of the day.


Cawdor Castle/House from the outside (part of a wall) and an art object in the gardens I was drawn to

Tuesday (8/15) we spent in “Caledonian” glens and forests, hiking walks along rivers and streams, waterfalls. The scenery was beautiful and much of it in a now restored state after half a century and more conservation’s efforts to bring back native trees, bush, shrub, to reconstitute the land after the ravages of the 19th and early 20th century. Some of the rocks are like those found in the Bronx or Central Park: they are not brought there by ice but formed in the ground over the centuries. The Highlands of Scotland are said to be a break-away piece of plate from North America. The landscapes are immense when you climb high and look down over the hills and see lakes and here and there someone’s (expensive) summer home. Balmorality has morphed into 20th century holiday houses. The Royals were said to have a house “just out of sight” (Fussell in his book on the class system remarks the really high status house is ever out of sight). We had lunch on picnic tables again, and in the afternoon drove to another large piece of scenic glen, with spectacular water falls. This one included the ruins of house where (it’s said) “Winston Churchill learned to drive” (why he looms so large in the public imagination I don’t understand).


People clambering about, a stunning waterfall, slate rising out of the ground

So much for the big picture.

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Now locally temporally and nearby (place and space)


The town of Beauly, close to Aigas

Wednesday (8/16) we spent the morning first in the near-by town of Beauly, saw the shops where people living in the area come for tea, cake, cheese, to socialize, an antiques shop, a store where they sold excellent knitted and woolen garments of all sorts (sweaters, scarves, throws, hats, and leather boots too), the most obvious tourist place sold cards, pictures, souvenirs. There was a butcher’s shop — individual cuts of meat! bakery. All but the butcher’s shop were run by women.


Inside the Glenn Ord distillery — where there is much mechanization … (and few employees involved in the manufacturing of the whiskey itself)

Then a very educational (for me) couple of hours at a whiskey distillery which was first founded in the early 19th century. It made single malt whiskey, and we were taken from huge room to huge room to see how the slow process worked (five stages) until the mixture was in casks to wait for X number of years before being bottled. That evening after dinner there was a “whiskey tasting:” I had never been to such a ritual before. A young man in a kilt with the panache of a salesman brought forth four different bottles of whiskey, talked them up with much hype and then passed the bottle around the table where all 26 people were to have a dram or two. It seemed to me a very strange experience, this controlled ritual drinking where we were to decide which whiskey we liked best. A great deal was made over the subtle nuances of taste.


From one corner of Lady Lucy’s Flower garden

I suggested that the Scottish highlands are clearly a patriarchal society. Nowhere was this more apparent in the hard work three women showed us were either their lives or central to them. All three women’s working garden/farms were on or close to Aigas. I should not omit the Countess of Cawdor’s whose gardens and landscape I didn’t walk in; she is said to be a formidable woman. This too is a male-shaped concept, male language for a determined strong woman, which offputs them. In no case was a man held responsible for the beauty of the garden though I daresay many staff members are male.

Sunday afternoon for a couple of hours, Lucy Lady Lister-Kaye took us around the property to show the gardens, landscaping, bridges, small fowl and all sorts of contrivances for children and adults it has taken her forty years to bring to a kind of continuing flourishing and blooming. She has a full staff of course (like Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey), but she invented the schemes, manages, supervises — she also (doubtless with a cook and staff) prepares three meals a day for her household, visiting tour groups, children coming for school agendas; there is each day afternoon tea and cake, and most evenings some social event (lecture, whiskey tasting, folk song fest were among those I experienced). A domestic existence? With her domesticity is the foundational reality of all else. A pretty, soft-spoken woman who knows how to take and keep herself in charge, in control. I forget what clan she comes from, but she is said to be proud of her heritage. She showed us a wooden bridge, very picturesque, which she said was a present from Sir John. I shall probably remember her best though in front of her aga stove in a very modernized great square kitchen in the 20th century part of Aigas house, showing us her porridge pot.


One corner of Ann’s property — I could not take photos of her barns, the vast spread of machinery, the trees, what is seen visually is not much

Lucy’s gardening is mostly ornamental, not so Ann MacDonald’s, the generous-spirited crofter who met us off a road and took us round her property that Wednesday afternoon. (Lunch had been at Aigas house, some splendid soup and salad.) Ann is a remarkable woman who has made a success of what is now several crofts put together from non-arable land, where the profits are so meagre but can be lived upon because the land was given her very cheaply, she has complete security of tenure (laws can change of course but have not for a couple of centuries), she pays hardly any taxes. The work she showed us she did with her husband and now her son alone is very hard: the son has modern huge equipment (enormous machines) and now makes money making and selling fences. She seemed to me so in touch with the natural world, her body and face shows years of hard work, effort, weather-beaten and contentment too: she was clearly a smart woman, and had a constant flow of talk (she was glad to show her life’s effort to people and tell us all about it) and until her husband died a year ago a satisfied one. The last part of the tour was her garden in front of her house, which included areas for growing vegetables and a greenhouse. John Lister-Kaye presented crofters as privileged people; if so it’s a privilege she has spent her life working hard to sustain. He admitted the laws could be changed as there are groups of people (large landlords and those without land) who are resentful or want the land themselves. I was struck by the sheer energy and difficulty of some of the tasks that still take hand-labor (like sheering sheep); she talked animatedly of cows, of the timber on the hills, and showed a continual sense of humor.

I wish I had photographed Ann’s happy collie dog who stayed close to her the whole time … I spoke briefly with her, and unlike most of the people who were “official” (rangers, staff, the Lister-Kayes), she seemed to talk directly to me, to listen to what I said, something genuine in her ways


Allangrange — this is a promotional on-line picture; tour and lecture groups are invited and pay to come

The third woman we met on the Black Isle, a very fertile peninsula sticking out from the northeast of the Highlands (vis-a-vis Aigas). This was the last day of the tour, Friday afternoon (8/18), J-J (probably a “lady” but she did not use her title, perhaps her or her husband’s family name is Godwin): Allangrange, the name of the house and estate has at its center a house built in the 18th century (I’m sure all is renovated). She began by showing us a garden set up to attract and sustain bees (so she is a beekeeper); she uses and sells the honey. She then showed a vast garden of flowers and vegetables; near this was a brewery whose profits she said paid for her garden. I saw sheep from afar and cattle. Her garden and hay feed these animals; in the brewery was a room where she sold sweaters (from the sheep). Nothing wasted. She told us what she serves for lunch each day in a given season. Like Lucy, like Ann, her existence is wrapped up in immanence. She was in appearance, accent, clothes the most elegant of the three, I could see her in an evening dress showing not a iota of the work she did daily.

In my third and last we’ll turn back to geography and history.

Ellen

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Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not to buy. As shoes are worn and hassocks are sat upon … finally everything is left where it was and the spirit passes on — Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping


A Promotional photo of the house from the website advertising programs


My photo of the Aigas common room where the group gathered periodically — that’s Lucy, Lady Lister-Kaye at the center in front of the woodfire stove

Friends and readers,

I’ve not blogged here for more than 3 weeks because I’ve been away: I journeyed by plane (8/10-11/17) and bus to what John Lister-Kaye calls “the Aigas Field Center,” a large mansion not far from Inverness (the closest big Scottish city) made up, on the one side, of a large 19th century-built wing (in the cake-like or phony 19th century style he names Balmorality), “baronial hall,” library, withdrawing room, a gallery with bedrooms, one of which nowadays is one Lister-Kaye’s writing rooms, a much smaller central wing from the later 18th into early 19th century Georgian style, and a later 20th century addition (warm comfortable rooms, including a modern style kitchen with Aga stove). It sits on a several hundred acre ground where there are other buildings, some for tourists and guests, others for the ranger and guide staff, some for staff of the kind seen in Downton Abbey (front gatehouse for lodgekeeper, gardening and house staff who sometimes live there, holiday guides, drivers), some for ecology restoration projects (the wildcat is one, native trees another, a large pond with beavers and “hides”), others for lectures and schoolchildren as well as adults to have learning experiences in, and lots of small animals (from chickens and roosters, to pine martens, beavers, many birds, and cattle and sheep, and the occasional deer too. Enormously old trees.


My photo of the terrace in front of part of the Aigas House (taken from window of common room)

From there starting on second day (Monday, 8/14/17), 26 or so people traveled several hours a day to public sites and buildings in and about the immediate area and to the western and northern coasts (Isle of Skye, Raasay across the way), to the Black Isle (a fertile peninsula stuck out into the North sea. We also explored the Aigas landscape: the whole of Sunday, the first full day there (8/13), was a tour of the house, the immediate grounds, of Lady Lucy’s gardens, which we were to wander in at any time of day or night after we arrived). We were privileged to be invited to go, meet and talk with a crofter’s house and acres not far from Aigas (a friend of Lister-Kaye or “Sir John” as he is familiarly called by everyone), as well as a local landowner and aristocratic lady’s (“J-j”) organic farm-garden, where she is developing bee centers, keeps sheep, grows native trees, has an extensive kitchen garden, all of which is supported by a beer distillery using hops from her land, by selling sweaters from the sheep. All of this arranged around a somewhat renovated 18th century mansion. We also had a 5 hour Saturday drive (8/12), up to Aigas where we visited Glenn Coe (where a massacre occurred and is now a site for arduous walking) and a week later (8/19), away from Aigas (where we visited the historically laden Blair Castle, there since the 12th century or so) and a couple of other sites.

Before launching into a eight day and evening travelogue, I want to imitate John Lister-Kaye (whose nature writing books are rightly much admired — at his best he can match Loren Eiseley for poetry and geology, and animal studies, Annie Dillard for weaving significant autobiography, and is often implicitly political in a mildly socialistic, occasionally paternalistic and green party mode) and provide a framework for what we saw. It seems to me gaping at places without giving them context is like presenting photos and expecting them to tell their story. They don’t. I won’t have many pictures, since I’m not a photo-taking type (I’ve never taken even one selfie) and when I do take photos they are often at odd angles I happen to be standing or sitting at. But I do have a couple of hand-outs to share as well as my photos and pictures found on the web. There were several excellent presentations, most of them at most 20 minutes long, but three stand out, Robin MacGregor’s explanation of the maps of the Scottish Highlands he gave us the first evening we met, the first Friday evening (8/11) we most of us arrived at Glasgow airport and a nearby Holiday inn on Friday afternoon.


A simplified map of geology, waterways of Scottish Highlands

Robin MacGregor was a lawyer and accountant when younger, now is a guide leader and is an expert on Scottish geology and World War One. He began by impressing us with the difference between lowland and highland Scotland: the north comes a plate previously attached to North America, is mountainous, rocky, a lot of sedimentation, while the south is green, meadow-y. The present small population results from a 2 century diaspora it’s fair to call ethnic cleansing, or sheer ejection by chieftains become landlords determined to make a large profit on the land by filling it first with sheep and later with deer (for rich people to come and slaughter. He talked of how romanticized the descriptions of its civil social society, which is now based on commercialism laid over family biology bonds and the original tribal laws and customs of clans, as well as results of warfare and sex. We might call them an edge people, a people descending in written history from Celtic culture which was pushed back by the more modern Roman culture, successful war machine from the Mediterranean, found along Northern Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, down to Basque country. Tribal people forced into the peripheries where it’s hard to make a living on much non-arable land. Little of Northern Scotland is more than 37 miles from the sea, it’s crossed by faults as are the lowlands. and rivers. Large cities include Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, Sterling, Aberdeen, Dundee, Inverness. One of the maps had pictures of food and fish that are indigenous to each area.


I’ve made this one bigger in the hope the print can be read

The most peculiar of these maps was of the clans — which are still remembered by many Scottish people and are seen in their last names — Lady Lucy is a descendant of clan Mackenzie. Robin named all the clans including his own, MacGregor, and told us about their specific rivalries, whose side they were on at Culloden (a central historical moment, a watershed defeat in Scottish history taking 45 minutes). I was cheered to realize that the novels and mini-series of Outlander (the books are found in most decent bookstores and the TV programs have been big hits) are in large outlines historically accurate: so clan Fraser is where the stories say, its relationship with clan Mackenzie generally accurate. He did keep emphasizing that Scottish and English people while intertwined utterly are nonetheless part of different cultures, with distinct identifications and histories.


One wing of that fabulously wealthy woman, Elizabeth Windsor’s Balmoral Castle, first started in the 19th century by Victoria

I believe it was Saturday evening (8/13) that in one of the buildings on the estate, Magnus House, Sir John gave his extraordinary lecture (he’s been giving it since 1986) “Balmorality.” I feared it would include yet another rehash of the Jacobite disasters (hundreds of people killed each time, not counting the states’ savage reprisals) or be just about the myth of Balmoral beauty promulgated by Victoria’s vacation life. It was in effect a debunking of some silly clothing, and recent made-up customs (especially believed in it seems by US people) and a genuine history of the mid- to later 19th into the later 20th century. He contrasted the reality of the experience most Scots people knew against the imposed picturesque narratives of the wealthy who came north to exploit the people left and their land. He explained why northern Scottish landscape looks and often is so empty, how it came to have species of animals and plants not indigenous to it at all, the abject poverty of what we can call the 99% until the early 1980s. In 1972 one could easily find people living in huts with no central heat, not running water, poor windows and ventilation, no electricity, without shoes. He stressed that a lot of the emigration from early 19th century on became voluntary: when the Scottish reached North America, they realized a much better life was on offer for them all.


Victoria Hamilton as the Queen Mother Mary (Wife of George VI) photographed in the highlands as soothingly beautiful, with vast old houses whose cost no one minds, with hardly a servant about to keep everything up, was an embodiment of the most recent melancholy-sentimental myth-making

“Balmorality” stands for the way wealthy, naive and often non-Scottish people project images of Scotland (as seen in Downton Abbey‘s visits to Scotland for Christmas and again in Queen Mary’s visits to Scotland in the Netflix series, The Crown) the way Edward Said’s “orientalism” stands for the way prejudiced western people describe and pervert and misunderstand Islamic, middle eastern and South-Asian cultures. He showed Landseer paintings of animals who couldn’t exist (great stags with astonishing antlers), quoted the abysmal poetry of William McGonegal, which he averred was nonetheless often more accurate about the highlands than say Burns or Scott. He explained one of the uses of Aigas house was a site for restoration ecology: restoring Scottish land to be as productive, fruitful, and beautiful as it can. Rebuilding the place that capitalism, rentier-landlords, colonialism destroyed. Put the wolves back, the lynx, small and large animals almost gone extinct, make a habitable lifestyle cooperated in by all.


The story design of the chapters of this book is a history of Aigas House,and stories attached to it and its lands — beginning with an iron age fort, moving on to a Jacobean house, then the couple of hundred years the house now represents; how it was a run-down home for poor aging people until he took it over, renovated it at great cost

His second lecture, which I regret not taking better notes on, was originally going to be reading aloud in the drawing room from his books on Wednesday (8/16), while we had roarding fire and drank and ate. Instead he gave another hour and one-half lecture at Magnus House, this time on his recent life-writing cum-nature writing book, The Dun Cow Rib: A Very Natural Childhood. In a way he retold the same history of Scotland starting with his parents’ lives (though the family is England, and its estates in Yorkshire, with money coming from mines) in terms of his personal life, with an extended section on the man who he feels brought him to be what he is and does today: Gavin Maxwell


Sir John is hardly seen without one of three dogs very much attached to him


Gavin Maxwell when young

Sir John’s talk included Maxwell’s intimate relationship with the poet Kathleen Raine (whose poetry I had read but did not know she was all her life in love with Maxwell who was however homosexual (one of the reasons for his reclusiveness); I remembered Raine as a poet strongly influenced by Virginia Woolf in French.

As someone who taught Advanced Composition in the Natural Sciences and Technology for over 17 years at George Mason (to junior level students) and in the first ten years read with students, concentrated on nature writers (I assigned Eiseley, Dillard), people who cared about non-human animals and conservative (I assigned Joan Goodall, Sy Montgomery) I recognized where his deep Thoreau-like impulses to retreat came from: a detestation of the ludicrous cruelties of so many human institutions. It was a litany of his miseries in public schools, of how he was forced into working as an engineer for a profit-driven inhumane company polluting vast lands and waterways, of the great poverty he first saw in gypsies and the state schools he also apparently attended, and the story of how he broke away to live differently. Gavin Maxwell’s retreat and stubborn return to nature, the book, Ring of Bright Water, was a great revelation, their relationship one of the most important in his life. It must be admitted Maxwell was a little mad: he broke with Raine because she was accidentally responsible for the death of an otter she bought for him.


This statue of an otter overlooking Front Bay honors Maxwell

I’ll end on a poem by Kathleen Raine, who I once intended to write a foremother poet blog on but never got to it. A chapter in Didier’s book on l’ecriture-femme is dedicated to Raines and she is one of those poets chosen by Catherine Kerrigan in her An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets:

Heirloom

She gave me childhood’s flowers,
Heather and wild thyme,
Eyebright and tormentil,
Lichen’s mealy cup
Dry on wind-scored stone,
The corbies on the rock,
The rowan by the bum.

Sea-marvels a child beheld
Out in the fisherman’s boad,
Fringed pulsing violet
Medusa, sea gooseberries,
Starfish on the sea-floor,
Cowries and rainbow-shells
From pools on a rocky shore,

Gave me her memories,
But kept her last treasure:
‘When I was a lass: she said,
‘Sitting among the heather,
‘Suddenly I saw
‘That all the moor was alive!
‘I have told no one before.’

That was my mother’s tale.
Seventy years had gone
Since she saw the living skein
Of which the world is woven,
And having seen, knew all;
Through long indifferent years
Treasuring the priceless pearl.

If I seem strangely to have begun and ended on women writers, what bothered me all week was the preponderance of people in the tour (2/3rds), the rangers (about the same), the staff were women. the relief was to find myself in a genuinely socially-rooted society, one where people identify and pull together: they believe they have a right to health care, a right to education up to and including university, a right to housing, a right to a decent life together. It was Lady Lucy who provided the very good food and ran the place. But all the people named as important historical figures, described, pictured were men. In other words, it is at the same time still a patriarchy. In my next I hope to tell of Lucy’s descriptive tour of her gardening on Sunday afternoon (8/13)– really a creation comparable to areas of Central Park in little — and what I saw of women’s lives through her, the Crofter Ann MacDonald and some other Scots women writers and artists too.


A wide and far shot of the property probably in winter — there are the tiny remains of an iron fort too

Ellen

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marriotmeditative
This image is not the image on the cover of Poldark: The complete Scripts, series 1 (which is awful), but the cover does feature Aidan Turner in just this sort of mood and in need of a shave

Dear Friends and readers,

While I was away in Cornwall, I had a number of wonderful finds in bookshops, especially Fowey where I found Poldark: The Complete Scripts, Series 1 by Debbie Horsfield; in the parlance of film studies, these are screenplays, not just actual records of what was said and acted, but scenes intended to be acted that were cut or never made it into filming, many stage directions, brief commentaries in brackets on the characters as they speak the proposed dialogue, and descriptions of the scenery to be filmed, the mise-en-scene of a set, and larger action as envisaged by Horsfield. I also found Claude Berry’s excellent county book, A Portrait of Cornwall, updated in 191 (a Robert Hale book) and a superb book of essays on Daphne DuMaurier: The DuMaurier Companion, ed Sarah Waters. I’ll be (I hope) writing about the last two in the near future; for now. Here I will comparing the screenplays with the original historical fictions by Graham and (briefly) the older 1970s mini-series.

Horsfield’s scripts for the first season of Poldark (that is all eight hour-long episodes) have been a revelation. The script called for better shows than we got. Really. Horsfield has lots of commentary and description that is psychologically suggestive. I had accused the scripts of being crude, and been puzzled why the lines were so short, or blunt when her other work has sophisticated dialogue. Well the lines are not short; what happened was that when the dialogue was filmed, the speed at which it was done, gives the effect of abruptness, and the way the scenes are enacted often precludes resonance. This was a choice by the two male directors, Edward Balzagette and William McGregor.

What’s more: there are numerous small and larger cut scenes, and some of them contain subtlety and slow development for Heidi Reed as Elizabeth. As I read the scripts, from the outset, Horsfield had in mind to change the interpretation of Elizabeth as found in Graham’s books and as found in the 1970s series: lines and descriptions suggest she is yearning to “be with” Ross as it’s called; for talk, for a coming together of their spirits, for sex. What’s left are silent short takes of the actress at the window, looking out, none leaving enough time to understand what the meaning of the shot is. Without wanting to attack an actor, it seems to me in the love scenes of the first series, Turner lacks the subtlety he needs; it’s as if others of them were directed to be more blunt and simplistic than the script called for. I want to re-watch the first season against the scripts before quoting any specific scenes (and I would prefer not to allow these blogs to become as overlong as they did last year).

I’m particularly impressed with how each episode has its own arch and emphatic themes. I’ve seen this in other BBC drama books, but this one is remarkably tightly-knit. It is clear that she wants the character of Ross to be central to each episode, even if he does not have a linchpin or dominating POV; this is not true of Graham’s second book (Demelza) and his perspective is the wider one of the world of Cornwall so he has rich complicated characters in main and subplots. The major presence after Ross is Demelza, with Francis (like Elizabeth) being given suggestive lines. Kyle Soller was up to the role and he alone (it seems to me) was allowed the time and space to realize the lines of the four principals. I was confirmed in the side-lining of Keren who is given marginal space. OTOH, there is lyrical beauty to her introduction while she is playing Helen (“that bright particular star” of All’s Well that Ends Well).

Having read the scripts, it seems to me that the flaws and problems I outlined as did others in this new Poldark, the first series, were not due to the script but the realization. Extrapolating from this, I’ll give the new season the benefit of the doubt and assume the same might hold true. There will soon be published a book of the second series (just now available only in kindle editions), with Demelza’s face on the cover. I’ve pre-ordered it. The cover still is not as aggressively “in your face” as the cover for the first series: Eleanor Tomlinson looks weary and grief-striken, near tears

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We know that she will be having to deal with a full-blown love affair between Ross and Elizabeth, enough to make any wife as deeply invested in her husband as this ex-kitchen and working class girl is.

The volume is introduced by Karen Thrussell who says she is a lover of Graham’s novels and tells us that Horsfield did not know the novels at all before she was hired. This is her first time for costume drama. That was deliberate: they wanted someone whose expertise was proved in popular mini-series that get high ratings. An online article by “the historical advisor,” Hannah Grieg, to Horsfield and the film-makeers (crew, costumer, production, actors) released by the BBC tells you these are well researched novels, embedded in history; they are. Grieg says she “stripped the books down” for Horsfield. Greig claims she became deeply immersed and marvels at the accuracy of the presentation of mining and banking business at the time (and central to the stories, as well as the prison system, the injustice of the laws against poaching). I suspect that most of the time the historian’s roles are exaggerated in these series, and they are rather consulted when the writer fears she is making some egregious error. Perhaps in this case Horsfield needed help? At any rate it would be superficial and the scripts don’t feel superficial; the scenes about mining seem to me to have taken what could be taken from Graham’s books.

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I’ve said that this year I don’t want perpetually to be comparing the older series with the newer one as I’ve done that before, and after a while the finding that the older one is the subtler, with far more novelistic scripts, and closer to the original Post World War Two and 1970s subversive and feminist conceptions of the books is simply repetitive. I’ve written, delivered at a conference and published an essay on this now: Poldark Rebooted: 40 Years On. Instead my idea is to compare this historical fiction series with one very like it, Outlander from Diana Gabaldon’s historical romance time-traveling tales (as the older 1970s Poldarks were remarkably parallel and like to The Onedin Line).

Outlander 2014 Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall and Tobias Menzies as Frank Randall in Starz’s Outlander
Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall and Tobias Menzies as Frank Randall (1943)

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Claire Randall beginning her relationship with Sam Heughan as her protector-chivalric Jamie (1743)

I’ve said how much I am drawn to both series, and argued that both are if not fully feminist, proto-feminist, that Graham’s fiction has been said by others to be “instinctively feminist” and he is on record saying that he was concerned to show the “raw deal” women have been handed across history. The films from Gabaldon’s first book made the POV of the series Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser just as surely as the new films from Graham’s books made Aidan Turner as Ross. I’ve called the Outlander series film-feminism because of the use of Claire’s perspective and memories as over-voice; she is the linch-pin mind of the series, her memories take us back and forth in time.

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This is Robin Ellis’s face as Ross Poldark as he begins to mount the roof to where Elizabeth is lying in a rage that ends in a rape (1975-76 Poldark, from Warleggan)

But there is a real problem with this pleasant outlook and I don’t want to ignore this and misrepresent the books and films. The new series has wiped out Ross’s rape of Elizabeth in Warleggan. Among the arguments for insisting it is a rape (which I’ve made in my analyses of the books) is that marital rape and rape itself outside marriage is common across Graham’s oeuvre. In Graham’s The Forgotten Story (set in Cornwall in 1898), the young husband rapes his wife after he thinks she has been having an affair with a sailor and she becomes unconscious after a traumatically violent incident in her uncle’s tavern. In Marni, the “cure” for the mentally troubled young heroine in Hitchcock’s movie is aggressive rape; this comes from the book where the husband rapes his wife in a passionate moment of despair. In the plot-summaries I’ve read of other of his mysteries, and spy thriller, I found rape repeatedly. As those who know The Four Swans remember, we have a sadistic Vicar Whitworth forced on Mowenna Chynoweth as her husband; she finds him distasteful morally and aesthetically and to get back at her and because he enjoys it, he inflicts sadistic sex on her; among other things, twisting her feet and ankles so repeatedly that when she finally escapes him and years go by, she is still hobbling.

I would like to interpret all this as Graham exposing the reality that coerced marriage is a form of rape: the parents and family insist this female give her body to a specific male in order for the family to aggrandize itself with money or rank. I’d like to see all these incidents as him exposing how men think they are the solution when they have been the problem (Marni – the heroine’s mother is a deeply distraught women as a result of having sold herself as a prostitute to make ends meet), but it is clear they can also be read as voyeurism. Indeed that’s the way Hitchcock films them. The men are not always punished; the rape is slid over. In the case of Ross, there is finally a deep punishment but it takes years and wreaks damage on Elizabeth (death) and destroys the character and life of their son, Valentine. The Vicar is simply murdered by the husband of Morwenna’s salacious and promiscuous sister, Rowella. Which brings in the question of how Graham offers only limited sympathy to women who he has invented as promiscuous (Keren who marries and destroys Mark is damned by suggestions she was after more men than Dwight Enys)

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The Walking Stick (one of the great films made from a non-Poldark novel, where the hero is a crook and the heroine disabled)

In the case of Winston Graham, a woman friend,journalist and film critic whose views I respect, Judy Geater, could not bear the marital rapes in the Poldark series: she agreed that the thrust was actually feminist, but felt Graham was offering this up as enjoyment; that he was (as other male writers are) obsessed with the fear that a woman will be false (one finds this in LeCarre’s Smiley books); she also did not enter into Demelza’s attitudes towards Ross which for me were a paradigm of something of what I knew with Jim, and what Claire Beauchamp gradually begins to evince towards Jamie Fraser. So both this popular historical fiction series is problematic for serious women readers. Horsfield change from a raped and angry woman, to a woman who chooses to have sex with a longed-for man may be seen as getting rid of the problematic nature of the books. Not altogether as she deepens the hostility to aggressive, sexualized women (Keren and now I think Caroline Penvennen from what I’ve seen the second episode of the first season).

There is something equally troubling in Outlander which far from moderating (as the 1970s writers did) or erasing (as Horsfield has done), Gabaldon’s group of writers make emphatic. In Chapter 22, called The Reckoning, and in the parallel episode, Jamie beats Claire to teach her a lesson in obedience. The idea is she was captured by Black Jack Randall because she didn’t take seriously enough that her own danger also endangered her husband and all the men who were loyal to him. Diane Reynolds, a friend of mine, also once a journalist, and now author (see my review of her The Doubled life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer), put it this way:

“Black Jack’s sadistic (what I remember) beating of Jamie with a cat o’ nine tails was horrified and it did shock me, but it also fit a familiar paradigm: it is what we expect the evil character to do to the hero. But Jamie IS the hero, and it being acceptable that he beat his wife (and that her humiliation was key to her acceptance) did bother me. He is also sexually aroused by the experience, and that seemed realistic to me (I had read about concentration guards who would beat prisoners until they (the guards) ejaculated) but I wondered: couldn’t Jamie, if such a good guy, have pretended to beat Claire and had her scream (to satisfy his friends’ need for her abjection) while he hit a table or whatever? Well, any way, a minor point. I don’t mean it to be a huge thing, just an example of a reactionary strain in Gabaldon–and it is what it is. It does make a difference if one comes to a book first or a filmed version– easier to engage the filmed version if it doesn’t irritate preconceived ideas. I probably like the second Poldark better than you for not seeing the first, and the Davies WP for not having seen another version.

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Claire shocked and frightened when told by Jamie he is going to beat her in the hearing of his “mates”

This turns the time-traveling tale into a metaphor for a fraternity where the female dreamer is helpless against an all-male universe and must submit lest she end up gang-raped ….

Diane’s comments acknowledge that Horsfield’s version in fact is feminist because like Claire in most of the scenes of Outlander freely gives of herself to Jamie and we are invited to revel with them in their wedded sexual compatibility (so to speak). I had pointed out that the concluding two episodes of the film series and chapters in the book where we witness Jamie raped and then his character broken, him humiliated with nothing sparred us of the buggery were far more transgressive and could be seen as voyeuristic. I think the series is on a high-tier to permit the film-makers to do this (it wouldn’t do for BBC Sunday prime time). But as I read the chapters I have to admit the next (omitted in the film) is one of Jamie justifying corporal punishment. He tells stories of how his father beat him and how this was good for him, and by the end of the conversation Claire seems almost grateful for having been made aware she was reckless. This is somewhat countered by her pulling a knife on him just as they are about to have sex once again, and him kneeling before her to swear he will never beat her again, but i fact that he beat her is insisted on. It was not just mild hitting. She cannot sit comfortably, cannot ride a horse for more than say 20 minutes at a time. The book is not written in 1743 but 1991.

Beyond that the doubling of the Claire’s mild, gentle Frank, her 20th century husband, with the cruelly sadistic homosexual Black Jack Randall is deeply anti-homosexual (it takes us back to the characterizations of homosexuality in The Jewel in the Crown and the 1970s Upstairs Downstairs), this blending of the two suggests beneath Frank lurks Black Jack, and the subtext is titillating. There are also the many rape attempts on Claire, on Jamie’s sister, Jenny, and way Geillis Duncan, near the end of the series revealed as another woman from the future (1968), manipulates and kills her husband, Arthur, to enable her to marry the brutal and treacherous Douglas Mackenzie (brother to the Laird, so next in line to rule the clan). Some of the women of Outlander do not conform to the older paradigm of submissive romance heroine as outlined by Miriam Burstein in her essay on Anne Boleyn as a character type (The fictional afterlife of Anne Boleyn: how to do things with the Queen, 1901-2006.” Clio 37.1 [2007] and Jerome de Groot (Consuming History) in his chapter on Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl (on the 2003 film too). We see her in Andrew Davies’s alignment of Lise, Prince Andrey’s doomed pregnant-child wife with Jane Seymour in Wolf Hall through having them played by the same actress, Kate Phillips. But Claire learns to and Demelza and Verity never stop.

Yet Poldark and Outlander are perceived as contemporary women’s fare, are widely popular, make a lot of money and will thus be repeated and sold as long as there is audience for them.

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The new Poldark’s Cornwall — which is quite different from Graham’s 1983 books (for a start all but one picture has been changed)

Why argue over this? why bring out matters of taste and outlook? It matters because there is things in work of art, be it book or film, that makes it worthy of praise as well as criticism. We pay these works a compliment by taking them seriously and in our emotional life they function seriously. When I go on to write about the first and second episodes of the second season of the new Poldark and carry on with the first season of Outlander I am discussing real properties in these works of art however intangible. Realism at whatever level the work allows is important: how do people really behave towards one another and how do we relate to this? Nowadays the canon (however unacknowledged are Outlander and Poldark) patently does not just express the preferences of an elite class. We argue about these things because we assume judgements are true and matter. There’s value here and there’s danger.

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I’ve been working out some thoughts about the relationship of the new Poldark scripts to the actual programs, and then thinking about the problematic nature of how rape and violence towards women is presented in Poldark and Outlander, taken to be woman’s fare.

Ellen

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Claire (Catrionia Balfe) medicates Jamie’s (Sam Heughan) back (near opening of Episode 2, directed Ronald Dahl, scripted Ronald D Moore)

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Claire remembering Geillis Duncan (Lotte Verbeeck) saying: “As I told you, there’s many things in this world we can’t explain …” (near end of Episode 3, directed Brian Kelley, scripted Anne Kenney)

We get no good
By being ungenerous, even to a [film],
And calculating profits — so much help
By so much reading. It is rather when
We gloriously forget ourselves, and plunge
Soul-forward, headlong, into a [film]’s profound,
Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth-
Tis then we get the right good from a book.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh
(1857), i, 702-9

Dear friends and readers,

The general plot-design of these two episodes is quickly told (see Episode 1):

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As the group comes up to Leogh, it looms in the way of Udolpho:

2) exploring Castle Leogh and its grounds, Claire settles in, is re-dressed, meets Laird Colum Mackenzie (Gary Lewis), dines with the clan, is led to believe she will be allowed to return to Craig Na Dunn (the stones), but finds herself appropriated as a “healer” and forbidden to leave, as no one important believes her story of herself. Slowly her relationship with Jamie builds, meeting to help his wounds, bringing food to him outside the gate; he tells of of Black Jack Randall, an English enemy (Tobias Menzies), and the doubling figure of Claire’s gentle Frank with this violent Black Jack makes Jamie an intermediary link

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As the episode opens, we are back in time, five years before 1945, where Claire is bidding adieu to Frank her husband as she refuses to accept an offer of escaping front-line nursing

3) Claire becomes involved with a woman like herself, expert in the use of medicinal compounds, foods, healing, Geillis Duncan, and witnesses a culture of harsh punishments and mortifications, defies the fanatically punitively religious priest, to save the life of a boy said to be in need of exorcism. Again her relationship with Jamie builds, now she sees him rescue Leoghaire (Nell Hudson) from punishment, free a boy nailed to a pillory by his ear, take her to the Black Kirk to reveal the poisoned herb afflicting the boy.

The second episode feels more complicated than the first, building on it: we see Claire is in danger of being seen as a witch (by her apprehension of Mrs Fitz’s (Annette Badland) probable response to her story; the blending of time frame-times, from what Frank is doing now to to try find Claire, by himself by the rocks, with the Reverend Wakefield (James Fleet), to deeper past memory and again Claire at end of episode 3 with a vision of the stones, but the more she does deeds to gain gratitude, the more she is held fast.

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I’ve been trying to account for the deep appeal of this mini-series (at least to me and the legions of readers and viewers, mostly women) beyond the sex: I am intensely drawn to the sexual relationship between the heroine, Claire, and the central beloved hero, Jamie; its configuration is the same as Suzanne Juhasz says is central to women’s romance (Reading from the Heart) and is found in the relationship of Demelza and Ross in the Poldark books. (I gather for some modern young women brought up recently or women of the later 20th century this no longer appeals.) In the films, protective, gentle, tenderly loving, a helper-brother, in Demelza’s case a father substitute, in Claire’s an oddly feminized hero. But what else?

I am trying to see how it differs from Poldark beyond the genre (women’s historical romance v men’s historical fiction). Why does it seem so coherent, the story move forward with ease, with less strained staccato switches from scene to scene, and all the scenes allowed more dialogue and development.

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Cinematography at Black Kirk provides continual mirroring effect, as if the two were reflections of themselves in one another’s mirrors

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Claire amid the stones in a memory sequence (from Episode 3)

Sing me a song of a lass that is gone
Say, could that lass be I
Merry of soul she sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye
Billow and breeze, islands and seas, mountains of rain and sun
All that was good, all that was fair
All that was me is gone

It’s the time-traveling. a what if nature of the fiction set up in the past, a playing with time so different times blend and part, doubling of characters from the past and the future. The real material is the relationship between Frank (yielding, gentle, heterosexual) and Black Jack Randall (sadistic, bisexual), Claire and Jamie (he attracts dominant gay males) to both of these. Claire moves away from a stressful life-passage in 1945 where the marriage is not working, a double narrative echoed or repeated in Claire’s relationship to Geillis, who we will learn is also from the future. Christianity versus paganism is an important strand across DuMaurier’s works. There is no magic but the one break from realism in time transportation

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Jamie remembering his sister, Jenny Fraser (Laura Donnelly) raped by Black Randall (will occur in narrative in Episode 12, Lallybroch) (from Episode 2)

Swirling about these are the strong female types, with Claire as voice-over narrator, her memory controlling all. We’ve met Mrs Fitz, Colum’s silent wife, Letitia (Aislin McGuckin), Geillis; we’ve seen Jenny Fraser thus far. There is a succession of scapegoats (made to suffer) who Claire works to free from suffering at the risk of her life and identity: Jamie is continually offering himself up, and she continually rescuing him (as he will her in the traditional swashbuckling mode). It is a question of a transcendent identity: a drive to abandon the daily material world (so you cross the stones) to lose yourself in a Bronte love. Jamie’s alter-ego, semi-servant, brother, Murtagh Fraser (Duncan Lacroix) advises Claire that Jamie needs an experienced woman, not a girl-virgin; like a Walter Scott male companion-servant he finds his meaning is serving Jamie.

At the same time the mater is rooted in Scottish culture, literature, and myth:

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Murtagh, ever there (opening Episode 2), a companion first seen in Scott’s fiction

In both episodes there are these vast hall scenes, in the second a man sings ancient songs to pipes:

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Claire’s first entrance (within the first phase of episode 2)

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The harp-player and bard (towards the end of episode 3)

Now this one is about a man out late on a fairy hill on the eve of Samhain who hears the sound of a woman singing sad and plaintive from the very rocks of the hill.
[eerie music] [Gaelic singing continues] “I am a woman of Balnain.
“The folk have stolen me over again, ‘ “the stones seemed to say.
“I stood upon the hill, and wind did rise, and the sound of thunder rolled across the land.
” [singing in Gaelic] “I placed my hands upon the tallest stone “and traveled to a far, distant land “where I lived for a time among strangers who became lovers and friends.
” [singing in Gaelic] “But one day, I saw the moon came out “and the wind rose once more.
“so I touched the stones “and traveled back to my own land “and took up again with the man I had left behind.
” [applause] She came back through the stones? Aye, she did.
They always do.
It was a folktale, madness to take as fact, and yet half of what Gwyllyn had described had actually happened to me.

They have substituted Scotland for Cornwall: there is a loss DuMaurier is much darker ultimately and deeper, while Gabaldon more consistently self-conscious post-pastiche, playing though with similar strong female imagery

DuMaurier poem:

‘What can I cling to in life, what can I hold?’
With a cynical twist to the mind and a husk for the heart
The scapegoats of this generation go drifting past.
The children for whom the war was apparently won,
And nothing is certain, and nothing likely to last
For the child not bombed in Kensington (from DuMaurier Companion, edd Sarah Walters, p 131)

Gabaldon picturesque layering, the imagery is that of a woman’s body as as redemptive:

We struggled upward, out of the womb of the world, damp and steaming, rubber-limbed with wine and heat. I fell to my knees at the first landing, and Jamie, trying to help me, fell down next to me in an untidy heap of robes and bare legs. Giggling helplessly, drunk more with love than with wine, we made our way side by side, on hands and knees up the second flight of steps, hindering each other more than helping, jostling and caroming softly off each other in the narrow space, until we collapsed at last in each other’s arms on the second landing.
    Here an ancient oriel window opened glassless to the sky, and the light of the hunter’s moon washed us in silver. We lay clasped together, damp skins cooling in the winter air, waiting for our racing hearts to slow and breath to return to our heaving bodies.
    The moon above was a Christmas moon, so large as almost to fill the empty window. It seemed no wonder that the tides of sea and woman should be subject to the pull of that stately orb, so close and so commanding …. Outlander, the book p p 627

In technique the pace is slow, lingering, not much happens in the sense of moving the story forward. Instead we move back and forth in time as the film-makers develop the relationship between Claire and Jamie (the arc over-all) and unfold the other characters as Claire settles in and begins to practice her assumed profession and role. This too makes it differ from the new Poldark, which is too jumpy, with all too brief juxtapositions.

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British in Scotland (Black Jack Randall from the back) as imagined in this film series

It’s common knowledge that literary criticism is not a popular form — nor is real film criticism; only a small percentage of readers read it. One of the pleasures of Margaret Edson’s play, Wit (known for its presentation of a woman dying of cancer, whose excruciation of pain is not so much from dying from cancer but from the techniques, chemo, radiation and operation, used to “fight” cancer, one of the pleasures is its meditations on reading and especially making editions and essays; at one point Vivian Bearing claims the greatness of her work is that she offers ‘a thorugh examination of each [John Donne] sonnet, discussing every word in extensive detail.”

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Jamie as Scots farmer-landlord at Lallybroch (memories from Episode 2)

Where does this detail come from? Let’s admit it: out of the mind of the reader elaborating thematically (it can be political, or moral, or psychological, or sociological, lots of options since the mid-20th century) on the text? and essentially it’s made up, it’s an extension. Take a much praised older book on Austen: Stuart Tave’s Some Words of Jane Austen. It’s no longer read much or liked because the words he tells his tales of are disciplinary of women: exertion (Elinor has to practice this] in S&S, expectations (Catherine’s false ones] in Northanger Abbey. mortification (Elizabeth’s) in P&P; the properness (Fanny) of the heroine in MP. We prefer the tales of say Claudia Johnson. One difference is these tales are not structured as narrative, but as arguments, within which the writer tells of the story of how her or his mind read the book.

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Claire discovering what year it is by opening a book (Episode 2)

Criticism is not popular because most readers it seems do not tell themselves these tales. Most stay with the literal fiction and do not recognize the truth of that exegesis. They don’t see it, can’t see it, can’t go that far away from the story and characters, and can carry or elaborate a theme very briefly. Or are bored. Don’t see the point. They can read fan fiction, though and fan fiction is a form of fiction that elaborates from the text by telling a story not producing an argument. Film adaptations are further fictionalizations of a text. Further specific visualizations, aural, sensory.

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Castle and thistle (Episode 3)

The point is then which fictions about fictions seem to us to hold important truths — which seem to explicate the original fiction and which seem to us not connected enough to what we find there. What I am putting together is an attempt at adequate fictions about these films. All this from an intuition that the books and films descend from Sophia Lee’s Recess (1783, first gothic romance) at a distance, but immediately are an update of DuMaurier — so historical and regional romance inflected by time-traveling, what if fictions, playing with time so different times blend and part, doubling of characters from the past and the future.

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Same street used for 1945 and 1743 (Episodes 1 and 3)

Next time: the nature of the story-telling and Scottish post-colonialism in a film

Ellen

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Claire Randall (Catriona Balfe) looking into Farrell’s shop window in a highland village

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(Outlander 1, scripted Ronald Moore)

People disappear all the time. Young girls run away from home. Children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives take the grocery money, and a taxi to the train station. Most are found eventually. Disappearances, after all, have explanations. Usually. Strange, the things you remember. Single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years. Like the moment I realized I’d never owned a vase. That I’d never lived any place long enough to justify having such a simple thing. And how at that moment, I wanted nothing so much in all the world as to have a vase of my very own. It was a Tuesday afternoon. Six months after the end of the war (taken direct from Gabaldon’s Outlander, opening.

Friends,

It’s time. Overdue. It may be my readers think I am above Outlander. I am not. I love it. I have now watched all sixteen episodes of the first season three times. I’ve read Gabaldon’s novel, I’ve read her Outlandish Companion. It connects to so much I’m deeply engaged by: it’s Daphne DuMaurier in the high romance mode, elegant, controlled wildness. Outlander is a cross between DuMaurier’s The House on the Strand where the hero travels back and forth between the mid-20th and 14th century:

houseonstrand

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This older cover for and BBC Radio 7 image for a reading aloud of The House on the Strand capture the strangeness of a book moving back and forth from mid-20th to 14th century Cornwall

Also her historical romances, say King’s General (set in the 17th century civil war), Frenchman’s Creek, or Jamaica Inn (smugglers as misunderstood free-trader outlaws set in the very early 19th). Claire is the many times great-grandaughter of Sophia Lee’s Elinor and Matilda, the twin daughters of Mary Queen of Scots in her The Recess. I’ve been reading about Scotland and its civil wars, diaspora (to among other places, Canada), poetry and fiction by its writers (from Anne Murray Halkett to RLS Stevenson and Margaret Oliphant and onto Margaret Atwood) for years and years.

The immediate inspiration though is the new Poldark. Outlander reflects mores of the last few years far more frankly explored, and unlike the new Poldark thus far is a woman’s mini-series, a proto-feminist series of films. I’ve learned the second season of Poldark is going to depart so radically from Graham’s books as to change a crucial thread across all twelve novels and one of my favorite characters (though like Jane Austen over Emma it seems no one but me will much like), Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan. So I thought I might sustain a comparison of the two similar mini-series: Poldark drawn from historical novels, Outlander from historical romance, both obeying naturalism and verisimilitude once the terms of the fiction are set up). I don’t say I won’t compare the 1970s Poldark nor the two books, Jeremy Poldark (1950) and Warleggan (1953), but I will keep in mind and bring in this contemporary comparable series. Run them on this blog in tandem.

The Outlander resembles the new (2015) Poldark in its grimness, brutal violence, grimyness, the POV from below, the peasants and outlaws, not the elegant and fringe people of the older (1975) Poldark, Oneddin Line. But this is Claire’s story, make no mistake about that. The central consciousness, the voice-over in this season in all but one episode (when it is Jamie’s [Sam Heughan] and that very unusual, as “real” men don’t do over-voice). By keeping the central consciousness a woman’s, the narrator a heroine, Gabaldon kept all the intense ambiguity about a woman’s helplessness in pre-19th century eras against males, who then in reaction to the heroine manifest unashamed or shall I say unhidden attitudes towards her sexuality (the film is written, directed and produced mostly by men): upon meeting Claire Randall (Catrionia Balfe) the film’s 18th century men, British soldiers and aristocrats, Irish thugs and clansmen alike promptly think her or ask if she is a whore because she is alone. Jonathan Wolverton Randall aka Black Jack (Tobias Menzies, also Frank, Claire’s gentle husband in the mid-20th century, a descendant of Black Jack, whom he has been researching) proceeds to try to rape her. But she is a 20th century woman, pro-active on her own and others’ behalf, not inclined to regard herself as secondary person or take punishment, self-confident, with a sense of what she is entitled to.

operatingfarshot

bloodandguts

As our story begins, Claire Randall has been a nurse in WW2 and presided over and helped in horrifying operations, and the war now over, she and her her academic archaeologist husband, Frank (set for a professorship in Oxford), meet again after a near 5 year absence. They visit Scotland for its ruins, look at neolithic sites. They are trying hard to recreate what they once had, but it’s not quite working. The whole section, the way the bed-sit room looked, reminded me of women’s films of the 1940s, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard stuff. The two actors convey the strain the couple is trying to overcome:

room

theenigmanofarrival

Notmakingit
I thought of V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival

All photographed with soft brown lights too, stark dark and bleak blacks for the houses, yet in gentle light grey light. He explores genealogy, ruins of ancient fortresses, clans, primitive neolithic stone sites; she half ironically goes along.

withFrankincar

Sunlit
Sunlit

Frank has made friends with a local scholarly vicar, genealogist a Reverend Wakefield, as in Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield, played exquisitely fine, with subtle humor and gravity by James Fleet. Our honeymooning (in effect) couple take to visiting this gentle vicar and Mrs Graham (Tracy Wilkinson), his wry housekeeper. Again I was so reminded of say Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers material before the murder occurs. The men discuss Scots and English aristocracy, Scots clans, the injustices of the 18th century, the patronage system, speculate that perhaps Jonathon Wolverton Randall could act with inpunity because his patron was the Earl of Sandringham. Claire goes off for women’s gossip and tea; Mrs Graham asks to read her palm and finds odd marks on Claire’s hand, and tells of rituals she participates in by Crag na Dunn, a circle of standing stones.

grahamMrs

They are allured by these woman’s midnight rituals.

ritual

Here I was not only reminded of Dorothy in Oz, but the language in the book and series alludes to Frank L. Baum, especially later when Claire-Dorothy wants to get back to the stones as gateway to Kansas, but there is something new here: this is a tale of national identity, of seeking who one is by asking what group one belongs to, and it’s done from a post-colonial perspective, highly critical of the British. Whence the title: Claire is an outsider, a Brit, from elsewhere we know. A Scottish film company is a major producer, Scots actors, venerable (Bill Paterson as the lawyer, Ned Gowan) and new (Duncan Lacroix as the faithful Murtagh, so we are not far from Scott after all) are everywhere. Geography, landscape, blended time frames, intense interiority, mix with lessons in clans, Jacobitism, and the medicine and witchcraft of the era.

What I hope to do is apply to Outlander, several studies of DuMaurier, the gothic, women’s films and Scottish studies, and then by transference see how what is said today about films and books like Outlander relates to the new Poldark mini-series and what is being done to Graham’s Poldark books in them. So this is film, historical fiction, historical romance and delvings into time-traveling fantasies research in progress. It fits into post-colonial patterns too.

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We begin for real and earnest when we move into the time-traveling sequence. Gabaldon knows that women in the 18th century went in for botany, studying herbs and so does our Claire so while Frank is buried in papers, she goes back to the stones and touching one she melts into another realm, coming out somehow into the year 1743.

Leavecar
She leaves her car

exploringflowersbystones
She has to come close to the stones of Crag Na Dunn to reach the flowers and herbs she wants

touchingstone
She hears something, music, looks up, and moves to touch the wondrous tall neolithic stone

travel
The transported moment

wakes
Waking

1743
An empty world, different older trees, no city in the distance (this is straight from Hungry Hill)

At first Claire thinks she has stumbled onto the set of costume drama (wonderful self-reflexity here) but no the bullets are real and she finds herself having to account for herself. So a re-naming, using her birth name, Beauchamp, she has to deal with everyone looking at her as stray whore: who else wanders in the wood in just her shift. This is an extraordinary moment that can only be done by a film: having the same actor, Tobias Menzies, play the hard mean ancester, Black Jack. Claire does a double take: he is but he is not Frank

firstreencouner
So it’s a re-encounter

he
He now the 18th century educated man

she
she still the mid-20th century educated woman

The drums of sudden movement, excitement, she flees, he after and so her adventure begins. A snarling redcoat, upholder of a vicious colonialist order, and she finds herself shot at, nearly raped (this will repeat and repeat) by Randall, is taken up by one of the Scotsmen (Murtagh we later realize), rescued (or herself takes up, saved) by the Scots clansmen, and is paired with the wounded Jamie Fraser, whose arm she correctly sets (and thus saves), and soon she is riding in front of him (anticipating Turner and Tomlinson as Ross and Demelza), warning the clan from her memories of what Frank told her of ambushes, becomes one of them. She resists at first and we get the most old-fashioned of gentle abductions:

Claire: [having fled during the ambush, Jamie having gone back to retrieve her] I hope you haven’t been misusing that shoulder. You’re hurt.
Jamie: This lot isna my blood.
She: Not much of it, anyway.
He: Dougal and the others will be waiting further up the stream. We should go.
She: – I’m not going with you.
He: – Yes, you are.
She: What, are you going to cut my throat if I don’t?
He: Why not? But You don’t look that heavy. Now if you won’t walk, I shall pick you up and throw you over my shoulder. Do you want me to do that?
She: No.
He: Well, then I suppose that means your coming with me.
She – [Climbing, he Grunting] – Serves you right. Probably torn your muscles as well as bruising.
He: Well, wasna much of a choice. If I dinna move my shoulder, I’d never have moved anything else ever again. I can handle a single redcoat with one hand. Maybe even two. Not three. Besides, you can fix it for me again when we get to where we’re going.
She: That’s what you think.
He: Here’s to you, lass. For tipping us to the villains in the rocks and giving us a wee bit o’ fun! [All speak Gaelic] [Speaks Gaelic] Have a wee nip.It willna fill your belly, but will make you forget you’re hungry.

newcouple

Mutualnurturing
One blanket, one whiskey pouch

The band comes to a stone castle that she and her 20th century husband explored now become fully inhabited. I thought I was back with Frank Yerby’s The Border Lord, Book-of-the-Month club special (from the early 1950s like the Poldark series. I though of Radcliffe’s Emily coming up to Udolpho:

they lookuphesitant

Leogh

Only the voice again is wry, prosaic, slightly comical:

The rest of the journey passed uneventfully, if you consider it uneventful to ride fifteen miles on horseback through country at night, frequently without benefit of roads, in company with kilted men armed to the teeth, and sharing a horse with a wounded man. At least we were not set upon by highwaymen, we encountered no wild beasts, and it didn’t rain.

When they get inside we are not in a gloomy, grand place, but a busy courtyard where everyone is going about her or his daily business. From the next episode:

Mrs Fitzgibbon [Annette Badland]: Mwah! Ye’ll all be needing breakfast, I reckon. Plenty in the kitchen. Away in, and feed yerselves. [chuckles] Murtagh, you look and smell like a rat that’s been dragged through sheep dung.
Murtagh: Gi’ us a kiss, then.
Mrs Fitzgibbon: Oh, no! A kiss, then! [laughing] And what do we have here?
Jamie: Claire Beauchamp, Mistress Fitzgibbons. Murtagh found her, and Dougal said we must bring her along with us, so So.

MrsF
Mrs Fitzgibbon looks at Claire in ways the men do not, sees what the men do not see

Mrs F: Well Claire. Come with me. We shall find you something to eat, something to wear that’s a bit more Well, a bit more

It’s the voice-over that held me especially in this first episode, compellingly, Catrionia Balfe’s voice perfect for a DuMaurier Rebecca too. A sophisticated use of old-fashioned realism smashed together with fantasy gothic and superb cinematography, a richly colored Scotland complete, with the themed music part minor key bagpipes, make for an undercurrent of thrill. I will be concentrating on the women in the series.

As for the book, the source, this first episode is lifted directly from the novel. Many of the lines are taken from Gabaldon; it’s as if she wrote the book with a film in mind. She began in earnestness from an online experience, a Literary Forum in the Net’s earliest days. In her Outlandish Companion her language gives away hat when she started, Gabaldon had Now Voyageur, the old Bette Davis trope in mind but was also thinking of “the Age of Enlightenment,” i.e., the realities of the 18th century.

I love her illustration are soft-focus photographs or line-drawing illustrations, evoking imagination on the part of the reader: emblems, herbs, older symbolic pictures (the zodaic for example). Much richness for us to explore for quite a number of weeks to come.

inspiration
From the site of Castle Leogh in Scotland today

Ellen

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