Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Scottish literature’

Andrew Marr on Winston Churchill: a superlative treatment of Churchill as a painter, showing, explaining, contextualizing many of the paintings:

What unites the best of popular documentaries is the persona of the narrator, of the person at center who is making the series or hour: we delight in the witticisms of Marr, the costumes of Worseley, the profoundity of thought of Simon Schama, Amanda Vickery’s feminist point of view, Mary Beard’s compassionate personality and her bike, her long hair, her refusal to dress to please men, Michael Moore shouting economic truth to power (he goes about nagging and exposing capitalist crooks).

The particular pleasure of these documentaries with favored character-personalities at the center is how much I like to watch and re-watch them. Far more than a fictional narrative movie.

During this profoundly worrying summer when it appears that a minority party, the Republicans, as headed by a criminal liar, is readying up to prevent the majority of US citizens from voting or having their votes counted lest they rightly throw out of office these people who are doing all they can to inflict harm, take away economic security, ruin the environment, make warring arms deals & money with the worst dictators around the world (consider 150,000+ Americans dead in 5 months, and a devastated economy), not to omit destroying even the ancient post office, it would seem understandable that no one notices in print the prevalence of documentaries in on-line movie theaters.

Or on YouTube — many a nowadays virtual conference places part of their presentations on YouTube. Comedians, people lecturing on areas of concern to subgroups of people (Tony Attwood and Temple Grandin on Aspergers and autism), universities sharing lectures, to which are nowadays added thousands of people coming online to cheer one another up: reading whole novels, reading poetry, playing instruments, doing dungeons and dragons. I’m there too with my “The Modernity of Trollope’s Last Chronicle of Barset.

Let’s admit among all this outpouring, some are inevitably very poor (if well-meant), many banal (there needs no ghostly presence come from an ipad to tell us this), more troublingly, some made by crazed fantasists (QAnon, people who hate others and encourage hatred and violence), and political groups, nowadays many fascistic (see above) determined to spread misinformation, to screw up democratic elections.

More commonly as on popular TV stations, some are superficial, gimmicky (this is true of too many of Lucy Worseley’s — exceptions are Jane Austen At Home and Suffragettes), disappointingly insidiously right-wing under a patina of liberal wit (alas too often Marr himself in for example his History of Modern Britain), too compromising (Spaceship Earth), too careful, guarded, worried lest they give offense (“Just one of those things:” on Ella Fitzgerald), which seems odd as the makers cannot really believe they will gain a large audience outside those sympathetic to their subject.

It is also true the professional or paid-for movies are probably there because the movie-theater operators are holding off on their movie “block-busters” for when all the millions of people are (it is imagined) to begin to return to going out to crowded movie-theaters once again. I would not hold my breath.  (Maybe 2022?  but not in the same way.)

Yet many of these are within the terms they set out to cover, on their own terms, remarkably good, excellent — as the above by the famous BBC interviewer, journalist, once strong man of the left, and now a centrist maker of documentaries, Andrew Marr about Winston Churchill’s incessant hobby and apparently real achievement as a painter of effective contemporary pictures. These (along with online university level courses when they are good, e.g., Future Learn) are the silver lining in a dark and frightening time.

What unites the best of documentaries is the persona of the narrator, of the person at center who is making the series or hour: we delight in the witticisms of Marr, the costumes of Worseley, the profoundity of thought of Simon Schama, Amanda Vickery’s feminist point of view, Mary Beard’s compassionate personality and her bike, her long hair, her refusal to dress to please men, Michael Moore shouting economic truth to power (he goes about nagging and exposing capitalist crooks)

Not all are this way: it’s the distinction of Frederick Wiseman to remain absent from his severely controlled documentaries. They are famous for nothing much happening at intervals except the rain or quiet daily life. In Central Park, a duck goes upside down in the water to capture a fish and eat it. Wiseman, let me say it, makes genius level films with serious insightful critiques of the way organizations are at the heart of reality. Cathy Come Home (Tony Garnett), Culloden (Peter Watkins), and other British radical political films are unforgettable. When the subject is a revered or political hero, the documentary maker may make him or herself secondary. So in the documentaries about John Lewis, Malcolm X. Ada DuVernay wants us to pay attention to what the realities of African-American life have been since the inadequacy of the 13th amendment, how it has been undermined almost from the very beginning. But I think the most popular type documentaries, the ones where the documentary maker keeps making them are those where the documentary maker is our chief character, whom we are made to delight in

I’ve written about a few of both types these over the years: Amanda Vickery’s At Home with the Georgians some years ago; more recently Mary Beard’s excursions into classical history across Europe on her bike. John Lewis: Good Trouble. But you can’t do better if you are looking to cheer yourself with a realistic (not fatuous) slice of life than Ceyda Torun’s Kedi: Cats of Istanbul. All three women. Women do documentaries: I don’t say they prevail in numbers, but their woman’s point of view is not the usual rare minority. Lucy Worseley is a case in point.

Beyond calling your attention to the numerous good documentaries available at a single click for not much money or for free (once you’ve paid your electricity and internet computer bill) I mean to alert the reader of this blog to a couple of Marr’s lesser known documentaries about literature because they are very good, and may serve to divert the viewer’s mind from the over-arching calamity (Trump winning again, or stealing the election and then turning the US into a deeply dangerous rotten brutal fascist dictatorship) while leaving us with some relevant knowledge-food for thought and perspectives.

In his wider ranging work (like telling us “the history of the world”!), he often slides by serious and unexamined art. He has a ready wit with quips that can dismiss Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in a memorable (if misleading phrase — for the sake of the joke) but in these two he is sincere, earnest even, taking us (and himself) back to the younger man who meant to make the world better and acted at times bravely, with some integrity. That’s why Noam Chomsky bothered to chide him.

****************************************************

But in these on literary and art topics and with enough time given over, he is superb.  He is himself by birth a Scotsman (born in Glasgow).

I treat first (in time) his Great Scots, a 2014 three-part series where he explores some of the problematic aspects of Scottish identity and political and geographical history through meditations on four male Scottish writers and one English: Part One is on James Boswell, whose work cannot be separated from Samuel Johnson, and their famous tour to through Scotland to the Hebrides. Part Two is mostly on Walter Scott with Robert Burns brought in as a strong contrast. Burns, Marr rightly says, was a political radical who had to suppress himself, or communicate indirectly to protect what income he had (Burns nonetheless died at 37, partly from hard work and exhaustion, poverty) while Scott was politically high Tory and very much a unionist, though endlessly trying to do justice to specifically Scottish culture, sensibility and the old Jacobite cause (at least explain it).

The series was made in 2014, just before the referendum on devolution and it’s clear that Marr is on the side of “no” (stay, not leave England) in Part Three which he devotes to Hugh MacDiarmid (born Christopher Murray Grieve): while Marr presents the beauty, depth of thought and interest of MacDiarmid’s poetry fairly and with high praise, he treats MacDiarmid’s separatist point of view as a fantasy which for a long time was not taken seriously by those who read him. All three hours have beautiful photography, the sections of the books read aloud are done brilliantly by actors and readers, we are taken to the truly appropriate interesting places. I knew nothing of MacDiarmind before I watched this hour and now feel I do understand something of the man; I know a great deal about Boswell & Johnson, Burns & Scott (I have read far too much Scott over my life — especially in my teens and early 20s) and can vouch that they are presented with real insight.

I do wish he had included a couple of women, at least mentioned one (?), and was hoping (when I learned of the series) for a survey, but I admit his choices are well taken and by sticking to three primarily he treats the writings of these men in depth. I wish even more that these were online for American viewers. At best there are podcasts, commentaries, and if you are lucky, you may find them reprinted on DVDS in sets of Marr’s work on Amazon at UK.

More recently (2016) he has made a quietly brilliant three part analysis and feelingful projection of the popular subgenres of the novels he identifies as Sleuths, Sorcerers, and Spies. I rejoice that these are on YouTube. First Sleuths:

Second Sorcerers:

And thirdly, Spies:

Marr’s persona comes across more strongly in these three than his series on Scotland or his political series: he portrays himself as decidedly un-aristocratic, far from a member of any elite or academia, a “smart-aleck” who is, if not anti-intellectual (he cannot present himself that way as he is so patently perceptive and analytic), at least not a self-satisfied public one. The subtext of these is a kind of vehement anti-snobbery: he wants to counter anyone who looks down on these “paperback heroes” (and heroines) and their best-selling authors to show that their books mirror the eras and worlds they wrote in and bring home to the alert viewer their deeper problems and anxieties and needs. He presents himself as uncovering the “rules” each genre follows religiously.

Yes, they are formulaic. It may be said he hams his material up, but the result is fun, and his interviews with working novelists and quotation from those no longer literally living are of real interest. As this is more popular entertainment, I cannot find a serious review — so perhaps he failed at his seeming aim. Not so, when you can watch them over and over.

*********************************************

How to close? Myself I’m a lover of Scots literature (as the reader to this blog and my Austen Reveries must know), went to Edinburgh for the equivalent of a honeymoon, and have visited Scotland now three times, once all the way to Inverness and up to the Hebrides (across the way, still the mainland on a bus). One of my favorite 19th century novelists is Margaret Oliphant. In my studies of historical novels and romance, I often find the authors whose books I so enjoy also wrote in this distinctively different genre (these thrillers are until very recently usually masculinist even when women write them) and try to understand the relationship between these genres in book and movie form.

My most recent reading for sheer pleasure and interest has been Nancy Brysson Morrison’s The Gowk Storm, to learn the truth of a still wrongly maligned destroyed woman, Margaret Macaulay’s The Prisoner of St Kilda (the true story of the indeed unfortunate Lady Grange, shocking even today), Elizabeth Taylor Russell’s Tomorrow (it takes place on an island off Denmark — in the same kind of edge-marginalized culture).

But from years ago and more recently, I am a strong admirer of Liz Lochhead, a brilliant poet, playwright, polemicist too. So (as my title promised), first two poems by Liz Lochhead:

Rapunzstiltskin

& just when our maiden had got
good & used to her isolation
stopped daily expecting to be rescued,
had come to almost love her tower,
along comes This Prince
with absolutely
all the wrong answers.
Of course she had not been brought up to look for
originality or gingerbread
so at first she was quite undaunted
by his tendency to talk in strung-together cliches.
Just hang on and we’ll get you out of there!
he hollered like a fireman in some soap opera
when she confided her plight (the old
hag inside etc. & and how trapped she was);
well, it was corny but
he did look sort of gorgeous
axe and all.
So there she was humming and pulling
all the pins out of her chignon,
throwing him all the usual lifelines
till, soon, he was shimmying in & out
every day as though
he owned the place, bringing her
the sex manuals & skeins of silk
from which she was meant, eventually,
to weave the means of her own escape.
All very well & good, she prompted,
but when exactly?
She gave him till
well past the bell on the timeclock.
She mouthed at him, hinted,
she was keener than a TV quizmaster
that he should get it right.
I’ll do everything in my power, he intoned, but
the impossible (she groaned) might
take a little longer. He grinned.
She pulled her glasses off.
All the better
to see you with my dear? he hazarded.
She screamed, cut off her hair.
Why, you’re beautiful? he guessed tentatively.
No, No, No! she
shrieked & stamped her foot so
hard it sank six cubits through the floorboards.
I love you? he came up with
as she finally tore herself in two.

from Part Three of Lochhead’s The Grimm Sisters collection: ‘Hags and Maidens’

Everybody’s Mother

Of course everybody’s mother always and so on…

Always never
loved you enough
or too smothering much.

Of course you were the Only One, your
mother
a machine
that shat out siblings, listen

everybody’s mother
was the original Frigid-
aire Icequeen clunking out
the hardstuff in nuggets, mirror-
slivers and ice-splinters that’d stick
in your heart.

Absolutely everybody’s mother
was artistic when she was young.

Everybody’s mother
was a perfumed presence with pearls, remote
white shoulders when she
bent over in her ball dress
to kiss you in your crib.

Everybody’s mother slept with the butcher
for sausages to stuff you with.

Everybody’s mother
mythologised herself. You got mixed up
between dragon’s teeth and blackmarket stockings.

Naturally
she failed to give you
Positive Feelings
about your own sorry
sprouting body (it was a bloody shame)

but she did
sit up all night sewing sequins
on your carnival costume

so you would have a good time

and she spat
on the corner of her hanky and scraped
at your mouth with sour lace until you squirmed

so you would look smart

And where
was your father all this time?
Away
at the war, or in his office, or any-
way conspicuous for his
Absence, so

what if your mother did
float around above you
big as a barrage balloon
blocking out the light?

Nobody’s mother can’t not never do nothing right.

And then she is online too — at the Edinburgh Festival:

Ellen

Read Full Post »

To know what you prefer, instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive — Robert Louis Stevenson.

Inverness
Claire Randall (Catrionia Balfe) arriving at Inverness (Outlander 2015, 1st episode, opening)

Rhyme of a Journey from London to Edinburgh (1914)

Farewell to one city
a dawning of light
and hail to another
at fall of the night

On in the North steams
triumphant the train
ceaselessly grinding
a rhythmic refrain

Meadows fly past and
a luminous sheet
of wind-rippled water,
a grimy back street.

Stark rows of houses
break up the pale sky,
a jangle of coal-trucks,
a station passed by.

Cast the old thoughts that
troubled your mind
to drown in that river
left gleaming behind,

new ones come stirring
with live young wings
from rhythmical power
and swift-running things.

There’s a cathedral
in mist: as a dream
it has vanished, and slowly
we slacken and steam
into that station
whose girders of might
curve upwards, transfigured
in columns of light.

No stopping! No staying!
mad demons of speed
have boarded the engine
are hissing their greed.

Sudden lurch forward
and once more away
and see, we are racing
the dying of day!

A bridge we are crossing
with thunderous swerve;
left and right flashes
a river’s gold curve;

Glittering windows
rise tier upon tier
held steeped in the sunset
what city is here?

To twilight, to darkness
and night has begun
The miles of our journey
ae nearly outrun

Waken, wan travellers,
Look! very high
there stands the great castle
along the dark sky …
— Dorothy Seward Walton (When Evening Comes in the City, 1934)

Dear friends and readers,

A couple of nights ago I went to an enjoyable, informative and perceptive (what more could you want?) lecture at the Smithsonian museum on Robert Louis Stevenson’s life and writing by Stephen Arata, the professor editing the complete works of RLS (39 volumes and still going): towards the end telling us of Stevenson in the South Sea Islands and how gradually he began to write deeply sympathetically to the native cultures, in effect from a post-colonial critical standpoint, Prof Arata said Stevenson wrote that the Scots people were peculiarly well-situated to write from a global perspective. That might seem contradictory, given their half an island is mostly rock, not arable for farming, their intellectual “world” city small (half of it very old), but if you think about their relationship to England as a nearby colony, the massacre at Culloden and the enforced diaspora, and how they set forth to become colonialists themselves as well as subaltern people, it makes sense. More to the point: they write this way.

robert-louis-stevenson-1887
John Singer Sergeant (1856-1925), Robert Louis Stevenson (1887)

There is no coming back … on the impetuous stream of life. And we must all set our pocket-watches by the clock of fate. There is a headlong, forthright tide, that bears away man with his fancies like a straw, and runs fast in time and space — Robert Louis Stevenson.

Last summer I was working on a paper on Trollope from a post-colonialist standpoint; that meant reading about and works written in, and films from Australia as context; for Charlotte Smith this summer I am on the same wave length of a perspective, but the focus texts are two of her novels partly in Scotland, Ethelinde; or the Recluse of the Lake (early novel, global in reach) and The Young Philosopher (last long fiction, ends in America), and whose affinities with Scottish women poets and novelists I wrote about this past fall, I’ve turned to Scotland. This a perfect excuse for immersion (wallowing is the more apt term) in the first season of Outlander (I’m one of those cut off from the present second season until it comes out on DVD), whose motifs and characters are uncannily like those of the second volume of Smith’s Young Philosopher (Englishwoman elopes to Highlands with Scottish laird, abducted, threatened with rape, saved in the nick of time &c&c), but that’s late at night.

cover

Daylight hours, I’ve read Margaret Oliphant’s the Ladies Lindores and her Autobiography, Scottish women’s poetry, and Margaret Atwood’s poetical sequence, the Journals of Susannah Moodie, Elizabeth Bohls’s Romantic Literature and Post-colonial studies (no less than two chapters on Scotland), some wonderful essays on Scottish women novelists in Lyndsay Luncan, Carla Sassi (&c&c&)’s Re-visioning Scotland, on Nan Shepherd, Christian Isobel Johnstone (nearly contemporary with Jane Austen, would you believe, on war and nationalism), all of which I heartily recommend. I moved into male Scottish writers’ texts too: I’ve just finished what might be the first English novel set partly in India, Scott’s The Surgeon’s Daughter (one of 3 novellas called Canongate Chronicles), and am now thinking of adding to my love of Stevenson’s essays, short stories, and travel books (Travels on a Donkey, The Amateur Emigrant), some of his South Sea Islands writing. I am most interested in the intersection of feminist insights with a post-colonial perspective on structuring of the characters’ experience otherwise. I’ll write about Stevenson and Atwood in a separate blogs dedicated to them alone.

THE PLANTERS
From Atwood’s Journals of Susannah Moodie (an book which is itself literally a work of art)

Free fall
is falling but at least it’s
free. I don’t even know
whether I jumped or was pushed,
but it hardly matters now
I’m up here. No wings
or net but for an instant
anyway there’s a great
view: the sea,
a line of surf, brown cliffs
tufted with scrub, your upturned
face a white zero.
I wish I knew
whether you’ll catch or watch.
— From Atwood, “Small Poems for the Winter Solstice,” True Stories (1981)

Tonight I thought I’d confine myself to sharing a little bit of Oliphant, Scott, a third poem (from An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets, ed Catherine Kerrigan) and a few remarks from the essays I’ve read, not to omit suggestive stills and words from Outlander.

*************************

Edward_Lear,_Civita_Castellana_(1844)
Edward Lear, Civita Castellan (1844) — in her extraordinarily genuine account of her life as a writer, supporting her own and brother’s children, with her three boys and beloved Margaret (at age 9) dying before her, she tells of her travels to Italy and around Europe, a classical cosmopolitan landscape emerges

I loved Oliphant’s The Ladies Lindores and am anxious to read the sequel, The (later) life of Lady Carr. It’s a mix of a sensible and saturnine meditative insightful text (recalling Trollope repeatedly) within a deeply Scottish world from a quietly feminist standpoint. The story-line is complicated, with (like Scott’s) several divagating turns, a back-story set of characters who emerge to become the central figures, and then cannot forget back stories we never see dramatized. We begin with a great Scottish house, Dalrulzian whom John Erskine, a young Scotsman who has been brought up to be English, has come to live. For years Robert Lindores, a younger son living on a limited income in a cheap French spa, suddenly inherits a title and another grand house in the neighborhood, and proceeds to try to make his two daughters and son’s lives the means for him now to become well-connected, in power. The most memorable story dramatizes how he bullies his sensitive daughter Lady Caroline Lindores into marrying Pat Torrance, a man who ferociously bullies, mocks, and terrifies her. His wife’s values remain humane, decent, and she is appalled by the changes in him, but years of passivity, her real dependence, and not having values to oppose his with, has not the strength of character to oppose him. The third Lindores lady is the wry, sceptical Lady Edith, who escapes his Net, just and marries Erksine. A son, Lord Rintoul, by accident causes Pat Torrance to topple over a cliff, and Rolls, Erskine’s servant ends up confessing, thinking he is protecting his master, Erskine. Lady Car is enabled to marry Beaufort, the man she met at the spa, and has dreamed of ever since, seemingly congenial, sensitive, but like Erskine, Rintoul, he turns out to be less than admirable, and Lady Car’s marriage filled quieter tense dissatisfactions. An English young woman, living in Scotland, Nora, with a wise spinster Aunt Barbara, accepts Rintoul knowing what he has done. There is a disabled character (in effect), Millefleurs, an awkward wealthy cousin the father wanted Edith to marry grotesquely short; the irony of the novel is he is the best husband material of them all. The Scottish servants are the loyal and constant characters, keep the whole order steady, and together with the bourgeois characters (lawyers, doctors) and rescue the upper class ones from calamity.

HoratioMcCullough
Horatio McCullough, 19th century Scottish landscape painter

Margaret Rubrik has written deeply engagingly about Olipant’s sceptical and unromantic attitudes, especially toward marriage, and about the Caroline story in The Ladies Lindores:

“Only wishful thinkers refuse to accept the unpleasant insight that even the beloved is a simple person with warts. Wherever idealists are not willing to cut their dreams down to size and accommodate themselves to all too human flaws, marriages end tragically, as in the case of Lady Car, whose career Oliphant pursues through two novels -— The Ladies Lindores and Lady Car -— and two unhappy marriages.

Unlike the docile things whom time teaches to cherish the “proper” feelings for their husbands, Lady Car continues to view her brutal first husband with unabated repugnance. Her feelings of nausea and sexual violation, as she had to comply with her repulsive husband’s desires at his bidding, are illustrated by her overt jubilation at his death and symbolised in the image of his trespassing into her room.

“To think I shall never be subject to all that any more—that he can never come in here again— that I am free—that I can be alone. Oh mother, how can you tell what it is? Never to be alone: never to have a corner in the world where— some one else has not a right to come, a better right than yourself. I don’t know how I have borne it. I don’t know how I can have lived, disgusted, loathing myself.” (The Ladies Lindores, II,14, 232f.)

In her second marriage to her childhood sweetheart Car does not find the hoped-for happiness either. She secretly blames Beaufort for letting her marry someone else first; for allowing her to be forced to perform sexual acts with a man she hated and for allowing her children to be fathered by a brute. All of these humiliations are so completely beyond a man’s scope of perception that he cannot understand them.

“Why expose me to all the degradations which nobody could impose on you?” (Lady Car, 7,123)

Beaufort cannot grasp the horror she feels at any association with her prior life, and thoughtlessly relishes his deceased rival’s luxury.

However, it is bitterest for Car to share the insight typical of Oliphant’s heroines that Beaufort is not the epitome of the crusader and social reformer she first fell in love with. She, who, like Dorothea Brooke, wanted to act as a muse for her husband’s magnum opus, attempts desperately, but in vain, to reawaken his enthusiasm for the visions he has lost all interest in.

Don Quixote disenchanted, ready to burn all his chevalier books, and see the fun of his misadventures, but urged to take the field by some delicate Dulcinea, could not have been more embarrassed and disturbed. (Lady Car, 4,74)

Car is one of those dreamers who seek perfection and do not content themselves with less than the absolute. In her analysis of the novel, Showalter reproaches Oliphant for identifying with Car’s disappointment at her indolent husband and her dull children, and for wanting to solicit pity for a passive, indeed even parasitic form of life.

Mrs. Oliphant never fully faces the dangers of a social myth that places the whole weight of feminine fulfilment on husband and children … [and] The tone of the book is certainly pathetic at times. However, it would be erroneous to believe that Oliphant sees her heroine uncritically or fails to recognise the fallacy of the domestic myth. On the contrary, she realises the problematic nature of Car’s immature idealism, and in many other novels she draws women who are not dependent on marriage and the family for their self-esteem. Car, on the other hand, must fail in her attempt to achieve the Victorian ideal that expects a woman to find complete fulfilment in marriage and her children.

The question as to how a relationship can work without admiration or even respect for one’s partner is posed time and again in Oliphant’ s novels because of her unconventional view of gender roles.

It must be admitted this is not a novel where a post-colonial perspective is of much help; it is rather deeply rooted Scottish landscape from which its visual poetry comes. In the novel I am especially drawn to her disillusioned axioms about life: such a we all live alone no matter how surrounded by others. Quiet convincing. Her tone so immediate and strong, with a real voice coming through.

Persephonebook
Persephone books cover

***************************

Walter Scott (of course): The Surgeon’s Daughter has a pattern I see repeated over and over: a woman is swallowed up by the traditional culture: she either elects to marry or become a mistress of the non-western male, or she is threatened with or actually raped, traumatized, never the same again. The result is the same: retirement, retreat from the outward world. Who thought Scott would link to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust and Ahdaf Soueif’s Map of Love. But so it is, with Smith’s two texts (Ethelinde, Young Philosopher), a first or early formulation. In the case of the poets, the women poets become sympathetic ethnographers and mythologers. In Scott’s novella, What I enjoyed best are the two ironic prefaces: these stumbling made up older male characters Scott writes as — it’s funny and melancholy about publishing and writing issues. Also a brief retelling in swift effective tones of the story as found in some newspaper or chronicle. Rob Rob has a similarly chilling retelling of a bloody set of murders — these are by Scott himself people forget. I also liked the opening where we meet the Scots country doctor, his son, who also becomes a doctor, the villain-protagonists, and our prosaic heroine. Our moral compass is found here, in the home-y early rural scenes. Maybe one way of accounting for the richness of Scott, how much can be taken from him is that his “filler” counts so enormously too and is so varied.

John_frederick_lewis-reception1873
John Frederick Lewis (1804-76), The Reception (1873) — Scott’s vision is orientalist

The interesting thing about the text is that the threat of being a sex slave hovering over our heroine begins at the outset as in the older editions of the 19th century, the chronicle tale where the kernel story is told in less than 2 pages was put first. I have an old Everyman of rob Rob where a bloody chronicle tale is put first. It is important to remember that Scott wrote these too, supposedly paraphrasing with great concision. Yet we get back to that so circuitously. Another one is Kenilworth: I have an old Everyman where the poem Scott cites as his inspiration is put first. Then suddenly at the end of the novel we have this gorgeous barbaric scene. The inference to be drawn (as is common in Scott’s novels) is how irrational and ruthless are men, how prone to horrific violence, which they constrain by their ceremonies. After all as with Ivanhoe and other of Scott’s novels, the surgeon’s daughter though at the end the crux of the issue (will she become a sex slave of a son of a powerful Indian prince), is a minor character in the book. She is rarely on stage, and when she is we do not get much individual insight into her: she remains archetypal.

I know that those film adaptations of Scott I’ve seen often zero as quickly as they can on just those immediate active evens which lead to one of his denouements, stripping away introductions, prefaces, and especially those (often long) parts of the story which dramatize prosaic “ordinary” scenes which are nonetheless essential to understand what is going on, what to infer and what is the inference. From a post-colonial standpoint Scott shows us how as a group the Europeans are viciously exploitative so that individuals can come away super-rich, but also that the native people in power are just as bad to their people. We have the usual very few virtuous characters, many ambivalent ones and a presentation of what power does. We also how people’s characters can change as they cross borders of different cultural groups.

*******************************

I don’t want to be overlong so end on a few thoughts gleaned from Bohls and Sassia, and a poem by Margaret Gillies Brown, “Emigrant Journey.”

womendancigatstones
Women dancing around the stones (paratexts of Outlander 2015-16)

How can we present and read landscape so that it is not equated with nature and thus women’s bodies? Women dominate the landscape, and women’s medical magic is drawn from botany and particulars of Scottish landscape, but they are punished for this as witches, so their rituals at the stones, their dance may be turned against them. Their individual identities dissolve away as stories of women from the 19th century and before are read by 20th and 21st century female relatives, or just readers; they cross borders and belong nowhere (connected only by connection to a man within a family structure). Thus (like Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust, Soueif’s Map of Love) Atwood’s Alias Grace blends the several women, not from different times, but classes and places: Susannah Moodie who wrote of Grace accused of murder: aliases.

Emigrant Journey

There was the comfort and the all mod-con of home
With its recognisable dangers;
There was the journey,
1he endless coming on of the same wave,
The no-land time of ocean and high hopes
Until the icebergs rose
Like crystal palaces …

There was the moving days
And weary nights of train-hours overland,
The trees, the lakes, the straight and rolling plains
Until time stopped in sheer fantasy
Of a pre-dawn winter morning –
Gloved hand swinging the iron-hard handle

Of a frozen water pump
At the edge of a bark-rough cabin;
Above, the sky, moving strange magnificence,
Voile curtains of colour
Changing, shifting imperceptibly;
Below, the star sparkled snow –
A virgin’s looking glass
Where spruce trees shot the only shadows
That made no movement –
Silence, immensity of silence,
Oil fires were burning brands
Reaching for chiffon robes
Of an aurora of dancers
Repeating dream sequences …
I tried to wake from unreality,
Felt my spine freeze,
heard coyotes howling down the night.

—Margaret Gillies-Brown (poetry published 1970s-80s)

CrossingtheHighlands
Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Clare (Caitronia Balfe) crossing the highlands to Lallybroch (Outlander)

Ellen

Read Full Post »