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John Millais, “Christmas Story-Telling,” “Christmas Supplement,” London News, 20 December 1862

In his Autobiography Trollope put himself firmly on record as resisting not just the commercialization of Christmas, but the way a cultural conformity of imposition leads people to pretend to Christmas feeling, resulting in meretricious art: he uses memorably negative images and metaphors to capture his “distaste” over the hypocrisy and artifice of being paid to produce a story filled with “cheer” and other manufactured “good feelings” because the “market” called for it. Since he makes a point over and over that he was never ashamed of writing for money, I assume he didn’t like being hired to pretend to feel what he did not feel, and especially with regard to Christmas where he thought some genuine worthy feelings were being corrupted (hollowed out, destroyed by exploitation):

“While I was writing The Way We Live Now, I was called upon by the proprietors of the Graphic for a Christmas story. I feel, with regard to literature, somewhat as I suppose an uphosterer and undertaker feels when he is called upon to supply a funeral. He has to supply it, however distasteful it may be. It is his business, and he will starve if he neglect it. So have I felt that, when anything in the shape of a novel was required, I was bound to produce it. Nothing can be more distasteful to me than to have to give a relish of Christmas to what I write. I feel the humbug implied by the nature of the order. A Christmas story, in the proper sense, should be the ebullition of some mind anxious to instill others with a desire for Christmas religious thought or Christmas festivities, — , better yet, with Christmas charity. Such was the case with Dickens when he wrote his two first Christmas stories. But since that the things written annually — all of which have been fixed to Christmas like children’s toys to a Christmas tree, have no real savour of Christmas about them. I had done two or three before. Alas! at this very moment I have one to write [said by Julian Thompson to have been Christmas at Thompson Hall], which I have promised to supply within three weeks of this time,– the picture-makers always required a long interval, — as to which I have in vain been cudgelling my brain for the last month. I can’t send away the order to another shop, but I do not know how I shall ever get the coffin made.”

Since he felt thus strongly, I have thus far not written any blog on his Christmas stories, individually or as a group. But time wears the spirit down, we compromise and the reality is quite a number of the stories are superb. One can even find (as with Dickens, or Oliphant or other Victorian authors who wrote a number of Christmas stories) a recurring set of themes, and motifs whether the story takes place in the fierce (fiery) heat of Australia (Harry Heathcote), centers on Christmas or just takes place at that time of year regularly or at a climax (“Catherine Carmichael,” “Two Generals”, “The Telegraph Girl”). He was deeply sceptical (not a mystic element in this man’s mind) and you will not find any ghosts or miracles, no revenants seeking revenge or to awaken the better nature of the person visited,no places haunted by some invisible past. He tends strongly not to focus on Christmas itself (the holiday or even its customs, with Mistlebough an exception) but let the time of year or the setting, the expectations built up around the holiday provide the emotional temperature. Then you find stories exploring the nature of charity, forgiveness, reconciliation, compromise, how the holiday functions as a memory device (it marks time), and brings out what is most characteristic in the nature of dominant characters. He wants his story to be a genuinely felt experience too.

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John Everett Millais, “Christmas at Noningsby” (Orley Farm)

Trollope wrote ten of them in longer and shorter stories, and four comparative chapters inside a remarkable novel, Orley Farm: I picked these out as stories taking place around Christmas time, where Christmas an experience or time-maker figures in the story), and in Orley Farm anthropologically considered. I’ve written (together with others conversational style) analyses, commentaries, summaries of these (linked in).

4 chapters in Orley Farm (Christmas in Harley Street, at Noningsby. at Groby Park, in Great St Helens (Chapters 21-24) (written 1860)
The Widow’s Mite (written 1862)
“The Mistletoe Bough” (written 1861)
“The Widow’s Mite” (written 1862),
Two Generals (written 1863)
Harry Heathcote of Gangoil (written 1863)
“Christmas Day at Kirby Cottage” (written 1870)
“Christmas at Thompson Hall” (written 1876)
“The Telegraph Girl” (written 1877),
“Catherine Carmichael; or Three Years Running” (written 1878)
“Not If I Know It” (1882)

My favorite once was “Christmas at Thompson Hall,” because I saw it as a story of comic anguish, not about the reunion home but the experience of intense pressure when obstacles get in the way of getting there, especially if you have lost status in some ways vis-a-vis against the other members of your family over the years. Mary Brown’s husband has lived a supine drone-like existence, they have no children, and they have rarely returned until now when she feels she must because her sister is marrying. We see how her husband has used a supposed weakness of constitution to control her and in this case almost thwarts her getting there in time. She takes this punishment of her out on the staff and also him, but is herself humiliated. Alas, it’s not the husband who ends up over-medicated – which would provide some poetic justice. (But then life doesn’t). In a way were her dithering trips around a vast freezing cold palace of a French hotel not done empathetically, many would not be amused. The story is edgy.

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But recently I found myself much preferring, enjoying once again, “The Widow’s Mite” for the full sociological and economic context, the character types, and especially Trollope’s revision of the familiar parable. The deeper lesson I glean is that it does not matter if the giver has to give up something, the way to measure how much good you do is how much you gave to the person in need and how much it helped them practically, not you morally (because that is too hard and ambiguous). I concede I may be reading against the grain here.


Newchurch in Pendle, Winter — Lancashire — K. Melling

A summary, in Judy Geater’s words,

“shamelessly pinched from John Sutherland’s introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics Early Short Stories. Sutherland explains that the publisher of evangelical magazine “Good Words”, Alexander Strahan, wrote to Trollope asking for a short Christmas/ New Year tale for the January 1863 edition of the magazine, passing on a suggestion from Scottish minister Norman Macleod that the title should be “Out of Work” and that it should deal with the unemployment in northern textile mills caused by the cotton famine as a result of the American Civil War. Trollope agreed but politely objected to the title. ” ‘Out of Work’ would be a very nice name for a story – But it would be needfull with such a name that the chief character should be an operative. I do not think I could manage this. But the line of the story shall be of the same nature – if possible.”

Sutherland writes: “‘The Widow’s Mite,’… was one of Trollope’s strongest efforts to date. He had visited the United States for six months over 1861-2 and his mind was full of the country and its turbulent condition. The story is narrated in Trollope’s increasingly relaxed comic mode, but the mood is hotly topical – angry, almost… the story, while maintaining its easy tone of social comedy, probes the sorest of middle-class sore points – is it ‘charity’ if you don’t feel the donation as loss? ‘How many of us,’ Trollope asks, ‘when we give, give from our own backs, and from out of our own mouths?’ Walk through the streets of London or New York and it is still a topical question.”

We learn about the Lancashire cotton famine, the cost to the workers of supporting the anti-slavery states. Jenny Uglow in her biography of Elizabeth Gaskell writes:

The mills had no American cotton, but the masters were reluctant to change their machinery to suit Indian supplies if there was hope of the Civil War ending. Elizabeth set up ‘Sewing-schools’ to provide part-time work and corresponded eagerly with Florence Nightingale, hoping that some of the laid-off mill-women might train as nurses… ‘The poor old women’ were her special concern: ‘at present they have only the workhouse allowance; barely enough for the cheapest, poorest food – only just enough to keep life in. They have worked hard all their working years – poor old friendless women, and now crave and sicken after a “taste of bacon” or something different to the perpetual oat-meal.’By late summer the Plymouth Grove household had to check themselves from talking about the distress, ‘which was literally haunting us in our sleep, as well as being the first thoughts on waking and the last at night’. Gaskell’s words, in a letter, but this is very much the feeling you get in Trollope’s story, too, where the family are increasingly feeling guilty about every little luxury while others have nothing.


Pissaro, Chestnut Trees at Louveciennes, Winter (1870)

Judy Geater wrote of the story:

“The story is written with a wonderfully light touch, but still gets its powerful message across, probably as effectively as any preacher. At the start, most readers will be likely to laugh at the argument between Charley and Bob, where Bob tries to prove that if everybody gave up their Christmas dinner the savings would be “two millions and a half” – and Charley brings him down to earth by pointing out that the grocer and butcher would be ruined. However, if as readers we continue to scoff at Nora as she decides to make her own personal sacrifice by doing without wedding finery, I think the laughter soon dies on our lips as we realise that there is indeed a real point in her giving up her two mites.

My idea (Ellen here) is it is the feeling that people ought to have a decent dinner on such a day, some warmth, something to feel hopeful about that gives rise to the action of the story. What shall this middle class family do, if anything, to help the Lancashire cottonworkers of the area? Is it in good taste for the family to have an expensive wedding and the bride a luxurious dress when all around them others starve. Trollope seems to think this talk is phony, the characters don’t really mean it — or he has one of his characters (the American alas) assert that.

As the story opens we are told the American civil war has led to the Lancashire cotton workers losing their jobs and as it has gone on for some time they are now beginning literally to go without food, without warmth, without clothes, and some are nearly starving. They have been laid off as there is no cotton to work upon, but as Trollope develops the story there seems to be little resentment against the war against by the people it’s hurting. (It has been suggested they identified with the slaves.) The heroine, Nora, wants to help her uncle, the Reverend Mr Granger, gather money to feed the workers, but she feels she wants to feel she’s done something. It’s not enough to give out of her superfluity; she wants to give up something she will miss. It may seem odd that she finds this difficult to do — but she is middle class, gentry, genteel — and by the end of the story, has not pulled it off, quite. She is about to be married and the question arises, how much money should they spend in this situation. Will they look bad? to themselves, it seems.


An illustration for a 19th century wedding dress

This ‘problem’ is one that seems to speak to some middle class people as important. To those who starve or are homeless, such a question is egocentric: the concern suggests that the middle class is more interested in its own feelings than in giving to those who are in need. Still this is the way the story is often read; when I assigned it to my classes, one girl gave a long talk about how when she was young, someone forced her to give up an expensive doll she liked to a cousin. She was told that wasn’t charity at all as she didn’t even need it. I’m afraid this little girl wasn’t impressed.

The story is done in Trollope’s usual multi-perspective narrative: we look at the characters as products of their class and type and nationality. Their attitudes reflect their situation in life and what cultural group they grew up in. Nora’s cousin, Bob, suggests all the people in England, Scotland, and Ireland should simply not eat a Christmas dinner, take all the money saved, and hand that out. He is only momentarily non-plussed when he is told the problem is the Irish don’t have a Christmas meal to give away: “They never have any in Ireland, Bob.”

Charley, Nora’s other cousin, takes her to task for not spending money on finery, for in her efforts to help the cottonworkers she will leave those who make clothes without work: “Charley condemned [Nora] altogether, pointing out that it was bad policy to feed the cotton spinners at the expense of the milliners.” He is the one who feels the others are pretending to themselves they feel this regret.

The characters argue explicitly over how the wealthy in their community should go about giving to the poor: should they give charity or does this ruin the independent spirit of the workers? In the situation at hand this is an absurdity. It is said by the Newt Gingrich of the piece, Frederick Frew, Nora’s bethrothed and an American, who we are told “trusts to syllogisms which are often false, instead of to the experience of his life and daily workings of his mind.” Trollope tells us explicitly and through the use of heavy irony that our American Fred is wrong when he scorns charity givers as degrading the poor, that his analogy of “how dogs let other dogs starve and therefore we but follow nature if we do likewise to other people” is wrong, and that his idea “the widow would have done better to have invested her small capital in some useful trade,” is a hilarious bit of anachronistic and here obtuse American capitalism. Trollope was not a Tory in his own time; he ran on the Liberal ticket. Alas, this kind of thinking is running rampant in the US again today — at least among the powerful in Fox and other corporate news media.

Back to the story. How does Nora solve her problem? (Note it’s her problem; the angle is taken focuses on Nora and not the starving people.) Well, what she tries to do is to give the money she was going to use to make herself expensive finery to wear on her wedding day to her uncle for the use of the cotton-mill workers. She is about to be married and decides she will have a plain wedding, and she refuses to allow her American (and Unionist) husband-to-be to pay for the finery which he could do. I would liken Nora to the person with one pair of very fancy boots walking in the snow who sees someone with nothing on his feet. She gives up her boots up so she can feel the snow, although she has a small pair of ordinary shoes in her bag and is close to home where there’s another pair of boots waiting for her.

What Nora discovers is she doesn’t miss her very fancy boots at all, and — and this is what is interesting about the story — she doesn’t get the uplift she had longed for. She thought it would make her feel good to walk through the snow shoeless ( to keep up my metaphor) or with inadequate shoes, but it somehow doesn’t. This is the subtlest level of the story. Trollope suggests such a feeling is fleeting at best because luxurious goods are not what make us happy.

There’s an anti-materialism at the heart of this story and perhaps this is what makes it an idealistic or Christmas story — and it’s why I like it. This anti-materialism is figured forth for us in the closing scene of the wedding — Nora does have a very plain one. Nora finds that she didn’t need the finery. More: its absence is not only unimportant but actually adds to the beauty of the moment. The narrator underlines this moral lest we not pick it up:

“For myself [Trollope speaking as narrator within the story] I think they all looked more comfortable on that cold winter morning without the finery which would have been customary than they could have done without it. It had seemed to them all beforehand that a marriage without veils and wreaths, without white gloves nd new gay dresses, would be but a triste affair; but the idea passed away altogether when the occasion came. [The immediate family heads for church with the bridegroom with them, but said bridegroom], Frederick F Frew had met with a rebuff in the hall of the Parsonage, in being forbidden to take his own bride under his own arm; but when the time for action came, he bore no malice, but went through the work manfully. On the whole, it was a pleasant wedding, homely, affectionate, full of much loving greeeting… this, at any rate, was certain, that the wedding clothes were not missed. When they all went down to their breakfast in the Parsonage dining-room, that little matter had come to be clean forgotten.”

We might read the story as against turning something privately meaningful into an occasional for conspicuous consumption. (Gentle reader, can you tell how I dislike large expensive weddings? — I know of relationships which broke up over the wedding; others where years later the people are still paying for it as well as a divorce.)

In this moment Nora does feel the uplift she longed for. Her uplift is in her actual preference for the simple and for plain emotion, not in having deprived herself of some luxury. Nonetheless, we are left with some decent thought about the parable which Trollope also consciously emphasizes. Through the parable, he asks, Why was it necessary for Nora to “feel” deprived in order to feel her charity was charity? It seems to me that Trollope’s text shows us this parable projects a very selfish kind of charity, one which is egoistic: Nora’s feelings about her charity giving were were more important than the results of the charitable act: feeding hungry people, providing them with warmth and clothes.


A woman fallen on hard times bringing her baby home in a snow-filled landscape

Ellen

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Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) singing, after Christmas dinner (2015 Poldark, episode 4)

Someone — a Latin poet — had defined eternity as no more than this: to hold and possess the whole fullness of life in one moment, here and now, past and present and to come — last chapter of Ross Poldark)

Friends and readers

I’ve been rereading the Poldark novels again, and have confirmed an old memory that while Christmas is in itself not valued for any kind of specific religious belief, a number of the novels end around Christmas time with the characters gathering together to enact a yearly ritual, and memories, and talk more deeply felt at moments than other times of year. Some of these endings are melancholy sweet, strained, or near breaking point: Ross Poldark, Demelza and Warleggan (1st, 2nd & 4th Poldark books) respectively. At the close of Demelza:

“They watched the scene on the beach.
‘I shan’t have to finish that frock for Julia now,’ she said. ‘It was that dainty too.’
‘Come,’ he said, ‘you will be catching cold.’
‘No. I am quite warm, Ross. Let me stay a little longer in the sun.

Some are bitter, and then the emphasis is on winter itself, December into January, dark, cold, bleak or wild: The Angry Tide (the 7th) when Elizabeth has just died.

All we know is this moment, and this moment, Ross, we are alive! We are. We are. The past is over, gone. What is to come doesn’t exist yet. That’s tomorrow! It’s only now that can ever be, at any one moment. And at this moment, now, we are alive — and together. We can’t ask more. There isn’t any more to ask … Demelza to Ross (last page of The Angry Tide).

Some are quiet-reflective, The Miller’s Dance and The Loving Cup (the 9th and 10th books). In The Twisted Sword (the 11th), the deep tragedy of Jeremy’s death continues to the end, only lifted somewhat by the birth of Lady Harriet Warleggan and then Cuby Poldark’s baby, while Demelza keeps the festival.

Deliver us from swords & curs — The Twisted Sword

Lastly, Bella (the 12th) just after Valentine’s death and Ross’s nightmare, the characters all return to Cornwall for Christmas. We pass a bleak Christmas in the second half of the novel Jeremy Poldark, but it is not emphatic, just part of the year made much harder because of desperate conditions during this festival time, and we observe Christmas more emphatically in The Black Moon during the birth of Clowance when the news comes to Nampara that Dwight Enys is still alive.

I’ve only followed the devices and desires of my own heart … Demelza, again the close)

So only four novels do not end in December/January or Christmas: Jeremy Poldark (a christening), The Black Moon (very bitter at the close), The Four Swans (very uncertain, all the women having been forced into bad choices), and The Stranger from the Sea (an uneasy unsettling).


A painting of Cornwall, the shore for fishing, early 20th century impressionism (photographed from a visit to a Cornish museum, summer 2016)

As important, all the novels are carefully keyed to seasonal time-lines, from autumn to winter, winter to spring and summer again; attention is paid to the relationship of what’s happening to daily customs, agricultural and other rhythms, the weather, and Christmas is part of this, and made more of when it coincides with some crisis. I conclude the natural world as central to human existence (and Graham’s love of Cornwall), and holiday rituals meant a good deal to Graham for their creation of a sense of community and humane comradeship, for their enacting memory and for hope of renewal.

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Even among my nearest and dearest there is no transference — can be no transference — of experience. One can feel empathy for someone suffering, but one cannot feel the suffering. We are all alone —- desperately alone. What are we in this world? A conjunction of subjective impressions making up something that is accepted as reality — Graham, Memoirs of a Private Man

One reason these patterns may not have been noticed is they are not observed in the either the older or newer serial drama. When Christmas does emphasize something special in the story at the moment (new marriage, desperate poverty, worry over the life of an imprisoned friend), then it’s there. But not the seasons and no sense of a sequence of customs to which Christmas belongs for themselves. The interest in Cornwall in both series as to Christmas seems decorative; in the older series, there is a reveling in the place; in the recent they attend to the workaday world.

We don’t have adaptations past The Stranger from the Sea for either series, but looking at the older 1975-76, 1977-78, the only transitional moments from one novel to the next where this kind of coda is observed is in a mid-book, the bare bleak half-starving Christmas from Jeremy Poldark, complete with a family dinner, caroling, Demelza wanting to ask the Brodugans for money).


Bare strained family dinner (1975-76 Poldark, Part 11, Episode 3)


At Nampara, Demelza (Angharad Rees), pouring port, asks Ross (Robin Ellis) why cannot they ask other friends for money (1975-76, Poldark Part 11, Episode 4)

One could cite the mood and bleak outdoors in the final episode of the second (and as it turned out) last season (1978), The Angry Tide, which ended, with Demelza and Ross looking at their children holding hands, and George grieving at the window from which the camera takes us to gaze at wild waves and rocks. Except it is not Christmas nor December as it explicitly is in the novel. A good deal of the original series was filmed on sets, and the focus was strongly on particular personalities in a story. So even just two scenes from the older Poldark show the intense attention paid to interweaving a Christmas piece with the realities of the characters’ dispositions, circumstances at each moment.


Christmas dinner at Trenwith (2015 Poldark, episode 4)

The recent 2015-16, and now 2017: in the first season (2015), the fourth episode near the end corresponds closely to the end of Ross Poldark, Ross and Demelza now Poldark go to Trenwith for a visit and (as it turns out temporary) reconciliation, and details from the book are dramatized, such as Demelza’s singing (above), though not Elizabeth on the harp.

Then again in the second season (2016), scenes corresponding to the observation of Christmas during a hard time in Jeremy Poldark, and the third season (2017), scenes corresponding to The Black Moon and placed just before the rescuing of Dwight Enys where there is a quiet Nampara Christmas and Caroline and Demelza and Verity seek funds at a party.

For all the rest while we might have a funeral at a close of an episode (we do twice, Jim Carter and then Julia), nothing is made of the year’s seasonal patterns nor Christmas. The perpetual coming out on the cliffs is not keyed to any season, any activity but the openings of the episodes at the mines. Scenes are not complexly nuanced in quite the way they were in the older series.

What this suggests is how different are the rhythms and internal structures of the episodes of both Poldark film series from that of the novels: the exception in the series is Jeremy Poldark and The Black Moon in the first iteration (1975, 1977), and Jeremy Poldark and The Black Moon in the second (2016, 2017). But also how important season, time, holiday ritual was to Graham and has not been to the any of the film-adapters of his work thus far.

A curtain of mist hung over the Black Cliffs at the further end of Hendrawna Beach, most of it caused by spray hitting the tall rocks and drifting before the breeze. There was a heavy swell which reached far out to sea, and a couple of fishing boats from St Ann’s had gone scudding back to the safety of the very unsafe har­bour. Gulls were riding the swell, lifting high and low as the waves came in; occasionally they took to the air in a flurry of flapping white when a wave unexpectedly spilled its head. No one yet expected rain: that would be tomorrow. The sun was losing its brilliance and hung in the sky like a guinea behind a muslin cloth.
Clowance squinted up at the weather. ‘Have you got a watch?’ ‘No. Not one that goes.’ — Bella

It might be objected, Does any movie? some do, and some film adaptations. One set that comes to mind are the film adaptations of Jane Austen’s Emma, especially the 1996 ITV by Andrew Davies (with Kate Beckinsale as Emma, Mark Strong as Mr Knightley, Samantha Morton, Harriet) and the 209 BBC Emma by Sandy Welch (with Romola Garai as Emma, Johnny Lee Miller as Mr Knightley, Tamsin Grieg as Miss Bates), keep to seasons and emphasize Christmas or the winter holiday, snow. Have a look here.

So they all went to look, at least as far as the stile leading down to the beach)· further it was unsafe to go. Where the beach would have been at any time except the highest of tides) was a battlefield of giant waves. The sea was washing away the lower sandhills and the roots of marram grass. As they stood there a wave came rushing up over the rough stony ground and. licked at the foot of the stile) leaving a trail of froth to overflow and smear their boots. Surf in the ordinary sense progresses from deep water to shallow) losing height as it comes. Today waves were hitting the rocks below Wheal Leisure with such weight that they generated a new surf running at right angles to the flow of the sea) with geysers of water spouting high from the collisions. A new and irrational surf broke against the gentler rocks below the Long Field. Mountains of spume collected wherever the sea drew breath) and then blew like bursting shells across the land. The sea was so high there was no horizon and the clouds so low that they sagged into the sea (from The Angry Tide, quoted by Graham at the opening of Poldark’s Cornwall, 1983 version).

A lot of people may feel they know the novels because they’ve seen these film adaptations. Others may read the books after the adaptations and have their understanding framed by the films. What they remember is what the film emphasized. There is a long respectable history of publication for the first four books from 1945 to 1953; and the second trilogy (the novels of the 1970s, Black Moon, Four Swans, Angry Tide) have been in but watched partly as a result of the films and seen through the films. The last five are much less well-known. Many classics are in effect in this position: far far more people saw the film Wuthering Heights in 1939 than had read Emily Bronte’s book in the previous 150 years of publication and availability.  That’s probably the case with Graham’s books.

Ellen

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John Prebble, Culloden

Friends,

I sometimes think that nothing I write anymore comes from an singular me, but it’s all somehow coming out of shared experiences, sometimes with one or two people, sometimes a larger group, maybe as much as 20, itself a group part of a larger group, sometimes here in cyberspace and sometimes in real physical space. That’s probably a pardonable exaggeration as even now or still the initial experience of the text or movie by me whether chosen as a result of relationship, or project, or lingering effects of an experience is the motivation or inspiration to carry on sincerely. And I don’t carry on without real engagement.

So a friend told a group of us on Trollope19thCStudies@yahoogroups.com, aka Trollope and his Contemporaries at Yahoo of a book of brief essays she read, Light into Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration and the Artistic Process, ed. Joe Fassler, one of which by Mary Gaitskill is a meditation on the two selves of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (“I don’t know you any more”). Reading this made me realize that yes Tolstoy (and after him also) Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright (in their 2012 move) help make sense of Anna’s experience by attending to her idea she is now following a deeper truer self than the one who married Karenin and obeyed her society conventions. I bought the book (easy thing to do since the Internet), and discovered that what Fassler asked his contributors to do initially was write about a text that inspired him or her to write about something passionately, or to work on some project of writing for years.


St. Peter’s in Rome from a bridge across the Tiber River, copyright Vittorio F. DiMeglio

Well that was easy for me to answer. When I read a group of French translations by a mid-20th century scholar, Suzanne Therault of Vittoria Colonna’s mostly sonnets to her husband (mostly after his death, some 600 poems), I was so moved and agitated I couldn’t sit in my seat and had to get up and walk about to calm down; I determined to teach myself to read Italian so I could study and translate these sonnets. I spent at least 15 years of my life on this, and while a few have been published individually, and they have been used by graduate students doing theses on Colonna and read aloud at festivals, the way to read them is on my website. This led to my discovery of her contemporary Veronica Gambara, who I related personally to much better, whose letters I enjoyed, and whose 90 odd poems (she wrote far more than is usually attributed to her) I also translated and then wrote a short life of Gambara, Under the Sign of Dido, and a first chapter of a biography of Colonna, The Dark Voyage.

But my friend took the assignment (so to speak) differently, as asking the writers what passage or work meant a great deal to them as readers and people (and so writers, though more indirectly), or what kinds of texts he or she was deeply drawn to. As I read on into Light the Dark, I found many of the writers there took the task this way. for myself I agree with her that passages of compelling deeply-felt talk between two characters thoroughly realized pull me in, domestic interiors, indeed long chapters on ways of home life between daily intimately connected characters, I cannot do without realism, without being led to believe in what I am reading as occurring really in front of me or what I immersed in order to care; long reverie-like description that’s philosophical and aesthetic and personal, and to come down to more concrete, literary biographies, books by women which fall into the type called l’ecriture-femme, ghost stories (about loss and grief and attempts at restoration, presences in our lives).

All this to say I know that last year’s list of books and movies (read for the first time and re-read) conformed to this set of criteria and so did many of this (watched for the first time, or re-watched and re-watched). It was strongly biography, women’s memoirs and fictions, travel books. I didn’t do what my friend, Diane Reynolds, did this year and divide by genre or her experience of them (best letter and essay collections; best fiction and biography; and best rereads), but only set out a list. My excuse for mostly doing this again is it’s hard enough to remember what was most meaningful inside the year; but I will talk more of a few because this year I found my most meaningful books, which of course I must want to recommend, are histories, books often by men, literary criticism (and then after that) my usual diet of brilliant literary biography, memoirs, letters, novels by women. My movies also differed and I expect that was the result of joining Netflix streaming, Amazon prime streaming and taking a course in “classic films” (it turned out all by men, and about men centrally all the time). They are books that led to other books, and books that are ultimately political, post-colonial, anti-war. Some I am still moving through.

These are in the order I think of them

Chiefly, to my astonishment:

History and Science

John Prebble, Culloden; The Highland Clearances.
Alongside these John Lister-Kaye’s spiritual nature writing, Song of the Rolling Earth: A Highland Odyssey
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: this one alone as it’s such crucial reading for today I’ll send along a summary:

Zinn is simply telling all the history left out of most history books, and what’s vital about it is it explains and is analogous to what happens today. As I read the chapter on how slavery was instituted and how a whole people were subdued (worked to death, exploited to the nth degree, cowed utterly) I felt I was reading a series of events parallel to those we see today. What’s striking is that Arpaio’s behavior is not some subtler version of what was done to keep slavery central to the system, but is closely that of what was done in a daily way to black people.

It’s far more explanatory of daily experience than the ideals we are taught motivated any of the founders. In “persons of a mean and vile condition” we see the wealthy of the era take over vast amounts of land and wealth; their fear of middling whites combining with poor whites, blacks, Indians not through his thesis, but through the actual deeds, acts, and rhetoric — which uncannily echoes that of today’s renewed attempt to make a small group of whites superwealthy with what might be called fringe people supporting them. I was struck by the way power was quickly monopolized; Zinn quotes a lot of people and describes many acts and wars and rebellion; he has a lot of statistics. Poor houses are forms of prison; mechanisms of control the way outright prisons are today. The stories of how middling whites rose to be prosperous turn out to be rare. Colonial society was not democratic at all, not egalitarian and in the next chapter when he goes on to discuss the formation of this new gov’t under a constitution the oligarchy that was set up makes sense.

I don’t know if I’m depressed so much as appalled — it seems there was a period in the 20th century where real progress was made for the 80% and now this is fiercely being destroyed. The election of Obama terrified these white rulers — they must stop the country going further into progressivism and becoming multiracial, cultural and tolerant. Probably, Tyler, I never believed the US gov’t had any different aims from any other. Especially as a woman I have thought (hoped) that we were “modern” contemporary with socially enlightened ideas because of our meritocracy but I see that if a huge number of people are on the side of genuine progress for all, liberty for women, it’s a weak reed and they can be turned readily to losing out as each family is so individual and each person thinks in utterly immediate terms when it comes to living their lives. I didn’t think we could go backwards inside the US and we are and have for a few decades now — oddly the Trump triumph makes this all so much more public.

Tyranny is tyranny

I carry on however slowly. This chapter gives the full — or real — background of the US revolution. Zinn tells us what I’ve read only in a few places, though he has a group of books to cite: that the actual numbers of people who fought against the British in the US army were small, that it was a time of rebellion, not against the British per se, but by the average person (often indentured servant) and lower people and artisans against unfair conditions of all sorts. Zinn describes and names the people who led the revolution: all upper middle, all seeking to free themselves of control from the British and to (successfully) set up power structures for themselves. Land hungry farmers, in Philadelphia a full-scale attack by artisans, tradesmen and laborers found themselves stymied by laws set up and rebelled, mechanics demanding real democracy, people angry at the destruction of individual lives from impressment, in North Caroline (once again, showing southerners not naturally reactionary), white farmers organized against wealthy and corrupt officials. The conflict was bitter with insurrections, “small” massacres; people organized to prevent the collection of taxes. The point of these founding fathers was to try to organize all this against a perceived enemy: blacks weren’t it then, but the British, and to invent a rhetoric appropriate for the discourse of the time. Indians were a perpetual easy target as they were fighting back themselves. Not as bad as our own time, tax rolls in one study show that 5% of Boston’s taxpayers owned 49% of the wealth. Paine’s pamphlet appealed to the a cross section of people; he himself came from the lower orders but as time went on he was not for action from these lower orders and himself became patronized by wealthy colonists — for a time. Locke one of the bases of the constitution spoke for property.

how it explains how it is and has been so easily possible for a small group of wealthy people to take the reins of US gov’t and military might and direct it to profit themselves ruthlessly and punish and oppress 90% of others so that they submit to small wages, debt no educational opportunity. I had thought, assumed, he would not be a feminist but no chapter 6 is one of the best feminist accounts of how women are still coopted today. His description of how women are manipulated into accepting the position of cherished object to be used as he wills is closely reminiscent to the idealized relationship of Claire and Jamie in Outlander. Uncannily like.

When I’ve finished the chapters on the 19th century (many), I’ll report back again.

Nicholas Dodman (Dr) Attitudes, Emotions, and the Psychology of Cats (the pathos and cruelty of how human beings misunderstand and abuse cats when they have them as pets!).
Saunaura Taylor, Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation


Taylor’s Beasts of Burden (part of animal liberation course)

All five have altered my thinking and behavior and even eating habits.

More in my usual line:

Biography and Art

Claire Harman, Charlotte Bronte (magnificent)
Nick Holland, In Search of Anne Bronte (touching and persuasive)
Francis Spalding, Roger Fry, Art and Life (uplifting)
Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, A Biography (deep psychological portrait supporting philosophical aesthetics)
Whitney Chadwick, Women artists and the 20th century Surreal Movement (importantly dismaying)
Josephine Ross, The Winter Queen (on Elizabeth Stuart of Bohemia)
Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald and Essays on Biography


Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights — you do not read it for the cover

Literary criticism and book history:

Martha Bowden, The Descendants of Waverley
Norma Clarke, Ambitious Heights: Writing, Friendship and Love: The Jewsbury Sisters, Felicia Hemans and Jane Welsh Carlyle
Richard Todd, Consuming Fictions: The Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today

Bowden altered my thinking on historical fiction and romance. Clarke made me understand and read more empathetically women writers of the 19th century; Todd taught me about the fiction industry in the last part of the 20th century. I realize why women artists went into a deep counter-productive era and produced so little of worth in the years from the 1930s from Chadwick


Susan Sontag (Photograph 199 Lynn Gilbert) — I took it as an occasion to read other of her essays

Novels and poetry for the first time:

Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover
Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Patricia Fargnoli, Hallowed
Caryl Philips, Cambridge
Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kittredge
Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop
Daphne DuMaurier, The King’s General
Diana Gabaldon, Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber


Caitriona Balfe, opening over-voice for series (“people disappear all the time”) in the autumnal Inverness, gazing into a glass

I cannot speak too highly of Tolstoy, Fargnoli and Sontag. The Volcano Lover is the outstanding novel I read this year. I admired Cambridge for its deep insights into racism, slavery, empire. Diane’s citation of “spectral texts” help explain (not wholly) how irresistible I’m finding these Outlander texts thus far, despite their pernicious valuing of violence, essential frivolity (superficial on war): it’s the bringing back of the ghostly deeply loved presence, the past come to life, and 1950s style feminocentric dream over-voice over and over that rivets me.

Rereading non-fiction and fiction:

Richard Holmes, Dr Johnson and Mr Savage
Paul Scott, Staying On
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

I seemed to be reading them for the first time. Holmes has yet to fail me.

As to movies, five of the Anna Karenina films (of which more and Tolstoy anon), The Handmaid’s Tale (very hard to watch and alas truer than people will admit) and (as a result of Culloden, going to Scottish highlands) the spectacularly well-made Outlander (into its third season); The Crown (I admit it), several films I saw as a result of my summer film club; Kedi (documentary on the cats of Istanbul); and now a few extraordinary films from a course in the history and aesthetics of film, so see I had better post separately on movies.


The second season started today and I look forward to what Emily Nussbaum has to say: Claire Foy has become another favorite actress for me

Ellen

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secondshepherds
Mak (Ryan Sellers) and Gill (Tonya Beckman)

Mak (to his wife and the 3 visiting shepherds looking for their lost sheep: Ye have run in the mire, and are wet yet;
I shall make you a fire, if ye will sit.
A nurse would I hire [to groaning wife]. Think ye on yet?
Well quit is my hire — my dream, this is it —
A season.
I have bairns, if ye knew,
Well more than enew;
But we must drink as we brew,
And that is but reason …

Gentle readers,

You still have three days or evenings to get there. Are you down in the dumps and obeying the social conventions to appear all gaiety and cheer? If you can’t catch the theater (live too far away?), not to despair, from photos I gather this production has been done elsewhere so it can move again. Of course I can’t guarantee this inventive staging and lovely music of The Second Shepherd’s Play, as directed by Mary Hall Surface and Robert Eisenstein (music director) now playing at the Folger in DC will do it. Indeed, the reviewer for the DC Theater scene seemed strangely half-apologetic (“though this will not appeal to all tastes” — what, pray tell, does?), so clearly the “magic” he so praised is rare, and the high spirited “originality” another reviewer attributed to the experience (also worrying about the depiction of women as well as something overdone in sentiment), may come across as tepid to our 21st century aggressively explosive film and art experienced taste, but I felt what was so good about it was its quiet human feeling.

Second Shepherd's Play
Shepherds, sheep and musicians

What the anonymous cycle play has been known for since it has been revived from the Townley manuscript of 15th century plays (in which it is found) is how it mixes the ordinary vexed feelings of put-upon serfs (giving full play to their complaints about their lives), farcical comedy and (at the close) with sublime religious feeling. David Siegel provides the story-outline turn for turn. In the program notes I counted 23 songs and dances.

shepherdsmanuscript
From an illuminated (with pictures) manuscript

To be all scholarly the author is known or recognized as “the Wakefield master” — who lived in Wakefield (to which I used to go taking at least 4 buses from Leeds in the later 1960s). He wrote the First Shepherd’s Play, and four other “pageants” (this one is sometimes called a pageant because of the ending in a creche scene): The Murder of Abel, Noah and His Sons (probably a comedy), Herod the Great and The Buffeting, as adapted by the great poet-translator, Tony Harrison as one of the Yorkshire Mystery plays, a powerful play where we watch a group of Roman soldiers prosaically nail said Jesus Christ to a huge cross and hoist it up. You can read The Second Shepherd’s Play as well as other plays by this Wakefield Master in an old Everyman paperback edited by A.C. Crawley (Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays, Dutton, 1959).

I’ve seen it twice. I remembered a film of the Monty Python group doing this story of a hungry shepherd and his wife stealing a sheep and hilariously trying to pass it off as a newborn baby in the wife’s cradle: Dudley Moore was in it and he somehow made the idea he was “biding” in the fields peacefully deliciously absurd. Upon reading the program notes, Izzy told me she and I had seen it before: 2007, and with Jim, but when they’d done, she said it was very different from that earlier version, and this one “much better.” For a start it was longer, something over two hours with intermission.

shepherd226-overthemountain
Over the mountain to home Mak goes

What was different was the intermingling of song and dance and puppetry. The one large puppet was the sheep, and he (or she) was done with sticks and reminded me of the way a cat will respond to its beloved staff-friends. Its head was all nudge. At different junctures, for example, after Mak ferrets away the sheep while the three trusting shepherds lie asleep, there is a quick set up of a temporary arch and two puppets representing Mak and the sheep are seen traversing hills and valleys to get back to Gill at home spinning. When the shepherds discover that the baby in the cradle is a sheep and elect to toss Mak in a blanket, a large blanket is suddenly there with a puppet tossed up and down. The three shepherds, Coll, the most articulate (Louis E Davis), Daw (Megan Graves, she was a young Juliet in a Romeo and Juliet play I saw at the Folger a few years ago), and Gib (Matthew R. Wilson) are turned into puppets traversing the snow. This is the kind of thing done in the recent Sense and Sensibility: really taking advantage of the live performance aspect of play-making. There is a rolling machine turned and turned to make high winds of a tempest, and the actors twirl ribbons across the stage to make a storm. You could not do this in a film.

I like Renaissance music very much, and as at previous concerts for the last few years, there were guest artists: particularly felicitious is Brian Kay on the lute, performing love music in a melancholy moving way. Daniel Meyers plays various instruments but I remember best what looked like a Renaissance flute; and of course Eisenstein. The ending in the coming of the angel to tell Mary she is carry the “god-head” — a dea ex machina from the balcony sung by an opera soprano (Emily Noel, who sang two other individual songs)

noel

and the music from the mass (“Gloria in excelsis deo”) was prepared for at the opening of Act II. The play was held off while we had a small concert of very touching music both appropriate to the season and on peculiarly Renaissance instruments (I can’t name them). For me that was the highest moment of the play. Songs familiar (Greensleeves, the Coventry Carol, rounds like Blowe thy horne, hunter) are threaded in along with less familiar and unfamiliar pieces. The titles of the whole lot are reprinted in the program notes.

The underlying feel — desperately needed for more than 2 hours is a group of people who are trying for a peaceful life where they “turn all to good.” (As I say, there’s a 1970s film somewhere of Monty Python finding this very funny — lucky them.)

Third shepherd to Mak & Gill: For this trespass
We will neither ban ne flite,
Fight nor chide ….

As luck would have it, this week I got my bi-annual copy of the Sidney Journal (34:2 2016) and will wonders never cease (?). Two new sonnets by Philip Sidney have been found (!). To me they sound like him. I like these lines in the first (yes plucked out of context, and re-contextualized):

In humble sorte contented yet am I,
Though in dispaire I dye without regard

I also got my yearly Christmas card from Arthur F. Kinney, a great Renaissance scholar who sends Christmas cards each year to each and every person who contributed an essay to English Literary Renaissance (he must have quite a mailing list by this time — I published but one paper, on a sonnet sequence by Anne Cecil in the early 1990s), and this year he chose to reprint and slightly modernize passages from Milton’s “On the morning of Christ’s Nativity,” and I quote these

No War, or Battles sound
Was Heard the World around,
The idle Spear and Shield were high up hung,
The hooked Chariot stood,
Unstain’d with hostile blood,
The Trumpet spake not to the armed throng …

These lines could be slotted into this play.

The experience brought back memories of when I was an undergraduate just beginning to major in English and read The Second Shepherd’s Play in an Norton Anthology (as well as the great 15th century tragedy, Everyman) and thought how all this is abolished for English majors and certainly for everyone else in most American colleges. I remembered watching the National Theater production of the Yorkshire Mysteries one Christmas for a couple of marvelous hours with Izzy and Laura (then 7 and 14); we would replay it on a video cassette we had taped it onto, and even made two to have a back-up. How joyous and funny the whole thing was. Both cassettes now unplayable.

Somewhere in me too I have never gotten over Christmas at Dingley Dell (Dickens’s Pickwick Papers Christmas) – when I was young my father read aloud to me — so yearn for some re-enactment in that direction. It is, since Jim’s death, not quite out of the question as Izzy and I try for one another. The best way for me is low expectations and minimal joining in (as what is available to a person like me is — or perhaps you too gentle reader). I decorated as far as I could; I send out cards; Izzy and I are going to three events. I was thinking this morning appreciate the use of music reaching out (as in the Folger Consort group) and stay with that, don’t seek anything more.

Jim was something of a musician (read music, would play scores of opera for piano on our piano spinet) and used to say the Folger Consort group was too determinedly scholarly and authentic, and the pre-Renaissance stuff was done dully. Then it was just four aging white men. Two of these people are gone, and now the group hires all sorts of people and are truly creative in their approach, and regularly dare to move well into the 17th century.

jacobruisdaelwinterlandscape-large
Jacob Van Ruisdael (1629-82), Winter Landscape

Ellen

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corotlandscape
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875), Memories of the Villa d’Avray, 1872

When in some River, overhung with Green,
The waving Moon and trembling leaves are seen — Anne Finch (1661-1720), A Nocturnal Reverie

In the clear azure Glean the Flocks are seen,
and floating Forest paint the Waves with Green — Alexander Pope (1689-1744), Windsor Forest

Dear friends and readers,

A sudden anthology. Read and look at what takes your fancy.

Tonight I read a difficult paper on Samuel Johnson’s poetry: the author’s central perspective was there are meanings within meanings, as no character remains the same once adapted and translated and filmed, so there are links everywhere, infinite regress into intertextualities. I was led to remember how deeply great learned poetry can make one feel if you follow it within, ever circling, remembering, each time unearthing yet another couple of lines suggestively remembered in the “top” or surface line. Translation provides this pleasure from a single passage. And each new variation adds another perspective, image, thought, feeling, oasis or terror. Good poetry from all eras works this way (good poetry is learned, knowing what came before, projecting what is to come); what differentiates the classical variety is the austerity of the surface and use of formal verse, be it through rhyme and regularly prosody, stanzas, or imitations of Milton, strong blank verse (what a funny name for it).

Halloween might be considered one of those seasonal ritual holidays where a change of seasons, this time from long days of light to long nights of darkness, is signaled. I went looking for allusive poems that might capture such a transition. I am reluctant to try my readers’ patience so quote only a selection from one longer but otherwise brief lyrics: Leopardi might have made the point much better but he (like Radcliffe) is at his best at length, but I do end on his and two other poet’s shorter poems to a thrush, a line from Jane Austen, a still from a film adaptation of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones:

This from Anne Radcliffe (1764-1823) Song of the Evening Hour:

Last of the Hours, that track the fading Day,
I move along the realms of twilight air,
And hear, remote, the choral song decay
Of sister-nymphs, who dance around my car.

Then, as I follow through the azure void,
His partial splendour from my straining eye
Sinks in the depths of space; my only guide
His faint ray dawning on the farthest sky …

When fades along the west the Sun’s last beam
As, weary, to the nether world he goes,
And mountain-summits catch the purple gleam,
And slumb’ring ocean faint and fainter glows …

Where’er I move, a tranquil pleasure reigns;
O’er all the scene the dusky tints I send,
That forests wild and mountains, stretching plains
And peopled towns, in soft confusion blend.

Wide o’er the world I waft the fresh’ning wind,
Low breathing through the woods and twilight vale,
In whispers soft, that woo the pensive mind
Of him who loves my lonely steps to hail …

The wood-nymphs hail my airs and temper’d shade,
With ditties soft and lightly sportive dance,
On river margin of some bow’ry glade,
And strew their fresh buds as my steps advance.—

But swift I pass, and distant regions trace,
For moon-beams silver all the eastern cloud,
And Day’s last crimson vestige fades apace;
Down the steep west I fly from Midnight’s shroud.”

— From her Mysteries of Udolpho, 1794

While at a small conference of fellow 18th century scholars, I heard a paper I mean to discuss elsewhere where (among others things) it was suggested that Radcliffe found peace in darkness, here we find her in that transition time, absorbed in twilight, a lover of autumn.

moonlightskating-1
George Bellows (1882-1925), Moonlight Skating (Central Park?)

This is the whole of Samuel Johnson (1709-84) “Translation of Roy’s Verses on Skaters”: for winter:

1
O’er Ice the rapid Skaiter flies,
    With Sport above and Death below;
Where Mischief lurks in gay Disguise,
    Thus lightly touch and quickly go.

2
O’er crackling ice, o’er gulphs profond,
    With nimble glide the skaiters play;
O’er treacherous pleasure’s flow’ry ground
    Thus lightly skim, and haste away.

— from The Complete Poems, e. J.d. Fleeman (this was copied out by Hester Thrale alongside the French original, 1782)

And two translations from a poet-translator, Allen Mandelbaum (1926-2011), I was privileged to have had a teacher in graduate school

tinablau_kanal_in_holland-medium
Tina Blau (1845-1916, an Austrian artist), A Canal in Holland

For spring from Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888-1970), Selected Poems, translator Mandelbaum:

Quiete

L’uva è maturea, il campo arato,
Si stacca il monte dalla nuvole.
Sui polversosi specchi dell’estate
Caduta è l’ombra.

Tra ledita incerte
Il loro lume è chiaro.
E lontano.
Colle rondini fugge
L’ultimo strazio

From which I love: Quiet

The mountain leaves the clouds.

The shadow falls upon the dusty
Mirrors of summer.
Between uncertain fingers
Their glistening is bright
And distant.

With the swallows flees
The final agony.

The briefest from A Selected Writings of Salvatore Quasimodo (1901-68)who won the Nobel Prize in 1959, though who remembers?), translator Mandelbaum

Untitled

Ognuno sta solo sul cuor della terra
trafitto da unraggio di sole:
ed è subito sera.

Each alone on the heart of the earth,
impaled upon a ray of sun:
and suddenly it’s evening.

paul_sanduwindsornightterrace-large
Paul Sandby (1731-1809), Windsor Terrace, Evening

I know I have not situated and re-situated. Another name for this is intertextuality, which the reader can perform, not the poet.

From Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), The Solitary Thrush, the translator, Eamon Grennan:

Perched on top of that old tower,
You sing as long as daylight lasts,
The sweet sound of you winding
Round and round the valley.
Spring shimmers
In the air, comes with a green rush
Through the open fields, is a sight
To soften any heart. You can hear
Sheep bleating, bellowing cattle,
While the other birds swoop and wheel
Cheerily round the wide blue sky,
Having the time of their lives together.
Like an outsider, lost in thought,
You are looking on at it all:
Neither companions nor wild flights
Fire your heart; games like these
Mean nothing to you. You sing,
And in singing spend the best
Part of your life and the passing year.

Ah, how these habits of mine
Are just like yours! Whatever the reason …
This day already dwindling into dusk
Is a feast in these parts. You can hear
The bells ring round a clear sky
And a far-off thunder of guns …
I walk out all by myself,
Putting off pleasure, postponing play:
And gazing about at the radiant air
I’m struck by how the sinking sun
After a day as perfect as this one
Melts among the distant hills,
And seems to say
That blessed youth itself is fading.

Solitary little singer, when you
Reach the evening of those days
Which the stars have numbered for you,
You’ll not grieve, surely,
For the life you’ve led, since even
The slightest twist of your will
Is nature’s way …

I should have known that when Helen Maria Williams (1759=1827, Wordsworth loved her poetry) writes of a thrush, she speaks of how the foolish bird fled from her to its death: for the past month while my kitchen was renovated, I worried sick lest my cats flee the house to their death. They could not begin to make it as feral cats: I put them in a pets’ boarding house and they spent the week in the cage, would not come out, finally were provided with an inner box, all padded, where they cling to one another’s arms: it gives a whole ‘nother turn to Henry Fielding (1707-54) story of how Blifil let Sophia’s bird free to spite her and Tom (out of malice) and Tom fell in the water trying to recapture it. Fielding diverts out attention from the bird who is not seen again: Elegy on a Young Thrush, which escaped from the writer’s hand, and falling down the area of a house, could not be found.

Mistaken Bird, ah whither hast thou stray’d?
    My friendly grasp why eager to elude?
This hand was on thy pinion lightly laid,
    And fear’d to hurt thee by a touch too rude.

Is there no foresight in a Thrush’s breast,
    That thou down yonder gulph from me wouldst go?
That gloomy area lurking cats infest,
    And there the dog may rove, alike thy foe.

I would with lavish crumbs my bird have fed,
    And brought a crystal cup to wet thy bill;
I would have made of down and moss thy bed,
     Soft, though not fashion’d with a Thrush’s skill.

Soon as thy strengthen’d wing could mount the sky,
    My willing hand had set my captive free;
Ah, not for her who loves the Muse, to buy
    A selfish pleasure, bought with pain to thee!

The vital air, and liberty, and light
    Had all been thine; and love, and rapt’rous song,
And sweet parental joys, in rapid flight,
    Had led the circle of thy life along.

Securely to my window hadst thou flown,
    And ever thy accustom’d morsel found;
Nor should thy trusting breast the wants have known
    Which other Thrushes knew when winter frown’d.

Fram’d with the wisdom nature lent to thee,
    Thy house of straw had brav’d the tempest’s rage,
And thou through many a Spring hadst liv’d to see
    The utmost limit of a Thrush’s age.

Ill-fated bird!—and does the Thrush’s race,
    Like Man’s, mistake the path that leads to bliss?
Or, when his eye that tranquil path can trace,
    The good he well discerns through folly miss?

— Helen Maria Williams, Poems on various subjects (1823)]

And finally one of Jim’s favorite poets and poems: Basil Bunting (1900-85);

A thrush in the syringa sings.

‘Hunger ruffles my wings, fear,
lust, familiar things.

Death thrusts hard. My sons
by hawk’s beak, by stones,
trusting weak wings
by cat and weasel, die.

Thunder smothers the sky.
From a shaken bush I
list familiar things,
fear, hunger, lust.’

O gay thrush.

Jane Austen (1775-1817) said she planted a syringa for the sake of a line of poetry by William Cowper (1731-1800)

Complete Poems, 1964

fromtomjones
In this scene from the 1997 Tom Jones (scripted Simon Burke, directed Metin Huseyin) we may take it that Tom has failed to rescue the bird and fallen from a tree into the water while Mrs Bridget Allworthy (Tessa Peake Jones, who was once Mary Bennett [1979 P&P scripted Fay Weldon], unknown to be his biological mother) and Mr Allworthy (unknown to be his uncle, Benjamin Whitlow, previously Mr Bennet [1995 P&P, scripted Andrew Davies]) look down worriedly

Ellen

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Dear friends,

It’s said they recorded this in 1971 when the war in Vietnam was not over: the US gov’t was bombing hospitals in Vietnam; they thought, What could they do about it? they decided to sing and record a song in which they pretended “the war is over:”

A hundred and ten years ago, this short French film, “The Christmas Angel” was made, and thanks to a friend on one of my listservs I watched it last night and can share it here:

An early film adaptation.

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

What do you mean summer’s here? It’s the beginning of May. Well, arguably from the point of view of weather, here in Northern Virginia we have two seasons: the cold (or maybe it would be more accurate nowadays to say the mostly cool and chilly) where days are short, and the light is ruthlessly husbanded to make it last as long as possible in the later parts of the 24 hour cycle; and the hot (sometimes fiercely) with long enough light, so those of us who find demands we awaken in the darkness so hard to take, have the relief of a lit sky by 6 am. And we are in the latter season now.

But that’s not how I’m defining summer. I’m defining summer as the day when teaching ceases, and my schedule turns into a summer one for the next 3 or so months. As I teach in a college where the semester’s classes ended for me yesterday, that’s what happened today. Some people don’t feel the term is ended until the literal work is & I understand that. In a way I’ve a third of the reading of students’ papers to go. They hand in their last (3rd) paper and do a final (which has 3 short essays in class as part of it and outside class answer about 20 questions) but for me once my summer routs begin the summer begins. And while I like it, indeed find it exhilarating, sane or larger perspective-giving, what I find hard is the teaching itself. That’s the ordeal, that’s the strain.

And today I began to develop my summer’s reading and started to develop the trajectory into my summer’s writing. I sent off a final copy of my review of the Later Manuscripts of Jane Austen, a Cambridge book edited by Janet Todd and Linda Bree, and am finishing the last of the reading for my on-going project of reading and writing about a letter by Jane Austen each week: Mary Brunton’s 1810 novel, Self-Control and Brian Southam’s Jane Austen and the Navy. I began my return to Sophie Cottin to see if I can make a proposal on infamous novels for the coming EC/ASECS, using Cottin’s Amelie Mansfield and Charlotte Smith’s Manon Lescaut. I’ll write more about this as time develops — I have no deadline as I’ve also decided to go down to one section a term starting this fall so this new group of ever-revolving routs is not going to end come late August, only diminish somewhat. Over on my Sylvia blog I’ll try to work out my plan every so often. I do need order so I feel I have meaning and if only to know what to read and what to write next.

For tonight I thought I’d say here what I’ve been listening to over this past year in my car — using MP3s as CDs which I have to buy. I’ve tried the librivox recordings: Mil Nicholson reading Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend is probably among the better as she really reads dramatically, but I found I couldn’t enjoy it. She just tried too hard, went excruciatingly slowly in order to pull the voices and imagined scenes off, seemed after all to miss the larger implications or meanings and it strained my patience how at the end of each chapter I had to listen to a full announcement once again that this was librivox, in the “public domaine”, by whom, who reading and where we were. I was told this was to try to stop those who are unscrupulous from selling these readings by informing anyone who bought it they need not have. To my mind all this did was allow the private property and personal profit system to invade the world of the imagined books naggingly.

Audible.com and other venues where one can supposedly buy (or perhaps rent) many kinds of recordings are set up to cheat the customer, to trap him or her into spending huge amounts of money (see “Stay Away! it’s filled with traps!”). So my plan to use my new ipod this way didn’t work. And there’s nothing for it but buy what one can find at Amazon.

I checked out how much it would cost to turn my audiocassettes into tapes. I might do this eventually — a little at a time though. It costs $9 a cassette. That doesn’t sound overmuch, but what happened when you have 18 tapes for one of the book so Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. That’s $180 for the book. You see the problem, especially as I’m not sure the book’s tapes are not dried out and will transfer well.

For me that means mostly older books and what’s called classics and better fiction when it’s on sale. A sad decrease in what I can choose from. The old books-on-tape used to include read books that sold only to relative minority of people — good non-fiction, history, biography, science, e.g., David Case reading abridgements of Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle or Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which were not savaged but long enough to include a lot; Donada Peters reading Victoria Glendinning’s biography of Anthony Trollope. When the demand for big profit and wide sales as the criteria for what would be read aloud took over, mostly trash or this year’s fashionable book for an elite is all one can obtain — and by buying, not renting.

Still I made do. Why? I still spent a lot of hours in my car, often driving Izzy somewhere. These hours were cut down as of December when she got her good full-time job as an Information Technologist. Yes she did. I still though have many as there is no good public transportation in Virginia. And, as I’ve mourned as Sylvia, I can no longer read much or even at all at night. My brain gives out and at best I can watch movies — or write blogs. Summer being here I will be much less in the car (twice a week for 90 minutes to and from GMU was a central time), so I thought I’d record what I read this year — or listened to which comes down to the same thing sometimes better as books brilliantly read aloud are true to many authors’ purposes.

Unless I’m misremembering (which I don’t think I am) I began with Donada Peters and David Case alternating the two narrators of Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall. This was so good, especially the soft brogue Case used for Gilbert Markhan, I sometimes could hardly wait to get into my car. This was late spring just after my tape deck broke and I never finished David Case reading Fielding’s Tom Jones.

Come June I was into Trollope’s Last Chronicle of Barset read aloud by Simon Vance. While he is good, his interpretation was grating: he read Josiah Crawley as not tragic but veering on the comic-ridiculous (or contemptible). Hot or true high summer (August) I began and through the early fall (much of this with Izzy) listened to Donada Peters reading Daniel Deronda (we loved it, especially the Jewish half of the novel or intertwined stories), Middlemarch (I don’t think it could have been better read) and Romola (a book that fails but nonetheless has some great, riveting sequences — Izzy found it so as well as I). One might call it a George Eliot year.

I tried to post regularly in the morning on some of this in order to keep notes and remember. Only for Romola did I have anyone reading with me (on Trollope19thCStudies).

Then we turned to Dickens. I regret to say I succumbed to an abridged version of Dickens’s Little Dorrit. I thought I’d try it as the complete was so expensive — so many CDs. Anton Lesser was superb and, with a little help from Davies’s film adaptation and interpretation of Amy Dorrit (and memories of Christine Edzard’s), I felt we were in the presence of preposterous genius. The book is prophetic of today. Still we missed much I know. Then the ill-fated Mil Nicholson of Our Mutual Friend. Sometimes the book felt stillborn and if it had not been for Sandy Welch’s brilliant film, I would have gotten nothing out of it; with Welch I did feel I reached the pith and electrifying core of the book. I do think Dickens was tired or made a wrong decision to recuse himself as narrator for his characters in this novel are not sufficiently rich in imaginative thoughtful subjectivity, to carry the book.

Just now I’m into David Case reading Bleak House; if I’ve heard or read this one before, I forgot a lot of it and again the problems in it (and there are a number as in all Dickens’s books) are counteracted by Davies’ film. Next up will be Juliet Stevenson (what a treat) reading Gaskell’s Mary Barton.

So I’m not doing too badly, you see. Probably though since from here on in I’ll be relatively rarely in my car, I won’t be posting all that much on my reading since much this coming summer will be in the 18th century and surrounding Austen (I mean at long last to do a full paper on Bad Tuesday).

I do try to read at night and have managed over the past couple of months to return to Winston Graham’s Poldark novels and have read at a leisurely pace (when I could) his Ross Poldark, Demelza, and now Jeremy Poldark. I’m finding these books reward re-reading and I’m seeing new rich elements in them I had not realized before. I know there are older tapes of these read aloud, but nowadays a reading must occur on MP3s as CDs to be listenable to for me in my car and affordable.

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So let me take time out to say here that I’m relieved and delighted to be able to say that for a second time Ross Poldark, No. 1 of this historical novel series, went over superlatively well. Last year I was so nervous going in on the first of the 3-4 days set aside for this (like other) books. But I got what were undoubted two of the best talks I had all term. This time a talk was given on the treatment of Demelza versus the treatment of Verity which got the whole class discussing these characters, their scenes, issues involved. I was startled to see a student I fully expected not to show, not only turn up for the talk, but bring a thoroughly marked up book. A fourth had gone through the mini-series and put on scenes for us to watch and then directed our attention to the book. She didn’t have a real thesis, but her choices were such, it left us a lot to talk about.


Ross (Robin Ellis) talking to Pearce (John Baskcomb) at the opening of the first episode; the young man just returned … (Part 1, 1975-76 Poldark)

It’s a tribute to the 18th century too. The last speaker (in my other class) was just chuffed to find feminist talk/discourse in the 18th century — and “by a woman” said she amazedly. She found a passage by Anna Barbauld’s niece, Lucy Aiken. I did have quotations from both Paine (Rights of Man) and Wollstonecraft (The Rights of Woman) ready. Several said how they felt there was not the resolution at the end that they wanted; that they were just beginning, hardly in medias res as they closed Ross Poldark.


When Ross first sees Demelza at the fair: she is being beaten (Part 2, 1975-76 Poldark)

Graham catches the reader with his slow drawn appealing characters we believe in and identify with. There is this intensity of concern with the characters; Graham is in them and utterly involved with their fully imagined situation. This fourth time round I see that the core of the novel which dominates it is a continual intimate delineation of the two central personalities melding and not melding together in an early phase of their marriage.

I’ve read on to Demelza and finished it last night for a fourth time. Ross Poldark incites a riot over two ships coming into and wrecked on the shore and a savage mob action ensues, a Walpurgis night to match the splendor of the night catching pilchards. The last two times round I really didn’t read slowly or carefully enough to see that indeed the hero is presented as psychologically half-crazed over the failure of all his schemes, the death of this baby daughter, the abysmal poverty around him closing in, and the enfeebled wife who to free his sister, Verity, unknowingly brought this on them — she was loyal to the individual not the group, a no no for which she is harshly punished. Nor that there are striking Jacobin sentiments given him at the same time. The book rewards re-reading in the light of the other books.


Demelza (Angharad Rees) says he has become her whole life, she loves him for all he has done (Part 3, 1975-76 Poldark)

Winston Graham will be one of my continuing projects for a long time to come.

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So all this is to explain why I’ve not been posting on books here of late and or when I have it’s been retrospective (as in my Praise of Colm Toibin). I’ve fallen back on operas, movie-going or watching at night, what I’ve read and watched with my students (my lecture notes turned into blogs). And Downton Abbey — beloved older mini-series too. Now I’m ever hoping to do better and if I can muster up the energy to make sense of the morning notes I took on the above books or from my morning posts this summer, or find something new or genuinely interesting to say about what I have managed at night or in Jim and my coming summer activities (we are going to go to plays, operas, the Fringe festival again, the occasional lecture, dramatic reading aloud), I will. Spin offs from my later day-time routs will come in here too. In my brief discussion of Ross Poldark and Demelza I’ve given an example of what I hope to be able to do on occasion on reading-as-life.

Ellen

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