Posts Tagged ‘tipping the velvet’

Anna Madeley as Margaret Prior in Andrew Davies’s film adaptation of Sarah Waters’s Affinity (2008 ITV).

Dear friends and readers,

Although I’ve not seen Davies’s film adaptation of Sarah Waters’s remarkable and powerful neo-Victorian neo-Gothic novel (indeed just found out about it when I was googling for information about the novel and its various covers), I decided to use the stills as they are appealing (though not how I envisaged Margaret), and to underline that four of Waters’s novels have been made into film adaptations, two by Andrew Davies: Fingersmith (script by Tim Fywell), Tipping the Velvet (script by Davies), Affinity (script by Davies), and The Night Watch (script by Paula Milne, which I long to see). This is remarkable as at their core these are films about books focusing on frank lesbian love.

I take it that they are so good and insightful, powerful and gripping that their iconoclasm and frankness does not matter.

My blog on Tipping the Velvet is mostly on Waters’s book; this is wholly on Waters’s riveting text. Both are records of my reading as I went along. For a brief commentary, see wikipedia. The store centers on Margaret Prior, who becomes “a lady Visitor” t0 women prisoners, apparently a well-recognized Lady Bountiful position. She meets Selina Dawes, apparently put in jail egregiously wrongly: she did no kill Mrs Blink the woman who died while Selina was conducting a seance. The plot-design shows their intense relationship growing, and taking over Margaret’s as well as Selina’s lives. They experience trauma from their refusal to obey the peculiar conventions of the houses (so to speak) where they live. They plan to escape using ghostly magic. At its end (the coda of the book) we revise our understanding of Selina, which has a radical turnaround worthy DuMaurier’s My Cousin Rachel, and a depth of characters like Austen’s Emma. I recommend this book to anyone who loves Gothic, Victorian gothic, neo-Victorian and Victorian novels, who can deeply immerse him or herself in diary- and epistolary fiction, l’ecriture-femme, and fiercely socially critical novels, and as it’s a basis of a film adaptation, Victorian film studies people. The book also mirrors the concerns of people today over the heavily weighted system of criminal justice, where a young man (usually) black can be thrown solitary confinement for little reason. We are becoming a more distrustful and brutal society.

Finally, anyone who loves to read books which remain overtly (for their effects) a bookish experience. Allusons abound to the work of Daphne DuMaurier.


An image of the panopticon: the women walking in the courtyard, watched by the women guards’ eyes

The story centers, to start with, in a Pantopticon like (fearful) prison for women. Waters is reflecting contemporary (today) prison conditions, and especially the controversy about enforced solitude as a form of torture, but much else is rooted in apparently Victorian realities. My view is the weight (gravitas, seriousness) of a verisimilar historical novel depends very often on the accuracy of the circumstances the fictionalized characters are embedded in. And my guess this novel would not be read as anachronistic.

The novel gives the impression a considerable percentage of women were imprisoned in Victorian England? is that so? were conditions severe and grim? I’d love to know of articles or books on this.

In this novel the women are “in” for several years at a time. Now I’ve read that prison sentences were seen as temporary (unless in debtors’ prison and then women were not liable), so that after sentencing the prisoner was hung, transported, fined, but then let go. So how long were prison sentences in the Victorian period for women? Again articles and books is what I’d like to know of. Last, sexual harassment. I wondered if there was any record of this?

I put the above on Patrick Leary’s Victorian and got some comments and a list of essays to read, which I have placed in the comments.


Margaret Prior (Anna Madeley) visits Selina Dawes (Zoe Tapper)

I’m past Part One and have realized this is a fable about cruelty, about the cruelty of women to other women. It is a stark outline of how class enables people to de-humanize one another. About the cruelty of severity of punishments and the helplessness of individuals against a system. Again and again I think of Dante and there are allusions to Dante’s Inferno: not in its specifics but what it has come to stand for, and so by extension one of Oliphant’s ghost stories. The terrain reminds me of one of her ghostly nightmare terrains.

The affinity is between the lady visitor, Margaret Prior and the spiritual medium, Sarah Dawes, who by Book 2 we discovered has ended up in this prison partly because she dared to rise above her station and allow a woman to take her into her house to be used as spiritual medium. Never go where you are too powerless in comparison with others.

There is an astute use of structural irony through the juxtaposition of Prior’s present time carefully narrated diaries (as she visits the prison) and Dawes’s scatter- shot notes towards a diary which begin precisely 2 years before. The contrast works to explain the injustices.

I recommend it as a book about human nature, society and probably the Victorian era too, how the powerful can and do enslave, mistreat, then throw away not just the law-abiding powerless, and not just in official prisons.


Margaret amid her family

I’m into the third part (of three) and finally have seen how the book relates directly to readers today. Identifying the prison theme (and its modern analogies), the spiritual medium (ditto) and GLBT (which however until just in this last part of the book there was hardly anything except if you insist on seeing all spinster presentations as redolent) — are a way of reading that still stays away from personal engagement or bonding. I kept asking myself why I was riveted and hoping it was not that I enjoy suffering.

The third part quietly (it’s done with subtlety) switches the perspective so instead of Margaret Prior as gazer (my head just now filled with specularization vocabulary), it is she who is subject. The prison apparatus and all the cruelties we see are a metaphor for what I’ll describe as the inexorableness of individual people to budge from their egoistic preoccupations and perspectives (stupidity is the frank word) and consequent cruelty and indifference to others. Margaret finds herself shut out from Selina Dawes because the women guards loathe seeing anyone happy, any affinity of relationship. They respond to Margaret’s pleas with supposedly reasonable objections to how excited Margaret makes Selina (absurd) to the norm that Selina is there to be punished. It’s in the loving relationship of Selina to Margaret at the first homoerotic current of the book emerges and we need not see it as sexual.

This inexorableness is relentless in Margaret’s mother. The light is suddenly cast on Margaret and figures who were mentioned now emerge full. We see her mother dislikes her intensely because she never married and behaved unconventionally, and longs to go live with her “successful” children: the just married (beautiful wedding) Priscilla and Arthur and the long married Stephen and Helen. We realize for the first time the drugging of Margaret each night is forced on Margaret, and how dependent Margaret is. The mother begins to manipulate to keep Margaret away from the prison and insists on Margaret reading aloud each night Dickens’s Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit functions as the floor rug that Margaret’s mother wants Margaret to become. Dickens often gets bad rap here: this reminded meo of Waugh’s novel, Decline and Fall, where the ultimate torture of a man left on an island with a mad man who insists he read aloud all Dickens night after night.

Margaret is as emotionally harrowed by her mother as the women prisoners are by the guards, and there is the implicit threat of imprisoning her in an asylum too. We learn that Helen and Margaret had a tight emotional relationship which Helen gave up — Helen tells Margaret she is brave. This is the place I said a lesbian theme does emerge.

So at the heart of this book is a deadly mother-daughter relationship. Margaret is a traditional “good” heroine in the Victorian tradition — seen far more deeply and hauntingly because no fairy godmother (in the shape of an author) are likely to shower love and good people on her at the book’s end.

I can see why Davies might not want do this book very well; he really would have a hard time finding that upbeat ending he manages for many of his films, and he is rarely willing to move into vulnerable psychology the way Water has. Margaret needs protection, so does Selina and there is none not be found, only exploitation or quiet silence if they can find a place to survive alone, which neither has.


A dream (or nightmare)

I’m into the last quarter or so of this powerful novel. It does turn into a lesbian novel: at its core is a pair of lesbian women who love one another intensely because of an emotional affinity. The apparatus punishing them both becomes a metaphor for the suppression of this precious relationship for which both are willing to give up everything including food, clothing, shelter, bodily safety, sanity itself. At times I begin to see it as a modern La Religieuse (Diderot”s book) which comes to mind though Diderot’s paradigm seems so distant — modeled on the assault-type rape book of Richardson’s Clarissa. When Sarah is removed from Miss Prior’s visits, Miss Prior stopped from visiting her (and how the techniques used to imprison Miss Prior remind me of much of see and have experienced around me), they both suddenly pour out another reading of everything that was implicit, including the sister-in-law Helen as a thwarted lover to Miss Prior (Margaret).

Lots of allusions to Elizabeth Barrett Browning suddenly appear, not her works so much, but her, her personality (anorexic, repressed, half-mad in some ways when young) life, her feminist atittudes (I had to leave off Margaret Forster’s biography – she was doing justice to this).

I think it a masterpiece of fiction; probably because its verisimilar historical fiction it won’t be rated highly in the way say Stead’s The Man Who Loved Fiction is, and also because it is not heterosexual.


Selina with Peter Quick [aka Quint/] in background; from the first page of the novel his has been an essential presence at seances

Those who do not like to know the ending of a book had better not read on, for I must tell it in order to show the final devastating power of the book and how once you finish, you should really reread it again.

This goes against all my practices nowadays; the last time I did this that I remember was DuMaurier’s My Cousin Rachel, when I realized the meaning of the novel’s first sentence which is also its last and that the narrator was the heroine’s murderer.

Richard Burton as Philip Ashley and Olivia de Havilland as Scarlett O’Hara (My Cousin Rachel, Hitchcock out of DuMaurier)

The time before that I remember I was 15 and just finished Mansfield Park, and after reading the last few paragraphs (including ” the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure”). conclusion so fired with it was I, I turned to the first page and read the whole thing again.

I should have done it for Austen’s Emma as the book was utterly altered once I realized I had missed Frank and Jane’s engagement like everyone else but Mr (George) Knightley (and who knows what Mr John knew), but it was an assigned book, the revelation took place before the ending and had time to wear off, and I didn’t love the book the way I had MP, nor had I been gripped in the way of Rachel and now this. (Emma is too lengthened out at its close, and then made too benign.)

So, Affinity turns on itself to reveal to us that Selina Dawes is a fraud. The book had been written and worked up so carefully that the author has the reader believing Selina Dawes things turn up in Margaret Prior’s room and half-expecting Selina to break out of her prison magically like the lady in St Agnes Eve (Keats’s poem), whose central stanza about this is quoted. Water plays with our willingness to suspend our disbelief in a gothic novel and our experience as readers of gothic.

Like phantoms, to the iron porch they glide,
Where lies the Porter, in uneasy sprawl.
By one, and one, the bolts full easy slide,
The chains lie silent on the footworn stones,
The Key turns! and the door pon its hinges groans ….

It’s a kind of trick on us. We say, of course she couldn’t. What happens is Selina tells Margaret she will come to Margaret’s room and they can fly together. Margaret so good, buys tons of clothes, pulls out 1300 pounds from her account and waits. Selina does not come. What a harrowing night we spend with Margaret. We come to the prison where astonishing to the prison people Selina has escaped. All suspect Margaret as the releaser and tell her they will prosecute her — until they see her and then half-credit that she knew nothing. She runs home horrified without seeing Mrs Jelf (the one kind guard) who is (she is told) off for the day. Mrs Jelf is on her doorstep hysterical. Mrs Jelf enabled Selina to escape, it was a plot between them. For months Selina has been enabling Mrs Jelf to see her dead baby and we get this harrowing story of Mrs Jelf’s life. Like so many middle-aged women who have this dull caretaker jobs strictly disciplined (remember the governess in Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley) Mrs Jelf has a miserable past where she married badly, had a lover to compensate, a child out of wedlock, and in her case it died. Selia promised Mrs Jelf she’d take Mrs Jelf to her child. No such thing. It seems Vigers, the maid upstairs was the go-between (Selina did tell Mrs Jelf this) and suddenly Margaret realizes how she got all that magical stuff. She thinks back.

We get a piece of diary and suddenly we realize Peter Quick (who is meant to be Peter Quint) was real, Selina’s accomplice and maybe they did kill the people at the opening and Selina deserved to go to jail. We have to surmise that Vigers (Margaret’s apparently selfless completely devoted maid) will be dropped (killed?) and Quint and Selina escape wit money and expensive clothes to Italy. Margaret at first runs to a policeman to tell but then realizes she will be put in that terrible prison.

The book ends with a piece from Selina’s diary that is the next day after the opening piece.

But it’s not a stunner that is unexpected quite. Like Austen’s use of Mr Knightley (again George), we had some inklings. Margaret’s mother does go off on a trip without her and we see in a way she does mean well — mostly because the mother reveals Margaret has control of her money. Margaret’s brother, Stephen, husband of Helen, is shown for the first time in the book and we can see how these well-meaning heterosexuals mean well by Margaret; we see Helen, the sister-in-law’s concern. At the bank when Margaret pulls out that 1300 pounds we begin to worry about her. Will she be broke ever after? We begin to worry that Selina is somehow exploiting Margaret unconsciously and the relatives are right: this is a mad scheme to escape together as Margaret is emotionally unstable.

A whole other outlook, the conventional one is laid open as not unreasonable if you just accept (and big just) that there is this blindness towards same sex sexual love — which to Stephen, for example, is unthinkable. He does not imagine he has deprived his wife of anything.

I was away and after all free of usual obligations with not as many books as usual and in fact I reread the first section. It came out very differently, and I saw for the first time a group of parallels with Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, which had the effect of increasing my sympathy for the governess but asking myself if I was being one-sided.

It is a story of betrayal: Margaret Prior by Selinda Dawes, but also Margaret by her mother, her sister-in-law; Mrs Jelf by Selina; Vigars probably by Belinda. Have we paid enough attention to Peter Quick (Quint): quite enough to know the society will sympathize with him in any quarrel.

Waters is a great historical fiction of our era. The panel I chaired (very nervously) at this past weekend’s EC/ASECS on historical fiction which I have must carry on with, studying it in many of its verisimilar and self-reflective forms.


Read Full Post »

Miss Eleanor Lavish (Sinead Cusack) from Forster’s Room with a View (Davies’s film)

Dear friends,

This is probably my third blog on Donoghue’s Passions between Women, maybe the fourth in which I’ve mentioned the book. I wrote about it to suggest that Jane Austen, her sister, Martha Lloyd, and Anne Sharp all show a pattern of life that in the era was silently identified as lesbian spintershood; then I wrote about it to discuss liberty and women and suggest that women are answerable with their bodies and it’s this ownership of women’s bodies that precludes liberty; I wrote about how Donoghue made me see Sarah Fielding’s The Governess in a wholly new light so that it made more sense, was more interesting, consistent; finally I mentioned it in my blog on Donoghue’s Slammerkin.

Can there be anything else to say? Yes. Why say it? Because I have a whole bunch of texts to tell the reader he or she should read to re-see in a new vital or poignant way. What Donoghue does do is uncover a long history of evidence that lesbian life has been with us wherever we can find some written records of sex life. We cannot treat it the way we can male homosexual history or sex because we don’t have anywhere near the direct evidence, but through the persecution and silencing a poignant human story shows through now and again. She ends on the idea that the history can teach “us” — for she comes out as a lesbian with her use of pronouns at the end — something of how to survive.


Johannes Vermeer (1632-75), Maid and Mistress

Let us begin with the familiar theme of maids and mistresses, and what do we find? We are made aware of the inadequacy of the typical representation of the maid and mistress where the maid gives up all, even her life to the mistress without any qualm or resentment.

I feel I had not read Defoe’s Roxanne before — though I know I did (in a graduate class where we wrote about it). I have little memory of it, but don’t remember it as a story about a maid, Amy and her mistress, as a pair of partners struggling through life where one must ever be a prostitute to support the other. We see Roxanne use Amy, when things go badly Roxanne accuse Amy of being a devil who seduces her. The class distinctions melt as they turn into an “economic double act” with Amy the manager and Roxanne the goods sold.

What destroys them is Amy’s excessive concern for Roxanne – but also her own safety. Amy had previously pushed Roxanne’s children off on relatives (shades of Moll Flanders) and one day a grown daughter, Susan, shows up; Susan threatens to expose the mother, Roxanne and Amy plots to kill Susan. At first Roxanne is horrified, and Amy retreats from this solution, but as time goes on, Amy does indeed murder Susan. Roxanne throws Amy out, but it’s the loss of Amy Roxanne cannot get over, and Donoghue says the novel peters out in confusion — I do remember it just moving into a kind of shorthand drivel and ending.

Johnson’s Rasselas? A rare telling of a close loving friendship between maid and mistress is Johnson on Pekuah and Nekayah where Nekayah saves Pekuah from a life of concubinage after rape. Nekayah sinks into an intense depression and a big ransom is paid to get Pekuah back for Nekayah. Johnson does punt by saying no rape really took place after all. I had never considered them in a lesbian light either.

Then there’s “Unaccountable Wife” by Jane Barker in Patchwork Screen for Ladies. As read by Donoghue turns out to be a story like that of The Duchess of Devonshire, Lady Elizabeth Foster and the Duke (see blog on Amanda Foreman’s biography): two women having a lesbian relationship while both of them go to bed with the Duke too (separately I suppose). What happens is the wife begins to do all the housework and after a while refuses to go to bed with the husband while her maid gets pregnant by him and does no work. It would seem to be a story of a servant beginning to dominate the mistress, only the servant is eventually thrown out and the wife stays by her side supporting her in the most menial of ways. Janet Todd in her book on women’s friendship in literature read as the exploitation of a barren neurotic wife by her servant. I agree that’s not adequate if you consider all the parts of the story.

If Donoghue is right, I have to go back and reread Betty Rizzo’s Companions without Vows where she shows how power corrupts and given unqualified power over someone else it’s the rare person who does not abuse it — whether mistress, maid or master.

Donoghue finds and praises the few stories where real conflict between maid and mistress is seen – or between upper and lower class woman. I’d say that Austen’s Emma takes advantage of this convention that the lower class women is all gratitude — and only at the end of the story has Harriet irritated and moving away and never does deal with what must have been a residual of deep resentment in Jane Fairfax. We only get her gushing. It might be Emma’s blindness but we are not encouraged to read the last encounter between Emma and Jane that way.


Emma (Romola Garai), Anna Taylor Weston (Jodhi May), Harriet Smith (Louise Dylan) (Sandy Welch’s Emma)

Let’s backtrack from this to sentimentalized treatments of true friends. Donoghue’s treatment differs here because she considers pairs of women where things did not go smoothly, women who differed a lot. These are mostly famous and not-famous pairs of women friends who left letters.

I’ve mentioned in the previous blogs Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill’s story: the great irony is that Anne and Sarah have come down in memory as the lesbian pair, when it was Abigail Masham who won Anne finally and the story one of betrayal and pressure from impingments of other status, prestige, money circumstances. Also how Charlotte Charke’s long-time partner, Mrs Brown is just ignored even to today so the memoir is misrepresented.

Poignant is the section on Mary Astell: apparently she could not get close friends to reciprocate and would tell herself this was God’s punishment on her for not begin content with him. Finally she meets Lady Catherine Jones and she is so overjoyed to find someone who does not find her unlovable. Jones was wealthy and became a lifelong friend and patroness. In fact in her old age Mary Astell might have ended up horribly but for Jones taking the the sick woman (she got breast cancer) into her house and providing nursing.

Also The Memoir of Sophia Baddeley. Written by her long-suffering, loyal friend, Elizabeth Hughes Steele, the story is one of what happens to women whose passions the society deforms and will not honor or respect, to women who the society also encourages to be masochistic. Baddeley kept latching onto male “keepers’ who would beat her, and savagely; then she’d retreat to Mrs Steele (who also married and had a child). They have terrible rows and are finally parted. With Elizabeth what matters is a resistance to heterosexuality. The unhappy Elizabeth died young of consumption (37). I’d now like to read this one.


Jane (Samantha Harker) and Elizabeth (Jennifer Ehle) turning to one another (1995 P&P, by Davies)

A third grouping: Sincere and Tender Passions . Anne Damer as a lesbian artist and Elizabeth Farren fit in here (since Donoghue’s Life Mask) What distinguishes Donoghue’s treatment is she also quotes letters from contemporary people who recognized the sapphism; that includes Mrs Thrale. We also see how much competition from other women Damer had with respect to Elizabeth Farren. A chasm of mistrust was easy to start up since the society was so against these alliances (pp. 139-42).

Donoghue often quotes Fielding’s The Governess in this part of the book in passing: there is a book about a girls’ school. I was startled to see Lady Pomfret, a familiar (to me in the letters I had access to) dullard, a friend of Lady Hertford. I remembered that Lady Pomfret left three thick volume of these dull missives. That I had xeroxed a bunch and was disappointed when I finally took them home. I wondered if I xeroxed the wrong ones. Maybe. But now I see they are censored and why Lady Pomfret wrote so much to Lady Hertford and so insistently.

Frances Seymour Thynne, Lady Hertford and Henrietta Louisa Jeffreys Fermor (I mention all her names so we won’t get her confused with someone else), Lady Pomfret were faithful correspondents for years and this verse epistle (a favorite with me) is from Lady Hertford to Lady Pomfret:

We sometimes ride, and sometimes walk,
We play at chess, or laugh, or talk;
Sometimes besides the crystal stream,
We meditate some serious theme;
Or in the grot, beside the spring,
We hear the feathered warblers sing.
Shakespeare perhaps an hour diverts,
Or Scott directs to mend our hearts.
With Clarke’s God’s attributes we explore;
And, taught by him, admire them more.
Gay’s Pastorals sometimes delight us,
Or Tasso’s grisly spectres fright us:
Sometimes we trace Armida’s bowers,
And view Rinaldo chained with flowers.
Often from thoughts sublime as these,
I sink at once – and make a cheese;
Or see my various poultry fed,
And treat my swans with scraps of bread.
Sometimes upon the smooth canal
We row the boat or spread the sail;
Till the bright enveing-star is seen,
And dewy spangles deck the green.
          Then tolls the bell, and all unite
In prayer that God would bless the night.
From this (though I confess the change
From prayer to cards is somewhat strange)
To cards we go, till ten has struck:
And then, however bad our luck,
Our stomachs ne’er refuse to eat
Eggs, cream, fresh butter, or calves’-feet;
And cooling fruits, or savoury greens
‘Sparagus, peas, or kidney-beans.
Our supper past, an hour we sit,
And talk of history, Spain or wit.
But Scandal far is banished hence,
Nor dares intrude with false pretence
Of pitying looks, or holy rage
Against the vices of the age:
We know we were all born to sin,
And find enough to blame within.
(written 1740)

Now these women were married so they had “cover” and a rich fulfilled life in other ways too. Lady Hertford was especially close to her son whom she did not send to public school but educated at home herself, and he grew up to be a fine sensitive well-educated man. Bi-sexual women.


Florence (Jodhi May) and Nan (Rachel Stirling) in Tipping the Velvet (novel by Sarah Walters, movie by Andrew Davies)

The penultimate section of Donoghue’s book is titled: What Joys are these? — Donoghue proposes to pay attention to all those scenes in erotic novels where women are having sex with other women: these are usually ignored. She argues that one quality in most of them which distinguishes them is that the two women do not punish one another where later pornography usually shows the women punished severely and humiliated.

I know I was surprised by the lack of violence and punishment in Cleland’s Fanny Hill. The punishment of Suzanna in The Nun came from her refusing to become a nun, not her getting involved sexually with the mother superior, from her refusing to obey not what she did sexually. There is a scene in Les Liaisons Dangereuses where Madame de Merteuil pleasures Cecile. I too have been guilty of ignoring it.

The first pairs of active lesbian lovers that have been overlooked by readers are gotten by reading against the grain passages mocking and ridiculing women: for example, in Richardson’s Pamela, Mrs Jewkes’s attacks on Pamela — it is true that Pamela evidences a very unladylike knowledge of what Jewkes attempts. Donoghue then moves on to Anthony Hamilton’s Memoirs of Count of Grammont: a more unpleasant book shaped by a set of nasty attitudes I’ve never read — I do have a copy and have tried it more than once. I fully believe and would have noticed had I gotten that far that there are lesbians who are mocked and burlesqued, humiliated as fellow rakes to males. Madame Merteuil’s experience on the sofa with Cecile comes under here.

It seemed to me the book was returning to the ugly material Donoghue had begun with in her opening section: the earliest glimpses of lesbian in texts are the lurid imaginings of lesbians as women with somehow damaged penises.

I want to tell her, Emma, this is desperate stuff. What joys are these is a good title for this material though. But I admit What interested me in the “what joys are these section” most is how Donoghue never seemed to escape in it from the early ugly salacious kind of texts she began with. It seems until very recently (let’s say Sarah Walters) no one presented lesbian sex as fun, pleasurable, tasteful even. Tales of wooden dildoes (because in print it’s so rare for sex to be taken seriously without a phallus, same sex whippings, and unkind orgies close the chapter. Donoghue says we need to remember much of this is male fantasy: women did not get to write erotica at the time.

So one criticism of her book is it is not sufficiently (hardly at all) informed by 20th century texts. She ought to write a volume 2.


Allan Ramsay (1686-1758), Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800, painted 1762)

And so we come to Lesbian Communities. Here again it’s a matter of countering an insistence X just doesn’t exist, in this case communities of women who are aware of themselves as lesbian in orientation. Were Jane, Cassandra, Martha and Anne Sharpe aware of themselves that way? If so, how did they read The Governess? Again the books to show as incorrect is Janet Todd’s Women’s Friendship in Literature and Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. We can’t know for sure.

So it’s a case of Margaret Cavendish’s plays (fantasies though), Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall. She does find a long passage in Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House” celebrating what seems to have been a group life for women which was lesbain at least in feel, texts on nunneries, convents of pleasure, but it must be admitted again nothing historically real … as yet.

Donoghue’s catalogue and examination of texts which show that women did form lesbian communities, active in sex as well as anything else. And it continues to be the case she has to resort to these lurid texts to find this kind of material, specifically a long section in Delaviere Manley’s New Atalantis and Secret Memoirs. And the attitudes evinced of the women towards one another continue to be sort of adversarial, punitive (threats if you break away; she has a number of types of lesbian too: cross-dressing comes up. And the initials of the characters can be linked to real women at the time – at the court, in the theaters. The characters are mostly anti-heroines.

She also repeatedly shows us a scholar who has written or worked on these who denies active sex. Trumbach for example says the women cross dress in order to pass unmolested; in fact her passages quoted show they are trying to make contact by so dressing.

Sources for some of these depictions of lesbian networks are French: Grimm’s famous Correspondence litteraire and semi-pornographic French novels, Histoire d’une Jeune Fille published by Pidansat de Mairobert.

She ends on a long piece on how what the documents show of Sappho’s life (a genuine lesbian or perhaps bisexual life) and the ways she has been presented. Again it has been a matter for most writers of either erasing her active lesbian feelings altogether or presenting them as secondary and overcome (rightly) by her heterosexual romance (mostly a concoction, especially the suicide) which is seen as the right and proper and comfortable thing. Pronouns changed in the two full poems we have (as was done with Shakespeare)

But again in the forefront of respected writers now and again she finds a truthful witness: Pierre Bayle. And outside the mainstream those who write frankly, but alas often derogatory or sneering kind of texts that have this lurid tone or attack Sappho or mock her.


Julia Kavanagh (1824-77), bluestocking spent her life studying women of letters (Davies has a Christine Kavanagh in his film, Room with a View)

Donoghue’s larger point that the reason we have no history of lesbianism is not that there was not one and probably very different in feel from these books is made over and over again. I’d say it was really more like what we find in the Bath bluestocking spinster groups and their texts which however are so severely censored (e.g., Sarah Scott, Sarah Fielding …)

So, gentle reader, the next time you hear the word “spinster” or “bluestocking” or phrases “maid and mistress” and “sentimental women’s friendship,” maybe instead of drawing away from something asexual, tedious, dull, you’ll turn to the texts as richly different.

As to Donoghue’s perspective, it’s deeply somber if you think about the stories the books tell of how women suffered from silencing, controlling them severely, erasing what they wrote or misrepresenting it, and ridiculing and treating as sick a whole subset of people.


Read Full Post »

Keeley Hawes as Kitty Butler and Rachael Stirling as Nan Astley, the failed couple (touching portrait photo)

Rachael Stirling as Nan Astley and Jodhi May as Florence Banner the successful couple (concluding scene of Tipping the Velvet)

Dear friends and readers,

I began reading Sarah Walters’s Tipping the Velvet as part of my project studying Andrew Davies’s movies. It’s the source text for one of his delightful transgressive mini-series. I had written about this wonderful novel briefly with two others on my Reveries under the Sign of Austen blog, but have revised the blog to make it about just two of Davies’s highly unusual heroine’s text romances: Wilderness and Harnessing Peacocks. Tbis blog is a genuine summary and review of just Tipping the Velvet, film and book.

Sarah Waters shows the real harm our present sexual and social arrangements cause. We experience how repression of the full panoply of sexual instincts by ostracizing people can cause. It reveals how terrible in the cost of so many lives ruined, lost, given no chance by an utterly unequal and wasteful distribution of the wealth. The costume drama is a masquerade to speaking to the reader about today.

Central to this novel is that lesbian relationships are not acceptable. Early in the book Alice, Nan’s sister turns from Nan absolutely, with repugnance, disgust: very painful even if presented in the airy manner of relatively careless youth and innocence in the novel’s early scenes. Her family has no place for her to live out her true decent emotional life. I note that Nan does not dwell on this. She could have but this kind of ceaseless pain is omitted. Simply, she finds she cannot go home again. The extent to which she drops her family may be seen in my not being able to remember her mother’s first name. This enables the book to seem jaunty and cheerful as she does not dwell on such pain and exclusion but the book reveals the effects of this. That is in effect the story.

A moment from Kitty and Nan’s act

Further, it ends in pity. What broke our two loving heroines up, Kitty and Nan up, was Kitty’s understandable fear of the being rejected and jeered at and ending up without employment or beaten up as “Tom.” Kitty’s willingness to live an utterly compromised life (have sex with a man, be married to a man) is not what Nan can do. And Kitty is left to live alone, a fake life.


Keeley Hawes as Kitty Butler with Nan: meeting in Nan’s room at Whitstable Oyster house

Part 1, Chapters 1-7:

Waters’s is just such a wonderful book. It’s the tone that makes it. Maybe I expected alienation, melancholy, loneliness, indirect anger through paradox, many qualities I associate with lesbian fiction. But no. It’s totally frank and direct, warm, easy, comfortable with the self. The heroine writes in the first person; it makes her unhappy that she must hide her sexuality and it would not be accepted by her family, is not by her sister, but other than that the prejudice of others does not seem to seep into the text as deep unhappiness or duplicity or self-hatred at all. In Chapters 2-3, Nan becomes Kitty’s dresser and they move to London, where she meets Kitty’s promoter and patron, the enigmatic Mr Bliss (that’s not his “real” name we are told, nor is “Butler” Kitty’s real name) and the other theatrical members of the boarding house at Brixton. It’s just a joy to read because of the tone, but what happens is not such a joy. They are poor, so is Whitstable where the family survives by fishing and selling oysters in a cafe. Nan does not dare approach Kitty for sex.

It’s refreshing and real.

It must be that there is not much happening and we are mostly in Nan our heroine’s mind as she goes out after her job as oyster girl in the evening first to the theater night after night, is noticed by Kitty Butler, invited in, becomes her unofficial dressed, and then takes her home for a visit and is finally herself invited to accompany Kitty to London. Davies gets all the action in thus far and that’s remarkable since this is a nearly 500 page book and the mini-series but 3 episodes.

Nan moves to London with Kitty; she meets the enigmatic Mr Bliss (that’s not his “real” name we are told, nor is “Butler” Kitty’s real name) and the other theatrical members of the boarding house at Brixton. After Nan joins Kitty on stage, the nature or feel of their act becomes more obvious, and one night in a moment of high success they are heckled and booed as “Toms!”

This seems to unnerve and terrify Kitty and she falls back on Walter Bliss, but he retreats and Kitty and Nan move from their boarding house to a more overtly respectable place, Stamford. They are a commercial success and are taken in by a pantomime company and there are just wonderful descriptions of Christmas pantomime with much insight into why they gratify adults as well as children. There are ominous notes about how Nan doesn’t know what is in Kitty’s mind, that despite their active love affair, Nan is lonely and she determines to visit home — Antaeus to the earth. Kitty will not go with her.

In the film adaptation, when Nan returns to Kitty, she has a harsh shock and surprise.

Usually I don’t like picaresque fictions and this is one. One sign of this is the introduction of new characters casually with little introspection. So for example, on p 149 Nan suddenly elaborates on her and Kitty’s dresser, Flora and Flora’s boyfriend, a young black man, Albert called “Billy-boy.” How discovering he has no talent for singing, he lives by hanging on, then becoming a tech person, all the while soaking up and enjoying the atmosphere and pleasures. Nothing within. My guess is that it’s because the narrative is so suffused with Nan’s subjective presence, and we are led (I am) to like her, I don’t mind the lack of introspection. This lack helps the optimistic kindly tone too — it does not seem that improbable since as we go we see pictures of much poverty, hard times, making do, and all from the outside, the stage, not at home or in the separate rooms people go to. A sweet Cabaret is what we have thus far.

And while the Tipping the Velvet mini-series is not given much praise by Cardwell, said to be crude or over-done, this not true at all. It’s delicate and has the same kinds of rhythms and scenes as other of his classic film adaptations. I found I could not get on with the film adaptation of Michel Faber’s Crimston Petal and White — not because it was not interesting — but because it’s done in this epitomizing packed-in style where you really have to have read the book to understand the movie. So I put the film aside (Jim downloaded it for me).


The heroine has become Nan King, a meditative moment

Part 2, Chapters 8-11

So Nan goes home and does not fit in at all. Her presents are not appreciated, and her family does not rejoice in her successes at all. Indeed she does not tell them for they do not seem to want to know. Only questions are for things like, has Kitty as suitor yet? She returns to find Kitty and Walter in bed with one another.

Here I found the first real change in Davies. First Kitty goes home with Nan and so much of the discomfort is not seen. Thus Davies softens considerably the effect and it is not about how one can’t go home again. Second when Nan catches Kitty and Walter in the book, Nan becomes violent. She bites Kitty, she becomes frantic and uses frank language of sexuality and is mocked by Walter as incapable of what she claims she did. (I’m now avoiding some words lest it be picked up by Yahoo’s vigilant software eager to sell porn ads.) In Davies there is no violence in Nan, no ugly language, no accusations. In the film Walter does not (as in the book) rush in and protect Kitty; it’s merely that Kitty prefers him. In the film Kitty seems more powerful but the whole sense of the scene’s passion is muted plus Kitty’s real reason which is to be conventional and safe.

All the dislike of Nan’s sexual orientation and how it does not fit in and causes this break is basically muted in the film.

I am puzzled by the next chapter (9). In film and book why does Nan not go back and get her suitcase of clothes and her money? She does take some of her earnings she finds in the theater, but most of it was in their flat. I can understand she becomes deeply depressed, goes and lives in the cheapest ugly place she can, avoids going out for a long time until her money is near run out but it’s just too destructive to not bring with her her larger earnings and woman’s clothes. Yes Kitty and Walter would see her, but so what? They would not prevent her from taking what was hers. Yes she does dislike being a woman, but she appears to the new landlady is bedraggled women’s things and she needs them.

Still the narrative follows the mini-series more of less. Now Nan is a “renter” on the streets, but we have more broad comedy of a Victorian grotesque type for she is taken in by two “simple” women who don’t know enough of broader life to work out quite what she does for a living and are glad of her company and money. I’m sorry Davies omitted this pair, and they are a rewrite of Victorian types in fiction

Portrait photo

The tone is probably unreal. We are expected to believe that this narrator can live on the streets in this way, service men in these degrading ways and remain cheerful. She also remains singularly upbeat up. She would have been beaten badly by this time I suspect tor been in ugly brawls. She’d drink more. But I admit it is the tone that makes the book such a delight. It reminds me of say Henry Fielding in his broad expansive acceptance of realities.

This is such a wish-fulfillment narrative and so strange to be one. It’s about this woman who falls to be a male prostitute doing the most degrading things; she lives with two desperately poor simple women. I think Davies chose to film it because he loves really odd stories that break taboos. We then (as in the film) get Nan meeting Florence. Florence is home-y, chunky, a social worker and they are attracted at first sight — across the way window to terrace and then while walking. (In the film the child is a baby her brother took in; in the book she comes and cares for other families and places them in decent housing when she can.) Then she is snatched up by the cruel selfish wealthy woman in the carriage (played by Anna Chancellor who is type cast this way — from Miss Bingley on) who startles Nan because she is a woman. That was where Nan was vulnerable: the chink in the armor was the unexpected woman. She was prepared for bad and violent and lying men.

Anna Chancellor as Diana with Nan dressed up as a Ganymede

Chapter 11 is a raw frank chapter. The descriptions of sex between the wealthy hard upper class exploitative Diana Lethaby (lethal is the allegory) are startling to me. Not lasciviously done, not prurient but graphic. For once Davies somewhat mutes his source. It’s clear too that Blake (played by Sally Hawkins in the film) is exploited as is Nan. Nan just gives herself over meekly. She also bids adieu to Grace and Mrs Milne. It’s a sad scene her deserting them. She also forgets her appointment with Florence. In the film she flees a restaurant she was in with Florence; this has less excuse. She is not frightened, guilty, uncomfortable, just forgets.

The point is really the desperation of everyone in this era for any chance at money or a comfortable life style.

Nan is startled at the artificial quiet of rich people’s neighborhoods. She has never experienced this before. The outward stateliness of money and its ruthless use by those who have it of those who don’t is before us. She is herself though becoming a worse person, becoming a thing too.


A street scene

Part 2, Chapters 12-14

When Nan as an impoverished street walker is picked up by the wealthy lesbian Diane Lethaby (the allegory stands for lethal), and brought to live with her in her mansion, Nan allows herself to be turned into a degraded toy. She is in effect owned by Diana, body and therefore soul. Lines show her like Lydia Bennet so thrilled with gifts, really toys, like her new watch, only this fiction shows us how painfully pathetic this is. We also get lines from Nan: as when she is paraded before Diana’s friends: “when I twitched and cried out there were smiles in the shadows; and when I shuddered, and wept, there was laughter” (p. 281). Nan loses all sense of time, space, as she is a kept enclosed despised thing.

Throughout the novel (as I said in my Reveries blog), Walters as Nan our narrator maintains this paradoxical cheerful or quietly sustained endurance tone, no matter how ugly or dangerous or foul her circumstances are (like when she works as a male prostitute in the streets). But now that Nancy has become Diana Lethaway’s doll gradually we see that the way Nan has gotten through life is somehow to anaesthetize herself, to cut herself off from real feelings. I asked why did Nan run away from Kitty and Walter that morning she caught them in bed without returning for her things at a minimum, and more money.

At last we are enabled to see it: for her birthday Diana dresses her up real fancy and takes her with a friend and the friend’s toy-woman-as-boy to the opera, and there Nan comes across for the first time in more than year someone from her old life. She breaks down completely. Her heart and pride can bear it no longer. And we hear of how it was intense paralyzed distress so great that kept her away from even those parts of London where she thought she might hear of Kitty.

Nan infuriates Diane by standing and talking to this friend. Then when she’s marched to her seat, she can’t stand the opera. I confess sometimes I dislike operas intensely too: people shrieking on stage, the antics often in the worst of taste (as in Mozart where the countess and her maid force the young boy page
into a frock and lock him into a closet – har har), and Nan flees (p. 291). She has been just such another object for too long. She has heard where Kitty is playing and gets herself there. And what does she see? Kitty is dressed as a boy, the child of Walter on stage who comes up to him suppliant like and plays to his wagging fingers like a dog. The audience likes this precisely because of
the humiliation implied too. Nan is sickened for her friend even if the friend doesn’t have the understanding and flees the theater.

It reminded me that this is what the world pays for. On TV reality shows. What are Kitty and Nan to do? Florence was a social worker living very meagerly and she is too plain to take Kitty and Nan’s options anyway. (Harnessing Peacocks for all its shallowness shows us a woman driven to prostitution, being
someone’s companion and cook in our era of joblessness.)

At last Waters has not been able to avoid it. She does not use anxiety as a tool to make us read on — which considering the desperate destitute straits to which Nan is reduced one would think she would. Or violence — as yet anyway. Rather desperation is the key motif.

Zena Blake (Sally Hawkins) appears to be assuaging loneliness in Nan’s kind arms

What happens is Nan becomes momentarily allied to Blake, the young maid in the house who is also sexually exploited. As in the film, Blake (played by Sally Hawkins) was rescued from an orphanage-reformatory and the way Diana bullies and terrifies her into obedience is to threaten to take her there. Comforting one another in part, Blake and Nan go to bed together, Diane catches them, and insane more with their defiance of her power than even her jealousy, she puts them back in the meager outfits she
picked them up in, and throws them out.


Nan and Florence begin to talk

Part 3, Chapter 15

Book 3 opens with them in the streets, no friends, no money, no where to turn. Something that could easily happen to women then.

Davies’s film omits Waters’s insightful horrified apprehension of how the women (and vulnerable people generally) are driven to degrade themselves to please a crowd and sell widely, but this more mainstream kind of critique of out society is there in spades in the film. They are show utterly destitute and clinging to one another in a filthy bed in a street hovel.

I became gripped by the book and couldn’t put it down, read
into late in the night steadily on and on (this is not a short book, these are not short chapters). Over on Eighteenth Century Worlds at Yahoo, I’d been saying that historical novels allow novelists to delve very uncomfortable material directly through the disguise of costume and analogous events.

Well as I read this one I thought about being homeless, I thought about destitution in our world There’s a sequence in Jane Eyre about this, when she flees Thornton Hall and it’s no coincidence the latest Jane Eyre film begins there and keeps coming back to Jane’s experiences of rejection, freezing, danger, hunger, a desperate hunt for someone to help her.

As in the film Blake (Zena is her first name) betrays Nan by stealing what money they have and fleeing. Unlike the film Blake is intensely angry at Nan, scolds her, blames her, and we get more of a sense that the betrayal is also a (unjustified but understandable) revenge.

The film has skipped Nan’s time with Mrs Milne and Gracie (the mother with her simple daughter) so we don’t get her return there. That’s a loss as she is so desolate because these two women were disinterestedly kind.

She then seeks out Florence (Jodhi May). It’s not as improbable as it seems that she does find Florence’s flat finally; she had seen Florence before because Florence resides in the same area among the same type people but doing social work. As in the film at first Florence is very hard and rejects her in part – though takes her in. Nan wins her over gradually by cleaning, cooking, being so eager.

Ironing: how one looks the role one takes

The brother is kinder from the get-go, as intrasexual antagonism is real. It’s overcome we see by fondness in Florence which is beginning to surface.

An improbability which has continued throughout: beyond the one sharp hard hit by Diana, Nan experiences no other violence, not in the streets, no where. No rapes. I don’t believe this especially after two long bouts of being a male/female prostitute too. Plus she ought to have frozen to death or starved. She is too well by the time she reaches Florence at any rate.

But we must have some fairy tale, must we not? or we would not have a happy ending. Costume drama does avoid real life and coming this close is bad enough.


At the Oyster Bar

Chaptera 17 – 18

The ending of Tipping the Velvet is upon me and what’s happened is Florence and Nan’s friendship and now near love liaison is flowering. They have gone to a bar filled with women couples, some dressed as men. Davies has this scene but he does not have Diana have a comeuppance which is unlikely. He also ends his series on a scene of Nan and Florence facing going home to Nan’s family. This is very good because this is hard. I can see that Waters’s does skip this and ends with a long conversation — a la Austen really — of Nan and Kitty talking where Kitty is trying to get Nan back. Austen often has a penultimate chapter with a long conversation between her heterosexual couple. Waters’s book seems to lack closure but the inconclusiveness and dialogue between Kitty and Nan brings us to a different aspect of what breaks women couples up.

While Davies does some things very right, he has to work within the limitations of his media: TV and a 3 part episode. Thus he does not do justice to the development of Nan’s relationship with Florence. We see how individual and unexpected people are. On the one hand, once Florence realizes Nan is a “Tom”, she opens up to Nan and they become fervent and she a frank bold lover; on the other, Florence is a strongly ethical woman and dismayed at Nan’s street life, her year with Diana, her apparent desertion of her family (though that is understandable she says given their reaction to you). Florence remains a strong socialist and Nan gets caught up in intense continual networking duties: the house becomes shabby again and Ralph (dear Ralph, so like men in many women’s novels, the sensitive brother type, no violent there) sweats away at his speech.

The treatment of the women by the men on the streets comes home to a modern woman reader — reminding me of the news-stories we’ve lately had and my own experiences. Historical fiction speaks to us today.

I know a meeting with Kitty is in the wings and know Nan turns her down. I’m glad I do or I’d be so anxious over it, for Waters had made Nan less than moral, capable of leaving the deep feeling Florence even now.


In the night

Chapter 19

I finished this one last night and the conclusion got me to thinking what we differently mean by “comfort” book. I think the phrase must be so individual, for what one person derives from a book that comforts them must be from their own life.

It ends with Kitty coming over to see Nan at the desk at the labor party gala and festival which is so successful. Ralph does not quite make his speech without much help from Nan, but then he does and I believe fervently the speech on behalf of socialism is intended for us today — we can only be happy as a people across the board if we have safety and justice and decent opportunity for all. It’s a clarion call. Of course I liked this and like the book for this shaping perspective throughout (as I do Graham’s Poldark books).

Then we drop to Kitty suddenly appearing and asking an to return to their life together, said that Nan knows she loves Kitty more than she does Florence — and love here means sexual attraction, having sex too, as well as deep memories of a first experience, of leaving home and their first times on the stage together Kitty says to Nan you know you don’t really believe in these politics, you care for individuals and your mind runs on particulars and pleasure. But it would mean including Walter and also living a half-lie for that’s what Kitty would want. Not that Florence and Nan are all that open but there is something craven and shamed about Kitty’s approach that Nan can’t bear. Nan refuses Kitty and turns back to Florence.

Florence is half-bitter and asks Nan, why she did not go with Kitty. Florence too asserts that Nan loves Kitty more. It’s in Nan’s response that my comfort came. Nan says because this is my home now. You are my family now, you and Ralph. You are decent good people who took me in, and I do love you much much more. Nan says Kitty’s behavior and the time lapsed have killed her love. This tender place is where I can be me and live as me. Nan then says she knows she’s not Lily, not earnest, doesn’t care about polticis all that much. And Florence replies in kind, that she’s been missing Lily for so many years, it got in the way of seeing Nan.

The baby is there, they hear the cheers from the audience inside the tent with Ralph and the sun casts it shadow and day and novel come to an end.


Read Full Post »

Winston Graham’s Cordelia, 1st page, 1949 Doubleday edition

Dear friends and readers,

A secondary project I’ve been progressing with this spring and summer is reading historical fiction — accompanied by watching film adaptations when there are any. This because I love the genre, for my paper this coming fall for EC/ASECS, and, in the case of Winston Graham, I’ve come to love his historical fiction. I took off time from reading his Poldark novels, set in the later 18th century and the very early 19th mostly in Cornwall, a bit in London, and phased, bits on the continent (Paris. Spain, the peninsula war. Brussels), to see what would be the difference when he wrote a novel set in the 19th century, and what features would still appear. I read a novel still in print, Cordelia, set in a 19th century city and suburb, about a young woman led to marry into a wealthy dye-factory industrialist family. Cordelia imitates 19th century novels but is really about 20th century concerns through them. The subject for this one is the nature of independence, and the central character a paradoxically independent woman.

Like the Poldark novels, it’s an intelligent well-researched tactful fiction whose surface imitates novels written in the era and whose themes speak to the modern reader through the use of the earlier ear’s terms as a metaphor. I enjoyed it very much, but must admit it’s not as alluring nor absorbing as the Poldark books as it lacks a deep-rooted feel of landscape, specifically Cornwall and from this place the rhythms of life, a pervasive sense of local life. The Poldark magic is that of a beloved regional as well as historical fiction.

Cordelia is still very good, and its central themes are analogous to those of the Poldark books: the importance of liberty to his characters transmutes into the necessity for independence for them. When people emigrated from the UK in the 19th century, they often spoke not of seeking some idyllic place, but “independence.” They meant escape from the patronage system where they lived which they had experienced as intensely oppressive or exclusionary. The word is used by Graham in this novel to suggest that you need economic to have personal independence. The novel is an exposure of Victorian patriarchy sexual and economic in an industrial suburb of a great Victorian city.

Mr Fergusson, the successful industralist-father can rule everyone in the house with a powerful personality and also because he has complete control over the wealth of the factory, and Brook, his son, has not been trained by him to do anything remunerative work in that factory. Brook is a sensitive writerly type susceptible to bullying — as his previous wife, Margaret, recently dead as the novel opens was not. She defied this old man openly while the other of the people in the house, a seemingly eccentric uncle, a Darwinist, Huxleyite, Uncle Pridey (who studies mice) and a seemingly simple-minded aunt, Trish, sneak around or simply obey him. The book opens with Mr Fergusson successfully pressuring his son to marry quickly, Cordelia Blake, a pretty clock-maker’s daughter, who begins by being an able apparently cooperative wife and daughter-in-law. The novel takes place in Manchester and the business of the Fergussons is dyeing cloth in a large factory. The factory also imprints designs pre-made elsewhere on cloth and then proceed to dye that.

Manchester Town Hall, later 19th century

The story is about the growing rebellion of Brook and then Cordelia against the stifling Victorian life the intensely controlling Mr Fergusson imposes on them. She is the oldest daughter of a clockmaker who has done well whom she is very fond of and he here. Mr Fergusson fancies himself and is relatively liberal (beyond whiggish he can see the justice of some workers’ demands, of even extending the franchise), except to his family, and especially son. A densely decorated snobbish home, intensely repressive ways of coping with sex. Cordelia was to replace Margaret, the previous wife he commandeered his son to marry, an upper class woman who dared to clash with him daily and over religion. She died young and as the novel evolves, the question is, Why? She left a diary which Cordelia has just found.

An early incident shows the way Mr Fergusson operates. He will pretend to have to go out when an unwanted visitor comes and returning early to discover himself disobeyed. He then uses all sorts of norms which are shown to be illegimate to control behavior. So he wants to cut Cordelia off from her family and tries to stop her visits and makes her family uncomfortable when they do visit. They are much less rich and this is easy to do without revealing the motive that he wants no one in the house really to have friends outside. Mr Blake, Her father has given her a beautiful tall clock for her wedding gift, and Mr Fergusson insists on relegating it to her and Brook’s bedroom not the front hall downstairs which it is made to be. When Mr Blaker, her father, visits during a time Mr Fergusson said he would be gone, she moves the clock downstairs in order to please her father. Of course Mr Fergusson comes home early and after the Blake family leaves, he picks a high quarrel with Cordela. Very like some Trollope male characters, Mr Fergusson will not discuss the merits of what she did, just demands complete obedience. Unlike Trollope in many instances, we are here supposed to dislike the father for what he is doing.

The novel includes portraits of hypocritical Darwinists — Fergusson’s friend, Mr Slaney-Smith, who may domineers over others using Huxley’s views, but also goes in for seances, of people who run music halls. A young entrepreneur, Stephen Crossley, who runs a chain of music halls sets up a (false) seance for Cordelia’s father-in-law and his friend. In the seance was revealed that Margaret, died in mysterious circumstances; Mr Massington, her brother had come to visit to get her diary, and Cordelia had found her things and diaries in the attic. She is led to go up into the attic, find and read parts of it. They are gothic documents appearing to reveal a past that will expose this father-in-law’s cruelty, perhaps criminal behavior to his first daughter-in-law.

Cordelia’s rebellion emerges because she does not love Brook, is only fond of him, and is drawn to the stronger independent character of Stephen; Stephen in turn longs to seduce her, tells himself he loves her, and seeks to allure her away from the house. She visits his music hall at first with her Fergusson relatives and then alone. He begins to turn up at her parents’ house, and slowly she does fall in love.

What is very Graham and also found in the Poldark novels (and his Marnie, the one mystery book by Graham I’ve read thus far) is the longing for sexual love and romance outside marriage by a chaste heroine where we are not to reject her. About a third of the way into the novel Cordelia, has full sex with Stephen Crossley (committed adultery would be the phrase some might use), and there is someone in the house who knows about them (perhaps Uncle Pridey). Cordelia has learned that perhaps Margaret’s death was helped along by too many sleeping pills and become alienated from Brook who allowed this and quietly hostile to Mr Fergusson. (Graham’s interest in medicine in the Poldark books and how it operates is to the fore here.)

Graham picks up on issues of interest in 19th century fiction, such as bigamy and blackmail, children who are fathered by someone other than the legal father; women having real careers. Cordelia does almost elope with her lover; she is stopped because a blackmailer stalks her and Stephen Crossley one night in the music hall, a fight ensues, and the huge crowd panics and a fire spreads. This is of course a fictional set up and it’s accompanied by Brook’s becoming very sick, a psychosomatic disorder which is also semi-pneumonia; she makes herself his devoted nurse. By the time the two incidents are sorted out (the fire, the illness), Cordelia has also discovered Stephen has a wife already: he is a potential bigamist and has been lying to her. The family firm needs an heir and when her pregnancy becomes obvious, Brook (whom she likes) rejoices as does Mr Fergusson. It would be a complete betrayal of her own nuclear biological family, her beloved father, ruin her sisters’ chances to marry well, hurt her mother badly, if she eloped and shamed them, plus her infant would be forever ostracized, an outcast. Mr Fergusson, had also taken Cordelia, who he respects and therefore likes on a tour of the factory with a view to allowing her to become a third manager. That did happen in Victorian times: Margaret Oliphant has such a woman in Hester; Kirsten becomes a businesswoman in London by the end of the novel named after her.

So, Cordelia stays and has a baby, Ian, whom she attributes to her husband but is probably not his (as he didn’t manage to impregnate his first wife). This motif is found in the Poldark novels: Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark gives birth to a child by Ross Poldark and presents it as her wealthy husband, George’s.

Ross Poldark (Robin Ellis) quarrelling with Elizabeth Warleggan (Jill Townsend) over how to protect their boy child, Valentine

There is a scene of fierce fighting (rising to hatred at moments) between Cordelia and Stephen when Stephen realizes she won’t leave the husband as there are such scenes between Elizabeth and Ross and also Elizabeth and George (once he suspects the truth). This motif is then not a matter of what’s appropriate for the 19th century historical fiction, but something particular to Graham’s fiction. (As is marital rape.)

A distinctly 19th century dramatized not found in the Poldark books is that of suicide as well as religious doubt (rather than hypocrisy). Two of the characters in the novel may have killed themselves, at a minimum they self-destructed. The first, Margaret, probably did not literally destroy herself (her pills are found); the second, Mr Slaney-Smith, also rich from trade about to be exposed does shoot himself. Mr Fergusson is troubled about religion. All but the open disquiet about religion are motifs found in Trollope’s novels: the young woman who tries to self-destruct (say Nina Balatka), the male who shoots himself through the head (in The Bertrams, The Last Chronicle of Barset) or inflicts high violence on himself (Ferdinand Lopez throws himself under a train).

[I tell the last turn of the book to show its superiority to many romance historical fictions with their supposed happy endings.] What happens at the close of this novel is unexpected except when you thought about it, it was the probable unromantic yet best feelingful one.

The center of the book has been a critique of patriarchy through the story of a domineering industrialist and how he has warped and destroyed his children, a Dickens’ theme, e.g.

Matthew MacFayden as Arthur Clenham, a depressed young man, hurt by his businesswoman tough mother very badly (2008 Little Dorrit)

At last Brook the one son Mr Fergusson has left (we discover two have died) upon whom he imposed our Cordelia rebels: Brook goes to London, manages to get his book of poems paid attention to and is told now if he will put 5000 pounds into a publishing endeavour he can have a job as an editor of a journal the group want to set up. His father has given him and Cordelia a share in the management of the firm and its moneys and he thinks he can get his hands on this amount of money. This is his one chance to live out the life that is within him (George Eliot’s words in Daniel Deronda).

Mr Fergusson remorselessly thwarts Brook. There is a a clause in the contrast saying only 500 pounds can be pulled out in any one year. This is the handle Mr Fergusson uses to squash Brook’s chance to go off on his own and become or find himself. The clash of father and son is powerful; it brings on a renewed psychosomatic illness in the young man again, a return of his pneumonia and he dies. The crisis precipitates Cordelia’s flight to London where the tyant’s (so to speak) younger brother, Uncle Pridey, not so young any more, has managed to escape and is living in lodgings enacting a life off of his Darwinian book. After Brook’s death she had been subjected to a long session with the father-in-law where he opens his heart and needs to her — his desire to continue the firm with her son — by her lover. His religious doubts which he imposes on others perversely. Her reaction is to save herself and her son from this man’s grip.

So, she takes a train to London, wanders, and finds her exlover, Stephen, in one of his music halls with a new mistress, and one expects that there will be a love tryst and a romantic ending. But no although Stephen as lover is altogether willing to start up again, she never gets so far as to tell him her boy is his. Left free by Brook’s death, they begin to quarrel over their attitude towards his near-bigamy and especially his willingness to lie to her; she sees how vulnerable she is with just her legacy, how her boy will now have very little and decides to return to Manchester.

Although in different circumstances, Nan Astley (Rachel Stirling) returns to Whitstable at the close of Tipping the Velvet to renew her solid tie with her family

As Cordelia comes into the house, we are reminded of her deep friendship with a humane doctor, Robert Birch, who has been a moderating influence — shades of Mrs Gaskell we are to foresee a marriage there. Mr Fergusson seen in a less hysterical light is growing older and more tired, not easy to deal with but this is her place and her boy’s. Uncle Pridy will be returning on and off. How can she desert the partly disabled old aunt Tish, her father and family not far off. (A visit by the father happened just before her flight.)

So, the carved signature on the fireplace that opened the book did not tell a DuMaurier type tale of someone who fled long ago. In fact it was not even fully carved by Cordelia, but finished off by the whimsical uncle. The story of the poisoning we expected from the gothic diary turns out to be literally false, a matter of hidden pills never consumed, but there was a woman destroyed by her inability to withstand realities of people which we see Cordelia can manage. There is a bleakness here too, an acceptance of what is that I liked very much too.

Cordelia’s romance also reminds me of the Poldark novels in that Cordelia’s nature reminds me of Demelza and the man ruthlessly pursuing her, Stephen Crossely, is very like the renegade amoral Stephen Carrington who pursues Demelza and Ross’s daughter, Clowance. Graham is an instinctive feminist for this is a novel seen through Cordelia’s eyes who in turn is now rummaging into the mind of her husband’s previous wife and her diary mind reminds me of many a gothic sensibility. It’s compelling reading for me for again the same vision of life, the tone of mind is at work. I love the strong scepticism about social psychology and group behaviors, local ambitions, moral cant and the quietism at the core which comes out now and again explicitly in the thoughts of the heroine and villain-hero, Stephen Crossley — for he is the hero of the piece. A villain because he had a mistress in London who he has now deserted — or set up in a separate business and then dropped.

The comic characters include Uncle Pridey who does carve out a quiet independence for himself by his room filled with mice, his laboratory, his haunting concerts, taverns, and lectures about natural selection, and finally getting his book on mice into print. Uncle Pridey takes Ian to the zoo (then in London) during the time Cordelia seeks Stephen out.

At one point in the novel Cordelia has just finished reading aloud Mr Trollope’s The Warden, and she and Brook are about to begin Barchester Towers (its sequel, said to be very good, a must read).Historical fiction has many pleasures, not least of which is the piquancy of “in” recognition.

Donald Pleasance as Mr Harding, the warden (1983 BBC Barchester Chronicles)


Read Full Post »

Susannah Harker as Mattie Storin (1991 House of Cards)

Dear friends and readers,

As I wrote about 10 days ago, I have returned to my project and Austen movies book, and have determined to have a two part chapter on Andrew Davies Austen films. The first will be an interlude in Part Two, itself on the Sense and Sensibility films, “A Place of Refuge,” thus far 5 chapters. The interlude will be on Davies’s Austen films in the context of Davies’s oeuvre and it’ll be followed by the 6th and final chapter of the part: contextualizing Davies, Pivcevic and John Alexander’s 2008 JA’s S&S by the other S&S films and what I can discern of Pivcevic and Alexander’s work.

To do this I’ve been re-looking at all my notes, my blogs, re-watching some of the Davies’s films I had seen and watching a few lesser known new ones, especially those in a different genre, with a larger social vision, not romance films so much as politically and socially critical (or broadly aware) ones. I’m trying to see what really unites all these films. I find Cardwell’s division of Davies’s work into 1) films based on classic famous books and 2) films based on hardly known, semi- or popular classics obscures important qualities which the films share when you re-group them in other ways. My argument will be that Davies’s films are better seen as belonging to a genre, after that against their specific eponymous book, and only after that whether it’s a classic or non-classic book. It does matter if the book has a cult following; then he dare not alter the matter too much, but many classic books are not well remembered by the few readers who have read them anyway.

I also want to disagree with Sarah Cardwell’s book on Davies, or, to put it another way, qualify what she has to say by showing that Davies’s films are far darker and more pessimistic than she concedes, that they delve into the question of human and social evil, are sceptical, show a fascination with cruel sociopaths, and persistently present homoerotic couples and sex, as part of the subversion of the repressive unreal norms he finds so pernicious of enjoyment, happiness, fulfillment.

In my first blog on Davies this summer, I summarized what I had been watching since April and my findings on these, concentrating first on the romance visions (1983 Diana out of R. F. Delderfeld, 2007 Room with a View out of E. M. Forster. Then I had a brief excursis on Davies’s Tailor Panama where he is deliberately marginalized in the credits though it’s clear he wrote the script out of John LeCarre’s novel as it has all his trademarks, including a homoerotic couple at the center:

Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush) and Andy Osnard (Pierre Brosnan) (2001 Tailor of Panama)

Finally I discerned a pattern that many of Davies’s films of social vision share with other of these Anglo- film adaptations: a young man of a lower class finds himself invited to become or forced to appear more upper class, is brought to a huge rich house where he is at first uncomfortable and then taken in, though only for a time. To Davies’s three I described there (Diana, Tailor of Panama, Line of Beauty), I want tonigh to add a few notes about on a remarkable chilling dark romance or highly erotic film, the 2009 Sleep with Me (adapted from Joanna Briscoe’s novel) and Davies’s remarkable trilogy of mini-series (4 parts each) Davies adapted from Michael Dobbs’s political thriller novels, House of Cards, To Play the King, The Final Cut.


Lelia (Jodhi May) and Sylvie (Anamaria Marinca), the transgressive homoerotic couple in Sleep with Me

Andrew Davies and his film-making team concoct a powerful chilling movie out of Joanna Briscoe’s poor novel. Brisoe equates contemporaneity with crudity in gesture; a deliberately hard demotic style is cultivated. She is in no danger of any accusation of oversensitivity in nuances — though her conception of her characters and her fable feels compelling at first: it seems a young couple are gradually infiltrated by a quietly menacing ghost who sends the husband emails about her abject life with her mother.

Davies’s Sleep with Me is another of this type he did with Elizabeth Janeway Howard’s Falling — and also his re-do of Shakespeare’s Othello.

What all these movies do is concentrate on some character who others would call evil or “sick” and dismiss them, and show them to be very dangerous, someone the healthy and vulnerable must keep away from, but someone who is ill, really emotionally ill. In the case of Sleep with Me Davies has forayed into the area of the gothic — which the book does — to come up with Sylvie (Anamaria Marinca), a scary, creeply kind of character who we are asked to believe murdered her brother when the brother was a baby out of jealousy and now lives a socially isolated life (in part) and preys on others to wreak and destroy their relationships.

Sylvie and Richard (Adrian Lester)

It’s the ghostly and vampiric character of Sylvie that endows the film with its gothic mood and perspective.

One review rightly says that the film (and book too) delves into sexuality. Davies makes clear the most uncomfortable kinds of sexual experience people rarely admit to in front of themselves, much less talk about or enact even on stage.

For my part I found myself wondering (I’ll sound Victorian here) if this movie is not more unhealthy, far more than say The Piano Teacher. I wrote that that one was not pornographic and all that happened was justified as good insight into human character. I think I absolved that film of pornography because by the end I felt I had been given genuine ethical compass and help by the end of the film. At the end of Sleep with Me there was a justification of the cruelty and demand that we sympathize with the cruel person and respect the kind of sex she led others into (the type that can form dependency) that made me feel if this isn’t pornographic (it wasn’t, it was inhibited in the presentation), Sleep with Me did justify the basis of pornography, infliction of violence and cruelty by saying it’s just the result of someone’s emotional illness and so therefore somehow okay plus nothing we can do anything about. That may be true. If so, the world’s a dangerous place — gothic in fact.

Jodhi May had decided for this one (apparently), as Lelia, a young woman living with a black partner, Richard (Adrian Lester), she needed to appear young, and she had lost a lot of weight for this one. I almost didn’t recognize her at moments … well, only almost.


Roger O’Neill (Miles Anderson) visits Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson)

I was startled at House of Cards: it’s a fantasy, really over the top theatrics; the victim at the end is the reporter, Mattie, played wonderfully well by Susannah Harker. What was superb about this film was Davies’ connection with the Iago/Richard III/Macbeth Francis Urquhart played inimitably, unforgettably by Ian Richardson — and also with the victims: either the pathos of the alcoholic blackmailed weakling O’Neill, the man who can’t cope with the world (every family has one says the prime minister) and Davies’s insight that it’s because the man is a genuinely good and feelingful person he can’t make it, and Mattie Storin the girl who is led by the allurement and glamor of power to her destruction.

For me it’s particularly telling to see Davies insist that Mattie related to FU as her “Daddy”

Mattie offering herself to Urquhart (later as Daddy)

for this queasy incestuous motif is one Davies’s insists on, builds up in his 1996 BBC Emma

In the case of the first book, Dobbs had killed off the villain-hero, Richard III-Macbeth type (in Davies) Francis Urquhart and let Mattie live triumphant (so good wins out). Davies reversed that and so left room for more sequels. Upon the success of the first mini-series, Dobbs wrote two more novels, doubtless with Davies’s in mind (the way Helen Fielding went on to write another Bridget Jones Diary book after the success of the Davies’ film).

All three (To Play the King and The Final Cut too) are right in Trollope’s vein of high politics exposed. They are yet braver because Trollope eschews all particular comment and refuses to present a clear case for liberal or reformist measures; indeed his rhetorical statements by the narrator are often pro-landlord, adamently pro-capitalist. Not Davies. He exposes the hypocrisy and nonsense of berating people for not doing hard work: there are no jobs to do hard work for. The series anticipates his South Riding in this way; the social engagement of South Riding resembles that of his Anglo-Saxon Attitudes. All these movies come together in themes, perspective, character types.

To Play the King is very pessimistic and yet we have an ideal king in the center. We see how easy it is to sneer and decry people who are “lazy” instead of showing that there the way to make useful work is spend money through taxes on social services, communities, and agencies to build an make better lives for those without power.

The king (Michael Kitchen) addressing the nation on TV

A feature in the second DVD for To Play the King shows the ludicrous response at the time by some pro-Royalist people: they were indignant that Davies dared to allude to Charles and Diana, and imbecillically leaped on a single line in the three mini-series to argue indignantly Davies had implied Charles regularly had prostitutes in his quarters. It shows their bad sordid dreams for it’s a real stretch of that line.

Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson)

The third mini-series, Final Cut, is an astonishingly brave film. Like Trollope’s political books in the Pallisers, each one of the three books brings out another level or area of critique of the savagely unjust violent war we live in. Each novel and set of films seems to open another area of misery and corruption inflicted on people — so here in the last series, Final Cut, what’s exposed is the murderous personal ambition that fires all the lies and violence in colonialized areas. The realities behind the Falklands war is exposed absolutely.

We see many things Orwellian: how the rule of law is invoked when what is happening is brutal violence repressing the poor so that the natural resources of the place (Cyprus) may be milked by the rich in the UK and lucky in Cyprus. Among many small exposes, we see that the freedom of information act offers information as long as it does not give away what individuals did the horrors. So it keeps powerful individuals in the army and powerful gov’ts protected.

Davies beats out LeCarre for the clarity with which the political perspective is worked out and made insistent upon us.

Wonderfully witty and funny is Thatcher’s funeral. Davies was attacked for staging her funeral. It seems she was not dead yet. This is a satirist’s drive: Swift would imagine people dead who had not died and it made them nervous. As with To Play the King what was attacked openly showed idiots who didn’t get the point at all, not those who understood what was being exposed. How dare Davies not be respectful in the depiction of the funeral. It’s funny the stupidity of what people seize upon. Apparently the Thatcher funeral was not in the original book by Dobbs and he insisted on having his name taken off the credits if the film-makers went through with this. They did.

The technique of all three mini-series is to startle you. So Francis throws Mattie Storin off the roof, picks her up and hurls and with a loud thud she splatters all over a car. The body guard thug, Cordor (alluding to Cawdor in Shakespeare’s Macbeth), probable lover and sidekick of Elizabeth Urquhart (Diane Fletcher), Francis’s wife, blows up those who are going to inform the public that Francis killed Mattie — sudden firebomb cars. The Final Cut opens with Francis shooting his dog dead. It’s chilling. Of course the theme is he’s going to be killed or destroyed from old age. The series ended on a Hamlet note. Elizabeth, now emerging as a cool Lady Macbeth with a hired killer-thug, sees that Urquhart is a liability; has killed too, so instead of murdering those who know he murdered peasants in Cyprus ruthlessly and without cause, are not done away with. Urquhart is. And what happens? Makepeace (Paul Freeman) who had tried to act morally is put in charge, but we feel no longer will. He has the thugs working for him now.

A parallel is an incident the mini-series opens up with: thugs hitting the prime minster’s car. They are simply gunned down. When a cabinet minister asks for clarification in the report, he’s told more details can be had but the interpretation, that criminals in road rage were responsible and understandably kill, will remain the same.

So letting formation out does not help because power structuring remains the same.

Flaws: it’s all so individualized and we are made to believe only a few of these mafia type thugs kill We see British officers not wanting to murder children, wanting to do the right thing. So one could say see it’st he bad eggs that do this, not the nature of the nest and what happens to all the eggs in it.

Also again a woman is put at the center for a semi-sexual interest. It begins to be a cliche by the third time. Sex though is depicted so naturalistically I had to avert my eyes. Especially between older people. On the other hand by continually bringing back Mattie Storner’s story and death Davies makes us fear FU. We also have Nikolas Grace as a variant on the dependent aide — he’s a quiet gay type — the vulnerable male type from Nicholas Farrell as the King’s aide to Charles Collingride, the kind man:

Matty and Collingridge, a sense of their humanity strong here.

For the woman viewer and feminist reader it’s telling that all three films must have a scapegoat at the center who is either a woman the villain seduces & murders (or has murdered) or a gay (vulnerable male as a substitute.

I did find myself getting anxious for some of the characters in each program: Mattie and John (William Chubb), Makepeace, the Greek girl who is seeking to know who killed her brothers and where they are buried, lest FU (what a joke) kill them too. After all he has gotten away with much before. The power of fiction comes from our caring about the characters and I do in Davies’s films.

To conclude: My days are adventures in following Andrew Davies. I was startled at the trilogy House of Cards/ToPlay the King/Final Cut. Great dark satire relevant to today because inbetween these he did the utopian Middlemarch. I can’t think of more different text-films. Today I’m reading another hard satire on wide ranges of society, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (Wilson) and am about to watch the movie for a second time.

Gerald Middleton (Richard Johnson) remembering: the film makes a social vision an introspective journey of a hurt mind (Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, Part 1)

My next Davies’ film blog will be on briefly on a few films again, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, Wilson’s novel as well as Davies’s film. And then I’ll move onto Sarah Water’s Tipping the Velvet and Affinity, Victorian lesbian novels – and Davies’s films once again (perhaps with his 2006 The Chatterley Affair).


Read Full Post »

Nick Guest (Dan Steevens), opening shot of hopeful young man dazzled by wealth, power (Line of Beauty, 2006)

Nan Astley (Rachel Stirling) and Florence Banner (Jodhi May), closing moments, seasoned real friendship, bravely going to introduce themselves to family (Tipping the Velvet, 2002)

Dear friends and readers,

I decided to group the remaining Andrew Davies films I meant to cover differently when I realized after watching his recent Fanny Hill (2007),

Fanny (Rebecca Knight) amid the ladies

that an important undercurrent in Davies’s films is a strong support for unconventional sexual life, which comes out in not only his openly GLBT films but those whose source books have a predominantly heterosexual bias. In his Moll Flanders (2010), the slyly comic-poignant point is made in an invented scene where Moll feels guilty that not she not help her good loving friend, Annie (Catherine Trowbridge) to escape the police (her usual “what could she do?” comes out less aggressively), and it’s her fault her friend cannot plead her belly: her friend is not pregnant too, for they pleased themselves, stayed lovers:

Alex Kingston missing her friend (see the indent in the empty pillow)

Will the injustices against non-heterosexual people never cease?

This blog covers more concisely (and with less stills than usual), Tipping the Velvet, The Line of Beauty, Fanny Hill, and Davies’s marvelous Room with A View (2007)

Mark Williams as Mr Beebe waiting for his friends to jump in too

Davies’s Moll Flanders I’ve discussed already with his He Knew He Was Right

To begin with, Tipping the Velvet, adapted from a neo-Victorian lesbian novel. I’ve not read any of Sarah Walters’ books, and can see this one plays off a love of Victorian literature, only here the characters do things they never do in your average Mudie’s Library book. It was interesting to me how much freer the costume part of the film adaptation felt — as if the mise-en-scene itself was made to feel at another remove from the usual historical costume scene.

Some of the scenes did make me uncomfortable, or I wanted to look away. It wasn’t the lesbian sex (of which there was a lot and frank physical scenes), but rather some of the cruelty and rejection the women subjected one another to based on class and the heterosexual world inflicted on the gay women — partly out of a sheer disbelief.

Since I’ve been reading about how if we slightly redefine slavery as not permanent chattel status, we discover it’s alive and well in the 20th century (an important book with an argument that it’s fatuous and false to say slavery would have died in the US without a war as slavery is ever profitable), it was interesting to me to see the theme of women and the vulnerable and powerless turned into forms of slaves through prostitution, debt, having no one to turn to (there was no state help whatsoever).

Nevertheless, on the whole, Davies’s film was a sort of positive bildingsroman – the same conditions obtain in Bleak House and there there is no lightness about it whatsoever. No one dies bitterly; people just disappear or go their half-merry or desperate way. At the conclusion our heroine finds herself and ends up with the good kind loyal lover (Jodhi May, who seems to play this type), rather than the inconstant untrustworthy one (Keeley Hawes) who also had star billing:

A poignant tender moment on stage

or the downright bully and spirit-breaker, Anna Chancellor, as sapphic socialiite (she plays hard types typically; hard Miss Bingley from the 1995 P&P that was):

The rich, powerful and therefore lethal, Diana Letherby

Some of my favorite actresses were in it: Sally Hawkins was a desperate thieving maid, Zena Blake:

Lonely, she offers her body, but the next morning Nan finds she has been fleeced

I’ve noticed another pattern in Davies: repeatedly he has female producers and often female directors and producers. Also he likes the use of the sea (and how much melancholy and energy he got out of that in his 2008 Sense and Sensibility), the beach, and to show us when he can working class scenes.

A characteristic Davies’s moment from the end of the film

A subplot concerned a socialist brother (played wonderfully by Hugh Bonneville) of one of our heroines giving speeches; a baby adopted when it has no one else; and finally older people wanting sex with the young (here a woman is the older powerful one).

It was the ending I liked. The scene of our heroines together now (Nan and Florence), holding hands on the beach and turning to visit our Nan’s childhood home. Seasoned, independent, supportive.

Here’s an article to show how women are usually represented in the media.

By contrast, Davies’s adaptation of Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize winner, Line of Beauty. is deeply bitter frequently. Davies’s Tipping the Velvet, despite some ravaging misery and exploitation, has on the whole an upward turn and readily ends happily. At the end of all three parts of Line of Beauty, there was a devastating parting, never brought on by Nick, but always the other person or people, who either claim they are realistic or simply dump him, however reluctantly with ease:

Leo Charles (Don Gilet) moving off and on

The difference is partly Tipping the Velvet is costume drama set in another century: this is ever finally fantasy and the level of probability we expect is lower. But it’s also due to a reality that lesbian couples simply aren’t recognized automatically as such and two women can set up housekeeping together infinitely more easily.

A central theme in Hollinghurst’s book which makes it over to Davies’s film is the life of the homosexual male is twisted and perverted by having to hide it, being subject to blackmail, and the reality that often the male who can pretend to be heterosexual or act out a bisexual life can get the world’s prizes so will scuttle his relationship with a man. This is the story of Clive in Forster’s Maurice; and an undertext story in Henry James. Raven in his masterpiece, Fielding Gray (a gay classic like Wilde’s Dorian Gray) takes this further showing how the blackmail aspect of life allows spite, rivalry and endless punishments wreaked on a gay man who wants to fulfill himself.

Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty descends from Henry James in the subgenre gay novel. Eva Sedgwick goes into this: one feature is the quietly or implicitly gay (closet) homosexual male. I had thought Fielding in Fielding Gray showed Raven’s allegiance with Henry Fielding (he’d probably despise Clarissa with distrust of women) with Gray an homage to Dorian, but now I see Fielding refers to a possibly homosexual man, Fielding in Forster’s Passage to India (which I”m listening to now as read by the golden voiced David Case, also a gay man), who however marries. His deepest relationship is with the Indian man accused of rape, Azziz, to whom Fielding remains loyal at possible real cost to himself. The “signal” allusion that this book belongs to this subgroup is Nick Guest begins the novel by being someone working on a graduate thesis on Henry James. He gives it up as the years wear on in the book. One difference — and it goes on hurting Nick right and left is Nick is openly gay.

To return to the film, after winning some awards, it dropped out of sight. I don’t wonder. Not only openly gay, the ending is courageous enough to have no false uplift. Within the film Nick himself wants to make a film of James’s Spoils of Poynton and finds the enough of the film-makers insist on changing the story so we don’t have a cheated old woman at the center to make the whole presentation utterly false to James’s novel.

The end of the filmic story was inherent and the very point in the beginning. It’s been very easy to drop Nick all along because it’s so easy to pick him up: he is shown to have no recourse and nothing he can give others when he wants to hold onto them (like the lover at the end of the first part). It was to be expected and the foreshadowing began in the second part. In the last part we see from the get-go he is increasingly used as an errand boy. He gives all as in this scene where he has been kind to the daughter, Catherine Ferrens, whom the mother to cater to her husband, neglects:

Alice Krige as Rachel Fedden, cannot be there in order to keep her husband, the powerhouse Thatcherite worshipping hypocrite philanderer, Gerald

Gerald (Tim McInnery) with his stern face

It didn’t distress me — it seems what would be and as I like tragic closes that seem right from the premises so I liked this close. It was not tragic since Nick is not a tragic hero, but more ironic — as 20th century works often are.

Lots of little incidents about many aspects of Nick’s life along the way contribute to the richness of this story: one about sexuality and women, is Nick’s close Muslim friend’s near marrying a rich heterosexual girl. Another is due to his connection with the Ferrens’ family he gets a job as an editor of a magazine which comes out with one rich issue before he’s ejected by the family. I mention this as part of what I called Hollinghurst (and before him) James’s gay awareness; an awareness of the so many indirect things that cannot be sustained as a result of being sexually and socially marginalized.

So, at the close our hero is thrown out of the palaces:

He’s often photographed to the side of the screen, slightly apart from the others, his eye the alienated oe looking on.

But not to worry one guy leaves him a building (it’s real and really owned, with real tenants in a good location) which may support him for the rest of his life.

Rich Muslim friend comforting Nick; the friend apparently had everything, including a rich arranged wife; he commits suicide

Nick is expelled because his masters (so they have become), his apparently family and good connections have gotten embroiled in a scandal which exposes them as utter phonies, and the male honcho has to resign from parliament. His wife learns about his promiscuity. The daughter finally leaves.

So Nick Guest ends with a prize (a small part of the take — which in a poem by an American male poet I came across a while back is presented as the real American dreams) and a strong kick by those who have no other dog nearby to kick and know they can kick him with impunity.

And why can they kick him so easily; call him ugly names; why hasn’t he a family to turn to? Because he’s openly gay. It’s this sort of thing I was referring to when I said James has characters like this and uses them to make general meanings. It provides the bitter ending of Fielding Grey by Simon Raven – whose film adaptation of the Pallisers is shaped by his strong identification with outsiders, stronger than Trollope’s own as coming from a different really alienating experience

This film enabled me to I’ve picked up on another element in the typology of Austen males; three of the actors who have been chosen to play Edward Ferrars also have played successfully important star roles as gay men. Robin Ellis, Edward in 1971, was the closet gay man in Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala Europeans; Hugh Grant in 1996 Clive in Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala Maurice, and now Dan Steevens in 08 (a brilliant much more effective Edward), Nick Guest in Line of Beauty.

Nick as a name and narrator, the everyman, also has resonances from Fitzgerald’s Gatsby to Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time.

There have been articles about the use of sensitive, emotional typologies in leading males who are also conventionally sexy for Austen movies since the
1990s (most notably Colin Firth, Alan Rickman), but nothing about this reaction in movies to Austen’s undermining of macho maleness in her books. Nor about the use of Mark Strong (who plays torturers) for Mr Knightley.

To turn now to Davies’s adaptation of Forster’s Room with a View. I have read the novel this time though 30 years ago now. It links to James and Hollinghurst by its homoeroticism. I watched it last night and as in the case of Davies’s Dr Zhivago, find I am not that unusual in finding it superior to a much lauded previous film, Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala’s 1980s Room with a View.

Again Davies has boldly challenged a famous much-lauded movie and created a movie which is as a whole better even if the individual performances of Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala’s actors are inimitable. The older film is too drawn out, too self-indulgent, not enough happens because the inner life of homoeroticism is erased and we are left sorrow for Cecil Vyse but no sense of what he longed for as worth it, as rich as what the heterosexuals in the movie achieve by casting off repression — without giving up a love of great art and learning.

Lucy (Elaine Cassidy) looking up at a church front

Without the absolutely famous-star cast, but a very effective set of actors, Davies presented a more concise version of Forster’s Edwardian novel. It’s a slight story really and much of inward meaning comes out of the strongly sexualized yet repressive atmosphere. By making everything happen much quicker, Davies brought home more effectively in some ways the homoerotic currents of the original story where the males express their sexuality far more freely than most books; at the same time he does justice to the central story where a gay man, Cecil, and our heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, almost make the mistake of marrying one another. Lucy faces up to the reality that she has fallen in love with a man from the lower classes (Mr Emerson’s son) and Cecil that he’s forcing himself to woo her, and preparing a life of estrangement from his own identity for himself.

Lucy (Elaine Cassidy) and Cecil (Laurence Fox) facing they don’t want one another even if they are of the same class.

As it happened, I listened to David Case read aloud Forster’s Passage to India just at the time I watched Davies’s film. I also came across a Guardian review which said Davies was “truer to the spirit” of Forster — without saying why. How discreet. (Cowardly.) Davies has scenes of homoerotic swimming and uses the male sensibility centrally as trembling, sensitive, inward, and just as important to the story’s end as the women’s fulfillment whereas Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala pur Lucy at the center and fore and shuffled off Cecil, Edward’s father, Mr Beebe to the margins at the end. He also genuinely brings home to us the pain of exclusion for fringe people:

Mr Emerson and his son (Timothy and Rafe Spall) and his father, who give up their window to Lucy and her aunt (Charlotte Bartlett, Sophie Thompson), first excluded

Now this is true to the novel, but as with A Passage to India where Forster originally intended to include a description of the sexual assault Adela Quested endured and was pressured into dropping it, so in with A Room with a View there was a previous draft which was a much more conventional heroine’s text/story, which Forster discreetly and successfully changed. In the case of Passage to India, the earlier text was pro-feminist, women, about how the central heroine was raped; the one we have now is capable of being read as implicitly misogynistic (the false accusation in a courtroom).

Thus I think Davies’s changed ending is truer to Forster than Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala’s literally faithful one. In Davies’s film that happy ending with the two conventional heterosexual people at the window (in Forster and M/I/J) is changed. The emphasis becomes more explicitly that the heterosexual girl breaks off her engagement to marry a man of a definitely lower class who is sexually attractive to her and she to him, but they are not permitted to be happy forever. We fast forward past WW1 to discover he has been killed in WW1 and she turns to the Italian escort who gave the small group from the pension such a happy day in the country. It is generic romance and resembles the ending of the movie version of Secret Garden where Dicken is killed and Mary remarries, this time Colin so we are in the same genre of movie, but it seemed to me more appropriate, about how society makes people lose what is most valuable to them.

The luxury in this civilization comes at the price of war as well as repression: Aunt Charlotte and Mrs Honeychurch (Elizabeth McGovern) watching Edward and Lucy from afar

Last but not least (as they say) is Davies’s strongly woman-centered and frequently lesbian Fanny Hill. It is arguable that John Cleland’s text is a homosexual, not lesbian one, and is misogynistic. Davies has liberated the women from convention here instead of the men and written an implicitly feminist screenplay.

He has brought out the affinities of Cleveland’s plot-design — which he generally follows — with Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Marivaux’s La Vie de Marianne, not to omit Richardson’s Pamela: young girl detached from parents or orphaned, is taken up by corrupt people but her good nature wins out with luck and she ends the world’s winner.

In addition, the same continual direct address that we find in his Moll Flanders is repeated arguing defensively from a woman’s vulnerable standpoint. The story is presented with Fanny as our storyteller writing it down with the scenes framed by her confiding addresses:

Opening shot of Fanny (Rebecca Knight) turning to us to tell her happy tale

He follows the “euphoric” tradition of Nancy Miller’s reading of these 18th century heroine’s texts: our heroine does descend to the streets at one point (and treated very badly indeed), but she is taken up by a very old man (Edward Hardwicke, who often does kindly parts: he was Doctor Watson in the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series), and this one is patient. And we are asked to believe that when he dies not only did he leave all his money and a huge estate to her, but his relatives let it stand and her early first love, Charles Standing (Alex Robertson) returns from the West Indies, in good health, finds her, most providentially as he pretends to be a robber of a coach; when she alights, they fall into one another’s arms:

and live rich as well as happily ever after.

Where is the proto-feminism (I’ll call it as it’s a period piece) and lesbianism? Early on quite unnecessarily Fanny Hill is brought to lose her virginity and like sex by having a semi-affair with a friendly gentle prostitute pushed on her, and we are shown far more of their sex than hers with the sweet Charles who is her first protector. We do see her with Mr H (Hugo Speer, the best performance in the film) having sex: he is hard on her, possessive and rigid, but he is genuinely passionate, involved, and that’s why he tries to take revenge and rejects her at one point:


But the explicitness is left to the prostitute who breaks her hymen.

Early in the film Davies also focuses on the ruthless animal brutality of an older man who tries to pay for Fanny when still a virgin; he is a horror of a human being in other ways in a later scene. We do see how little the so-called sexual power of women is worth.

In addition, the emphasis on the full realities of women’s lives comes out through Davies’s witty use of intertextuality: we were meant to remember the actresses who madams in this film were mothers and mentors in the Austen ones: Alison Steadman’s grating domineering Mrs Bennet becomes a hypocritical and somewhat vengeful first brother madam, ruthless; Samantha Bond’s sensible Mrs Weston becomes the political madam who hides her brothel with a milliner’s shop. Handy dandy, the same authority figure in different circumstances.

Alison Steadman as the madam Fanny runs away from

Admittedly, earlier in the day I saw this film I had read a deplorable romance tale by Eliza Haywood (early to mid-18th century romance writer, great on vacuous hectic salacious prose) called “The Lucky Rape,” about which the less said the better. I know Davies’s film could be turned into a kind of smirk smirk smirk. It lends itself to that. It is, however, true to say here that this line of emphasis tells us more about the coarse mind of the viewer than this film. In one scene we have Charles teaching Fanny the sonnet “Those who can do hurt and will do none” (Shakespeare Sonnet 91): it’s a deeply instinctively ethical point of view rarely articulated.

To conclude, like Ang Lee, the openness to unconventional sexuality, a wide humane liberality in Davies’s films has not been much noticed. He deflects attention by vaunting or claiming a frivolous pandering sexuality for his films. You can take them this way, but they are really much better and finer than this.

Florence (Jodhi May) animated by real half-angry feelings about life as she and Nan (Rachel Stirling) feast on oysters (Tipping the Velvet)

Catherine Fedden (Hayley Atwell) calms herself by cutting; here is Nick helping her and he will keep her secret too (The Line of Beauty here the line of the bandages)

Lucy (Elaine Cassidy) at her piano, at peace, rejuvenating in solitude, with a view too (A Room with a View)

Fanny (Rebecca Knight) holding her own yet with the other women as colleagues (Fanny Hill)


Read Full Post »