Ensemble scenes predominate

Dear friends and readers,

The play of Sense and Sensibility by Kate Hamil, produced at the Folger under the direction of Eric Tucker is every bit as marvelous as the reviews have been claiming. Jayne Blanchard does justice to how it uses a technique of presentation, symbolic, spare, with actors playing several roles first found in the RSC TV mini-series Nicholas Nickleby. While Blanchard mentions what happens to the characters of Marianne and Elinor on stage has “emotional impact,” like most others, her emphasis is on the comedy, the high-spirited visual high-jinks which are fun to watch and make a live performance so viscerally electric in the way a film cannot be: laugh-aloud, heart-warming, carousing is what the Folger wants us all to remember and say. It’s as if the one thing everyone in the cast dreaded was that the audience should be re-confirmed (if they had though this) in the idea Austen is stilted, or grave, or somehow a tea-cosy experience.

Perhaps they overdid the swirling about of people on chairs

The one demur I have is that the relentless of the noisy hip-hop and other 21st century pop music before the play began and in the intermission.

The production is often funny in language and visually, but what makes it so good is the play combines strong comedy with strong trauma, precisely the difficult mix that we find in Austen’s novel. Hamil is true to Austen and Tucker too: I was especially impressed by how they made the scene of Lucy informing Elinor that she, Lucy, has been engaged to Willoughby for four years the concluding scene of Act I and give full weight to the nearly silent trauma of Elinor:


We see the searing deterioration of Marianne after Willoughby’s desertion as the play progresses from Barton to London and finally to Cleveland, with the production (like the 2008 S&S by Andrew Davies) following Emma Thompson’s brilliant insertion of Brandon as a desperate man of disillusioned sensibility when he emerges at Barton, rescuer of the drenched suicidal girl, but at the same time remembering Denis Constanduros’s 1971 adaptation and not bringing Brandon forward early on so that a more delicate nuanced slow courtship over books is provided in the final scenes at Barton. Yet James Patrick Nelson as Brandon could not have been as resonant without memories of Alan Rickman: Nelson’s costume and colors were modelled on Rickman’s:

Brandon receiving the letter about his ward found at last and interrupting the party

What was to me most surprising is that after (since 1971) seven movies (and probably other plays I’ve never seen) Hamil came up with a new and fresh interpretation of Elinor’s controlled or constrained emotional pain. Maggie McDowell as Elinor reminded me most closely of Joanna David in the 1971 mini-series, but the language used was not praise for self-control and prudence, the emphasis in Alexander Baron’s 1983 mini-series with Irene Richards in the role, whose costumes McDowell’s reminded me of

In this scene of the two sisters, Erin Weaver as Marianne also has a dress like that of the 1983 sister, Marianne (played by Tracey Childs)

Hamil’s idea was how Elinor cared for her whole family beyond Edward — the group identity so dear to our time as a goal in life. Some may miss the anguish of Thompson and the inward hysteria of Hattie Morahan (Davies’s heroine) but this production was careful not to over Marianne’s illness, and we were made to see at moment how all but Marianne herself at the close of the play (the play was ceaselessly ensemble acting)


never noticed, much less care for Elinor’s heroic self-sacrifice. The real difficulty of the book itself, responding to it, is to bring forth these contradictory modes: on the one hand, the intensity of inward gravity as caught best in the scenes between Elinor and Brandon:


and on the other, the wacky satire on utterly disjunctive individuals tied together. They were able to make fun while being serious:

The opening death scene done seriously could not quite be serious because of the way it resembled a cartoon

The doubling was inspired: Kathryn Tkel was Fanny Dashwood and Lucy Steele who are mirror characters in the novel; Lisa Birnham as the nitwit Nancy Steele turns back and forth into the corrosively nasty Mrs Ferrars (not allowed a voice, just facial and hand gestures) and then again the ineffective Mrs Dashwood. Jacob Fishel was the selfish heartless and ever-so-correctly mannered (with glasses on) John Dashwood and somehow fittingly handsome gallant rakish and equally selfish Willoughby:

Willoughby as the “preserver” leaving Marianne with her family, all looking at him adoringly

Hamil’s use of Willoughby’s confession differed from all the others I’ve seen in having her Elinor pity him — he is no longer part of the group. This was visualized by Ang Lee and Emma Thompson at the end of their movie, but voiced pity is something new. Davies’s Elinor felt contempt for this petty shallow cad. Jamie Smithson as Edward and Robert Ferrars brought out Edward’s awkwardness and kept him more comic. I did wish that Hamil had not been so reluctant to take over Emma Thompson’s lines — I caught only three very effective take-overs — and had Edward use some of the lines Hugh Grant said so poignantly and gently at the close of Ang Lee’s film.

Not everyone had several named roles: the older African-American comedienne, Caroline Stefan Clary was just Mrs Jennings. Following Emma Thompson, her partner in scenes was Micheal Glenn as Sir John Middleton (though the fun about “F’s” was somehow not as hilarious); he was otherwise ensemble. Margaret was there: Nicole Kang also was many ensemble voices. But Erin Weaver (a brilliant Puck in a recent Midsummer Night’s Dream) was just Marianne, and her breathless intensity reminded me of her earlier performance:


McDowell was only Elinor, but then in this play she is clearly the central character, what individual POV we get is hers — as she is the key subjective voice of Austen’s book.

I very much look forward to when my copy of Hamil’s play arrives on my stoop. I ordered it from Amazon yesterday after seeing the play (a Sunday matinee performance). Hamil twice has a male lover, first Willoughby, and then Brandon cite lines which were finished or concluded by Marianne from poems different from those used in any of the other productions (1983 had some original lines, Thompson had Spenser and Hartley Coleridge, Davies Byron), which I couldn’t catch and thus can’t identity. Again it was Emma Thompson who added these poetry scenes to the one seen here and several others: Edward trying to please Marianne by emoting in this case some (to me) unfamiliar lines. Cowper was mentioned but not quoted (that I could recognize). The choices of verses were all serious and poignant, not rhyming lines either (so perhaps not Pope). (For those interested in the Christianizing and general softening of Austen’s hard (inverted protest). Hamil’s is an adaptation those seriously interested in Austen’s text and new readings of it should not miss.


NB: Lady Susan by Whit Stillman, the novelization of his film is now out as Whit Stillman’s Love & friendship, In which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan is Entirely Vindicated.


It seems to me appropriate that as Stillman has transformed the mood of Austen’s text so he has re-named Austen’s mid-career Bath novel.



Dear Friends and readers,

Valancourt Press has published my edition of Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde; or, The Recluse of the Lake. You can see the book, a description of the story, and places and ways to buy at Valancourt’s on-line site. The artist who painted that alluring suggestive image on the cover is Jean-Baptiste Mallet (1759-1835). This is the first scholarly paperback edition. It took me 5 years (on and off) to type, proof-read, annotate and introduce the novel. 136 notes at the bottom of appropriate pages. A select bibliography, and note on the text.

I would describe the novel’s central story differently. Smith’s Ethelinde is centered on a depiction of adulterous love more sympathetic and true to experience on both the novel’s hero, Sir Edward Newenden and his once loved wife, Maria. It is the story of Newenden’s gradual falling in love with Ethelinde Chesterville, the novel’s primary heroine, his physical as well as emotional need for her in the face of his wife’s increasing distaste for him, for his idealistic and ethical values, and for his children; and in the face of her love for the novel’s secondary younger hero, Charles Montgomery. we trace his efforts to repress his longing for the congenial sensitive readerly Ethelinde; and experience the final thwarting of his intensely compelling and sexual desire for Ethelinde. Delayed until the middle of the first volume of the novel and then told as tales within a tale, we have the stories of Mrs Caroline Montgomery, the widowed recluse of the lake, and mother of Charles Montgomery, whom Ethelinde falls in love with, together with a parallel deep past story of Mrs Montgomery’s unnamed mother, who after she was widowed and impoverished, lived happily with a man she was not married to and had two sons by. There are other inset histories about women driven by economic, social, and legal constraints as well as threatened violence to live with men outside marriage. And in the present tense, the story of Charles Montgomery’s failed attempt to secure patronage for a high-paying position, Ethelinde’s father and brother’s accumulation of debt from gambling and extraordinary socializing; Sir Edward’s sister, Ellen, her horsewomanship and rescue from predatory males seeking marriage to control her estate. Houses are symbolic sites: Ludford House for bitter commercialism; the haunted gothicized Abersley, in Worcestershire; the Montgomery cottage and Grasmere Abbey in Cumbria where the novel begins; before the novel ends numbers of our characters have traveled across the globe.

The Recluse of the Lake is not as dominated by landscapes as people sometimes suggest; but what is there is strong, frequent enough, and unforgettable. It was quickly translated into French and there the landscape passages are particularly felicitious too. Charlotte Smith was a great poet.

You can buy it at Amazon.US too: available at Valancourt as a kindle, ebook, and trade paperback. A friend said a notice on Amazon.UK says it will be available as of November 1st.

I think back to those weeks & weeks in the early 1980s in the Rare Book room and in the microfilm and microfiche reading room of the Library of Congress: was spending time reading Charlotte Smith’s poems, and two of her novels. Realizing how little of Smith was in print then, I could not have daydreamed that someday I could be responsible for bringing one of the few (at this point) of Smith’s fine novels not yet back into print in 2016.

I’ve traveled a long way from my days and nights at the Library of Congress. I go to conferences, live and research a lot on the Net, teach literature in non-traditional programs.

I wish Jim had lived to appreciate all this, to see this book made of Smith’s novel and my apparatus, congratulate and gently tease me, and praise the whole performance that is this edition of Ethelinde.

“Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! She chortled in her joy!”


For those determined to keep up with the slightest touch of Austen,

Renee Zellweger trudging along as Bridget Jones, heavily pregnant, bringing home laundry, food, her Christmas tree and whatever she needs in the snow

The third installment of Bridget Jones’s story is worth going to — if you can sit through the first 10 or say 15 minutes of excruciatingly stupid, vulgar, noisy montages to promiscuity; if you are someone who enjoys screwball romantic comedy (where there is believable “bonheur” over companionship however bizarrely achieved); and if you saw and enjoyed Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Edge of Reason, and like Helen Fielding’s novels. That’s three “if’s.”

Get past that opening, and you find yourself in a problematic situation that has contemporary resonance. Bridget is pregnant and does not know who the father of the coming child is. The time-frame fits a new passing weekend tryst with Patrick Dempsey as celebrity male of some sort as well as a not-all-that-contrived an encounter with Colin Firth as a Mark Darcy. We are asked to believe both males care, that they want to accept a responsibility as fathers, but screwball comedies often have precisely this kind of woman-centered flattering (or shall I call it hopeful) delusion/illusion.

People (including me) love to imagine continuity and survival, so part of the deep pleasure of this film is to see the same actors turn up as father, mother, and aunt to Bridget. Still alive! This pleasure is like the ending of Voltaire’s Candide (for those of an 18th century disposition). A form of Austen nostalgia. (A fourth necessity is probably a deep love of Austen and interest in and enjoyment of most Austen films.) I don’t know who is the most effective: Jim Broadbent as father, Gemma Jones as mother, Celia Imrie as aunt. I also enjoyed the wry presence of Emma Thompson as Dr Rawlings, gynecologist and obstetrician who tells Bridget, she doesn’t need these men. These fleeting moment between these actresses matter.


Raw[lings] has herself endured the bringing up of a child without a male it seems. At a crucial moment, she ushers both men out as useless. So stick it out. There are funny moments.

There are those who claim to find Amy Heckerling’s Clueless as one of the most Austen-like of all the nearly 40 Austen films now extant. Not so. It’s too upbeat; its very success shows how deeply it has successfully bought into complacency. Bridget Jones’s Baby may not be even a good movie artistically, but it is not complacent. What is worth seeing in Bridget Jones’s Baby is the aging tired face of Colin Firth, glad at last to resign himself down to caring for this desperately if comically seeking (a different note than Katherine Hepburn used to hit) woman in her early forties, with no job (Bridget does not fit in, and how easy it is to discard her), and despite her “face-lift” (for which she has been, so I understand, excoriated) the wrinkled aging face and body of Zellweger. We are all getting older together and need to tolerate and get along. Stronger together, anyone?

People have apparently accepted the implied idea that Hugh Grant is totally gone from the scene. Not so. The film opens with his funeral. The unlucky man has apparently gone down in some plane hit by these endless wars on terror. But all is not lost: at the close, the viewer is gifted with a small column in a newspaper, that after all this “playboy” survived. Having just watched Grant’s superlative performance in Florence Foster Jenkins and remembering him so long ago as the complicated cuckolded vengeful duke in Middleton’s Changeling (as important in his way as Bob Hoskins as Flores and Elizabeth McGovern as Beatrice), I understand why he can no longer cope with these screwball comedies. His face has too much depth: he appears to have a gravitas beyond Firth’s self-deprecating thinness.

Firth as Mr Darcy’s shyness, awkwardness, unwillingness to reveal himself, snobbery, high integrity, good manners — studio experts seem to assume will again provoke comfortable laughter. These “sites” (and Bridget’s memories) are the reference points (to imply that this new stability and security is fleeting) are some of many moments and touches worth staying on for: as an example of how to think about what you see, for those who are said to have swooned at Firth in the 1995 P&P, here’s Mr Darcy today:

51873706 Stars spotted on the set of the third Bridget Jones film, 'Bridget Jones's Baby' in London, England on October 8, 2015. Stars spotted on the set of the third Bridget Jones film, 'Bridget Jones's Baby' in London, England on October 8, 2015. Pictured: Colin Firth FameFlynet, Inc - Beverly Hills, CA, USA - +1 (818) 307-4813 RESTRICTIONS APPLY: USA ONLY

Come to that, what is sex life like for older women? this film doesn’t tell us but it asks the question. What about a lonely older man not keen to lay his soul bare (and for good reasons). It’s not 45 years but at least such questions are broached. As they are not in Clueless. And the questions do link back through the sequel trail.

It’s worrying to me that P.D. James’s and Juliette Towhidi through the genre of violent murder (Death comes to Pemberley) the diaspora Austen films, and wacky comedies (say Lost in Austen) can make these satiric courtship novels Austen wrote seem more available to thinking people (especially women) than the older romance mini-series or singleton semi-delusional romances.
Hattie Morahan as Elinor stoically enduring her life alone (2009, Davies S&S, one of the last of the “heritage” dramatic romance Austen films)

Or maybe for now what is funded is the “appropriation.” Yet this year what had staying power in movie-theaters? Not P&P and Zombies but rather a Christianizing and cream-y version of Lady Susan.

So I’ll end on the question of genre. The first ever Jane Austen movie was made in 1940, an MGM Pride and Prejudice which was described as and is a screwball comedy with romance. Screwball comedy is one that makes no rational sense if you start to look at money, common things of life, probability, actual emotions. Since then there has been two other screwball comedies, with romance beyond the three Bridget Jones’ movies: the 1995 Clueless and the 2004 Bride and Prejudice (also an Indian Bollywood type film).

What genre of movie is the closest in movie terms to Austen’s texts? They are all women’s films; that goes without saying. L’ecriture-femme on film. Many have female narrators; POV a heroine or heroines, over-voice a woman, the woman character as linchpin to the stories. This fits Austen’s books. Now for typology.

Those who want to see Austen as comedy, and like the idea they are somewhat superficial or stay away from traumatic depths of emotion, praise the screwball comedies. More modern appropriations of these include Austenland (2104), P&P and Zombies (2016) and Death Comes to Pemberley (2013-14) have gothicized Austen as did the 1986 Northanger Abbey, the 2004 Lakehouse (out of Persuasion) and to some extent the 2007 Northanger Abbey (but Davies also parodied the form, and had an underlying feel of depth of emotion). There have been attempts at versions of comedies of manner, as in a stage play: 1991 Manhattan by Whit Stillman and Andrew Davies’s 2007 Room with a View (seen as a novel alluding to Northanger Abbey) comes to mind. There are the movies made from post-texts, including time-traveling ones (Lost in Austen), the Jane Austen Book Club.

The group reading and talking together — seen through a porch

I suggest the movie genre that comes closest is the dramatic familial romance, lightened by parodic techniques and wit, the first instance of which was Fay Weldon’s 1970 Pride and Prejudice. There have been many of these since as mini-series, as one-off movies in theaters, heritage and appropriation alike; they can be Indian (Aisha) or deeply Anglo and traditional (Sandy Welch’s 2009 Emma), post-colonial humor (the 2012 From Prada to Nada) or bio-pics, as in the melancholy 2009 Miss Austen Regrets.

Olivia Williams as an older Jane Austen

For those interested, have a look at my list of Austen movies. I have not updated it in a while but most of the ones made are there, those not are in a handy list of the latest appropriation films in 2015. For individual items, see my Austen Miscellany.


Central hall for The Gathering (Outlander 4)

Repeating scene for Rent: the line of male tenants bringing money or barter to Ned Gowan (Outlander 5)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been asked to review an excellent book, Descendants of Waverley: Romancing History in Contemporary Historical Fiction by Martha Bowden. I have begun reading it; and, though Bowden does not instance Gabaldon’s Outlander (nor for that matter Graham’s Poldark), I realize the Poldark and Outlander novels are two of the many-great grandchildren of the Waverley novels.

Nineteenth-century edition

A Penguin

For Gabaldon this is by way of DuMaurier, who also indulges centrally in romancing, allusive textuality, and fantasy myth-making.

The Civil War politics of this novel makes it link as well as the time-traveling of DuMaurier’s The House on the Strand

King’s General centers on a heroine (she is the subjective presence) who is crippled and must stay in a wheelchair thereafter due to an incident involving the wild ferocity of her lover, Rashleigh, in battle

I don’t want tonight to dwell on these artful and literary elements, but rather something more obvious: Episodes 4 and 5 of the mini-series cover a sliver of Gabaldon’s book, Outlander (Chapters 10 and 11, Oath-Taking and Conversations with a Lawyer) with intense elaboration so as to build a picture of a rich Scottish cultural world worth living in, and its many pleasures for men and women alike. Gabaldon and this mini-series show how the English colonialist armies, and resulting Scots and English protection rackets impoverished a subsidence people, and sought to exploit, kow, and punish them at every opportunity.

Scottish farmers homes burnt, crops destroyed (Rent)

This is the post-colonial tapestry of the series that allures and interests me. Though I’ve put the first two of my blog on the first season on Outlander on my general cultural blog (Sassenach, and Castle Leoch and The Way Out), I feel these two episodes belong with 18th century matter. There is little movement forward of the story; instead what we get a dramatization of the reasons for Culloden, and how it came about. All Scott’s Scottish history Waverley novels center in some aspect of the Scots rebellion, dwell lovingly on its traditional culture, and if they come out on the side of progress, toleration, enlightenment (reason, “scientific” or probablistic explanation). Gabaldon differs mostly through the heroine’s perspective which is to try to stop this disaster for the Scots from happening. Through flashforwards (we could call Claire’s memories), we learn from Claire’s 20th century husband, what happened at Culloden.

Claire (Catrionia Balfe) and Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies) on the field of Culloden (Rent)

The film-makers take Gabaldon’s anti-British point of view on board and make it stronger

The band come across two crucified (tortured) dead corpses of Scotsmen

What I enjoyed was the loving recreation of Scots culture for two hours, and threading through these of continuing slow development of a friendly and trusting relationship between Claire and Jamie (Sam Heughan): where she keeps him company, tends to him, and he in turn rescues, tries to understand Claire who he stops from a wild impossible escape to nowhere:

Jamie: “How far did ye think ye’d get, lass, on a dark night with a strange horse, with half the Mackenzie clan after ye by morning?
Claire: “Won’t be after me. They’re all up at the hall. And if one in five of them is sober enough to stand in the morning, let alone ride a horse, then I ‘ll be most surprised.”
Jamie: “Running away on a whim just because the men are drunk? On a whim?
Claire: “You know I’ve wanted to leave here for weeks. And I know exactly how many sentry posts surround the castle. And I know how to make my way through the forest and find the road back to Inverness.”
Jamie: “Well, that’s a very sound plan, Sassenach — Or would be, did Colum not post extra guards through the woods tonight.”

There is a real lyricism in their relationship with seeps across the episodes. It’s hard for me to capture that: it has to do with the feeling generated between the two, the words used, gentle and yet reaching out, and how the camera captures them talking and their body stances when in the same area. In these episodes this extended to Claire and Ned Gowan, Claire and her first meeting with the British officer who was disguised as a working person in one of the Scots villages (but turns up at the end offering to take her back to England in effect, rescue her from this Highland culture), and Claire with the women. With Dougal the atmosphere is testy and aggressive; by contrast with Frank her husband, their is a quiet blandness that is secure and feels peaceful but does not seem to go anywhere. In the 1940s scenes she is ever walking away or smiling enigmatically as he talks on ever so kindly but no poetry in it.

Many details are added but none contradict the thrust of the novel. My favorites are the conversations of the witty, thoughtful lawyer, Ned Gowan (played exquisitely well by a favorite actor of mine, Bill Patterson), with Claire. He may appear to tell her much, but only confirms enigmatically when she is beginning to see: she had thought Dougal MacKenzie (Graham McTavish) was sluicing off money for himself (a second extraction from the deluded tenants) when he is gathering funds for an envisioned coming campaign. As when they speak a John Donne poem together:


Claire: Absence.
Absence, hear thou my protestation against thy strength, distance, and length.
Do what thou canst for alteration
BOTH: For hearts for truest mettle.
She: Absence doth still and time doth settle.
He repeats: Absence doth still and time doth settle.

The verse also functions to let us know Claire is still missing Frank, longing to re-join him in the 20t century.

I’ve suggested the dramaturgy of Outlander is so much better than many of the episodes of the new Poldark and studying the scripts for these episodes has suggested to me why: Gabaldon’s film-maker trust her text. They feel no need to fill it out, to change the characters, to complicate the action by having parallel lines of stories, all quickly juxtaposed, lest we get bored or restless. They luxuriate in the text. There is time to develop the contradictions in relationships: it is humiliating to Jamie to have to strip his shirt off as an exhibit to seduce people into giving money, and his uncle must tear it off the first time; when Jamie threatens not to participate, the uncle threatens and pulls rank.

Time is taken out to develop a “sub-palate of colors: for example, while on the road the color of the sky is white, the land pastel, all softened shades to create a mood of quietude in the land and sky. And the characters emerge inside the patterns:

Jamie addresses Claire against backdrop of tree designs


More than once Claire voices how much she likes the culture even though it is so masculinist — she is forced to listen to continual male boasts about crude sexual prowess (they do this at her).

Gabaldon and her writers after her are comfortable in making Claire in continual danger: when she tries to escape from the gathering she is stopped twice by men seeking to rape her; when Jamie sleeps outside her door to protect her, his action is not superfluous. It ought to be troubling that Horsfield and her crew are far less comfortable with Graham’s transgressive women, and turn them back to domestic creatures (see Scripts & Problematic parallels). Gabaldon has no cruel vindictive women — which slant is added on to the Poldark snobbish women by Horsfield — and no salacious sluts; Horsfield unlike Graham and the 1970s writers find no excuse for promiscuity on the part of a woman.

The feminism here is again in Claire’s casual relationships with other women: in these episodes of Scottish highland culture, she seems to enjoy herself with the women even when they soaking dyed cloth in heated piss


She as yet is willing to help Leoghaire attract Jamie (though female rivalry over the hero will come soon and be as strong as we find in Poldark) and this is used to bring out beliefs in love potions.
And she is deeply useful from her experience as a nurse in WW2. When during a boar-hunting in the Gathering, one man’s chest and thighs are severed by a boars tusks, and he lays dying in his chieftain Dougal’s arms, it is Claire who thinks how to ease the death by prompting from him memories of boyhood, home, and the beautiful places longing to live conjure up:



Claire: “Geordie tell me about your home.”
Geordie: “It’s near a wide glen, not far from Loch Fannich.”
Claire: “What’s it like there? I’ll wager it’s beautiful.”
Geordie: “Ah, ’tis.”
Claire: “In the spring Yes?”
Geordie: “The heather’s so thick, ye can walk across the tops without touching the ground.”
Claire: “That sounds lovely.”
Geordie: “Wish I could be there now.”
Dougal: “Oh, you’ll be there soon, lad.”
Geordie: “Aye. Will ye stay with me?”
Dougal: “Aye.”
Claire: “Yes.”
Dougal: “There you are.”
Claire: “There.”

In a scene directly afterwards when he visits her “surgery:”


Dougal: “You’ve seen men die before and by violence.”
Claire: “Yes. Many of them.”
Dougal: “Ye’ve done a fine job here as healer. Mrs. Fitz would have ye sit for a portrait if it was up to her. And, uh, I wanted to thank you personally for what you did for poor Geordie up there on the hunt.
Claire: “In truth, I did nothing. I wish I could have helped him.”
Dougal: “Ye did. Ye took him to a peaceful place, and that’s all any of us can ask when we pass …”


He then requires her to come out on the rental journey with the band. She earns her place as strong, pro-active, competent woman who in effect competes with men in all areas — but sex. She is more than the token woman taken on the road.

Riding out (The Gathering)

And of course, as I’ve said, in the over-voice, female perspective, control of the movement in time.

As the confines of the castle walls faded behind me like a bad dream, I took my first full breath in weeks. I had no idea where this journey would lead me, what opportunity might present itself. I could only hope it would bring me closer to the standing stones of Craigh Na Dun. If so, I was determined to reach them, knowing this time I must not fail.


Olive (Frances McDormand), Henry, her husband (Richard Jenkins), and their son, Christopher (at age 13, Devin Druid)

I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like — Austen on Emma

It is not enough for me to know what I have in me … [I want to be part of] Pierre and that young girl [Natasha] who wanted to fly away into the sky … so that my life may not be lived for myself alone while others live apart from it, but so that it may be reflected in them all, and they and I may live in harmony” Tolstoy’s Andrey in War and Peace)

Friends and readers,

Ever belated, I finished watching an unusually realistic and good mini-series, Olive Kitteridge (2014) (scripted Jane Anderson, directed Lisa Cholodenko, produced by among others Frances McDormand). adapted closely from Elizabeth Strout’s novel (2008) of the same name (won the Pultizer but that does not mean it’s necessarily bad, only that it’s deemed quintessentially mainstream American somehow and is good). I see it as a book directly in the tradition of quietly realistic ironically held at a distance novels, mostly by women, brought to its first fruition by Jane Austen. Olive Kitteridge is much more unlikeable than Emma (or Oliphant’s Miss Marjoribanks, and I was led to the book and movie because a friend talked about how all but two women readers in her bookclub hated the book because they hated the heroine.

Henry offering flowers

What did they hate her for? I had asked. I’ve found out why: Olive keeps saying aloud truths and/or perceptions she has of other people that would hurt those people were they are there, and do hurt those people around her and are involved. Her comments are remorsely critical of others, corrosive. Such behavior or language is not a small thing: people can hate you for this if you keep it up; I’ve seen this and felt myself withered and burning in my mind with my efforts to throw off the mean observation. Olive does this it a lot, and in many situations, and especially when inside her family (husband and son). Strout has loaded the cards by making Henry, her husband, a deeply tolerant, kindly, sweetly romantic (he brings her flowers, candy, gifts), someone unwilling to unable to answer back lest he hurt her or someone else or make things worse; Henry is ever turning what Olive utters back to something kinder by looking at whatever is happening from a charitable point of view. This makes us feel very uncomfortable, hurt for Henry continually, and puzzled at such a heroine.

Jim O’Casey (Peter Mullan) walking away

Beyond the rarity of making this character a heroine, Strout (and after her) Colondenko and Anderson, see Olive with sympathy, forgive her. At first it is hard to tell whether Olive loves or despises her husband or whether she is trying to lead her son to a finer career or is ashamed of him for not getting the very best grades in the classroom and thus intensely competitive. She is having or almost had an affair with a fellow teacher, in English, Jim O’Casey (Peter Mullan), who picks her and her son up every morning to take the four of them to school. The situation is resolved when Jim commits a suicide that is not admitted to because Jim drives his car into a tree while drunk. It’s hinted this is due to her rejection of him — and when her husband will no longer let him pick her and her son up for school and she accepts that. She is super-hard to the point of harassment over her son’s school-work; she allows no slack for him. When he challenges her with how generous she can be to others, she says I talk this way because you are my son. I say it’s one thing to insist on high expectations for your own, it’s another to denigrate.

Christopher (John Gallagher Jr) with Suzanne (Libby Winters) at the engagement

Henry’s first marriage to an upwardly mobile, self-centered young woman, Suzanne (Libby Winters), and what happens at his wedding one of these fashionable prestige events can disclose how the son and father respond to her and why some of why she is so rebarbative. Olive cannot stand her prospective daughter-in-law and assumes Suzanne will make Christopher very unhappy with her obsessive (like her mother who is there) concern for admirable appearance and rising in the world.

Olive, dress-making, POV Henry’s

Olive has made a dress for herself, deeply unfashionable, and somehow (like Widmerpool in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time) all wrong, an embarrassment. She worked hard on it: it’s lovely material, filled with images of flowers. When Henry sees her in it, he tells her she looks lovely. It is not clear that he thinks so, but he is trying to support her as he knows her dress just won’t do. And he knows it. But her behavior at the wedding is openly alienated and alienating, and helps no one, cannot change her son’s new mother-in-law or wife.


But by the third and fourth episode when her son has married for a second time and lives in NYC, she has shown concern for who he married the first time, seems to pay attention to flaws in the second choice (two children by two previous men? well that’s the way life is now, Mom) and misses him. She is all alone because Henry has had a serious stroke, damaging his ability to respond to anything. She keeps him in the house as long as she can and then when he is put in an “assisted home,” she seemed devoted to him, coming everyday, checking on his condition, clearly bereft without him. Her only companion is her dog and radio. When she visits a friend who sends her condolences, she finds this woman loathes her for slights and punishments she inflicted on this woman’s son years ago and she now says the cruelest things she can think of. Olive is driven into further retreat and turning to Henry, but he cannot respond nor does he seem to know what is happening around him. It is too late to mend her relationship with Christopher (John Gallagher Jr) too. He’s at core deeply embittered; he has spent years at psychiatrists, which when he tells her about, she dismisses curtly. Now though she is alone, and in need of emotional support and company herself.

For myself I would have felt about Olive the way Christopher does at the end. I have a person close to me who similarly has a cruel tongue, partly out of irritation at me, and partly spite and embarrassment, anger at me for what I am. I find I cannot throw off such remarks and they dwell with me, I brood on them.

Christopher in the morning, Ann (Audrey Marie Anderson) getting children ready for school — Olive is crying hard to the side

Christopher tries and tries to keep up the relationship, to please his mother but every once in a while his hurt and bitterness break out. He ages and is clearly so tired. His new wife is not tidy; cannot keep up with her children. Paradoxically it’s in her later relationship with him we can see an “upside” to her continual corrosions. The father now dead and Christopher divorced and remarried, he invites Olive to come and stay with them for a week, for his new wife is pregnant, and has two children by two previous men. Ann (Audrey Marie Anderson) could use some help. So while with this couple their older boy who is himself “difficult” keeps pulling at her dress and making a nuisance of himself and she cannot resist turning and slapping him. Her response reminded me of how Anne Elliot given such treatment in Persuasion, just takes it — and that’s not good either, for the child then begins to prey on her. For fun. Now her son and daughter-in-law are indignant at her and simply assume she’s wrong, she must apologize to the son and if the son can find it in himself to forgive her he will. This is nonsense. The boy was at fault. He deserved that slap. Olive is old, now alone, gives in, but rightly (I think) under such continual barrages of wrong-headed behavior on the part of the son and daughter-in-law leaves early. This prompts bitter recriminations by the son.

Denise (Zoe Kazan) and young Henry (Brady Corbell)

The upside of Olive’s remarks is they are often accurate; she cannot bear the cant of the world, cannot bear the pretense of sentimentality. She seems to see too clearly how selfish is most behavior and how people are exploiting one another. Of course we could be charitable and say they are helping one another to sustain life decently. But often she sees the delusion and danger, self-destruction others seem to be headed for — this is not unselfish of her as often her jealousy is actuating her too. Henry becomes husband was attracted to a young girl; Denise (Zoe Kazan) he hired in his pharmacy who manifests a child-like dependence and worship of a young husband, another Henry (Brady Corbel); this Henry is killed in a hunting accident. (There are numerous deaths over the years in this story). The husband and another male friend had agreed to hunt with him, no one at all critiques hunting, though the husband is clearly no expert. It’s no wonder the friend shots the young Henry instead of the deer. Remarkable he did not also shoot the old Henry. Old Henry allows the girl to cling to him, and Olive resents this and sees the girl as a predator, but the way to stop the husband is not these bitter sarcastic ripostes, but to admit he is looking for someone else because she is so rebarbative, refuses to respond with kindness to his efforts to be kind her to her, cannot open up. If she sees this, she never acknowledges it. That would be to admit her vulnerability. Years later Denise who marries the other store clerk; Jerry (Jesse Plemons) whom she and old Henry encouraged to go to college and now has a very good job and is well educated; he now sees Denise as a fool and himself has as little patience with her as Olive. But what Jerry does not do is allow his remarks to become too explicit too painful.

The whole interest of the novel is in the significance of Olive’s tongue, truthfulness if you see it this way, counter-productive tactlessness if you don’t. No one wants to admit she has any truth on her side. It’s so inconvenient. People consult ease and convenience in the here and now first. In the movie there is no explanation for why Olive is like this. We do not see her childhood. There is no over-voice and we have only her behavior to watch and most of it in social situations. In the book the narrator keeps her distance, does not delve. When Olive is alone at story’s end we see her grieving but we also see her stoically just enduring everything as if she was not at fault for what has happened, which in a sense she was not. I want to stress that she’s accurate: her son’s first wife is materialistic cold horror, her son’s first wife’s mother-in-law one of the world’s typical phonies mouthing cant and pretending to have all sorts of happy feelings and all the while endlessly showing off. Denise is a limpet. She did drive her son to go to a better college and become a doctor (podiatrist).

Olive with Henry when they are aging and with their dog

Her problem is she is unable to express her point of view frankly as that would reveal her vulnerability. She is all guardedness. She pays heavily for her tongue in the end. As long as Henry is alive, she has the comforting pillow companion who smooths all. When the hospital staff pretend to obey her, do not contradict her idea that Henry can still react to her, it’s not out of kindness again, but as the easiest thing to do. When she is out of sight, they will care for Henry as they think appropriate — not much attention paid beyond the physical medicine and care for cleanliness.

Olive is not justified but her response to society is shown as understandable, or it’s forgiven. She weeps real tears; she is hurt herself. She seems not to understand that she has so hurt others.

I was a little grated on by the ending. She says she will stay alive as long as her dog lives. He grows very sick and has to be “put down.” So now she determines to kill herself.

Olive late in life with Kennison (Bill Murray) walking in a wintry park

In the meantime she has (as if it’s the easiest thing in the world) made an acquaintance with Jack Kennison (Bill Murray) of a man who is a widower; his wife died of cancer. He says life is now hell and she agrees. So he is like her: he can tell the truth. Yet they do not get along because their conversation is continually rebarbative: he is somewhat reactionary and a person who was at an Ivy League colleague (so above her in status) and she cannot bear to listen to Rush Limbaugh talk. yet in her loneliness, she invites him to come to dinner at a restaurant, and they begin to have such a direct spat, she gets up and leaves, takes a cab home. It is after this that we see her trying to kill herself with a gun in the woods.

Jack had condemned her for not trying to phone her son after the husband died when she told him what her son had done to her and complained of when she visited him; she replies he didn’t tell me when he gets married for the second time. Jack says she should have called Christopher nonetheless, but also says he has not spoken to his daughter for two years. As she is sitting with the gun to her head, the phone rings. We have seen scenes where Christopher tries to get Olive to get herself a flip or cell phone and she refuse — she does not want to be at someone’s beck and call. We realize that after for years resisting getting a cell phone she has one. It’s her daughter-in-law, Ann, phoning her to say the baby has been born. The camera only allows us to see her bent over from the back: I thought it was the face of the agon of existence and left to our imagination. What a twisted tortured state of mind the woman must have. She turns and puts the gun away. As she then turns to us her face resumes her usual carefully neutral expression. But the next day she visits this man with flowers and lays next to him on the bed and they begin to talk about, and it seems they will become friends. he puts his arm around her shoulder. I thought this a kind of cop out. I have to believe in a good ending or it makes me feel worse Strout pulled down the curtain at a happier moment to give the story a semi-happy ending, or upbeat. Of course the next moment they could fight.

A friend said of this “What I liked about the ending of Olive Kitteridge was not that Olive found a new lover, but that the Swiss-cheese-like holes in her were finally acknowledged and covered by someone else. That’s sometimes the best we can hope for in love.” I can see the ending by no means negated all that had gone before, and in a sense confirmed it. But experience has taught me as an older widow, men do not go for older widows, people do not open up this way. Making a new relationship is not something easily done after a lifetime of disillusioning experience and becoming a very particular character. The novel and film suddenly dropped the pretenses of realism – which are its strength.

Alone now

I am alone now too but for the Net and think this is due mostly to my situation — it’s not a punishment. As Graham Swift says in his masterpiece, Last Orders, the important thing is not to take what happens in life as a punishment. I’ve been told Olive Kitteridge is a portrait of Strout’s mother. So maybe like Christopher she is exorcising this ill spirit. One could say that Olive being alone at last is meant to be a kind of punishment for what she is, which I take as problematic, but the fiction and film are truthful enough to hint that whether Olive had had a kinder tongue or not the world would have cast her aside once her husband was gone, because it would have no use for her. Only if she would give in, be like others, smile, let things pass, accept what is, will it smile at her and keep her company.

Maine snow, part of opening sequence of paratexts

The book performs as an Olive itself and so does the movie giving us the a truthful portrait of all the characters we pass by who are part of this rural Maine community. It is a study of small town life in Maine. Much attention is paid to scenery, to the modes of economic life. We see the sea so often, snow. boats. This means much to Strout (see Craig Morgan Teicher, “Maine Idea,” Publishers Weekly 255.5 [4 Feb. 2008]: 32). It’s an ethnography the way Annie Proulx’s or George Eliot’s novels are. I have bought both Olive Kitteridge and her latest, My Name is Lucy Barton. It belongs to the kind of novel I especially love: out of Austen, out of women writers of the 19th century, and men who write such novels too, often using a female at the center (Trollope sometimes, Henry James a lot, Colm Toibin all the time – I read each of Toibin’s novels as they appear).

I found the mini-series therapeutic. I thought the performances of all the actors superb. The music was slow and touching, full of codas. The filming of Maine caught key aspects of the place. I have tried to get down the experience for others and myself so as to share and try to understand it better. Unlike Olive, I welcome comments.


From The Graphic, Women reading in the London Free Library, from Lady’s Pictorial, 1895)

A Syllabus

For a Study Group at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Day: Nine Monday late mornings into early afternoon, 11:45 am to 1:15 pm
4801 Spring Valley Building, near American University main campus, Northwest, Washington DC
Dates: Classes start Sept 26th; last class Dec 5th, 2015; Oct 17th cancelled.
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

We will ask what did a woman writer’s career look like, what genres and journalism women published, what were obstacles & advantages women experienced, like & unlike today. We’ll read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (gothic, 1818), Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (“condition of England” novel, 1849), George Eliot’s “Janet’s Repentance” (a Clerical Tale, domestic fiction, 1857) and Margaret Oliphant’s Hester: A Tale of Contemporary Life (1883, not quite a “new woman” novel). We’ll also read on-line excerpts on women artists and the theater, travel writing by Harriet Martineau (abolitionist, de Toqueville-like US travels), journalism at mid-century (from Caroline Norton’s English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century, 1854), and 1890s suffragette writing (Emmeline Pankhurst, “Freedom or Death,” 1913, and from an online Sylvia Pankhurst archive).

Required Texts in the order we’ll read them:

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, ed. Maurice Hindle Penguin, 1992. ISBN: 0140433627
Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life, ed Macdonald Daly. Penguin, 1996 ISBN: 0-140-43464-X
George Eliot, “Janet’s Repentance,” from Scenes of Clerical Life, ed. Jennifer Gribble Penguin, 1998. ISBN: 0-14-043638-3
Margaret Oliphant, Hester: A Story of Contemporary Life, introd. Jennifer Uglow. Penguin/Virago, 1984. ISBN: 0140161023


Harriet Martineau, from her Autobiography (The Fourth Period). http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/vwwp/view?docId=VAB7103&doc.view=print
Caroline Norton, from English Laws for Women: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/norton/elfw/elfw.html
Emmeline Pankhurst, “Freedom or Death,” Great Speeches from The Guardian, 2007: https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2007/apr/27/greatspeeches1
Sylvia Pankhurst Archive: Selection, https://www.marxists.org/archive/pankhurst-sylvia/index.htm

Illustrations for Gaskell’s Mary Barton

Jem saving a man from the fire

Mary to Jem: “Oh, Jem, Take me Home” (1905, Ivor Symes)

Format: Study group meetings will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

Sept 26th: Writing and other careers for 19th century women. Shelley’s Frankenstein (please have read the first third by this day).
Oct 3rd: For this week although we have no class, please have read the second third of Frankenstein.  Holiday
Oct 10th: Please finish Frankenstein for this day.
Oct 17th: Outside class:  read the first third of Mary Barton, Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography, Part IV, Section 1 and 2, pp 206-17. Essays on Martineau’s life and early writing, and on O’Flinn on Frankenstein sent. Class cancelled.
Oct 24th: Mary Shelley and  Harriet Martineau’s career, we begin Gaskell and Mary Barton (begun)
Oct 31st: Mary Barton
Nov 7th: Mary Barton, from Caroline Norton and other cases (law & custom)
Nov 14th: Gaskell and Caroline Norton’s careers; Eliot, “Janet’s Repentance” in context
Nov 21st: Oliphant’s Hester (probably the first half)
Nov 28th: Hester and Oliphant’s Autobiography and career: editing, domestic realism
Dec 5th: The Pankhursts, suffragettes and “New Women” novels. Tentative final thoughts.

A photograph of Margaret Oliphant when young, shortly after she married (1852)

A quick drawing of George Eliot, late in life, leaving a London concert (1879)

Suggested supplementary reading:

Bodenheimer, Rosemarie. The Real Life of Mary Ann Evans aka George Eliot, Her Letters and Fiction. Ithaca: Cornell, 1994. The best.
Coghill, Mrs Harry aka Annie Walker. The Autobiography and Letters of Mrs. M.O.W. Oliphant. NY: Dodd, 1899. Nothing better on Oliphant than this.
Clarke, Norma. Ambitious Heights: Writing, Friendship, Love: The Jewsbury Sisters. Felicia Hemans, and Jane Carlyle. London: Routledge, 1990.
Mackenzie, Midge. Shoulder to Shoulder: A Documentary. NY: Knopf, 1975.
Flint, Kate. The Woman Reader, 1837-41. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002.
Lupack, Barbara, ed. Nineteenth Century Women at the Movies: Adapting Classic Women’s Fiction to Film. Ohio: Bowling Green State UP, 1999.
Mill, John Stuart. On the Subjection of Women (1861). Broadview Press, 2000.
Peterson, Linda ed. The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Women’s Writing. Cambridge, 2015.
—————-. Traditions of Women’s Autobiography: Poetics and Politics of Life Writing. Univ Press of Virginia, 1999.
Robins, Elizabeth, The Convert: suffragette and new women novels. A blog: https://reveriesunderthesignofausten.wordpress.com/2015/04/05/elizabeth-robinss-the-convert-excellent-suffragette-novel/
Seymour, Miranda. Mary Shelley. London: Picador, 2000. Superb, original research.
Spark, Muriel. Mary Shelley. NY: New American Library, 1987. Short version of the life, insightful.
Stoneman, Patsy. Elizabeth Gaskell. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987. Very good short life and works.
Uglow, Jenny. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1993. The best.
————. George Eliot. NY: Virago, 1987. Short life.
Williams, Merryn. Margaret Oliphant: A Critical Biography. NY: St. Martin’s, 1987. Excellent.


Shoulder to Shoulder. Script: Ken Taylor, Alan Plater, Midge Mackenzie. Dir. Waris Hussein, Moira Armstrong. Perf: Sian Philips, Angela Downs, Judy Parfitt, Georgia Brown. Six 75 minute episodes available on YouTube. BBC, 1974.
Suffragette. Script. Abi Morgan. Dir. Sarah Gavron. Perf: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Marie Duffey. Ruby, Pathe, Film4, BFI, 2014

Talking Books: On CD:

For Frankenstein, Gildart Jackson the reader (Dreamscape, available at Downpour)
For Mary Barton, Juliet Stevenson the reader (Cover-to-cover, available at their site)

Ralph Hedley, Seeking Situations (1904)

Margaret Oliphant as a younger author (about 1860, from The Bookman, 1897)

She is not surprised or offended, much less horror-stricken or indignant, when her people show vulgar or mean traits of character, when they make it evident how selfish and self-absorbed they are, or even when they fall into those social cruelties which selfish and stupid people are so often guilty of, not without intention, but yet without the power of realising half the pain they inflict … She has the faculty of seeing her brother clearly all round as if he were a statue, identifying all his absurdities, quietly jeering at him, smiling with her eyes, without committing the indecorum of laughter — Oliphant on Austen

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve just finished a great novel, later 19th century (1883), and for the second time feel convinced Hester as much a masterpiece that people should read as any by George Eliot (but Middlemarch and Romola is in a different league), as any by Anthony Trollope, as many by Dickens, any by Thackeray (but Vanity Fair), yet I’m hard put to explain why or how because like Austen whom Oliphant understood so well Oliphant “never rises above the level of ordinary life,” and skewers “what is remorsely true.” The difference is that in this novel Oliphant is appalled and feels heart-broken over what she so despairingly sees.

Merryn Williams (in her literary biography of Oliphant) says of Oliphant’s The Marriage of Elinor (1891) what is true of Hester “its strength is in the way it explores and illuminates a painful situation.” In Hester we see how a woman make a shipwreck of her life because she behaves deeply well to someone near her (spouse, nephew, son), trusts him but because she also tries to control him, expects he will behave nobly in return, is deeply resented and out of bitterness betrayed. In Elinor the betrayer is a husband, and we discover that Elinor finds salvation in her relationship with her mother and her child. It’s not astonishing that what happens in Elinor parallels Oliphant’s imagined later life with her husband and mother (had either of them lived) but it is astonishing that relationship of the older single heroine of Hester, Catherine Vernon, with one of her much younger cousins, Edward Vernon, parallels Oliphant herself in her relationship with her sons. The novel can be read as showing that Oliphant understood that she was in part to blame for her son’s derelict irresponsible characters and yet that this outcome need not have happened; the son-nephew need not have responded with suspicion, mistrust, even anger at this high-minded giving of hers.


The novel is also about how hard it is for people to communicate with one another humanely. There are two parallel and admirable women characters: in character type, strongly ethical by instinct, highly perceptive, capable of reading with understanding people and books, not to omit business practices and courtship, Hester Vernon, is a young version of Catherine who is Hester’s mother’s cousin-in-law. As the novel opens, they are placed in hostile-feeling positions. Unknown to Hester, her father, John Vernon, was responsible for nearly destroying the family banking business and simply ran away (and died) to avoid having to cope; Catherine had also been in love with him when he chose Hester’s mother, a woman of feeble mind, obtuse, utterly conventional in all her ideas, thinking, feeling cant (as Samuel Johnson would have said). Catherine offers them a home, the house they had lived in, in the same spirit as she houses other of her indigent relatives. She is not generous spirited in mood to any of these relatives (in Vernonry) but then most (not Hester, who is too proud and decent, nor her mother who is too dumb) are endlessly spiteful, ungrateful, competitive. Catherine’s way of dealing with this is to smile at them; under the smile we can register Oliphant’s deeper sense of profound dismay kept at bay. What Oliphant shows us is a deep calm scepticism about all human professions of idealism, a justified cynicism. She’s been accused of being hostile to men: rather she is rare for not according them any deference when they are weak or lacking. In reality she can be just as hostile to women, but it’s not noticed. Hester then conceives a dislike of Catherine-Oliphant out a resentment similar to Edward’s, milder as the generosity is milder and the smiles not seen as often. Catherine herself cannot bear the remembrance of Hester’s father or his preference for Hester’s helpless hopeless mother. It is extraordinary how Oliphant is seeing through herself in this book.

The novel moves slowly. Hester at first tries to free herself by asserting she will take a teaching position. She finds no one will tolerate this: it lowers her, the family, she is told will make her miserable. All she is allowed is to live by her mother’s side and wait for some young man to ask her to be his wife. There is someone available in her small world’s stage and there are people who are capable of companionate supportive friendship. There are two further young cousins of Catherine, first, Harry Vernon, good-natured and as it emerges instinctively deeply ethical and far more generous spirited than any one else, but not perceptive, not active intellectually, energetic, or with much business sense (he has no competition in him) falls in love with Hester, courts, asks her to marry him, and is refused. His sister, Ellen, marries a weak man, Algernon Merridew, someone easy to lead, and sets up a housekeeping style well above their means, one which includes regular assembly dances. To these eventually come the grandchildren of two further pensioners (for once not Vernons) Captain and Mrs Morgan: Roland and Emma Ashton. Roland has all the intelligence, savoir-faire, and sophistication (it is he who tempts Edward to gamble in the stock-market without meaning to disrupt the Vernon bank) and he is drawn to Hester. Emma is a comical version (except ultimately it’s not funny) of the crass match-seeking impoverished young woman. The grandparents, and especially Captain Morgan provide Hester with meaningful talk, advice, companionship, daily small enjoyments of walking, eating together, passing time sharing whatever is passing.

The Morgans, in some moods, a further sensible young woman with children whom Catherine supports (Oliphant supported so many in her family, including brothers, brothers’ families when brothers died), Harry, and one of Catherine’s lower rank business associates, Rule (who works with her to save the bank twice) and at the novel’s close the sudden turn-around of Catherine when she has to take in that her beloved Edward hates her, and resumes her place in the bank, opens up to Hester and leans on her, all provide a foundation of believable sane and needed and natural reciprocal kindnesses. Nonetheless, the greatness whereof I speak emerges because the novel is also one of the bitterest realistic novels I’ve ever read. The intensity of inward pain, “her heart throbbing with wild suffering” (Chapter 51, p 453 in the Virago edition introduced by Jenny Uglow) Catherine experiences, the self-torturing anguish of realizing she has not been loved, not trusted, has been duped, deceived, not wanted all these years by her semi-adopted semi-son and heir, Edward, is as strong as any tragic emotion. That Catherine cannot allow herself to be beaten out of pride, because so many depend on her makes the weight of book have as much heft as Middlemarch.

Oliphant kept saying to herself in her autobiography, she wrote as well as George Eliot; she misses the greatness of Eliot’s book because her foundation for her tale is far narrower, and when she widens out (as in The Ladies Lindores) she becomes too defuse (see my review in “The Scottish Angle”). She does (to use Henry James’s phrase) “ful[ly], pleasant[ly], reckless[ly], rustle over depths and difficulties” (quoted by the Colbys in their The Equivocal Virtue, p 138). The novel’s sequel, Lady Car (which I’ve just begun reading), narrows the focus to an inward utter disenchantment of wife (“unable to contend with the wild seas and billows [of inner life] that went over her head”) with husband, of Lady Car’s subsequent bewildered self alienation, and alienation from her son, takes us again into this area of quiet brutality Oliphant excelled in and recognized in Austen. (See also my Phoebe Junior among others.)


As previous generations distorted Oliphant because she would not present herself as vatic (Woolf says she sold herself, is “smeared” by her willingness to be prolific to provide money for her son’s at Eton), so now I find there’s a strong tendency to praise novels whose heroines attempt and succeed at remunerative careers (Kirsteen. which is very good but not that typical); Elisabeth Fay (a fine biography of Mrs Oliphant as a writer) wants “resolution,” something upbeat and progressive, redemptive, hopeful. What then to do with Oliphant’s harrowing ghost stories? Arguably her The Beleaguered City, Camus-like in its despair, is her greatest work (a novella). If you can read Italian (I do with effort) Beatrice Battaglia’s essay on Oliphant’s gothic Dantesque “Land of Darkness” (in La Critica Alla Cultura Occidentale nella leteraturea idstopica inglese), makes a case for Oliphant as a gothic artist and in her ghost stories visionary.

“The Library Window”

I recommend also a chapter by Linda Peterson in her Traditions of Victoirian Women’s Autobiography, Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own, and Robert and Vineta Colby’s essay on “The Beleaguered City: A Fable for the Victorian Age,” Nineteenth Century Fiction, 16:4 (1962):283-301.

To return to Hester. My idea is not to be discouraged because probably you (or I) will not get near reading all 147 of her volumes (that number is the Colby’s and includes Oliphant’s biographies and literary history), much less a good deal of her excellent scattered journalism. Henry James called her the “great improvistrice” (a female Trollope). Find and read the best: they are gradually making their way into print through the spread of facsimile editions. You will find as an anonymous Quarterly Review writer said “She approached very subject from a woman’s point of view … believing and professing that a woman’s estimate of life is generally to be preferred to a man’s” (Williams, p 57).


Kellie Castle