From the 1999 Aristocrats mini-series, scripted by Harriet O’Carroll, directed by David Caffrey, based on Stella Tillyard’s Aristocrats

Dear friends and readers,

Just back from the ASECS (American Society for 18th Century Studies) conference in Los Angeles, and having listened to what was said in three sessions on the problem of what is history, conveying it, what is happening to presentations in books and classrooms, and novels, I thought of a proposal for a panel I’ll never send. Perhaps as a group of ideas it might spur others to think about this:

I propose a panel where in papers people discuss where the new historicism and post-modern attitudes have taken us? how has an insistence that history is to be found in the local nuanced often unrecorded doings of relatively powerless people in their personal lives and contemporary highly sceptical attitudes towards the possibility of uncovering a semblance of accurate enough truth affected what is written in respectable histories and what appears in historical fiction? The background includes the dropping of all history courses as a humanities and/or social sciences required course in many colleges. Since much that the ordinary person learns is conveyed through film, what is happening to historical films? The overt self-reflexivity of prize-winning Booker Prize and Whitbread type books and the increasing popularization of costume drama (brief scenes, little coherent thoughtful dialogue), with an increase in romancing and fantasy (time-traveling) influenced the TV mini-series, a central core place for such films. Are uneducated viewers further miseducated or do they view what they see with a sophisticated perspective?  I invite papers on modern monographs, narrative and specialized history, historical fiction in novels and films.

We should remember how people build their identities by their sense of the past and where they get that. The images for Aristocrats find their real origin in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, and he was much influenced by the Gainsborough Studies 1940s costume dramas, for example.


A fancy,

Chun Castle, West Penwith, 3rd ofr 2nd BC for that contains evidence of smelting

Dear friends and readers,

My Poldark class finally met on Monday and we had a good session. Spurred by this I thought I’d put onto my 18th blog a recommendation for books on mining and smuggling (they are linked) in Cornwall, especially 16th through 19th century.


In his Story of Mining in Cornwall, Allen Buckley tells the story of southwestern Cornwall as a center of industrial capitalism as it was practiced for real between the earliest times (pre-historical records) to now, where from the 16th to later 19th century Cornwall was a central driving place for the industry of mining and how it exported its products and know-how around the world. We see evidence for the the trades routes from Cornwall down to Marseilles and out from the Mediterranean really go back a few thousand years. In classical times evidence of archeaology shows that most mining was kept to the surface.

Smuggling began as soon as the powerful began their attempt to tax — documents from the early medieval period.

The easier tin had been used up by the beginning of the 18th century century and people sought to find other minerals to make money by. Only when picking and washing it off the ground did people begin to dig down and build these tunnels and invent unwatering machines, and the whole man-based technology – wood mostly – emerge. There were different kinds of jobs, from what was done in the surface, to tributers – these were people given a space if they were individual enterpreneurs and what they could make depended on how much tin, copper they could pick off.  An interesting aspect of mining was that the individual worker was a sort of small enterpreneur. He was called a tributer.  A man who showed himself able to find and with a pic pull out ores was paid individually. A cost book was kept.  In the 19th century attempts were made to turn these people into salaried workers, but in Cornwall the ancient families held on to their land to some extent and so monopolies were not so extensive. Also the way of working, a single man hard at it many many hours would work more if he saw himself in control. No one tried slaves (who you would have had to whip and beat and the work was dangerous). Time and again owners tried to bypass this system and treat the workers ruthlessly, but a complicated set of realities – including the need for skilled people stopped that.

Companies and wealthy groups outside Cornwall ran a monopoly to keep the price of the ores down — they would buy the ore at low prices, smelt it, and then send it abroad. In the novels, Ross seeks to break the monopolies created by local thug-families, families with ruthless aggressive successful types at their heads and the English — who treated the Cornish as if this was a colony (not part of them). He seeks to find copper, mine, smelt it as the Carnemore Copper Company; there was a Cornwall Copper that did the same and also was beaten down by bankers calling loans in, the greater pockets of the non-Cornish — who though did not lose out altogether. Some of these rich outsiders who mined elsewhere (Yorkshire) are well-known by name: “Child, “Elizabeth Montagu, Bluestocking Businesswoman,” in Reconsidering the Bluestockings Edited by Nicole Pohl and Betty A. Schellenberg (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 2003), 153-73. The idea of local combines meant that people within Cornwall would get to decide which mines were to be closed (if they were not profitable enough against the overhead) and which kept open. Mining in Cornwall was finally beat out by lodes and availability of ores in several colonies in South American, South Africa and other places. Cornwall turned to China clay and slate quarrying. In a way Cornwall extracted all it had from itself that was easy and then hard to get out, and then it sent its people to teach and work for others.

You can learn a lot from reading this book — about banking, real practices, ores, Cornwall too. About working places, why and how they rebel, riot, make combinations, how they are thwarted again and again and then exploited. A pro-slavery tract published around 1790 was dedicated to the “Starving Tin Miners of Cornwall.” The writer goes on to lambast abolitionists for ignoring inequities at home (i.e., the situation of the miners) in order to chase “foreign” issues. Mining undermined (pun there) people’s health badly; characters grow weak, sicken and die; they drown. They work hard long hours, and their lungs go. Some turn to agriculture or become servants but there is less money there. There was money in mining and not much money anywhere else — farming was hard and yielded poor results (see directly below). They also fish but there are apparently laws set up to control this so as to make sure the money to be gotten from it in large amounts goes to the powerful in the area. One scene late in Ross Poldark shows Ross and Demelza going to watch some fishing in the early dawn because that’s when the fish return from somewhere to other and also to evade these authorities. I can see why people preferred to smuggle, but it was dangerous. To offset starvation people also poached. For that they were thrown in jail to die if they were caught.

Cornwall has however for a long time been a poverty-sticken place. Why? It’s not good for growing things, and it’s not good for farming cattle in ways that make money. Corn – or bread (corn was the generic word for grain) riots occurred everywhere in the UK periodically as people were left to starve. Famine is sociologically engineered – it is the result of the food level in a given area going down where a large number of people have a precarious access to it – people can starve and huge amounts of food be shipped abroad. These corn riots, harsh repression and hanging occurred until the corn acts were passed in 1840

The focus of the book is especially the later 17th through 19th centuries where many new techniques and forms of mining emerged.. Beautiful pictures and informative box type articles on some of the pages on people and where scholarship is to be found. Buckley’s book is the result of not only personal decades of scholarship; it builds on a century of real serious effort by geologists, scholars, politicians, miners.

We learn of many important individuals, I’ll mention Thomas Bear for his inventions; wealth, connections and yourself being a “venture capitalist” and politician is found in Sir Francis Basset, Lord de Dunstanville of Tehidy (1757-1853).  In the second trilogy of the Poldark novels he figures as someone Ross is able to work with and borrow money from to form a combination against enforced bankruptcy.

1778 William Pryce illustrated one method of mine ventilation: moving air to a tunnel end

Its subtitle is “A world of payable ground.” It’s about more than mining. Through the experiences of people who mined from the working miners to the people who owned the ground and exploited them insofar as they could to the powerful kingly type players, he illuminates economic and political relationships of the time with real insight, lucidity and deep humanity.

Also very worth while: A. K. Hamilton Jenkin, The Cornish Miner. I’ve written about Philip Marsden’s Rising Ground (neolithic Cornwall, its mythic penumbra) on my Sylvia blog.


Mary Waugh Smuggling in Devon and Cornwall, 1700-1850. This excellent concise book shows the trade occurring all over the coasts of England where serious fishing and mining occurred. How widespread and (yes) violence on both sides (the smugglers and all the local people helping them) and the preventionmen (and the establishment on their behalf with their prisons and punishments like hanging, transportation) were — especially in Kent and Sussex. (The picture people have of Austen’s world as a gentle one is just ludicrously wrong). It was known companionably as the free trade.

How this relates to Poldark novels

After Ross is found not guilty of inciting a riot in Jeremy Poldark, he turns to smuggling: the scenes of lugging the goods on animals are fairly realistic

In Demelza Ross is trying to start a business that will support him as a gentleman through mining.  Ross’s problem is he is not going to get enough money for copper; among the reasons for this is there is a monopoly by the bankers and outsiders who buy the copper and sell it to foreign markets. Eventually what emerges is Ross in secret (he’s allowed) takes the small company he has begun, calls it the Carnemore Copper Company, based on something that really occurred, it was called the Cornish Copper company; a group of Cornish people attempted to wrest smelting of copper, selling and trading it abroad to get decent prices.


The death of Francis Poldark from drowning — this is done with psychological depth and individuality in the books

and 1970s mini-series, but it was actually a not atypical accident

He’s up against the difficult technology: how dangerous it was. and early on because he does not have enough money to build safe enough structures, a mine collapses. He is heroic trying to save all he can, but one character who has become familiar to us and has a family dies. The Poldark novels were written the later 1940s-50s in the UK where the labor gov’t made an attempt at building a progressive society. They reflect this time.

A worthwhile essay by Nickianne Moody:  “Poldark Country and National Culture.” She opens dryly and her tone is academic austere but she makes good points about the reasons for the success of the novels and the first mini-series. She means us to compare this need for nostalgia and reassurance in 1945-53 and again the 1970s against a bleak backdrop of post World War Two and economic hardship and decline and the ruthless policies of the Thatcher era with the astonishing success of Downton Abbey in the 2nd decade of the 21st century with a similar backdrop of economic hardship, and sense of betrayal and ruthless social policies, only as Moody points out the Poldark books are not complacent and not supporting the oligarchy.

Inexplicably Moody does not refer to the one-off movie of the 8th book, Stranger from the Sea, that was made in 1996 and was a flop: due mostly to the fanatical energies of the Poldark Appreciation Society whose anger at the exclusion of Ellis and Rees from the new production knew no bounds, and which Nickianne Moody treats with a certain unqualified (too much) respect. People are afraid of fan groups.

The essay comes from Cornwall: The Cultural Construction of Place, ed Elia Westland and has two opening essays on the history of Cornwall , 16th to 18th century and 19th to 20th, on various writers (besides Graham, Virginia Woolf, Daphne DuMaurier, the poet, John Harris, Thomas Hardy, and aspects of Cornwall (geography, the railway, regional differences)

While Ross supports his failing mining ventures by smuggling, Demelza (Angharad Rees) fishes … (1975-76 Poldark, Part 11)

I wonder if the new 2015 Poldark series will have time — allow for the necessary meditative quiet pace and coherent dialogue — to do justice to the treatment of mining, attempt at breaking a monpoly, the smuggling and fishing and farming to survive the way the 1970s series did. I doubt it. I will be writing on the new film adaptation after all 8 episodes of this year’s coverage of the first four novels (Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark, and Warleggan) conclude.


Amy Marston as Anne Dormer, a prisoner within a marriage

Hannah Boyle as Gertrude Saville, spinster

Dear friends,

What unites the above unhappy women was they had no space or place of their own they could have any liberty to live for real in. They are but two of the many real historical people, many men too, whom Amanda Vickery discussed and dramatizes in her excellent 3 part documentary, At Home with the Georgians. It has been much misunderstood in some of the public commentary: she’s been quoted as using outrageous language about males (testerone), but she’s talking tongue-in-cheek very often — and to me that was part of the surreptitious fun, her use of ironies undercut patriarchy without saying so. She made instructive comparisons with us today: we too live behind barred doors and seek partners, but we have our solitude and do not live under such strict hierarchical arrangements. I enjoyed her delivery of sparkling wit, dry descriptions, and how she suggested tragedies of several existences she described which now and then came into the edge of the focus.

An enactment of George Gibbs, country physician, come back to his home, wife, family, servants (out of his diary, from Part 1 of Vickery, At Home)

Part One was about how men longed to marry to gain status as males, women for sex, homes to stabilize, to vote from, to participate in communities out of. Part Two about how women gave themselves an identity by how they decorated their houses, made their world. Part Three the intense importance of having space, guarding it fiercely, the nature of the crowded hierarchical and often hard lives the Georgians lived. I envied how many private correspondences she had been privileged to read.


It takes off from only one sub-set of themes in her powerful Behind Closed Doors, and I hope to watch it carefully and write a review here to do it justice.

For tonight though I want to share a CFP I sent to the committee for next fall’s (!) EC/ASECS whose topic is networking. It’s been accepted; it’s an outgrowth of my thinking about the anomaly (women living alone, well if middle class except for their servants), years of reading women writers and about women whose lives were in potentiality like that of Saville and Anne Dormer. And just now Vickery who reached her subjects by reading the letters and documents they left. So I called it

Forging Connections Among Women

It is a truth once universally acknowledged that the way societies have organized themselves isolates the average woman; they may socialize within the space they find themselves in with their families and friends, but there are enormous pressures and social and economic constraints keeping them from reaching out to people beyond the family and milieu into which chance has thrown them. Thus the writing and publication of poetry, novels, plays, letters and memoirs and travel by women especially when addressing issues and experiences from a woman’s point of view become ways for the average woman to become part of a network and dialogue with other women. A trip to a spa or town where there was a public life such a woman could enter into, owning and managing a shop or a girls’ school, teaching in one, a profession like midwifery would be other places and provide shared experiences for women to forge connections with other women as women. I invite papers on topics like these where a woman could feel she was or indeed be connected to other women through gender experiences.

I’ve ideas for a paper for my panel too. It would be a paper on a group of women poets who also had different kinds of social connections not usual for the elite: Anne Home Hunter, great poet who wrote lyrics for Handel, who married and kept home for her genius-surgeon husband, John Hunter; Mary Chandler, who was disabled, so never married, and ran a shop in Bath, and wrote her poetry about her spinsterhood and life; and Mary Leapor, poet, servant, and cook and housekeeper (so Amanda Vickery’s books and documentary comes in here). It’s common for scholars who write about these earlier women have chosen to working and poor agricultural women when they seek out the non-elite; I’ll be looking for how non-elite (sort of on the fringe of the elite) inbetween-women lived, and forged connections.

A cat climbing down from a servant’s room in the attic (from Part 2)

I find I’ve never written a foremother poet blog for Mary Leapor, but there is an edition of her poetry, a book on her, and essays too. So I’ll end tonight on two poems by her around the same time. This is what she wrote when her play was returned to her:

Upon her Play being returned to her, stained with Claret.

Welcome , dear Wanderer, once more!
    Thrice welcome to thy native Cell!
Within this peaceful humble Door
    Let Thou and I contented dwell!

But say, O whither hast thou rang’d?
    Why dost thou blush a Crimson Hue?
Thy fair Complexion’s greatly chang’d:
    Why, I can scarce believe ’tis you.

Then tell, my Son, O tell me, Where
    Didst thou contract this sottish Dye?
You kept ill Company, I fear,
    When distant from your Parent’s Eye.

Was it for This, O graceless Child!
    Was it for This, you learn’d to spell?
Thy Face and Credit both are spoil’d:
    Go drown thyself in yonder Well.

I wonder how thy Time was spent:
    No News (alas!) hadst thou to bring.
Hast thou not climb’d the Monument ?
    Nor seen the Lions, nor the King?

But now I’ll keep you here secure:
    No more you view the smoaky Sky:
The Court was never made (I’m sure)
    For Idiots, like Thee and I.

This she wrote as Ursula (they used these pastoral-classical-romance pseudonyms in the 18th century); it’s a burlesque on the house she served in (and doubtless had limited space in), which she called Crumble Hall. Presumably it could’ve needed fixing.

From Crumble Hall:

We sing once more, obedient to her Call,
Once more we sing; and ’tis of Crumble-Hall;
That Crumble-Hall , whose hospitable Door
Has fed the Stranger, and reliev’d the Poor;
Whose Gothic Towers, and whose rusty Spires,
Were known of old to Knights, and hungry Squires …
Of this rude Palace might a Poet sing
From cold December to returning Spring …
Tell how the Building spreads on either Hand,
And two grim Giants o’er the Portals stand;
Whose grisled Beards are neither comb’d nor shorn,
But look severe, and horribly adorn …

    Then step within—there stands a goodly Row
Of oaken Pillars—where a gallant Show
Of mimic Pears and carv’d Pomgranates twine,
With the plump Clusters of the spreading Vine …
From hence we turn to more familiar Rooms;
Whose Hangings ne’er were wrought in Grecian Looms:
Yet the soft Stools, and eke the lazy Chair,
To Sleep invite the Weary, and the Fair.

    Shall we proceed?—Yes, if you’ll break the Wall:
If not, return, and tread once more the Hall.
Up ten Stone Steps now please to drag your Toes,
And a brick Passage will succeed to those.
Here the strong Doors were aptly fram’d to hold
Sir Wary ‘s Person, and Sir Wary ‘s Gold.
Here Biron sleeps, with Books encircled round;
And him you’d guess a Student most profound.
Not so—in Form the dusty Volumes stand:
There’s few that wear the Mark of Biron ‘s Hand …

    Would you go farther?—Stay a little then:
Back thro’ the Passage—down the Steps again;
Thro’ yon dark Room—Be careful how you tread
Up these steep Stairs—or you may break your Head.
These Rooms are furnish’d amiably, and full:
Old Shoes, and Sheep-ticks bred in Stacks of Wool;
Grey Dobbin ‘s Gears, and Drenching-Horns enow;
Wheel-spokes—the Irons of a tatter’d Plough.

    No farther—Yes, a little higher, pray:
At yon small Door you’ll find the Beams of Day,
While the hot Leads return the scorching Ray.
Here a gay Prospect meets the ravish’d Eye:
Meads, Fields, and Groves, in beauteous Order lie.
From hence the Muse precipitant is hurl’d,
And drags down Mira to the nether World.

    Thus far the Palace—Yet there still remain
Unsung the Gardens, and the menial Train.

[In “her” kitchen]

    O’er-stuff’d with Beef, with Cabbage much too full,
And Dumpling too (fit Emblem of his Skull!)
With Mouth wide open, but with closing Eyes
Unwieldy Roger on the Table lies.
His able Lungs discharge a rattling Sound:
Prince barks, Spot howls, and the tall Roofs rebound.
Him Urs’la views; and, with dejected Eyes,
“Ah! Roger , Ah!” the mournful Maiden cries:
“Is wretched Urs’la then your Care no more,
That, while I sigh, thus you can sleep and snore?
Ingrateful Roger ! wilt thou leave me now?
I baste the Mutton with a chearful Heart,
Because I know my Roger will have Part.”

    Thus she—But now her Dish-kettle began
To boil and blubber with the foaming Bran.
The greasy Apron round her Hips she ties …

Strange Sounds and Forms shall teaze the gloomy Green;
And Fairy-Elves by Urs’la shall be seen:
Their new-built Parlour shall with Echoes ring:
And in their Hall shall doleful Crickets sing.

The first of many 18th century homes photographed in At Home with the Georgians


Anna Maxwell Martin as Susan

Julie Graham as Jean

Rachel Stirling as Millie

Sophie Rundle as Lucy

Hattie Morahan as Alice Merren

Faye Marsay, Lizzie, Alice’s daughter

Dear friends and readers,

After I watched this two season mini-series, The Bletchley Circle, and its features through twice, I felt cut off to discover there had been no third season. I just loved the lighting, color, the dark quiet costumes by Anna Robbins


and in the second feature we met a woman director, whose mother had worked in Bletchley Park, Sarah Harding:


I heard Guy Burt, the writer for all the episodes, say how he looked forward to exploring the changes in the women from their surrounding world over the next decade, with Jake Lushington (executive director, both seasons), talking of further plans for development of these womens’ lives. I wonder what had happened. Had the ratings not been sufficiently high, really? The history of these women who had worked heroically during WW2, been kept silent for years after, had been respected, talked about, watched — above all by women. From reading about the chequered history of even a tremendously successful series, Poldark, I know mini-series costume dramas can be cancelled by individuals out of personal tastes or a sense of their own power: they prefer something else.

Perhaps that was it: someone who couldn’t believe there was an audience for, or disliked a woman-centered detective show which was built out of the lives of five women, all of whom had been a team during World War Two, had come together to solve crimes that hurt women. I loved its recreation of the feel of England in the 1950s, and its depiction of these relatively powerless women seeking justice for one another, safety, space for themselves to fulfill their identities.

Allow a friend, herself a blogger at Jane Austen and women writers, who recommended it to me first, explain:

Last night, my husband and daughter and I watched the first season (three episodes) of a BBC series called Bletchley Circle, I would highly recommend for its woman-centered pov, and its decency, empathy and compassion. It stars the same woman who played Elizabeth Bennett in the televised version of the murder mystery sequel to P&P by PD James: Anna Maxwell Martin.

AnnaMaxwellMartinclosings (5)
Martin as Susan in closing moments of first story, coming home

It is about (for those who haven’t seen it) four women who worked together at Bletchley Park doing decoding during WWII–each has a particular skill she brings to bear. Since the end of the war, they have been sworn to secrecy and have taken on ordinary lives–two are married, one with children, one oppressively with an abusive man,

Rundle as Lucy ironing his shirts

one is a waitress

Stirling as Millie, a waitress renewing her friendship for the first time in years with Susan

and one is a librarian.

Graham as Julie stamping books

They come together to try to find a serial killer. I found the three episodes extraordinary–the women show real compassion for and identification with the murdered women–they are not “hardboiled,” they don’t turn away with a veneer of hardness from these victims. We see sexism completely through a woman’s lens–it is an obstacle the four women constantly have to work around–and they do. Ritual humiliation is always a threat, but it doesn’t define them–in other words, unlike heroines from Catherine Morland to Emma to the female protag in I’ve Got Mail they don’t have to undergo a “purification” of humiliation at the hands of a male into to be made properly fit up (abject) for marriage or other entree into the male world. The humiliation–and it is there, for example, in the suggestion of the waitress’s boss that he will give her time off (to pursue the murders) if she has sex with him–but the woman sidestep it adroitly, competently–it becomes something like a traffic jam, something you navigate.

Susan seen sewing — also cooking, playing with children, shopping, at the dinner she provides

There is real pain in this series too–the pain of the lead character’s good (but not good enough) marriage to a “kind” man, the pain of these women having to hide their talents, an undercurrent of loss and lost possibilities–I kept thinking Virginia Woolf would have appreciated this series. It’s set in the early 1950s, and although I wasn’t born yet, the ambience felt right to me. I don’t know if women were involved in producing this series–I will look that up–but I wouldn’t be at all surprised.


A typical shot of the group in first season

In the first season’s story, “Breaking the Killer Code,” what stung me in Susan’s case is how again and again her help to officials is dismissed unless she fits into what they are thinking, and in one case her help is being used to find the wrong man (set up by the murderer). Each time any of them take time off to do her own thing — this project — they are missed, complained to, where have you been? hemmed in, punished, beaten, Millie fired. Susan’s husband trivializes her gifts by offering to keep her well supplied with cross-word puzzles. Lucy has been beaten by her husband many times, is frightened of him,


but with these friends who use her gifts rightly who give her a task worth doing, she escapes him.
As the program ended, we have seen the murderer see the four women trying to capture him and so when Susan (our true central heroine, Anna Maxwell Martin) does make her way to the right place, a mental hospital and the door opens and we see that face and he lets her in and the doors closes, it is a shock. She does manage to flee him but it is her first real evidence who the killer is.

Lucy goes to live with Millie who we see has traveled, had adventures, and now supports herself partly by quiet prostitution and black market dealing — and dresses colorfully yet not overdone at all.


Jean is someone the world identifies as a spinster type, she was the office manager in the war; now she is liberated into independence, a quiet life alone, implicitly a lesbian. We see her blackmail another woman now in charge of a group which supervises secret papers for the gov’t in order to help her friends stop the serial killer. The way the woman at first lies and then is forced to tell the truth is riveting because she’s being bullied by Jean; their friendship we are to feel was never more than surface connection:


We see how the atmosphere of demanding keeping secrets is so pernicious to human relationships but keeping secrets itself is not impugned. Later Susan visits a man at the head of another group who has secrets to keep — good old Simon Williams still going, still an aristocratic type (he was James Bellamy in Upstairs Downstairs)


and in his dialogue with Susan the doctrine of keeping secrets is held up as a way of protecting people from the point of view of you don’t inform on people.

Lucy is recognized by the writers as the victim type: the woman dress her up as decoy or the murderer and I felt intense anxiety over her — they were forced to risk her safety.


In the US this kind of nuanced presentation is not possible. We have impoverished art and films because the reactionaries rule what is presented and for the most part women are presented super-sexed up, or over masculinized. Housewives are presented as hostile to their husbands.

I was drawn to the many quiet shots of these women at work together or in a reading group:



and separately:


Lucy’s hand turning pages as she memorizes


A repeated group scene from the second season

There was a falling away in the second year. First Anna Maxwell Martin left half-way through. As a type Martin appeals deeply to me. In watching Death Comes to Pemberley frankness compels me to admit that I love especially Martin; I love seeing her inhabit Elizabeth and thus change the contours of the character. I thought she was all that Esther Summerson in Davies’s Bleak House could be. When she left something important was lost for me. She is celebrated in this pastoral shot of her contemplative:

Susan contemplative

In second season’s first story, “Blood on Their Hands,” Susan has become unnerved by the first experience, and has stayed away from her friends, and she is dragged in, intensely reluctantly because a new old friend, Hattie Morahan, as Alice Merran, has allowed herself to be found guilty of a murder she didn’t do in order to prevent the police from inditing her daughter, Lizzie. In the first season we learned that Susan had gotten pregnant before marriage, and opted for her conventional life rather than travel with Millie as they had dreamed; now we see that Susan’s choice of retreat and living through quiet strength with others whom she loves and love her is part of her nature.

hug (2)

hug (1)
Millie and Susan bid adieu

Mother-and-daughter and female friendship strains are a central woman’s theme, so too family life. So Alice and Lizzy as a family replace the bourgeois group of Susan, her husband, and their two children, when he takes a better job in Bombay, and she finds that she can find a real job there alongside him, and can avoid sending her children to boarding school if they take the children with them. Hattie Morahan is one of my favorite actresses, and she was brilliant as the shattered isolated woman who actually had an illegitimate child she was not able to bring up, but now is desperately working to save, and then when the true murderer is discovered, building a new relationship with.


Parallel moment: Alice and Lizzie come together.

The problem is Alice’s sacrifices are over-the-top, and a new note of slightly meretricious hysteria enfeebles the stoic mood of the first year. OTOH, a political touch was the murderer was a fanatic anti-communist who had been a fascist in the war.

Millie tells Hattie and Lucy what she has discovered in a contraband warehouse

The second and as it turned out, last story of this mini-series, “Uncustomed Goods,” had Millie and Hattie first, and then with Lucy (now working at Scotland yard, a position worthy her gifts), Julie (still a librarian), rescue a group of trafficked women from a life of abusive prostitution in the UK itself. It made me uncomfortable that the chief villain was a seething brothel and black-market madam type, though it may be probable, and certainly kept the women-centered nature of the stories intact. Nonetheless, they needed the help of a brotherly male in power or with access to information; Tim Piggot-Smith replaced Simon Williams for this function:


The corpses have become bloodier, more mutilated too. I suspect the melancholy undertow plus the frankness about how women are made victims by their society — it’s not clear these immigrant women will do well now — did not find favor with those who want an upbeat story. It’s obvious they were laying a groundwork for another season: the man in Scotland Yard who has been colluding with the corrupt woman who is trafficking women and running black market deals looks very angry at Lucy and we see that a romance is beginning between and other employee in Scotland Yard.


The costume designer did not keep up the somber colors quite as much, and there were many more shots of the women in parks. In Fashioning the Nation: Costume Drama and Identity in British Cinema, Pam Cook showed that bleak outfits and dark lower middle-looking streets are not realistic but rather symbolic of a self-controlled mood of acceptance of what is. People love the flamboyant dress of the older costume dramas not because the costumes are believable, but because they stand for dreams of desire fulfilled. The second season was inching towards more typical costume drama: in the US Mad Men, set in the 1950s, the women are dressed in scrumptious concoctions of crinoline and flounces. I have a preference for the first, a Brief Encounter look myself — I allude to the 1940s movie of self-sacrifice by train with Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, an Anna Maxwell Martin type) look myself.

Not that it was not done tastefully and with an eye towards commemorating this Bletchley Circle women:

A recreation of an actual picnic a group of Bletchley women had — there’s an extant photograph imitated here

The feature had a Bletchley Park woman who is still alive tell of her experience, her silence for 30 years, and her satisfaction to be appreciated now

We still had these passing moments of sustained fulfilled endeavour:

At someone’s kitchen or working table

The woman are in a group, they don’t operate alone — but in some scenes to see them walking along in their high-heeled pumps, handbags on arms, through bomb sites, wrecked neighborhoods, seems improbable — would they not call attention to themselves? In her invaluable study (as no other has gone on to develop her idea seriously), The Girl Sleuth, Bobbie Ann Mason says the early twentieth century girl detective fiction has girl sleuths working in a group, often of 4, never alone. A growth or change which occcured around 1940 was to allow a woman to work alone, independently, like Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton. Mason is dismayed to find that once again in 1972 this group formation has returned to girl detective fiction, as if it cannot be conceived a woman can act firmly on her own. In The Bletchley Circle we feel they need one another because it’s dangerous their quest, and also we see how vulnerable they are to their society ejecting them and men’s violence, but still the group being necessary is there again. Mason wrote her book before we began to see men’s detective fiction evolve to give the famous detective a female side-kick (like Joan Warton in Elementary with Johnny Lee Miller as Sherlock).

The explanation which feels more satisfying to me is that the society watching these films printing these books does not want to see women alone. They want to see them in groups, to reinforce what modern women psychologists say is the relational nature of women’s psyches.Some studies suggest the hostile portrayal of the Renaissance Queen Elizabeth I derives from her having lived so independently. The anomaly is not wanted or appreciated. In Moore’s book she is endlessly showing her lesbians in a group It may be that women naturally form groups: at the bottom of society, when women are hired as cleaning women they form teams, work with the same women each day, and naturally begin to identify as something like families; men on the other hand, wait on corner streets and are picked out to join a truck one at a time for that day; tomorrow they will be with a wholly different group of individuals. Women would not do well with this. So this group detective story replicates a woman’s sense of what’s important, what she’s comfortable with, enjoys too.

favoritespotis library
The favorite spot in both seasons, all three stories is the bowels of Julie’s library


Kate Eastwood Norris as Mary with Nancy Robinette as Hannah Kennedy, her beloved nurse

Dear friends and readers,

This past Saturday Izzy and I were riveted into intense watching and listening at the latest production of Peter Oswald’s translation of Schiller’s Mary Stuart at the Folger. As I discover Izzy and I (with Jim) saw precisely this play done before, and here in DC, by the WSC company when it was in Arlington, I won’t go into detail but to say it’s praiseworthy for much the same reasons as the WSC and London productions before it. This translation and its director, Richard Clifford, has once again strangely, considering that Mary Stuart was no rebel against state power, and as to her political machinations anything but virtuous, well-meaning, selfless, and Elizabeth the admirable controlled person genuinely seeking the interest of the people in her state as her best support, turned this famous execution into a parable where Mary stands for framed victims of ruthless state power, while Elizabeth, however sympathized with, a tortured jealous female tyrant. When in January 2013, we three saw the HD Met production of Maria Stuarda, Joyce Didonato became this poignant figure with whom the audience is urged to identify, the emphasis focused on worlds of prisons, and executions deliberately turned into savage spectacles. I was then moved further to point out how since Schiller, Scott’s Kenilworth and Abbot and Monastery, and a series of movies since were moving into new distortions so that Elizabeth is now becoming the compensatory glamorous victim by virtue of her love for Leicester and Essex and their betrayal of her and I wrote about the Cate Blanchett films with Joseph Fiennes as the young Leicester, and for part two, Barbara Flynn as an aging evil Mary.

Is it probably true to say the modern audience which might care that what happened between Martin Luther King and President Johnson at Selma is misrepresented by the recent otherwise good (if pious) movie, does not care that what these two women were in life? If so, that’s a problem in itself, as it suggests we don’t care about the few powerful women who rise to prominence in history. But if a feminist complained that once again women are ultimately being judged as sexual creatures, and that is the source of the antagonism to Elizabeth and refusal to see her as the powerful effective ruler, the reply could or would be, but see how central are the women, how respected and treated with dignity and concern and allowed to be moving psychological portraits. And the performances of just about all the actors was stunningly good, and as the women have been praised elsewhere strongly, I’ll single out Louis Butelli as Sir Amias Poulet who was Cassius in this company’s recent Julius Caesar, and Paul-Emile Cendron as the utterly untrustworthy, half-crazed religious fanatic, Mortimer. It is curious how other types from this era seem to re-fit our own. Why hold out? Two people on my Under the Sign of Sylvia I blog said they had and regretted it.

Holly Twyford as Elizabeth with her advisors

I think perhaps because of the quieter costumes and complete lack of distraction at the Folger (just a somber background prison, little furniture, lights used to suggest the wood) this time though I also found myself wondering how the audience felt watching it; they were an intelligent group; how did they take it? If we want to have plays about our modern militarist security states, surely we could write more directly about them? Surely many were watching this drama to watch this female rivalry. It’s known that Eastwood Noris and Twyford are partners in life and are planning a wedding this summer and I heard audience members discussing that. For me it was also an opportunity to watch 18th century dramaturgy because the play clearly descends from the she-tragedies of the 18th century and Dryden’s formulation that admiration should be part of the tragic emotion. As Izzy and I were walking away, we talked of the biographies of Mary Stuart we’d read and she said that the recent one by Fraser showed that Mary had to marry, that once she was forced out of France, she found herself surrounded by in effect gangs of male thugs in Scotland, and it was her regent, John Murray who handed her over to Elizabeth and was ultimately her triumphant enemy. She was thinking of the real Mary Stuart’s life, failed alliances and political military contexts.

Probably I was also led to think this way this time because recently I’d read a fine essay by Sabrina Baron in Leggott and Taddeo’s Upstairs and Downstairs: British Costume Drama from The Forsyte Saga to Downton Abbey. In Baron’s “Desacralizing the icon: Elizabeth I on Television,” she surveys the large number of films featuring the character or figure of Elizabeth I throughout the 20th and into the 21st century. Baron suggests her icon in in the Renaissance era was manipulated to present an transcendent female figure effectively doing what men did, a kind of male in hieratic female dress; in the 20th century she is “a sexualized female stereotype who failed at love and motherhood and did little of consequence.” If you look at her time, you see to many Elizabeth was a mystery, a curiosity, an anomaly, not an abomination. What she proceeded to do gradually was showcase her virginity, insist on it as what wedded her to England. In 1596 an order was issued that all unflattering portraits of the queen should be destroyed. As a consequence a very few depictions of Elizabeth for real in her later years have survived. What was one to do with this unmarrying, unreproducing, later undesirable woman. Her relationships with Leicester and Essex (and others) so romanticized were in the real era about their desire for financial favor, and political preferment. So you did not present her as a woman once she got older. Baron sees both ploys as erasure, and the modern reversals as revenge.

They had witty exchanges

Baron’s essay is so chock-a-block with so many films (she also covers some cinema) and details I can just offer a few. She covers US films, especially the influential Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. I was startled to discover the second BBC film about this queen was an adaptation of Kenilworth and starred a very young Jeremy Irons as Leicester and Gemma Jones as Elizabeth. Scott was first adapted in in 1956 and then 1967. Both videos were alas wiped out. Irons returned in the same role on HBO in 2005 in a wildly popular version of Elizabeth the Queen, with Helen Mirren (Hugh Dancy the Essex). A sad fall away from Jane Tennison. Alessandra Stanley (who wrote a sequel to GWTW) was a rare critic to dare to show how it wallowed in painful pity for this aging woman — none of her public successes made much of, hardly mentioned.

Blackadder’s rendition of Elizabeth had an actress dressed up absurdly as a kind of wooden doll with wig, but to me this parody is no improvement.

I never have seen a drama of her earlier years when as a young woman she overcame a number of attempts to kill or assassinate her, remarkably came to power (to Catholics, the illegitimate Protestant daughter of Anne Boleyn) and then stayed there, effectively, with few wars, none on her soil. For this you must read good biographies, and the one I remember best is the older Elizabeth Jenkins’s Elizabeth I.

Said to be a portrait of Elizabeth when a princess, well before her sister, Mary came to power

Known to be a portrait of Mary when age 12 by Francois Clouet


Joyce or Jan Struther or Anstruther (1945)

Dear friends and readers,

This is not a foremother poet blog in the mode I used to write them: it’s a preliminary sketch for one.

This week I had occasion to read the screenplay for Mrs Miniver and watch the 1942 movie; moved by the script and film, I reread some of Anstruther’s Mrs Miniver columns or sketches (as published in Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther, introd. by Greer Garson), and a few of her many many poems as quoted from a biography by her granddaughter, Ysenda Maxtone Graham, The Real Mrs Miniver. Graham had access to private papers and poems at the time unavailable anywhere since the first early publication of 4 small volumes (1931, 1932, 1936, and 1940); she skillfully contextualized the columns by embedding them in a retelling of Anstruther’s life, her poems, and others essays. I re-read Alison Light’s chapter on her in Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism between the Wars (“‘Peace in our time:’ Mrs Miniver”), was again deeply attracted to this highly unconventional woman and the tone of much of her writing. I re-discovered that the brief biographies of her by her family and others on-line contradict one another.

What I do here is quote just a few of her poems, offer a brief preliminary sketch, and cite a few texts and hope to return to this subject in earnest in future to add to or qualify what I offer tonight.

To begin with the poetry, I quoted two in the blogs I wrote this week, “Like rays shed/By a spent star”, and “I think it sounds too vast.”

to which I add these few more: This appeared in The Times (and is quoted in her granddaughter’s biography of her):

This is the measure of my soul’s disease:
I, who for love of life,
Once grudged each moment of the night’s oblivion,
Now seek out sleep, unearned;
Cling to its depths, and wake reluctantly
As though to bodily pain.

Those poems by her which seem to me her best have an undercurrent of sadness mixed with a surface of starry hope:

“You need not envy,” from her volume, The Glass-Blowers and other poems:

You need not envy lovers who are never apart;
For not in the pin-point starry conflagration
Of touch or kiss
Deepest contentment is,
But in the memory of delight, and its anticipation —
The interstellar spaces of the heart

There is much wit and black humor among them:

R. I. P.

HERE lies a woman ­ known to me, and you ­
Who tried to eat her cake and have it too;
Who saved her pence and threw away her pounds,
Ran with the hare and hunted with the hounds.
When torn between her country’s laws, and love’s,
She played with fire ­ but wore asbestos gloves.
Then, having sold her soul and cashed the cheque,
She fell between two stools, and broke her neck.

She could write Ogden Nash type verse:

Fidelity isn’t just a question of who you go to bed with:
It’d be simple enough, if that was all you had to bother your
    head with.
Because, after all, unless you happen to be introduced to a
    ravishing Russian when the weather’s particularly sultry,
It’s only too easy not to commit adultery.

But anyway, as I said,
Fidelity isn’t just a matter of Respecting the Marriage-Bed,
It’s a matter of not letting other people be able,
At the dinner-table,
To tell whether you are hearing one of his stories for the first,
    second, tenth or twentieth time;
And of understanding, and responding to, his pantomime.
When he is bored at a party and wants you to get up and say
And of remembering always to say ‘we’ instead of ‘I’
And ‘our’ instead of ‘my’
And of never accepting a telephone invitation without leaving
    him a loophole for escape;
And of never letting him in for amateur theatricals in any
    form or shape

[and so on ending]

But pray don’t think that I am trying to disparage

Her hymns are well-known, and sung (as with her persona, Mrs Miniver, these do not represent her inner life accurately): ‘Daisies are our silver, buttercups our gold’, ‘When a knight won his spurs, in the stories of old’, and ‘Lord of all hopefulness, Lord of all joy’. Anstruthers said she didn’t believe in God (not for print at the time), but here is one that shows a sudden vision:

Intimations of Immortality in Early Middle Age

ON the first of spring, walking along the Embankment,
Light-footed, light-headed, eager in mind and heart,
I found my spirit keyed to a new pitch,
I felt a strange serenity and a strange excitement.

I saw a boy running, and felt the wind
Stream past his cheeks, his heart in ribs pounding;
I saw a nurse knitting, and my own fingers
Knew the coldness of the needles, warmth of the wool.

I saw, over the barges, gulls flying:
It was my own wings that tilted and soared,
With bone-deep skill gauging to a line’s breadth
The unmapped hills of air, its unplumbed hollows.

I saw four men striking in magnificent canon
With long-hafted hammers on an iron spike:
And I, swinging with them, made no fifth
But was one with each, wielding a fourfold weapon.

I saw a woman with child: a second heart
Beat below mine. I saw two lovers kissing,
And felt her body dissolve, his harden
Under the irrational chemistry of desire.

And I, who had always said, in idle, friendly,
Fireside thrashings-out of enormous themes,
That anybody who liked could have my share
Of impersonal after-life, fusion with the infinite,
Suddenly thought–Here, perhaps, is a glimpse
Of the sages’ vision, delight by me unimagined:
To feel without doing, to enjoy without possessing;
To bear no longer the burden of a separate self;
To live through others’ senses; to be air, to be ether,
Soundlessly quivering with the music of a million lives.

from The Glass-Blower and other poems


Greer Garson and Anstruthers around the time of the movie — photo taken in Hollywood

What to say briefly about Joyce Anstruther? Joyce (or Jan) was born to an upper class family where her mother was gifted, and unhappily married. She became a journalist and after about 10 years of contented enough conventional marriage, began to live differently: her became an open marriage (lovers), she traveled, and eventually divorced and remarried. She never sought retreat, disliked housework very much, and kept a distance from her children (who in the upper class British way were sent to boarding schools, perhaps in that like Mrs Miniver). As a writer she benefited because for the first time private lives of women were the stuff of newspapers and considered important. It’s important to realize she did cooperate fully in the war-time use made of her creation, Mrs Miniver. Perhaps I’m unusual in liking these columns: they are light, “humorous” (ever the adjective), but they have a quiet power (one on gas masks remains with you and might have given rise to the famous movie). They are memorable. She suffered from depression, but she died so young of cancer (wikipedia).

To tell the life in another way, she was a conflicted but independent career person who had at least two nervous breakdowns, was left-wing. Mrs Miniver who seems to have come out of a corner of her mind seeking compensation and peace and quiet which she did not have in life. Valerie Grove quotes the comic presentation Anstruther made of herself in a Virago edition of the columns: told to clean up her room, her daughter objects, “Mummy … you don’t tidy your clothes away!” to which she replies: “‘Well,’ she said, ‘if I can’t be a Shining Example to you, let me at least be a Horrible Warning!'” Anstruther’s prose also presents a real yearning for stability and control patently unrealizable.

It was seven years ago now that a group of us on Women Writers Across the Ages (@ Yahoo), read Light’s book and works by each of the woman covered in it: women writers of the early to mid-20th century usually dismissed as minor or awful or worse yet, romancers and/or frivolous (Christie, DuMaurier), women writing women’s novels deeply engaged in women’s worlds and elitist (from the well-known, e.g., Virginia Woolf, Rosamond Lehmann, to lesser known, e.g., Ivy Compton-Burnett, Rebecca West, May Sinclair, Vera Brittain, Dorothy Canfield, to half forgotten, e.g, Cicely Hamilton, Elinor Mordaunt, F.M.Mayor). These authors and others like them are also treated insightfully and informatively in Nicola Beauman’s A Very Great Profession, The Woman’s Novel 1914-39 (with an appropriate still of Brief Encounter on the cover.

Light’s thesis is a familiar one to anyone who knows anything about Mrs Miniver. The characters in the movie, while a development out of Anstruther’s character, is used for purposes wholly unlike what was originally envisaged. Still, the political icon emerges from the domestic. These columns fit in with a type of writing women do: self-deprecation, e.g., The Egg and I and Bridget Jones’s Diary. It is true that the persona of newspaper columns is wrongly identified with Anstruther and especially makes little sense of her poetry and songs.

See the full website in the series, A Celebration of Women Writers.


A late 18th century family making music together — contemporary drawing

Dear friends and readers,

This evening was one of many where I knew my continuing subscription to the Times Literary Supplement is more than justified. Yes, it’s so much thinner; yes they favor hiring deeply reactionary writers, and they censor and control in a conservative direction not done before (you should probably double check a review by reading another of the same book elsewhere); at the same time, they continue a broad coverage of anything good in print on a large variety of topics (not just humanities and history), describe good theatrical productions, concerts, museums shows around the UK and in places in the US, such that you can vicariously join in. My favorite Booknotes carries on (despite continual threats of axing, it is just one page at the back); TLS has new poems, images of paintings, and illustrations that you will not see anywhere else appear. And they have good writers and experts on their topics who are not reactionary, but just informed in their field. And I am reminded to read this or that on-line blog and they are often very good (especially on the Greek and Latin classics).

John Evelyn

Well, on January 30, 2015, pp 14-15, Stuart Gillespie reported that a huge archive of papers by John Evelyn the diarist was found at Wotton House in 1949, bought by the British Library in 1995 (633 tomes), and is now being or is catalogued. From among the mass a slender volume of Evelyn’s translations and poems have been rescued. Gillespie describes the manuscript which is in poor condition and then goes on to quote compositions in it, and contextualize them. A “particularly affecting poem’ is about Evelyn’s daughter, Mary Evelyn who died at at the age of 19 in 1685. She was the sixth child, “spent most of her short life at home and studied French and Italian, history and literature, music and dancing.” Evelyn recorded in his Diary: “The Justnesse of her stature, person, comlinesse of her Contenance, and gracefullnesse of motion, naturall and unaffected (though more than ordinarily beautifull) was … of the least, compar’d with the Ornaments of her mind.” She had been “the joy of [his] life.” She died of small pox in March and the elegy was written in September. Mentioned in the poem are her music teachers, Signors Bartholomeo and Piery, “two famous masters.”


On my Deare Child M.E.

To her Harpsichord

Peace mournfull Instrument, let none
‘Ere touch thee more, now she is gon:
Let none a pleasing Song recite,
Or that may give the Eare delight:
May nothing thee hence forth become
But the sad Epicedium;
And numbers which soft passions move
For long pursuit, and fruitlesse Love.
Thy Muse is fled, sad Elegy,
And Tristia belong to thee.
Mithinks thou seems’t before mine Eyes
A Coffin drest for Obsequies;
Funebral dirge, dim Tapers thee
Best suit; and with thy shape agree.
Let none then skill’d at Graves to weepe
In artfull teares of sorrows deepe
(Who mercenarie throbbings faine)
Our undissembl’d mourning staine:
He who has lost an onely Child,
Or from’s dear Country is exil’d;
He who has lost a vertuous Wife,
The sweete Companion of his Life;
Or (all in One to Comprehend)
He who has lost a steady Friend
(Whom he did love as his owne Soule)
With me let him our losse condole
For such a Daughter: Let him here
On every Chord let fall a Teare:
And in sad accents of remorse,
Mourn perfectly our common losse.
How oft’ didst thou sweete Creature here
Thy Fathers serious studies cheere!
How oft’ severer thoughts divert
And in Seraphic Aires impart
Chast Songs, and sacred Hymns indite!
(For such were onely thy delight)
With what a grace us’d shee to sing!
How free, how cleare her voice! Each string,
Each key she touch’d, did seeming strive
To answer her Recitative:
But her sweete note so far out-went
The voice of strings and Instrument;
So soft, so liquid, so distinct
Was every Accent, and so link’t
To all she sung, and what we heare,
As charm’d all sense into the Eare.
Mourn Bartholomeo, Pedro mourn,
Your Harmonie to Discords turne
Who now shall your Composures trace?
Who sing them with such skill, such grace!
And soft Italia‘s mealting notes
(For song best made; and warbling Throats)
And now she’s gon, your Fame improve!
Would you know whither gon? Above:
She who was wont to touch these strings,
Now in a Choire of Angels sings.

Magdalena Baczewska performs 17th-century Polish Music: Pękiel & Podbielski on a harpsichord

See John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination on how central music-making within groups of families and friends was in the life of these country houses.



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