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.


Broadview edition: Eliza Fenwick, Secresy, ed., introd. Isobel Grundy

Dear friends and readers,

Over the past month or so a very few of us on Women Writers though the Ages on Yahoo have been reading and discussing a remarkable very late 18th century epistolary novel: Eliza Fenwick’s Secresy, or The Ruin on the Rock is tragic, it questions central gender and some class assumptions of the era, it critiques colonialism. Written in a lively vivid style, with an attempt at different voices for a cast of characters writing to one another. Fenwick was a close friend of Mary Wollstonecraft, with her and Mary Hays when Wollstonecraft gave birth to Mary Shelley and as she died; a lot of what happens to at least two of the heroines, Sibella, and Janetta, seem to mirror events in Mary Wollstonecraft’s life; some of its themes exposing the destructive results on women of education and dependence, which rob them of all agency, and if they manage to gain any real knowledge of the world or people, prevent them from acting upon this knowledge, cohere with Wollstonecraft’s ideas.

Although a number of essays are cited on the Net about her or her book, these are available only if you are connected to an institution which subscribes to the particular academic journal. The best is Grundy’s introduction to the Broadview; after that, here are a few:

Blouet, Olwyn M. “Eliza Fenwick (1766-1840): Feminist Slave Owner in Barbados.” The Human Tradition in the Atlantic World, 1500-1850. Ed. Karen Racine and Beatriz G. Mamigonian. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010. 183-194.

Cannon, Mercy. “Hygienic Motherhood: Domestic Medicine and Eliza Fenwick’s Secresy.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 20.4 (2008): 535-561

Park, Suzy. Picturesque Interiority in Fenwick’s Secresy and the Novel of Information, Literature Compass 7/8 (2010):659-73.

Golightly, Jennifer. “Maternity and the Re-forming of the Radical Family.” The Family, Marriage, and Radicalism in British Women’s Novels of the 1790s. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2012. 85-109.

Enough is known about Fenwick’s life to teach us about the difficulties of survival for a woman in the era or anyone not born to some wealth or connections. From what Grundy wrote of her life, it was a hard one where she was orphaned young, the Irishman she married (radical politically) was not capable of supporting himself (he is said to have been alcoholic and a gambler or got himself in debt) or her; the emigration to Barbados was out of desperation, to escape servitude herself, and to be with her daughter; she found she could not escape the system and ended up owning slaves herself to secure help; her daughter’s marriage failed; she had tried to rise and instead the diseases of this place killed her children and grandchildren; Fenwick herself (as most people in this era) never had an opportunity to make any real money or secure any stable or genteel life for herself or her children. Fenwick must’ve written the children’s books out of desperation when her attempts at maintaining schools failed. It’s Grundy who called the novel “stunning,” sees “grandeur” in it, none of the usual labels “epistolary, gothic, sentimental, radical, novel of manners or novel of social conscience — can package this stunning single work.”

Keira Knightley as the raped, endlessly impregnated, now drunk and gambling-addicted Duchess

It was our fifth novel by an 18th century woman in a row: we’d read Georgiana Spencer’s The Sylph; the anonymous Emma, or the Fatal Attachment;; Sophie Briscoe’s Miss Melmoth, with its portraits of vulnerable women in a variety of commonplace powerless roles; Austen’s Emma; we are going on for a series of texts by Mary Wollstonecraft. In this company Fenwick emerges as a worthy companion of Austen and Wollstonecraft; with as radical ideas as Spencer (who delves rape, marital especially), and woman-centered in the way of the author of Fatal Attachment and Briscoe — and Austen (we must not omit her).

Volume I:

An engraving by Wm Westall: Rievaulz Abbey, from Duncome Terrace — this may stand for the kind of landscape and caste imagined in this novel

Letters 1-3: Usually when a girl, here Sibella Valmont, is locked away we first come upon it from the outside, someone coming to a castle or remote spot; and the causes of the isolation are put before us. That’s the mode of Udolpho, of Uncle Silas. We see it from the girl or man isolated. Here instead the novel opens with her friend, Caroline Ashburn, who is thrown out and we don’t know why; what’s more she was staying there; Sibella’s uncle and guardian’s fierce anger is far more than a matter of rudeness. He is immuring his ward.

In the third letter Caroline tells Sibella a history of her mother which is intertwined with her narrative. When her mother was orphaned at age 23, “fashionable” (rich) people, sent her to India to find a husand, she was beautiful and married super-wealth. There is an Emma-Harriet story: in a nearby cottage lives a girl with blue eyes, Nancy, and Caroline wants Nancy at “her command”, to live with her, have the same fine clothes, as many slaves obey her as she Caroline possesess, but her mother puts a stop to it. First she is said to be ill, Caroline has paroxyms of rage and sorrow but the mother defends herself in Downton Abbey terms: Nancy cannot be a fine lady. Caroline tries to remedy her bad behavior, determined to mend her ways, not regard herself as in charge of someone else’s education, but Nancy’s parents move away. Her father died and her mother returned to England. They are demi-monde, and thus isolated; they exhibit themselves at pompous places but no good, no one will have anything to do with them. They go on a tour of the great houses and pass by Valmont castle which is known as gothic magnificence and we get this thorough description of gothic castle, grounds, park, wiht Sibella’s uncle presented as a misanthrope. Sibella is totally controlled by her uncle, prevented from reading anything of substance, from spending time with anyone, dressed as a kind of mad nymph in the landscape, so begins the novel as a strange unformed child. For seven days in fascination Caroline remains mystified but then she was ejected — with her mother I suppose. Now she wants an explanation of how Sibella came to be that way.

Letters 4-6: The uncle Valmont, reclusive, neurotic, perhaps after Sibella’s money, may have a son, Clement Montgomery, who he means to marry to Sibella; Montgomery is also severely controlled. When we first meet Clement he uses the flowery rake language of Lovelace; there is an intense gushing relationship between Sibella and Caroline which feels lesbian, but this is not taken anywhere. The uncle’s behavior is put down to arrogance by the friend Caroline and her mother meet at the house of Mr Barlowe. We are told there is a long history of violence in the Valmont castle — this is a reformist-liberal view of the gothic type; it’s the way Radcliffe sees such places in her travel book, the way Johnson describes them in his Journey to the Western Islands. Really in type Valmont is an imitation of Montoni and what makes it feel different is we are in this subjective prose mindset of Caroline; his name alludes to the amoral Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

As to Caroline and her mother they are enmeshed in a society filled with the usual moral horrors and hypocrites one sees in Charlotte Smith’s novels. Caroline’s mother just loves money and prestige but Caroline finds staying among such people a trial of her patience. Enormous sums are thrown away and we get a series of vignettes: Barlowe a “nabob” who lives in fear he will lose his money, seems to have bad dreams; Lady Barlow, a woman 40 years younger than her husband who loves admiration; son and daughter, Lord Bowden, your ideal accomplished young man; Lady Mary Bowden, giddy, indolent, loves to vilify others; the beautiful younger daughter, Barbara who acts the part of the lady of sensibility (Caroline thinks her sensibility an affectation); Colonel Ridson who loves his white teeth and epaulets, an unmarried man. As with Emma and Smith’s novels there is an attack on social life in and of itself as it’s experienced in society. Novels are supposedly about social life, but the really good ones expose it bitterly.

Visitors are expected: a Mr Arthur Murden, intended as a husband/suitor to one of the daughters. He is said to be generous, good, wise, amiable and yet a libertine. How can this be? The rake, Mr Murden is there and has been said to have seduced a country girl (Lovelace-like, he actually helped her); he alone shows tremendous pity for this woman and will send her back. It emerges that he disguises himself as a hermit and wanders about Valmont castle after Sibella, attempting to help her. This recalls Georgiana Spencer’s The Sylph and suggests Fenwick read it — and it circulated among more readers than we know.

Letter 7 very long, from Caroline, and includes an extraordinary story of Barlowe as a nabob bringing home with him an Indian secretary, a boy, whose mother follows them frantically to beg that her son be returned to her. She is starving and wretched and he tells her to get out and find a job to pay her way back. The other women are mean and scornful of her. She soon dies — as a powerless victim she provides a parallel for Sibella’s fate at the close of the book.

Letters 8-16: Clement comes to the Valmont lair after hanging around nearby in an inn, hoping it would seem for a glimpse of that hermit; he is spied and forced to visit and Valmont, the tyrant-uncle throws him out in a rage over his skulking about. The punishment seems in super-excess of the crime: he is tossed with 500 pounds. This is what happens to Tom Jones, but Blifil really mounts up a bunch of real treacheries. Sibella unexpectedly defies the uncle at first, then cringes, but in accordance with an older set of marriage customs, says she will run away with Clement and become his wife. Before the 1753 Marriage Act a marriage could be valid if vows were said in the present tense in front of witnesses and then consummated – often contested in courts when the pair were the children of wealthy people. The custom continued for some time after — Grundy tells us Wollstonecraft and Imlay did this and Fenwick knew it. It was a way to avoid the church, as except for the brief time of the Interregnum when under Cromwell you could in effect be married by the state in a simple modern kind of ceremony (the interregnum gets a much worse press than it was, it was egalitarian and for liberties of subaltern people); obviously the consummation was something the girl’s parents could not retreat from. Clement comes out in a new voice, far more human and now highly emotional. So too is Sibella. There is a use of the trope of the billet doux between them which harks back well before Rousseau’s La Nouvella Heloise.

Letter 17: Finally Murden comes on stage; we have been waiting for him for quite a time and the voice is plain and believable — if somehow without enough presence or depth. The uncle’s motives are money, Murden anticipates both Byron and Shelley: an idealist who will not be coopted, loathing certain kinds of money and rank corruption. In character he would fit with Sibella as an idealist, but in intelligence Caroline — she is the vivacious “gay” type but also have gravitas in her sentiments.

Volume II


Colin Firth as a Shelley-like Valmont and Fairuza Balk as the innocent knowing Cecile wandering in the woods in Miles Forman’s free adaptation of LaClos’s novel can stand in as types for Murden and Sibella

Letters 1-3. Caroline functions partly as a mouthpiece for her author when she corners Davenport, her mother’s young suitor and (for no probable reason) he spills out to her his highly emotional distressed history, the son of another tyrannical father, Davenport has a young women he has impregnated and wants to marry Caroline’s mother to get money to support them! Frank enough. Sibella and Clement have consummated their love secretly, going through the deep custom marriage (one not recognized by law any more) and Mr Valmont is going through with his plan to fling the young man off with 500 pounds. For me the increase in gravitas in Caroline’s character makes the book improve as well as the idiosyncracies and desperation of Murden – who has lost Sibella and rejects the corrupt parliamentary life others want him to take up. Caroline reminds me of Anna Howe only she is given more power.

Murden is appealing in his rejection of the world’s values; he writhes himself because he does not know how to act in a world that gives him choices none of which he wants. Off to the Lake District with the Wordsworths and Coleridge that’s what Murden needs … only he’s no writer. The theme that a man should earn his living is one of the few more or less explicit ones in Austen; that it’s good for his character is more her idea than the practical notion of supporting himself — which is the one that trumps in the letters. I’m not sure that Fenwick is making this bourgeois point. I see it when Davenport begins to burlesque and ridicule trade when he is marrying a woman much older than him to gain an incomey, but the whole way of life as meaningless. There is nothing to be proud that one has bought, nothing to be proud that one has made or keeps up (as Darcy in Pemberley and Mr Knightley in Donwell Abbey).

Letters 4-6: Fenwick introduces characters right and left and sometimes very clumsily: as when Caroline tells us that Davenport forgot to say he has a sister, Harriot, and she a merchant husband, Mr Beville and suddenly we are off and running with these two characters. It is a book that exposes male hegemony in this book; the implied author show us how unfair that a woman should be hurt and stigmatized over sexual transgression and not men. It might be too much to ask that she get beyond that to say stigmatizing itself and punitive behavior over these forced marriages, but she is more exposing parental tyranny (Austen’s semi-mocking phrase at the close of NA). She also means to draw us to Murden.

Letter 7-9: a new farcical character, Lord Filmar whom Valmont wants to marry off to Sibella and who wants her for the money. He seeks her in the landscape and incomptently seeks to abduct her. There is little romance in this novel of the usual type. Clement and Sibella behave hysterically and erotically. From Caroline’s side of the novel we have the sordid doings of the Bath and London crowd.

Letter 10-15: We meet Mademoiselle Janetta Laundy (like Fenwick at one point of her life forced to be a sycophant and toady at a high price); Mrs Ashburn who gets a kick out of how others admire her for having a French lady’s maid. We discover that Clement is a lying, treacherous man without any conscience or morals (he’s been badly educated) and has been having an affair with Janetta and bullies her. He sends her checks and she has to act humbly. Not only does Sibella not know this, but she may be pregnant, assumes she is married, is subject to her uncle, and now the target of Filmar’s attempted abduction. Janetta is a truthful portrait of a Pamela.

Highmore, a scene illustrating Richardson’s Pamela

In reading letters 16 and 17 I tried to imagine myself a 16 or 17 year old reading it — I might find it thrilling and distressing. 18th century people would be in the grip of its norms and values as I would not have been. A brief letter from Murden thus far to Caroline Ashburn where he seems a sincere kind of male Marianne, very idealistic. I find myself detesting Mrs Ashburn — what other choices or norms has Janetta been presented with? she’s a paid companion.


Volume 3 (Continued in comments)

Rebecca_Night_in_Fanny_Hill Rebecca Knight in a bad moment in Andrew Davies’ film adaptation of Fanny Hill (an image appropriate enough for Fenwick’s Finis, though Davies’s is a male hegemonic point of view)


Jane Bingley Collins in Lost in Austen — there is no intermediary text, this is rather a time-traveling mash-up

Dear friends and readers,

If you read this blog regularly, you know I am embarked on writing a paper on the importance of screenplays or shooting scripts in film study. I reiterate and demonstrate what has been shown before: that the persistence of so-called studies of an eponymous (intermediary post-text) or Jane Austen novel as underlying all Austen films ignores how a film is made and from what concrete sources (fully edited on-going film script and scenarios).

One problem I’ve been having is I no longer can link in a list of Austen films onto my website since my husband died without risks of all sorts and those I’ve been working on are precisely this new batch. So, as I’ve been using the latest appropriation films — films with screenplays or shooting scripts and without intermediary texts where the Austen novel lies at quite a distance from the film — I thought it would be useful to me to have one place to refer to, and perhaps others who might value my writing on Austen or other women-centered, woman-authored films. So here they are:

Longbourn: said to have a novel film in progress

Death Comes to Pemberley 1: A spoilt mini-series
Death Comes to Pemberley 2: Interwoven Threads
Death Comes to Pemberley 3: A story of self-recognition
(The Bletchley circle is connected to but not at all limited by this Austen mystery brutal-murder matter.)

Austenland: a film still in the draft stage?
The Jane Austen Book Club: Conversations about the novels
The Jane Austen Book Club: as free adaptation of all six novels

Other films with intermediary or post-texts a few of which I’ve briefer blogs, and the texts for, include Bridget Jones’s Diary (see Nurse Betsy) and The Edge of Reason, Stillman’s Last Days of Disco (scroll down, no published screenplay but a brilliant novelization worth while). E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View (novel still not fully recognized as post-text to Northanger Abbey. Lakehouse (out of Persuasion) has an intermediary text in a Korean film.

See also (no intermediary text):

Lost in Austen 1: Pride and Prejudice: Dreaming the Austen Movies.
Lost in Austen 2: The harrowing of Amanda.
Lost in Austen 3: We must not reproach ourselves for unlived lives.
Lost in Austen 4: “You don’t do guilt, do you?”
Ruby in Paradise: To ache is human (Emily Dickinson poetry)
Ruby in Paradise: Young Lady’s Entrance into the World
It is telling that in some readings of the Austen film canon that the intermediary text even is not insisted upon, but subjective reactions of the film critic about the underlying Austen novel.
From Prada to Nada: Sense and Sensibility
Aisha: Emma

Elaine Cassidy, as Lucy Honeycomb, recommended by a holiday friend — she learns to look into others around her and into her self …

For more on the above and other kinds of older film adaptations of Austen’s, post-text or related (friends and relatives) texts about Austen and her contemporary challenge, go to The Austen Film Miscellany on my website. The above links represent only those I’ve written about since 2009. The miscellany goes back to the 1990s.


Lady Sinderby (Rachel Aldritch) at the point-to-point races — my very favorite for the season

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve put a link to Anibundel’s Hats of Downton Abbey for this year onto this blog (if you click you will be led to other years of hats), for fashion is a woman’s topic and the hats are mostly of the female characters. I add to it the observation that the one female character in Downton Abbey never seen with a hat is the utterly hatless Mrs Drewe (Emma Lowndes), not even when glimpsed coming from church or school:

The first shot, the first time we see her — we never see her from her own point of view, always it’s POV Edith

It has to have been deliberate — as is the state of Marigold’s unbrushed, tangled hair until “rescued” (snatched back?) by the POV biological mother, Edith.

Even Daisy has a hat (go look), and (another anomaly) Anna Bates (Joanne Froggart) suddenly sports a snazzy number in the line-up which sent her to jail:


While the best and most varied hats were the featherly creations for the Dowager (Maggie Smith); the most seemingly expensive (glinting with gold at us), those of Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern); and the most sheer number (click and you will see I am accurate on all counts) went to Lady Mary, who I was glad to see in a subdued number when visiting the Dowager:


the most quietly suitable for her looks, went to Samantha Bond as the supremely discreet Lady Rosamund Painswick

3 for one (to the other side, that’s Mabel Lane Fox’s cloche for dining out)

And the most indescribably wrong (deliberately so), somehow sweetly pathetically doing the opposite of managing to give her the youth it’s supposed to (is it perched too much?), went to Harriet Walter as Lady Shackleton who is trying so hard with Lord Merton, he oblivious to the poor woman’s efforts:


Unfunny uncles who insist
in trying on a lady’s hat,
–oh, even if the joke falls flat,
we share your slight transvestite twist

in spite of our embarrassment.
Costume and custom are complex.
The headgear of the other sex
inspires us to experiment.

Androgynous aunts, who, at the beach
with paper plates upon your laps,
keep putting on the yachtsmen’s caps
with exhibitionistic screech,

the visors hanging o’er the ear
so that the golden anchors drag,
— the tides of fashion never lag.
Such caps may not be worn next year.

Or you who don the paper plate
itself, and put some grapes upon it,
or sport the Indian’s feather bonnet,
–perversities may aggravate

the natural madness of the hatter.
And if the opera hats collapse
and crowns grow draughty, then, perhaps,
he thinks what might a miter matter?

Unfunny uncle, you who wore a
hat too big, or one too many,
tell us, can’t you, are there any
stars inside your black fedora?

Aunt exemplary and slim,
with vernal eyes, we wonder
what slow changes they see under
their vast, shady, turned-down brim.
— Elizabeth Bishop

Any one have a favorite hat poem?




Ruby: What would you teach?
Rochelle: You mean children?
Ruby: Yeah
Rochelle: How to survive … with your soul intact …

Mike: it saved me from evil. Restored my soul (lifting her hand with his) bought peace to my troubled mind (he is pulling her arm around his neck to embrace her) and joy to my broken heart …. [He says this in a slightly mock preacher’s voice] … [a little later while preparing pasta] Isn’t it wonderful the way Austen seems to dwell on the superficial and comic and yet all the while (he is pouring out vegetables into collander) revealing the contradictions and value systems of an entire society. (now the spagheti using a wooden fork) I don’t think there’s been anyone so subtle and allusive. What do you think?
Ruby: It was a neat story.(1993 Victor Nunez, Ruby in Paradise)

Dear friends and readers,

Over the past two weeks I’ve been studying five screenplays for my paper for ASECS against four movies: Scripts into Movies (aka The importance of the screenplay; or what functions do screenplays (what work) perform? Juliette Towhidi’s Death Comes to Pemberley and her (with Tim Firth) Calendar Girls; Robin Swicord’s Jane Austen Book Club, Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan and now Victor Nunez’s Ruby in Paradise. The first Towhidi’s, shows large radical departures from the intermediary text, James’s Death Comes from Pemberley, and goes back to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for other material; the second and third, Jane Austen Book Club and and Metropolitan have no single originating source text and may be read as works of literary merit in themselves, as interpretations of Austen, conversations on her, and distinctive Austen prescripts, blueprints for modern reenactments; the last. Ruby in Paradise is a poetic gem. Towhidi’s Calendar Girls confirms my suggestion that reading someone’s screenplays turns up the same group of characteristic indicative of the author’s work even if the script was edited and changed in the filming (rather like Sarah Cardwell’s argument about the corpus of Andrew Davies’s film work, especially the screenplays into films).

The three central girlfriends of Metropolitan, Sally, Jane and Audrey, talking about the photos taken of the Christmas holiday thus far …

On the way I’ve discovered a few more characteristics Jane Austen films share (whether heritage or appropriate, whether directly from one of her books or a post-text out of them) beyond the many I’ve discussed in this blog generally and in blogs and review of individual movies: many are highly literary; if the characters don’t discuss Austen’s books, they discuss other books (e.g., Emily Dickinson poem in Ruby); many are conversational. They follow a trajectory for typical girlhood development as outlined by Carol Gilligan and Lyn Mikel Brown (In a Different Voice, Meeting at the Crossroads); the stories are embedded in narratives of women’s (or sister’s) friendships; there is often a good female mentor (aunt, sometimes employer, occasionally mother; the centrality of the kind of sexual awakening a girl experiences. Coming of age, maturation stories for girls; a number have been nominated for or won a best screenplay award; through the palimpsest of whatever are the intermediary texts, we can see Austen on specific important issues (first impressions, for women dangerous delusions and developing good judgement; sibling love — that includes brothers). Women’s worlds, life from a woman’s point of view is delineated. Older women abound too, and occasionally their trajectories. Mrs Sophia Crofts’s memories of living in lodgings one winter and determination to go to sea with him ever after. Calendar Girls pivots on a widow’s real grief at her husband’s death, her losses (Marie: “I know how difficult it must be for you at this moment.” “Do you, oh dear … no, I don’t think you know how I feel”).

auidence (2)

auidence (1)
Marie (Geraldine James) introducing a talk on not just rugs but all kinds of carpets to the Women’s Institute of Yorkshire (we see in the back, our six heroines, Chris, Annie, Cora, Jessie, Celia, Ruth)

One of the more intriguing repetitions among the Jane Austen films is how many treat of Christmas. Many, from Metropolitan to Bridget Jones’ Diary, whether in a summery climate (Ruby in Paradise (Henry Tilney as Mike and Ruby as Catherine have their first serious dispute over a Christmas sermon on TV), Bride and Prejudice) or wintry ones (Emma itself). Lots of snow:

Establishment view

Bridget Jones and parents: caught in final snowstorm, heading for Darcy home

Johnny Lee Miller (now brilliant in Elementary) as Mr Knightley building snow men (2009 Emma by Sandy Welch)

But what if we went outside the famous six? Lady Susan includes sexual promiscuity, adultery, exploitative single motherhood, most important the heroine is older than the as yet marriageable single girl: 35. Whit Stillman is apparently writing another composite film adaptation. Arguably Metropolitan has as much source material in Persuasion and Emma as Mansfield Park; Last Days of Disco combines a Sense and Sensibility story with Emma.

lastdaysAliceCharlotte (Medium)
Alice (Chloe Sevigny) as Marianne and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) as Emma in Last Days of Disco

The return to the two actress of Last Disco reinforces my argument (laughed at by a couple of people) that Last Days of Disco was a composite appropriation out of Austen: now Kate Beckinsale played Emma in Andrew Davies’s 1996 heritage Emma (taking an ironic stance towards the heroine) and she and Choe Sevigny played a kind of Emma-Harriet as well as Elinor or maybe Lucy Steele and Marianne pair. So the projected title, Love and Freindship suggest those of Austen’s Juvenilia, which have doppelganger heroines, e.g., the epistolary Lesley Castle and the hard caricature of Love and Freindship with blend of Lady Susan, which I hope is not mistaken by Stillman for an early text; it rather takes off from a highly sceptical Maria Edgeworth epistolary novel with an adulterous heroine (Leonora) as well as Germaine de Stael’s Delphine whose vicious mother figure is also named Madame Susan Vernon.

Beyond Lady Bertram (Angela Pleasence in the 1983 MP, with pug): complacent trophy wife?

I rejoice to see this new material come into the more widely known Jane Austen canon. It will help bridge the gap between contemporary attitudes I outlined in “Bored with Jane Austen?”; but instead of dealing with these older or mature women’s issues from a different ethical standpoint we may hope Stillman will again configure his themes to present Austen’s perspectives as he did most notably in Metropolitan and to bring out what mainstream perceptions today still keep hidden as Fowler in her novel and Swicord in the screenplay, Jane Austen Bookclub did.

Audrey: “Has it ever occurred to you that today, looked at from Jane Austen’s perspective, would look much worse than ridiculous?”

Allegra: So, um… I actually thought that Charlotte Lucas was gay.
Sylvia: looks exasperated, Bernie looks down, Prudie a bit stunned?
Allegra: Really, I think that when she tells Lizzie she’s not as romantic as she is, I think that’s what she means.
Prudie: Charlotte Lucas is not gay. She’s not. She just … She just has no options.
Sylvia (pointed): Wait. Austen meant Charlotte to be gay or Charlotte is gay and Austen is not aware of it?
Allegra eating strawberry looks delighted.
Further shot includes Bernie.
Bernie: I just love the idea of a character having a secret life that the author doesn’t even know about.
Sylvia: You know, frankly, I kind of admire Charlotte for looking at her situation and deciding to marry Mr. Collins. (from Swicordd’s Jane Austen Book Club discussing Pride and Prejudice where they note the large number of bizarre marriages in Austen)

We may yet hope for another of Austen’s thoroughly radical texts to be filmed: The Watsons. What other novel in the era came down to presenting the lifestyle of the larger majority of women readers, most of them just inching into the genteel class, or just below, and without sentimentality and false glamor (unfortunately common in the Austen films).

Jane Bingley comforts Elizabeth Darcy at the nadir point of Death Comes to Pemberley (it is strongly reminiscent of a trope pose found among Victorian illustrations), e.g.,

Mary, Lady Mason, and her best friend, Mrs Peregrine parting at the close of Orley Farm (John Everett Millais)


A more recent photo of her contemplative

At seventy-seven it is time to be in earnest — Samuel Johnson

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been engaged this week in reading a P.D. James’s Death comes to Pemberley, watching the film adaptation closely, and studying Juliette Towhidi’s script once again, and decided to revise a blog I wrote for my Under the Sign of Sylvia II as a record of my reading, into a blog on what James has to tell us about her life, its connection to her mystery-detective stories, and the film adaptations of her work she has overseen over the years.

P.D. James’s A Time to be in Earnest, is a diary-as-autobiography, whose apparently upbeat terrain is belied by its constant theme of death, James is ever gripped by death, Death comes is her phrase again and again. She lived through World War II under the bombs, her husband became mentally ill from his experience in the military (as is not uncommon), and these experiences and her memories of a hard childhood, repeatedly end for her in sentiments whose gravity is underlined by her tendency to utter earnest consolation:

There is no point in regretting any part of the past. The past can’t now be altered, the future has yet to be lived, and consciously to experience every moment of the present is the only way to gain at least the illusion of immortality [though why anyone would want immortality is beyond me just now].

Yet she writes a success story, tells of all the famous people she meets, in one level produces a Horatio Alger story of deprived, poor and unlucky young woman makes good despite horrendous events occurring all around her, like WW2 and giving birth under the raining bombs. Whenever she can, though, she tells of consolation, compensation and occasionally joy: for example, she tells of one of her earliest moments of ‘intense happiness’ when she learned to read.

A butterfly becomes ‘one of those rare moments in which a fugitive beauty, briefly contemplated ,is experienced with a peculiar intensity, the sense of being a privileged spectator of a life, which however, brief is part of a mysterious whole.

Tellingly to me there is nothing like this in the detective fiction by her I’ve read thus far (4 novels, one non-fiction book on an early 19th century murder and police procedural at the time as it were). Detective fiction she seems (only seems) to approach in a business-like fashion though as a stylist she was a poet too:

“For me, setting, character, narrative are always interdependent” she says. “All fiction is artificial, a careful rearrangment by selection of the writer’s internal life in a form desgined to make it accessible and attractive to a reader.”

There is a section where she begins to discuss how mystery and crime fiction emerged from Sherlock Holmes stories, arguing that they are improbable and not scientific at all, nor the 1930s school of women writers; nowadays writers try more. She goes over the oddity that the Sayers school is still liked — she sees them as comfort books, a refuge — rather like Austen. I had found I didn’t like her detective fiction after all — though admitting to its strengths (deft description, able to hold you in the characters sufficiently that I at least wanted to know who did it), but I like this autobiography because it differs so strongly from her detective fiction. She is one of those who presents the horrors of deaths that these stories put before us, and then sweeps all under a rug of re-assertion of order. Everything tidied up at the end even if the murderer is not punished, so then all is well. She suggests that women especially find the conventions and the form of mysteries [focused ‘on murder’, which evokes ‘strong emotions’]) both satisfying and supportive.” She values limited realism above all. Myself I can’t respond to crime fiction this way.

It’s not uncommon with me to prefer someone’s life-writing to their fiction. James who is very much aware of her conservative political stance. I can see why her fiction on the surface seems more modern than say Sayers, is not quintessentially country house fiction: in fact she grew up lower middle class in England. I admire her control; in this book she is moving from the vivid present of 2000 and making comments as she remembers different aspects of her past while the straight narrative moves chronologically. The aspects chosen are for emotional connections and effect. See my review of her Death Comes to Pemberley.

Nonetheless, there is a hard-core sense of truthfulness and integrity that comes across that I am drawn to.

I woke at six with a feeling of vague unease, as if my mind were struggling free from the last clinging threads of a bad dream. It was another hot night and I had slept fitfully. Perhaps there had been a bad dream, but I had no conscious memory of it (p. 36)


It is woman’s memoir, écriture-femme as once would have been said. It is a diary across a year, the entries are organized according to the month she sat down and write each entry, with that entry labelled the day she’s writing. That gives it a cyclical structure as she often does the same thing over and over, or she sees family and experiences anniversaries, goes to all sorts of events to push her books.

Within this there is a chronological story which is (as I say) a more or less a success story. If you read with care, there are stages where she achieves this or that depsite great hardship (typical for men, Horatio Alger stuff) but again these are accompanied by powerful vignettes countering the feel of that: she gives birth to a baby while the bombs are dropping down on the hospital and we get this terrifying scene of how it feels to be under the bombs, the civilians. And the success story is accompanied by sharp critiques or vignettes of social life connecting them to day — a strong detailed frank description of her 5 years as governor at the BBC, She critiques what the institution has become; if it’s not there for excellence, it has lost its mission. Much of her inspiration for this or that story in her Dalgliesh series seems to have come from experiences on her different jobs — which included working for the military and health care. So then just plopped in are little critical essays on books she has read.

She writes of diaries:

The book, carefully hidden, is both friend and and confidant, one from whom neither criticism nor treachery need be feared. The daily words comfort, justify, absolve. Politicians are great keepers of diaries, apparently dictating them daily for eventual use in the inevitable autobiography, laying down ammunition as they might lay down port. But politician’s diaries are invariably dull [The admiral did not find them so – he loved to read politician and earlier courtier-intrigue types, from Crossman back to Greville.] Perhaps some compulsive diaries write to validate this experience. Life for them is experienced with more intensity when recollected in tranquillity than it is at the living moment [1]

Why James writes this diary. She sees autobiography sophisticatedly: it is part fictionalizing, part shoring up, part compensation, wish-fulfillment, inventing a life that was not quite the one you had:

And the past is not static. It can be relived only in memory, and memory is a device for forgetting as well as remembering. It, too, is not immutable. It rediscovers, reinvents, reorganizes. Like a passage of prose it can be revised and repunctuated. To that extent, every autobiography is a work of fiction and every work of fiction an autobiography. So tomorrow, on 3rd August, I shall write the first entry in a record which I propose to keep for one year …

She would never call herself a feminist but in her book as she moves back to the chronologically told past, she is slowly creating a career for herself in life and reliving it through this book — even before her husband became permanently mentally ill. The cyclical nature of women’s life-writing comes by how she weaves a forward-thrust narrative with diaries entries of what happened on the days she’s writing the chronology parts and these other events give her an opportunity to muse on her art, and the arts and topics of those whose speeches she hears or conversation she participates in. She was part of a generation which were rewarded by being sent to fine schools for little money — she does not appear to understand how lucky she was nor that social forces today (which she has a way of deploring) would have deprived her of the education that enabled her to become a writer. I can identify the way I have done with other lower middle class English writers on their childhood.

Thus I enter into the world of this book despite so much against it from her skewed politics to her name-dropping. Beyond the utterances at the close of her stories, every once in a while she launches into talking about writing, books in a highly intelligent insightful way and the occasional deeply melancholy sentiments pulled up by wry scepticism show me where the power of her mystery novels comes from. What grates about James’s conservatism are her hobby-horses and name-dropping, the narrow minded distortions, especially about girls in schools, what is happening in education, that she keeps repeating. On name-dropping: a couple of names is fine, but when she lists them and each time she goes somewhere, who she sat next to — I suppose there are worse faults … In a way some of her favorite bete noirs are revealing of her; in this case, we should remember how she, as intelligent as she was, passing all the elite tests she did, still did not get to go to the best schools because her family did have to pay more for her to go than she could afford. Some of this fuels her books and gives them their power.

What she is remarkably honest and candid about in concise ways are her life and feelings which went into her mysteries. For example her fascination with death and how a murder tries everyone around it and brings out deep aspects of the people left as well as murdered and murderer, the presence of death itself. Her husband is a continual quiet memory throughout the book, his illness, his death. She acknowledges how authors do use real people as partial or even whole sources for their characters — in her case partial. How she uses herself as other authors use themselves. It’s the tone of this one — she does say she was much influenced by Jane Austen – and Anthony Trollope. Like him she has the gift of easy readability — one of the reasons for her commercial success

James with her husband Connor, and their baby Jane (1942)

Towards the end of the book, James is invited to talk at Chawton. She includes a copy of her talk. Her section on Austen shows all her strengths and hobbyhorses too. Basing herself on the letters (and novels and common sense to), she’s simply truthful, candid: she suggests Austen did not marry because she saw endless pregnancies (and deaths in her near family from this); she talks of Austen’s repulsion at these bodies and quotes apt lines. Austen was seriously tempted to marry to be mistress of Manydown; why not? Marriage was a career option and they needed the money, but she declined the next morning. So traumatic for her.

Still Austen is not exactly grieving over Elizabeth, Edward’s wife’s death and she goes further than say he had that cottage well before Elizabeth died: he could have set them up much better. I was reminded of my feeling early in the letters that Edward’s attitude towards money and lack of generosity resembles John Dashwood.

James doesn’t idealize Cassandra Austen; she says it’s understandable given the mores, but Cassandra destroyed a precious large legacy. Beyond that she shows herself to be of the romantic erotic camp; she can’t enter into sympathy with someone who simply became a spinster; the feel is of see she’s weak or see how forbidding she was.

She’s read D. W. Harding and would call part of the feeling in the novels and letters “controlled resentment: ” the brothers are given careers, cared about individually; Jane’s piano is sold and if she made some sums from her novels, her life carried on controlled by the brothers and family. She does not want to impose a 20th century sensibility and (part of her hobbyhorses again) Austen was “hardly deprived by domesticity or a university education.” So much for college.

James says she first read P&P at 8 or 9. That is young. It was to her like Little Women — well I did read Little Women at age 10. She understands now she missed a lot but she loved Pride and Prejudice even from a young adolescent’s perspective.

She’s also frank about the origins of the society, how it grew, the rich American responsible for rescuing Chawton — which she does not idealize (literature of the country house is in danger of this): a 17th century house, it was and is at the time still dark. She attributes the growth of the society to the 1995 movie.


Most interesting are her discussions of detective and mystery and crime fiction as such and the film adaptations of her work.

Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth when first she is told what has happened in the woodland around Pemberley: taking it in

She does not herself discuss her Death Comes to Pemberley but it fits in with all her criteria and stances. What Juliette Howtidi did in the movie was to pull the vein of disquiet, of death’s primal effect on everyone — as well as re-arrange the plot-design to be more effective and herself go back to Austen. Howtidi’s Death of Pemberley makes much of intense sibling relationships … and I think attempts to reconcile the early Darcy of Austen’s P&P with the later one by insisting on the deeper moral man and his aristocratic code of reticence and yes status. Which in this movie being made in a supposed egalitarian era he learns to put away.

In Towhidi’s Death comes to Pemberley, as in Maggie Wadey’s Mansfield Park, it is the man who is ritually self-humiliated and apologizes and learns from the woman — Darcy from Elizabeth (this is not in James’s novel at all). Towhidi’s Elizabeth is herself placed in the abject position by her own fears and how others treat in the mid portion of the movie, but that makes it deeper and more real. James is too reverential and her version of Death Comes to Pemberley neither makes of Elizabeth an active sleuth (like Jane Tennison) nor is she connected directly with the crime or anything about it directly. So James’s book is dull (more on the book itself in my next blog).

James photographed with Roy Marsden as Adam Dalgliesh, and John Rosenberg (producer) and Herbie Wise (director) of the first Anglia series, Death of an Expert Witness (1983).

The crime novelist does not reject romantic fiction or science fiction in favour of murder through conscious choice. He or she needs to deal with the atavistic fear of death, to exorcize the terror of violence and to restore at least fictional peace and tranquillity after the disruptive terror of murder … John LeCarre is as much fascinated by personal treachery and betrayal as he is by the shoddy international bureaucracy of spying and the dangers and excitement of the chase. Espionage is his internal as well as external world.

The book turns very interesting when she reaches the filming of her An Unsuitable Job for a Woman for filming. It has a woman detective heroine, Cordelia Grey is central and is particularly insightful. She made the mistake (as she sees it) of allowing the successful producers to take her character, Cordelia and write another story of their own. This by the way is what Winston Graham refused to allow and what really brought the Poldark mini-series to a halt. He had originally only 4 completed by the early 1970s (used for 1975-76 first mini-series); then he had begun the 5th (with a 20 year gap to get over) and then was furiously writing the 7th just in time for the filming of the second series (1977-87). The producers asked if they could carry on with the characters and milieu themselves, promising utter faithfulness to conceptions &c. He knew they couldn’t; they weren’t him.

James had to learn this. When she was told her heroine’s story including pregnancy outside marriage, she was appalled, worse yet was the way it was done. Without typing out details suffice to say I believe the filmmakers when they rejected her alternative and said there was not much difference in theirs that mattered – to them. The details are important for those who want to see how really conservative socially James is when it comes to sexuality. She then had a helluva time making sure her name was not used, and another title for the series was invented. She writes as a warning. Had to get a very good lawyer to work at this

To add another kind of objection James had to the second mini-series or episode from her character Cordelia Grey. For the pregnancy, although James would never have done it herself, part of her objection was the huge addition of emotionalism such a development would accrue round the central detective figure. She suggests that while the detective figure is a character and needs to have real interest, they should also be kept apart, distanced, cool — Dalgliesh is that and, for example, Helen Mirren’s character in Prime Suspect. It’s not just an old-fashioned attitude towards sex outside marriage though it is that too.

She objected perhaps more fiercely to the story of the pregnancy. This is her woman’s point of view. She protests against how Cordelia is imagined as just letting herself get pregnant “by an old boyfriend” who casually disappears and now “brave little woman” she must bring up the child herself. James wanted to change it so that Cordelia meets someone who is fatally ill with whom she had a deep relationship, and out of real feeling, compassion for past, she has an affair with him. James talks about the irreponsiblity of the first story, but as is common in this book myself I think her moralizations do not voice what are her real objections or thoughts. Both stories have a woman getting pregnant without caring for the future of the child they might have, but the second shows much more bonding between the pair, real feeling (paradoxically – but then she didn’t want the pregnancy in the first place). The former is a male story: the idea of an encounter without ties and get away — one sees this everywhere on the Net for example in thesematch.com groups. And then attaches it to idealizing the single mother as that’s thought popular. James really does write as a woman from a woman’s perspective and is not attracted by the latest fashionable stereotype.

The other one is about detective fiction that’s serious even if it’s entertainment and in the end a (false James admits) imposition of order and rationality and justice on the world (which allows the reader to escape says James). She talks of the poorness of the script: Cordelia never sees the body; the body murder scene must be detailed centrally, crucial to all detective crime stories is this key scene and it’s best that the detective examine it. That makes the story serious. it’s best that the detective examine the corpse. That makes the story serious. In Death Comes to Pemberley the return to the crime scene in the film is obsessive; in the book Sir Selwyn Hardcastle, the magistrate watches Dr McFee thoroughly examine how death occurred and listens to all he says and we really get a sense of the mood the man must’ve had just as he died, of the body as containing this previous person frozen.

James suggests therefore that in the film version of An Unsuitable Job their not bothering to have Cordelia even there shows just how superficial was their interest in the genre and book. All they were interested in doing was making a pop program which took least effort of thought. The answer then is most of what is dramatized in the character of Sir Selwyn Hardcastle is fantasy, a kind of re-insertion into an 18th century sequel novel of what are conventions for modern detective-crime novels’ examination of the body. In Prime Suspect there is always a thorough observation of the corpse and procedures about it. In Breaking Bad I see the same thing done (examination) to anyone who dies or is killed.

Although this is not true of James (as she was of an age when people do learn to drive with more ease when cars were rare and public transportation very good in the UK), her continuing not to drive in later life is a sign of un-ease with the tempo and a number of other things characteristic of modern life and made intense on the road. She is a highly intelligent woman and she does bring out these characteristics as she worries herself and goes about to find ways to get places and get herself back. Occasionally she is stranded and traveling takes much longer. She is active socially, but even more she is continually out there supporting her books, publicizing herself, negotiating deals for films and talks and going to places where important known writers are and getting prizes with them . She does tell us far more about all these trips more than the times home — which must be long as every once in while voila a new book comes from her.

I find her to be someone whose understanding of her own fiction is not fully conscious; when she talks of “serious literature” most of the time she gets irritated by what the author wanted to do. I can tell when she misreads because a favorite is Trollope and she often objects precisely to the very point the author may be making with his or her character, denying its reality and then bad-mouthing the character for. She writes herself:

There is much that I remember but which is painful to dwell upon. I see no need to write about these things. They are over and must be accepted … And there are other matters over which memory has exercised its efl-defensive censorship. Like dangerous and unpredictable beasts they lie curled in the pit of the subconscious


James and Trollope

Johnny Eames and a beloved Aunt Julia (Small House at Allington, itself a rewrite in part of Sense and Sensibility, illustration by John Everett Millais, whom Trollope declares he loved dearly)

James mentions Trollope numerous times and says she often takes one or more Barsetshire novels with her when she travels. Since appears to go out a good deal! I can see how her fiction relates to a vision of his which we find in Downton Abbey (pro-hierarchy, depictions of the world as so many upstairs and downstairs &c), but curiously each time she descends to details she appears to complain. Which makes me suspect that her vision of him which we find in Downton Abbey is actually inaccurate and that her reasons for loving him are not faced up to.

Three passages stuck out. She complains almost bitterly about Lily Dale (from The Small House at Allington). She says she “came” to Trolllope in her 30s and since then he has provided “enormous pleasure.” Then that Lily Dale is a “monster,” she’s glad Crosbie escaped Lily (even if he is “a cad”), pities “poor Mrs Dale” destined to spend her “old age” with the “resolutely single and masochistic Lily Dale.” Just thinking about these words gives me renewed energy: I know Trollope seems to inveigh against Lily in his Autobiography but what he is inveighing against is the readership which sees her choice sentimentally, then he calls her a “prig.” Inside the fiction, the cases are made nuanced and each time she is either badly hurt for real or she sees that marriage would be a bad idea (with Crosbie seeing forever how much more she wanted him), and at the close of the book we are told she is at peace — has a comfortable sum of money and no longer bothered by so many things (pp. 37-38). PD James consciously loathes Lily Dale because she sees her as self-indulgent and has no inclination for retreat herself. And James had a hard younger life — the parents impoverished, the father fighting hard for a gov’t job at last.

But I suggest that she also loved the kind of character Lily Dale represents — of which there are so many in Trollope, from Mr Harding to Lady Mason.

By the time she finished with The Duke’s Children one wonders why anyone reads it, much less wants to produce an unabridged edition. “Only Lady Mabel Grex” “engages her sympathy”, Lady Mary is “obstinate charmless,” the heiress Isabel “irritating” (“it’s obvious [Trollope] was in love with his creation”), then the young men, Lord Silverbridge and brother are “amiable nonentities,” hopeless cyphers, and she says Trollope gives as wives to his men women “who are content to treat them as lord and masters.” She even has to say the Duke who she has liked so much now loses her “sympathy” when he treats Mrs Finn with “ungentlemanly callousness and injustice,” (p. 222-23). ). She doesn’t mention (seem aware) of how Madame Max is re-engineered from an independent European divorcee who married for money the first time and when she made a mistake the second pays him to stay away, to become a chaste widow for Phineas Finn can marry her.

In this case one sees again she has not entered into the value scheme of the novel. It’s true that Lady Mabel is meant as a tragic figure, but she is uninterested in the father-son conflicts, how Lady Mary is standing in for Lady Glen and doing what Lady Glen could not when young (stay firm for the man she wants and against the life she doesn’t), and she ignores the central absent-present figure of Lady Glen as well as the complex semi-corrupt figure of Frank Tregear.

She does praise The Way We Live Now in one of her frequent diatribes against some aspects of modernity: here it’s that literary novels today do not write about large social issues, do not examine “the dilemmas and concerns of our age” the way Dickens did. Where is there a brilliant portrait of a financier like Melmotte? She also likens Trollope’s TWWLN to Tolstoy’s War and peace.” (Tolstoy seems ever a name to conjure with.)

She has not read much of the Booker prize books then and is (as is seen in the rest of her book) out of sympathy with their politics. She feels modern soap operas on British TV are more in sync with popular readerships. Maybe. Hard to say since people are so distinct and large groups really don’t exist the way it’s presented in mass media. she would absolve herself as mystery stories (according to her) are entertainments, meant to reassure (yes that inexplicable idea recurs again and again all the while she will tell of some horrible death in this or that book).

Trollope would not have been surprised, he knew a lot of his readership did miss the point he tried to make in many of his books. Yet she read on and is candid and truthful about her responses so produces a revealing example of typical readers.

It may be that the majority of people in the UK are coming to feel no one represents their interests and a book about politicians or politics turns them off, but politics is just everywhere — all stories are utterly shaped by perspectives ultimately political.

Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison in the final season of Prime Suspect

P.D. James fails to recognize as valid another political vision is part of it too; she speaks on the same platform as Salmon Rushdie for example: he’s a political writer, but his vision is global. He and others see the larger view of how militarism and colonialist exploitation around the world are driving domestic politics in the UK and elsewhere. To pick a popular mystery series, Prime Suspect was continually political, exposing all sorts of wrongs in bureaucracies of powerful agencies especially — and it was popular. True that James identifies with the detached Dalgliesh — and (I am told) perhaps meant him to marry Cordelia eventually. She was herself a woman living on herself — later in life with a beloved cat, Polly-Hodge:


I will probably move on to read her mystery which is said to rehearse the Jane Austen P&P story from afar (The Murder Room), (I’ve now read three, her first, Cover her Face, A Taste of Death and Death Comes to Pemberley, and her Maul and Pear Tree and Talking about Fiction), but her autobiography is to me very interesting, full of life and (like the mysteries) her prose is so readable. She has wonderful sheerly descriptive gifts. I have bought her Maul and Pear Tree and look forward to her take on a specific murder story of the long 18th century era.



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