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Archive for the ‘costume drama’ Category


The old pump at Steventon as drawn by Ellen Hill for her and her sister, Constance Hill’s, Jane Austen: Her Home and Her Friends

Friends and readers,

Saturday began with a lavish morning breakfast on a terrace overlooking the beach, after which the second keynote speaker, Devoney Looser delivered a remarkable speech, and there were two breakout sessions, one directly after Devoney’s, and another after an hour and one half break for lunch. At this the conference proper seemed to be over, unless you count the “special events,” and at the last moment I paid for and heard an informative talk by a man running a local museum on printing about printing in the 18th century. Since the third keynote speech on Sunday morning was (like all the other JASNAs I’ve gone to) in mid-morning, and Izzy and I had a plane to catch (and a drive through congested highways to get there), we had to miss this once again. I have yet to hear the third keynote speech. It is not designed for those who are not staying for yet another day, half of which has no scheduled events having to do with Austen (this time it was expensive tours, wineries, beach and cruise excursions, dinners). And of course that means payment for yet another night at the typical expensive JASNA hotel. And very like the other three JASNAs where Izzy and I stayed at the hotel for Wednesday through Sunday morning, many people were leaving Sunday morning — as witnessed by the plethora of cabs, shuttles and other non-pedestrian modes of getting away (as there is no public transportation and few sidewalks in this area of California one cannot walk anywhere).

Devoney’s keynote speech was (in my case) followed by two outstanding presentations in sessions (I chose luckily at last) and a third of suggestive interest about Austen criticism. As I will try (as I have been doing) to tell a little of what I could not hear from what others told me of talks they heard, I will have four blogs after all. Here I discuss just the keynote speech and the papers I heard during Sessions D and E.

Devoney’s title was neutral: “After Jane Austen.” Like Gillian’s and the theme of the conference, her matter was not directly about Austen, but post-Austen matters, with this difference: the unusual areas she had researched, a resolutely neutral stance which allowed for much (I at least assumed) irony towards the absurd, commercial, and bizarre material she uncovered, and for a nervily dry delivery. She offered the kind of apology people do when they are not apologizing but defending a stance: she was not going to assume a “solemn” or “mournful” tone (even though this was 200 years after a relatively early death of a remarkable writer, a death I would add in great pain). No, her stance is that or closer to that of Rebecca Munford on Emma Tennant (the essay is “The Future of Pemberley: Emma Tennant, the ‘Classic Progression’ and ‘Literary Trespassing’ in Dow and Hanson’s collection, The Uses of Austen); she accepts Jane Austen and Zombies even if the argument of whatever text is pro-war is for the common good (arguably the stance of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; see my “The Violent Turn”); her view that the 1960s/70s formed a rallying time for social transformations that included Austen; she is open to ghosts of Austen haunting us, even literally and unscrupulously (if I understood her correctly). Throughout her speech her power-point presentation gave us illustrations of “the bizarre stuff” that’s out there: outrageous headlines about Austen, ludicrously unhistorical pictures, ridiculous contests and assertions, and she told several exemplary stories.


Lily James as Elizabeth and Sam Riley as Darcy fighting over a gun, guns are regarded as good ways of remaining safe in Burt Steer’s film (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies)

Devoney’s first story was about putting a plaque for Austen in Westminster Abbey in 1967; there were large sculptures of writers there, mostly male, and the burden of her theme was that quite a number of people in the Jane Austen society were not exactly for this, nor were the Westminster Abbey individuals. Yet it happened, and she could name only those she assumed had the contacts to do it (one woman who lived in Winchester all her life who “had no profession”). A sermon was given which was an attempt to diminish Austen or put her as a woman in her place Austen with “small things,” like apple pieces; absurd straining to find analogies with Biblical metaphors. The last and fourth story had a similar theme: it included as one of its principals Joan Austen-Leigh, a descendant of Austen, active in the Jane Austen Society in Britain; she wrote sequels as well as plays, and was an entertaining raconteur. The story told highlighted how rigidly prissy one of the elected officials of that society had been in, someone who had never read any Austen (as apparently several of those involved in the politics of the plaque would never have read any Austen). The second story was about the pump that stood on the site of the Steventon vicarage (torn down in the 1830s). In fall of 1793 it was reported stolen by the New York Times, and a melodramatic account was given: it happened in the “dead of night,” a Chief Inspector was involved, and it was concluded (by at least the person who wrote this remark) that it had been spirited away to the United States “by a mad Austenite.” Research on the pump that was reputed to have been there began to question a photograph of the old pump. A third was about the statue of Colin Firth as naked to the waist in the water. It seems this has been destroyed. She regaled us over silly goings-on in these incidents.

The fourth (perhaps the most interesting to follow up on) on a script for a TV movie in 1974 by Stromberg Junior (the son of the man who produced the 1940 P&P featuring Laurence Oliver and Greer Garson). Writers included Christopher Isherwood; perhaps Peter O’Toole would have been in it. Devoney had read the script and found it “a hoot:” she took the view that it mocked Austen’s book by mocking the cult values (sweetened up heterosexual romance ending in conventional marriage and family). This Lizzie can’t see spending one’s life to find a man. Devoney quoted dialogues intended to be funny; it seemed to me (like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) to have a strong gay subtext. Stromberg Jr was not a liked man, and the deal fell through; indeed there was a threat of a lawsuit. Devoney mourned that we had not had this version of P&P after the 1940 one (which she seemed to like); the implication was maybe we would have been able to have a differently framed Austen than the one which did emerge. The 1979 dramatic romance by Fay Weldon, where it should be said Elizabeth was made the center, and other serious familial romance mini-series and cinema movies? Amy Heckerling’s Clueless has been, until recently, an exception to the rule. (I’m not sure about that; it seems to me that movies made for movie-houses have tended to be broadly comic, e.g., Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility has much comedy; the Indian Bride and Prejudice and Aisha [an Emma appropriation]).

She received a standing ovation, after which there were questions and semi-speeches. One elicited from Devoney stories of the 1970s and 80s when the first feminist criticism of Austen emerged (e.g., Alison Sullaway, a friend of hers). Juliet McMaster told of her memories of the 1970s JASNAs.

I thought it a spectacular speech, beautifully delivered, probably appropriately because it was (in effect) a celebration of celebrity culture. She intended to be or presented herself (though ironically) as respectful of popular reactions to Austen’s works (or to the framing of them); and among the books she praised at the outset was Deborah Yaffe’s Among the Janeites: A Journey through the world of Jane Austen Fandom. Jane Smiley remarks (rightly) that this book includes interviews with quite a few men: as someone who has been a long-time inhabitant of the listservs and pays attention to the blogs, I know that this is a distortion: at no time over the years I’ve been on-line have I ever seen more than one or two men active on the listservs, and most of the time they acted as thorns in the bush, aggressively insulting (Arnie Perlstein used to do this) or objecting “robustly” (as some put it) to other views. Scottie Bowman, whose death was responsible for his disappearance used to enjoy himself mocking Austen-l members; with his pretense of urbanity and gift for poisonous banter he was one of the causes of the famous Fanny wars. He was a troll though a published novelist. But men have more prestige than woman, and it’s not that acceptable to admit that still most of the most fervent fans are women. Yaffe’s book is not broadly accurate but spotlights what she thinks will be entertaining and attract readers and sales, and those interviewed are delighted by the attention Other books deliberately turn for their findings not to the unknown ordinary female Janeite (or unnamed except on the Net), but to published books, films, which are usually skilfully manipulated commodities intended to reach far more than Jane Austen fans whose appeal is quite different than Austen’s books. It’s easier to catalogue tourist sites than track down the unpublished (see Kathryn Pratt Russell’s “Everybody’s Jane Austen,” South Atlantic Review, 76:3 (2011):151-57; she reviews Juliette Wells’s Everybody’s Jane and Claudia Johnson’s Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures. Russell finds that Claudia Johnson uses her findings to describe powerful ideas about class, sex, and culture (of the type that feed into populism).

I know I am unusual in critiquing celebrity culture for its falseness and for maintaining that one can evaluate and judge between works. In fact Johnson evaluates and is condescending; how could she not be? But I am not alone. John Sutherland (on Helene Kelly’s Jane Austen: Secret Radical; scroll down “on the anniversary”) and Ruth Bernard Yeasell hestitate and critique too (see Yeazell’s “Which Jane Austen,” NYRB, 64:14 (Fall 2017):63-65.


Charlotte Heywood (Amy Burrows), Felicity Lamb (Bonnie Adair) Clara Brereton (Lucy-Jane Quinlan), Brindle’s Sanditon play

Mary Marshall’s “Sanditon: Inspiring Continuations, Adaptations, and Spin-offs for 200 Years” (Session D) drew me because I’ve gotten to know Chris Brindle’s filmed play, Sanditon and have the edition of Sandition by Prof Marshall which includes Anna Lefroy’s continuation, which Marshall was respectful of. She began with the larger picture: Sanditon is the least adapted of the novels, Pride & Prejudice the most adapted, with Emma at this point coming in second (though S&S is still a strong contender for second place). Sanditon was first known to the public in 1871 when James Edward Austen-Leigh described it, summarizing it in the 2nd edition of the Memoir. It was first published in 1925; 1954 Chapman made a much more accessible edition; it is the largest surviving manuscript we have (longer than The Watsons, though The Watsons is far more polished and finished, with implications much fuller as to how it was to proceed): 24,000 words in 12 chapters. Austen was giving us a much wider world than she had before, her language is more relaxed and at times so fresh the descriptions; the plot is unfolding slowly, with its direction not yet clear. Basically Marshall then described several of the continuations. Anna Lefroy’s, written between 1845-60, was first published in 1983 by Marshall; she had been working as a rare book cataloguer, and came across this working draft. It was Anna who had the cancelled drafts of Persuasion (she reminded us). She carefully developed the Parker family in a direction consonant with what Austen wrote. There is a real aptness and similarity of tone. The POV is Charlotte, Charlotte and Sidney are to marry; Sidney is clearly going to help his brother-in-law; Marshall was reminded by one of the new names of Hasting’s man of business, Woodman; the ambiguous character of Tracy is developed – a business world is being put before us.

A brief list: 1932 Alicia Cobbet (?), whose text is not faithful to the original personalities at all, with its melodramatic plot about kidnapping, smuggling and the like. A best known continuation: by Austen and “another lady (Marie Dobbs): Dobbs extended the story in a direction Dobbs thought Austen’s novel might have moved; Charlotte, for example, thwarts Edward’s seduction of Clara; Sidney proposes to Charlotte. 1981 Rebecca Baldwin who hopes the reader may take what she has written as homage to Austen; Julia Barret 2002 whose book Ms Marshall said is said to be terrible; Regina Hall 2008, where a mere description showed ludicrousness; Helen Marshall 2012 wrote a bizarre short story. Carrie Brebis, The Suspicion at Sanditon; or, The Disappearance of Lady Denham 2015, a “Mr and Mrs Darcy mystery,” was characterized by Marshall as “a well-written mystery.” Then there are several self-published texts: Juliet Shapiro 2003; Helen Barker The Brother 2002; David Williams’s Set in a Silver Sea 2016 with Miss Lamb as the main character. This is not the complete list she went over; I am missing titles; it was clear that Ms Marshall enjoyed some of these.

She then told us about Chris Brindle’s play, the film, the documentary; he owns the Lefroy ms, recruited Amanda Jacobs who sang his music very well (especially the beautiful duet, Blue Briny Sea; you can listen here to his most recent music for Jane Austen). Her last text was the coming (she hoped) new Sanditon commercial film (2018-19), with Charlotte Rampling as Lady Denham, Holliday Grainger as Charlotte, Toby Jones as Tim Parker, John O’Hanlon ,the diretor, Simone Read scripting. After she finished, I asked if she agreed with me that Chris Brindle’s was a fine continuation and Chris was right to take the two texts (Austen’s and Lefoy’s) in a direction exposing corrupt financial dealings, and she said yes. I regretted more than ever not having gone to listen to Sara Dustin on Friday on “Sanditon at 200: Intimations of a Consumer Society. I had chosen the paper on Jane Austen’s letters, wrongly as it turned out, for it was just a basic description and introduction to the problematic nature of the letters, which I’ve known about since blogging about this letters here for over 3 years. Peter Sabor said he had had the privilege of reading the script for the coming film, and it seemed a work of reminiscence. Many questions were asked about the textual sequels. This was perhaps the best session overall that I attended.


Emma Thompson as Elinor writing home to her mother

After lunch, I listened with much profit to Susan Allen Ford’s “The Immortality of Elinor and Marianne: reading Sense and Sensibility” (Session E). She was interested in using the development of the sequels and films (sometimes from one another) as a way of understanding Austen’s novel, both how it has been read and what it is in itself. She covered three sets of texts, the books, the staged plays, and the films. I’ll start with what she said of the films: since Emma Thompson and Ang Lee’s 1995 Sense and Sensibility, the novel has been read through it again and again, and it has influenced all other Austen adaptations (including non-S&S ones), she covered it thoroughly, including its many departures. The treehouse, the use of the handkerchief, and the way Marianne is rescued twice, first by Willoughby and then by Brandon have been especially influential; Rickman’s performance has mesmerized audiences, the gorgeousness of landscapes and houses, the melancholy music. I’ll add the lighting and coloration and that what Thompson “corrects” others have before her too. Rickman is anticipated by Robert Swann in the 1983 mini-series, but it had a somber dark vision (it’s by Alexander Baron) that has not been influential; Susan commended this mini-series for the use of complex contrasting depictions of Elinor and Marianne and its the first to include a loving depiction of landscape. She mentioned the Tamil Kandukondain Kandukondain or I have found it, as effective modernizing (Elinor looking for a job for example) but under the influence when Bala (Brandon) rescues Meenu (Marianne) from a sewer. There is a deep intensity in Davies’s 2008 film, which by the end has lost contact with the original scepticism of Austen’s book in its comic joy; Barton cottage is now by the sea and Brontesque in appearance.

The book sequels exist because of readers’ desire to spend more time with Austen’s characters, to experience the book’s conflicts. Like the films, they often give a bigger role for Margaret, maked the heroes more central, more acceptable, and more (erotic heterosexual) loving. It’s obvious (Susan thinks) that Jane West’s A Gossip’s Story lies behind Austen’s novel. The didactic and verbal parallels are striking. Austen changes a lot, gives psychological complexity, so her book resists easy encapsulating moralizing. Early on Isabelle de Montolieu’s adaptive translation changed the novel in her translation to be much more sentimental. Rosina Filippi wrote dialogues in the early 20th century, including the debate betweeen John and Fanny Dashwood over how much money to give his “half-sisters.” Susan suggested Emma Brown, an Austen great-great niece, wrote a strong sequel. In hers Margaret wants to observe life, to travel and elopes to Scotland. Susan went over Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility: the story is updated; the situations repeated in modern terms. She too has a treehouse.


Irene Richards and Tracy Childs as Elinor and Marianne debating whether Marianne can take Willoughby’s offer of a horse (1983 S&S)

Susan said the two recent staged plays have been a delight, especially Kate Hamil’s which returns us to Elinor as central POV; she breaks with realism for high activity and comic effect. Both repeat elements not found in Austen’s novels but now part of the collective memory of all these post-texts. I saw Hamil’s play and can confirm the script is intelligent, thoughtful, and reflects Austen too. Susan rightly said that Austen was deeply sceptical of the rescue fantasy; of the risks of emotional and erotic openness; aware of the pains of romance, and she summarized a couple of critics recently who took her point of view. During the discussion period afterward people emphasized how important Elinor and Marianne’s relationship to one another is; that the book is not primarily a romance and that is why people keep “correcting” it. There is great pain in Elinor when she discovers Edward’s lies, and shame in Marianne after she realizes she has been deluded. The films have embraced nostalgia; the narrative voice become cosy instead of almost unfriendly.


Kate Winslet as Marianne playing the deeply melancholy music of “The dreame” on the piano, a present from Brandon (borrowed from Austen’s Emma story and transformed).

I cite two post-texts that Susan did not mention: during Emma Brown’s era, E.H.Young wrote a moving rewrite of S&S as Jenny Wren: two sisters, Jenny and Dahlia Rendall with their mother, Louisa, lose their father/husband, are forced to move and try to make a living taking in lodgers; andCathleen Schine’s The Three Weismanns of Westport, which does the same thing as Joanna Trollope with rather more depth, originality, and yes dignity and grave pleasure in the style and stance. They do not fit into Susan’s trajectory as both did not add the typical elements of the above sequels, and both picked up on what Margaret Drabble in her introduction to an older Signet edition of S&S argued: that the economic and social milieu of the novel is its true interest.


The title alludes to Dickens’s disabled seamstress in Our Mutual Friend


Schine writes as a reviewer for the NYRB occasionally

For myself I have enjoyed many of the film adaptations. Recently I just loved Towhedi’s film adaptation of P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley, and feel Jo Baker’s Longbourn is a good novel, not to omit Helen Fielding’s brilliant Bridget Jones books, and The Jane Austen Book Club (both the movie and books by and centered on women). I was interested by Anna Lefroy’s perceptive continuation of her aunt’s story (she did understand her aunt as few can, none of us having known her), and found Young’s book to be a quiet gem; Young is one of the authors covered in “The Virago Jane” by Katie Trumpener (in Deirdre Lynch’s Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees). Miss Mole is a truly effective novel in the tradition Jane Austen started within women’s novels.


Miss Mole would be in my terms a variation

Next up: Annette LeClair’s “In and Out of Foxholes,” what Izzy heard at her choice of sessions, Eighteenth Century Printing and some remarks on widows and widowers in Austen, more on Darcy, and, a conversation on Austenesque Variations, i.e., yet more on sequels from a panel conversation held in another room during the fall, and last thoughts on these American JASNA extravaganzas.

Ellen

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Demelza and Ross Poldark (Eleanor Tomlinson, Aidan Turner, the last still of this year’s first episode, both looking grim or distressed)

Demelza and Ross in front of fire. She: “If you do not challenge the corrupt and unjust, who will?” He: “What would you have me do? I am not that man, Demelza, I have never been that man [someone who seeks power, loves the grand gesture, yet blows to authority].

Ross to Warleggan: “I believe belief is a beautiful thing” — from the final episode of this season

Friends,

It’s time to bring together another year’s worth of episodes in the saga of the new Poldark mini-series. We now have three year’s worth, five and one-half of the novels. To begin with, the the first season’s episodes and blogs on topics (like mining, poaching. I wrote also of the scripts of the first season. The novels adapted were Ross Poldark and Demelza (Poldark novels 1 and 2).

For the second season, the handy list is longer than the following for the third because the series itself had more history and the scripts had been published before the season ended. The novels adapted were Jeremy Poldark and Warleggan (Poldark novels 3 and 4):

This year no scripts have yet been announced; there was intense interweaving of the personal and public where the personal became contrived and at times far too melodramatic. I wish I had had the scripts to compare to see if this impression is the result of the director’s choices. The novels adapted were The Black Moon and most of The Four Swans (Poldark novels 5 and 6).

Poldark 3:1 & 2: again changing emphases, bringing out deep sense of community

Poldark 3: 3 & 4: the difficulty of returning to material 20 years dormant


George and Elizabeth Warleggan (Heida Reed, Jack Farthing — seen as a pair intimately for the first time …., he putting jewelry on her)

Poldark 3:4 & 5: deeper emotionalism but loss of verbal subtleties; late stage capitalism replaces exciting adventure

Poldark 3:6 & 7: Coerced and reluctant relationships; Agatha’s death, Ross’s refusals, Demelza charmed


Agatha Poldark (Caroline Blakiston)

Poldark 3: 8 & 9: like a song, previously individualized scenes

I’ve been putting this year’s blogs on my site for film adaptations and cultural arts in general, but these are also films from books very much rooted in the 18th century. Next up will be a list of the second season of Outlander, a sort of companion and comparable set of films partly set in the 18th century.


Morwenna Chynoweth Whitworth and Geoffrey Charles Poldark (Elisse Chappell and Harry Marcus)

In general, this year’s season compared in the same way as the previous two did to the 1975-78 Poldark mini-series. Both depart from the books, with the older series keeping much more to values of individual liberty and social justice, revolutionary Enlightenment norms, and the newer returning us to community as safety, compromise and desperate cooperation as modes of survival for its characters. See Poldark Rebooted, Twenty Years On.

For intelligent comments by the actors on the 1970s mini-series you cannot do better than this YouTube of The cult of Poldark:

The older series is subtler and more successful in conveying complex psychologies of characters interacting; the newer one is more overtly and interestingly political, a woven tapestry of juxtaposed epitomizing scenes (at its best symbolic art, with the character no longer presences on a stage, but figures in a picture). This year was much drabber than the previous — as befitting characters growing older, wearier, yielding the world’s demands.

Compare these at the close of the first season:


A mythic Ross


An archetypal Demelza

Ellen

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Susan Sontag (1933-2004)

“While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” — Eugene V. Debs who ran for US president as a socialist

Friends,

Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover: A Romance, was the historical novel I chose to teach this summer alongside Daphne DuMaurier’s King’s General. As DuMaurier’s novel was our example of great old-fashioned (pre-1960s/70s) historical fiction, so Sontag’s was our example of contemporary post-modern (yet progressive), post-colonial, feminist, self-reflexive realism (and she is even pro-animal rights). A familiar embodiment of the old-fashioned type (to anyone reading my blogs) is Winston Graham’s Poldark cycle (the first quartet falling just after WW2: Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark, Warleggan, 1945, ’46, ’48, ’53). Among the first embodiments of contemporary post-modern historical fiction (a first full flowering), Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, and a typical choice for the Booker Prize, whose choices are always of the post-modern variety, from Scott’s Staying On (1977) and Salmon Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) to Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992) and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009).

I confess the first time I tried to read The Volcano Lover, I couldn’t get on with it. That was in 1993 when my husband Jim, gave me this book as a Christmas present. It has an inscription — not written down by him but by me. At that time Sontag’s frequent changes of era and character for her narrator without traditional signalling defeated me. I did know it in the early simple form of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, but I didn’t connect Mrs D with Volcano Lover, and anyway I just wasn’t used to reading a book which attacked the very foundations of realistic fiction, of history writing. I couldn’t have begun to read Woolf’s The Waves. Since then I had conquered much more complicated versions of this: Graham Swift’s Last Orders (now one of my many favorite books, a Booker Prize winner), and with the use of Simon Slater’s brilliant reading aloud (on CDs), Wolf Hall (another favorite). Well this past Christmas (2016) I just fell into it. No trouble at all. Exhilarating because this new wildly free structuring is accompanied by an exposure of the limits of Enlightenment thought as winning out (however slowly) over the centuries humankind’s utter irrationality, vehement appetites, greed, deep-buried (only for some) amorality, atavistic beliefs, violence, and accompanying despair, the impulse towards death.

I’ve outlined the differences between old-fashioned, traditional historical fiction and post-modern, post-colonial too many times (scroll down). I taught a course in Booker Prize books. To be sure, there is no hard and fast difference between the two eras: both kinds romance a great deal, fantasize, use anachronism (all historical fiction and films intersect the past with the present). It’s a matter of emphasis: a romance. The best aim to combine the strange with the familiar. You embody history through novelistic elements so the reader (or viewer when it’s a historical film or adaptation) experiences the past as if we were there.


View of the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius, 9 August 1799, after a drawing by Pietro Fabris

Onto this marvelous book: we had great fun in my class the days we discussed it. As is characteristic of the type, Sontag continually takes wholly unexpected angle: instead of telling say Emma Lady Hamilton’s story or Nelson’s as a dual romance (though they are often mocked as a whore, and half-crazy naive admiral), her center was Sir William Hamilton, the collector-husband of Emma (himself remembered as a cuckold). But Sir William was a brilliant man; his is one of the collections that the British Library began with. Here he is one of those people who are central in upholding utterly corrupt regimes because it’s convenient for them to do so, in their interest. Instead of pivoting from London, or Paris, or Rome, or the usual center of empire, we find ourselves in Naples, a highly corrupt marginalized cityscape, where Sir William had ended up ambassador (longing to be somewhere else, the city of his final destination not quite Moscow).

The later 18th century from Sir William’s continual presence allows for several meditations on why people collect, on art, on obsessions (like studying volcanoes); sometimes the narrator was your conventional implied presence erupting from the later 18th century and then again she’d be Sontag of 1992,the scholar-essayist, but slipping, less distinct, and we find ourselves in World War Two (and are reminded no matter how bad our present moment, they came back, we come back from the nadir of 1943) of just after; and then again zeroing in in a specific year 1798-99 because at the core of her book (the center of the onion) was the disastrous rebellion by a small enlightened and artisan group in Naples, put down by the great hero Nelson, abandoned by the other great hero, Napoleon, and then savagely tortured and murdered. And then the perspective turns again and you are in the story matter of Puccini’s Tosca (which occurs just after that rebellion).

The most moving part of the novel is probably Part Three, Sir William’s meditation as he lays dying, but it’s arguable that the novel’s main characters are the seemingly marginalized women who variously comply with the men, rebel against them, stealthily control them (the Naples queen, Maria Carolina, sister to Antoinette, kept the garantuanly fat, asinine, blood-hungry King Ferdinand IV, on his throne), are variously destroyed, or somehow survive, sometimes grow very rich and powerful but then at the change of a male can become destitute in no time. These women are the collector’s first wife, Catherine Barlow, daughter of an MP for Pembroke, a very wealthy heiress whose money it is that Sir William is spending and carries on spending after she dies. The first part of the book ends with her death (after falling in love with William Beckford, who unlike Sir William pays attention to her). There’s Emma herself (Lady Hamilton); Emma’s mother (Mrs Cadogan, whom like the actress Farrell and her mother, Emma never left behind), Efrosina Puma (great name), the sybil who reads everyone’s fates through connecting each to a tarot card, and last but never least a remarkable journalist-poet, radical political activist, deeply humane, idealistic, Eleanor de Fonseco-Pimentel (hung). Along the way, Maria Carolina remembers her sister’s beheading in a nightmare (when she thinks the Parthenopena Republic has a chance, and suddenly we are deeply inside the mind and body of Antoinette as David so cruelly depicted, all steely pride as the cart trundles her to the guillotine. The book just soars in the fourth and last part, the concluding monologues by Emma, by her mother and by Eleanor are as important as any before and we end on Eleanor – a revolutionary, daring journalist, poet imprisoned starved raped tortured and then hung. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time — and was senselessly murdered along with a profoundly important physician of the day (Cirillo among the dead, a friend-doctor to Hamilton), humane thinkers; people understood this was disgraceful and did nothing to stop it. Her words end the novel unforgettably:

I will not allow that I was moved by justice rather than love, for justice is also a form of love. I did know about power, I did see how this world was ruled, but I did not accept it. I wanted to set an example. I wanted not to disappoint myself. But I was afraid as well as angry in ways I felt to powerless to admit. So I did not speak of my fears but rather of my hopes. I was afraid my anger would offend others, and they would destroy me. For all my certitude I feared I would never be strong enough to understand what would allow me to protect myself. Sometimes I had to forget that I was a woman to accomplish the best of which I was capable. Or I would lie to myself about how complicated it is to be a woman. Thus do all women, including the author of this book. But I cannot forgive those who did not care about more than their own glory or well-being. They thought they were civilized. They were despicable. Damn them all.

So, the book’s deeply feminist. The book opened with Sontag moving into a flea market, and from there the prestigious antique show, and then she is the alter ego, the absent-present narrator half-inside the minds of Sir William and his nephew (king and knave of cups) at an 18th century auction (where bankrupt people sold their cherished things). For those who love paintings, this book is filled with descriptions of paintings that once or still do exist, of caricatures, objects historically real, and faked, and when the scene is over, you have learned much more about history than most other ways. Part of the fascination is how she brings in through allusion biographies, other historical fictions history; the book is anti-genre (these are false constraints, rhetorical schemes so slow readers can catch on) too.

But the only character I loved absolutely, bonded utterly with, cared about (well along with Catherine Barlow and Eleanor) is the monkey, Jack, whom William Lord Hamilton buys and at first loves him abjectly and shows it. At first the animal is himself and we see (Darwin-like) how just like human beings this animal is — as complex, as feelingful. But Hamilton doesn’t want that, he wants a toy, and teases and is cruel to Jack, who a quick learner, does a turn-about and becomes the performing anxious doll-like creature, the “monkey” Hamilton wanted. I felt the cruelty of Hamilton’s teasing and so bad for the monkey who died, partly of neglect (the servants would not care for it when Hamilton was away) and partly of a broken heart. Sontag has made this effect deliberately because she has Hamilton think to himself how he has been told to buy two creatures so they will not be lonely as they need their own species but he coolly will not do it. He is clearly paralleled in the book to Catherine Barlow who was depicted with Hamilton by David Allen (both impossibly idealized): she was his companion, played beautifully, gave him many ideas as she read with him


William and Catherine Hamilton

Human beings are given names they don’t lose; when they die, it is recorded; it matters, they don’t just disappear the way an animal will from a narrative. And after Catherine dies, the stage is open for Emma to come on, followed by Nelson. There is order, observance. Not for the other non-human animals in this novel. Immediately we are introduced to the disgusting King of Naples, we see him rushing out to the phony hunt, where all is set up easily for his and his courtier’s slaughters (the animals have no chance) and then we (and the king and courtiers) watch the desperately poor of Naples jumps on the non-human animals’ carcasses, tear them to pieces to eat them. Horrible horrible oh most horrible. There are scenes of such visceral depravity scattered through the novel as well as scenes of beautiful music-making, rehearsals of scholarship (on volcanoes), archaeological digs (Pompeii, a palace that is still standing in Palermo today).

I learned much reading it, what I had to look up to explain to students (about Goethe’s Italian Journal, one of Sontag’s sources). There are characters whose name she never uses: Sir William’s name appears, but he is most often called the cavaliere, Emma is occasionally Emma, but mostly the cavaliere’s wife, Nelson is always “the hero,” Goethe “the poet.” The point is to make us keep distance so we see this individual (however convincingly presented because of their idiosyncracies, there are no stereotypes here) as a type living today. The king reminds me of Trump. The (landscape artist), Tishbein (Goethe’s friend), the painter, David. Winckelmann is there, the philosopher, but what we hear about is his sordid death (a homosexual, he invited to his room a street male whore and was murdered for the money in the room).

So much learned detail of all kinds went into the book I couldn’t begin to explicate it. The novel is like DuMaurier’s anti-war and war is again seen from the woman’s point of view. A lot of the present action takes place in the palace in Palermo during the revolt against the Naples king and queen, and the brief republic that was set up – Parthenopean as I said), the ODNB retells that tragic disaster for the republicans and decent people briefly – January 1799 to middle summer 1799. Napoleon had successfully invaded in 1795 and for a while put his relative on the throne, then a deal was hatched and the Naples royality went back, the French gov’t of 1799 invaded again and this time set up a republic; but then Napoleon’s forces deserted and the reprisals taken were ferocious. Those who’ve seen the opera Tosca have been introduced to the monster head of police and torture, Baron Scarpia who did run a network of spies during this era. Angelotti– former consul, the painter, Cavaradossi — Sontag enjoys bringing in semi-fictional characters from other historical fiction works which is what the opera is,

At one point the characters are holed up in the palace of a Palermo aristocrat. Try hard as I did I could not identify who this Duke was, probably an Orsini (not Colonna), member of Patagonia aristocracy, a wealthy clan not gone from this earth even now; Goethe visited and described the villa. You can visit it today – much has been looted and is in museums. Villa La Baghera, east of Palermo. The place still exists –- this worship of objects as numinous is central to touring. Some of us might do some touring this summer – me too. I’m not exempt: we do an odd thing when we tour: we go to see something that is circled as super-special or why spend so much money and trouble to see them. We endow them with ideological magic forgetful of all the suffering and circumstances of other people at the time around these rich people who owned or made or had made these beautiful things, all these other people which made these things possible.

I now see that showing a character after death as talking to us about his or her life from the perspective of what happened later is a brilliant stroke. for myself I’ve felt that death defines life as we know it; we are ever aware how short our lives are, so a book where death is not taken seriously (where characters come back as in science fiction) must at some level be silly. I’ve changed that view. Time-traveling and the bringing back of a dead person, not as a revenant (sheer ghost) but presence of themselves are fantasy conventions that can be instruments for creating sudden illuminations. More pragmatically, I learned about another 18th century woman writer: Fonseca Pimentel is the center of a historical novel I will get to when I return to my Italian: Enzo Striano, Il resto di niente. Storia di Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel e della rivoluzione napoletana del 1799, Napoli, Avagliano 1999; Milano, Rizzoli 2001 (available on Amazon for $4.91).

Settings include specific houses in Naples, London, the English southern counties, back to Naples, Palermo, we even go to Merton Place, the last idyllic house Emma created for her and Nelson to live out their lives together in. I said just about all the pictures including the cruel caricatures are pictures that really existed or exist still. Such things help us recreate the past. Single great lines by the narrator, single moments that strike us (probably why the book reminded the woman in my class of Tom Jones).

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I offered some history and brought into class the magnificent book that was published as an accompaniment to the art exhibit that resulted from this book: 1996: Vases and Volancoes: Sir William Hamilton and His Collection, ed Ian Jenkins and Kim Sloan. I passed it around the class so everyone could see some of the objects described in The Volcano Lover, and pictures of the semi-famous people. Sontag’s book shows us the circumstances surrounding these objects, and the privileges and deprivations of the people who owned or made them. The idea is to prevent cleaned up versions of what happened (ironically as in this book or exhibition) that mattered. I’m reading a book on the Highland clearances before I go see the battlefield of Culloden this August in Inverness, Scotland. Before I went to Leeds, England oh so many years ago I was told to read Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier.


Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun painted Emma Lady Hamilton as a Sybil (a Corinne) — Sontag thinks that LeBrun was half-mocking Emma here and either Emma didn’t realize this or didn’t care

Emma was famous for her “attitudes:” enacting goddesses in type roles until she grew very fat. A woman painter, Vigee-LeBrun also painted Emma as Ariadne – she was abandoned on an island by Theseus. Sontag remarks: “never in all the portraits made of her, was she depicted so patently as a courtesan (meaning whore).” I note Mrs Trump is no longer as scared to show skin; at first she was trussed head and hand to toe, not now.

There’s a rare superb biography (not condescending, not salacious) on Amy Lyon with Horatio Nelson as a secondary subject by Colin Simpson. Emma Hamilton’s birth name was Amy Lyon. Her mother was Mary Lyon and she was illegitimate. Impoverished people. She is said to have been very beautiful – 18th century taste. Sir Harry Featherstonehaugh was one of the first young squires in Cheshire to “protect” Emma, Simpson called him “an archetypical wicked philandering squire — he taught her to ride and introduced her to Charles Greville the heartless nephew of Hamilton; Greville was the one who taught her the surface manners of upper class life and then offloaded her onto Hamilton. But it was she who created (fashioned if you will) herself into a courtier; it was she who kept the Queen of Naples contented with Hamilton, she who organized fetes, she would brought Merton Place in her and Nelson’s very few months together in England. She couldn’t spell very well, but she was eloquent. In her desperate last years when she was living in hovels fleeing the creditors’ bailiffs, she wrote Featherstonehaugh (it took a lot of pride swallowing) and wonderful man sent a present of game (how good of him) and promises of more and maybe a visit to his house (that would have helped) “when times were quieter” (meaning he too worried lest he would offend). She was enormously good-natured. So many relatives were in effect vindictive and they were so lest they might have to pay her something that was intended for her. Others who said they were on her side (very like people jumping on the Trump bandwagon) could not be bothered to do anything lest somehow somewhere it hurt their interest. After all she was she: Mary Lyons’s bastard daughter and who had she been? and they couldn’t have gotten away with it but for the debtor’s laws, and I had two sentences in mind as I closed the book.

As a character in the book: very able, finds passages in texts that are wanted, writes to the Queen – she rose because she was bright, pro-active –- late in life a good hostess for Nelson and very motherly to him. The improbable couple. The thin crippled man, the heavy tall full-bodied woman. She is blamed for spending – get this. Like people on medicaid are not supposed to want white teeth like others. How dare they? She’s blamed for keeping Merton when the wise thing to do was sell immediately (her last home, made for Nelson and herself, from a raw downtrodden place into a pretty farm house, with gardens, cost a lot) but her way of how she survived so luxuriously and with upper people through life was to always keep the parade up. In her closing letters she is keeping it up with her clearly half-delusional upbeat lies (some would say looking through rose-colored glasses, others how brave and gallant)


Most depictions of Nelson are reverential (so leave out his missing arm, shoulder, eye, damaged legs, that he was so short) or they are caricatures so we might as well have this idealization: it’s a detail from Nelson imagined deeply in thought before a window and the battle of Trafalgar

Nelson: the key here is he was originally lower class; he rose through the ranks quickly in war and the two identified with one another. He was vulgar and poorly educated except insofar as his technical educationin the navy. He and she shared tastes. Each time he had a defeat he was in danger because he had few familial connections. That he died young prevented any of this from coming out. Simpson is continually showing us how the historians have distorted and got what happened wrong, and without saying so explicitly as with Sontag exposes the viciousness underlying the worship of great heroes. He’s (Simpson) is not having any of this naval genius applied to Nelson: it was the psychology of the man (coming out of his lower class origins, his ambition, his continually asserting himself with these rewards against insecurity), reminding me of a couple of mad-dog (I allude deliberately) confederate generals who were similarly early wounded and killed. Very nervy, very daring. Side issue: he was so short – like Napoleon. Nelson begins in the book on p 188. He vaults into their lives. Thumbnail sketches of people scattered through out the book, so how he looked when Emma first saw him as envisaged by Sontag; then how he looked another time. Sontag does not take sides the way DuMaurier does though we may infer her horror at Nelson’s support of the King and her detestation of the queen whom all recognized for what she was.

But “the hero” was treated very badly apart from when out of this wild risking of his and everyone else’s life to win a battle, this extraordinary daring when (to revert to Tolstoy) he realized inspirited the man to fight wildly, desperately, heroically (if we must use such words): time and time again he is snubbed; he is promised big payments which never come. Property which never materialized. He has no connections which matter. He is small awkward and his accent like Emma’s) never disappears: he likes her because she is of the lower class like him. He did leave her adequate money but the trustees and lawyers refused to pay out on all sorts of invented grounds. This part of Emma’s life reminded me of the plight of Charlotte Smith. Don’t be a woman in this world.

I didn’t omit Sontag herself. She is in her book. She was celebrity among a subset of of “in” people in New York City in the 1970s through 90s. A celebrity is someone who is famous because they are famous – much awe and silly amounts of ink or electrons are now dedicated to this topic; TV celebrities are famous because they are famous: they are just the types those who watch TV during the day want to identify with. Arts-in people who know everyone who writes for the New Yorker. She was better than this intrinsically: a writer of real depth and originality and her series of non-fiction essays have been very influential – not given the credit Foucault is because she’s a woman and not French. Against Interpretation. On Photography, Illness as a Metaphor – expatiate; Regarding the Pain of Others – expatiate. A political activist: active against the war in Vietnam, against colonialism as practiced by (among others) the US. She became infamous for a short while after 9/11 when she said, well what do you expect? You go around repressing social democracy, bombing people, training death squads, backing dictators and especially killing and destroy the chances of middle eastern people (especially young men). Not a good moment to bring this out.

As with DuMaurier, there is a complicated personal life and unusual, she made it by unconventional paths, not through her high degrees, getting tenure, giving papers but by the force of her personality and people she became closely associated with – as editor, fellow writers. She is said to have thought of herself as a novelist but her fictional corpus is very small -but then her non-fiction essays are not long either. Volcano Lover is her longest book. She wrote “an acclaimed” novel” in the 1980s. The Way We live Now, about AIDs Sontag’s parents were Jewish NYC, father died and mother remarried US army chaplain Nathan Sontag. She said her mother was distant and cold; they lived in California; her career begins when she goes to the University of Chicago where she graduates with a BA at age 18. She married Philip Rieth, father of her beloved son David; divorced after 8 years . Basically she got into circles of influential people, original thinkers, studied German. She went on for a Masters in Philosophy. Lived in late 1950s in Paris – – she said most central time of her life. She wrote and directed four films,Lady from the Sea, Alice in Bed. Bisexual and last long-time lover and partner was Annie Leibowitz; hence we have many photos and hence her book on photography. A role model, she died in 2004. she had had cancer twice before, but it came back raging Illness as metaphor came from the first bout when she had breast removal and painful bone operations – about how people treated her when they discovered she was mortally ill.

The life of Sir Wm Hamilton in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is excellent and justifies Sontag’s choice. He took the post in Naples, collected Emma; Nelson too, patient, tolerance, brilliant use of an access to wealth – he was not a fabulously wealthy man like his cousin, Beckford. The nephew, and his heir, Charles Greville, cold, coolly selfish, passed Emma along to William.

Hamilton, as a character very good natured well meaning intelligent man, generous too, kindly. what’s the irony? He supports such vicious regimes. King of cups in the tarot pack Puma says. The continuance of social evils is not due to the fact that we do not know what is right, but that we prefer to continue doing what is wrong. Those who have the power to remove them do not have the will, and those who have the will have not, as yet, the power – R.H.Tawney. I don’t know who said;  “Evils that befall the world are not nearly so often caused by bad men as they are by good men who are silent when an opinion must be voiced.” I liked him but should we like him? – look at his behavior to Jack, to his wife Catherine. He seems to have been more taken with Emma than she with him. Entranced with her youth and beauty. His detachment suited her purpose. There is his obsession with volcanoes: by gathering things, and information he gains power and thus prestige. He counts, he matters, he is meaningful. Towards the end of the book when Wm is dying with Nelson and Emma by his side, he confuses Nelson with Tolo, his one-eyed valet (whom he calls Cyclops) who climbed up and down with him but is killed in Ferdinand’s disastrous march on Rome – anything that king did was a disaster – utterly incompetent cruel narcissist. There’s a pathos in Hamilton remembering him with such fondness late in the book

Charles Greville – selfish narrow cold mean – lots of people like this – a monster if to take care of yourself first and foremost and all that takes it is to be a monster. Both Hamilton and Greville left diaries, letters, sales catalogues, wills. Nephew and heir. Probably if I knew more about tarot cards and the pack we’d find another skein of allusion. He is Knave of cups. To jump to late in the book, Emma’s mother summing up Charles: she is ever saying all is for the best (in the best of all possible worlds). Many of Hamilton’s letters are to Charles: instructions, directions. We’re told he went after widows.

Catherine Barlow whom Sontag attributes a number of the central insights in Hamilton too left very little. As many women did and Sontag has her express relief that she will not be laughed at.  Queen of cups. Great pathos. It’s that she loves him and seems also to die of no one paying attention except for Beckford. The parallel character is Jack, the monkey – who I said was my favorite character.  I liked Harriet Fitzgerald best of all in Tom Jones. One woman in the class said the book reminded her of Tom Jones, only we didn’t have the supposedly rational narrator to fool us.

Hamilton watches Catherine die (pp. 113-16) the narrator moves forward in time about what Hamilton cannot see. I like to be taught new things: I never considered how powerful it is to have a character who is dead brought back and comment on him or herself – which is the ending of the book. New function for ghosts.

Her monologue at the end (375-80) He left her alone too much, she was not a hermit, she didn’t go to the court because she didn’t like falsity at court. When dead she thinks to herself he is remembered as the husband of his second wife, she not at all. 

The Queen of Naples peculiarly mean and vicious; we are shown during the rebellion, it matters who is in power to the powerless and vulnerable. She comes into her utterly selfish own. At one point Sontag remarks that the well-meaning are just unspeakable naïve and easy to destroy. The peasants supported the idiot king.

Sontag moves in ways that allow her to zero in on specific moments and live them fully from within and without – like the beheading of Marie Antoinette. Begins with how The Cavaliere keeps the king company and Emma, the queen. They write letters. And suddenly we are in Maria Caroline’s mind and her worst fears, her nightmare (and unadmitted to guilt): she would (rightly) be butchered. Both of them have a need for female friendship (as did Antoinette with her ladies) – she imagines herself carted away, beheaded (p. 132) – of course during this time her sister was and we have David’s cruel picture of Antoinette at her journey’s end – the two of them grieve (p 134) – we move to the volcano, then an allusion to a famous book by Elias Canetti: Auto-da-fe.
 

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Susan Sontag makes me think of Umberto Eco: a critic and essayist who turns himself into a novelist but remains a critic and essayist. Her book like DuMaurier’s is also l’ecriture-femme: the cyclical structures, the topics or subjects, the point of view, real inwardness (more than DuMaurier in KG). One of the online YouTubes of Sontag has her discussing fiction with John Berger: his and her books are about what we see, and the ethics of seeing, what is it we are seeing in this photo in this depiction of pain, how do we judge central states of our being when we refuse to recognize as natural like illness and death. Illness is not the nightime side of life. Sontag says we tell stories to give value to a life; that we long to see taboos violated; that you can tell in written form what you cannot say orally. Fiction is often moralized fantasy.

From the Savanna Illinger lecture: Sontag’s looks especially at the ethics of representations of other people’s pain. Sontag asks of a text, Does it advance our understanding of the real, denounce that which conceals human misery, substitutes sentimentalism (shallow feeling, not rooted in anything really felt). But can art make us understand the reality of another person’s suffering? If we understand, the text is still not functioning ethically unless feeling is translated into action. (A high standard here; I think it’s enough to make another person think and feel morally, recognize what is ethical, and one can then hope this will influence him or her.) For Sontag the trouble with photos (and nowadays we must add videos) is they acknowledge but do not explain. Art must create and explain the conditions that make for sympathy for those who have been victimized, ridiculed, their lives wrecked. In The Volcano Lover Illinger thinks Sontag was interested in the political consequences of egoism (the characters are all egoists). Did their art or knowledge or science contribute to a just society? For the 18th century significant moments were just before the horror falls; it seems audiences now want to experience the trauma of violence, of indignity. Sontag is not sure this helps, but she writes a book offering this latter.

To return to the course comparison of DuMaurier and Sontag: we had two fine examples of historical fiction, both by women, both anti-war. The book far truer to experience, and thus more serious, is The Volcano Lover, but both very much worth reading and studying, talking about, writing about. I was told by women in the class that most of them had not heard of The King’s General; it is one of her novels that have fallen out of public memory (there has been no film to date), so I was glad that I had assigned it. The closest non-fiction memoir I could compare KG to is Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-44 (an extraordinary book).


Daphne DuMaurier around the time Vanishing Cornwall was published

Ellen

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Horrifying fake cheer of Ofwarren (Madeline Brewer) being moved from one “posting” to another

Friends,

I’ve heard from friends and acquaintances how they are finding The Handmaid’s Tale too grim, too gruesome, too relentless. Life today in say Yemen, life for women in deeply misogynistic cultures, might be characterized similarly. Nonetheless, I am not sure this series is not bad for my mental health. As I watch, I start to remember how hierarchical, controlled, unfree our society is, how dangerous, how women are trafficked, I recall pictures of executions recently. Myself I think the problem is Hulu is milking a not very long book for too many episodes. The first novel of Outlander produced 16 episodes but it’s a book 2/3s as long and all 16 ran for the first year, with no break.

Atwood’s novel is meant to be allegorical, symbolic and often unrealistic; it’s prophetic (I regret to say) and the matter of two out of the these last episodes are back-stories, meant to fill us in, a traditional technique in realistic fiction for deepening a novel psychologically. Episode 7 brings us what happened to June-Offred’s husband, Luke, how he came to be a rare successful fugitive and offers hope that there is a world outside Gilead where decent human lives may be lived; Episode 8 is Nick’s backstory; both and Episode 9 show the characters who were so purely evil bullies showing signs of humanity, pity, much more complicated emotions than had been allowed these nightmare figures before. (For 1-3, out-harrowed; 4-6, parallels with our world; likeness to Mary Shelley’s Last Man)

I find it effective. I fear watchers are tiring of it so bring three together to speak to its excellence. The backstories of Luke and Nick, the escape of one, the background of the other, the Nightclub scenes with Moira and the vile commander; the extraordinary scenes of Janine switched from one “posting to another,” her attempt to kill herself and her baby. A good analysis at The Guardian.

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A moment from Luke’s escape journey (O-T Fagbenle Episode 7)

Episode 7: Luke and a world beyond

I felt for Luke and was relieved to see he was presented as a normal male — not a super-hero. We have their thwarted escape, the capture of June and Hanna, then a flashback to what their life was before the loss of a war. We presumably skip Luke’s divorce of his wife and fast forward to where he and June live in an apartment with their young daughter, Hanna


Breakfast (Elisabeth Moss and Jordana Blake)

Then the frantic escape, how Luke is missed, and his slow painful journey. It made me think of “the railroad” escape route slaves followed before the US civil war. Throughout Luke is as unnerved and subject to fear as June. So as the commander is sometimes impotent, our hero does not know how to shoot a gun. Normal males know how easy it is to slaughter someone with an powerful weapon; when they are tortured, they cry for mercy; they don’t make bargains since no one will bargain with them; in fact they are slaughtered. Huge numbers of people in the world, let alone the US don’t know how to shoot a gun either. I don’t at all, neither did my husband, Jim. I was worried each of the people who were helping Luke were in fact disguised enemies. He is gathered to a place where others are waiting and slowly all make their way beyond some barrier. Fast forward to Luke today in the US with the woman tortured to the point she can’t talk whom Luke met on his transitional journey is now Luke’s lover — so again this breaks with the convention of super-faithful lovers. I was surprised to discover that the US gov’t is presented as a liberal bastion outside Gilead only located now in Toronto, Canada.

There is one convention not broken with — the intense pretenses that all is well the two parents (June and Luke) perform in front of the child (Hanna). I know this is how parenting is often presented when in crisis but it’s not been my experience that parents remain all Santa-Claus-y. You may try to reassure and keep the child safe but you are yourself taken up by emotion. In the films I saw recently by an Iranian filmmaker which were so realistic by Ashgar Farhadi, he shows the couples in trouble trying to carve a space apart for children, and the children’s presence in effect making them treat one another better while the child is in the room, but not of this frozen all is well happiness. The child herself has a mind and would be endlessly questioning and frightened.

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Max Mingella (in mirroring scene, Episode 3)

Episode 8: Nick, the chauffeur

It begins with Nick’s story. We find ourselves in a Michigan unemployment office where he’s being berated by a suave suited employment official for not making it in a series of menial jobs. There is now nothing for him since he didn’t succeed at these: the implication is he was difficult. We hear of how his father is desperately unemployed, and all his family. He wants another chance but the oafs behind him (yes they are presented as thugs) intervene: they are tired of waiting, one shoves him (the mode of our society today it seems) and an all out fist fight ensues with Nick thrown out by security. The employment official is out there, and suddenly seductive, takes Nick to a coffee shop and offers this strange job as a chauffeur in a land that offers jobs to all, is ordered, where women can have babies again.

The camera moves to Gilead and we are back t June as Offred trying to survive by a combination of quiet assertiveness, manipulation, attention to her own needs. She now goes to Nick regularly for sexual trysts; she tries to memorize his face as she says she should have done Luke. Knowing Luke’s alive and elsewhere hasn’t helped. We move to the library, Mr Waterford’s (Joseph Fiennes) study — kept private from Mrs Waterford (Yvonne Strahovsi). He emerges as a vile creep, demanding that Offred play up to his offer to take her somewhere for “fun.” Elizabeth Moss manages to convey through her quiet frozen features how she hates herself for this hypocrisy but is forced into it — or she’ll end up in her small dark room with no liberty (she’s not allowed even to read).


Joseph Fiennes as commander (not in Jezebel but another “glamorous” place he is so at home in)

How can she say no: he shaves her legs, brings a sequined super-sexed-up dress for her (very short, very tight), lets down her hair and they get in the armored car, Nick driving. It seems Mrs Waterford has gone for 2 days to see her mother. The streets are elegant and deserted, high rise, and they get to a place so gated it’s chilling. So many checkpoints to get there, and once there so many papers to be presented. Well, we are in the nightclub scene, placed called (so stereotypical) Jezebel’s, central to the later part of the 1990 adaptation, only here it’s made clear how the women are utterly subject, enslaved sex objects. Offred says she thought this kind of illicit activity forbidden, but the commander says we must accede something to “human nature.” He means pleasing male appetites for excitement. The camera moves from woman to woman. One is very heavy, clearly to her male’s taste. Everywhere Women’s breasts hang out. One man ask Offred to dance, Waterford intervenes immediately, the man is all apology, all abjection, congratulates the Commander on his Mexican embassy negotiations. As with 1990 she encounters Moira (Samira Wiley), the friend she thought had escaped by train:

She had not made it; they have an intense reunion in a corridor; the friend says the only way out of here is a black van feet out. The work is not bad, only nights. We move to a corridor where he takes her into a room. He makes love to her, we see her crying in her face — love is sex. After he sleeps she escapes to the corridor and from the rooms we hear the sounds of beatings, of sadomasochism, of women’s cries, of men’s jeers, some rooms are silent. She gets back to the main room.

At some point we switch to he recent past where Martha in the Waterford house found the previous handmaid hung in her room. Her horror, Nick cutting her down. This appears to be a memory of Nick’s. We also see another handmaid at the nightclub wheeling and dealing with others for ridiculous goods. As the two visions dissolve, we are in the parking lot, with all three walking back to the car. Nick resumes his place as driver. The next day Mrs Waterford back and Waterford all solicitude, Offred in the kitchen and Nick all stone face. He doesn’t want her to come anymore; he won’t say why. She demands “talk to me.” Music to my ears. She knows nothing about him. He says the barest: Nick Crane from Michigan. He relents and says they’ll end up hung from walls. She says better than having no pleasure, nothing. Is he satisfied with this life: polishing car, chauffeuring, getting handmaid’s pregnant. They almost kiss.

Upstairs Mrs Waterford follows Offred to her bedroom — she has a present. Offred has to pretend to be as grateful for this box she never asked for as she has to pretend to want the fun of the nightclub. And then the creepiest thing of all. A music box with a ballerina who when you turn the key dances that dance. Suddenly I remembered buying one each for each of my two daughters once Christmas Laura was 11 and Izzy 5, how there was envy over who had the better box. I felt so sickened; I had not seen this as the vile symbol it is. Hour ends with Offred vowing not to end up one of those ballerinas.

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Janine (Madeline Brewer) moved to new couple where she is soon raped, Aunt Lydia holding onto her firmly.

Episode 9: A strong ethical perspective

I found it as bitter in some ways as Episode 8 – so truthful – but at the same time we are again beginning to see there is a hope of escape and again we are seeing in some of the characters more natural humane feeling – particularly at times Aunt Lydia (Anne Dowd). For an excellent recap the episode is not only blistering but deeply poignant and ironic. The parallel in our world is surrogate motherhood where for very little money (but desperately needed) women rent out their wombs to be artificially inseminated. Some of these trios end up in court.

The episode begins up with the rows of maids in a arch around a house and we find that Janine (Ofwarren) is turning her baby over to a couple, all are congratulating her and we see how distressed she is. You have to burp her she says to the woman she is giving her baby too. She has been breast feeding; the new one will be bottle feeding. How they will cherish this child always.

Aunt Lydia looks sorry for her. She is one of those whose lefteye has been gouged out. Lydia says to Offred’s question is she okay, let her be an example to all of you. She waves from the truck. Ofwarren moves out and she is again congratulated – she is being turned over to another couple to do the same. Commander Daniel and Mrs Monroe She is Ofdaniel now. The horror of Lydia saying she is so proud, go like an open flower.

It’s now winter: the scenery of snow in this one is so beautiful and so appropriate – all frozen, gothic imagery – it contrast to blood red capes.

We move back to the house and see Mrs Putnam pushing the baby carriage with Mrs Waterford by her side: Mrs Putnam is so glad to get rid of Ofwarren: “devoured her bottle, who needs that horrid girl, it was like living with a feral cat.” Someone passes, a woman (a Martha) but they shove her off. In a nearby scene Offred approaches one of the handmaid’s to ask about “Mayday” and the handmaid refuses to acknowledge anything. As she goes round building the handmaid is there and says there is a package at Jezebel from Rachel she must fetch. So Offred is now risking her life to enter a conspiracy to escape, to get news to outside. Pro-active.

We see Offred upstairs when the commander comes home and suddenly he is all suspicion. What she’s doing here. She becomes seductive and says she wants a good time and maneuvers him into thinking of and agreeing to go back to Jezebel. He says to her at one point: “you have other plans” (mocking her). The episode constantly showing how imprisoned everyone is. Nick has to take them and Offred joins in with Waterford in half-mocking Nick for his intensity –- “chill out” they say. Commander leers over Nick in the hall showing he’s the man in control of Offred’s body. He makes all decisions. The commander though wants to take her up to the room and fuck her. Nick suddenly warns the commander about dangers and commander thanks him. “You’re a good man Nick always looking out for me.”

Mrs Waterford downstairs sewing. Restless goes to kitchen. She dare not check whether her husband in his study. Martha comes in and suggests something more than camomile tea. Brandy. Mrs Waterford shares and it comes out Martha lost her son at 19 in the war. Mrs Waterford for a moment feels for her the way Lydia felt for Ofwarren, but quickly returns to pious script talk. Blessed are those that mourn for they shall be comforted say Ms W; Martha: praise be.

We are in Commander Daniel and his wife’s bedroom. The woman kinder on the surface, but we see this horrifying scene of now OfDaneil put between the wife’s legs and the husband pushing his penis into her. Scoot over, says the wife; we’re in this together, aren’t we? Well, no. Terrible imprisoning in lap (okay sweetheart I’m nervous too) Janine whimpering. The thrusting. Cold. She can’t bear it and suddenly gets up and moves into a corner and protests all in a heap. They say she’s mad.


Moira (Samira Wiley)’s dress during her escape attempt (Episode 4)

Meanwhile Offred has to pretend to like the sex in the corridor rooms of Jezebel. In bed he says “you don’t have to be quiet here, you can be free.” He is demanding she enact pleasure. Then he says he knows she wants to meet someone and how kind he is. “I know you know Ruby [his name for Moira], relax I did something nice for you.” Well it’s Ruby or Moira who is in a rage, what are you doing here – she’s a prisoner and slave, a whore; what the fuck are you doing back here, she demands of June. Nick downstairs in kitchen asks questions and the woman there he’s friendly with says if you ask questions you’ll end up on wall. Don’t you like your pasta. Nick does care but hides it; he says you’re right this pasta is incredible. Woman as cook of course. Back to Ruby and Offred. Says Ruby: I will not do it; because Alma said so. Offred: “you’re a coward; I didn’t give up. You said we’d fine Hanna; you promised.” “We’re too fucked” Moira-Ruby replies. Offred: “You keep your fucken shit together, you fight.” Ruby shuts the door in her face. Commander comes in and she is weeping. She left he says, good “she’s a degenerate.” “pull yourself together, we’re going … “ Offred in car – a very familiar trope of unhappiness. Seen through glass.

Mrs Waterford upstairs the husband pretending to have been in office. He refuses implied invitation to sex; you should get some sleep. He’s in charge of all. Then Offred is woken in the night by Mrs Waterford, called upon as Ofwarren (Janine’s previous name still in use) has stolen the baby back, is on a bridge, and about to jump. A long powerful scene: Janine cries out against husand who she says promised she and he would run away; whose penis she used to suck. Then Offred does tell the first couple to go off, and we see how man is resentful; both loathe Janine and will punish her.

This is an extraordinary scene, using the smaller TV art to make emblems. Janine and her baby on the bridge cross the whole screen. Offred manages to convince her not to hurt the baby, give it up. She Offred staying for Hanna. Hoping to save her. So Moira gives her the baby which Mrs Waterford grasps from her. Moira jumps. Alas she is picked up by a hook. Next day Commander Putnam being taken in for questioning, he’s blamed. Mrs Putnam’s tight narrow face saying this is not my fault. Mrs Waterford says it’ll be hard without your husband so Mrs Putnam gets back by saying I remember what happened to your previous handmaid. We knew she hung herself not that she had an affair with the husband. We also continually see how the people are hard and mean and anything but what they pretend: contented and liking one another. All hypocritical. Mrs Waterford coming home distrustful looking for husband. Cannot get herself to go on his office. Then she is seen at the head of the stairs with commander there pretending he’s there all night. Lydia looking down at Janine in hospital bed on life-support. Stupid girl she says, sits down near her.

Next morning Offred at butcher, and he gives her two packages. He’s in on it. She puts it at the wall and finds on it a ticket from Moira saying she has done this for her.

To me all this imprisonment of each in his or her role (including Nick) is an image of our society in general seen from the point of view of real empathy and liberty. It goes well beyond the sex. No no says Janine I don’t want it. The professor in my Animals and American culture class said that what Americans believe in is evil – not that their beliefs are evil but that it’s evil they believe in. Everyone in these tight rooms, the camera making it all square stages. Juxtapositions brilliant.

The Guardian review by Sam Wollaston, having viewed the whole first season is among the best essays on the public Internet and is linked to other reviews.

Ellen

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Emma (Doran Goodwin) and Mr Knightley (John Carsons) genuinely talking to one another — the eye contact shows this (1972 Emma, scripted Denis Constantduros)

Friends,

It is the fate of someone who is trying to do too many things at one time, that she seems never to finish any particular task or book sufficiently to blog regularly. One of my readers has asked why I am not blogging as much and to resume regularity once again. Partly too by a piece of my own crass honesty (never a good thing) I’ve found myself cut off from Mason’s vast databases for at least two weeks and then I will have only campus access. So much for my women artists series. I’ve also been depressed, lost heart. Finally, I’ve not been reading Jane Austen of late, though I much admired many of the essays on Emma in the most recent issue of Persuasions (38:2016). I had lamented how in last year’s AGM on Emma, there had been but four sessions of panels and I had not been able to hear enough of the presentations. Well Persuasions more than made up for this emptiness. I sometimes think all the new fashionable — from the sequel or fan point of view to the academic deconstruction post-modern, we erase Austen’s own text. Not in this Persuasions.

To begin with Austen (this being an Austen blog), Juliet McMaster on “The Critics of Talk in Emma“, and Maria McClintock Folsom’s “Emma Knowing Her Own Mind” — the length of the latter signifies its subtle nuanced close reading analysis is very worth the reading. Both articles discussed the talk in Emma. Folsom begins with how Emma’s trauma over leaving Hartfield reflects Austen’s own trauma at leaving Steventon; Emma has the security of a home, the problem is the home is stultifying in every sense of the word, including irresistible (to Emma) flattery, that closes her mind that anything that will enable her to see her real faults. Folsom builds up to how Emma needs intelligent companionship in every way and how Mr Knightley provides it by going over the conversations across the novel between Emma and others and then Emma and Mr Knightley. It exonerates (my love of film adaptations comes out here) the 1972 Emma which focuses on just this growing importance of conversation between Mr Knightley and Emma. Juliet McMaster says words not deeds are the action of Emma and looks at how Emma perceives the truth that is in front of us (rather like Fanny Price), but interprets it out of her own blindness — which could lead to serious harm — it’s in the nuances of the conversations and what they mean that McMaster says tells us why we as a group keep reading this book, what we learn from and about life. Elaine Bander’s is first and asks why Austen chose an heroine who is given very unlikable traits, some of which never go away. It’s here she sees Austen fighting against novel conventions (which reminds me of brilliant French book on Austen against romance as its first impulse); the way Elizabeth behaves is at first very like her father: both see, but both see to critique and laugh mostly. I find Elaine’s less satisfying I admit as there’s a tendency to excuse and usually take a thoroughly upbeat view. Lorraine Clark on “The Ethics of Attention,” I especially liked Anita Solway on “The darkness in Emma:” about Austen’s deeply melancholy outlook once you begin to look , so many vulnerable people …


William Gilpin, Picturesque Beauty, Travel, Sketches

In the latter part of the volume the essays departed from Emma. James Evan suggests a different source for the Northern Tour than the Gilpin volume usually cited (by Mavis Batey I know) and another house, Keedlestone, in that area for Pemberley. It’s not alternate source finding that is so valuable but how Evan finds real idiosyncratic phases in the source which enriches our sense of the novel’s (dare I say this) subtext (he mentions how many source studies are not convincing). One of my favorite recent appropriations, Lost in Austen by Paige Pinto is not yet on-line — it appears to be about how this film replaces Austen’s Persuasions.


Fanny (Sylvestre Le Tousel) humiliated into trying to act by Mrs Norris (1983 Mansfield Park, scripted Ken Taylor)

I wish I had enjoyed the recent BBC radio “The spirituality of Austen” more than I did: It’s misnamed. This modern concept of religious feeling divorced from doctrine is anachronistic. But they understandably did not turn to the three prayers once attributed to Jane (now they are thought to be by Charles) where perhaps what a modern person would call Austen’s spirituality is in evidence. For Austen’s generation and type of Anglicanism ethics are a function of religion, and they did turn to the moral compass (so to speak) of the characters.But they became enamoured of their own talk and wanted to entertain and say what they thought listeners might bond with. A new idea of religion was spreading through Methodism, but it was combined with radicalism. Evangelism as in our time was a growth and spread of narrowing attitudes, repression — Austen did not like Hannah More’s Caleb in search of a Wife which is a version of these Evangelical attitudes dramatized through novel conventions. But without actually connecting MP to More’s novel, soon they were talking of Fanny Price (as self-evidently a prig), ending on the far-fetched assertion most of her readers dislike most of her “good” characters — Austen’s comic and witty characters are supposed to be good people. It’s the Mrs Norris’s, Ferrars, bullies, people with malicious tongues, who say hurtful things we don’t like and they represent very poor ethics. They kept veering into Mary Bennet for similar reasons, with the outrageous assertion that Mary Bennet would make a good dinner companion, that’s nuts – the point is she wouldn’t and doesn’t; she’s too stressed — not that Austen feels for her — and that’s why they wanted to support her. I tend to think of her as a reading girl and so Austen is into self-flagellation but Austen sees her simply as without understanding of what she reads. She’s not a real character so to talk of how she is not forgiven doesn’t make sense. She’s used to make satiric points, write a satiric scene. I liked the idea that Mr Knightley represents strongly ethical views and behavior — they didn’t use that term.


Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768), Alnwick Castle (1747)


Elizabeth Percy, Duchess of Northumberland, responsible for the conception and 18th century work done in this famous country castle

I did complete a study of the achievements of intellectual women in the 18th century — in areas like science, theology, medicine, architecture. It will be published by ECCB; in the meantime a longer copy of a review of Teresa Barnard’s British Women and the Intellectual World in the eighteenth century is at my site at Academia.edu. I’ve not been neglecting the 18th century but working away on material connected to the Poldark world, where I now I have permission from the copyright holder to write a book on (working title), “Winston Graham, Cornwall and the Poldark matter.” Soon I hope to be writing and to be introduced to an editor at one of the publishing companies closely associated.


Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza (from Poldark, Season 2)

Paradoxically I have least to say on “the Cornish Gothic,” precisely because I’ve been reading a good deal, from Claude Berry’s inimitable Portrait of Cornwall (he evokes the feeling and landscape, and culture of the place), to histories of Cornwall (F. E. Halliday), to discussions of how Cornwall has figured so strongly in the imaginations of those who visited (more than those who grew up), which include Daphne DuMaurier, Graham, Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse), the poet Betjeman, Thomas Hardy. Cornwall is one of these periphery places, offering liberty, space, a chance to be an authentic self, to choose one’s life (as Verity Poldark tells her father she has a right to). It’s a psychological landscape which frees the imagination. Historical fiction enables a break with temporality, especially when there is time-traveling too (as in Gabaldon’s Outlander which uses the highlands as its Cornwall): we can escape gender limitations, time-bound identities.


The latest film adaptation of DuMaurier: that’s Rachel Weisz as the (we see) strangely weakened central heroine (her name fits My cousin Rachel)

Last year I wrote about DuMaurier’s Vanishing Cornwall and Enchanted Cornwall: I’ve just finished reading her The King’s General, set in an accurate historical retelling of the King’s armies’ last stand against the Parliamentarians in Cornwall. Menabilly which DuMaurier so loved was sacked completely during this time (a depiction included in the novel). It opens the way so many of DuMaurier’s do: at the end of the story, in the bleak melancholy aftermath of the story (this is true of My Cousin Rachel, Rebecca) which opening is fully explained only when we read story’s end so we then have to re-read the book because what we learn makes us see what went before and our narrator quite differently. The villain-hero, Richard Grenville is another of these amoral brutal men at the center of so many of DuMaurier’s fiction (again Rebecca, Max de Winter; Jamaica Inn, Joss Merlyn; the male narrator of My Cousin Rachel). Its heroine is literally crippled, cannot walk soon after its prologue-like; and is another of the pro-active, strong yet abject central women. But Cornwall: they fought one another to the sea, over the cliffs, in bricked-up hiding spaces.


Photo of Cornish sea by Simon McBride

Ellen

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The regular rape of Offred: the hands are Serena Joy’s the wife, into whose lap Offred must lie, and as the commmander drives his penis into her (no emotion allowed to be shown)

Friends,

I’ve gone on — like many others — to watch three more weeks of A Handmaid’s Tale (see Episodes 1-3), and have been gripped not only by the story and characters themselves, but how often the world of Gilead parallels what I’ve experienced in life in much quieter, muted, subtler ways, prophecy what can be the outcome of such behavior and modes such as we are seeing in the Trump’s regimes attempts to repress protest, and erase women’s rights insofar as they can.

Diane Reynolds has written brilliantly about the impotence of the chief males, specifically commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) in episode 4 (Nothing sexy about men or violence; subversive television): how rare it is in mainstream film to have a central male impotent. I felt in the way sex was presented, the implication was men don’t need a woman to respond and all their sexual feeling can be satisfied in genital sex for themselves, without regard for the woman. Indeed in this scenario, the man would prefer the woman just be still so as not to get in his way. The second season of Outlander uses impotence: sometimes Jamie (Sam Heughan) cannot have an erection or any form of sex with Clare (Caitriona Balfe) because he is so terrified by the trauma of his nightmares about how the British police Officer, Black Jack (Tobias Menzies), drove Jamy to submit to sex, by torture, horrific physical cruelty) smashing Jamy’s hand), branding and taunting him over the branding. The chauffeur (as I call him), Nick (Max Minghella) as Guardian, comes closest to what we imagine when we conjure up “the natural male.” I wonder how much Atwood meant us to remember the gamekeeper in Lady Chatterley’s Lover — a modern analogue is the chauffeur of Downton Abbey, coopted but at first defiant.

In Episode 5 I was startled to see the film suddenly “descend” (?) into the usual heterosexual sex scene, here between Nick and Offred (Elisabeth Moss). Otherwise and even here it’s very grim. there seems little joy anywhere. When June and her boyfriend or partner, Luke (O-T Bagfenle) go out with their baby daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake) it is never to a park, to a green place or anywhere peaceful,not one quiet moment except at home in bed having sex in darkened spaces; they are inside garish night clubs. They go to noisy, glittering neon-lit amusement parks. I was surprised to to hear Offred (June at the time) ask Luke to leave his wife. First I did not know she was living or going out with a married man, and then though I can see why she does not want to be a secondary supplement, I probably in life would not feel that comfortable about a woman who told me she had demanded her boyfriend leave his wife for her. I would probably identify as much with the wife. I saw this as part of the way the film does not sentimentalize or idealize the life before this dystopia. She’s not much a reader. I also saw the use of iron all around Nick’s hips as equating his phallus with guns, iron, macho male hardness. I understood Offred was doing this in part to impregnate and thus save herself from deportation “to the colonies” (a form of transportation and thus death). But the scene was not much different from many of the sexual scenes in Outlander

I remember in the 1990 film the chauffeur was kind (not at all threatening as when in episode 5 when she gets aggressive he suddenly threatens to “turn her in”), and when in the film Offred escapes, she escapes with him. A new family is re-formed. He is not a macho male in the way of this one and Natasha Richardson herself in appearance and much about her is “sweeter,” more lovely, not aggressive. He invites her up to his (in effect) tree-house. There are so many more trees and greenery in the 1990s.

Diane has written on this one too, especially on the inchoate rage of the women who suffers female genital mutilation (“When dystopia is better than real life …. “). While there is no female genital mutilation in Atwood’s book (the ritual had not become as well known in the 1980sas it is today), in the real world in Africa and the middle east, women are subject to genital mutilation and this mutilation is what is driving Ofstevens when she loses it and darts into the car. We see more of the vicious commander: we see while he seems gentle talk to him and the Pence like ideas come out and his own elation in his power and control. Again like the real world.

In my present mood tonight it seems to reflect the real world — like when the woman Ofstevens tries to drive away, in frantic attempt to escape, and then mows over, runs over people, for revenge. The men with their machine guns gunning her down reminded me of a scene in DC the summer of 2013 where a group of police gunned down and murdered a black woman, Miriam Carey, who had by mistake hit a cement barrier; she was terrified of them as they pushed their guns into her car, and when she scooted around them (not running anyone over), they chased her down and killed her — they could have killed the baby in the chairseat. Didn’t care.


Their scrabble game

Episode 6 offers our first glimmers of hope. A looped set of flashbacks showing us some initial crucial scenes in the war featuring Fred and Mrs Waterford (Serena Joy, her ironic name, Yvonne Strahovski). It appears Serena Joy was a strong aggressive woman, a scholar, but she followed this crazed set of deeply anti-humane anti-women ideals and she ended up thrown out of the public world, with nothing to do, her two books (one is called A Woman’s Place) are last seen in the trash. We see them as a middle class couple so well dressed and equals. Fred emerges as a man partly made into a villain when he is given such power and adulation. When we see the original relationship of the commander and his wife and how she originally was a published author, going to conferences, central in power structures:: surely some of her hatred of Offred comes from the perverse way her arguments against feminism have turned out to make her powerless and silent.


Serena Joy cursing Offred when it becomes clear that Offred is not pregnant

He also comes across as more human because for a second in the hour he succumbs to a natural desire: he is drawn to kiss Offred! He has tired of their scrabble, how she does not make him the central object of her stay in the room, and asks her to leave. She has to return to darkness, no books, no outlet and she finds herself turning around to beg to stay, and appear to want a kiss, some caress. Elisabeth Moss is a particularly powerful actress (see The Guardian for her presence as almost a guarantee of quality); her strong-structured face, her control over emotions she nonetheless projects as so intense they are almost breaking her within is just the kind of acting style this mini-series needsHe coldly allows this and then forcibly sticks his tongue in her mouth. She now has to submit, pretends to like it, and is seen washing her mouth out thoroughly next. He also astonishingly feels some guilt coming home as his ambassador negotiations are not going well: he seems to realize Serena Joy might have helped for real. And when he comes home he and she actually make love. He seems reluctant as if this is verboten.

So too does nature emerge with Nick and Offred. She visits but hates to have to make love for baby-making. She is in a deep rage by this point but somehow he calms her down. And they too are making love — not just having sex this time.

The visit by the ambassadors to a Spanish country (Mexico) includes a “dinner party” for the handmaid’s where they are told they will enjoy themselves. It turns out that the “damaged” handmaid’s must be kept out — orders of Mrs Waterford — lest as with slavery, the visitors see how viciously the girls are treated. One of the girls (with a gouged out eye) begins to cry. What enjoyment can she be imagining? Anything will do. I know the feeling. And then astonishingly Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) shows some pity: she had promised them, they were looking ward to it, she objects to keeping them out, but of course acquiesces when Mrs Waterford says sternly, they cannot be seen as they will look bad (like slaves who were maimed if the owners cared). Aunt Lydia offers chocolate and treats as a substitute — the pathos as the girl accepts this replacement reluctantly.

Now once there everyone in strict ritual table form. Mrs Waterford presides as the wife. A conversation reveals to Offred it’s not oranges Gilead is trading with this outsider Spanish group: but the handmaids themselves. The commander had shown the children the handmaids had had. This Spanish country wants children; no one have been born in a long while. Like animals in a zoo will not produce children.

Just before the dinner and again afterward Offred is introduced to the Spanish ambassador, a woman. Mrs Waterford has warned her to give the right answers to this ambassadress. So (as Offred knows what the right answers are), she says she has chosen this state or condition and is happy with it. So stiffly briefly said. One can see something is wrong as the woman pretends she has had a big conversation. Clearly she has not.

Fast forward to the end of the hour and Offred is leaving for her morning walk; the ambassadress and her male sidekick are there. Again the ambassadress thanks her for telling so much. Offred can’t take it and blurts out the truth: they were captured, are beaten with cattle prods, raped, their eyes gouged out for punishment, if they are caught reading, they have finger cut off, twice, the whole hand. The woman now has to acknowledge but what does she say? she is so sorry. Offred says in reply, thank you but do something. The woman claims she cannot but we know she wants these woman as baby makers. And then she leaves and her male counterpart comes forward. He suddenly offers to help. Offred suspicious, he says he can get a note to her husband. Who is alive. Hesitant, shocked, and sudden gleam in her eyes, she does write on the pad. So there is another place in that beyond where her first friend fled on the train

What really gets me is how believable the scenes are. I feel I have seen versions of them in my society. Black man as prisoners for what they should not be jailed for kowtowed utterly. Slaves in the past saying they were happy, showing evidence of brutality. Pence’s desire for conversation therapy.


Serena Joy waiting for her husband to return home ….

Another blog by Diane Reynolds’s blog on episode 6 (Nothing to lose but their chains?) one emphasizes how hard it is, how very dark the hour still is. Okay it was not as hard to take as the previous. Diane’s qualifications are we’ll-taken. The glimmers of hope I spoke of are only by contrast to the relentless cruelty and indifference to their victims we saw in the first 5 episodes. We see what I consider natural feelings that are good or at least kindly interactive on the face of it immediately come out. But it is true the commander is showing his power over Offred and she is repulsed but cannot show it. All relationship with him in her situation is horrible. It teaches us what it is to be a slave or powerless prisoner. If aunt Lydia feels compunction at not giving what she promised, she cerrtainly does not fight for the handmaid’s. The commander and Mrs Waterford’s love-making is also ruined at the core by their analogous relationship to the commander and Offred. Nick is similarly powerful over Offred — cant tell and their love making is again as the other pair suddenly a return to domineering heterosexual sex — it is what is understood as good sex in our culture by many. The ambassadress does not offer to help but will exploit and yes the ending is too pat: a coincidence too strong. But until now nothing yielding happened.

Further on the story level we can see a possible “out” for Offred. We see more the life was once very otherwise, there are communities outside that are decent we can hope. Didn’t have that before.

On the connection with today: I was horrified to listen to Trump’s utter hypocrisy in Saudi Arabia where the slightest public protest can lead you to imprisonment, torture, parts of your body cut off and death. We in the US the majority who didn’t vote for this man are apparently in the helpless situation of Offred. We have no one to turn to who has the power to oust this regime which supports the Saudis who are going to use this weaponry to destroy the Yemenese people altogether. The parallels with our world are not just sexual.

**********************************


In a Disneyland sort of place

I have been reading the book again. It is not as relentless even in the opening The 2017 film makers made the whole thing so much tougher. As I read I am more appalled because I recognize my society in this book’s depiction The regimentation, the dysfunction, the coldness … And I reread the original ending. The book ends with a coda on on an academic conference decades later (2195) where someone reads a paper about this strange manuscript. Is it true? if so, what happened to these people? The participants in the session all profess great humanity, but they dissect the occurrences in the manuscript with startling indifference. It’s a bitter satire on academic papers and the way academics can behave around them: making the slightest of jokes, all flattery for one another. All the speakers are male; we are in a patriarachy still. Atwood has used time-traveling, movement forward suddenly to give us a sceptical and cold switch. It’s an astonishing sleight-of-hand. This mini-series is departing in just the way the 1990s film did, where Offred and her child escaped with the help of Nick. The positive elements of Episode 6 are those which led to the escape at the close of the 1990s film — though I agree with Diane these are counteracted by the heinousness of the commander’s use of power, by Offred’s revulsion, by the refusal of the Spanish ambassadress once she is told that Offred is a beaten terrified enslaved women to do anything — she just walks off.

Ellen

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Elizabeth Moss as Offred (Handmaid’s Tale, 2016, “created” by Bruce Miller, director Reed Morano

Friends,

It may be that nothing could be fundamentally further in mood (dystopian horror) and genre (fantasy gothic or science fiction) from a Jane Austen novel, or any of the film adaptations (except perhaps P&P and Zombies: The Violent Turn) than Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985, only short-listed for the Booker at the time), with its two iterations, the 1990 Volker Schlondorff/Harold Pinter 109 minute cinema Handmaid’s Tale, and now this gargantuan mini-series of 10 one hour episodes Bruce Miller/Reed Morano Hulu Handmaid’s Tale. But this is such an important production of a now clearly prophetic woman’s novel, however or because problematic at moments, we cannot ignore it.

The book is not just prophetic; it’s an allegory of today, of the way the men in charge of the US gov’t want to control women and the world. Every violation a woman can know is meted out; many men are equally powerless; you are hung for being gay, transgender, speaking unacceptably … what is problematic is the over-the-top violence: is it part of an inuring process which leads to acceptance of torture in many forms ….

The book is hard, harsh, not easy to assimilate: it begins in medias res and immediately you are immersed in a closed environment where the narrator, Offred, is cut off from any information beyond her immediate environment, itself laced with lies, and surrounded by treacherous fearful and ruthlessly bullying people (in this mini-series, immediately aggressively violent). The narrator grips you from the start — rather like Michel Faber’s Under the Skin and MarlenHaushofen’s The Wall. We are seeing this world from a single point of view — Offred (Natasha Richardson, far too lovely, and now Elizabeth Moss, her face all hard angles).

The book begins with Offred in her single room and going downstairs where she is about to go shopping. Slowly it emerges from her mind how she has come to live with the commander Waterford (Robert Duvall/now Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway, now Yvonne Stahovski). The way records are completely under the control of gov’t agencies (which has been true for a few decades now), so that when the coup is accomplished, that very day our heroine cannot reach her bank account. The money she is told is not validly hers. When she gets home, she is told that her husband can reach it and it’s telling he doesn’t mind this. Suddenly then women are not allowed to own any property. The next day she is told by her boss –- as are all the other women in the office – they are no longer permitted to work. She must go home and be an obedient housewife. The boss looks very sorry to do this – he’s losing his staff – but he is under threat of terrific retaliations, he says. Return to the present: As Offred goes about the house we meet the Marthas (in long brown dresses); a male Guardian, Nick (now Max Minghella) at his car and where he lives (woman-less as a powerless man).

The novel is far softer, more subtly nuanced than either film: it begins with some sense of sympathy for Serena Joy as herself vulnerable (reminding me of the plantation owner’s white wife who hates his black concubine in Valerie Martin’s Property). But she seethes with resentment and hatred as she is forced to use Offred’s vagina (her own “barren”) to conceive a child, all she can justify her existence by. She moves from pretend concern for Offred when she thinks Offred is pregnant, to brutal kicking when Offred turns out to have her period. As the novel proceeds, Serena Joy encourages Offred to take up with Nick in order to conceive a child, and there is this appalling scene where Serena Joy has given Offed a single cigarette, and Offred has to practically beg to get a single match from one of the kitchen staff. Psychologically interesting scenes include those between the commander and Offred as they begin to be people to one another (as in their game of Scrabble). Lots of the details are vivid and appropriate — reminding me of the use of metaphor and landscape in Alias Grace, Cat’s Eye (one of her finest novels) and Lady Oracle (brilliantly about romance novels, the gothic).

The things that are done to the powerless heroines (all women are powerless but the apparent bullies, Aunt Lydia types (Ann Dowd) are horrible but not over the top so that they are not believable. They are parallel to what goes on in the US and elsewhere today. The hatred of gays, the desire to destroy women’s vaginas (one pregnancy test is an invasive procedure by doctors), the continual presence of military people, the ruthless disproportionate punishments, the way the hanged are dressed (like the tortured people in Abu Ghraib). A key motive in the book and both films: the narrator wants to survive and is willing to kowtow to anything, do or say anything to avoid bodily pain — it’s so easy to kill someone. I recently reviewed a crucial anthology, Speaking about Torture, where this drive to carry on as well as an assertion of individual self through talk and memory enables survival for a very few.


Max Minghella as Nick in the mini-series — he is hovering around the edges, looking like someone with a still alive conscience

The book’s ending is quite different from the first movie’s and since this mini-series has already gone well beyond the book in harrowing chilling inhumanity (the word seems so inadequate), I expect its ending will differ too. The book reaches its climax in the club where Offred comes upon Moira (she did not manage to escape), with Serena Joy discovering them having an apparent good time, and precipitates a crisis. One of the troubling aspects of the book and first film is how many of the women hate (or appear to hate) the other women. While reading I found detail after detail were simple exaggerations or night mare versions of our present political arrangements, what one sees in social clubs say — masquerades that expose.

The heroine in the book “goes out” — seemingly to her death, and the feel or sound is that of a great explosion. The 1990 film ends with a revolt, Nick enables Offred to escape to a trailer high in the mountains well beyond this terrible empire where we see her pregnant, relieved to be left alone, waiting for him — presumably the people who make such decisions insisted on an upbeat close. It did not feel tacked on: this is a pregnancy not dreaded. This mini-series has made Offred’s daughter central and she says she is staying alive to try to be there to protect her daughter (if she can), rescue her.


It’s worth noting that both are dominatingly white film — thus far Samira Wiley is the only black major character in both movies (Moira here, was Elizabeth McGovern)

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Episodes 1-3


Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), Offred’s friend from the past (Offred now has a “real” name, June)

Episode 1: The film-makers made an atmosphere of complete appalled terror and horror. From the moment we see the family in flight, to their capturing Offred and her child. The use of violence is continually there and the film punctuated by heartless humiliation, regimentation, breaking of all taboos that are there to help people stay together naturally. I found myself shaking at moments. I was shocked by use rape to destroy people, and to make women (including Offred) attack someone viciously and ferociously.  Offred joins in, is even first to start beating the man labeled rapist mercilessly. The women are like dogs who from the punishment and the rage they feel are then drivne to wreak their vengeance on another helpless person. I worried Ofglen, the woman whom Offred goes shopping with, and seems to be making friends with, is not a traitor. Everyone is treacherous. But she is “disappeared” by the third episode. Some moments reminded me of the first movie. Moira in both is violently beaten and stipped naked, put to bed. The horror of the “maid” used as a receptacle for sperm while the husband systematically fucks her and she is made to lay in the wife’s arms. How the wife hates this. t. Offred witnesses the husband going into an elegant dinner party with the wife shut out in both iterations. The use of far shots is fascinating: these make us see the characters as so many tiny figures in a glass bowl, de-humanizes them into a maze.


The commander


His wife, Serena Joy

Episode 2: I can’t take more of this kind of thing than an hour in a row so waited another night before watching again. This is transition. The ever so gentle Mr Waterford (the commander played by an actor who reminds me of Ralph Fiennes when he plays these gentle loving brother-types so this is high irony; he chooses to impose scrabble on Offred nightly -(One Austen connection is with Emma! — Caroline Austen suggested one source for the depiction of Mr Woodhouse at backgammon with Emma was a real older male relative in the Lloyd family who tyrannized his granddaughters into nightly backgammon … for one night might be amusing but not continually.)
 
There is throwback to Offred’s memories of a having her child normally by her husband, but tellingly, the film makes that experience not altogether blissful: she is controlled by others as she fulfills routines taught, and her husband scoots out at the first opportunity. This mini-series has the nerve, the daring to bring out the analogies of “normal” life to this dystopia.  The bully woman in charge is so hypocritically proud of Moira for breast-feeding.  (I refused to breast feed the second time, I found myself after a vast hemorrhage asked if I wanted to try to breast feed — I told them you must be mad but they never blinked  — I could go on with this about how I was unknowingly dragged into some vast room where women were being taught to breast-feed, it took strength and never with that ridiculous IV to walk out).  Nothing is to be trusted: the woman Offred had started a relationshio with, Ofglen is replaced by another woman claiming to be her. Ofglen had told her not to trust the Commander’s driver, Max Minghella.

There is no gratuitous physical violence but the emotional violence through repression and perversion is continual and far sharper, a sort of continual emotional abuse which destroys pesonalities.


Aunt Lydia — the actress is made to look like people typically put into domineering intimidating roles, with expressionless faces, hard dense bodies ..

Episode 3 shows us in fragments how an originally semi-free society (ours) was turned into a dictatorship with women as slaves. First their bank accounts are frozen, then they have no money, then they are fired. Offred’s husband doesn’t mind it seems; he’ll protect her. But he can’t. Demostrations are seen, people beaten shot in the streets, especially women. All these remind me of what I see on TV when black lives matter people demonstrate, when the Occupy Wall Street Movement was brutally scattered, and people in the streets maimed for life. These are fragments of memory of Offred: she is thought to be pregnant and is phonily treated as precious. But after a hideous interrogation (she is given electric shock treatments each time she violates some speech prohibition or shows the least independence) she gets her period back and is again driven as a hated thing by the wife.

In each of the separate incidents, every profound violation a woman can know is done — I assume the last scene of the girl with a bandage over her vagina means she’s been subjected to female genital mutilation. raped, beaten, used utterly sexually, hung to death. It is moving slowly and instinct or some knowledge of long watching of these mini-series tells me it’s going at the speed of Outlander (16 episodes = 1 book much longer than Handmaid’s Tale) but it’s been so long since I read the book. A couple of allusions come from recently — about the constitution. Recent allusions I’d say are prophetic unless the writers had in mind Trump winning with Pence as his vice-president (Pence will not be alone in a room with a woman he says).

Note that I have not re-capped the mini-series; those wanting recaps must go elsewhere but here is an abbreviated review (by “anibundel” of I Should Have Been a Blogger) more or less done with an eye to the audience member who wants a recap. One should of course reread the book carefully, and then re-see all three episodes and then move on to the fourth. What is troubling about this mini-series is the hundred-fold increase in violence from book and first film: we are inured and most be given horrific behavior it seems before we are affected, and what this does is inure us further. I am worried that like Nabokov’s Lolita, this is an art work which invite us to revel in the subjection of women (especially since romance, marriage and motherhood are treated a holy subjects), while claiming through irony to attack the patriarchal bosses. See Francine Prose in the New York Times and think seriously about this.


A close-up landscape — from a later episode not yet aired on Hulu

Ellen

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