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Friends and readers,

I’ve put off writing another blog on Ferrante since my first so long ago on her Days of Abandonment, I fear I’m too late to join in on the controversy that exploded in 2016 about her supposed anonymity.

Not bothering to disguise a vicious attack on this author, Claudio Gatti made a strong case that she was Anita Raja, known publicly thus far for her sympathetic translations of Christa Wolf (which she has written about), and then proceeded to do all he could to characterize her as a liar, someone trying to attract attention, and insinuate her husband, the Neapolitan writer Domenico Starnone, may have “helped” write her novels (see Alexandra Schwartz of the New Yorker, “The Unmasking of Elena Ferrante”). Reviewers and critics, especially when women, defended her right to be anonymous ferociously (Jeannette Winterson}: it was an attack on her as a woman writer; others said they couldn’t care less who the writer is, and it made no difference to know accurately the life or about the character of an author insofar as this is possible. People became mystic over how the mystery added to the books deepened them. Some said the novels are nothing but chick-lit, or they are the usual tired sentimental stories about women as victims. Look at the covers; in a more nuanced ways, objections were made to the paradigm of the abject, half-mad vulnerable heroine (Days of Abandonment), the raw language and anger (Troubling Love), the repetition of a very few motifs over and over (it was suggested this is common with a certain kind of woman’s novel).

Other praised the books strongly, showed how deep and nuanced each of the texts, how the Neapolitan novels were only pretending to be large depictions of a social world: Ye a the same time a depiction of a violent still fascist corrupt order; all agree elusive, with Ferrante’s abiding interest the inner life of women (Lidija Haas, TLS: “Closet Conservative or Radical Feminist?” — no longer available to the public).


Anita Raja

When the dust settled, we were still left with the troubling reality that Ferrante’s Frantumaglia, which she presented as truly autobiographical, is from a concrete standpoint, knowingly untrue in places; recent contradictions where she seems to want to be recognized (an introduction to Austen’s Sense and Sensibility where she said she was strongly influenced by Austen’s doppelganger and novels in general), and worse yet, continued repetition in respectable books that Ferrante’s texts could be written by her husband (Karen Bojaar who seems not to know that female friendship is a common topic for women writers).

I, for one, am glad to know who she is so as to throw light on her literary world, outlook, and also gladdened by her refusal to commercialize her life (I believe her as I notice many ordinary commentators do not), sell her books, alienation from the capitalist values of her society, value for privacy. Yet her attempts to shield herself and protest the norms and values of our violent patriarchal society have backfired; critics like James Wood read her all wrong because they want to de-gender her texts


Ann Goldstein who also translates Primo Levi

Put me in the camp of those who find true genius in her novels; who think she wrote them unaided by a husband, find in them the strengths of the best l’ecriture-femme (so she belongs to traditions of women’s texts, read Rebecca Falkoff), and am (alone may be) enchanted to think she translated Wolf’s great anti-war essays Cassandra, her autobiography, her touching historical fantasy set in the later 18th century, No Place on Earth into Italian. Yes they have some flaws: they are not intended to be Tolstoy-like depictions of society that finally neutral but the social order analysed and felt on the pulses of her heroines in the different stages of their lives.  I love reading Italian and have three of Ferrante’s books in the original Italian. I find Ann Goldstein’s to be good translations : she captures the elegance more than the raw but she gets enough there an has her own elusive tone too. When you think you are reading Primo Levi in the most recent English editions, you are reading Goldstein’s translated English.


La figlia Oscura

Since being so riveted by Days of Abandonment, I’ve read Troubling Love (a raw, bitter expose of the life of her mother, a woman continually beaten by her husband, taking revenge out on the daughter until the daughter escaped), The Lost Daughter aka La Filia oscura (quiet elegiac, a woman academic now divorced comes with her student papers to a beach after her daughters have chosen to stay with the father, fantasizes and steals a young girl’s doll) and The Beach at Night (a nightmare vision disguised as a child’s book), and some of the essays in Frantumaglia (brilliant political analysis of fascism in Italy, explications of her books and her stance for alienation).


The Beach at Night

A truly terrifying book. Masquerading as a children’s story, it is a kind of prose poem where a doll is left behind on a beach in favor of a kitten the child has been given a present of. The doll gets covered with sand, is treated badly by a Mean Beach Attendant, ends up laying next to a dead beetle with his feet up (shades of Kafka’s metamorphosis, is set on fire at one point, then doused with water, come near drowning. She is abandoned, deserted, motherless. I cannot imagine anyone giving this book to a child, European or not. I remember when by mistake (or not knowing) I bought the first Barbar book for Laura; she was traumatized by the sudden death of the mother elephant, shot wantonly and without warning by a hunter. It took hours for her to calm down. This is a distillation of Ferrante’s deeply powerful novellas before & her Quartet.

Now at last after having listened to My Brilliant Friend as translated by Goldstein read aloud, and watched avidly a couple of times all eight episodes of the recent HBO film, I’ve read this first book of the quartet slowly — as lovingly as I once read Elsa Morante’s Historia so feel I am qualified to speak, though I’ve not much to say: it’s a novel centered on a doppelganger (like Austen’s Sense and Sensibility) where the tragic heroine is Lila (Raffaele, and her counterpart, the luckier (because sent to school and then allowed to find an identity where she can try to fulfill her gifts an individual), Lenu (Elena).

As I read I recognized analogous events and experiences and thoughts and feelings to those I experienced as a girl-child growing up in the working class southeast Bronx and then Richmond Hill High School in Queens (both NYC). While at first I was turned off by Lila’s temptation to get back at the world through malice, wild anger, spite, withdrawal, even revenge on her friend, gradually I recognized the source for all this as the source I had known that turned me into an isolated teenager. Lenu too I recognized myself in. I had — as have so many girls — even read Little Women over and over and recently discovered so did other girls who now women I count as among my friends. So I became deeply invested in the book.


L’amica geniale (Italian title emphasizes the girls’ deep congeniality)

The awfulness of Lenu’s mother, the successful attempts of her teacher to rescue her, the experiences of the girls in the streets dominated by sexually and socially anxious-domineering males, what parties and schools are like, but above and especially the girls’ responses to one another amid all this take us through the childhood and young puberty of a girl. The sexual experiences Lenu has on the beach with Donato Sarratore, the older man who takes advantage of her after her luxurious and intellectually awakening summer at Ischia (she reads much of the time, learns not to be ashamed of her body, to swim too, falls in love with the intellectual Nino) re-taught me about my own. The climax of the book is a fireworks display on a roof after a dance where the each of the personalities and values of the different characters are exposed as they take a turn into young adulthood.

Since the common cover of My Brilliant Friend is now this stereotypical bridal gown and wedding party seen from the back, let me emphasize this: at its close the book mounts an uncompromising attack on everything having to do with a wedding, every hypocrisy, and how its meaning far from giving a girl access to a new wonderful life, cuts her off utterly from herself, and can be the first step in a life-long imprisonment.

Ferrante’s book is about how social life attempts to destroy, or repress or distort the best that was in one young woman innately and distorts the life of another) or she truly doesn’t mean us to care about these other characters as she, like Lila, silently cannot stand their norms and values.

A couple of incidents where I felt so moved and the film adaptation tried to capture. Unexpectedly (to Lenu), Lila wants Maestra Oliviero to come to her wedding. From the point of view of Lenu and probably everyone in the world Lila has done nothing to catch the woman teacher’s attention, compel her liking or respect, yet how badly she wants her to come. When she comes to the door, although Lenu has given us enough to feel Oliviero does remember Lila (because she says she dislikes her) she is very cruel, says you are not “Cerullo” I don’t know you, don’t want to come.

I identified and understood wholly how Lila could be crushed. In my life analogous incident have happened to me where in my mind I so admired someone for their intellect or position in a school and thought (naively) they valued me and was taught that no, unless you obey the world’s rules and do something to make yourself valued the world gives prizes too, you maybe insulted, cut off. I had some hard lessons in high school this way. Lenu is right to say Oliviero is “a mean old lady,” but we are given to know she would be miserable at such a wedding too. Lila might not see this.

I don’t know what a “speech master” is at an Italian wedding but guess it is a important function of announcing the people who speak. (These speeches are more than half phony and I wish the custom had not grown up recently.) Stefano, Lila’s bethrothed insists it shall be the chief crook of the neighborhood, the Solaro father, Silvio. At that Lila also breaks off the wedding altogether after all that has been done. Only Lenu can get her to change her mind, “seduce” her is how Lenu puts it. So she is acting as a Satan — the argument that persuades or seems to is they must not judge their generation by the older people, and Stefano is different. But from the dialogue we see Lila is sensing she is making the worst mistake she can. Stefano she says loves her “only when I don’t put real money at risk.” That’s important — money comes first. Lenu says she is able to rebel momentarily as she did in school as the authority of a religious teacher, but she caved, and what would happen to Lila if she returned to “the pale ponytailed Lila, with the narrowed eyes of a bird of prey, in her tattered dress.” She is admired by all now in her Jackie Kennedy icon look with dark glasses. During the (tellingly) long but boring ceremony Lenu knows her mother thinks Lila is doing infinitely better because at 16 she owns a flat, has this refrigerator and so on.


Lenu and Nino (walking together in school)

Everyone so overdressed, the only person not is Nino (who we are to have identified as the one true partner for Lenu apart from Pasquale who, fool in this wya, preferred Lila for her looks not her mind). But is he true to himself either dressed in such dishevelment? He comes so his mother overdressed can come; somehow she is slightly disgraced because her husband is blamed for the profoundly distressed Melina. Lila’s parents look well for the first time Lenu ever saw: the father’s Randolph Scott face (so many connotations there) and the mother all in blue. Note she kept away from most of the fraught conflicts. But one she invites: inward. She asks if her essay has been published, but discovers it was not included. Like Lila, she is a girl, comes from the wrong family or school, so it will take a lot more than the school certificate to gain a place in a community she might hope to fulfill part of herself in.

In that dress as Lenu dresses Lila she feels Lila is “the body of a dead woman.” what are they going to all this trouble for: so at night the young man can ram his penis into this 16 year old and perhaps ruin her beauty with a pregnancy.

A deeper incident which does not appear to crush Lila at the time is that these shoes she and her brother made so lovingly are not sellable – no one will buy them. They are dream shoes of young children wishing to have upper class stigmata on their clothes. No one in the neighborhood has the money; outside the neighborhood they make uncomfortable and they will not buy them. Stefano won Lila because he put all this money into the shop and now we see ahead that Rino who seems to be all important for real in Lila’s life will be a failure. Note that he was allowed to beat her

What will become of me, says Lila to Lenu. The answer is you will be destroyed — we see that in the opening chapters of the book where in older age she is vanishing in an attempt to escape a no-good son.

This is an extraordinary women’s book; it’s not recognized for what it is because it’s not explicit in the way Christa Wolff’s are — which books Ferrante translated.

Diane Reynolds wrote to WomenWriters@groups.io about this ending as follows:

The tragedy is that Lila has no other real options but to marry this awful man. The way the teacher rejects her reinforces that. Lenu does act the role of Satan—but what else is there for her friend? What Ferrante makes so relentlessly clear is that Lila would have been destroyed to if she had returned to the self in the tattered dress. The neighborhood/neighbors would have destroyed her. This is great literature because Ferrante shows us step by step that Lila is doomed—as doomed as Oedipus. It’s deeply poignant too. The friendship is remarkable—the one thing Lila has that is pure or as pure as anything can be in that world. I was so moved by the scene—which I did not take as sexual at all—when Lila has Lenu bathe her. She wants her friend as witness to what she was bodily before she is destroyed—she knows she is going to be destroyed by the marriage as much as any soldier going into a doomed battle. And yet the shock is that it happens faster than she imagined—at the wedding

As for the film adaptation: I’ll begin with Episode 2 (I won’t go through them all): The Money — and high brutal violence at the core of this world. Done in a muted black-and-white, it is in color but they are so muted. To give the impression of heat, chalk, lack of any beauty anywhere …. No trees, nothing to soften, make any beauty, or refreshment for the eyes.

I took the title to refer to how money is controlling much of the behavior we see. While the teacher feels that Lila’s family can afford just as surely (or just as little) to send her on to middle school as Lenu’s parents do, the money while an excuse is real. These people are poverty-stricken and the wretchedness of their existence comes from money, lack of it. The whole milieu reminds me of the southeast Bronx, where I grew up, circa 1950, only the patriarchy is so much more overt, fierce, the women more desperate and/or angry and taking out their misery on those they can prey upon or feel envy for: Lenu’s mother is awful and I for one am glad this portrait was not softened. In the book it explains some of Ferrante’s early deeply disquieted and troubled books: Troubled Love, the Lost Child. I wonder what was Ferrante’s relationship with her mother (and now her daughters – but that’s these other books and later in this series, the second). Lila’s mother is guilty but she is herself in accord with her husband, except when he throws the Lila out of the window.

What I like is it is a portrait of two girlhoods shared. Not like that movie this summer which gave a boyhood acted out by a girl with a mother there for disguise. Girls do let one boss another and Lila is the dominating one. she says let’s throw the dolls down the basement, now let’s see Achille, and then hide the money. I feared they would lose it and would not have give in to Llla then. The buying of Little Women is an allusions: girls’ book! we are told about girls growing up. I went back to the book and yes it’s Little Women all right: in the movie the Italian is back-translated into Alcott’s English. I have a copy of Little Women in Italian which I picked when in Italy in 1994 with Jim and my daughters — on a stall. It must be a popular book — well circulated. I was touched at how they read and reread — that’s what I did.

I would not have given in to Lila to walk to the sea – -I might not be a dominating girl in a relationship but I won’t be dominated. Still the whole sequence gave us a breath of fresh air, Suddenly the movie opened up. The houses are sets, and now we were on location somewhere. Alas Lila was trying to hurt Lena: she knew they couldn’t get there and hoped to get the girl in trouble. She succeeded. So spite. She is trying to one up Lenu so write a story, the blue Fairy. I feel for her because she does never have a chance to get out of this rotten culture. School here is seen as a central lifeline to a better world.

The episode was coherent, held together by the girls’ inner world together and their trajectory — and it began and ended on Achille, killed at the end, perhaps by a woman.

Yes high brutal violence is at the core of this society. And money. When the group finally is old enough to walk in Naples, they find they are outsiders, with not enough money to buy a meal in a restaurant.

For further episodes see comments: 3, Metamorphosis; 5, The Island; 7, The Engaged Ones.

Ellen

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Angharad Rees as Demelza (1975 Poldark, Jack Pulman’s adapted script the basis for the first four episodes)

Friends,

In early November of this year I began steadily reading the fiction of Winston Graham in chronological order, trying to gather salient points about each still extant text he wrote, beginning with the first The House with the Stained Glass Windows (published 1934), and ending on 17th/18th Take My Life (1947, first a screenplay, which unsurprisingly became a striking WW2 type film noir, then a tightly woven novel). I’ve read many of his novels before but not in order and in this scrutinizing way. This early phase of his career is made up of nineteen texts and one movie, all of the male fantasy suspense, thriller, mystery, spy kind.

I stopped with Take My Life for around that time Graham became absorbed in a second historical novel set in Cornwall, Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787 (published 1945), which lead to a long series of Poldark novels. (Graham’s first historical fiction, later recognized as signaling a change, The Forgotten Story, with its thoughtful reverie premise, and young boy narrator, is basically also another suspense-murder novel, with lurid elements, set in Cornwall in 1898.) With or in the unabridged Ross Poldark, much longer than any previous book and written over a much longer time, he made this astonishing and unexpected leap in quality — depth and thoroughness, thick realization of imagined world, truly suggestive and non-stereotypical characterization, and real subversity of theme. RP was begun just after Strangers Meeting (1939) and took five years to compose. After RP, I read the uncut Demelza: A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-90 (1946) written just after or around the time of Take My Life (like many working novelists he’d be writing more than one novel at a time); now known as the second Poldark, Demelza adds true complexity of many interacting characters, and a deeper more maturing of themes begun in the first


Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza (2015 Poldark, Debbie Horsfield’s adapted scripts the basis for the whole series)

Strangers Meeting itself is one of the four early novels which show some real fineness and rich creativity; it’s no coincidence that it, and two of the others, Dangerous Pawn (1937) and Merciless Ladies (1944) are set either in Cornwall or partly a marginalized edge area of Britain (Cumberland); also that the fourth, set on the day Hitler’s armies invaded Prague, No Exit (1940), uses the technique of historical fictive accuracy. I’m coming to believe that Graham transcended his conscious gifts when he turned to the genre of historical fiction and set his books in Cornwall. But there is more to it than that.


Snapshot of painting I saw in a local museum in Cornwall in the summer of 2015

Walk Where They Fought. Battle of Waterloo. June 18, 1815. (Petho Cartography)

Since I have a paper due on the Poldark novels for an 18th century conference in March (ASECS, in Denver), and soon teaching will begin I put down my march through Graham time for the moment, and have fast forwarded to the second of the three Poldark fictions I’m going to write about: The Black Moon: A Novel of Cornwall, 1794-1795 (1973), the first of the second set of Poldark novels Graham wrote, what can be called the first of two trilogies. I couldn’t make up my mind which of these closely-intertwined and plotted three books to cover, so I read half-way through the second of this second set, The Four Swans: A Novel of Cornwall, 1795-1797 (1976) and looked into the dark conclusion, The Angry Tide: A Novel of Cornwall, 1798-1799 (1977), which I re-read two summers ago. Soon I’ll move on to the first of the two final singletons, The Twisted Sword: A Novel of Cornwall, 1815 (1990, or the eleventh Poldark of twelve), the third novel I’ve chosen for this paper. I suppose I’m immersing myself. Oh, the first of the three for the paper is Demelza.

For the interested reader, a fuller context: I now see the Poldarks as consisting of five phases, each of which has some distinctive features because each reflects the different era it was written in.

World War II and aftermath: RP, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1790-1791 (a much better title would be Francis Poldark) and Warleggan, A Novel of Cornwall, 1792-93, published 1950 and 1953 respectively.

The 1970s, which seem to explore themes of individual liberty and social responsibility: The Black Moon, The Four Swans and The Angry Tide

The 1980s, a turn to look at Thatcherism (capitalism as piracy, colonialism versus community): The Stranger from the Sea: A Novel of Cornwall, 1810-1811 (1981); The Miller’s Dance: A Novel of Cornwall, 1812-13 (1982); The Loving Cup: A Novel of Cornwall, 1813-15 (1984).

1990: anti-war, with a global or Eurocentric perspective: The Twisted Sword, A Novel of Cornwall, 1815 (published 1990)

2003: the pathologies of alienation, disability, culmination of pro-non-human animal themes: Bella Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1818-1820 (utterly mistitled, it ought to be signposted Valentine Warleggan)


From the most recent adaptation, an opera by Muhly, Marnie (2017) — we see the villain-heroine and her psychologically twisted antagonist

I said there is more to this great leap than Cornwall and deep past dreaming and research. First let’s look at the results of Graham’s compulsive drive to produce and then re-write as a form of hiding or making (he thinks) more sellable masculinist fantasy material:

Three more suspense novels, one of which, Cordelia (1949) is another historical fiction (this time 19th century Manchester, the city in which Graham grew up) between Demelza and Warleggan. Two poor, Night Without Stars (1950) and Fortune Is a Woman (1952), both made into feeble film noirs.

Then after Warleggan, and before Graham resumed the Poldarks 20 years on with The Black Moon: eight suspense novels, another historical novel set in Cornwall (this time Elizabethan, The Grove of Eagles, 1963), one book of short stories and one non-fiction set in Cornwall (about The Spanish Armadas — there was more than one). And again these are highly uneven, though for among those few people who still read Graham’s suspense books, they contain his best in the kind (e.g., The Little Walls, 1955, with its Golden Dagger award; The Tumbled House, 1959; After the Act, 1965 and Graham’s favorite; The Walking Stick, 1967, made into a sensitive remarkable film, well written, featuring David Hemminges; and Angell, Pearl and Little God (1970, offered to Marlon Brando and interesting Dustin Hoffman as type actors this novel could project). They also contain the highly problematic Marnie (1961), fodder for Hitchcock misogyny, and two homosexual sensibility texts, Sean O’Connor’s play (2001), Muhly’s opera (2015).

And finally an autobiographical topographical Poldark’s Cornwall (1982), yet four more of these potboiler suspense, e.g., Tremor (1995), one a partly historical in Cornwall, The Ugly Sister (1998), and between TS and (or around the time of) Bella Poldark, a posthumously published memoir, A Private Man (2003),

I omit as hard to catalogue, and sudden, the short stories, a few of which have the sensitive merit of Cornish ghost and gothic fiction, e.g, his very last piece of writing, “Meeting Demelza” (2003), where near his death he meets her still grieving for the deaths of her children and as she invites him back to meet Ross and Dwight once more, the vision dissolves (podcasts have been made of three of this kind); attempts at screenplays, occasional journalism. He was involved in radio adaptations of some of his novels, but he wrote no literary criticism — though there are signs he did read it — as in his admiration for Frank Swinnerton’s The Georgian Literary Scene (Everyman, 1938).

I also omit another and crucial aspect of his writing: continual revisions of his work. Above I have listed only the first versions of his novels; several he thoroughly revised, usually by cutting, sometimes to the point he re-titled them. He also was continually making small changes. I’ve now read enough of this compulsion to be able to state categorically while some of the revised work has felicitous sentences, fresh ideas setting the book in its new time frame (for publication), mostly he ruins his work. He seems to have no conscious understanding of what makes his gifts valuable. This is not uncommon, but he goes further in trying to please the mass taste or some editor who wants to save money or have something this year’s fashions and shorter. Tellingly he is embarrassed and gets rid of what shows his own personal sensibility at play.


The whole of this little known film noir (includes Margaret Kennedy as one of the script writers): Take My Life

So what is the something more that makes eight of these Poldark books (the first seven and The Twisted Sword) stand out as one another level of creativity from his other work, and the weaker four and brief Cornish gothics far far more humane or rounded than the several better male genre books, which do come near them at moments. I’m going to suggest that they belong to what my friend, Diane Reynolds, named l’ecriture-humaine and (out of French sources mostly) I’ve been calling l’ecriture-femme. A love of animals and concerned for the disabled, important currents and providing touching images and incidents symbolic throughout Graham’s oeuvre are typically found in women’s writing. Insofar as the suspense novels have some of this (Strangers Meeting, Dangerous Pawn, Walking Stick) they participate and have this stronger level of open vulnerability to life’s griefs, a (not quite Proustian, more Anthony Powell) feel for the personal knives of hurt and memory seeping in — and probably Graham’s private life experience as he tells us in his last page of his autobiography. In his masculinist fantasies, such impulses early on come out luridly, and later are counteracted by ironies, and severe control by a superego in the form of hard mean & dense characters. That’s why Graham said he learned to become a novelist with Demelza. He wrote his first true l’ecriture-femme then. I’ve no doubt he is Demelza and Dwight, with Ross playing the deeply pained and renegade male forcing himself to participate in the world to protect who he can.


A cover illustration for the 1970s editions of Ross Poldark, to precede and accompany the first serial drama – note the centrality of the mining building, a central image for the second 2015 serial drama too


Typical opening shot for Horsfield’s new Poldark

Who he was influenced by and what he read is of great interest then and will constitute one half of my source materials and research base. Graham knows he was influenced by all that is imaginatively associated with Cornwall (he wrote about this again and again); Graham Greene’s disillusioned suspense entertainments (especially in his novels leading into WW2); and various lesser known Cornish writers e.g., Denys Val Baker (The Face in the Mirror). I have read some of the best criticism of these suspense novels e.g. Julian Symons’s Bloody Murder: most of these keep us only on the surface of what Graham writes, the literal least important parts of it albeit these were what enabled him to structure and work out as coherent rationales his dream material

Aligning his work also with writers like Daphne DuMaurier (also a writer of Cornish 18th century fiction), will be helpful because there is a critical tradition for some of these as well as Cornish culture and landscape, and for historical fiction that can be applied to Graham.  There is much to be learned about Graham’s work & attitudes from non-fiction books like John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (read assiduously by Ross) and Wendy Hille’s George Canning. And also his Memoir of a Private Man.

And finally, though perhaps I should have cited these first:  Graham’s Poldark’s Cornwall, DuMaurier’s Vanishing Cornwall, Claude Berry’s Portrait of Cornwall, Philip Marsden’s Rising Ground and nature-writing books like Jacquenetta Hawkes’s The Land and Philip Paytan’s Cornwall. And historical research books into specifics of 17th through 18th century Cornwall:  Graham himself says this material enabled him to fill his books with content, A. l. Rowse’s and (the contemporary update), John Chynoweth’s Tudor Cornwall and many many individual (long) 18th century books on medicine, prisons and mining. The one topic Graham left out was china clay.

But the key, the core, that which made the difference between these other books and the 12 Poldark when when he began to write l’ecriture-femme.  The leap is from Strangers Meeting to Forgotten Story to Demelza; the content filler Cornwall and history.


Winston Graham with his dog, Garrick — beloved also by Demelza

Ellen

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Christmas at Trenwith, Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza questioned by Caroline Blakiston as Aunt Agatha (Poldark, 2014, Season 1, Episode 4 — corresponding to the last quarter of Ross Poldark


Christmas at Nampara, Angharad Rees as Demelza with the children carolers (Poldark, 1976-77, Part 8, Episode 2 — corresponding to last quarter of Demelza)

Friends and readers,

Last year I commemorated Christmas with a blog essay showing how central a role the Christmas or Winter Solstice seasons plays in the cending of a number of the Poldark novels. I went on to show how the passing of the seasons is also emphatically realized across the Poldark novels, to link them to one another, and the land, landscape, & seascape in Cornwall. This fits them deeply into traditions of writing and art about Cornwall (see Ella Westland, Cornwall: The Cultural Construction of Place) from DuMaurier to lesser knowns Rumber Godden, Denys Val Baker, and then again to Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse).

This year we’ll dive into the experience of two of these: To begin with, Christmas at Trenwith (Ross Poldark)

Ross Poldark shows us where the first Christmas Ross and Demelza are married: they are invited to Trenwith, and find themselves struggling to keep the identities they are building against the undertow of great old house, grounds, a cultured family for generations back, military norms (you name the obstacle), and come together through music (December 1787).


Aidan Turner as Ross, with Demelza walking there

There are five phases to that first Christmas at Trenwith in the book (Book 3, Chapters 7-11, or the last), and I equally enjoy its slow realization (Season 1, Episode 4) In the book I find the complex characterization of Demelza’s encounters with each of her new relatives, especially Frances; Ross’s fluctuating feeling about Elizabeth, his relationship with the rest of his family, his pride in its history (which separates him from Demelza, the conversation, the rivalry between Elizabeth and Demelza as musicians (some of it taken from Austen’s Emma), their discomfort and the threat they feel to their relationship, but how their deeper congeniality and values overcome this; in the film I can’t help but dwell (as they do) on Demelza’s uncertainties, dress, when more characters are brought in than were in the book (beyond the Trenegloses, with a very catty jealous Ruth Teague, Warleggans come in) and we have Demelza’s song in the evening.


Demelza dressing for dinner


At dinner — a table full of characters


Singing

I’d pluck a fair rose for my love
I’d pluck a red rose blowing
Love’s in my heart, a-trying so to prove
What your heart’s knowing

I’d pluck a finger on a thorn
I’d pluck a finger bleeding
Red is my heart, a-wounded and forlorn
And your heart needing

I’d hold a finger to my tongue
I’d hold a finger waiting
My heart is sore, until it joins in song
Wi’your heart mating
(Poldark Complete Scripts 1, Episode 4, Scene 96: Int. Trenwith, pp 244-45)

In fact the 2015 film reverses the meaning of the book: in the book the two are almost torn apart, the pictures and furniture especially get in the way; Elizabeth and Ross’s private talk drives a circle around them apart from the others, and equal weight is given to Elizabeth’s delicate renditions of Mozart and a canzonetta by Handel are as alluring as Demelza’s folk tune. In their mutual talk and love-making upstairs they renew themselves as a pair

Graham’s Ross Poldark: at the house as they begin to adjust: “the strength of the past could not just then break their companionship:

Demelza sat there, her arms behind her head, her toes stretched towards the fire while Ross slowly undressed. They exchanged a casual word from time to time, laughed over together over Ross’s account of Treneglos’s antics with the spinning wheel; Demelza questioned him about Ruth, about the Teagues, about George Warleggan. Their voices were low and warm and confidential. This was the intimacy of pure companionship.

The house had fallen quiet about them. Although they were not sleep, the pleasant warmth and comfort turned their senses imperceptibly towards sleep. Ross had a moment of unspoiled satisfaction. He received love and gave it in equal and generous measure. Their relationship at that moment had no flaw.

In the 2015 episode the experience unites them with their family members, Demelza to a much nicer Elizabeth than in the book, and Frances accepting Demelza as he sees that Ross is far happier & satisfied than he. Much as I enjoy the richness of the varied scenes of Horsfield’s drama, I prefer Graham’s book here: it’s more nuanced and about inward life, for it is only in coming home, the walk away, outside in the natural world of Cornwall where there is no human ordering, that Demelza thinks more accurately about what she has seen (Frances bored, Elizabeth strained, Verity without), and Ross’s spirit is truly lifted

Someone — a Latin poet — had defined eternity as no more than this: to hold and possess the whole fullness of life in one moment, here and now, past and present and to come.

He thought if we could only stop life for a while I would stop here. Not when I get home, not leaving Trenwith, but here, here reaching the top of the hill out of Sawle, dusk wiping out the edges of the land and Demelza walking and humming by my side.

He knew of things plucking at his attention. All existence was a cycle of difficulties to be met and obstacles to be surmounted (Ross Poldark Book 3, Chapters 10-11)

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


One of the poor children come caroling at the gate and window of Nampara

Now three years later at Nampara (Demelza). Their daughter now two, Ross’s copper smelting business and it seems his mine too are being thwarted and control through shares taken from him, and Demelza feels she has wronged Ross and the Poldark family by facilitating Verity’s romance and marriage to Blamey. But Verity’s letter intervenes, she thanks Demelza for enabling her “to make my own life,” he and Demelza are then next seen having a modest celebration where she tries to borrow a substantial sum from Sir Hugh and is rebuffed by all.


In the 1975 film Sir Hugh Brodrugan and Lady Constance are at Nampara


Robin Ellis as Ross relaxing (Season 1 Episode 8, Part 2)

Not in the revised Demelza at all, but in the 1975 film there follows in the film a brilliant strained scene over Christmas dinner between Frances, now drinking all the time, lonely, going for mistresses, and having told George Warleggan who the men are in the Carnemore Copper Company after the flight of Verity and his blaming Ross. Elizabeth has told him she means to leave him. The dialogue is acute, painful, utterly believable. In the first version of Graham’s Demelza (he cut down the 1947 version later), there are more scenes between Elizabeth and Frances and there is something of a loss in the book because we are not watching them fall apart bit-by-bit, so the 1075 film-makers supplied this:


Scene begins when Clive Francis as Frances comes to the table, Jill Townsend as Elizabeth with Stefan Gates as Geoffrey Charles already there


Trying to carve


At Trenwith Frances hysterical with grief, remorse, self-hatred, guilt, loneliness (still Season 1, Episode 8, Part 2)

In Graham’s book, we hear of how the other men and families are being hard hit by the Warleggans now that they know which men were in the Carnemore company, and they are invited to Werry house by the Constance, Lady and Sir Hugh Brodrugan:


Demelza with Christopher Benjamin as Sir Hugh Brodrugan

As our narrator tells us, “Christmas passed quietly inside Nampara and out — the calm before the storm.” There is some fascination in the completely disordered house, in the behavior of the host and hostess before the fire, and how they have a managerie of animals inside the house: “a family of owls, some dormice, a sick monkey, a pair of raccoons. Downstairs they went again to a passage full of cages with thrushes, goldfinches canary birds, and Virginia nightingales.”

In 1975 three couples are paralleled, contrasted and the effect of all three scenes, with a fourth just below, are deepened. All this before a gale brings a wrecked ship onto the beach, and a riot over “the flotsam and jetsam” ensues. It is after this that Demelza goes to nurse a desperately sick Frances Poldark and Elizabeth too, then returns to sicken her baby, herself and Julia die while we wait to go in the theater (Demelza, Book 4, Chapter 2). Arguably the 1975 serial drama improves on the book — if you discount the loss of Werry House

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Later in the evening, in the 1975 film, Richard Morant as Dwight Enys drops by and three become cozy and comfortable, when a message comes to say Frances is deeply ill; and while Ross at first forbids Demelza to go, she declares she will anyway go with Dwight to help them

The two sets of serial dramas make opposite choices over these two Christmas: as to the first Christmas, the 1975 Poldark simply ignores it (!), substituting a slew of events not in the book at all; the 2015 Poldark lovingly, lingeringly recreating every phase of first Christmas in this first Poldark book. In the case of the second Christmas, the 1975 Poldark elaborates upon Christmas somewhat more than in the book to create a sense of poignancy, loss, and desperation amid an ethic of stoicism before the hell of tempest, fatal illness, and despair take over. Here the 2015 Poldark skips Christmas altogether in order to dwell more at length on aspects of the bitter close of the book the earlier film skips: like George Warleggan’s urging Frances successfully to betray Ross and Ross’s white-hot anger at Demelza when she confesses it was she who brought Verity and Blamey together and enabled them to effect Verity’s escape from a frustrated semi-servitude to her family.

Let us look upon all four iterations as enrichening our experience and be glad of them all.

Dear reader, next year if I’m here and you are here, and we can do this again, I will cover another two of the end book Christmas or Winter Solstices in the Poldarks. Today is either the shortest nor near shortest day of the year and I hope I have brightened it for you as I have occupied myself absorbedly.

Ellen

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Hans Holbein’s (hostile) depiction of Thomas Cromwell

Dear friends and readers,

I attempt to capture something of the experience I have just had with a group of people at an Oscher Institute of Lifelong Learning (attached to George Mason). We read and discussed carefully Mantel’s two novels as providing us with a fresh angle on the Tudor Matter. Tudor matter includes all that happened, all that can be connected to people influenced by and influencing a family tree of Tudors, from the time of the ascension of Henry Tudor (1485-1509) to the English throne (also 1485) to the death of his son, Henry VIII’s third child, Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth (born 1533, died 1603).

In this case Mantel writes the kind of historical fiction which uses actual historical people for all its characters, remains faithful to what is historically documented as having happened while the novelist, like the historian, has a duty to realize the living experience and interpret the significance small and large of each event or character. Mantel presented a point of view so persuasive and well-supported that her book is now influencing the way historians as well as countless others evaluate Thomas Cromwell. The two books are labelled “the Thomas Cromwell trilogy,” though the third does not exist as yet (at least not as a finished published book) and will make up a fictionalized biography: all three will cover the years from Cromwell’s birth (said to be 1485) to execution (1540).


Mark Rylance as Cromwell

She was also an active spirit in Peter Straughan’s six part TV serial drama (2015) and Mike Poulton’s stage play (2012). I read aloud Mantel’s character descriptions at the beginning of the play text.


Ben Miles as Cromwell

It was important not to omit movies as the Tudor matter for many consists of movies. At the beginning of each session I’d play 3 clips from the 2015 Wolf Hall, for the 2nd through 7th session. Since (as in the case of Arthurian matter or the classical Greek and Roman stories) includes many others takes, I included the two books that constitute the powerful originating sources of Mantel’s: Robert Bolt’s play A Man for all Seasons, Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, and at the opening of our 8th session I played 4 clips from 2 movies made therefrom: Zinneman’s 1966 movie, A Man for All Seasons with Paul Scofield and Robert Shaw as man and master, Wendy Hiller as Alice; the highly original inward (daring) Philippa Lowthorpe’s 2003 BBC Other Boleyn Girl, with Jodhi May as Anne and Stephen Mackintosh as George Boleyn (central to the interpretation that finds Anne and George incestuous in a desperate attempt to produce an apparently legitimate son for Henry). I showed 2 very brief and a bit of the feature (with Philippa Gregory) of commercially successful Columbia 2008 Other Boleyn Girl (by the ubiquitous Peter Morgan, whose 2003 serial drama Henry VIII, with Ray Winstone, I also went over but could not show as I have only a Region 2 copy), remarkable for its depiction of strong women everywhere who are nonetheless forced to submit. Let’s gaze at those moments and characters less paid attention to:


Wendy Hiller bitterly telling More awaiting his death in prison as she awaits hers in poverty outside: “I’ll tell you what I’m afraid of: that when you’ve gone I shall hate you for it.”


Jodhi May as Anne Boleyn exiled to Hever for a year to bend her to comply with her father and uncle’s demands she serve the family interests first (2003)


Kirstin Scott Thomas as Elizabeth Boleyn, coerced not willingly into selling all three of her children, realizing two are going to be beheaded (2008)

So what we did was have themes we drew out from the books alongside talking of them section-by-section: I lectured on real early modern women I’ve studied (and translated) and what we know about Anne and Mary Boleyn (and a few other supporting characters so-to-speak, as Jane Boleyn, Catherine of Aragon, Margaret More, fast forwarding to Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor. A guarded bunch, easily rendered powerless, who left few papers, and most of those self- or other-censored. We talked about the spread of a religious movement across all classes which would satisfy people’s inner needs for self-understanding as well as justification, a matter of increasingly secular identity and conscience. Then there was how the political world worked. Finally, the fluid sexuality of the era. Mantel’s two books support such discussions, if you just extrapolate out (not too far) into the real world outside the book that the book continually has reference to. Mantel’s history fiction functions like life-writing, which does not begin to end at any book’s first and last pages. We don’t know all we can know about a character who lived from any single book. Many questions, all sorts we hashed out. I sent two articles a week (three by Hilary Mantel who is a witty essayist), and recommended and brought in biographies (scroll down).

One cannot yet explicate the structure of a work that is only (at best) 2/3s done. The central climactic tragedy, the execution of Anne, who is stealth heroine, is realized at length in the penultimate pages of Bring Up the Bodies, hard upon the interrogations by Cromwell of the five executed men, and Anne and George’s trials. What one notices is that at the close of Wolf Hall, the execution of More occurs off-stage; on-stage is Cromwell’s perhaps psychosomatic illness (or it’s from exhaustion) and the thematic clashes and dialogues, whole history of the rivalry (unknown to More until late in life) of More and Cromwell’s outlook on life and behavior begins only in the third book of Wolf Hall. Six parts; each section has a tripartite structure (3 chapters) of opening, long center, and brief coda.

Parts One & Two:

Fathers and sons: Across the narrow sea: Cromwell fleeing his violent father, at first rescued by his sister, Kat Williams; then on his own; Paternity: Cromwell’s relationship with Wolsey as true father and the problem of Henry’s lack of a legitimate son and demand Wolsey enable him to marry Anne Boleyn; Austin Friars: a good world he and his beloved wife, Liz, create together.


Natasha Little as Liz Cromwell who will haunt Cromwell ever

Visitation: The Downfall of the Cardinal, with all the powerful men who bring this about; Occult History; in the context of mythic to long past to immediate history of Britain as acted out by some of our central characters (we meet Mary and Anne Boleyn, the male courtiers including Henry Percy, and Cromwell’s pasts, in Italy, Antwerp, the death of his beloved wife, daughters, the coming of Rafe, in England Buonvisi as neighbor, first clashes with More; Make or Mar: Cromwell grieving with Cavendish, chooses to stay loyal to his master as a way to make or mar himself.


Cromwell’s household: We glimpse from the back Josh Porter as Richard [Williams] Cromwell, Thomas Brodie-Sangster as the invaluable Rafe, Saskia Reeves as his beloved sisterin-law, lover Johanne

Parts Three and Four:

Three-Card Trick: Mantel tracks time carefully, backwards again (circular structure typical of l’ecriture-femme: Wolsey at Esher, now Cromwell must get into Parliament, interact with ambassadors, cope with Henry, visit More himself; Entirely Beloved Cromwell: Christmas w/o wife and daughter; 1513 when Henry spent hugely stupidly killing all for nothing, Cromwell’s protest (the other side of Flodden Field); now caring for Cardinal under whose bed a kitten, Marlinspike, born; more of Gregory, his son, entirely beloved, the rise of Anne Boleyn is presented secondarily, we don’t see her that; we see her sister, Mary more; The Dead Complain of Their Burial: Christmas tide, 1530, King’s nightmare transformed by Cromwell’s allegoresis


Jonathan Pryce as the Cardinal, tucked into bed by Cromwell, praying for him — the ghosts accumulate

Arrange your face; “Alas, what shall I do for love?”;: profoundly dangerous time, he has to give up Johanne; court life, Anne people must say whatever will keep them alive, Mary’s role, her retreat, individuals acting out religious clashes, torture, execution; Chapuys emerges as emperor’s man, Catholic. The center of book a graphic depiction of the burning of an old Lollard woman witnessed by Cromwell as a young boy. Early Mass: Henry has fucked Anne and they are bethrothed


Joanna Whalley as rigidly catholic queen, Lily Lesser as her daughter, Mary Tudor, twisted, deeply in need

What was the appeal of this Protestantism? It appealed deeply to powerless men with whom women belong as a category, to servants, and it spread. It is often talked about in the most inadequate ways; one group says you saved by faith, Christ’s self-immolation paid for your sin, God has predestined you, so need to sit and feel intensely fearful you are going to go to hell if you have had a conversion experience: truly feel God in your heart. Other group says well what kind of God is that to damn so many people, and also say you need not perform good works, need not be public in church (where of course you can be controlled), just you and God and the book.

Going to reach for text some of you read with me, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, in the last part Margaret gets depressed and few will remember what book helps her after both father and mother are dead: it’s quoted at length in the text in French St Francis de Sales, “An introduction to the devoted or religious life.” Margaret finds much comfort in it. It’s translated in the back of those books with notes. Others did not want to look, wanted certainty of people saying your works would secure you, of authority figures

Before the 20th century if you were feeling terrible about yourself or your life there was no secular psychology free of blame to go to; and what these protestant re-tellings did was provide a way of thinking that absolved you. In this particular one Margaret reads how she should not “die of shame” because of what’s she done,” she has fallen into a pit,” but she can rise up if she thinks about what happened another way and realizes compassion and mercy are there. No blaming, no need to do anything for which you need power. Women began to write poetry in the 16th century and it was by an large paraphrases of the psalms or religious texts where they rewrote them in personal veins. Johane can be stopped from her love affair by her mother. A great deal of infamy was heaped on people over sex – that was part of Henry’s problem. There is good evidence to suggest – all you are ever going to have – that Anne Boleyn and Thomas Percy went through one of these informal bethrothals as did Anne Boleyn and the king and then she and Percy consummated.

Who were the kind of men who wrote this sort of thing? Thomas Kempis’s Imitation of Christ was huge continual re-translated best-seller for centuries; another one I’ve read is the Spanish so-called mystic, Juan de Valdes – Vittoria Colonna reread Juan de Valdes, Beneficio di Cristo obsessively. Methodism in the later 18th century show the intersection with power because they tried to throw off local landlords from choosing their vicars. Didn’t the rich and powerful in pews in the church.


Bainam burnt at the stake:

Parts Five and Six

Anna Regina and Devil’s Spit: women brought in: Helen Barre; Cranmer and Margarete the parallel; the half-mad Elizabeth Barton’s story, Anne as vulnerable woman by about half-way. Women doubles, surrogates, parallels; each reveals sides of man or men she is involved with. Cromwell’s kindness. Jane Boleyn emerges. Overriding mood is still paranoia: from enemies to crazy nun, all the reform depends on Anne who grows delusional and now wants daughter on throne. Rafe begins to emerge more. Painter’s Eye: Hans Holbein’s portrait. A theme:

An hour-long filmn Hans Holbein recommended by someone in the class; the speaker, an art historian named Waldemar Januszczak, art correspondent for the London Times, a controversial figure, often very provocative, who uses Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell to attack Hilary Mantel’s portrait of Cromwell on the grounds he looks like a murderer. I showed them a portrait of Cromwell where he does not look like a murderer. Holbein is tremendously arresting. We believe in his portraits. But Januszczak provides ammunition against his own thesis. He makes fun of Holbein’s imposing peacock, ever so tall and wide – Damien Lewis is hard put to look huge but does his best to strut. Why is Holbein’s portrait to be taken as gospel. Januszczak shows us Holbein came from Catholic people, he made many Madonnas, in fact he painted his own wife looking like a miserable madonna with two children.I suggest HOlbein’s portraits are catholic propaganda on behalf of More and against Cromwell. If you look at the portraits of Mary Boleyn as opposed to the one done by Holbein and thought to be her, they fit better. Juszcaak had a Holbein drawing of Anne Boleyn he says is her I’ve never seen and it looked convincing more convincing that that stiff woman in black we are often shown. Holbein could paint remarkable faces but that does not mean he is on oath –- he is like a modern camera or painter who can impose a view.


Partners: Rylance as More; Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn

Supremacy; A Map of Christendom: A rewrite of Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, to the point where speeches that Bolt plucked out of the historical records are re-plucked but uttered in contexts that reverse or at least significantly alter their significance. Cromwell attempts to persuade, with Cranmore uttering the same rationalities; in Mantel it is Rich who engineers More’s downfall along with his own scorn of Rich; from More salivating over torturing someone, through dialogue and the burning and torture of other Protestants we are led to see More as the harmful fanatic. More’s utterance near the end that he has wished and done no man harm and if that cannot keep him alive, he’d rather not live (rendered famously by Scofield on the scaffolld), is answered here by Cromwell as they sit over a table by a list of people that Cromwell cites whom More has destroyed viciously. In the final scene of More’s beheading, in Mantel and Straughan there is only the pathos of a wretched narrow man; in Mantel she has it happen off-stage and in the text we see Cromwell’s illness, his family all about him.Theme: how did power work?


Anton Lesser as More refusing to sign

Was it the king acting alone and at the center with aristocrats obeying him; or King-in-Parliament and factions vying for power. The latter seems far more accurate. Ordinary courts of justice were about property, property rights and it could be within a family or companies over contracts. Gov’t would go to court over taking people’s property – as Cromwell did when he dissolved the monasteries and nunneries. Or some act of violence. Anyone could bring a charge or ask prosecutor to bring a charge. You did not have the right to a lawyer or to speak in your own defense. All this came later. Women has no rights in such places as suitors but they could be accused. Parishes went to court to kick people out and control them. Short prison sentences. Wretched places where you were expected to provide for your own keep. Disease sites. Different courts for different purposes, and very powerful were the church courts. Your right to life, liberty and property is a later 17th century idea. Locally the JP or magistrate appointed by JP. Movement from king all powerful with henchmen aristocrats with castles and liege men in armies to whole change in fabric of society as commerce, capitalism, changes in agriculture occur. King did not control the people and land during
feudalism, power was local, and if you wanted power far away, you had to control through other people — life built on sales and money, middling people feared chaos and wanted security, peace, stability. Strong authority emotionally for most people began with parents and older relatives. Boys sent to train as pages or out to work after initial schoolroom; girls educated at home to read and to do accounts; Renaissance added history, languages, sewing. Lower class girls put into service, cook and sew and clean. Bible spread reading; 1566 Great Bishop’s Bible commissioned by Elizabeth I. Two agricultural recessions: 1530s and 1590s; on the whole period of expansion due to trade and cloth and what destroyed ordinary people was enclosure movements. Henry a strikingly volatile psychopath emerged from an educated young prince gradually. Enormously overweight. Domineering grandmother, neglected by father.

To Wolf Hall. Jane Seymour; Seymours replacing Boleyns. Over course of these three Cromwell becoming a darker harder figure.


Kate Phillips as Jane Seymour; contemporary portrait of Jane Seymour

Elizabeth I probably the victim of sexual harassment and abuse from Thomas Seymour during the time she was growing up in Katherine Parr’s household. It will come as no surprise she was interrogated and blamed as seeking to marry him and overthrow her sister. This early trauma from which Parr could not protect her could be linked to her decided uneagerness for a man; but it was also political. To marry would have been to take a master.

We did Bring Up the Bodies much more rapidly; in the film covered by Parts Five and Six.


Purefoy a cynosure for Anne

Falcons; Crows; Angels: Opens with display of falcons, birds who are fierce, vultures, turned into abject enslaved creatures, named after his daughters and wife. Kimbolton is where Katherine of Aragon is staying, Cromwell visits this dying woman and stays at a lodging house where he sleeps with the wife and thinks of doing away with her husband. Stepney and Greenwich, Christmas in Cromwell’s new household, with young men married, new children about him. He no longer is compassionate figure; less wit but still there: for Jane Seymour men “an unpleasant surprise.” Displaced by drive to manipulate, fierce anger at men, ambition to re-organize the world; Henry’s fierce anger at Cromwell (at Chapuys).


Jessica Raine as Jane Parker Boleyn, Lady Rochford (2015 Wolf Hall); we read Mantel’s witty essay suggesting yes Jane Parker’s evidence was sinister

Black Book: Anne has one last late miscarriage; the one called a monster and now she a witch, or because (as Jane Rochford and others had it, it was the child of an incestuous union). Retha Warnke in her historical biography offers the idea that the child was carried beyond quickening but then something was wrong with it (spina bifida?). Something wrong with Henry, or a mismatch of blood types.

Her dog killed; rumors rife as others begin to accuse Anne of sexual unfaithfulness. Closing in. Master of Phantoms: One member of Anne’s circle after another, first the women frightened, easily gotten to talk; then Jane Boleyn’s role, Smeaton’s stupid boasting; the ceaseless interrogations, the final trial, Anne and George and the execution. Spoils, London, summer 1536: divvying up the plums

How did we end? I gave Philippa Gregory full credit for being the first to develop new characters, a new perspective from Mary Boleyn on. Mantel picked up from that and Mary Robertson’s work on Cromwell, Cavendish’s great biography of Wolsey. We discussed the mystery of Henry VIII’s character and I told of Morgan’s take on him, and Ray Winstone’s performance.

Finally, I used Jessica Jernigan’s review in The Women’s Review of Books: Bring Up the Bodies filled with ghosts and monsters. I still love the style: it’s plainer and more popular or demotic than Wolf Hall but still a strong sardonic irony and use of concrete popular language as metaphor persists. In Wolf Hall Cromwell was also a fond husband, kind master, against the worst excesses of power, kindly easy to like; not this man whose virtues now are given a sinister cast as they are used to murder 6 people. His own evil twin meting out revenge. Protecting himself. Jernigan also brings in Mantel’s other novels. As with Larissa MacFarland whose New Yorker article I gave out, Jernigan sees an obsession with another world outside the probable sane one. We saw Cromwell fighting a blighted life and now? Jernigan singles out passages where she says that tricky “he” is not Cromwell any more; there creeps in an “us” – as with Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover, we the readers and Mantel herself are emerge from behind Cromwell and Henry. Perhaps in her third book we will move to continuity between present and past too:

Already you can feel the autumn. You know there cannot be many more days like these; so let us stand, the horseboys of Wolf Hall swarming around us, Wiltshire and the western country, stretching into a haze of blue – she wants us to feel the alders by the water’s edge, the early haze that lifted by nine; the brief shower, the small wind that died and settled; the stillness, the afternoon heat …

Ellen

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Steventon, a modern photo of the pump (inside the enclosing fence)


Ellen Hill’s picturesque illustration of the pump at Steventon, JA: Her home and Her Friends by Constance Hill, illus. Ellen Hill

I think that knowing where Jane lived can tell us who Jane really was — Lucy Worsley, opening to the film

Houses have their own way of dying, falling as variously as the generations of men, some with a tragic roar, some quietly, but to an after-life in the city of ghosts, while from others — …. the spirit slips before the body perishes … E.M.Forster, Howards End (Chapter 31)

Friends and readers,

Lucy Worsley’s Jane Austen: At Home may be regarded replacing the fantasy idyll the Constance and Ellen Hill biography offered the Janeite at the turn of the early 20th century. Worsley’s book is, like the Hills’ book, a biography of Jane Austen seen from the angle of the houses & places she lived in, visited, or just dreamed of ever after. Worsley works hard to recreate Austen’s world by providing a cornucopia of the tiniest concrete details of where and after that (sparser) how they lived nuanced into an almost subjective novelistic discourse. For the Hill combination of nostalgia for what never was, with visits to houses and places Austen lived in, Worsley substitutes hard scholarship, modern photography, and unassailable house and grounds information for what is known about Austen from herself through her letters, her novels, through hearsay, and through James Edward Austen-Leigh’s biography of his aunt.

Worsley is very clever, has read alertly, and has picked up the reality of Austen’s life as opposed to what she herself and her Janeite and other (often commercially minded) optimistic readers have stressed, so that her disillusion frequently jars us out of complacency. I finished the book convinced Worsley could have written much more in the vein of Austen’s justified bitterness, melancholy and hurt, acid jokes and deliberately flat reportage, but that Worsley is determined to maintain a light cheerful upbeat tone. Her book moves hurriedly now and again too. The result is an uneven book, sometimes feelingly so accurate and useful, at others simply repeating parrot-like a going consensus (about the librarian clark, an easy target). I was reminded of the crispness of Claire Tomalin combined with the empathetic tone of Claire Harman. Worsley tries to channel through herself the vivacity of Austen’s texts: he same attempts at suspense, allurement and quiet confiding, like our friend, without quite Harman’s subversive feminist point of view. In a nutshell, an entertaining, frequently absorbing book that feels like light reading, but isn’t quite because when Worsley gets down to the reality of Jane’s life’s circumstances and limitations from these Worsley shows us deprivation, frustration, powerlessness, but also in Austen bright determination to experience what she could of pleasure, fun.


We watch Worsley go through the process of creating ink to write with


Joanna David as the displaced Elinor Dashwood (1971 BBC Sense and Sensibility, scripted Denis Constantduros) — the first BBC film adaptation of an Austen novel, among the first scenes ….

I write this blog to advise seeing Worsley’s TV documentary movie, The Houses of Jane Austen, alongside, before or just after reading the book. At the end of the book’s first chapter, Worsley concludes that Austen’s was a “sad life, and a struggle.” Worsley’s relentlessly cheery tone, the grinning face (sort of half-frozen with too much powder) may get on your nerves, yet the story she plots by moving house to house, and taking us there, show a chart of a few high points (when a girl dancing, when on holiday, when arriving at Chawton and beginning to write), but generally a downward spiral with Trim Street, Bath, and the castle Southampton, Austen’s nadir. She was then rescued (in effect) by the offer of Chawton cottage to live in, their own space, time and just enough money to write in peace with. It turns out once Austen readies a ms for publication, she wants as many people to read it as possible. Crucial help from her brother Henry enables her to publish four of her books and revise two more to the point of near publication (while truncated, Persuasion is enough finished; and Northanger Abbey too). Then the darkness closes in despite all Jane’s best efforts, and we watch her decline into her last days.

What follows is an attempt to convey what makes her book & film interesting and enjoyable beyond the information and occasional new insights she offers: the quality of Worsley’s mixed tones.

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We picture Jane Austen mostly indoors, and writing — here we see her writing desk

Some examples and points made from JA: At Home. Worsley begins with the 1833 publisher Bentley’s assertion that Jane Austen is emphatically the novelist of home. Now while we nowadays imagine her very cosy in Chawton cottage in our imagination, in fact for Austen home was a problem. Not only as an unmarried woman with no livable-upon income of her own or earned, she was always at risk for homelessness, the perpetual visitor who has somehow to keep earning her welcome. At the same time her home for Austen was a problem. She was given no private space of her own. If not for Cassandra, and even with, only a small part of the day she would have preferred to be at home all day writing & reading, had to be given over to socializing, homemaking. Not only finding the time & privacy to write. Where could she keep her ms’s safe. She carried some around in a mahogany writing desk (precursor of the modern laptop; see above, a gift from her father), which on one trip in carriage, became separated from her, headed for an entirely different destination, and there was a frantic search backwards to retrieve it, which luckily succeeded.


How important her father’s library and reading aloud — Worsley quotes Austen’s letters

So, says Worsley, the search for a home is an idea central to Jane Austen’s fiction. A permanent happy home is what a number of her heroines don’t have; they are many of them displaced from family or physical home. It is hard to secure a place of safety, of quiet …  in which one can be understood and loved. S&S death in the family forces heroines out of childhood home; P&P our heroines will be expelled; MP Fanny Price sent away twice, and the moderately wealthy and physical strong Mary Crawford is a female wanderer. Jane Fairfax will have to earn her keep and place as a governess. Anne Elliot packed off to relative or lodgings.


Jane Austen — the Abbey School, Reading, which she attended around age 8

We meet the women of her generation with whom she spoke frankly: Ann Sharp, governess; Martha Lloyd, the nearby beloved neighbor who works as a companion and by Southampton had come to live with the three Austens. Worsley does omit (and this would be part of her theme of housing, houses), that in Southampton Jane formulates a scheme for just herself, Cassandra and Catherine and Althea Bigg to go out on their own. But she needs her brothers’ money for help and the proposal is squashed. We may guess her desire to free herself of her mother’s continual supervision even when older. This is the sort of personal pain Worsley skims over.

As Austen grows older and is forced to move about, sees her family lack funds to obtain the housing they want, and especially when her father died, Worsley suggests Austen saw how women alone were impoverished, how the structures of their society and laws forced women to marry and then submit to men for endless pregnancies — in her family two sisters-in-law died of 11 childbirths. In her ending the only one of all the women Austen knew well or closely beyond Ann Sharp who never married was Cassandra, for Frank married Martha Lloyd — a surrogate for Jane? Worsley feels that absent from Austen’s fiction and letters is the idea that women alone are also held apart from the society — as widows avoided. This comes in the last section where Worsley points out that in her death for all the talk of her family’s kindness and her gratitude, the only people who came to see Austen were women. She catches on to Martha Lloyd as special but no more. None of her family or other friends came to stay during the three months of dying.

Nonetheless, in this book Jane Austen is no lesbian. Worsley like many shows Austen to have become a spinster by choice at the same time as locating no less than six suitors. I disagree with her that Tom Lefroy had not meant a great deal — Worsley believes Austen’s guardedness  as the whole state of the case. Not in the others. We learn of Samuel Backall, William Digweed, Edward Bridges (this was the most serious after Lefroy), Harris Bigg-Wither, the unnamed seaside wooer, William Seymour (her brother Henry’s partner), William Gifford. Charles-Thomas Haden, who looked after Henry Austen in London when Henry became quite ill, and whom Jane teases herself about as an apothecary is however slighted.


Hugh Bonneville as Edward Bridges and Oliva Williams as the older Jane Austen (Miss Austen Regrets, 2008, script Gwyneth Hughes based largely on David Nokes’s biography and Austen’s letters)

Much of this comes from the letters, which Worsley has mined carefully and is inclined to take as serious evidence of Austen’s attitudes and feelings, desires.  She takes my view the letters are a crucial resource. The convention structuring of Austen’s novels prevents her from presenting significant usual outcomes in characters’ lives so we are thrown back upon the letters and we read the novels mining them for Austen’s criticism, letters, poetry.


Austen’s earliest world


Sydney Place, Bath — today a Holiday rental

The book and film move through Austen’s life more or less chronologically, following Austen from her long period growing up in Steventon and then when the house is given over to James, from lodging to lodging, house to house in Bath, the damp Green Park Buildings, and after her father died ever more poorer, darker,


The most dismal of the houses

and then in the later years, seaside resort to seaside resort, at Southampton with Frank, and finally landing at Chawton. I found much new information about Jane Austen’s time in London with her brother, Henry: like EJ Clery (Jane Austen, The Banker’s Sister), Worsley finds Henry to be Jane’s closest brother, and especially important in her first two publications. She is careful to describe all the places Henry lived in, house and gardens. I appreciated how she kept careful track of where Austen visited in a given morning or afternoon and where at the same time another relative or friend (whose movements were important to Austen) was, so we get a sense of simultaneity in Austen’s world; she makes this cohere with what Austen is writing at a given time (starting in Bath especially) or negotiating for, where traveling and what she is reading. What plays are going on, what nights Austen went, and who and what was playing. This was where Worsley was at her best in the book; in the film showing the images of places, well picked angles.


One of the photos from Lyme, by the cobb

Worsley does adhere to the contemporary feminist desire to discover in Austen an entrepreneurial businesswoman but is more honest about this. She sees how Austen herself as well as Henry made the wrong decision in refusing Murray’s offer on reasonable terms to publish her four novels once he had the copyright. Murray’s experience showed him what Austen’s novels would fetch as to readership and money. She had a lot more trouble and make a lot less money by her distrust. Worsley does not see that Austen’s letter to the publisher of Northanger Abbey was naive. Austen needed her brother, Henry, to begin with, and needed Eliza as a knowing person in society; she learned through them and had to followed their advice too. In 1815 She sent her brothers to retrieve Northanger Abbey. All from a intensely careful scrutiny of Austen’s and other contemporary diaries and letters.

I think more than anything Worsley’s held-to thesis about Austen seeking a home for herself a place she controls and how this is reflected in the frustrations of her heroines in the novels is spot on. Read her books from this perspective and remember Fanny Price quoting Cowper: “With what intense desire she wants her home”. Perhaps the book is a bit too bright. Worsley’s mode of discretion is omission. Her worst moments for me were when she made assumptions about all readers. So she suggests we all see Sense and Sensibilityy as crude; Mansfield Park is her least liked book by everyone, and so on.

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By contrast, her hour long TV show, The Houses of Jane Austen opens with driving into the grounds of Stoneleigh Abbey, and thus gives an impression of Austen as an heiress. Perhaps inevitably since the houses still standing are the larger mansions. There is a comfortable friendly tone and appealing music. She can’t provide much detail but the experience is visceral. What the camera sees, Worsley as our surrogate going from house to house, place to place, revealing where Austen lived and her journey across the years: from small (wretched) lodgings on Trim Street, to large comfortable places like Godmersham. We these places, also the countryside, the seashores, the city of Bath, Southampton, the use of the maps including when the buildings are no longer there, the world that was is no longer there. Sometimes she has found a painting (like of the castle in Southampton) that substitutes.

She opens with the statement that where you were born and who born to for most 18th century people delimited where you ended up. Austen’s father was unusual for having the gentlemanly background and education and yet small income; this was matched by his wife, a fringe aristocrat. She goes with an archeaologist to where Steventon was and a dig is going on.


The two women filmed from on high

It was a packed house with 6 boys, 2 girls, boys boarding in a school; servants included dairy maids, footman, and outside ducks, cows, chickens outside. Mr Austens study was in the back but he had three occupations (clergyman, tutor, farmer). Austen walked to and with friends; she played the piano. We see Ashe rectory, Deane House (where she danced), watch Worsley and a professor act out one of Austen’s playlets.

Worsley thinks Godmersham had the greatest influence on Austen’s writing. She didn’t like Bath but Worsley or the camera does or Austen’s behalf. We are shown Lyme Regis and Weymouth by the sea — Austen did like the sea, could envy the itinerant life, loved Wales and landscape poetry. Even when the places are no longer there that she lived, what we see there now is suggestive.


Enjoying the seashore


Contemporary tourist book

Southampton another level down from Trim Street, and cramped — here it was 8 women and Frank Austen. No prospects at all was what Austen must’ve felt, Worsley suggests. Then the wheel turns and Chawton House is on display and Chawton Cottage on offer, and Jane comes into her own, for however short a time. 1809. Worsley reads from the four women’s thrifty cookbook. We move to Austen’s life with Henry and Eliza and just Henry and Madame Bigeon at Hans Place, Knightbridge. The film ends on a visit to Winchester where she died. It’s poignant

If I have repeated the story trajectory, that’s because it controls Worsley’s discourse in both mediums. What she adds to the Austen corpus is this singularly mixed braid, doing justice to the ordeals of Austen’s life as well as the enjoyment and achievements she knew. As I thought it over, I realized a linking sub-thread was Austen contemplative, and writing throughout.

“My dear, dear aunt,” she rapturously cried, “what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of any thing. We will know where we have gone — we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarrelling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers.”


Worsley acting out one of Austen’s texts (her presence and “costumes” important to her film’s effect)

Ellen

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Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, terrified because she has had another miscarriage (Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as dramatized by Peter Straughan, BBC 2015)

Friends and readers

I have been so surprised at Austen’s vehement defense of Mary Stuart in her History of England, that I’ve tended to read her words as ironic, playful, or somehow not really meaning it. But in conversation on the Net here I’ve learnt that Samuel Johnson also empathized with Mary: more, some of the terms in which he put his defense, or one reason he singled out for indignation on her behalf are precisely those of Austen.

She writes in the chapter, Elizabeth

these Men, these boasted Men [Lord Burleigh, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the rest of those who filled the chief offices of State] were such Scandals to their Country & their Sex as to allow & assist their Queen in confining for the space of nineteen Years, a Woman who if the claims of Relationship & Merit were of no avail, yet as a Queen & as one who condescended to place confidence in her, had every reason to expect Assistance & protection; and at length in allowing Elizabeth to bring this amiable Woman to an untimely, unmerited, and scandalous Death.

Johnson, said my friend, reviewed William Tytler’s book on “the casket letters.” This is scheduled to be published in the final volume (20) of the Yale Edition of Johnson’s Works (so it is not yet on the Yale Digital Site), nor (alas) can I find it ECCO, but in a conversation with Boswell recorded in Boswell’s Life, Johnson retorts:

BOSWELL: ‘I here began to indulge old Scottish sentiments, and to express a warm regret, that, by our Union with England, we were no more; — our independent kingdom was lost.’
JOHNSON. ‘Sir, never talk of yourr independency, who could let your Queen remain twenty years in captivity, and then be put to death, without even a pretence [sic] of justice, without your ever attempting to rescue her; and such a Queen too; as every man of any gallantry of spirit would have sacrificed his life for.’ (Life, 5:40)

I took down from one of my bookshelves (the one with books on Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots) and found in Jayne Lewis’s Mary Queen of Scots: Romance and Nation that Lewis has a section on a painting Boswell commissioned by Hamilton of Mary Queen of Scots for which Boswell wanted Johnson to write an appropriate inscription. Johnson would not as the painting is a travesty of what happened.


Gavin Hamilton, The Abdication of Mary, Queen of Scots (Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

Her captors (says Lewis) are in classical, she in historical dress.  Looking at the image, it does seem to me man is in armor, another in a clerical kind of outfit, with a 16th century cap on his head, and a third is some kind of white cape or overcoast.  Lewis remarks they are absurdly “restrained,” and I agree it’s not shown this was coercion. Johnson sent an inscription which ignores the falsely bland (decorous?) picture by Hamilton Boswell paid for, which is (in Boswell’s words) “a representation of a particular scene in her history, her being forced to resign her crown.” Johnson instead produced lines which referred to Mary’s “hard fate,” i.e. her execution.: “Mary Queen of Scots, terrified and overpowered by insults, menaces, and clamours of her rebellious subjects, sets her hand, with fear and confusion, to a resignation of the kingdom.”

Lewis provides an image by Alexander Runciman much closer to Johnson’s response:

Lewis says the review Johnson wrote of the book on the casket letters was “glowing” and that Johnson “reprimanded” the Keeper of the Advocate’s Library in Edinburgh for his countrymen in having “let your Queen remain twenty years in captivity and then be put to death.”

Johnson “understood, even felt the fatal role that the symbols and signs which reduced her to a thing — and thus potentially to nothing — had played both in Mary’s own tragedy and in the patriarchal farce so recently re-enacted by the artists, critics and collectors of Georgian England … it was the will to freeze her in symbolic form (through ‘insults, menaces, and clamours’) that once stripped Mary of her sovereignty, and that does so as she becomes again a sacrifice to the modern frenzy of renown” (Lewis, 118-19)

According to Lewis, Johnson felt personally (“especially”) close to Mary, perpetually aware of how her predicament could be re-enacted in the present. Austen too sees Mary as affecting her close friends and neighbors and about how her family deserted her: readers have been distracted and puzzled by the lines referring to Mary’s Catholic religion:

Yet she bore it with a most unshaken fortitude, firm in her mind; Constant in her Religion; & prepared herself to meet the cruel fate to which she was doomed, with a magnanimity that could alone proceed from conscious Innocence. And yet could you Reader have beleived it possible that some hardened & zealous Protestants have even abused her for that Steadfastness in the Catholic Religion which reflected on her so much credit? But this is a striking proof of their narrow souls & prejudiced Judgements who accuse her

But these lines show the personal identification that actuates her:

Oh! what must this bewitching Princess whose only friend was then the Duke of Norfolk, and whose only ones are now Mr Whitaker, Mrs Lefroy, Mrs Knight & myself, who was abandoned by her Son, confined by her Cousin, abused, reproached & vilified by all, what must not her most noble mind have suffered when informed that Elizabeth had given orders for her Death!

And this footnote remembering Charlotte Smith’s first novel, Emmeline, or The Orphan of the Castle reinforces Austen’s sense of Mary and Elizabeth’s contemporaneity. Austen writes of Robert Devereux Lord Essex.

This unfortunate young Man was not unlike in Character to that equally unfortunate one Frederic Delamere. The simile may be carried still farther, & Elizabeth the torment of Essex may be compared to the Emmeline of Delamere. It would be endless to recount the misfortunes of this noble & gallant Earl. It is sufficient to say that he was beheaded on the 25th of Feb:ry, after having been Lord Leuitenant of Ireland, after having clapped his hand on his Sword, and after performing many other services to his Country. Elizabeth did not long survive his loss, & died so miserable that were it not an injury to the memory of Mary I should pity her.

So when Johnson tried to convince Hester Thrale not to marry Piozzi, that “only some phantoms of the imagination” could “seduce her to Italy,” “eased [his] heart” “by reminding Thrale of Mary Stuart’s fateful flight from Scotland into England:

When Queen Mary took the resolution of sheltering herself in England, the Archbishop of St. Andrew’s attempting to dissuade her, attended on her journey and when they came to the irremeable stream that separated the two kingdoms, walked by her side into the water, in the middle of which he seized her bridle, and with earnestness proportioned to her danger and his own affection, pressed her to return. The Queen went forward. — If the parallel reaches thus far, may it go no further. The tears stand in my eyes” (quoted by Lewis, 119)

Johnson and Austen bring Mary into the present, and also acknowledge her distance from them, Austen by alluding to a novel which sets Mary in the world of “the fancy” (imagination), Johnson by saying “the parallel can go no further.”

Lewis goes on to say Mrs Thrale herself copied one of Mary’s poems into her private journal (244, n42). I don’t know which one but offer this as an example of Mary’s use of the sonnet form in a poem

First the original French:

Que suis-je hélas? Et de quoi sert ma vie?
Je ne suis fors qu’un corps privé de coeur,
Une ombre vaine, un objet de malheur
Qui n’a plus rien que de mourir en vie.
Plus ne me portez, O ennemis, d’envie
A qui n’a plus l’esprit à la grandeur.
J’ai consommé d’excessive douleur
Votre ire en bref de voir assouvie.
Et vous, amis, qui m’avez tenue chère,
Souvenez-vous que sans coeur et sans santé
Je ne saurais aucune bonne oeuvre faire,
Souhaitez donc fin de calamité
Et que, ici-bas étant assez punie,
J’aie ma part en la joie infinie.

Then a good modern English translation:

Alas what am I? What use has my life?
I am but a body whose heart’s torn away,
A vain shadow, an object of misery
Who has nothing left but death-in-life.
O my enemies, set your envy all aside;
I’ve no more eagerness for high domain;
I’ve borne too long the burden of my pain
To see your anger swiftly satisfied.
And you, my friends who have loved me so true,
Remember, lacking health and heart and peace,
There is nothing worthwhile that I can do;
Ask only that my misery should cease
And that, being punished in a world like this,
I have my portion in eternal bliss
— from an excellent Mary Stuart site.

For good measure Lewis shows how “in private life” David Hume reacted spontaneously, personally and viscerally to aspects of Mary’s character and in his printed History did all her could to make Mary’s suffering present to readers (120-21). To all these later 18th century people Mary had not yet become wax-work, or an abstract site of scholarship.

I see close parallels in thinking between Austen and Johnson — how people are oblivious, dismissive, show a total failure of the imagination when it comes to the injustices towards the suffering of others — which offers another explanation for why Austen so devotedly and vehemently favored Mary Stuart.

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Hitherto when I’ve discussed Austen’s History of England or her ardent defenses (and attacks) on Tudor queens, I’ve tried to show a fervent feminism at work (For Austen’s birthday: what she said about Tudor queens, especially Katharine Parr).

But this does not help us understand her particular reactions to particular figures, e.g., “Lady Jane Gray, who tho’ inferior to her lovely Cousin the Queen of Scots, was yet an amiable young woman & famous for reading Greek while other people were hunting.” Now I’m thinking the analogy to make for Austen’s History of England is also our modern historical romances and historical films, where women writers especially mirror women’s modern experiences of victimhood.

The scene of Anne at the window parallels one close to it in time in the film where she looks out to show Thomas Cromwell how her beloved dog, Purkoy, has been cruelly killed in an act of surrogate threat:

Honestly, I look forward to when the 20th volume of the Yale edition of Johnson appears with that review of an 18th book on the casket letters. I still remember what deeply moving use Stephan Zweig made of them in his biography of Mary, and how by contrast, Antonia Fraser acted as a prosecuting attorney whose interrogation demonstrates Mary could not have written them (at least as is). Gentle reader you also owe this blog to my having begun to teach Wolf Hall: A Fresh Angle on the Tudor Matter and how much in love I have begun to be with Mantel’s first two novels of her trilogy on Thomas Cromwell. I think very highly of Bring Up the Bodies too.


Mary Queen of Scots by Federico Zuccari or Alonso Sanches Coello — an image from yet another era.

I will go back to my notes on Scott’s The Monastery and The Abbot and see what they yield. Scott is of Austen’s era, historical fiction begins with his Waverley (1815), though I admit the one early illustration for The Abbot I could find seems to encapsulate all the failures of historical imagination Austen, Johnson, Hume, Hester Thrale and now Hilary Mantel work against.


Getty image

Ellen

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Kate Winslet as as Myrtle (Tillie) Dunnage sewing (The Dressmaker, written & directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, 2015)


Annie Starke as the young Joan Castlemain “helping” her professor husband, Joe, writer (The Wife, directed Bjorn Runge, script Jane Anderson, 2018)

Friends and readers,

Finally at the end of summer, four good women’s films. Two weeks ago The Bookshop and Puzzle, where in each a heroine seeks a new life, and now, The Dressmaker (based on a novel by Rosalie Ham) and The Wife (based on a novel by Meg Wolitzer), where in each two heroines wrest back what they have lost. They were gripping because was kept happening next was unexpected as women broke through taboos to become or take back herself after a long endurance. I recommend going to The Wife and renting or streaming (or buying) The Dressmaker as strongly as I did seeing The Bookshop before it leaves the theaters. In order to convey why they are rivetingly or quirkily surprising as we move along, I tell the stories but it’s the acting out as each turn comes that will hold you.


Glenn Close as the aging Joan Castlemaine reading The Walnut, a novel attributed to her husband as fiction, but one she wrote about her life with him

The Guardian says Glenn Close delivers the best performance of her career. She does make the movie the emotionally affecting experience it is, but I can think of other movies I’ve seen her in where it was she who made them extraordinary (Alfred Nobbs, with John Malkovitch, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Paradise Road, the box office winner Fatal Attraction).

It’s done through flashbacks with two sets of actors: we begin in present time with Joe Castlemaine (the character somewhat based on Saul Bellows) played by Jonathan Pryce, winning the Nobel Prize, and the couple going with their son to Stockholm for the award ceremony. They seem to be joyous over this crowning recognition, but have an intensely strained relationship as a couple. Through irritants, and promptings of memories at her husband’s bad behavior He denigrates and treats with mild contempt the son’s, (Max Iron as David Castlemain) writing; he incessantly controls her eating, drinking, smoking, being by herself at all, when he is the one who is ill, taking pills to stay alive, and (as we see) promiscuous with young women wherever he can be. Joan’s mind moves back to how they met (Harry Lloyd as the young professor and Starke as student at Smith College), how he seduced her while he was married, and their first successes: she is working as a secretary at a firm seeking good authors and brings his (it seems) books in. The cyclical weaving is very much a woman’s structure and we gradually realize we are seeing and feeling everything out of her older mind.


On the plane Christian Slater as Nathaniel Bone, biographer, approaches the Castlemains

The real story is also dragged out because the couple is stalked by Nathaniel a young man determined to write a truthful biography, to make a career out of exposing this celebrated author. He follows the Castlemains on the train, and begs for permission and is rejected, told to go away. He remains at the bar of the hotel they are staying at and when she escapes Joe for an afternoon she is lured into drinking and smoking with him, as we listen to him ask her to tell him the truth that she wrote the books, not Joe. Joe (we have seen) doesn’t even know central characters in the stories. Then when the son escapes, Bone insinuates himself into being a companion, telling the young man who then startled with this explanation for his bad memories, confirms Bone’s theory.


Nathaniel Bone talking with David Castlemain

Unfolded before is a Laura Ingalls and Rose Wilder story: what began as the husband writing poor novels and the wife being taught (perhaps wrongly) that women’s novels are ignored, not read, will not sell, or if they do, not be respected. This is conveyed by Elizabeth McGovern as the embittered women writer:


Elizabeth McGovern is memorable in her brief appearance

It at first seems the writing turns into collaboration and then (since he does not know what makes a good book, is dishonest about himself, superficial) an acted out lie: she hides away from children and world writing the novels while he takes (less than adequate) care of the children, cooks, makes money as a teacher, and takes all the credit for the books. What we see at first grating is the way he thanks her for enabling him to find time to work, devoting and giving up herself to his art, his creativity. The incessant gratitude as a cover-up drives her wild; it’s about as much as she can endure on top of his continual domineering demanding (he wants sex when she doesn’t) condescending ways. She has to smile and smile at the phony admiration, the adulation he receives so ecstatically.


In the car alone her face frozen, the husband trying to make up to her

Lying is at the core of this woman’s life, lying as an enabling and silencing mode of being. The movie made me think about what Rose Wilder might have felt because her books were attributed to her mother. The situation was so different: Rose Wilder chose to re-write and then write her mother’s books to project an Ayn Rand reactionary vision, to cover up the abysmal poverty of her childhood in rural America, and she got away with this because her publishers did all they could (as much of the media at the time) to castigate FDR’s turning the US into a more decent society for all (the New Deal, now in its death throes), to tell the false myth that anything is possible in individualistic uncontrolled capitalism. Closer are the faculty wives who spend years next to their husbands in libraries taking notes, typing his manuscript, perhaps “helping” him collaborating, who knows writing for him, and then thanked in a concluding line of acknowledgements. We see at first hand what pain this can be for such a woman, especially if he is someone who has affairs with his students or other faculty.

But there is continual ambiguity, different valid angles. The situation was more complicated than merely a bad husband, all self-sacrificing wife. As the days wear on, and she finally explodes and says she has had enough and is leaving him, they quarrel fiercely and it emerges she was complicit; he is accurate when he charges her with having liked being hidden, having liked getting rid of the children, of being rich (which as a woman writer and without a professorship she would have been), of him caring for the children, cooking and doing everything they pretended that she did. We see the beautiful houses they had.


Jonathan Pryce is pitch perfect in his easier role ….

We have seen how complacent she can be, and again how fierce in anger. How pained. She weeps at the end hysterically because when he suddenly as a heart attack. She is so persuasive and strong at that moment, I found the falling snow in the window behind her a false overdone note. Yet in the last scene on the plane with her son she tells the biographer if he tells the story of who wrote the books she will sue him as malevolent, and then turns with a look in her eye we see she is at the same time at long last free. She turns to her son and promises to tell him the truth of her life and the books when they get home. Will she? She fingers a notebook. Will she begin to publish under her own? or carry on writing producing books she will say were unfinished and are now coming out posthumously. She was ferocious with the biographer on the plane.

It’s arguable though that The Wife is a conventional movie in comparison with The Dressmaker. At the time it was in the theaters while it garnered many awards, non-professional and many professional critics alike lambasted it as peculiar, not making sense, erratic, unbelievable, and yes improbable and meandering (the last two charges commonly hurled at women’s movies). And at first I was startled and felt an urge to turn it off: why should this super-successive costume designer return to a filthy impoverished shack of a home with her hateful aging sick mother, Molly Dunnage played brilliantly by Judy Davis (a persistently fine actress, ever in good movies, unrecognized because not iconic).


Judy Davies when first pulled out of her lair by Tillie

Why go to a small town picnic dressed for the Oscars? What could be the point? Well give it a chance and you begin to see and then are on her side, wanting to see her get revenge on what was done to her and to her mother.

It’s a strange film, bizarre: Tillie begins to gain power because these dowdy jealous women want her to dress them the way she dresses, and she begins to make money as she determinedly ignores or over-rides her mother’s protests and cleans the house, her mother, and sets up a daily decent routine of life for them. What women seem to want, what they dream of themselves looking like is when seen startlingly artificial and grotesque


The movie ends with an album of all the actresses in all the (a cornucopia) dresses made and worn over the film (costume design Margot Wilson and Marion Boyce)

What emerges, in jarringly odd scenes is a female gothic story. When Tillie was small, she was bullied cruelly by a Evan Pettyman’s (Shane Bourne) mean stupid son, Stewart, and she was accused of murdering him in retaliation. She was hounded out of town and her mother disgraced. What gradually emerges is Tillie is Everyman’s illegitimate daughter by Molly; that Pettyman’s present wife has spent her life drugged by this husband before and worse after the son died. In flashbacks we see how the child was ostracized and harassed and when the boy tried to smash her head, she stepped aside and he rammed his head into a brick wall. Another reason she has returned, is she does not know what happened and is determined to discover how the boy died. The town is exposed as bigoted, hypocritical and brutally indifferent to anything but each person’s own ego pleasure. Tillie had a young man who was liked her; grown up now, Liam Helmsorth as Teddy McSwiney slowly reveals he has a mentally retarded brother whom the town despises and mocks, a mother who (like Molly) is impoverished and they live apart, in a tin shack with him making what money they have as a mechanic.

Needless to predict, Tillie and Teddy fall in love and become lovers, Molly emerges from her shell to show she loves her daughter after all, or can love her. They sew together:

There are wonderfully comic moments where Molly calls herself a hag and her daughter a spinster in need of such a man:

The three go to the movies and make fun of what they see: there is an older movie shown which probably is meant as an allusion but I couldn’t make out which one it was.

Wedding scenes, church, as the story is exposed, scenes of intense anger, scene where Pettyman hires another woman as a dressmaker to rival Tillie, only this dressmaker is nowhere as daring, bold, good a seamstress. But colluding and frightened people are exposed as knowing and hiding the truth, Pettyman’s wife awakened to the truth tries to cut his feet off (this reminded me of how Stella Gibbons’s mocked the gothic), and just as we think the evil people who hid everything will get their comeuppance and our trio (Teddy, Tillie and Molly) live happily ever after, Teddy too full of himself, slips down a man hole, gets caught in a vise and is killed. There is a moving funeral. This means his brother and mother can escape the town’s obloquy only by leaving. Molly determines to help her daughter and now dressed respectably, sets forth for help from those townspeople with hearts (they are some):

But in a tense tiring public scene, recalling or anticipating what happens to Bill Nighy as Mr Brundish assailing the witch power-center of the town in The Bookshop, Molly has a heart attack and dies before she can see justice begin to be done. So we have another funeral. The heart attack of the aging weakened person who sallies forth to help the heroine is not the only parallel with Fitzgerald’s tale as filmed by Coixet. In a final scene of rage, while the mostly indifferent town is caught up in another social public event, all of the women now dressed by Tillie, Tillie sets fire to the old cabin she and her mother had lived in, and takes a long red carpet and fills that with lighter fluid, hurling it out towards the town, where it slowly sets the central streets of the town on fire. The movie ends with Tillie re-dressed as the Parisian dressmaker she had become and leaving:

An important character in the drama is Australia itself. The film is made by an Australian film company and was filmed there. It’s filled with stunning shots of the bare and hard landscape, which the camera nonetheless seems to have a love affair with. We first see Tillie against this hard backdrop:

One of the good or remorseful characters, Hugo Weaver as Sergeant Farrat takes blame for Tillie as policeman, seen against the same landscape at another time of day:

A townspeople scene: they look up at Tillie and Mollie’s ruined home:

It is as deeply satisfying a film as one can hope to see, and it uses the power of a woman through one of her most characteristic skills: sewing. Moorhouse is unashamed to both caricature and celebrate high fashion and sexy dressing. It is also unsentimental in just the way of The Bookshop.

Two more women’s films not to miss, to revel in.

Ellen

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