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Archive for the ‘gothic’ Category


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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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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Watteau, The Serenade

Day 8/10 of books that influenced me, had a discernible impact. (For Day 7/10, Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale). When I was around 17 or 18 years old, I was in a used bookstore in Manhattan called the Argosy. It was on 59th Street, near the corner of Lexington Avenue. How I got there I don’t know but someone must’ve told me about it — it seemed to be about 5 floors high with very old elevators (the kind that had gates that seemed near to falling on you), and each floor was filled with bookcases of dusty books, many very old and decidedly uninviting, some falling apart.

It was there I first came across Fanny Burney, in a one volume and in a three volume edition of her letters (brown, falling apart) and I have told that story in the Burney newsletter: “On First Encountering Fanny Burney D’Arblay.”  But it was what was nearby that riveted me truly: a single volume edition in French of the letters of Julie de Lespinasse, nearby a 3 volume edition in French of the letters of Madame Du Deffand. I opened them up and started to read and found them irresistible. I no longer have those books but I do have the Elibron facsimile of a 2 volume edition of Lespinasse and a 2 volume edition of the letters of DuDeffand edited by Chantal Thomas.

In the volume by Lespinasse I read she was frantically and abjectly in love with a M. Guilbert and wrote him desperate letters where she poured out her thoughts and feelings in the most eloquent language I had ever come across. In the course of telling the tortures of her soul, she talked freely about all sorts of things, writing dramatic scenes, commenting on books, on plays she’s gone, people she knows, but always she comes back to the main point, she loves him, she cannot do without him, why does he not write her, why does he not visit her, not even respond to her. It was a form of madness.


An engraving said to represent Madame du Deffand

Madame du Deffand was very different: acid melancholy, caustic wit, the most bitter and truthful comments about life, funny, she wrote mostly to a man I had never heard of before: Horace Walpole whom she was very fond of, but also Voltaire (I had heard of him) and people with strange (to me) titles, particularly one man, Heinault to whom she confided the secrets of her life. I’m sure I understood less than half of what I read but what I did read struck deep chords. At early point I understood she was blind. Well many years later I have read much about Lespinasse, niece to Deffand, and Benedetta Craveri’s Madame du Deffand and her world, and Chantal Thomas. I read these before I read the unabridged Clarissa.


Engraving representation of Julie

I took all these volumes home (including the Burney) in a big brown shopping bag, and since then have read even many later 18th century women’s letters and memoirs and novels, English and French. I typed and put two novels by two other women of this era (Sophie Cottin, Isabelle de Montolieu) on my website, and edited Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde for Valancourt Press. Jane Austen read some of these women (Stael, Genlis, for a start).


On the vast first floor

The Argosy still exists but is no longer many floors with ancient elevators; it’s one big floor with a basement and you buy many of its books through catalogues. Below is the Argosy from the outside ….

This coming fall I propose to read with a class at OLLI a paperback edition in English of Madame Roland’s autobiography and letters. I am very fond of a biography of her by Francoise Kermina, which is more insightful than the ones in English and also a Elibron facsimilar of a 19th century study of her by Charles Dauban which includes selection of letters by her to her friend and separate sketches of her relationships with different equally interesting people..


Alfonso Simonetti, Ancor Non Torna, illustration for 19th century Italian translation of Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest

I put Ann Radcliffe here too, anong these women: my love for her novels, and the one travel book comes out of how the tone of her mind is coterminous with the tone of these other women’s minds of the later 18th century. I know I love the gothic which increases what her books mean to me, but basically her Mysteries of Udolpho is such another as Stael’s Corinne, ou l’Italie, and Madame de Chastenay translated Radcliffe’s great book into French and left a 3 volume memoir of her own.


Watteau, Iris (detail inside much wider vaster mural)

Ellen

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Friends and readers,

I read with a class on 19th century Women of Letters this past term Margaret Oliphant’s Kirsteen: The History of a Scotch Family 70 Years Ago, and am gratified to report the class as a whole liked it very much: some called it a “page-turner;” it was a class of 35 and I’d say about 25 stayed the course (it’s was a sort of college course where there is no exam, no papers, mostly made up of retired adults, towards the end all but one were women), and most of them read Kirsteen, and were eager to discuss it. Over on Trollope and his Contemporaries (the one yahoo list I moderate, apparently still going despite all yahoo’s software failures), one of the first non-Trollope novels we read together, after a period of just Trollope and then trying to reconstitute the list in new directions was her last Carlingford book, Phoebe Junior, and it brought the list to life again. Penelope Fitzgerald wrote the introductions to the Virago press publications of two of the Carlingfords, Salem Chapel and The Perpetual Curate. Miss Majoribanks, yet another, is the one book feminist readers read and often praise, the Carlingford novels because of their original connection to Trollope (as about church politics in the dissenting vein) are still known and some in print (they were her success among English readers). People who read gothic works are aware of her masterpiece ghost story, The Beleaguered City, and her uncanny shorter ghost stories.

I write this blog tonight because earlier this week Oliphant came up on a face-book discussion group page, Readers of Fine Literature, where someone was so enthusiastic about Oliphant’s Hester, as extraordinary (the first time I read it I thought it a masterpiece that should be assigned alongside the usual “great Victorian novels”), that the posting prompted “ayes” and citations of books by Oliphant different people enjoyed, or denials of Oliphant as filled with pleasure, with vows never to try an Oliphant again. I want tonight to describe briefly or add three more heroine’s texts to those I’ve analysed here on these blogs already (Phoebe Junior, Hester, The Marriage of Elinor). Agnes, The Ladies Lindores and Lady Carr (a four volume work) and Kirsteen, and to suggest how her very late ghost story, The Library Window is yet another and a comment on her career. They are novels comparable in subtlety and interest to those of Trollope, Gaskell and Eliot. Their criticism of marriage and presentation of women’s lives put them together with Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Caroline Norton’s Lost and Saved. Their uses of irony show her early immersion in Austen (her first two Carlingford novels have characters named after Austen, situations reminiscent of hers. For her life and work, start at the Victorian Web.

It’s best to be either brief or write at length for a magazine. Here we must opt for concision. Why? Oliphant writes realistic novels which are not easy to describe as they often move episodically. Their subversive and riveting material comes in inward interstices and twists and turns of stories whose endings are often unexpected. When they happen, these feel inevitable and as coming from the situation as it’s evolved or been all along. Most are almost strongly unsentimental. Agnes is very like Elinor in that the heroine makes a bad marriage and the novel is about how she copes — or doesn’t. Customs and laws inflict problems on Agnes which her ne’er-do-well husband doesn’t share, but when her husband dies she finds she loses all personal happiness; her child is taken from her; complex feelings most novels didn’t go near until very recently are the subject matter.

I find her Ladies Lindores and its close sequel Lady Carr compelling throughout; I could hardly put the first volume down. Taken together, they form (as Merryn Williams writes in her great Critical Biography of Oliphant) a story about human indifference to one another, cruelty and “torture” (Oliphant’s word for inward pain). The father of the family inherits a peerage and becomes a tyrant to his wife and daughters in his insistence the two daughters marry money so Caroline, sensitive, gentle is sold to a brutal man with her mother unable to protect her from his violence. Oliphant breaks a tremendous taboo when she has Caroline cry out in gladness when her husband is accidentally killed. She remarries the young man she had originally longed for (Lady Carr) but ends up alienated because the man she had so dreamed of turns out to be superficial, a dilettante, egoistic. Its Scottish landscape is deeply appealing, and she has Walter Scott in mind as she describes Scottish culture more wryly and realistically. Italy and London are described well too.

Kirsteen is the book that (like Miss Marjoribanks) seems to speak most to women more today. It is the story of a young girl’s flight from an enforced marriage in Scotland, from a tyrant father, a life of utter devaluation of herself as anything other than an obedient woman within a family geared to making white men the owners and rulers of society, and her successful entry in London into a seamstress business, where she invents a satisfying life for herself as seamstress and co-partner. Oliphant’s women might seem better off when they start out disenchanted — like Kirsteen’s sister, willing to marry the older man Kirsteen flees because he will provide title, home, children and he is gentle — she hasn’t that low expectations but lives with his lack of status in London and ends content enough to be with Kirsteen’s neighbors at Kirsteen’s shop — the truth being she doesn’t care about much but her rank, status, creature comforts, and convenience. But such people are not to be depended upon at all; Kirsteen’s younger sister might have ended with a man who forced an elopement without marriage on her; only Kirsteen wanted to act with integrity to force him away; ironically he is eliminated by the violent father, a murder he gets away with (a ploy that in Ladies Lindores too eliminates Caroline’s first husband, and for which an ordinary loyal Walter Scott-kind of servant almost pays with years of life in prison). Kirsteen’s quest is survival on terms of self-determination. She undertakes a frightening journey alone to find a place where she can be free to be herself. She reminded me of Bronte’s Villette but does not become enthralled to a man once she lands a position. Wendy Jones in her “Margaret Oliphant’s Women who want too much,” describes all three of these (Phoebe, Hester, and Kirsteen) wonderfully well. The flaw in Kirsteen is she succeeds too easily; in travel she is never sexually harassed, and much of the plot-design’s ins and outs turns on her sisters’ experience of marriage as refuge, sheer status (hollow within), and escape from rape and a life of the equivalent of prostitution.

If one includes Phoebe and Miss Marjoribanks, all five are books which Oliphant wrote later in life. Her great strength in them all is how she explores and illuminates everyday painful situations people rarely face up to, which can end up destroying or making their characters. She’s an insightful critic of other realistic novelists. She wrote one of the finest critical articles on Austen in the 19th century, in her review of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of his aunt (Jane Austen), from which I quote a paragraph which offers a glimpse of the austere power of her own mind:

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

These (and other) fine novels about contain incisive penetrating critiques of how women are without needed rights as inescapably and necessarily responsible adults, are led or forced to make bad marriages, while males are led to conform to destructive norms for all. I suggest she is sometimes not enjoyed because of her disillusioned views on marriage; she hardly believes love for another can exist, or it is only the rare spirit who is capable of sustaining it. I find her strengthening the way I find Samuel Johnson or other truth-tellers who use irony and open identification to convey compassion.


“The Library Window”

I end on “Library Window” (which so puzzled me when I first read it, as the reader will see if he or she clicks on the link above), since I’ve at long last realized it’s a late meditation by Oliphant on the distance she has had to keep herself from some ideals of writing and reading, and her deep yearning for approval as strongly ethical. We see also how restricted young gentry girls were kept, how closely monitored. Once Aunt Mary thinks whatever was wrong with our heroine is getting worse the mother sweeps her away. Is she ever named? She remains nameless as does Dickens’s signalman. It can be said to be a portrait of the artist as a young girl. Intense yearning: aunt says the meaning of the vision (which we are given to believe Aunt also sees) “It’s a longing all your life after –- it is a looking for what never comes. Sybilline witchlike but kind Lady Carnbee says “the imagination is a great deceiver, the heart, the eye. But if gift deceives, it consoles.”

What happens in “The Library Window?” A young scottish girl is sent for her health to stay with her aunt Mary and finds herself pinned down by imposed schedule, feminine occupations but her aunt, unlike her mother, gives her a lot of time to read. They live on high street of St Rules, St Andrews so a university not far. She becomes gradually absorbed until she sees a male at work incessantly and he sees her and after her visit to the party comes to the window and waves and then blank forever more. Coming home from death of her husband many years before, Oliphant had thought she saw him in the crowd and for a poignant moment thought he’ll help her and he vanished. There is a a bond between this unfulfilled writer seen in the window and herself. The portrait is modeled on a legend of Scott started by his son-in-law Lockhart.

Tamar Heller (“Textual Seductions: Women’s Reading and Writing in Margaret Oliphant’s “The Library Window”) thinks it strongly feminist: the man was murdered by the brothers of a girl he tried to court and was above him. Yes, that’s there too. This is the life of the artist and scholar Oliphant felt closed to her, she couldn’t achieve a Middlemarch because she had no GHLewes to shelter, to negotiate, to give her time. In Framley Parsonage we can see in Mark Robarts a certain flagellation by Trollope who also sacrificed much, and sold his soul in the marketplace. With Oliphant in this story, it’s not just that she’s trapped, but lonely and longing — this is poignantly tragically seen in Hester. Is it fair to say the girl of the story is shattered by the experience. A continual play of light, or perception, of different kinds of reality are at work. The theme her life as a writing career.

Ellen

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Elizabeth Moss as Offred, and Martha (cannot find actress’s name)

Friends and readers,

I’m over a week late in writing about the finale to this year’s film adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (see Episodes 1-3, 4-6, 7-9), but I want to offer some closure and a comparison with Atwood’s novel’s close.

This was another intensely grim and cruel episode: every human feeling that is natural and loving is thwarted; all the people living under this regime who are said to be powerful are seething with frustration; there seems to be no kindness anywhere until near the end of the hour when Moira-Ruby reaches Canada, and when Nick seems to enable Offred to at least leave the dead souls (man and wife) now at the core of the Waterford home. The only natural people are Nick, the Martha (who tells the story of her son’s death during the war they lost, for whom she grieves still).

As in the first episodes, the film-makers are past masters at coming up with the most terrorizing kinds of moods — Offred is to be punished with the other women — she showed she had power in the previous episode when she had to be turned to to persuade Offwarren not to throw her baby over the bridge: she is viciously hurt with that electric prod; she is taken and something seared in her ear; then Mrs Waterford is beating the hell out of her for the adultery she has endured in the Commander’s bed — Mrs Waterford has found her dress, and then dares to challenge her husband, which gets her nowwhere (as he answers to God, so she answers to him, a rephrase of Milton’s famous: he for God, she for God in him). What saves Offred momentarily is she is found to be pregnant and that overcomes all he transgressions (no, I will not use the verb “trumps” as it is now peculiarly ruined, sour) — except Mrs Waterford tells the commander it’s not his. That this does grate on him is seen when he questions Offred and elicits from her the misinformation of course the child is his. In fact, we have good reason to believe it’s Nick’s, and without sufficient explanation it is Nick who somehow engineers her escape from this home at the end of the episode into a shut truck which may be taking her into worse darkness or into the “light” (liberty)


Nick’s response when he realizes that Offred is pregnant and it is probably his

Offred now entitled to a good breakfast, but after witnessing the above scene of natural affection between Nick (glad of the pregnancy — this idea of children, sentimental behavior to them is not challenged by the series) and Offred takes her and cruelly shows her Hanna from afar without letting Hanna get close. Offred is locked in a car with strong windows and she cannot reach her child sitting on a school’s steps. Offed goes mad with frustration. Mrs Waterford re-enters the car and threatens to kill Hanna if this baby that Offred is carrying does not survive. Or she Mrs Waterford does not somehow become its mother. In a review I did some years ago of a study of the function of discarded children, nowadays abortions, dead babies, child-abandonment or murder, I discovered that such events are often at the core of searing novels (from Christina Stead’s The Man who loved Children to Winston Graham’s Marnie, an image not mentioned much in all that has been written about Hitchcock’s film) Offred, terrified because she cannot control nature (guarantee her pregnancy will go to term), tells Mr Wwaterford about his wife’s threats; he refuses to believe her. Meanwhile the man whom Offwarren had had to service and exposed as seducing he is humiliated and the egregious hypocrisy of a council leads them to use science – one of these hideous operations to which our society subjects people — to cut the man’s arm off. This “operation” is classic gothic (used in Branagh’s Frankenstein): one of the motifs of gothic is exposing science as inhumane, cruel, used for perversion. I have reason to know tonight egregious operations are performed in dentistry too.

Late that night Offred tries to visit Nick and he seems not to be there His house is shrouded in darkness, — or he’s not coming out in the night. Tired, she returns to her room and opens the package that Jezebel had delivered to her, and discovers it is brim full of hundreds of notes telling the dire stories of the different handmaid’s. We watch her reading these with a kind of joy, and then carefully stowing them away. Near the close of the episode they are rescued as evidence by one of the hand-maid’s.

Woven into the episode (across it, like a tapestry) Ruby-Moira’s escape to Ontario. We see her toil across snow and ice, avoid shots, and finally arrive at a bleak garage like room where she is taken in. Switch to a hospital like place where she has been fed, redressed, is asked if she has any family, and when she says no, is provided with a family from Offred (her husband Luke) and then (wonderful to an American) given insurance cards; welcomed warmly, given warm close and looks about her to see pictures of other invented families on the boards of the hospital corridor. Humanity conquers biology.


Luke in corridor in Canada

The final perversion in Gilead is the handmaid’s are led into a circle to stone someone to death and discover the person is Offwarren, subject to such brutality and from their hands for endangering her baby. First one brave handmaid refuses this outrage and a guard beats her ferociously, but then Offred steps forward into the circle, and drops her tone on the ground, “sorry Aunt Lydia,” and all follow suit, one by one. Lydia seems to feel here is a battle she should yield on (however temporarily). So she gives in, but says ominously “there will be consequences.” The girls return home as a group in triumph, each off to “her” home.

Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) confronts Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) over cradle

These are seen at the ending as Offred remembers a happy moment with Luke after she is first pregnant with Hanna or has given birth (marveling over the child’s hands). This contrasts with a scene between the Waterfords where she and he attempt to reach one another humanly, to make love, but are intensely stiff, and seemingly fail emotionally. They must first admit and resolve their new perverted emotional lives, hers one of extreme resentment, frustration and probably self-blame, his still obtuse hypocrisy and reveling in power.

Then the ambiguous ending: as before Offred is woken in the middle of the night, pulled out of bed, dressed but as she comes down the stairs, she finds that both Mr and Mrs Waterford are desperately protesting and cast aside. There is Nick telling her to get into the truck, and she is locked in, the truck driven away. The camera focuses on he inside and for reasons that do not seem reasonable she is filled with hope and triumph (yet says she does not know what is ahead). The episode is called “Night.” Many of the episodes are filmed as if in night’s darkness. The 1999 film has Offred escaping with Nick and he daughter to a landscape of refuges, now pregant, rather like Julie Christie at the close of Heat and Dust finds peace in a refuge center high on a mountain where she comes to give birth. I am not eager to watch next season unless Atwood herself writes the script — I fear that the hard satire at the center which came from Atwood’s extraordinary book would not be kept up.

Atwood’s book’s ending is utterly different from both films: it is a piece of astonishing sleight-of-hand utterly skeptical of all we have read – not we did not experience it, but that we are led to see it as a manuscript from a time a century or so ago whose truthfulness we cannot check. Atwood times travels for her close. We are at a conference where the male professors are discussing a manuscript from another time and place. So fast forward to the future and the past looks very different, not so searing as here we are today, presumably safe and sound. This coda is a satire on academics, and their pretenses at humanity. The patriarchy reasserts itself too. The story in the book is more persuasively real than either film because psychologically credible throughout with the characters having inner complexities, especially Offred in her relationship with Mr Waterford (though this tends to excuse him, it even handedly shows sympathy for males caught up in patriarchy).

Here’s a personal take: the vision of this society is of imprisonment. Inside Gilead all are in prisons, prisons made of mind-sets, prisons dependent on punishment, prisons of hypocrisy, prisons of power. Supposedly competition is eliminated for some greater good, but the greater good is for the very few and is itself hedged by ideas that natural pleasures are sins.

We are in prisons or what we’ve built from our pasts; my neighbor-friend told me once when I was first friendly with her, that she felt when her husband died, her past had been wiped out, it was as if it didn’t exist. She was talking of personal memories, and the reality that they were diplomats and moved around the world so she first took root again in DC — luckily for she had a good job at the German institute, a private educational place serving the public (like so many in the US part private) teaching foreign languages to people going to and coming from abroad (then English), but much of her life is the product of her past. I’ve tried hard for 3 years to create a new existence for myself but find I cannot escape my past and to make something new and new relationships, create a new self at 70 well nigh impossible. My beautiful house, the books — if I move and reject them, then I have nothing. Both parents dead, no siblings, a couple of cousins and aunt who lives far away. As we age, we are prisoners of time and our bodies and these a product often of years of interaction, some considered and more free, others subject and subjected. The series is about enforcing pregnancy and regimenting the body. Power in it is based on paining bodies. Others are imprisoned in other ways — social life’s customs and patterns deeply fixed, regiments. Even the weather here — now ceaselessly hot — keeps people in who are not at the beach or taking trips.


Samira Wiley who plays Moira-Ruby — off hours, out of character

Atwood is showing the imprisonment rituals and ways of life are perverse in our world by her exaggerations of our world in her Gilead. At the time there were other female dystopias about wars between the sexes (one by Suzie McKee Charnas) where the women win or they lose. There is no gain for real from it. Interesting all the non-Gilead pasts in the min-series are of a hard brash difficult commercialized world where happiness is snatched at home from tiny nuclear groups attached to one another. It’s not really a Nazi or fascist vision, but simply capitalist and militarist in all the buildings and appurtenances we see. Food is associated with women who are cooks both in the past, outside and in Gilead; it is women who give birth but the outcome of this process intensely controlled.


Atwood herself in an authorized photo

Of course Margaret Atwood is a foremother and present-day poet of great achievement and stature. From her rich poetic writing, here is the appropriate (for Handmaid’s Tale)

Werewolf Movies

Men who imagine themselves covered with fur and sprouting
fangs, why do they do that? Padding among wet
moonstruck treetrunks crouched on all fours, sniffing
the mulch of sodden leaves, or knuckling
their brambly way, arms dangling like outsized
pajamas, hair all over them, noses and lips
sucked back into their faces, nothing left of their kindly
smiles but yellow eyes and a muzzle. This gives them
pleasure, they think they’d be
more animal. Could then freely growl, and tackle
women carrying groceries, opening
their doors with keys. Freedom would be
bared ankles, the din of tearing: rubber, cloth,
whatever. Getting down to basics. Peel, they say
to strippers, meaning: take off the skin.
A guzzle of flesh
dogfood, ears in the bowl. But
no animal does that: couple and kill,
or kill first: rip up its egg, its future.
No animal eats its mate’s throat, except
spiders and certain insects, when it’s the protein
male who’s gobbled. Why do they have this dream then?
Dress-ups for boys, some last escape
from having to be lawyers? Or a
rebellion against the mute
resistance of objects: reproach of the
pillowcase big with pillow, the tea-
cosy swollen with its warm
pot, not soft as it looks but hard
as it feels, round tummies of saved string in the top
drawer tethering them down. What joy, to smash the
tyranny of the doorknob, sink your teeth
into the inert defiant eiderdown with matching
spring-print queensized sheets and listen to her
scream. Surrender.

Ellen

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

Friends,

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

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

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

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

Episode 7: Luke and a world beyond

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


Breakfast (Elisabeth Moss and Jordana Blake)

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

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

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Max Mingella (in mirroring scene, Episode 3)

Episode 8: Nick, the chauffeur

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 9: A strong ethical perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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

Friends,

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

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


William Gilpin, Picturesque Beauty, Travel, Sketches

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


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

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


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


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

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


Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza (from Poldark, Season 2)

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


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

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


Photo of Cornish sea by Simon McBride

Ellen

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