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Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) demands that Gerald Maretti, the busdriver (Mark Ruffalo) confess he is guilty (Lonergan’s 2011 Margaret)


Clare (Aisling Franciosi) and Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) hiding from Officer Hawkins while she seeks Hawkins out (Jennifer Kent’s 2018 The Nightingale)

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, They kill us for their sport – a line spoken by an English teacher (Matthew Broderick) which he explicates as meaning infinite, varied, and unjust is human suffering …. (Margaret)

Gentle readers,

In this blog I suggest that in recent 21st century women’s films the old humiliation, self-berating girl learns a lesson scene is gone, but it is replaced by the demand for confrontation where the result is counterproductive frustration and anger. Rarely is mutual understanding or acceptance sought, much less reached, in the way you can find in earlier books from Austen through Eliot. I ask why this is; why this changeover, where this insistent demand demand as the crucial climactic scene comes from, how does it function?

This week I saw two remarkably powerful, complex and intelligent women’s films, both of which I urge you to go see — or more probably rent from Netflix, or stream into your computer. Don’t miss them.

To find words to capture and epitomize the achievement and absorption you will experience as you watch Lonergan’s long Margaret, one has to begin with how like a novel it is, how the characters come across as having real human depths. Lonergan’s ability to capture and convey a sense of life happening from and through so many people, the streets and skyline of New York City, seems uncanny: his use of a cinematographer moves from documentary style, to meditate lyricism, to staged dramatic encounters, group scenes, self-reflexive theater and school room scenes; these countless moments form the background to a “coming of age” story. His script is believable and yet subtly meaningful, suggestive all the time. The initiating event: Lisa Cohen (our “Margaret”) partly causes and is close witness to the killing of a woman, a dismembering of her (her leg is dissevered from her body) by a bus going through a red light as she was walking without looking around her, straight ahead. Lisa distracted the bus-driver by half-flirting with him to get his attention and get him to tell her where he bought his cowboy hat.


Lisa running alongside the bus

What happens is over the course of the movie, Lisa realizes that nothing has been done to redress the loss of life, to make clear a horrific event has occurred, a deep injustice to the woman who died. Unsure of herself, and afraid from what her mother, Joan [J. Smith-Cameron) warns (she could cause the driver to lose his job), she says the light was green when he drove through. We see it was red, but the truth is she cannot have clearly seen the light because her focus was the driver,  and the moving huge bus was in the way. She comes to the conclusion that life is going on just as if this did not happen, except for the woman’s grieving friend, Emily (Jeannie Berlin) who organizes a memorial service, which Lisa attends. She thin ks that nothing was done to somehow register this event because she, Lisa, lied about that light.

All around her much life happens: her mother is in a play, begins an affair with a wealthy Columbian businessman, Ramon (Jean Reno), Lisa herself de-virginalizes herself by inviting a high school boy, Paul (Kieran Culkin) to her house, into her bed, has a relationship with another boy, Darren (John Gallager) where he is very hurt; she and her mother fight (she is obnoxious to her mother), her father and she talk on the phone (he lives in California with another woman and has invited her to come horseback riding), school classes go on (we see how argumentative, aggressive, uncooperative she is), she almost develops a friendship with Emily. But like most relationships in the film, this pair of people never really listen to or understand one another’s point of view (though we the viewer are invited to). One of the many remarkably suggestive brilliant moments show Joan coming out of a bathroom, her chest naked as she finds herself having to go to bed with Ramon when she is not sure she likes him. A fleeting few seconds conveys so much.


Emily and her mother in typical side-by-side moments but without much communication (Margaret)

Jim Emerson on Roger Ebert’s site writes the best review of Margaret, the most generous, and it is her who thinks to print one of those many scenes where the story is not going forward, exactly, one of several mother-daughter fights: Lisa has begun to talk of opera as Ramon is taking her to Norma and asks Margaret if she would like to accompany them:

LISA: I don’t like that kind of singing.
JOAN But you like classical music.
LISA Yes. That’s true. But I don’t like opera singing.
JOAN But when have you —
LISA It’s like their entire reason for existing is to prove how loud they can be. I don’t really find that very interesting.
JOAN Yeah… I know what you mean. I don’t like that really loud opera singing either. But it’s not all like that… You like “The Magic Flute”…
LISA OK, I guess I’m wrong. I guess I do like opera singing. I just didn’t realize it.
JOAN What is the matter with you?
LISA Why are you pushing this? I don’t want to go to the opera!
JOAN Yes! OK! It’s called an invitation. I’m not pushing anything. All you have to say is “No thanks!”
LISA I did! And then you were like, “Why not?” So I told you, and then you like, started debating me, like you assume I’ve never thought this through for myself — which I really have. Many times!
JOAN OK, well, that was a really contemptuous assumption on my part. I don’t actually like opera that much myself, but I’m trying to expand my mind… Maybe that’s wrong. I’m sorry..


Matthew Broderick as the English teacher

Some of the most important scenes occur in the English classroom. Among other topics the students discuss the meaning of King Lear, and it’s evident the discussion is meant to be applied to the film. Here the Hopkins’ poem to Margaret (“Spring and Fall”), which gives the film its title, is read aloud.

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.


Margaret high on “weed” with her friend, not going to class, the English male teacher’s POV

The compelling thrust of the plot-design seems at first Lisa’s desire to soothe her conscience by telling the truth. When the adults and authorities recognize she lied, & the new evidence is given in, she is told that still the busdriver will carry on driving the bus, because the verdict is the death was an accident, & there was no criminality involved. This is not enough for her. What she wants is to confront the bus-driver and wrench out of him an admission he is guilty, that together they killed the woman.

The center of the film in time and structure is her visit to this man’s house and demand he confess to her. A confrontation. He won’t of course — he fears losing his job, and he begins to explain to her how this accident happened from his stance. She doesn’t realize a bus is a physical object hurtling through space and it was already too late for him to brake as he was going through the light just turned red. Of course he should have paid no attention to Lisa, and put his brakes on much earlier; he implies this was already past doing, and repeats it was an accident. As she gets more excited and angry, he begins to sense that she is out to get him — and by the end of the film she couches her demand in confronting others that she wants him fired, arrested, punished. But no one will do this.


With Emily, Lisa gets advice from a lawyer to hire another lawyer

What the refusal of this guy leads her to do is hire a lawyer to sue someone. She discovers the only “compensation” the law will offer is money for “damages” (or loss) done to a relative. The MTA she is told more than once is in a labor dispute with the union, and it is they who would be sued. She accuses the police of insufficiently interrogating the (now) unfortunate bus-driver. The relative hardly knew the woman but contacted, and having visited NYC, at the end she is demanding the $350,000 the MTA offers to settle out of court — and over the phone seems to feel that it would be unfair or unjust for the driver to lose his job. There are shots of Maretti looking as scared as she, even towards he end (a fleeting still of his second interrogation.

The most convenient thing to do is done: no one is declared guilty. No one ever says aloud the truth that the woman herself wasn’t looking carefully and alertly where she was going herself: we are told she had lost a 12 year old daughter to leukemia, and she calls for this child as she dies. Lisa becomes hysterical, angry, over-reacts with emotionalism as if she is grieving for this woman she never knew, with more and more strident demands the bus-driver be punished.

I did become frustrated myself until near the end of the film Lisa suddenly bursts out that she (not the bus-driver) killed this woman by her behavior. It was good to know she recognized her error, but beyond that all we see is a kind of controlled chaos. That recognition does not improve her behavior: she is as frivolous and obtuse as ever at times: she gets back at the teacher, Mr Aaron, she has seduced, by telling him she had an abortion. . A central theme, as David Edelstein of NPR writes, of the movie is no one fully connects ever.


Here we see Margaret deliberately starting a quest for Mr Aaron (the math teacher, played by Matt Demon) where she goes back to his sublet, and overtly seduces him — then when she tells him before another person, if she had an abortion, it is either he, Paul or maybe Darren who is the father, all she is doing is hurting or worrying him. How much this is a male point of view is worth considering, sometimes Margaret is treated as if she were an aggressive young man ….

There is no closure. The film ends with mother and daughter at the opera watching (a close-up of) Renee Fleming looking awful in over-heavy make-up and ludicrously lavish decorated gown singing expertly, and then mother-and-daughter crying and falling into one another’s arms. The music itself has so stirred them in their fraught lives.

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


Clare


and Aidan from early in film

I would not have noticed the centrality of the scene where Margaret confronts the busdriver had I not the next day gone to see The Nightingale. This is a harrowing tale where we see what can be done to inflict pain, misery, humiliation, rape, beating, death (whatever) when a group of people are deprived all rights (convicts, aborigines) and subject to the will of a few men who are not held accountable to anyone else. Read Robert Hughes’s great and crucial book, The Fatal Shore, about the founding of Australia through convict transportation and settler colonialism (with ethnic cleansing too). The villain, Hawkins (Sam Claflin) begins by refusing to give Clare her earned ticket of leave, raping her nightly, abusing her. When her husband, Aiden (Michael Sheasby) also an Irish ex-convict, protests, Hawkins brings his man to their hut to beat them, gang-rape her; and when the baby begins to cry loudly, Hawkins bullies a soldier into killing the child.


Hawkins confronting Billy

Hawkins has been told he will not be promoted and leaves the camp for Launeston with five men to try to negotiate himself into a captaincy. At the same time Clare, in a state of stunned grief, after asking others to bury her husband and child, takes the husband’s horse and rides after him. She is persuaded to enlist an aborigine, Billy, to lead her to the town; without him she would die in the bush.

What emerges is a quest of the two parties across a deadly wasteland, where meeting one another is the greatest risk. We see another woman, aborigine, grabbed, raped, forced to leave her child to die by Hawkins and his vicious or obedient men. Clare has lied to Billy and told him she is seeking her husband in Launceston but gradually he learns she has lost her baby, the husband is dead, and her goal is to kill Hawkins — far from avoiding this pack of killers, she is trying to reach them. As with Margaret, other incidents happen, we see aborigine people living, we see convict gangs in chains, a rare white old man gives our pair of friends shelter and food, Billy performs rituals, helps Margaret repress her milk with some concoction, but the compelling thrust of the plot-design is her stubborn determined attempt to reach those who killed her beloveds. By this time too Hawkins has become in behavior a sadistic psychopathic killer, killing people on whims, including the elderly aborigine man who is his guide, and who is Billy’s uncle — they come from the same village.


A passing scene of a house burned down — a war between the aborigines and the colonialists is said to be going on

What happens is ironically the man who killed her baby because he was forced to is left behind. When she comes upon him, and his apology is the morally imbecilic defense the baby was noisy, she begins frantically to stab him to death, beats him with the gun, takes an ax to him until her rage is gone. What neither she nor Billy realize is when they do finally have a chance to shoot the captain, she will now hesitate, and that gives Hawkins his chance to escape, get to town, and then, if he can, blacken her and turn her back to becoming a “convict whore” and simply kill Billy. Aborigines throughout are shot the way cats are said to have been shot in 18th century Europe.

Nonetheless, she again returns to her aggression and now drives Billy with a gun to carry on to Launceston, and then what does she do? at great risk to herself, to Billy (with whom she has now formed a touching friendship), she goes to the tavern where the captain is sitting with all the men, and just like Lisa before the bus-driver, she demands a confession of guilt, an admission he has done horrific wrong. Hawkins scorns her; we can see he is worried that the commanding officer is beginning to suspect him of evil-doing but before Hawkins can try to turn the situation around, she repeats her claim, says what he did, and flees back to Billy in hiding, and the back to the bush.

The striking thing is she appears gratified at having had the confrontation itself — though it is so unsatisfactory and dangerous — from the other white unenslaved, unconvicted people in the town.

The movie is a tragedy; Billy now understanding what has happened fully, and knowing Hawkins murdered his uncle, enacts another ritual, puts on war paint and goes to town and himself with a spear, using the technique of surprise, murders Hawkins and Hawkins’s cruel sidekick, but not before Billy is shot through the stomach. the last we see of Billy he is sitting looking out at the river as he dies; nearby him Clare stands by her horse. She seems to have no hope of any decent life unless she were somehow to return to Ireland.

The film is also extremely brutal, with the only character (besides the old man) seemingly capable of tenderness, caring for others, & real friendliness Billy.

Both films have received strong praise, if in both cases there is an accompanying chorus of doubt. Kent is too violent; Lonergan too self-indulgent and ruined his film’s chances for distribution by fighting with the studio. Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post finds the Nightingale explores and questions its genre. What is not noticed is this central plot-design. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian finds the movie provocative and brilliant, a depiction of today’s life. What higher accolade than an essay in he latest issue of PMLA: Alicia Mireles Christoff, Margaret and The Victorians, 134:3 (May 2019):507-23.  Christoff argues that Margaret (this is why the title) is another Victorian afterlife film; it is finally dissatisfying because it is still mostly relying on Victorian film pleasures instead of seeking a new film aesthetic and patterns.

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Brianna (Sophie Skelton) walking along just after she is raped (Outlander Season 4, Episode 10)

And now I must confess that I noticed this new confrontation pattern in women’s movies recently because I’ve also been puzzled by just this demand for confrontation by wronged heroines in several other period and high quality video drama when the central characters are women, or the films are by women, or the expected audience is majority women. The Nightingale has a woman script-writer, director, and producers, and its central presence is Clare, its her POV except in a few places where it’s Billy watching for her. Margaret is a feminine counterpart to Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea; it is about a young girl-woman growing up, learning painfully her own insignificance. The secondary relationship is with her mother, a pattern seen in woman’s literature and movies. The difference is these more “pop” films make the confrontation explicitly central — and the anger, frustration, resentment.

However many men are writing, directing, producing the video adaptations of Outlander, many key roles of writer, director and other central functions (costume design, set) and the author herself are all women. Brianna (Sophia Skelton) is raped and possibly impregnated by a wantonly cruel criminal type-pirate, Stephen Bonnet (Ed Speleers) in the fourth season. When she is finally brought to safety at her aunt Jocasta’s to have her baby, I was startled when Brianna not only at the risk of everyone else (a friend in jail, another friend who is being hunted down as a regulator [tax-avoider] and trouble-maker), and herself not only demands but is taken to the jail to do what? confront her rapist (now in chains) and demand he confess his guilt, admit to her he has done wrong and to her. He won’t of course.


Bonnet listening to Brianna’s demands

This time (Bonnet being a witty man), laughs at her, mocks her stance, parodies a rueful apology. She falls to scolding, and then the story takes a worse dive when he shows an interest in the coming baby and Brianna seems to think he has some right to. All is interrupted by the attempt of other friends to free those in the jail by throwing a fire-bomb in. They all escape, just, with their lives


Demelza remaining angry

But the central scene is this demand – and Brianna made this so explicit, and uselessly & causing risk to all, she seemed over-the-top.  What gratification could she imagine herself to get from this man? Even three swallows do not a summer make, so more briefly now: one reason Horsfield’s Demelza’s first response to Ross when he returns from bedding Elizabeth all night (after begging him not to go that night) is to slap him in the face so hard he falls to the ground.  (Brianna also slaps people : she is again explicit, crying out that no one has more right than she to be angry). Then utterly unlike Graham’s book/Demelza, Horsfield’s heroine turns snide, sarcastic, making nasty comments, with her face tight and resentful, each time she sees Ross. Yes he raped Elizabeth, but how is demanding that he confess his guilt, and repeatedly acknowledge he has wronged her help matters? She seeks revenge by going to bed with Captain MacNeil, but when she feels she cannot, she still seems incapable of reaching a mutual understanding by listening to him or talking herself openly of her hurt; instead she openly refuses to forgive when he does apologize and behaves embarrassingly abjectly (Poldark, 2017, the third season). She says all she wants is for him to say the truth, but the truth is complicated and that she does not concede at all.

Needless to demonstrate, June-Offred (Elizabeth Moss) of Handmaid’s Tale fame hungers for confrontation, and sometimes gets it — violently.


Elizabeth (Jennifer Ehle) and Darcy (Colin Firth) walking and talking together just as he proposes (1995 Pride and Prejudice, scripted Andrew Davies)

I thought back to Austen and to the woman writers of the 18th through 20th century and women’s films of the 20th century. I rue the repeated use of the humiliation scene (it’s there is Austen too) in films where the heroine either in front of others, or herself and the audience admits she has been all wrong, scourges or berates herself, vows to do better, but the “girl learns a lesson” is far more varied in the books.

As to confrontation, in Sense and Sensibility Austen’s Marianne is pulled away from Willoughby. Elinor worries about she and Marianne being shamed in public. Marianne likes to hear she was not altogether wrong in her judgement of him, but from afar. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth never writes back to Darcy. She reflects constantly about his letter, over and over, but she has no need to confront him when they finally meet. At the end of the novel, they discuss their relationship and attempt to come to terms with one another. So too in Persuasion Anne Eliot and Captain Wentworth. In Emma Mr Knightley confronts Emma after she insults Miss Bates and it does have an effect — he says he has a need to but he is not asking for a confession or admission of guilt. He needs none. He is shaming her. And Emma becomes the young woman who has learnt a lesson.

Why do these 21st century women need this explicit admission of guilt or confession to them, why do they seek a mostly frustrating, often counterproductive, rarely useful confrontation? The counter-examples in Austen prompt me to realize how rarely the couples drive towards mutual explanation. When in the Poldark books Ross and Demelza try to explain their points of view usually towards or in the last chapter, what happens is they get angrier, and reconciliation comes from admitting there is a gender fault-line here, from exhaustion, and real need and love of one another and a mutual resolve to carry on with forgiveness quietly.

One couple do successfully explain themselves in these 21st century films: Jamie and Claire Fraser.  I’ve come across two reviews of these programs which make this their central argument for why they like Outlander, and why the love story and frank graphic sex are a good part of the shows – because before they have sex they have a mutual explanation, which sometimes begins as a shouting match but eventually they are listening and have recognized & acknowledged one another’s point of view as understandable. Before proceeding to a gratifying & tender sexual encounter …

In Austen, in Elizabeth Gaskell, in George Eliot, in other women authors I particularly like such scenes of reconciliation and acceptance come from more than kindness: it’s a belief in the ability of someone to care for someone else, to listen to them, and to respect (in Austen’s language, esteem) them without having to inflict on the good and mixed nature characters all around them more risk and pain.


This is called a mood piece from Margaret: but it is Margaret walking along in a hard kind of isolation

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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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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