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Archive for the ‘historical-literary study’ Category


Mary, Queen of Scots: Ismael Cruz Cordova, Maria Dragus, Izuka Hoyle, and Saoirse Ronan in intimate flirting friendship scene

Don’t miss the latest Mary Queen of Scots: while it has its flaws, it is very much worth the watching. This is a must-see to gauge the sharp changes in the depiction of this icon once again. What makes the film intelligently different and interesting is it more or less follows the outline of a serious good biography of Mary by John Guy. … Each phase of Mary’s career is dramatized. Elizabeth as icon is also traced. After being initially all pageant, the stories are effectively dramatized. I disagree with some of Guy’s interpretation (especially over Bothwell) and say why. Moray’s importance emerges. There are fine performances, wonderful color palates.

Friends and readers,

Quite a number of women, even queen-centered films this winter: two on Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG, On the basis of sex), two on nannies, one poor and absurd, the other a masterpiece (Mary Poppins, Roma), the courageous reporter (A Private War), and the big budget costume drama variety updated to include what might seem to be uninhibited sex scenes: The Favourite, and Mary Queen of Scots. I’ve been nearly alone in calling out The Favourite for its repulsive, gut-level anti-feminism and have mentioned only in passing what makes Cauron’s Roma a compelling masterpiece. Josie Rourke’s Mary, Queen of Scots (the screenplay has as little complicated language as one could get away with so as to keep the film popular) shows some of the same obsessive masculinizing violence in women as The Favourite: Ronan as Mary is depicted on horse wherever possible; she’s as eager to shoot something as any of the crowd of men that crowd in, dominate the movie-screen. Still, I recommend going to see it, even if you are not fascinated and interested in this Tudor-Stuart Matter. If you are, this is a must-see to gauge the sharp changes in the depiction of these icon queens once again.

Mary is still or once again the victim; her downfall is once again (made explicit in this film) her erotic engagement with men, marrying, bedding, thinking she can rely on law and custom (towards divine rulers) to control rivals. Elizabeth has returned to her 19th century role as perhaps Machiavellian, and ghastly dried-up old maid by film’s end (because she must be this way since she never married, never had children).


Elizabeth with Dudley (also called Leicester)

During the film punctuating Mary’s story are swift suggestive moments of Elizabeth, now with Leicester (Joe Alwyn called Dudley), now Cecil (Guy Pearce); she gets small pox and looks just hideous for a time. Staring down at flowers because she hasn’t had children:

The scenes with Elizabeth are too stilted — popular depictions just don’t want to give Elizabeth I credit — in literary studies we have gone beyond choosing sides … but it is very rare for anyone to present her as the brilliant political success story. If people really wanted a heroine who made a success out of grim beginnings (including as a teenager harassment by her step-mother Catherine Parr’s husband, Thomas Howard, and accusations by Mary Tudor of plotting against her), it’s Elizabeth Boleyn Tudor.


Margot Robbie as the aging Elizabeth: a clown-face of grief (very similar to the way Elizabeth appeared in a recent Metropolitan opera production of Donizetti’s trio)

What has changed to make this pair once again palatable to the 21st century female film-goer? Make no mistake this is a film intended for women: when I went the audience was all women, except the husbands who came along: it was playing alternatively in the same auditorium as On the Basis of Her Sex (even in local art cinemas women’s art ghettoized). Nothing much for Elizabeth. For a while it seemed she was becoming the sentimental queen, first in love with Leicester and then Essex (Helen Mirren’s film with first Jeremy Irons and then Hugh Dancy as Essex); but here we revert without even giving Elizabeth any Machiavellian traits. Mary has changed; she is now ceaselessly pro-active, aggressive, and free of conventional restraining conventions and beliefs (see anibundel’s accurate assessment for NBC), at moments fierce.

This is the new type heroine from Offred/June in the second season of Handmaid’s Tale, to Demelza Poldark in the rebooted version, to Brianna Fraser in Outlander. Feminism turns out to be doing what you want, and complaining when you can’t.


First impression

What makes the film intelligently different and interesting is it more or less follows the outline of a serious good biography of Mary by John Guy. So you can learn where the icon has moved now. Each phase of Mary’s career is dramatized: however briefly, her time in France and first husband, Francois. The nature of her relationship with Darnley (Jack Lowden, he was central to Dunkirk and can be seen in good BBC serial dramas), her second husband: at first she did fall in love with him, but when she saw what a dullard he was, and felt his attempts to domineer and control her, she turned to her musician, David Rizzio. Apparently nowadays Darnley is “accused” (the word is accused) of homosexuality and in this film has sex with Rizzio. That was not part of the narrative in the older books and the way it’s presented here shows homophobia is by no means gone from movie audiences. We have the two murders, first Rizzio, horrifically violent with Mary pregnant there. Time for touching scenes of her with a baby boy, and (much later) a poignant effective scene of her being forced to part from an older child and him crying for her.

and then Darnley in the courtyard. In this version Mary is not at all guilty of Darnley’s murder, not even complicit.

I’m someone who has been reading biographies of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots since I was 18, and I know in the older biographies Mary was either accused of plotting to kill Darnley (pretending just collusion) as revenge and also simply to get rid of a nuisance; or she allowed it to happen. So the film whitewashes her here. More importantly, it denies she was in love with Bothwell. I remember being thrilled by Stefan Zweig’s, and then disagreeing with Antonia Fraser’s first revisionist story. It was she who began the idea that the letters Mary is said to have written Bothwell, her third husband: these first surfaced, suspiciously enough in a casket after her death, and were used to damn her as a “harlot.” Alison Weir’s best-selling biography makes the case for them as basically false and forged, conceding only there seems enough reality in them from Mary that they might be a set of letters tampered with and re-written.

Here is one of Mary’s poems, whose provenance no one has doubted:

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

Then a good modern English translation:

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

The denial of the letters depends on ignoring Mary’s poetry, a whole body of lyrics and sonnets in French, a number to a lover-husband who could be Darnley but it more likely Bothwell. The Casket letters come from the same mindset of self-doubt, self-berating, depression behind the French sonnets, both religious and of of enthralled love. Yet a third infatuation (the first Darnley, the second Rizzio) does fit Mary’s character and makes sense of events after the murder of Darnley — some time elapsed — and Mary’s flight to England. One of the sites (dungeon tower fort) I saw in the border country of England and Scotland (debatable land) is presented as famous for Mary coming there to meet with Bothwell. She probably did. Many feminists just don’t want to believe in the casket letters. Sophia Lee’s powerful Recess (early gothic novel, 1782) about Mary’s unacknowledged twins by Bothwell doesn’t help increase belief since this romance is as fantasy and erotically driven as Outlander.

Nonetheless, there is credible evidence of a late miscarriage (or some illness) — from Bothwell (Martin Compston here), because who else? She was not promiscuous. In the time after Darnley’s murder, and Mary’s imprisonment, Mary did enter into the civil wars that her presence and poor (non-)diplomatic acts (like trying to get Catholicism accepted by showing herself tolerant of protestantism) engendered. She did fight with Bothwell too. In the film she is forced to marry him. But who would do that? it was not in her step-brother, James Moray’s interest (yes that’s James McArdle inside all that hair and beard). In the film she is (confusedly forced) and we see Bothwell rape her; this moves rapidly and the man we remember (rightly too) is Moray.

The film moves rapidly into Mary and Bothwell’s defeat by Moray. All along we’ve seen Knox inveigh against her: she is not legitimately the monarch because no woman can rule, because she’s Catholic (Mary tried to use the “toleration” card — she would tolerate all Protestanism but as this did not work for James Stuart II more than a hundred years later, it did not work for her) and anyway is a “harlot.” David Tennant offers a fierce old man (he too almost unrecognizable because of flowing hair and beard). Now the two sets of armies converge, and we fast forward to a council which in effect de-thrones her, gives her son to Murray, and leaves her isolated.

Next her on the shore with what ladies are left; cross to England and incarceration awaits her. Montage takes us through uncounted years (during which we see the aging Elizabeth grieve over her lack of child, writhe over the demands she execute Mary) and we have the confrontation, which never took place, first invented by Schiller. It is done at length in this film, and Mary (somewhat improbably) is driven at last to insult Elizabeth by telling her she Mary is the rightful queen. I agree that Mary Stuart thought Elizabeth a worthless bastard when it came to rank or illegitimacy but even she never would have thrown this idea in Elizabeth’s face.

The film opened up with the execution scene, and we revert back, re-see some of it, but this time are taken through the beheading and gruesome carrying of a head. Saoirse Ronan is accurately dressed: Mary did get herself up in black with white lace, pull the outer gown to reveal a martyr’s red shift. And so it ends with Elizabeth sitting there hollowly: this icon goes back to Scott, but in the 20th century was first realized by Bette Davies her film of Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex (recently re-done with Helen Mirren in the parts as a sympathetic sentimental queen first loving Leicester and then the treacherous Essex).

All that said the movie is worth it. The music is good, the color palates fascinating and effective.  Grey and blue for Mary except when happy, then warm reds, oranges, golden light; garish red and greens for Elizabeth, cool white light. (Too much computer enhancement on Scottish scenery.) We see how Mary as a young woman could not realize all the pretense of respect when she first arrived in Scotland was fragile veneer. We see how Knox’s fierce anti-feminism was her first obstacle, which she failed even to address. The film however indirectly and as a sort of bye-blow of what’s happening that it was James Moray, her step-brother, who played the pivotal role at important moments and ends up inheriting the throne as regent and the boy as his ward. The film begins as grim and then luxurious pageant and progresses to dramatic effectiveness, with many effecive performances, e.g., Brendan Coyle as Darnley’s father; a couple of the actresses as one of the four Marys. The two queens are juxtaposed repeatedly, twinned

I would like now to read John Guy.

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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Drums of Autumn (detail from original 1996 cover)

Friends and readers,

Having queried three lists, I discovered that there is very little in the thousands of pages Diana Gabaldon wrote for her Outlander series on Christmas. The rational presented for this is that in Scotland after the repression of medieval customs by the Presbyters, hardly anyone keeps Christmas. Instead the winter solstice is celebrated on New Year’s Eve and day as Hogmanay. I pointed out that Catholics surreptitiously kept up Christmas even in the later 17th century in Scotland (see The Days of Queen Anne [Hamilton]), and that parts of the Outlander books occur in Boston and North Carolina. I was told that in A Fiery Cross (No 5), there is a brief mention of Christmas, Jamie gives Claire a kitchen utensil that looked to my eyes like a thin spatula, and a celebration of Hogmanay occurs (Chapters 31-33). As far as I could tell, the emphasis is not only this ritual holiday.

But there is a long passage in Drums of Autumn where a Christmas story is made doubly central. I’ve linked in the story line of this fourth Outlander novel, and baldly retold the way it’s being dramatized this year – without the many interludes – the novel seems ridiculous. Jamie mistakes poor Roger for Briana’s rapist, beats Roger up badly, and with Ian, sells him to the Indians; Briana has become pregnant by Mr Bonnet (the actual rapist) and is almost persuaded to marry Lord John Grey, who happens to be visiting her Aunt Jocasta at River Run ….

What saves this resort to patently obvious contrivances are these long interludes where little overt action in term of story moving occurs and we get long meditative sequences, sometimes about a victim they come across, sometimes an idyllic fantasy of Gabaldon’s own, e.g., Jamie and Claire walking in a lush forest come across a field of strawberries. There are sequences where the idea is to present them as colonial settlers, coping with the different classes, upper establishment and middling rebels (against unfair taxes), floating down river, building their house, furniture, getting stock together, he hunting, she sewing.


Outlander winter landscape

In one of these where they are building their home together, he goes out in the night to bring back an animal to cook for a meal, and seems never to return. It’s late December, snow everywhere. She worries after several hours and goes to seek him. She finds him wounded and nearly frozen in a sunken sort of meadow. Claire tells Jamie Dickens’s A Christmas Carol to help keep him awake and both of them warm while they are stranded in the snow late in December, having built themselves a nest out of logs, leaves, their cloaks; and where she remembers also being stranded in the snow more than 20 years ago inside a car with Frank and Brian as a child where Frank Randall told the story to Briana, with Claire filling bits, as they huddled in their car amidst blankets.

Here is the passage: Drums of Autumn, Chapter 21: “Night on a Snowy Mountain, December 1767


From the serial drama Outlander: Promotional Snow scene (not sure if this is Scotland or North Carolina ….)

Jamie’s hair and shoulders were lightly dusted with snow, and flakes were settling on the exposed backs of his legs. I pulled the hem of his cloak down, then brushed the snow away from his face. His cheek was nearly the same color as the big wet flakes, and his flesh felt stiff when I touched it.

Fresh alarm surged through me as I realized that he might be a lot closer to freezing already than I had thought. His eyes were half closed, and cold as it was, he didn’t seem to be shivering much. That was bloody dangerous; with no movement, his muscles were generating no heat, and what warmth he had was leaching slowly from his body. His cloak was already heavy with damp; if I allowed his clothes to become soaked through, he might very well die of hypothermia right in front of me.

“Wake up!” I said, shaking him urgently by the shoulder. He opened his eyes and smiled drowsily at me.
“Move!” I said. “Jamie, you’ve got to move!”
“I can’t,” he said calmly. “I told ye that.” He shut his eyes again.
I grabbed him by the ear and dug my fingernails into the tender lobe. He grunted and jerked his head away.
“Wake up,” I said peremptorily. “Do you hear me? Wake up this moment! Move, damn you! Give me your hand.”
I didn’t wait for him to comply, but dug under the cloak and seized his hand, which I chafed madly between my own. He opened his eyes again and frowned at me.
“I’m all right,” he said. “But I’m gey tired, aye?”
“Move your arms,” I ordered, flinging the hand at him. “Flap them, up and down. Can you move your legs at all?”
He sighed wearily, as though dragging himself out of a sticky bog, and muttered something under his breath in Gaelic, but very slowly he began to move his arms back and forth. With more prodding, he succeeded in flexing his ankles—though any further movement caused instant spasms in his back—and with great reluctance, began to waggle his feet.
He looked rather like a frog trying to fly, but I wasn’t in any mood to laugh. I didn’t know whether he was actually in danger of freezing or not, but I wasn’t taking any chances. By dint of constant exhortation, aided by judicious pokings, I kept him at this exercise until I had got him altogether awake and shivering. In a thoroughly bad temper, too, but I didn’t mind that.
“Keep moving,” I advised him. I got up with some difficulty, having grown quite stiff from crouching over him so long. “Move, I say!” I added sharply, as he showed symptoms of flagging. “Stop and I’ll step square on your back, I swear I will!”
I glanced around, a little blearily. The snow was still falling, and it was difficult to see more than a few feet. We needed shelter—more than the rock alone could provide.
“Hemlock,” he said between his teeth. I glanced down at him, and he jerked his head toward a clump of trees nearby. “Take the hatchet. Bi branches. Six feet. C-cut four.” He was breathing heavily, and there was a tinge of color visible in his face, despite the dim light. He’d stopped moving in spite of my threats, but his teeth were clenched because they were chattering–a sign I rejoiced to see.
I stooped and groped beneath his cloak again, this time searching for the hatchet belted round his waist. I couldn’t resist sliding a hand under him, inside the neck of his fringed woolen hunting shirt. Warm! Thank God, he was still warm. His chest felt superficially chilled from its contact with the wet ground, but it was still warmer than my fingers.
“Right,” I said, taking my hand away and standing up with the hatchet. “Hemlock. Six-foot branches, do you mean?”
He nodded, shivering violently, and I set off at once for the trees he indicated.
Inside the silent grove, the fragrance of hemlock and cedar enfolded me at once in a mist of resins and turpenes, the odor cold and sharp, clean and invigorating. Many of the trees were enormous, with the lower branches well above my head, but there were smaller ones scattered here and there. I saw at once the virtues of this particular tree—no snow fell under them; the fanlike boughs caught the falling snow like umbrellas.
I hacked at the lower branches, torn between the need for haste and the very real fear of chopping off a few fingers by accident; my hands were numb and awkward with the cold.
The wood was green and elastic and it took forever to chop through the tough, springy fibers. At last, though, I had four good-sized branches, sporting multiple fans of dense needles. They looked soft and black against the new snow, like big fans of feathers; it was almost a surprise to touch them and feel the hard, cold prick of the needles.
I dragged them back to the rock, and found that Jamie had managed to scoop more leaves together; he was almost invisible, submerged in a huge drift of black and gray against the foot of the rock.
Under his terse direction I leaned the hemlock branches fan-up against the face of the rock, the chopped butt ends stuck into the earth at an angle, so as to form a small triangular refuge underneath. Then I took the hatchet again and chopped small pine and spruce branches, pulled up big clumps of dried grass, and piled it all against and over the hemlock screen. Then at last, panting with exertion, I crawled into the shelter beside him.
I nestled down in the leaves between his body and the rock, wrapped my cloak around both of us, put my arms around his body, and held on hard. Then I found the leisure to shake a bit. Not from cold—not yet—but from a mixture of relief and fear.


Frank and Claire’s Boston apartment (Season 2)

He felt me shivering, and reached awkwardly back to pat me in reassurance.

“It will be all right, Sassenach,” he said. “With the two of us, it will be all right ….
“All right, all right,” I said. “What if I tell you a story, instead?”
Highlanders loved stories, and Jamie was no exception.
“Oh, aye,” he said, sounding much happier. ‘What sort of story is it?”
“A Christmas story,” I said, settling myself along the curve of his body. “About a miser named Ebenezer Scrooge.”
“An Englishman, I daresay.”
“Yes,” I said. “Be quiet and listen.”
I could see my own breath as I talked, white in the dim, cold air. The snow was falling heavily outside out shelter; when I paused in the story, I could hear the whisper of flakes against the hemlock branches, and the far-off whine of wind in the trees.
I knew the story very well; it had been part of our Christmas ritual, Frank’s and Brianna’s and mine. From the time Bree was five or six, we had read A Christmas Carol every year, starting a week or two before Christmas, Frank and I taking it in turns to read to her each night before bed.
“And the specter said, ‘ I am the Ghost of Christmas Past…’”
I might not be freezing to death, but the cold had a strange hypnotic effect nonetheless. I had gone past the phase of acute discomfort and felt now slightly disembodied. I knew my hands and feet were icy, and my body chilled half through, but it didn’t seem to matter anymore. I floated in a peaceful white mist, seeing the words swirl round my head like snowflakes as I spoke them.
“…and there was dear old Fezziwig, among the lights and music…”
I couldn’t tell whether I was gradually thawing or becoming colder. I was conscious of an overall feeling of relaxation, and an altogether peculiar sense of déjà vu, as though I had once before been entombed, insulated in snow, snug despite desolation outside.


Boston Christmas — Roger visiting from Scotland

A memory within this subjective narrative:

As Bob Cratchit bought his meager bird, I remembered. I went on talking automatically, the flow of the story coming from somewhere well below the level of consciousness, but my memory was in the front seat of a stalled 1956 Oldsmobile, its windscreen caked with snow.
We had been on our way to visit an elderly relative of Frank’s, somewhere in upstate New York. The snow came on hard, halfway there, howling down across the icy roads with gusts of wind. Before we knew where we were, we had skidded off the road and halfway into a ditch, the windscreen wipers slashing futilely at the pelting snow.
There was nothing to be done but wait for morning, and rescue. We had had a picnic hamper and some old blankets; we brought Brianna up into the front seat between us, and huddled all together under coats and blankets, sipping lukewarm cocoa from the thermos and making jokes to keep her from being frightened.
As it grew later, and colder, we huddled closer, and to distract Brianna, Frank began to tell her Dickens’s story from memory, counting on me to supply the missing bits. Neither of us could have done it alone, but between us, we managed well. By the time the sinister Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come had made his appearance, Brianna was snuggled sound asleep under the coats, a warm, boneless weight against my side.
There was no need to finish the story, but we did, talking to each other below the words, hands touching below the layers of blankets. I remembered Frank’s hands, warm and strong on mine, thumb stroking my palm, outlining my fingers. Frank had always loved my hands.
The car had filled with the mist of our breathing, and drops of water ran down inside the white-choked windows. Frank’s head had been a dark cameo, dim against the white. He had leaned toward me at the last, nose and cheeks chilled, lips warm on mine as he whispered the last words of the story.
“’God bless us, every one,’” I ended, and lay silent, a small needle of grief like an ice splinter through my heart. It was quiet inside the shelter, and seemed darker; snow had covered over all the openings.
Jamie reached back and touched my leg.
“Put your hands inside my shirt, Sassenach,” he said softly. I slid one hand up under his shirt in front, to rest against his chest, the other up his back. The faded whip marks felt like threads under his skin.
He laid his hand against mine, pressing it tight against his chest. He was very warm, and his heart beat slow and strong under my fingers.
“Sleep, a nighean donn,” he said. “I wilna let ye freeze.”


Three different covers thus far

This retelling is fun because so many readers enjoy realizing that we remember the story with others. I do. I feel less lonely tonight at the thought.

I am just now watching Outlander Season 5, episode by episode, and listening to Davina Porter read the novel aloud in car (audiobook in CDS) and next year, Season 5, I’ll again watch and listening to Porter again read the next novel, A Fiery Cross, and should be able to supply the scenes of Hogmanay.

Ellen

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


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

Friends and readers,

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

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

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


Aidan Turner as Ross, with Demelza walking there

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


Demelza dressing for dinner


At dinner — a table full of characters


Singing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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


Trying to carve


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

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


Demelza with Christopher Benjamin as Sir Hugh Brodrugan

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768) Northumberland House (1752)

Dear friends,

I’ve had been asked to write an essay on my experiences teaching the 18th century at the two OLLIs (at American University and at George Mason University) where I now also take courses, and when I handed that in, decided it would be good idea if there were some one spot from which someone could reach my blogs on teaching Tom Jones and The Enlightenment: At Risk? there is one for Tom Jones, but not for this latter course, so I’m creating yet another handy list.

On teaching Voltaire’s Candide — & Bernstein’s musical, Candide:


A contemporary and modern illustration for Candide

https://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2018/10/11/voltaires-18th-century-candide-versus-bernsteins20thcenturycandide/

On teaching Diderot’s La Religieuse — and 2 film adaptations


Suzanne Simonin after harsh punishment thrown into a dungeon (2013 La Religieuse, Pauline Etienne)


We did consider the analogies between the trauma inflicted on the Nun from her institution’s practices and modern traumas inflicted from modern prisons.

https://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2018/11/01/on-teaching-diderots-la-religieuse-aka-the-nun/

On teaching Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands, & his other writings:


Hunter, Colin (1841-1904); Good-Night to Skye (1895)


The trip

https://reveriesunderthesignofausten.wordpress.com/2018/11/24/on-teaching-samuel-johnson/

Marie-Jeanne Phlippon, Madame Roland (1754-93): a great souled author of her own life


The only truly decent portrait of Madame Roland we have


Hubert Robert imagining the demolition of the Bastille — one wishes all such prisons had gone the way of this one

https://reveriesunderthesignofausten.wordpress.com/2018/12/08/marie-jeanne-phlippon-rolanda-great-souled-author-of-her-own-life/

I tell far more about the two OLLIs (history, as pedagogical institutions) than I have elsewhere

Ellen

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From the National Bibliotheque: Marie-Jeanne Phlipon later Roland


Madame Roland, the last year of her life, a sketch from the life

Friends,

Marie-Jeanne or Manon Phlipon Roland (1754-93) was our fourth writer, witness, and in her case sufferer — egregiously unjustly imprisoned and executed woman — as a direct result of her public and powerful activity on behalf of her and husband’s political vision in the earliest phases of the French revolution. As I knew the probability was that none of the people in the room would ever have heard of Roland, I was very worried people wouldn’t even buy her book as too unfamiliar and therefore daunting. It turned out that Politics and Prose got in about 10 copies of the abridged Memoirs, chosen, arranged, introduced, translated by Evelyn Shuckburgh. And all 8 who stayed for the last 2 and 1/2 weeks read this book.


Paperback copy

She riveted people as she opened her book explaining how she came to be arrested, how she is treated (not with any particular respect to keep her separate form prostitutes to “great men”), and how she came to be there. And they kept reading the portraits of important French philosophes and politicians, the story line of being welcome into Paris to being pariah hunted down and out. Not omit the second half, her own private experience of life up to the time of her marriage to Marie-Jean Roland (they had the same name, backwards). More than one person declared what an irony that had she not been imprisoned, and not under threat of immediate execution, she would not have written this great masterpiece of a political autobiography. Perhaps the first one. She could not break through the taboo against women writing and publishing. Others agreed that it was more than a little naive) (insane) of her not to have fled as her husband, (chaste) lover and many others did once it was clear the Jacobins were going to arrest of them on charges of treason. She hoped people would admire her as an example, she’d be allowed to put her case forward publicly at the show trials at last. One memorable phrase was “Madame Roland sought all her life to be the author of her life.” Yes. Whatever it was, a deep determination to shape the conditions she lived in once her beloved mother died, together with luck or chance, and one older man, Jean-Marie Phlipon (1734-93), recognizing in her the deeply passionate reciprocating partner he had longed for — enabled her to become her best self and hold to that until the moment of death.

She came from the same artisan class Diderot and Johnson hailed from. Her father was a prosperous master engraver, her mother a fringe aristocrat, religious, had lost seven children before Marie-Jeanne was born and they lavished attention on her once they discovered how intelligent she was. She was studious, contemplative, a “blue-stocking” who ranged far and wide in the classics: from Plutarch’s Lives to Rousseau, devotional authors to poetry and plays, the 17th century French feminist women (Scudery, Lafayette), to D’Epinay and Madame de Genlis; in her later years Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot and treatises, doubtless the English radicals in French translations. Since she never rebelled against the male hegemonic order in her writings (indeed never wanted to be published under her own name until she wrote her memoir), never tried for public office or recognition (she sat at the back of the room and did not talk in most sessions), the question asked is, how far was she feminist? She is not interested in women’s issues but in restructuring the gov’t (she would not put it this way) to redistribute education and wealth to reach far more people and bring prosperity. Not at all one might say except her whole life shows someone who given any chance dedicates herself to public service. She learns to loathe the social life imposed on a middle class woman seeking a husband, and puts off several candidates for her hand before she met Roland, a man 20 years older than she.


M. Roland from the Bibliotheque nationale

Her book is ostensibly divided into two parts: the first half, a political memoir, where she first wrote out her principles and gave a rigorous account of the revolution’s story before descending to particular people. Alas, when she smuggled that out, it was burnt — or so she was told. Can you imagine how she felt? It’s arguable she went into prison to be able to make an example of herself and she realized she needed to tell the story from her point of view. With astonishing fortitude, she rewrote this first half but this time just as portraits, anecdotes, an explanation of what went wrong so in the assembly’s early years (people refused to act, to agree, to be explicit, followed their own particular interests), her experience as the wife of a minister (visits from Danton whom she did not cultivate though he invited this), then her and her husband’s life during his first and then second term of office, ending on the dismal now of awaiting trial, execution; she begins with her first arrest, and ends with the fake release and her second arrest. This part is very immediate — both are. She recurs to the conditions she is living in again and again, the prostitutes, the debauchery, when she is interrupted, what she is eating, the weather. Originally the first half of our book book had a lot more particulars of politics, probably a treatise of sorts too.

The second her own story, and we get a depiction of a middle class girl’s early childhood, her admiration for her loving religious mother, for her grandmother, her sceptical analysis of her worldly, pragmatic, and (after her mother’s death she was to learn) superficial, incompetent, shallow father (he took a young mistress for a while, and the business began to fail badly). The happiest sections of the early part of her autobiography tell of her, her mother and father’s Sunday afternoons in the Paris parks. Then we learn a little of then engraving business and then an incident which in 1796 (when her book was first published in an early shorter form) caught the attention of the public: she was sexually harassed by her father’s apprentice. He took out his penis in front of her and attempted foreplay with her. She was profoundly shocked and also allured, but upon a second encounter, told her mother, who turned the incident into something far more traumatic than it had to be. Manon was persuaded to think herself intensely sinful, and put in a convent for her adolescent education. Her mother feared for her reputation, but what she did was make sex into an experience to be dreaded, a view she probably never got over. In the convent she did make two important friends who she stayed close to by visits and then letters for the rest of her life: Sophie and her sister, Henriette Cannett. She was not religious even then — and when we meet her seems to be a deist — and returned home. Then begins her this stifling snobbish social life she learns to detest; the courtships that go nowhere. She was probably intimidating, and the two young men who tried to get close (showing her love of reading and writing was known), one of whom promised to open a periodical and publish her (she rejected this offer vociferously — from afar there is a comedy in this scene) gradually realized she had not much of a dowry.

This facsimile of a 19th century scholarly study contains letter by Roland to Sophie and to Buzot — Charles Dauban is the 19th century scholar to whom we are indebted for this first collection of her correspondence: letters to and from her. An old fashioned biography: life and times, with insertions of letters and documents. Her best friend Sophie. The man she loved Buzot Unfortunately it does not contain the large book of essays that were published anonymously that she obviously wrote. There’s been no attempt to bring them together and publish as a single scholarly book. So I suppose Roland studies are in their infancy: this is not uncommon for women’s writing and women writers.

A devastating turning point is the death of her mother – who had become her world, her best companion, her meaning. A long section called bereavement is of deep interest for a mother-daughter relationship. Roland appealed as a father figure she needed, a substitute for this mother too, someone she can trust, look up to, admire, work with. He came from a higher echelon of the middle class and as a man was very well educated, especially on his own in the new technologies, sciences, arts: he held various local political positions: an inspector, assiduous and accurate, imagine him as an expert in industrial and agricultural matters. He had begun a distinguished public career in Amiens, just the type Trump hates and is slowly eradicating from all gov’t – tremendously competent in his areas, publishing learned tomes and articles on manufacturing processes, and trade. At first they courted, then he hesitated, her father resented him, and he disappeared for a while, only finally to return and then they married. She became his helpmate. She wrote the articles which appeared under his name in the Courrier de Lyon – gradually they were known to be by her. Again happy moments are the birth of her daughter, her years running the household, a trip to Switzerland and then England — in the footsteps of Rousseau and Voltaire. They return, and her husband had been active in questions of debt and was useful in Lyons, and came to the attention of prominent national politicians and was invited to come to the National Assembly — and of course took his wife, and a daughter who had been born to them, their whole household.

He was ambitious and gradually rose to have a position of authority in the new Parliament formed in 1789 May; which became the National Assembly in June 1789, promulgated the Declaration of the Rights of Man, August. He was not humanely that astute and she was; she could write far more eloquently, more talented; she held a weekly salon and gradually it was understood she was in herself powerful through him. She wrote in the Sentinelle. Madame Roland never had an official position; she didn’t want it. She never published anything. Her husband attended the Jacobin Club and she sat in the back; Tuesday evenings became her night to have politicians over and gradually a Girondist group, for constitutional monarchy, for gradual revolution but real emerged. It was almost inevitable that she should find herself in the centre of political aspirations and presiding over a company of the most talented men of progress. She ends her story of herself with her present time in prison: her disillusion, her waiting to die, her attempt at self-starvation, how she was taken to a hospital and then brought back. The book ends on a justification of herself, eloquent and passionate.

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


Women’s march on Versailles … Modern rendition of original caricature

The first question to ask of the book and what I went over is, What happened that went wrong? We returned to 1788 when the overt events began to pile up.

In 1788 Louis XVI forced to call the Estates-General for the first time in nearly a couple of hundred years. There had been an absolute mismanagement of budget – court extravagances were horrendous but they needed a minister to reorganize the national debt; the way business was conducted in many phases of life was utterly corrupt patronage system. Several ministers brought in to re-organize and to reform and failed. I’ll name Jacques Necker, sometimes today referred to as Madame de Stael’s father; banker of Genevan origin. Bread riots were common in the 18th century: price of bread kept artificially high; the gov’t had overspent helping the Americans in their war. Necker made the budget pubic in 1781 – shock and horror, hitherto it had been kept secret. He was dismissed. Within a few years of his dismissal and other failed attempts, there is a devastating fiscal crisis, he is recalled but it doesn’t help. The truth was the King did not want to change the system.

Storming of Bastille July 11, 1789 is a symbol. The estates-general had convened in May and it became immediately apparent nothing could be passed when nobles had 300 votes, clergy 300 (a tiny percentage of population) and everyone else 600. So they reconvened without nobles and clergy (except those who broke away) in the tennis court, and took a oath they would not be suspended. August 26 Declaration of Rights of Man – extraordinary document. Drafted by Abbe Sieyes and Lafayette in consultation with Thomas Jefferson: based on idea “self-evident” that human beings have certain natural rights. Born free, and only those social distinctions should exist which are for the common good. Inalienable rights: liberty, property, safety, right to resistance against oppression. Law has right to forbid only actions harmful to society. Free communication of thoughts and opinions. State expenditures should be taken from people only in accordance with their ability to pay. If you think about these, you begin to see definitions must make all this more precise. There was a women’s march to Versailles where they forced the royal family to come and live in Paris, 5-6 October 1789. 1790 monasteries dissolved; nobility abolished.


Hubert Robert imagining the demolition of the Bastille prison

Height might be the famous Fete de Federation, July 14, 1790 – a vast public spectacle where everyone professed great principles – at the site of the current Eiffel Tower – pavilion with king and queen, people were joyous, much gaiety – big picnic for the nation.

But then the push-back began: from emigres fleeing and forming armies, and wanting to return to overturn this new order; in the countryside outbreaks of mixed violence –- it was a many sided civil war. Servants revolted and got back after years of oppression; those who had been deprived of the common for the master to drain his land, took back their land or tried to. They fought among themselves. Civilian armies emerged called People’s armies formed by the national assembly to go out into the provinces and get money and supplies. Many peasants were loyal to the church and while the poorest curates might be revolutionary, the church was not and had firm grip on people’s outlook. Counter-revolutions begin. Austria, the UK began to form armies to invade France on behalf of their order.

In the assembly, there were ruptures as they argued over what to do or were just vague and held out. Madame Roland is sardonic over how people dithered, did nothing because while they were for a principle, they were never for giving anything up of their own or their friends. King used his veto power again and again. June 21-22, 1791 he and his wife fled to Varennes and bought back. They were to meet with armies across the border. In 1792 March, Roland had been made minister of interior, he had a very brusque manner and she was writing decrees and suggestions that were very radical economically and politically. March 1792, Madame Roland wrote a letter addressing the question of the king’s vetoes, he read it aloud and it was judged so disrespectful that he was dismissed from his office. There were very conservative people among Girondins and constitutional monarchs. August 10th 1792 the National Guard stormed the Tuileries where the royal family lived and the monarchy was considered to have fallen. Roland is reinstated but liked by no one. A group of Jacobins tired of the stalling began to meet separately; Montagnards they were called as they sat high up. Roland and other moderate Girondists opposed the formation of a sort of rump to rule the capital and country called the Paris Commune which began to exclude the Girondists. The Commune was in charge of the army and took over.


The Mayor of the town coming down from apologetic visit to the King and Queen, now going to be arrested by the People’s Army (Ettore Scuola)

An army under the Duke of Brunswick invaded in August and captured Verdun.

Then a wave of killings, hysterical massacres of people in prison, September 9, 1792 – as traitors, as non-juring clergy, as against the revolution. Who fomented this? Madame Roland blamed Danton. She saw him as a hard vulgar man, corrupt yes, but radical and he did try to win her over in the early days and she didn’t like him. No manners, very working class. Never tried for a “de” in his name. Alas, had she joined him, she might not have ended up dead. Much like say when in Charlottesville two summers ago Trump did not call out national guard to stop the violence or protect people, or closer, Selma Alabama (I recently saw that film) where Johnson did not call out National Guard to protect black people or anyone demonstrating or marching — Georges-Jacques Danton and Maximillian de Robespierre did not call for any protection of the people in the prisons. Just the opposite: Jean-Paul Marot whipped up feeling. He was a very effective journalist, vehement invective against people, and exerted power through his newspaper, The Friend of the People, L’ami du peuple. She saw him as a monster and he attacked her vehemently, deeply misogynistic accusations of her as sex-mad (promiscuous) and power-hungry. Marot is still recognized by a wider audience today because of a painting by David made of him in his bathtub after the unhinged Charlotte Corday murdered him – he had caught some terrible skin disease from living in sewers. He was at times very poor.

M Roland was accused of hiding documents showing the king’s relationship with corrupt politicians. They now put the king on trial — they felt he couldn’t be trusted and was a site around which counter-revolutionaries would form movements. During the trial of the king, Roland and the Girondists demanded that the sentence should be decided by a poll of the French people rather than the new National Convention. After the king was executed in January 1793 Roland and others were denounced. He among others fled.

So on June 3, 1793 a group of Girondists were arrested (all her friends), her husband and others flee, and 21 days she is arrested. In truth she had the whole winter and spring to flee. She arranged for her daughter to stay with people who would take permanent responsibility for the girl if necessary. The charges were seen as trumped up, she was released and re-arrested before she could flee – she should have immediately upon getting out. And she tells of all this in part one. She is interrogated and her judges and the court insinuate she was part of a wide conspiracy to overthrow the republic and replace it with a monarchy. 8 November she is killed. Sophie Cannett was there at the front of the crowd. I said that last time. Courageous to do that – reminds me of how Thomas Wyatt, English poet, friend and protected by Thomas Cromwell in 1533 was on the scaffold when Cromwell was murdered. These are all murders. Cannett described the scene and her death but I am not sure who presented the scene of her with sufficient presence of mind to say as she mounted the scaffold: “O liberty! What crimes are committed in thy name!”

So why didn’t she get out when she had time? Was she so disillusioned that she wanted to escape the reality of what her life would be in hiding? depressed? She had fallen in love with another Girondist, Francois Buzot was his name. I don’t see that. She had had a number of close male friends though – all politicians and local people –- Brissot with his followers called Brissotins. Almost no women. There was great guilt after she died — her husband killed himself two days after she died. Buzot killed himself in June. She says she wanted to be an example. She learnt that this was naive, and to be grateful to the prison keeper’s wife in the earlier part of her imprisonment when she was given a room apart, permitted to leave her cell and come to the woman’s space to read and to write. Why didn’t she try to escape since she had real flexibility until her second arrest? Was she more than a little insane by that time? she says she went on a hunger strike but couldn’t keep it up? As a class we hashed this out thoroughly.

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Then I talked of the aftermath of the book’s reception, the earliest publications and the woman’s context. It was first published in 1796 so it’s possible Jane Austen read it. The passages about sexual harassment were the ones that made the most scandal, and in some 19th century notices she is criticized severely for telling of this incident.

I brought in the unabridged 19th century facsimile edition of Roland’s Memoirs supervised by her daughter. This so people could get a feel for what the book is. Nowadays there is a multi-volume edition of Roland’s Memoirs and letters from a French university, the kind with full introductions, annotations, notes and expensive abridgements you can buy of these. Published by her loving daughter who she didn’t give enough credit to: the first part is her autobiography of her life, and the second part the political story. It’s a facsimile and not that easy to read because it uses a “o” where modern French has an “A.” But that is how I read it. This is the fine recent biography in English that I by Gita May: it sets her in context and tells of phases of her existence. Hardships of courting. Also a trip she and her husband took to England and saw all the important sites pointed out by Voltaire. A deeply psychologically insightful account by Francoise Kermina, Madame Roland ou la passion révolutionnaire (1977). Kermina shows Roland shows to have been intensely ambitious, and bitter at her failure. Her writing hides her frustration, two years of intense politicking, and “une amertume terrible.” Her writings reveal a woman who valued the few friendships she managed to sustain intensely; she argues that Roland was throughout her life profoundly depressed (angry). When she and her husband fell from power and she was anathematized (with salacious slander), a barely controlled hysteria and paralyzing trauma actuated her decision not to flee death. She kept herself sane and explored this trauma by writing the famous memoir.

I had thought I would talk about the early phases of the French revolution, but one you can find this on wikipedia, and two we have two periods so I’d like first to talk about early feminism. There is no doubt in my mind that Roland, Olympe de Gouges were guillotined partly because they were women and taking power; Charlotte Corday is famous for being guillotined; let us say she was not a well person. A couple of people read the (not very good) pair of essays I sent by attachment: two different women writers argue over whether we can consider Roland’s apparently complete obliviousness to women’s issues at the time (divorce based on incompatibility, the right to custody of her children) and her refusal to publish under her own name a sure sign she was no feminist and therefore only of historical interest. So I decided to try to tell of the early history of feminism and the two good chapters in English from two books I know that deal fairly with Roland.

Roland is seen as this great souled woman and unfortunately that prompts discussions of her character: how far was she feminist or what kind of feminism did she practice? Well, none except her whole life shows a person who given any chance dedicates herself to public service. She is not interested in women’s issues but in restructuring the gov’t (she would not put it this way) to redistribute education and wealth to reach far more people and bring prosperity. Many women weren’t. My other example I’ll talk a bit about: Helen Maria Williams did not write about women’s issues particularly – though she got closer. You might look upon writing about women not as inferior, not in condemnatory ways – there were hundreds of anti-feminist tracts from the time books have been printed on – as a whole new outlook.

There were poems written about the need for liberty, education and a whole new attitude towards in the early modern period; it’s arguable that novels written by women in the 18th century implicitly carve out this new area of discourse: they have realistic heroines at the center. Such a writer was Henry Fielding’s sister, Sarah Fielding. Diderot’s La Religieuse is part of this conversation: how women mistreated. Sarah Scott, Millenium Hall: about a community of women to which abused women can flee, where you are educated and helped to find a new life. Jane Austen’s books are indirect, but not Fanny Burney’s.

The first writer though to carve out this area, but in an ambiguous way was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. People reading him can be perplexed on why his works meant so much to women, why they read him and imitated: his Emile, a book on education, has Sophie educated to be his good wife not on her own account; his exaltation of breast-feeding and motherhood has had mixed results: but he cared, he wrote about women as women separately and said what they do in private and public life too matters.

They take off from him, books correcting him, Louise D’Epinay, books arguing with him: a long section of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Rights of Women is about how women are mis-educated. It’s a beginning. Another step she took was to show that when women became mothers they were not well treated, not helped. A later step was to stop tethering what a woman’s life could be from the biological – her as a mother. That comes later after a fight over rights: to custody, to separation and divorce, freedom from male violence in marriage or as a daughter. In his Subjection of Women, 1869, a kind of companion treated to his On Liberty (mostly civil) he argues we don’t know what women’s nature and capabilities are because the way society has been structured has been to prevent them from doing anything but the narrowest of tasks.

I then described Mary Trouille’s book, Women Read Rousseau: Sexual Politics in the Enlightenment (1997), where Prof Trouille shows however narrowly anti-feminist Rousseau seems at first, he is the one man to pay attention to women’s needs, the naturalness (and ease) of breast-feeding, and to write to persuade them to see their functions as mothers as centrally important. Trouille has a long section on the paradoxical subversive use Roland made of Rousseau, and her demonstration by quoting the venomous attacks on her by the newspapers of the day that she was murdered for having as a woman tried to take public power on behalf of women and a moderate stance. Then Marilyn Yalom’s Blood Sisters: The French Revolution in Women’s Memory (2004): Roland’s memoir belongs to a subgenre of memoirs by women about the revolution who were imprisoned or suffered directly for a time: most are vitriolically reactionary so hers shines out (like Helena Maria Williams’s letters on the revolution) for remaining true to the ideals of the revolution and presenting these ideals as good, true, capable of making a good society from the ashes of the ancien regime. What all agree is that she was no diplomatic, never detached, not a manipulator and thus a poor politician.

I then asked them, how would they say Madame Roland saw herself? What is her portrait of herself? Anyone? she sees herself as grave, serious, earnest, and moral. One woman said she found Roland irritating; another said she saw herself as correct in her judgement. She had a passionate romantic nature. She saw herself as embodying the best of the revolution an example to others. She says so. You see this in her letters to Buzot. She did have a rage to write – and finally found her metier without censure in the prison. So many denigrate her – she is not social enough, not sexy. lead a life at odds with her era’s mores and customs: the power of an intensely rebellious and non-religious private spiritual life. Solitary. That was when one man said she wanted to the author of her own life.

So what did they think was at risk today from the enlightenment. One man said we were returning to authoritarianism, not thinking for ourselves. Another said we were returning to intolerance.  We needed to return to good education.  People today don’t read enough, know enough. I then read from Richard Feynman’s closing paragraphs from his eloquent speech to the National Academy of Sciences when he resigned from the organization on “The Value of Science”. And so the course ended.


Detail from Greuze’s The Woolwinder (with her cat) 1759

Ellen

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Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of inward nobility and sensitivity of Samuel Johnson

Dear friends and readers,

When at the first session of the class I was leading, The Enlightenment: At Risk? one of the people in the room remembered back to having had John Radner as “Study Guide Leader” (prof-teacher) twice for courses just on Johnson, and had clearly come for more, I felt I had made an effective choice of Samuel Johnson as the third of the writers we would read and discuss. Also when another man brought in his W.J. Bate biography of Johnson, an old battered and much read-looking book, and said how much he had enjoyed it, I felt vindicated. When someone had volunteered that he “liked” Johnson, after someone else said he much preferred Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides to Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands, read aloud passages in which (it must be admitted) Boswell seemed the far more accessible, funny, vivid, concretely in an immediate way informative writer, while Johnson by contrast might seem so colorless and dull. Then the first man turned around to confess that Johnson in Boswell’s Life and A Tour seems a totally different person, not deep, not thoughtful, but a dense bully, by no means accurate in his pronounced assessments, coarse examples, stubborn, a contradictory egoistic, a religiously intolerant man. Were there two Johnsons? We had read Lisa Berglund’s essay on how Boswell’s presentation of Johnson’s cat-companion, Hodge, differs from Hester Thrale’s. Another man said he was reading John Wain’s biography of Johnson and agreed with me, that in some lines we seem to hear Johnson’s very tone, his meditative nobility of soul intermingling with Wain’s. Finally most of them read the supplementary reading by Johnson on line in the Ramblers, Idlers and prefaces.

Have I mentioned this is a group of highly intelligent adults more or less retired adults, have held positions of considerably responsibility in their lives? That made a huge difference in how the class went but I’m not sure how to talk about this. Also simply they seemed more able or willing to take Johnson’s point of view in than either Voltaire or Diderot’s.

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Colin Hunter (1841-1904); Good-Night to Skye (2895) (Glasgow Museums)

My second question to myself was, Did I chose the right text from among Johnson’s many? I avoided the Life of Savage because (like Boswell before me and I think Clarence Tracy too) I believe Johnson was deluded and that Savage was himself an imposter whose delusions grew to such a reinforced point, he believed them; similarly, as I couldn’t see how I could write about Johnson’s Life of Savage in as positive a vein as was wanted for a paper comparing his biographical art to Woolf’s, I couldn’t see how I could teach people over 60 that this text is a great biography even though its central information and even respectful sympathetic perspective of Savage is misleading. Johnson is obsessive in his understandable compassion and horror (because he believes that Anne Brett denied this child). In the biography Johnson believes the story that Anne Breet tried to have Savage hanged — and tries to justify his murder of someone in a violent brawl — Richard Holmes (Dr Johnson and Mr Savage as in Jekyll & Hyde) understands that one much more accurately. Apparently Anne Brett’s family had members willing to pay Savage off as long as he will agree to be silent (he wasn’t) and behave minimally decently in their houses — but he would not do that either, and after a while he was thrown out and the allowance stopped.  The key story is hers as much as Savage’s: she was subject to violence from more than one husband, hers as hard a life. What this material cries out for is a life of Anne Brett.

It turned out yes. Maybe even some chose the course because they had gone to the Hebrides! I counted four people in the class who had been to the Hebrides or at least northern Scotland. So I also showed Patrick Watkins’s stunning anti-war docudrama, Culloden, and they were gripped, or at last interested to ask questions after I sent three good essays on Patrick Watkins’s art, on its place in 20th century great films, on the problem of teaching history from written fragments, visits to relics and landscapes, from a lack of evidence, from inescapable biases and identifications I read aloud from John Lister-Kaye’s poetically brilliant The Song of the Rolling Earth.

I retold Johnson’s life, and had sent a review of a biography of Francis Barber. At the time of the death of Johnson’s wife, Tetty, Colonel Richard Bathurst whose estates in Jamaica failed came back with a white son and one black boy given apparently a common name: Quashey. Richard Bathurst the son strong abolitionist and friend to Johnson. Given name Francis Barber and sent to school for 2 years – about age 10, and then came to live with Johnson in London. At one point he ran away. A bid for freedom?but Johnson thought this choice not a good idea, and agitated to get Francis back and at age 26 sent him to Grammar school. Francis came home and became a sort of servant, married a white woman and was set up in a shop to sell books in Lichfield. It’s said he was given a generous legacy, but the shop failed. He died impoverished in 1801, a schoolmaster. He is said to have given details of intimate domestic life to Boswell.  He had a circle of African friends in London: there was a population of African black people living in London.

I also offered background on Scottish culture at the time, Jacobitism, Buchan’s Crowded with Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh’s Moment of the Mind, and offered a narrative of Johnson’s life, and then we got down to going through Johnson and Boswell’s book. I found a number of the people also read a good deal of Boswell’s, which comes with most editions of Johnson’s.

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Johnson had desired to go to Scotland for a very long time, he says; he wanted to travel to another society and here was one close by, and now they were doing it: they spent about a hundred days in a place neither man was used to. Although Boswell had connections, once they crossed Inverness, he was essentially an Enlightenment lowlands city Scot whose rank and family, and father’s known position, made an opening wherever they went. This is not a package tour nor a comfortable one made very convenient and easy: they have to find accommodation where they can; they went through wildness, solitude, untamed, and as they go, Johnson repeatedly attempts to imagine the history of a object: why does a castle take the form it does? Or the landscape they are seeing.  What happened here to make this building look this way or that?  Johnson tries to analyze the economic activity that he sees and extrapolate from it to understand the economic and political systems of Scotland. His ideas about the tacksman could be applied to why communism failed as a system of exchange among people.

Johnson wanted to compare European society, to him modern, with what existed earlier; he wanted to discover a feudal society (so did Ann Radcliffe in her joural tour of a summer tour — she eventually went north too), but this was a society in the “agonies of change” to quote John Wain. Johnson was also observing two societies side-by-side — lowland modern Scotland and highlands older Scotland. Meanwhile the English were killing a way of life — and didn’t care who or what this affected. Again and again Johnson sees whole groups of people emigrating. How deeply sceptical Johnson was of claims of attribution and past glories and history. Yet he persists at each stop-over to read and write on – and at each turn Johnson is really describing what he sees, testing and verifying, an ethnography of a society in the throes of change, forced emigration and death and exploitation is what he describes to us.

To me it’s almost natural and understandable that Boswell’s book should be the one preferred by many readers as – to tell the accurate truth if like Johnson you really try to find out “which Johnson” the person is discussing – you discover often it’s Boswell’s Johnson, Johnson as described by Boswell and from Boswell’s book who is so well known or subject of fan groups not Johnson himself considered apart from Boswell. Boswell offers a comic, immediate, psychologized and prosaic talk-y language, going over the same incident with details nowhere to be found in Johnson but which support his point of view. Johnson’s is the tragic book: we see the tragedy of people’s lives, the difficulty of survival, and hard struggle each person makes to carry on. That’s the true emphasis of his book. By contrast, Boswell’s jovial filled with his real belief in hierarchy, enjoyment of good times, considerable self-esteem; he is continually name-dropping.

Johnson analyses the basic constraints and history behind each human existence or type of life he comes across with real depth of understanding. He is seriously looking at a different way of life in its death-throes and the violent history behind it. He really describes the desolation before him. His language moves from quiet to brilliant uses of general terms which capture so much meaning to magnificence and deep emotionalism of gratitude or enjoyment. Johnson ends his book on a school for the deaf. Deaf people were treated as idiots until the 18th century when two French philosophes (Abbe Sicard one, discussed by Oliver Sacks in his Seeing Voices) invented sign language. I regret to have to report this was one of those schools where the teachers were to force deaf children to learn to speak so it was not kind place but it was backward step (still not gone) in a forward movement.

Boswell gives us a good time with individual justifications as we go along. We meet individuals and rejoice in them or help or listen to or just interact with them: the old woman and her goat is to Johnson an epitome of hard-scrabble life; how admirably she uses all her resources. To Boswell, she’s a merry joke; she thought one of them would want to go to bed with her, or rape her. She seems unaware that Boswell does not find her attractive. In a frightening tempest, Boswell shows us how frightened he was, what a fool he made out of himself, how he tried to help and appreciated all the captain did. Johnson barely notices this transitory if deeply (to them as frail human beings) ephemeral experience of life. What does Boswell end on their last agreeable days –- how Johnson was feted, what they saw, what they laughed about where they stayed and that he deserves the credit for having gotten Johnson to go, taken him through and so the existence of Johnson’s book. Boswell’s book is an advertisement for the coming biography which he was already diligently at work at.In the Footsteps of Johnson and Boswell — there are a number of such books, I brought in Israel Schenker.

I cited some months ago Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands, with or without Boswell’s A Tour to the Hebrides, as one of ten that had the most influence on me in my life. I quoted a passage where Johnson tells us how he came to choose to want to travel to Scotland even now in his old age. Now I’ll emphasize Iona, which island experience (and others) we went over carefully in class. I read Henry Hitchings’s redaction in his The World in 38 Chapters:

An inscription over the door, to show what kind of a Book this is

A scrap of land, a speck in the sea’s breath. On an OctoTuesday, two travellers arrive after dark. The sea has been rough, and their craft’s four oarsmen can find no easy place to disembark; it seems they must carry the visitors to dry land, though one of them chooses to spring into the water and wade ashore. In the moonlight the two
figures embrace. It is late to be inspecting monuments, so they retire for the night — sleeping fully clothed in a barn, nestled in the hay, using their bags as pillows.

The next day they explore the island. Its buildings have been battered by storms and stripped by locals needing materials for their homes; now they are ruins, caked in filth. The old nunnery is a garden of weeds, and the chapel adjoining it is a cowshed. The two men walk along a broken causeway — once a street flanked by good houses — and arrive at a roofless abbey. Its altar is damaged; islanders have carried off chunks of the white marble, believing that they afford protection against fire and shipwreck. A few intricately carved stone crosses still stand.

Later, the visitors will write about what they saw. One will comment that the island used to be ‘the metropolis of of learning and piety’ and wonder if it ‘may be sometime the instructress of the Western Regions’. The other will reflect that ‘the solemn scenes of piety never lose their sanctity and influence’: ‘I hoped that, ever after having been in this holy place, I should maintain an exemplary conduct. One has a strange propensity to fix upon some point of time from whence a better course of life may begin.’

This is a sketch of Iona, where in AD 563 the energetic Irish exile St Columba founded a monastery. Today, the island’s great sites have been restored and are often mobbed with day trippers – a mix of Christian pilgrims and happy­snapping tourists. Yet in 1773, when Samuel Johnson and James Boswell visited, few people went there. It was Johnson who reflected on the island’s lost role as ‘the metropolis of learning and piety’, recalling how, as he experienced its decay but also its tranquillity, he was transported into the past — to a time when it was ‘the luminary of the Caledo­nian regions, whence savage clans and roving barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge and the blessings of religion’. This was a place where earth and heaven seemed only a finger’s width apart. Somehow it cheered the soul.

‘Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses,’ Johnson wrote, ‘and makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the
dignity of thinking beings.’ This is a rallying cry, an appeal for historical understanding. He doesn’t mean that we should refuse to live in the moment, ignoring the pith of the present to spend our lives dwelling on how idyllic the past was or how ambrosial the future might be. Instead he is arguing that we are dignified by our ability, through the operations of our minds, to transcend our circumstances, to reach beyond the merely local, to appreciate difference. It is an insight typical of Samuel Johnson, a heroic thinker whose intelligence exerted itself in a startling number of directions. A poet and a novelist, a diarist and editor and translator, as well as the author of numerous prefaces and dedications, h produced the first really good dictionary of English, invented the genre of critical biography …


There is more than one edition of the original two copies as In the Footsteps of Johnson and Boswell (Israel Schenker from the NYTimes wrote one and now lives in Scotland).

Hitchings led to talk of  journeys people in the class had taken to the Hebrides and even  Iona and how “spiritual” it had felt. I used Matthew Arnold’s old touchstone method — I quoted Johnson: in the midst of telling how the Highlanders are fleeing the place, and that there are some “lairds of more prudence and less rapacity [who] have kept their vassals undiminished,” Johnson writes: “From Rasaay only one man has been seduced, and at Col there was no wish to go away” — because of the good man running the place. It’s that “at Col there was no wish to go away” that captures the dense concision of understanding in the man’s texts.

We then went over a number of individual passages. What Johnson is interested in? the past, meditation of what was, on generalization about humanity trying to survive in hard and various conditions: looking upon human life; passionate student of history, and of geology, geography, culture in general and that’s what he puts in his book. Sudden affection. Universities are decaying, on Canongate. Inch Kenneth, high point. How he spontaneously, inspired, wrote poetry in Latin. How he admires people: Col, so well educated trying to help his people, spends such time with them, drowns suddenly, Macquarry emigrating. Topics included his interest in castles and dungeons and the violent past they reveal. Mountainous people and their cultures. His Sardonic humor. But also merry and unself-conscious; can imitate a kangaroo. They spend a long time in Sky, Ostig: Johnson talks of what really corrodes people’s minds. Power overcomes law but money has power to abrogate law. When guns appear, non-human animals decrease. The fight over the Ossian poems: James Macpherson claimed to have found and just rewritten slightly these epic fragments in ancient gaelic and Johnson challenged him to produce the manuscripts. Of course there were none; people wanted ancient poems and unscrupulous writers produced them – it was a kind of watered down Miltonism style that appealed – tremendous international popularity but Johnson stubbornly held out. The man, thug-like threatened him, and Johnson said he’ll carry a big stick and protect himself Boswell often quotes Johnson, and works passages in, like this.

Johnson provides somber, Boswell the prosaic thought. The two of them talking, different perspectives, Johnson goes about to show us how different the re-tellings of history and concludes how little Boswell’s tour he just complains he can’t learn anything from oral tradition. In the mornings Boswell would bring what he wrote to Johnson and Johnson fix what he had written, rewrite, plan in his mind. They were making books together.

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The Yale edition of Johnson is now complete and online, open to the public

I assigned a few other texts found online. We went on to the Rambler and Idler, etexts online. We read the history of Misella (Nos 170-71) How she was drawn from her parents’ house with promises, never given the advantages claimed; then seduced by the benefactor, removed from the house when pregnant and gradually abandoned and her life as a prostitute now. Then Idler No 22 the mother vulture teaching her children — how 18th century readers liked allegory of this type in the period – an outgrowth of Aesop’s Fables. The vulture thinks man made for them and Johnson approaches Voltairian satire. We turned for an example of Johnson at his most witheringly sardonic: the review of Soames Jenyns. The malevolence in the idea that extending education to all is dangerous, will make people discontented, rebellious. The notion that human and animal sufferings produce good effects made Soames imagine that immortal beings enjoy watching us for their diversion and those in heaven derive satisfaction from those in hell. Unforgettable. Idler 22 similarly against debtors’ prisons. Idler No 81: native Americans discussing behavior of European armies and how they can use these killers.

Lives of the poets: constitutes a history of English poetry across the long 18th century, a discussion of the nature of poetry, even in this different style, lives of writers, and he is at his personally involved or make political points. He chooses some of subjects because booksellers told him to (they had the man’s works – no woman I regret to say) and others because he knew the man. Great compassion for some: William Collins. He added names he thought should be included, but one can be very disappointed because a poet today thought important isn’t there: Christopher Smart who died raving in a prison when he should have not been put in their in the first place.. Famous for a long poem on his cat Jeffrey who kept him company. I went briefly over Boswell’s, Hawkins, Thrale’s and Murphy’s biographies of Johnson himself. His letters. I read a couple to Warton, one to Mrs Thrale, part of the one to Chesterfield.

As editor of Shakespeare’s works: he did not idolize the man and some students reading the preface are surprised to find critical and evaluative comments. He puts Shakespeare in the context of his time, looks at his ultimate vision. His observations on passages are like close readings of Shakespeare’s texts. From Measure for Meausre. They did not have novels the way we do and what they read often were bound up groups of plays sold as books. Shakespeare’s plays could be read as realistic novels, so on Macbeth …

Lastly I offered a bit on Johnson’s politics. I recommended Donald Greene’s Twayne book. Thoughts on the Falkland Islands is his most anti-colonialist. But he supports gov’t sometimes because he fears chaos and who might rise to power. Oddly it has been rumored and whole essays written to show Johnson as Jacobite because he supported the Tory party and in context, from Boswell he seems sympathetic but anyone who knows the realities of Jacobitism and he did would be hard put to go that far. In his own day some accused him of this — he was often corrosive over the Hanoverian gov’t – more anti-whig than pro-Tory. Wrote Swiftian parodies. He did support expulsion of John Wilkes seen as this ultimate patriot at the time. England had the right to tax the colonialists without their permission – because they defended the colonialists against the Native Americans (but why did they so?), he attacked the anonymous Junius – a kind of Deep Throat writing eloquent diatribes exposing corruption.

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Another depiction of Johnson by Reynolds — a more familiar one

Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not to buy. As shoes are worn and hassocks are sat upon … finally everything is left where it was and the spirit passes on — Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

I had assigned Isobel Grundy’s irreplaceable essay on Johnson’s depiction of death in his biographies. She says he shows both the older views and the modern towards death: it’s a rounding off and leaving a meaning, but also confusing, ambiguous, making one feel that the life had no significance beyond for the person and for most of us the few people who we’ve been meaningful to. We still see the older attitude in churches and religious places, and in people who plan their death, care about their will, make due preparations. Pope did. She says that Johnson repeatedly fails to find this significance or meaning in the deaths he recounts or describes, asked what he felt while dying: he wanted to live” deaths ironic, horrifying, show a lack of concern in reality; jarring and shocking. Did they die as they had lived? He again and again refuses to draw a moral. More: he deliberately puts before us the ironies, casual comedy, inappropriateness of what happens, the grotesqueries. In his essays we find death is the great leveller, what is the case for common humanity, avoids religious talk or judgement; early lives he does offer exemplary deaths; he looks into legends: Hermione Lee who has written a number of even great biographies says the most problematic of chapters is often the last because so many lies, distortions, agendas come in – we hear what the survivors of the scene want to tell us – yet you can’t avoid it and so recent biographies tend to scant it. He moves from seeing death as a kind of testing to part of common humanity – ridiculous, frailty of human body, not dignified not in control. The person or people comforting the dying can try to help the dying person feel he or she has that control over the last if that’s what the person wants or cares about.

Grundy’s was the last text I talked about and then I did wish I had assigned the Oxford Authors volume of Johnson, edited by Donald Greene, because we could have read some of the Lives of the Poets as then the people in the room would have read some of these texts.

The three to four sessions were about as successful as I’ve ever been with a “older” more difficult author. More successful than the Voltaire and Diderot sessions I felt. I asked if I tried to do this theme again, did they think it was a good idea? They said they did. I said I would try to substitute other authors: Jean-Jacques Rousseau for Voltaire (Reveries of a Solitary Walker as it needs to be a shorter text), Goethe (either The Sorrows of Werther or Elective Affinities). Mary Wolstonecraft for Madame Roland (The Rights of Women, Residence in Sweden), but I thought to myself I can probably not find an analogous substitute.

Ellen

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