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Archive for the ‘women’s films’ Category


Jo in a Vortex


Dorothy’s red shoes

Ferrante suggests her model for her books was Little Women and the English writers, Alcott and Austen; Diana Gabaldon several times alludes to Dorothy and her red shoes, and by extension The Wizard of Oz, suggesting first Claire’s then Brianna’s travel through the stones was analogous to Dorothy in her red shoes

Dear friends and readers,

To begin with, a retrospective long overdue .

I’ve been blogging in this space for some fifteen years now. I have completed four years’ worth of analyses of her letters (as edited by Deirdre Le Faye), blogs on the Austen papers, on Austen’s close family relatives fresh biographical perspectives and chronologies, and the occasional review. I’ve linked in papers I’ve published or delivered at conferences. I meant this place as a blog meant for Austen matters as generously understood as the Folger library’s definition of things Shakespearean: her contemporaries, mostly women novelists and memoir-writers: Fanny Burney, Charlotte Smith, Mary Brunton, Edgeworth, French women writers and translators, Scottish women poets. But even that soon morphed into the three linked categories I felt she fitted into: women’s art, the long 18th century, and her life, work, influences, and near contemporaries and post-texts and films. I’ve done series: women poets; women artists; actresses, mostly from the long 18th century (but not all, as Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher were the subject of one commemorative blog); women’s films; women’s TV serials, women singers and musicians (not nearly enough of these), and women’s fashions (ditto). Film adaptations of books set in the 18th century, of documentaries. I still keep these up and reviews of books on Austen’s life, books, issues. 18th century conferences. Small projects: Virginia Woolf in her own right, Virginia Woolf and Johnson as modern biographers.

So what now? Carry on the above when the spirit takes me. Yes


A once beloved volume

My header or title line is a play on words from Fleur Adcock’s “Instead of an interview,” about what she imagines she tells the interviewers instead of what she is supposed to say: what has meant most to her in life, what she dreams of, what she’s lost, and what keeps her going now:
memories of her past

and every corner revealed familiar settings
for the dreams I’d not bothered to remember —
ingrained, ingrown ….

… quite enough friends to be going on with [which I do not have]’
bookshops, galleries, gardens …

And not a town or a city I could live in,
Home ….
home is [New York City], and England, Ireland, Europe,
I have come home with a suitcase full of stones —

and here they lie around the floor of my study
as I telephone a cable “Safely home …”

… But another loaded word
creeps up now to interrogate me.

have I made myself … an exile

I hope not; I hope this blog’s purpose all the while, which is to help me keep connected, part of imagined communities, can take some new turns. One project I had hoped to write a book with a friend-partner about and have described her, “The Anomaly” has now fallen through, but I am thinking that I can work it out now in this blog. One of the two latest books I’m reading for this: Rebecca Traistor’s All the Single Ladies demonstrates that while independent or women living without a man for long periods of time has actually become a near unacknowledged norm, was not an anomaly ever. As a group we only became visible since the mid=19th century when larger numbers of women began to be able to support ourselves.

The other, Anne Boyd Rioux’s Writing for Immortality: Women Writers and the Emergence of High Literary Culture in America. Roux concentrates on Louisa May Alcott, Elizabeth Stoddard (I’ve read nothing by her), Elizabeth Stuart Phelps later Ward (ditto) and Constance Fennimore Woolson (where I have read a good deal), Louisa May Alcott. She is again “doing” the literary history of the US, and her context is the withering scorn heaped on women as “popular” and second rate, not great art by Hawthorne (famously) and Henry James (insidiously). She argues it is important to understand this presentation of one’s book as primarily there as a great art, great vision and the real goal of the woman as creating great art (not for supporting herself) as radical and important in building esteem and validation for women as a group.

We are so used to valuing things for the money, book history as turned into a branch of let’s study how capitalism, fame, and industry worked and the idea of writing as a vocation becomes something we scorn people for: what? they must be hypocrites and just say that because their books don’t sell. We are so corrupted to the folds of our minds.

Vocation as radical behavior

She goes over the lives & writing of her four chosen women writers (Phelps, Stoddard, Woolson and Alcott) and one thing stands out for all of them: they are all to some extent crippled in their ambition or fame or even what they were able to achieve or write because of the demand they be conventional heterosexual and marry. One of them did: Stoddard and that stopped her producing any more than two good novels. The others fought and produced and led a life they found satisfactory but to do so took tremendous energies and got in the way. I’d say this is even true of Alcott — fine as her achievement in children’s books is and here and there in adult fiction, it’s not what she could have done. Some of the enemies of promise including having to support the man and family as a woman. I think of how Gaskell’s life of Bronte is really an apology for the woman artist and that she was remarkable (I now realize) for presenting that final marriage as simply getting in the way and destroying Bronte. Now I’ve read a long section on the four women’s fiction ad debating whether there be a difficult conflict in a woman between choosing love, having a family, participating in a community as wife, mother and spending your life dedicated enough to art, spending time, money, travel, solitude enough to produce the fine book, or picture — or performance.

I single out two for tonight as I recently finished both, was very moved (at times, and with a peculiar uncomfortable painfulness) by Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon, and (continually, mostly with complete accord) by The story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, and because they are part of cycles or series of brilliant creative novels, Outlander and the Neapolitan Quartet, which type of writing when good can be so deeply satisfying. Nothing like a recurring character in whom we have invested our minds and hearts whom I feel are invested with questions of the world deeply connected to me, feeling their reactions as deeply crucial to what I call my inner life, even if they are also capable of being taken in as information (to display in papers making arguments) or used as thoughtless gossip (especially the kind that bashes the women characters).

One way in which we can distinguish both series as l’ecriture-femme , as women’s versions of roman fleuves, is both series demonstrate that a girl, then woman’s need for a meaningful career outside taking care of home, child, partner, whoever else is there, is interwoven with her being. The women in all cases (Claire, Jenny, Lenu, Lila) all also naturally seek insistently intensely to find a congenial enabling partner who loves her too.

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Italian edition

“I was dead, my Sassenach–and yet all that time, I loved you … And when my body shall cease, my soul will still be yours. Claire–I swear by my hope of heaven, I will not be parted from you” — Diana Gabaldon, Drums of Autumn

The accent in all four Gabaldon novels falls first on the self-negation Claire practices when she becomes part of Jamie. How when she returns to the 20th century she builds on her time as a nurse in WW2 to become a surgeon. And then when she returns to the 18th century 20 years later she enacts an irresistible return to nursing, doctoring and inventing a pharmacy in whatever form she can build.

For Drums of Autumn I’d like to record just this:

In general those parts of the novels where Claire is the narrator and we are going back and forth in time — as in the opening sequence of Dragonfly in Amber are favorites with me; and now those sequences where Roger is the narrator and we go back and forth in time.

There is much beautiful contemplative description – the US as a kind of arcadian paradise physically – Strawberry Fields Forever one part is called. OTOH, she drives him to us how horrifically the enslaved black were treated: another story like the one of the woman gang-raped just after Culloden in Voyager: an enslaved black girl either kills herself directly or dies horribly trying to give herself an abortion. With her is another enslaved woman who presents herself a midwife sometimes and she will if caught be blamed and hung – by the sergeant who was responsible for this pregnancy. So Jamie and Claire find her with the help of the trader and enable her to go into the mountains and meet up with a native American tribe who will take her in. There’s a long stretch of Claire making a home for her and Jamie in North Carolina circa 1767 – all about how she cooks things, sets up furniture, goes out and about as a doctor. Very detailed about the era. It does begin with how safe she feels with Jamie as her husband and the house is his arms around her.

The characters most punished and ferociously in the serial drama are the chivalrous kind heroes; Jamie Fraser, tortured, hand smashed, raped by the English soldiers; and now Roger Wakefield Mackenzie, humiliated, treated with great brutality by Native Americans. Fergus is also raped and his hand cut off by British and Scots colonialist officers after Culloden. These vulnerable sweet men are made to suffer excruciatingly in a sort of disciplinary culture in which people have to be raped and punished and have physically inscribed on their bodies the “lessons” the colonizer, the tribe, the powerful authority figures deems they “need” to learn. We see that early on when in the first episode (this is in the book too) Jamie beats Claire with a belt. There is the brother-helper figure (Murtagh) who the film-makers felt they could not do without.  One gentle hero (Lord John) is given a super-high rank to protect him; another the Reverend Wakefield who is a pack-rat with papers I am very fond of too. I have argued in another blog that Frank Randall is a poignant proud tragic hero.

Other protected good women figures include Mother Hildegarde — I just loved Frances de la Tour in that part in Dragonfly in Amber – and the French apothecary, Master Raymond (Dominique Pinon) who saves Claire’s life after the stillbirth of Faith.

A long sequence in the novel is about the raping of Brianna and its long and varied aftermath and affect on the people around her as she tells them ever so slowly the full story. Much on male reactions, male suffering, and it’s clear that Gabaldon does not see simple or non-aggravated rape (not assault) as a serious crime; she is for having the baby whom she sees as half-owned by the father (rapist or no). Gabaldon is grappling with crucial issues directly I’ll give her that as does Ferrante — both raw, graphic, visceral. I suppose the uselessly bitterly complaining heroine of the Brianna type is a rarity among the heroines – she stands for a helpless self-assertion that gets no where, feminism defined as blind indignation. The rest live with it, resort to magic (or its modern equivalent, surgery).

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“he knew how to connect texts that were very unlike one another and he quoted them as if he were looking at them … ” — Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name (p. 407)

The Story of a New Name begins in 1966 Lila who we are told is no longer close to Lenu gives Lenu a large metal box with 8 — need I say precious – notebooks in it. After reading these fat important unrepeatable diaries, Lenu dumps them in a river. It took me a while to sit down after that one. In Little Women so important to Lila and Lenu when girl children, and cited once again at the close of this novel as Lenu’s frst book is being published, Jo could recreate her novel after Amy destroyed it. Eight densely detailed diary disorganized notebooks are impossible to recreate. A brief recounting and commentary:

Then Stefano and Lila’s wedding night puts paid to all the idealized sex of Outlander. He beats her up and we get a graphic account stage by stage. It is the most raw account I’ve ever read — but she does not leave him though he continues to beat her for a while.

Lenu is so confused by what happens at the wedding — how she is not at all respected by her mother or anyone for all her efforts and how awful to her Antonio is (plus she is bored silly by him), she leaves off going to school for a while. Just drops out and wanders all around Naples. Tellingly it is Antonio (who ends up in a sad low job by the end of this book) breaks with Lenu after they have sex scenes just as graphically written as Lila and Stefano only more satisfactory. It is Lila who enables Lenu to go back by providing a room in her splendid and owned apartment. Only slowly does she get back and she is never undisturbed in the way she was so does not do as well. Lenu attractssomeone I never had a version of: a genuine mentor, a woman professor, Galiani.

Lila is taken to a modern doctor and oh did this resonate with me. Room filled with customers, everyone in awe of this man. From Lila’s point of view, he gets to invade her with his metal instruments. She feels violated. And he says (I have heard a male doctor say this of me after examining me): “it’s all there” in this satisfied voice. I don’t know why I didn’t report him to Kaiser, but suspect it was because he was a black doctor (I’m really honest here) and was worried I wouldn’t be believed and be thought racist. There you go. But after that I never went to any male gynecologist ever.

When I was 16 I was taken to just such a prestigious place and was violated similarly — or felt so. And given this “down from the throne advice” in this disdainful manner. I think the same things go on today in the US – clearly they go on in Italy. I never went to a male gynecologist in the British national health but remember the woman I got contraception from also treated me with a lack of respect because at the time I was not married.

Anyway the doctor says it’s not Lila’s fault:she needs to build her strength, which becomes she needs to go on holiday and rest. So who is she to go with but the now spiteful sister-in-law Pinuccia and her mother-in-law, Nunzia. Lila now turns to Lenu and demands she quit her bookstore job. The bookstore job is not getting Lenu any closer to that elite world she glimpsed and was partly of temporarily when her mentor, professor woman invited her to that party (Lila came and didn’t fit as I said). At first Lenu says no: what horror fights she envisages but then she learns that Nino is at Ischia with his family again. She agrees to quite and come if Lila goes to Ischia.

Anyway the doctor says it’s not Lila’s fault: she needs to build her strength, which becomes she needs to go on holiday and rest. So who is she to go with but the now spiteful sister-in-law Pinuccia and her mother-in-law, Nunzia. Lila now turns to Lenu and demands she quit her bookstore job. The bookstore job is not getting Lenu any closer to that elite world she glimpsed and was partly of temporarily when her mentor, professor woman invited her to that party (Lila came and didn’t fit as I said). At first Lenu says no: what horror fights she envisages but then she learns that Nino is at Ischia with his family again. She agrees to quite and come if Lila goes to Ischia.

Lila agrees; she is paying Lenu – that is kept secret — so Lenu, the academic in the school is Lila’s servant. When the men are there the women aren’t free. The men are ever taking them into the bedroom to have sex. Lenu says Lilia is so used to this far from demurring she seems to show off. But it’s a burden. They don’t get to go the beach. At first she can’t locate Nino; she has an idea to visit the woman whose house they stayed at and finds them not far off.

Now Lila teases her — not nice — for wanting to be there for Nino. Nino is standoffish but eventually they have real conversations about books, politics — the feel though is not of joy but of somehow this being prestigious and it’s not satisfying because of this, it’s ruined. Donato teaches Lila to swim – he is a kind man.

I identify viscerally with both Lenu and Lila. Lenu has no money for even a new decent bathing suit. It’s a real problem. she has an inferior room which does not look over the beach. she has to hide her books when in the house with Lila & co. Mosquitoes, no air conditioning so it’s so hot in her room. Ischia is no longer enchantment ….

Many of my memories are still deeply embittering, searing and so I understand why Lila behaves in the counterproductive way she does, but I also understand Lenu’s abjection — I had clothes but no room of my own …. and was a outsider, not in the AP classes because my mother didn’t know how to get me into these and my father was unaware this was important.

Now it’s come out that Pinuccia has fallen in love with Bruno, and not being able to cope with this and her pregnancy and marriage to Rino, demands to go home. The conflict is too hard for her to endure. Her departure makes an inevitable reconfiguration and lo and behold Nino is in love with Lila and she with him and it’s transparent. They are probably lovers.

Lenu then tells of her own life. I like this part of her studying, her trying to pass exams, finally the books she read, one young man she gets involved with and they fuck. But she says that she and Lila somehow came together in the old intense way and now she must tell of how wrong she was about what was going on.

What is not surprising is Lila carries on with a torrid mad affair with Nino — reminding me of Paul and Virginia only this time there is a husband. But in her notebooks (which we know after the first sequence Lenu unforgivably has dumped into the sea) what Lila exulted in was not so much the sex as what they read and talked about.

Unexpectedly Lila was courageous enough to flee Stefano and go live with Nino is a poverty-stricken area in a wretched apartment. At first all seems bliss, but this does not last long at all, and it is probably only bliss from Lila’s point of view. What happens is she doesn’t fit in — Nino does want his middle upper class life and connections and future prospects and it’s not enough to be highly intelligent and creative: you have to modulate your voice (as I’m sure Emma Woodhouse would put it) and Nino finds she is too loud, too strident, she embarrasses him, her talk is exaggerated. His father won’t give him money just like this and at the end of 23 days he leaves Lila.

Like Austen’s S&S where the point of view of Elinor’s and Marianne is the one we watch, so here the point of view is Lenu remembering and so everything is softened, remembered, seen from afar or guessed at based on these notebooks that Lenu has dropped in the river. Lenu is utterly buying into the same middle class life Nino is trying to get into. This also has the effect of not having to show us the pain, humiliation, difficulty that Lenu has with her manners, lack of clothes, who she has to kowtow to. The earlier novels gave us Lila’s kind of experience raw and angry or nightmarish; or (Il figlia oscura Englished as The Lost Daughter), a quiet interlude of a Lenu kind of character at the beach contemplating the fraught experience from afar but only talking of what is happening now — as she steals a doll say, or marks papers.

several of the others characters have emerged as distinct real presences. To be expected I suppose, several of the males are coming to sad ending. Maybe they had less prospect than the girls, since the fascist order certainly doesn’t respect elite education for men. So Antonio, Pasquale, Rino (who I can’t sympathize with as a continual wife-beater) all end up with no decent future — no getting out of the mindless exploitative materialistic culture. Lila is forced out when Ada gets pregnant by Stefano; Ada withstands beatings by Stefano and Lila runs off with Enzo — who rescued her in the first place. When last seen by Lenu, Lila has a peculiarly horrible job (stuffing sausages, in a vile sausage factory where she is sexually harassed) living in squalid quarters with Enzo; he works at a locomotive very dangerous: but at night they study together like some Paul and Virginie of the bitter early 21st century. Lenu has carried back to her her early story, The Blue Fairy, which Lenu says is the inspiration for her novel. Lila burns it.

Maestrio Oliviero has died — she never would help Lila because Lila’s parents got in her way. Lenu reflects it was this teacher who first saved her and how unfair and egoistic and cruel she had been to Lila.

Lenu has emerged as a sort of winner. She kept at it and now graduated with high honors and noticed by her boyfriend’s mother who is Somebody in the Society and in publishing, her first novel is published. The money astonishes and quells Lenu’s mother’s spirit — she is still living with her parents on and off. Her book is castigated by much of the press as absurd and that is painful but it seems the boyfriend will marry her in two years. In the meantime she must train for teacher’s college, which is looked upon as a come down, not truly part of the world that counts. I do know that in Italy the high academic world is very rigid, restricted, utterly unjust. But in the closing scene where she is enduring having to give a speech and she gives a bad one – she hates it as much as I would have, has no idea what’s wanted — very young as yet – and someone from the crowd stands forth and offers a decent sympathetic understanding of her book.

Of course it’s Nino. This is weak ending for obvious reasons but regarded as part 2 of a single book I suppose it’s forgivable. A better code is Lenu goes to the public library still and finds the old copy of Little Women she and Lila used to read together. This too was inspiration for her book, her book carried on what was valuable in Little Women.

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So, to conclude, in these two highly disparate books, we see the question glimpsed, but very much there, how far and just how can a serious woman’s career, her vocation, her profession be combined with an equally insistent or at least (as society is now constructed) intrusive set of needs, wants, desires of people (if she has a real heart and passionate body) she wants to meet, feel herself and be validated as belonging to these people and tasks. And how does the larger society’s economic, political, social and gender arrangements impose its will on individuals who do not want to make or follow the choices offered. These are not rootedly natural or instinctive (impossible to eradicate), but sort of imposed on us. Another quartet which might be telling to compare is Byatt’s Frederica Quartet (Virgin in Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower, Whistling Woman).

Ellen

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Friends and readers,

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

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

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


Anita Raja

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

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


Ann Goldstein who also translates Primo Levi

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


La figlia Oscura

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


The Beach at Night

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lenu and Nino (walking together in school)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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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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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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Emma Thompson as Elinor (1995 Miramax S&S, scripted Thompson, directed Ang Lee)

Absence.
Absence, hear thou my protestation against thy strength, distance, and length.
Do what thou canst for alteration
For hearts for truest mettle.
Absence doth still and time doth settle.
— John Donne as recited in tandem by Claire and Ned Gowan looking out over a loch in the highlands (Outlander, “Rent”)

I dreamed I was acting out Sense and Sensibility. I was not the characters, but I was right next to them, watching them go through the motions of their story. I tried to tell others of how this is my experience, and what the characters are like, what they are doing, their houses, their living arrangements.


Charity Wakefield as Marianne, holding out her hand, all expectant (2008 S&S, scripted Andrew Davies)

My dream-thoughts included how Austen calls the man who willing to play with and then when amusement is over hurt Marianne Willoughby, the name of the abrasive cad in Fanny Burney’s Evelina, and how Austen is either too discreet herself, or was unable to get past the censorship of her family to dramatize the kinds of ugly things Willoughby subjects Evelina too, or other males and older hard authority-females do in French novels of the era take advantage of, raping, needling the heroine with.

And I thought of what Elinor stands for. Austen was showing us how to protect yourself from harm, how to build an apparently invulnerable self: she began to wear spinster clothes after she is said to have written her first three novels (then called First Impressions, Elinor and Marianne, perhaps Susan).


Hattie Morahan as Elinor, Janet McTeer Mrs Dashwood having arranged their faces (2000 S&S)

As  I rose from sleep, the dream made no literal sense in its last fragments in the ways dreams don’t. The two women are on a train, the seat is the long type against long rows of windows, I am between them, we are speeding through the countryside, going somewhere together.

It is daylight and as I imagined it, our surroundings looked like a train I took long ago with Jim on our way towards Exeter in Devon. Only the Dashwoods take a coach.


Joanna David as the displaced Elinor traveling, gazing long ago (1971 BBC S&S, scripted David Constantduros)

It was a morning dream, and in that way of my dreams when they trouble me most I believed it had happened. I had really been on that train with them, and for hours, days, years, living, breathing, remembering, being them. As I woke, it took a long while to realize that it had been a dream

I think I am missing talking in the form of writing about Austen to others for myself. The Janeites listserv has been in effect long dead for real talk, Austen-l spoiled utterly by trolls and both stupidity long ago, there is nowhere for in-depth talk of what these books can and do mean to me except a blog such as this or an occasional paper delivered at a conference which escapes the censorship of careerist editors guarding their journal.

I had been reading Barbara Pym’s naively written diaries, which however reveal a frightening masochistic drive willing to endure humiliation, and at the same time Nicola Beauman’s extraordinarily insightful biography of E.M. Forster who did and did not cover his tracks in his novels: like Austen, she protected herself through her taking on the guise of spinster in her books, he survived with his identity alive by immersing himself self-consciously in his imaginative writing whose surface can resemble Austen’s, though he is alert to what he is doing fully (which she apparently is not).  I’ve been reading of Woolf (Virginia) too, & watching very late into the nights beloved historical romance time-traveling movies.

This absence, these immersions, this lesson I tried to practice myself as a teenager and still, and the connections made from Pym, to Burney, to Austen, Jim and I on a train gazing out, became this dream.


Barton Cottage (1995 S&S) — my house is defective as a cottage too

Ellen

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Natasha McElhone and Jodhi May as Mary and Anne Boleyn (2003, BBC The Other Boleyn Girl, written and directed by Philippa Lowrthorpe)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve just been watching the powerful 2003 BBC film adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, written & directed by Philippa Lowthorpe, with (most notably or memorably) Jodhi May as Anne Boleyn, Steven Mackintosh as George Boleyn, Natasha McElthone as Mary Boleyn and Philip Glenister as William Stafford. This is part of the term’s work I’m doing with a class in order to delve with them Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as a A Fresh Angle on the Tudor Matter. Anne Boleyn is presented far more sympathetically in this movie than in Philippa Gregory’s book; we are allowed to understand how Anne came to be so ambitious, angry, rigidly vindictive, envious — if indeed she was all or any of these things: we must remember this is the same woman who worked with Thomas Cranmer and her brother to spread an evangelical Catholicism among many people. The one non-fictional historical text to do real justice to Anne Boleyn is still The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives.

Anne Boleyn gets such a hostile interpretation so often, that I can’t resist putting onto this blog a proposal (which has been rejected) I wrote for a panel on feminist approaches to the work of Henry and/or Sarah Fielding, for the upcoming ASECS conference in Denver, Colorado. One third of it was to have been on Anne Boleyn as a figure in mythic, literary, film, feminist, and anti-feminist writing.

Anne Boleyn, Jenny Jones, and Lady Townley: the woman’s point of view in Henry Fielding

I propose to give a paper discussing Anne Boleyn’s self-explanatory soliloquy at the close of A Journey from this World to the Next, Jenny Jones’s altruistic and self-destructive constancy to Mrs Bridget Allworthy across Tom Jones, and in the twelfth book of said novel, the character of Lady Townley in Cibber and Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Husband as she fits into a skein of allusion about male and class violence and marital sexual infidelity in Punch & Judy and the Biblical story of Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:30-40). I will argue that the Boleyn soliloquy is probably by Henry Fielding and fits into Fielding’s thinking about women’s sexuality, and other female characters’ soliloquies in his texts; that Jenny’s adherence to a shared set of promises parallels the self-enabling and survival behavior of other women, which is seen as necessary and admirable in a commercial world where they have little legal power. I will explicate the incident in Tom Jones where Cibber and Vanbrugh’s play replaces the folk puppet-show to argue that these passages have been entirely misunderstood because the way they are discussed omits all the immediate (what’s happening in the novel) and allusive contexts from the theater and this Iphigenia story. I will include a brief background from Fielding’s experience and work outside art. I will be using the work of critics such as Earla A Willeputte, Laura Rosenthal, Robert Hume, Jill Campbell, and Lance Bertelsen. I taught Tom Jones to two groups of retired adults in a semi-college in the last couple of years and will bring in their intelligent responses to a reading of this complicated book in the 21st century. My goal is to suggest that Fielding dramatizes out of concern for them and a larger possibly more ethically behaved society the raw deal inflicted on women by law, indifference to a woman’s perspective, and custom.

These are the three areas I was going to show Fielding’s brand of feminism through. They are merely sketched here; I was going to do much more research for each:

In the case of Fielding’s Anne Boleyn, she speaks at length to justify her entry into peaceful oblivion or Elysium this fiction, to the judge Minos, who stands guard over the gate. She explains how she came to withhold sex from Henry VIII for so long, then as his wife treat him shrewishly and domineeringly, and finally (only perhaps) betray him with other males at court. She never loved him. It was a relationship coerced by her family. Fielding believed woman will willingly have sex with men when they care deeply for a man as a center to build a new family around (such a woman might not demand marriage first), but they won’t or are very reluctant to have sex when they do not love the man who wants or has married them. Who then did Anne Boleyn love? Henry Percy. They were betrothed, their love consummated directly after the wedding was over, and then they were dragged apart by Wolsey’s disapproval (he wanted to use Anne another way), and forced to deny what had happened. Fielding gives Anne a long poignant soliliquy. It echoes the opening section of Amelia by Miss Matthews. There is no reason to believe this is by Sarah Fielding; she has not the psychological acumen nor would have made this type of male-oriented love.

The happy out come of Fielding’s novel, Tom Jones, is the result of Jenny Jones having kept a promise, a pact she signed to with Miss Bridget Allworthy who had a love affair with a young clergyman, Will Summers, who dies before they can marry. The outcome of the book depended on these two women’s promise and contract whereby Jenney offered to present herself as having become pregnant outside marriage to enable Bridget Allworthy to keep her illegitimate baby under her blind and rigid brother’s nose. Mr Allworthy continually scolds lower class people (Partridge) and women for having sex outside marriage: he predicts dire things; he says it dehumanizes them, they become animals. In fact in the novel, only through having sex secretly or for money can most of the women survive. Tom is suddenly lifted up from being a victim of capital punishment or transportation to the liberty of a gentleman because (it is discovered when such a legitimate heir-type is needed) because he is found on the spot to be a bastard nephew of Mr Allworthy.


Joyce Redman as Mrs Jenny Jones Walters (1966 UK United Artists, Tom Jones, directed by Tony Richardson, written by John Osborne)

Fielding’s Tom Jones plays a part in my third example of Fielding’s empathy with women. I separate it out as it is a bit more complicated even in a sketchy outline.

At first we assume we (and our favorite friends) are going to watch on the street or in a countess’s public rooms in her house, a puppet show of Punch and Judy (Book 12, Chapter 5). A puppeteer at said inn after Upton refuses to use his puppets to put on a Punch and Judy show because it is “idle trumpery” and “low.” Instead he has his puppets perform a “fine and serious Part of The Provok’d Husband.” Much of Book 11 is taken up by Mrs Fitzpatrick’s story of how her husband married her for money, took her to Ireland, had a mistress, abused her; she is likened to a “trembling hare” fleeing him and his servants. Men were allowed to lock up their wives; they could beat them; a woman was supposed to obey, and people did marry for money sheerly (it was the only way to become rich if you were not born to it). Harriet tells Sophie her “companions” were “my own racking Thoughts, which plagued and and in a manner haunted me Night and Day. In this situation I passed through a Scene, the Horrors of which cannot be imagined …” – a childbirth alone, and childbirth in this period was a hard ordeal often ending in death (Book 11, Ch 12, p 320).

Vanbrugh and Colley Cibber’s The Provok’d Husband is a play which runs on lines similar to Fielding’s own The Modern Husband and is a companion piece to Vanbrugh’s The Provok’d Wife and one of Cibber’s plays about the same brutal male character called The Careless Husband. Repeatedly we find ourselves concerned over a couple who treat one another as commodities; they live in an adulterous world and to find any status, compete with one another over everything, including adultery. There’s a scene between Lord and Lady Townley where she says he is so abusive she will leave him and he replies, leave this house madam, and you’ll never come in again and I will give you no money whatsoever. She is subject to him. At its close there is a moving dialogue between husband and wife where she reasons with him – oh she’s had a lover but so has he had a mistress: “what indiscretions have I committed that are not daily practiced by hundred other women of quality” (II: 675).

No critic I’ve read mentions the Punch & Judy is misogynistic farce — and clearly the play substituted stands up for women’s rights (however ironically). Right afterward the scene we hear the landlady’s maid defend herself from being beaten by her mistress on the grounds that her betters are not better than she; “what was the fine Lady in the puppet-show just now? I suppose she did not lie all night out from her husband for nothing” (p 563). As the characters talk, the landlady remembers when good scripture stories were made from the Bible (as opposed to either Punch and Judy or The Provok’d Husband), and she refers to Jepththah’s rash vow? (p 564). Jephthah vowed to sacrifice his daughter on return from battle if God would only give him a win (it’s an Iphigenia story, note p 946). Before he sacrificed her she sat around bewailing her virginity. The idea is she wouldn’t have minded had she had sex, married, had a husband.

Partridge is one of the few companions on this road to prefer the play to the farce. Partridge told the cruel story of the London hanging judge, is himself an abused husband. Once they get off the road, we find ourselves in the story of Lady Bellaston, a female libertine who hires males for sex, but is herself deeply unwilling to marry for then she will be subject to a master. The chapter ends with the gypsy incident (where a husband uses his wife to decoy a gull) and Jones going off to mouth his muff — which stands in for Sophia’s vagina. There is a curious wild hilarity behind this final moment, something I’ll call uncanny. I was going to show Fielding is our puppeteer showing us how women get a raw deal from men, and is not as indifferent to violence or delighted with violence as is sometimes supposed.


Mrs Francis Abington as Miss Prue in Congreve’s Love for Love; she played Lady Townly in Vanbrugh and Cibber’s Provok’d Husband

As I said, my proposal was rejected, which I heartily regret because beyond my initial focus on Anne Boleyn, the first and last third parts of my argument are original, go against the grain of consensus about Henry Fielding, and it would have been fun to discuss the frank disillusioned drama of the 18th century stage.

Another though was accepted, on topics I’ve often written about here: historical fiction and Winston Graham’s Poldark novels. This time I will talk about the art of blending fact and fiction:

The Poldark Novels: a quietly passionate blend of precise accuracy with imaginative romancing

While since the 1970s, Winston Graham’s 12 Poldark novels set in Cornwall in the later 18th century have been written about by literary and film scholars as well as historians because of the commercial success of two different series of film adaptations (1974-1978; 2015-2019), very little has been written about these novels as historical fictions in their own right. They emerge from a larger oeuvre of altogether nearly 50 volumes. Most of the non-Poldark books would be categorized variously as contemporary suspense, thriller, mystery or spy novels, with one winning the coveted Golden Dagger award, and others either filmed in the 1950s, ‘60s and 1970s (e.g, The Walking Stick, MGM, 1971), or the subject of academic style essays. One, Marnie (1961) became the source material for a famous Hitchcock movie, a respected play by the Irish writer Sean O’Connor, and in the past year or so an opera by Nico Muhly, which premiered at the London Colosseum (English National Opera production) and is at the present time being staged at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Some are also set in Cornwall and have been the subject of essays on Cornish literature. But a number are also set in other historical periods (early modern and late 19th century Cornwall, Victorian Manchester) and Graham published a non-fiction history of the Spanish Armadas in Cornwall. His historical fiction is usually identified as verisimilar romance, and he has been given respect for the precision of his archival research and his historical and geographical knowledge (especially of Cornwall).

It is not well-known that Graham in a couple of key passages on his fiction wrote a strong defense of historical fiction and all its different kinds of characters as rooted in the creative imagination, life story, and particular personality (taken as a whole) of the individual writer. He also maintained that the past “has no existence other than that which our minds can give it” (Winston Graham, Memoirs of a Private Man, Chapter 8). I will present an examination of three of the Poldark novels, Demelza (set 1788-89, so the fall of the Bastile is woven in, written in 1946); The Angry Tide (set 1798-99, year of the Irish and counter-revolutions in France, strong repression in the UK, written 1977), and The Twisted Sword (set 1815, partly a Waterloo, written 1990), to show Graham deliberately weaving factual or documentable research with a distanced reflective representation of the era his book is written in. The result is creation of living spaces that we feel to be vitally alive and presences whose thoughts and feelings we recognize as analogous to our own. These enable Graham to represent his perception of the complicated nature of individual existences in societies inside a past that is structured by what really happened (events, speeches, mores that can be documented) and an imagined space and credible characters who reach us today.


Elinor Tomlinson and Aidan Turner as Demelza and Ross Poldark (from the first season, 2015 BBC Poldark, scripted Deborah Horsfield)

This is my third paper given at an ASECS conference.

The first was just on the books and it was EC/ASECS (“Liberty in the Poldark Novels: ‘I have the right to choose my own life!'”) and the second at a LA, ASECS, on the two TV series (“Poldark Rebooted: Forty Years On”).

I’ve been watching the fourth season of the 2015 Poldark series once again, and will be blogging about it here soon. I’ve never been to Denver, so now I’ll see a new city for me. Winston Graham and his fiction and characters no longer need vindication but I shall try to make the books more genuinely respected as well as both film adaptations (the one in the 1970s and the one playing on TV these last four years).

Ellen

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


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

Friends and readers,

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


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

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

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


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

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


Nathaniel Bone talking with David Castlemain

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


Elizabeth McGovern is memorable in her brief appearance

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


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

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

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


Jonathan Pryce is pitch perfect in his easier role ….

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

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


Judy Davies when first pulled out of her lair by Tillie

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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