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Archive for the ‘women’s films’ Category


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)

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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Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall, scripted Peter Straughan, directed Peter Kosminsky)
Wolf Hall

It is all very well planning what you will do in six months, what you will do in a year, but it’s no good at all if you don’t have a plan for tomorrow” — Cromwell to his son Gregory as they leave the princess Mary in her cold room at Hatfield, Mantel, Wolf Hall.

The past is not yet dead; it is not even dead — Wm Faulkner

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Eight Wednesday mornings, 9:40 to 11:05 pm,
September 19 to November 8
Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

In this course we’ll read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall & discuss Bring Up the Bodies. Our context will be non-fictionalized biographies of the Tudor/Stuart courts, the better historical romance fictions, and the immensely popular film adaptations of the Henry VIII Tudor matter in general, with the first two books of Mantel’s trilogy focusing on Thomas Cromwell, and Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl our particular examples. Our goal is to explore historical fiction, romance and film, and biography and history and ask why this particular era, its politics, its culture, its characters have appealed so strongly since the Tudor stories emerged in the 19th century.

Required Texts:

Mantel, Hilary. Wolf Hall. New York: Henry Holt, 2009. ISBN 978-9-312-42998-0
(Mantel, Hilary. Wolf Hall. Audio CD reading by Simon Slater. London: Macmillan Audio, Unabridged, 2009. Recommended if you have any trouble reading the book.)


Claire Foy as Queen Anne Boleyn

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion. Its material the Tudor Matter books & films.

Sept 19th: 1st week. Introduction: The Tudor Matter: History & biography, historical fiction & romance, Hilary Mantel. Linda Simon essay on Hilary Mantel’s life & works thus far (sent by attachment).

Sept 26th: 2nd week: Wolf Hall, Parts 1 & 2. Clips from Pt 1 of BBC WH. Serial drama. Early modern history: early modern women. For next week: Emily Nussbaum, a movie review comparing BBC Wolf Hall with HBO Casual Vacancy (Rowling)

Oct 3rd: 3rd week: Wolf Hall, Part 3; Clips from Pt 2 of BBC Wolf Hall. More on serial drama. Reading the text. For next week: Lettridge on a man for this season, and Mary Robertson on “the art of the possible” (sent by attachment).

Oct 10th: 4th week: Wolf Hall, Parts 3 & 4. Clips from pt 3 of WH; Bolt’s Thomas More, Mantel’s Thomas Cranmer; religion and politics.

Oct 17th: 5th week Wolf Hall, Part 5 & 6. Pt 4 of WH. Henry VIII and sexuality.

Oct 24th: 6th week Bring Up the Bodies, Part 1. Pts 5 & 6 of WH. Ghost stories. Beheading, treason trials. What happened?

Oct 31st: 7th week: Bring up the Bodies, Part 2. Philippa Gregory’s Other Boleyn Girl. Clips from the two Other Boleyn Girl. The psychodramas.

Nov 7th: 8th, last week: The Tudor mattter elsewhere; a clip from A Man for All Seasons; the as yet unwritten final phase of Thomas Cromwell.


Jonathan Pryce as Thomas Wolsey

Supplementary Reading and Films:

A Man for All Seasons. Dir. Fred Zinnemann. Script: Robert Bolt. Featuring: Paul Scofield, Leo McKern, John Hurt, Wendy Hiller, Susannah York. Columbia, 1966. Cinema release, adaptation of play.
Bolt, Robert. A Man for All Seasons. 1960; rpt. New York: Vintage, 1990.
Cavendish, George. The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey, in Two Tudor Lives, edd. Richard Sylvester & Davis P. Harding. New Haven: Yale UP, 1962.
Gregory, Philippa. The Other Boleyn Girl. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.
(Gregory, Philippa. The Other Boleyn Girl. CD Audio reading by Susan Lyons. Recorded Books LLC, Unabridged, 2006)
Groot, Jerome de. Consuming History: Historians and heritage in contemporary popular culture. London: Routledge, 2009.
Ives, Eric. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004/5
Mantel, Hilary. Bring Up the Bodies. New York: Henry Holt, 2012.
(Mantel, Hilary. Bring up the Bodies. Audio CD reading by Simon Vance. Macmillan Audio, Unabridged 2012.)
Mantel, Hilary. “Frocks and Shocks,” London Review of Books, a review of Julia Fox’s Jane Boleyn [a biography], 30:8 (April 2008):18-20.
Other Boleyn Girl. Dir, Script: Phillipa Lowthorpe. Consult: Andrew Davies. Featuring: Jodhi May, Steven Mackintosh, Natasha McElhone, Jared Harris. BBC, 2003. Cinema release. Adaptation.
Other Boleyn Girl. Dir. Justin Chadwick. Script. Peter Morgan. Featuring Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Eric Bana, David Morrisey. Cinema release. Adaptation.
Schofield, John. The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell. Stroud, Gloucester: History Press, 2008.
Weir, Alison. Mary Boleyn. New York: Ballantine, 2011.
Wolf Hall. Dir. Peter Kominsky. Script: Peter Straughan. Featuring: Mark Rylance, Claire Foy, Jonathan Pryce, Damien Lewis. BBC, 2015. 6 Part Adaptation


Damien Lewis as Henry VIII

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Dear friends and readers,

Since I summarized Devoney Looser’s daring key-note address to the JASNA meeting held this past fall (2017) on this blog, “After Jane Austen,” I thought I’d add as appropriate my review of her book (upon or from which her speech was elaborated):

This review has been published in The Eighteenth Century Intelligencer, Newsletter of EC/ASECS, NS, 32:1 (2018):37-41, and I had thought to leave only a copy at academia.edu;  but since that site has been reconfigured so that unless you pay for a premium subscription, it comes with interrupting ads, I transfer it here. For the same reason (interrupting ads) I will be placing other short papers, reviews, and proposals having to do with Jane Austen or the 18th century from that site to this blog over the next couple of months.


Lily James as Elizabeth and Sam Riley as Darcy fighting over a gun, guns are regarded as good ways of remaining safe in Burt Steer’s film (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies)

Looser, Devoney. The Making of Jane Austen. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2017. pp. 291. ISBN 1421422824 (hardcover). 978214222831 (electronic).

Devoney Looser’s latest full-scale contribution to Austen studies is an original, important and well-written book. It is valuable for the highly unusual areas she studies, for information about and clear descriptions of texts probably unknown to many Austen scholars and/or Janeites alike (this is a feat), for the critical intelligence and close reading she applies to some of these; and, for her tales of poignant lives of a few people who ought to be remembered with respect for the significant contribution they made to the ways many people read Austen’s texts today. For example, George Pellew, who wrote the first dissertation on Jane Austen, was a sensitive depressive man unable to support himself or navigate the fiercely competitive commercial world which appropriated his book. He allowed himself to be drawn into debates with parapsychologists, and a half-mocking suggestion he seems to have argued weakly against that he might return from the dead then enabled an unscrupulous fraudulent spiritual medium to claim to bring him regularly back from the dead for the amusement of audiences which in order to make a profit from such material since a respectable celebrity had begun to attach itself to anyone who could be attached to the name Jane Austen (Chapter Ten, 185-96).

Unlike some reviewers, e.g., Amy Bloom, John Sutherland and Ruth Bernard Yeasley (see “Which Jane Austen,” New York Review of Books, 44:14 [2017];63-65), I will not against Looser’s “doggedly populist stance” (Yearsley’s phrase) fall into the trap of taking her or others to task for her many refusals to evaluate evidence and assertions about Austen. I will, though, take exception to her blaming repeatedly as culprits the world of scholarship presented as a monolith elite, irredeemably “haughty, highbrow” (Looser’s words) snobs, dense in our relentless determination to erase or ignore the powerless fan, malign the popular funny film, published sequel, widely-attended-to blog or YouTube, or mock as hopeless those inventing fantasy Austens in order say to appease schoolboards. In Austen’s famous sentence, let us not desert one another, we are an injured body: de- or unfunded, derided, part of humanities departments “swept away” with the “useless rubbish of past centuries” (I quote the Reverend Obadiah Slope interviewing Mr Harding in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers). We are made instruments of privately-supported corporations, and, when kept, most of us by no means overpaid or over-benefited. Devoney Looser is herself a privileged member. The strength of her book derives from following the standards of hard research into primary documents, paying meticulous attention to minute detail, using empirical methodology, closely reading accurately and researching into how a particular text, image or event came about. She honors a humane politically liberal, feminist, progressive (pro-LBGTQ) agenda, evidence for which she a tad too cheerfully (“Stone-throwing Jane Austen”) finds among force-fed and imprisoned suffragettes and in early stage plays which anticipate late 20th century film adaptations and some Austen sequels.

Indeed the more popularly-aimed (non-academic) reviews, e.g., Jane Smiley’s (“The Austen Legacy: Why and How We Love Her, and What She Loved,” New York Times Book Review, for July 11, 2017, on-line https://tinyurl.com/ycvw2ab5), pass over the first half of Looser’s book, as academic di rigueur, which “plod forward in their necessary way.” Looser begins with the three initiating (“first wave”) framing books (“Introduction,” “Part One”). Sliding over James-Edward Austen-Leigh’s sentimentalized A Memoir of Jane Austen, and Edward, Lord Brabourne’s edition of carefully selected, rearranged letters by Austen, she moves to dwell with praise on Constance and Ellen Hill’s time-traveling idyllic fantasy, Jane Austen: Her Home and Friends for its invention a magical “Austenland,” where the Hills repeatedly find nothing but safety, kindness, and relics suggesting contented activities. Looser dismisses as not influential Margaret Oliphant’s acid reaction to this kind of thing (8). I suggest Virginia Woolf’s demonstration of how the Hills’ pseudo-biographies “license mendacity” should not be dismissed, even if we cannot be sure how many people were influenced by The [First] Common Reader (it does contain the often-quoted essay, “Jane Austen”).

This picturesque legacy gives way to book illustrations done in a darker mood, much less well-drawn than Ellen Hill’s and poorly printed. The unfortunate Ferdinand Pickering (another depressive drawn to Austen, himself coping with an impoverished violent family) chose and drew solemn, serious, melodramatic linchpin moments in the six stories, often the same ones that serve as hinge-points in contemporary filmed dramatic romance mini-series and cinema hits (Chapter One). From a welter of other hitherto ignored or undiscussed images unearthed by Looser, we can see how Hugh Thomson’s at the time innovatively comic drawings achieved prominence: in debt, and professionally known in other areas of life, Thomson was hired to draw many more illustrations per volume than had been done before; and, in comparison to most of went before (in whatever mood), his are filled with alert life-feeling energy. These volumes sold and other competent illustrators imitated his (Chapter Three, 50-62). Unfortunately, Looser’s identification and innovative close readings of other particular illustrators’ lives and pictures is undermined by a paucity of reprints. She wants us to believe in the special loveliness and period romanticism of A. F. Lydon’s landscapes for Mansfield Park, but we are given only one (Chapter Two, 39-47), not enough to judge. David Gilson in the Cambridge Jane Austen in Context (ed. Janet Todd [2005], provides two more (137, 139-42).


J.F. Lydon, Mansfield Park


Anonymous, Mansfield Park (in the same tradition)

In all this Looser is doing what scholars have done for a long while: in areas of conventional scholarship most people recognize, describing accurately what she has chosen for mapping her Austen tradition. In the dense chapters on “Austen, Dramatized” (Part Two), she again identifies new texts, fearlessly corrects false information and wrong conclusions. She congratulates herself: “we can now identify” the “connection” another recent critic has seen between the MGM Pride and Prejudice and Thomson’s illustrations” (131), and sometimes extrapolates on thin evidence, as when she claims pervasive influence for Rosina Filippi’s Austen-derived dialogues for expensive English and American girls’ schools and private colleges (83-88). In these all-strong-girl scenes, Looser finds early woman-centered proto-feminist scenes similar to those in professionally staged plays by, for example, Mary Keith Medbury McKaye and Margaret McNamara, a feminist-socialist-pacificist (Elizabeth Refuses is still in print). She even turns up two lesbian stage plays. We learn of how Eva Le Gallienne played Jane to her partner-actress, Josephine Hutchinson’s Cassandra; Eleanor Holmes Hinkley (who, we are told, attended Radcliffe) called her “gender-bending” biographical play, Dear Jane, which, while it may have “veered sharply away from … the perfectly pious Christian heroine,” also included the hilarity of the inane. Hinckley is said to have enlisted her cousin, T. S. Eliot to play the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse” in a “stand-alone dialogue” (Chapters Four through Six, 83-96, 113-23). Some intriguing histories of actors and playwrights’ lives, are followed by a full-scale book history-type and film study of the famous (though not initially commercially successful) 1940 MGM Pride and Prejudice and a never realized (seriously lamented by Looser) 1970s screenplay for a satiric Pride and Prejudice that seems a blend of burlesque, TV situation comedy, and crudities in the vein of the recent Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016). A deleted scene from one of the many draft MGM scripts, would have had Laurence Olivier, already associated with Heathcliff, act out some “Bronte-brutal” (136), complete with metaphoric rape (Chapter Seven).


Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton in the 1935 Tale of Two Cities

Since frankness and personal reaction are the order of the day, I’d like to emphasize, as Looser does not, how many women she names as centrally active in different phases of these appropriations of Austen (passim). Read any history of 1930s and 40s “classic” films and plays, illustrations for the 1860s, or early TV, it is just about all men all the time. Not here. Still, Looser does fall into Darcymania (Chapter Five). Her question often is: does a given actor or scene or plot-design emphasize Darcy or anticipate a gothicized Olivier, who is said to anticipate the “swoon-worthy” Colin Firth of Andrew Davies’s super-best known sociological event of a mini-series (the 1995 A&E Pride and Prejudice). I read differently one critic’s “extreme disappointment” (100-2) with a beloved stage actor’s Darcy because he “incomprehensibly” resembled another actor playing Sydney Carton. I suggest for Firth’s archetype one would do better to look at how Ronald Colman performed Carton as “somber dignified” “costumed romance and melodrama.” Colin Firth comes out of that kind of gentlemanly masculinity in melodrama; and after him so too Matthew MacFayden (Joe Wright’s 2004 Pride and Prejudice), and most recently Matthew Rhys (Juliette Towhidi’s 2013 Death Comes to Pemberley). These are part of the Austen tradition too. By contrast, Looser has little use for Greer Garson (“affected, silly” 137) and we hear nothing of the tradition of Elizabeth Garvie, a favorite for Elizabeth Bennet (from the 1979 BBC Fay Weldon Pride and Prejudice).


Elizabeth Garvie and Moray Watson playing Elizabeth and Mr Bennet playing backgammon together (1979 P&P, scripted Fay Weldon)

The material reviewers have been most attracted to, and where Looser does her best to regale us with what she finds “amusing,” includes the later and most problematic parts of her book, “Jane Austen, Politicized (Part Three, Chapters Eight and Nine”) and “Jane Austen, Schooled” (Part Four, Chapter Eleven). Her central contention that Jane Austen has been framed from a political viewpoint and used in political debates almost since she was first written about and discussed is incontestable. As she says, how one defines politics matters, and as long as we don’t define the word narrowly (unrealistically), and include art which “comments on the exercise of power, status, and authority,” and in Austen’s case, “particularly in regard to families, economics and gender roles,” Austen is a political writer. Nonetheless, in these chapters what she goes about to demonstrate is we can find Austen discussed politically and used in political discussion in the British parliament in 1872 (141-42) and in” tony private men’s clubs” when it’s a question of an image or name in banners and posters (which she insists were taken seriously) in suffragette marches and feminist pageants. She cites critics and authors overtly political in the narrower and broader senses who defend or attack Austen and differ considerably in their philosophical and other views, among the better known, G. K. Chesterton, a political reactionary, William Dean Howells, a socialist (151-52, 161-63) and among women, Annie Gladstone (159-61) and Cicely Hamilton, once an important writer (169-74). Looser studies widely-distributed schooltexts since the mid-19th century for readings, handbooks for tests, abridged (gouged-out) Austens and discovers they “reinforce social structures at the time, especially in terms of class, taste, and culture” (199). That’s still true (220-21). Jane Austen is made to stand for whatever is the mainstream view, and her texts explicated to support these in the blandest ways, e.g., Emma needs to learn “each of us has his own life to live; we cannot make ourselves dictators of the lives of others” (206).

The trouble is Looser says more than once it doesn’t matter if none of these purveyors of Austen or her books ever read about her for real or in decent unabridged texts. What are we endorsing, “celebrating” or “studying [for] historical nuance and cultural scope,” if ignorance and misunderstanding are its basis and these texts produce opposed and contradictory readings or responses (221)? When she says Samuel French handles “an astonishing 332 Austen-inspired school and community theater productions from 2012 to 2017” I don’t see how she can conclude a “performed Austen” is globally prevalent (220). She enters earnestly into imbecilic abuse (a reprint of a menu depiction of a clueless maid in tattered uniform peering guiltily at the broken bits of a bust of Austen for a rich men’s club, 154-56), and ill-natured anti-intellectualism (a National Lampoon mock-ad featuring as simpletons an earnest male supermarket employee and smiling leisured housewife, 212-14) in the same spirit as she complains that a non-condescending non-exploitative educational engagement with Austen’s texts by Josephine Woodbury Heerman (a 1908 edition of Pride and Prejudice for Macmillan Pocket Classic, 203) has not been as distributed or valued as Chapman’s 1924 first scholarly texts based on a study of the first printed editions and (where they exist) manuscripts.

This is a book mostly about social, political, and economic behaviors, personal lives, book and film and stage history, all of which can be connected back to a group of texts written by a woman named Jane Austen. In her “Coda” Looser pleads with her reader to “recognize” “please” that Austen’s “critical and popular legacies” move happily in tandem (217-18), that “popularity” (celebrity might be better word) is “not killing” Austen (219). She has apparently written this book to deny that Jane Austen or her texts (she does not distinguish between the biography and the texts) are being made “ridiculous,” and ends on the confession that she is “part of the problem” (222). Why? Because she is an Austen scholar who is also a professional roller-derby skater “under the name of Stone-Cold Austen” and because a number of her significant life events happened and continue to happen (e.g., an “Austen-scholar husband” and this book) as the result of an early and continuing personal engagement with Austen’s novels. To combine such experiences is “preposterous” (222). I confess I find her to be boasting and wrestling with a non-existent bugbear and mortification (if she is mortified). Powerful and high status members of societies have always used and will continue to use exclusion and stigmatized descriptions to control and marginalize and keep from less powerful people not just genuinely subversive and transgressive texts and pictures but anything they value unless they own some version of the object or experience they can conspicuously consume. Because this is so is no reason to stigmatize the academic profession (let us now remember Johnson’s couplet, “There mark what Ills the Scholar’s Life assail/Toil, Envy, Want, the Patron and the Jail,” Vanity of Human Wishes, lines 158-59) nor, in this year, explicitly undervalue the difference between knowledge and illusion, credible evidence and lies.

Ellen Moody
Independent Scholar


Isobel Bishop (1902-88) imagined image of Jane Austen laboring over a manuscript of a book

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Wynona Ryder as Jo coming with accepted manuscript to Gabriel Bryne as Prof Bauer (1996 LW, directed Gillian Armstrong, my favorite of all the LW movies


A thumbnail of the pair (hurt badly by the ugly insistence on ownership by a website)

Friends and readers,

Day 6/10 of books that influenced me, had a discernible impact. Yet again problematic. Maybe because books have meant so much to me, that even when younger I had several “going” at a time. I was a reading girl. So from when I was around 10 or 11 reading as an adolescent, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Good Wives was my truly central book. It was sturdy. Below is the cover of the book I cherished for years.

I still remember chapters, the moral lessons of several, lines and incidents come floating up, details, Meg learns it’s better not to dress up to the point you make yourself uncomfortable, Meg and Jo each wear one soiled glove and one clean; Amy’s birthday party to which no one came, the newspaper (like Pickwick); Jo’s cutting her hair; Jo and Laurie as friends; the trip to Europe Jo didn’t get to go on; Beth’s death; I loved that Jo married Prof Bauer and like those film adaptations where the relationship is made deep, understandable, the male character appealing (1970 with Angela Down as Jo, 1995 with Wynona Ryder as Jo, even the 2018, where the best role was given to Marmee and actress was Emily Watson). My edition had picturesque black-and-white illustrations (in the style of the above) and I colored the lines with colored inks, tracing over the black lines. I encouraged my daughters to read the book and both did, with Laura going on to lovie Little Men better (it might be the better book, her depressive state of mind, about an outcast).

Recently I embarked on watching a series of these Little Women film adaptations (170-2018) back-to-back and writing about them. I lost my DVDs of them when my computer broke down, but now a kind friend is replacing them for me, and I hope this year to do justice to this set of films — though it is the book that influenced me. Kindness, courtesy, compassion, how all people should be treated with dignity, on the side of reading and writing girls, Jo’s long choice of spinsterhood rather than marry where there was no deep congeniality and sharing of true innate values and gifts. It was not the female community so much for me.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nancy_Drew#Ghostwriters

I have vowed to myself the value of these blogs is I tell as accurately as I can what comprises the truth. So, at the same time I was reading and rereading the Mary Poppins books still, I had started the four at age 8 while I lived in the southeast Bronx and vegetation was not something we a lot of. I loved how the character was on the surface hard and not giving, but when all adults were gone, one escaped into a magical happier beautiful world. The Park was my favorite, though years later Margaret Drabble’s Seven Sisters picked up on the story of the Pleiade in another of the Poppins books (so I loved the Drabble). At first I did not like Disney movie (I saw it when I was age 18) as destroying what was so crucial to the character (Julia Andrews was all sweetness), but after a while adjusted to its projection of a similar message through dance – great dancing by her and Dick Van Dyke, especially the chimney sweep piece.  A new faux realistic and sociological take on Travers’s life see Saving Mr Banks.


Bert and Mary

I’m torn because the other meaningful seemingly English book was Burnett’s Secret Garden which I so loved as an escape into a garden (I was with Mary Lennox all the way); I was very fond of Colin and wanted to name a son after him. When I found myself on a boat sailing up the English channel and saw the white cliffs of Dover I ws so foolish as to be nostalgic and glad to see these cliffs “at last.” Don’t reread Secret Garden if you don’t ant to be dismayed by its racism, snobbery towards Dickin and his sister Susan and their gratitude to be talked to at all is insufferable: they are very poor and the book is okay with that.


These books go so deep one doesn’t need to back them up by the more widely disseminated movies

Much less because I can’t quote many lines, specific scenes don’t come up and I can’t remember any character I could identify with but Nancy Drew, but I know I was reading many of these at the same time as Little Women and The Secret Garden.  L, and they and Poppins (or a foolish ignorant naive young girl) created an Anglophilia in me, marrying a gentleman, preferably English or Anglo in origin, is urged on the reader. At any rate I married an Englishman.

Like GWTW, the old Nancy Drews (they are rewritten each decade) is ugly in its denigration of “criminals” as always non-white, non-American, coarse, lower class and I would never recommend these books to any girl now. Carolyn Keene is a pseudo-nym for a stable of complicit authors, the first Margaret Wirt Benson. I did like how she would get into her “blue coupe” and drive into the horizon, a symbol of liberty. Years later my first truly chosen car was a blue Chevy Cavalier, now I too had a blue car to drive about in. On my own behalf I stopped reading these books when I began to root for the “villain” girl of the Dana books, Lettie Briggs. I began to detest Nancy Drew for her self-satisfaction and just about everything about her that made her think her better than other people. I tried Judy Bolton and the books felt realer (they had a single author I learned in later life and were never rewritten) but she marries half-way through an FBI agent and the books become as reactionary as Nancy Drew while much duller: Peter is endlessly rescuing her. Nancy Drew is today a global figure: I’ve had students who came from Nigeria cite a Nancy Drew as her favorite book from childhood.

Ellen

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Hattie McDaniel, Olivia de Havilland and Vivien Leigh 1939 in Gone with the Wind

Diary

Friends,

Day 5/10 of books that influenced me (growing up lasts a long time), that had a discernible impact.

Again for me this is problematic. Between the ages of 13 and 15 I read and reread four books to the point I knew many scenes by heart and can today still conjure them up vividly in my mind. Undeniably (surely we are to to be truthful, or What are we doing in such an exercise?), the first up in time (I was 12) was Gone with The Wind. It came into our house as a book-of-the-month club special for my mother, and I sat down and began to read. I was so entranced (with a four column page) read it so much and so often that the copy fell into pieces. The cover illustration was a collage of scenes from the GWTW books (hence not like the one I find) but my copy was a reprint of the first edition, the ample book behind this older cover:


Note the confederate flag on the side of the paper cover

The problem is that even then I knew it was a racist book and I am today deeply ashamed of myself that I ignored this. (Note the confederate flag on the side of the paper cover.) It was wrong and racist behavior on my part as the book has functioned perniciously in US culture. Still I am not embarrassed in front of GWTW. I have seen this reaction when I used to assign to students to read a book from childhood and the young adult was embarrassed to realize what the book he or she so loved was. I regretted when that happened. My father tried to read The Secret Garden to me when I was 10 and had to give it up so mortified was he to see the agenda of Burnett’s book. These books answered to what we were then

I was Scarlett in my earliest readings. GWTW led to my reading a helluva of lot of Walter Scott in my earlier teens.  In later years I have decided the heroine of GWTW is Melanie. I shall never forget her standing at the top of the ruined stairs of Tara with a rifle, having killed the marauding soldier, and now determined to lug the corpse to the field to bury it. When Ashley comes home, Scarlett’s wild desire to run to him, and Will saying, “he’s her husband.” I’ve expanded the heroes to include Rhett Butler, Ashley Wilkes and Will Benteen.  I remember so many scenes from GWTW; they formed a backdrop of women’s key emotional moments in my mind. Scarlett in her mother’s green velvet curtains trying to charm money out of the imprisoned Rhett.

It’s women’s historical romance first and foremost.

I’ve never given up this type of book and some are leftist and liberal. My most recent wallowing has been in the distressingly pro-violence Outlander (the first three books) and the brilliant voyeuristic film adaptation: I find irresistible the central love relationship of Jamie and Claire, and I bond with Claire in book and film. I find irresistible still her fierce adherence to Jamie, I bond with her in book and film.


Claire and Jamie starting out together …

People disappear all the time.
Young girls run away from home.
Children stray from their parents and are never seen again.
Housewives take the grocery money, and a taxi to the train station.
Most are found eventually.
Disappearances, after all, have explanations.
Usually.
Strange, the things you remember.
Single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years

I know the Poldark novels by Winston Graham belong to this genre so my study of the Poldark novels began here when I started to read Ross Poldark after watching a few of the episodes of the 1970s serial drama. It’s deeply humane in its politics.


My first copy of Ross Poldark, the 1970s reprint of the 1951 cut version, published in anticipation of the 1975 serial drama starring Robin Ellis

There were three other authors I read & reread around the same time, getting to know by heart key scenes: the second chronologically was Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I recently reread it once again and am convinced it is a poetic masterpiece of l’ecriture-femme, one of the great novels for women and one of the world’s great novels in all languages. Who can forget countless passages like this: “I can live alone, if self-respect and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure, born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld; or offered only at a price I cannot afford to pay.” Contra mundi.


This is the copy of Jane Eyre I now own

At the time I was not alive to the crucial differences in language between Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Daphne DuMaurier’s RebeccaRebecca was another “extra” from my mother’s subscription to the US Book-of-the-Month Club. Like Bronte, like GWTW, DuMaurier’s books satisfied a need in me that recent Booker Prize women’s romance (Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac, A. S. Byatt, Possession) also satisfy. Bronte and DuMaurier explicitly make visible a woman’s vision using techniques found in l’ecriture-femme, but there were only 5 Bronte novels that I could read (JE, Villette, Agnes Grey, Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Wuthering Heights) so DuMaurier functioned as yet more of the same: My Cousin Rachel, Jamaica Inn, Branwell Bronte and above all King’s General. Last summer I reveled with a group of people in a class I taught at OLLI at Mason in reading together King’s General (17th century civil war, crippled heroine) and Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover. However vastly more perceptive about the nature of reality, Volcano Lover is still of this genre. All versions of the same kind of underlying deep gratification of soul.

I had found my copy of Jane Eyre in a local drugstore for 40¢; I went back a few weeks later, and found imprinted in the same cheap way Austen’s Mansfield Park. Another 40¢ and home I went to read and reread MP. My fourth and nowadays favorite book of all these. When I got to the end and heard the moral of struggle and endure, I turned back to the first page and read the novel over again. I’ve never stopped reading it. It has never been far out of my mind, always at the edge of consciousness to be called up. I’ve never forgotten the cover of this MP: white, with 18th century type stage characters, and the blurb telling me this is a “rollicking comedy.” In my naivete I couldn’t understand why this blurb so false was there. But no matter I was Fanny, and this was a somber strong book.


The colors dark and distorted this is nonetheless the second copy of MP I owned

Since then I’ve seen all the film adaptations of Jane Eyre and Mansfield Park available.


Fanny and Edmund growing up at MP (1983 Ken Taylor BBC)

With GWTW, Jane Eyre, and Mansfield Park I began my love affair with women’s great books, historical romance, and historical fiction. I’ve never stopped reading these and nowadays want only to write about them. And for me they include the great classics (in 19th & early 20th century beyond DuMaurier, English Anne Bronte, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Margaret Oliphant, Virginia Woolf, Rosamund Lehmann, Margaret Drabble).


Ruth Wilson as Jane Eyre (Sandy Welch’s JA, 2006)

Ellen

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Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen reading and writing outside a cottage (Becoming Jane, 2007, scripted Kevin Hood, Susan Williams, directed Julian Jarrod)

Dear friends and readers,

I have over the years written several blogs on Christmas, mentions and uses by Austen in her novels (see especially her perception of Christmas in the novels) and the films adapted from them. In brief here is a sample:

Sense and Sensibility: The Miss Steeles “were prevailed on to stay nearly two months at the park, and to assist in the due celebration of that festival which requires a more than ordinary share of private balls and large dinner parties to proclaim its importance.”

Pride and Prejudice: Caroline Bingley’s cruel letter to Jane ends: “I sincerely hope your Christmas in Hertfordshire may abound in the gaieties which that season generally brings.”

Mansfield Park: Mary Crawford : “Is it Christmas gaieties that he is staying for?” (she doesn’t believe that for a minute)

Emma (chosen from the long sequence): Mr. Weston: “At Christmas every body invites their friends about them, and people think little of even the worst weather.” (Mr Weston’s benign unsubtle view is not agreed with …)

Northanger Abbey: ‘Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim. Catherine knew all this very well; her great aunt had read her a lecture on the subject only the Christmas before; and yet she lay awake ten minutes on Wednesday night debating between her spotted and her tamboured muslin, and nothing but the shortness of the time prevented her buying a new one for the evening.’

Persuasion: “Immediately surrounding Mrs. Musgrove were the little Harvilles, whom she was sedulously guarding from the tyranny of the two children from the Cottage, expressly arrived to amuse them. On one side was a table occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper … the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard, in spite of all the noise of the others. Charles and Mary also came in, of course … Mr. Musgrove made a point of paying his respects to Lady Russell, and sat down close to her for ten minutes, talking with a very raised voice, but from the clamour of the children on his knees, generally in vain …”

You may skim the whole lot swiftly here.


Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth supposed reading Jane’s letters the winter after the Christmas visit of the Gardeners (who took Jane off to cheer her up, 1995 P&P, scripted Andrew Davies, directed Simon Langton)

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

Tonight I went through her letters and an overview for the first time in a couple of years brings home to me once again, how much is missing. For some years and phases of the year we see a regular rhythm to the letters, say two or three journal-style over two or three days will repeat itself, and then nothing. Major events not noted because they don’t occur on the days of the letters left to us. As to mentions of Christmas or the weather, one can conjecture that if a group of balls, dances, parties, dinners are all occurring between the last week of December and first of January they might be related to a holiday and there is a feel of regularity of occurrence at this time of year, but I found but no mention of Christmas itself (the word) and it is itself a reference to a general time when someone is expected to return to where the Austens are living (Southampton). It’s almost surprising this lack of reference to Christmas in the letters; yes a majority were destroyed, even so if you read what’s there I could find but two mentions specifically.

This is the slim matter I gleaned; there is much more matter in these letters but I pulled only that which could conceivably relate:


Anna Maxwell Martin as Cassandra reading one of Jane’s letters (2007 Becoming Jane)

No 14, Dec 18-19, 1798, Tues-Wed; Tues, Dec 18, Steventon: “I enjoyed the hard black Frosts of last week very much, & one day while they lasted walked to Deane by myself.” (4th ed, p 27)

No 15, Dec 24-26, 1798, Mon-Wed; Dec 24, Mon, Steventon: Frank is in Gibaltar, she has returned from Manydown, her mother “does not like the cold Weather, but that we cannot help,” there has been a ball, but that it was for Christmas is never said. She does write: “I wish you a merry Christmas but no compliments of the Season.” Cassandra has danced away at Ashford, there was to have been a dinner at Deane the night she is writing this sentence, “but the weather is so cold that I am not sorry to be kept at home by the appearance of Snow.” There is no other mention of the holiday or weather (4th ed, pp 31-32)

No 17, Jan 8-9, Tues-Wed, 1799; Tues, Jan 8, Steventon: “a Ball at Kempshott this evening” … she had told Cassandra that “Monday was to be the Ball Night,” but no such thing.” Elizabeth has been very cruel about my writing Music; — & as a punishment for her, I should insist upon always writing out all hers and for her in future.” “I love Martha better than ever, & I mean to go & see her if I can when she gets home.” How there was a dinner at “Harwoods on Thursday, & the party broke up the next morning,” she shall be “such a proficient in Music by the time I have got rid of my cold, that I shall be perfectly qualified in that science at least to take Mr Roope’s office at Eastwell this summer … of my Talent in Drawing I have given specimens in my letters to you, & I have nothing to do but invent a few hard names for the Stars … ” Of a party at Manydown, “There was the same kind of party as last year, & the same want of chairs. — there were more Dancers than the Room could conveniently hold, which is enough to constitute a good Ball at any time.” She was not “very much in request –. People were rather apt not to ask me till they could not help it” … But no mention any of this specifically for Christmas nor the weather (4th ed, pp 34-36)

No 29, Jan 3-5, Sun-Mon, 1801; Sat, Jan 3, Steventon: What is “uppermost in my mind” is “you often wore a white gown in the morning, at the time of all the gay party’s being with you.” They visited Ash Park last Wednesday, “went off in a come-ca way; we met Mr Lefroy & Tom Chute, played at cards & came home again … ” This is letter is about what is happening at home because they are moving to Bath (providing for servants) and all the plans and doings about where they will live … (4th ed, p 69)

No 61, Nov 20, Sun, 1808; Sun Nov 3, Castle Square (Southampton): Mary Jane Fowle will “return at Christmas” with her brother.” Second and last use of the word in the collection that I found (4th ed, p 161)

No 63, Dec 2-28, Tues-Wed; Tues Dec 27, Castle Square: Eliza “keeping her bed with a cold … Our Evening party on Thursday, produced nothing more remarkable than Miss Murden’s coming too …. ” she “sitting very ungracious and silent with us … The last hour, spent in yawning & shivering in a wide circle round thefirst, was dull enough — but the Tray had admirable success.” She is talking of the food they ate, which by association leads to “Black Butter do not decoy anybody to Southampton.” No mention of any of this having anything to do with Christmas (4th ed, p 166)

A truly sparse amount of references. The novels give a sense of traditional parties, dances, festivities, rituals — as if in writing to the world she had to give such references and notice. Everything we read in other documents shows there were such, and from the early 16th century on we find such descriptions in diaries, journals, verse, documentary records. In the 1790s we begin to find references to Christmas a ritual of family getting together and a feeling of deep missing out if you don’t have such, if you live far from home (see for Southey’s Written on Christmas Day, 1795), from which I quote a passage here

I do remember when I was a child
How my young heart, a stranger then to care,
With transport leap’d upon this holy-day,
As o’er the house, all gay with evergreens,
From friend to friend with joyful speed I ran,
Bidding a merry Christmas to them all.
Those years are past; their pleasures and their pains
Are now like yonder covent-crested hill
That bounds the distant prospect, indistinct,
Yet pictured upon memory’s mystic glass
In faint fair hues. A weary traveller now
I journey o’er the desert mountain tracks
Of Leon, wilds all drear and comfortless,
Where the grey lizards in the noontide sun
Sport on the rocks, and where the goatherd starts,
Roused from his sleep at midnight when he hears
The prowling wolf, and falters as he calls
On Saints to save. Here of the friends I think
Who now, I ween, remember me, and fill
The glass of votive friendship …
Thus I beguile the solitary hours
With many a day-dream, picturing scenes as fair
Of peace, and comfort, and domestic bliss
As ever to the youthful poet’s eye …

And since in her novels, Austen characteristically tells only as much as is needful for her story in her novels, except for the scenes around Christmas in Emma, which themselves occur because the Knightley family gets together at Christmas (the way people do today), what emerges is the satiric nature of her work: most of the references are half-mocking, fatuous hypocritical meretricious behavior at Christmas is what she registered first just the way she registers this for musical concerts (when people pretend to understand and be ravished by music) or romantic poetry, except this time in the few cases of characters who can really feel sincerely: Marianne for music and poetry, Elinor for drawing, Fanny for pictures, Jane Fairfax for music, Mr Knightley for sitting over a fire, Anne Elliot music and poetry, Catherine Morland reading, but nothing for Christmas. Perhaps she did have distaste for what she saw come out of the holiday customs specifically, humanely speaking.

Comparatively, to cite a few other authors, while Trollope also dislikes all the hypocrisy and commercialism arising from Christmas, he has stories where there is quiet thematic use of Christmas attaching to it true charity or kindliness of spirit when rightly observed. Because of the strong distaste for ceremonies of lies here (and elsewhere in his fiction), I have never made a Christmas blog about his work that I can recall, but perhaps this year I’ll break that non-pattern and write about the nature of what Christmas stories he gets himself to write, and the ones that work well. A 20th century novelist who wrote a famous series of novel set in the 18th century uses Christmas regularly: the close of the Poldark books show Christmas as practiced in the 18th century Cornwall had a meaning for him. Tonight I quote Tennyson from In Memoriam where he has grieved so for the loss of a beloved friend expresses feelings somewhat like mine this morning:

Again at Christmas did we weave
The holly round the Christmas hearth;
The silent snow possess’d the earth,
And calmly fell our Christmas-eve:

The yule-log sparkled keen with frost,
No wing of wind the region swept,
But over all things brooding slept
The quiet sense of something lost.

As in the winters left behind,
Again our ancient games had place,
The mimic picture’s breathing grace,
And dance and song and hoodman-blind.

Who show’d a token of distress?
No single tear, no mark of pain:
O sorrow, then can sorrow wane?
O grief, can grief be changed to less?

O last regret, regret can die!
No -– mixt with all this mystic frame,
Her deep relations are the same,
But with long use her tears are dry.

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

In going over Austen’s letters and then my blogs on the novels, and in context of the eras nearby, what I am again impressed with, is what is easy to find in the novels registered through many pictures in the films is Austen writing of letters, reading, writing, and dramatic uses of letters (far more than books). As my four stills chosen quickly and somewhat at random revealed — from a supposed biographical movie I have discussed hardly at all here.


Olivia Williams as a mature Austen writing Persuasion (Miss Austen Regrets, 2009, scripted Gweneth Hughes, directed Jeremy Lovering)

Ellen

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