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Archive for the ‘women’s films’ Category


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

Friends,

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

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

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

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

Episode 7: Luke and a world beyond

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


Breakfast (Elisabeth Moss and Jordana Blake)

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

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

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Max Mingella (in mirroring scene, Episode 3)

Episode 8: Nick, the chauffeur

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 9: A strong ethical perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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

Friends,

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

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


William Gilpin, Picturesque Beauty, Travel, Sketches

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


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

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


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


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

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


Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza (from Poldark, Season 2)

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


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

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


Photo of Cornish sea by Simon McBride

Ellen

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The regular rape of Offred: the hands are Serena Joy’s the wife, into whose lap Offred must lie, and as the commmander drives his penis into her (no emotion allowed to be shown)

Friends,

I’ve gone on — like many others — to watch three more weeks of A Handmaid’s Tale (see Episodes 1-3), and have been gripped not only by the story and characters themselves, but how often the world of Gilead parallels what I’ve experienced in life in much quieter, muted, subtler ways, prophecy what can be the outcome of such behavior and modes such as we are seeing in the Trump’s regimes attempts to repress protest, and erase women’s rights insofar as they can.

Diane Reynolds has written brilliantly about the impotence of the chief males, specifically commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) in episode 4 (Nothing sexy about men or violence; subversive television): how rare it is in mainstream film to have a central male impotent. I felt in the way sex was presented, the implication was men don’t need a woman to respond and all their sexual feeling can be satisfied in genital sex for themselves, without regard for the woman. Indeed in this scenario, the man would prefer the woman just be still so as not to get in his way. The second season of Outlander uses impotence: sometimes Jamie (Sam Heughan) cannot have an erection or any form of sex with Clare (Caitriona Balfe) because he is so terrified by the trauma of his nightmares about how the British police Officer, Black Jack (Tobias Menzies), drove Jamy to submit to sex, by torture, horrific physical cruelty) smashing Jamy’s hand), branding and taunting him over the branding. The chauffeur (as I call him), Nick (Max Minghella) as Guardian, comes closest to what we imagine when we conjure up “the natural male.” I wonder how much Atwood meant us to remember the gamekeeper in Lady Chatterley’s Lover — a modern analogue is the chauffeur of Downton Abbey, coopted but at first defiant.

In Episode 5 I was startled to see the film suddenly “descend” (?) into the usual heterosexual sex scene, here between Nick and Offred (Elisabeth Moss). Otherwise and even here it’s very grim. there seems little joy anywhere. When June and her boyfriend or partner, Luke (O-T Bagfenle) go out with their baby daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake) it is never to a park, to a green place or anywhere peaceful,not one quiet moment except at home in bed having sex in darkened spaces; they are inside garish night clubs. They go to noisy, glittering neon-lit amusement parks. I was surprised to to hear Offred (June at the time) ask Luke to leave his wife. First I did not know she was living or going out with a married man, and then though I can see why she does not want to be a secondary supplement, I probably in life would not feel that comfortable about a woman who told me she had demanded her boyfriend leave his wife for her. I would probably identify as much with the wife. I saw this as part of the way the film does not sentimentalize or idealize the life before this dystopia. She’s not much a reader. I also saw the use of iron all around Nick’s hips as equating his phallus with guns, iron, macho male hardness. I understood Offred was doing this in part to impregnate and thus save herself from deportation “to the colonies” (a form of transportation and thus death). But the scene was not much different from many of the sexual scenes in Outlander

I remember in the 1990 film the chauffeur was kind (not at all threatening as when in episode 5 when she gets aggressive he suddenly threatens to “turn her in”), and when in the film Offred escapes, she escapes with him. A new family is re-formed. He is not a macho male in the way of this one and Natasha Richardson herself in appearance and much about her is “sweeter,” more lovely, not aggressive. He invites her up to his (in effect) tree-house. There are so many more trees and greenery in the 1990s.

Diane has written on this one too, especially on the inchoate rage of the women who suffers female genital mutilation (“When dystopia is better than real life …. “). While there is no female genital mutilation in Atwood’s book (the ritual had not become as well known in the 1980sas it is today), in the real world in Africa and the middle east, women are subject to genital mutilation and this mutilation is what is driving Ofstevens when she loses it and darts into the car. We see more of the vicious commander: we see while he seems gentle talk to him and the Pence like ideas come out and his own elation in his power and control. Again like the real world.

In my present mood tonight it seems to reflect the real world — like when the woman Ofstevens tries to drive away, in frantic attempt to escape, and then mows over, runs over people, for revenge. The men with their machine guns gunning her down reminded me of a scene in DC the summer of 2013 where a group of police gunned down and murdered a black woman, Miriam Carey, who had by mistake hit a cement barrier; she was terrified of them as they pushed their guns into her car, and when she scooted around them (not running anyone over), they chased her down and killed her — they could have killed the baby in the chairseat. Didn’t care.


Their scrabble game

Episode 6 offers our first glimmers of hope. A looped set of flashbacks showing us some initial crucial scenes in the war featuring Fred and Mrs Waterford (Serena Joy, her ironic name, Yvonne Strahovski). It appears Serena Joy was a strong aggressive woman, a scholar, but she followed this crazed set of deeply anti-humane anti-women ideals and she ended up thrown out of the public world, with nothing to do, her two books (one is called A Woman’s Place) are last seen in the trash. We see them as a middle class couple so well dressed and equals. Fred emerges as a man partly made into a villain when he is given such power and adulation. When we see the original relationship of the commander and his wife and how she originally was a published author, going to conferences, central in power structures:: surely some of her hatred of Offred comes from the perverse way her arguments against feminism have turned out to make her powerless and silent.


Serena Joy cursing Offred when it becomes clear that Offred is not pregnant

He also comes across as more human because for a second in the hour he succumbs to a natural desire: he is drawn to kiss Offred! He has tired of their scrabble, how she does not make him the central object of her stay in the room, and asks her to leave. She has to return to darkness, no books, no outlet and she finds herself turning around to beg to stay, and appear to want a kiss, some caress. Elisabeth Moss is a particularly powerful actress (see The Guardian for her presence as almost a guarantee of quality); her strong-structured face, her control over emotions she nonetheless projects as so intense they are almost breaking her within is just the kind of acting style this mini-series needsHe coldly allows this and then forcibly sticks his tongue in her mouth. She now has to submit, pretends to like it, and is seen washing her mouth out thoroughly next. He also astonishingly feels some guilt coming home as his ambassador negotiations are not going well: he seems to realize Serena Joy might have helped for real. And when he comes home he and she actually make love. He seems reluctant as if this is verboten.

So too does nature emerge with Nick and Offred. She visits but hates to have to make love for baby-making. She is in a deep rage by this point but somehow he calms her down. And they too are making love — not just having sex this time.

The visit by the ambassadors to a Spanish country (Mexico) includes a “dinner party” for the handmaid’s where they are told they will enjoy themselves. It turns out that the “damaged” handmaid’s must be kept out — orders of Mrs Waterford — lest as with slavery, the visitors see how viciously the girls are treated. One of the girls (with a gouged out eye) begins to cry. What enjoyment can she be imagining? Anything will do. I know the feeling. And then astonishingly Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) shows some pity: she had promised them, they were looking ward to it, she objects to keeping them out, but of course acquiesces when Mrs Waterford says sternly, they cannot be seen as they will look bad (like slaves who were maimed if the owners cared). Aunt Lydia offers chocolate and treats as a substitute — the pathos as the girl accepts this replacement reluctantly.

Now once there everyone in strict ritual table form. Mrs Waterford presides as the wife. A conversation reveals to Offred it’s not oranges Gilead is trading with this outsider Spanish group: but the handmaids themselves. The commander had shown the children the handmaids had had. This Spanish country wants children; no one have been born in a long while. Like animals in a zoo will not produce children.

Just before the dinner and again afterward Offred is introduced to the Spanish ambassador, a woman. Mrs Waterford has warned her to give the right answers to this ambassadress. So (as Offred knows what the right answers are), she says she has chosen this state or condition and is happy with it. So stiffly briefly said. One can see something is wrong as the woman pretends she has had a big conversation. Clearly she has not.

Fast forward to the end of the hour and Offred is leaving for her morning walk; the ambassadress and her male sidekick are there. Again the ambassadress thanks her for telling so much. Offred can’t take it and blurts out the truth: they were captured, are beaten with cattle prods, raped, their eyes gouged out for punishment, if they are caught reading, they have finger cut off, twice, the whole hand. The woman now has to acknowledge but what does she say? she is so sorry. Offred says in reply, thank you but do something. The woman claims she cannot but we know she wants these woman as baby makers. And then she leaves and her male counterpart comes forward. He suddenly offers to help. Offred suspicious, he says he can get a note to her husband. Who is alive. Hesitant, shocked, and sudden gleam in her eyes, she does write on the pad. So there is another place in that beyond where her first friend fled on the train

What really gets me is how believable the scenes are. I feel I have seen versions of them in my society. Black man as prisoners for what they should not be jailed for kowtowed utterly. Slaves in the past saying they were happy, showing evidence of brutality. Pence’s desire for conversation therapy.


Serena Joy waiting for her husband to return home ….

Another blog by Diane Reynolds’s blog on episode 6 (Nothing to lose but their chains?) one emphasizes how hard it is, how very dark the hour still is. Okay it was not as hard to take as the previous. Diane’s qualifications are we’ll-taken. The glimmers of hope I spoke of are only by contrast to the relentless cruelty and indifference to their victims we saw in the first 5 episodes. We see what I consider natural feelings that are good or at least kindly interactive on the face of it immediately come out. But it is true the commander is showing his power over Offred and she is repulsed but cannot show it. All relationship with him in her situation is horrible. It teaches us what it is to be a slave or powerless prisoner. If aunt Lydia feels compunction at not giving what she promised, she cerrtainly does not fight for the handmaid’s. The commander and Mrs Waterford’s love-making is also ruined at the core by their analogous relationship to the commander and Offred. Nick is similarly powerful over Offred — cant tell and their love making is again as the other pair suddenly a return to domineering heterosexual sex — it is what is understood as good sex in our culture by many. The ambassadress does not offer to help but will exploit and yes the ending is too pat: a coincidence too strong. But until now nothing yielding happened.

Further on the story level we can see a possible “out” for Offred. We see more the life was once very otherwise, there are communities outside that are decent we can hope. Didn’t have that before.

On the connection with today: I was horrified to listen to Trump’s utter hypocrisy in Saudi Arabia where the slightest public protest can lead you to imprisonment, torture, parts of your body cut off and death. We in the US the majority who didn’t vote for this man are apparently in the helpless situation of Offred. We have no one to turn to who has the power to oust this regime which supports the Saudis who are going to use this weaponry to destroy the Yemenese people altogether. The parallels with our world are not just sexual.

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


In a Disneyland sort of place

I have been reading the book again. It is not as relentless even in the opening The 2017 film makers made the whole thing so much tougher. As I read I am more appalled because I recognize my society in this book’s depiction The regimentation, the dysfunction, the coldness … And I reread the original ending. The book ends with a coda on on an academic conference decades later (2195) where someone reads a paper about this strange manuscript. Is it true? if so, what happened to these people? The participants in the session all profess great humanity, but they dissect the occurrences in the manuscript with startling indifference. It’s a bitter satire on academic papers and the way academics can behave around them: making the slightest of jokes, all flattery for one another. All the speakers are male; we are in a patriarachy still. Atwood has used time-traveling, movement forward suddenly to give us a sceptical and cold switch. It’s an astonishing sleight-of-hand. This mini-series is departing in just the way the 1990s film did, where Offred and her child escaped with the help of Nick. The positive elements of Episode 6 are those which led to the escape at the close of the 1990s film — though I agree with Diane these are counteracted by the heinousness of the commander’s use of power, by Offred’s revulsion, by the refusal of the Spanish ambassadress once she is told that Offred is a beaten terrified enslaved women to do anything — she just walks off.

Ellen

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For those determined to keep up with the slightest touch of Austen,

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Renee Zellweger trudging along as Bridget Jones, heavily pregnant, bringing home laundry, food, her Christmas tree and whatever she needs in the snow

The third installment of Bridget Jones’s story is worth going to — if you can sit through the first 10 or say 15 minutes of excruciatingly stupid, vulgar, noisy montages to promiscuity; if you are someone who enjoys screwball romantic comedy (where there is believable “bonheur” over companionship however bizarrely achieved); and if you saw and enjoyed Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Edge of Reason, and like Helen Fielding’s novels. That’s three “if’s.”

Get past that opening, and you find yourself in a problematic situation that has contemporary resonance. Bridget is pregnant and does not know who the father of the coming child is. The time-frame fits a new passing weekend tryst with Patrick Dempsey as celebrity male of some sort as well as a not-all-that-contrived an encounter with Colin Firth as a Mark Darcy. We are asked to believe both males care, that they want to accept a responsibility as fathers, but screwball comedies often have precisely this kind of woman-centered flattering (or shall I call it hopeful) delusion/illusion.

People (including me) love to imagine continuity and survival, so part of the deep pleasure of this film is to see the same actors turn up as father, mother, and aunt to Bridget. Still alive! This pleasure is like the ending of Voltaire’s Candide (for those of an 18th century disposition). A form of Austen nostalgia. (A fourth necessity is probably a deep love of Austen and interest in and enjoyment of most Austen films.) I don’t know who is the most effective: Jim Broadbent as father, Gemma Jones as mother, Celia Imrie as aunt. I also enjoyed the wry presence of Emma Thompson as Dr Rawlings, gynecologist and obstetrician who tells Bridget, she doesn’t need these men. These fleeting moment between these actresses matter.

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Raw[lings] has herself endured the bringing up of a child without a male it seems. At a crucial moment, she ushers both men out as useless. So stick it out. There are funny moments.

There are those who claim to find Amy Heckerling’s Clueless as one of the most Austen-like of all the nearly 40 Austen films now extant. Not so. It’s too upbeat; its very success shows how deeply it has successfully bought into complacency. Bridget Jones’s Baby may not be even a good movie artistically, but it is not complacent. What is worth seeing in Bridget Jones’s Baby is the aging tired face of Colin Firth, glad at last to resign himself down to caring for this desperately if comically seeking (a different note than Katherine Hepburn used to hit) woman in her early forties, with no job (Bridget does not fit in, and how easy it is to discard her), and despite her “face-lift” (for which she has been, so I understand, excoriated) the wrinkled aging face and body of Zellweger. We are all getting older together and need to tolerate and get along. Stronger together, anyone?

People have apparently accepted the implied idea that Hugh Grant is totally gone from the scene. Not so. The film opens with his funeral. The unlucky man has apparently gone down in some plane hit by these endless wars on terror. But all is not lost: at the close, the viewer is gifted with a small column in a newspaper, that after all this “playboy” survived. Having just watched Grant’s superlative performance in Florence Foster Jenkins and remembering him so long ago as the complicated cuckolded vengeful duke in Middleton’s Changeling (as important in his way as Bob Hoskins as Flores and Elizabeth McGovern as Beatrice), I understand why he can no longer cope with these screwball comedies. His face has too much depth: he appears to have a gravitas beyond Firth’s self-deprecating thinness.

Firth as Mr Darcy’s shyness, awkwardness, unwillingness to reveal himself, snobbery, high integrity, good manners — studio experts seem to assume will again provoke comfortable laughter. These “sites” (and Bridget’s memories) are the reference points (to imply that this new stability and security is fleeting) are some of many moments and touches worth staying on for: as an example of how to think about what you see, for those who are said to have swooned at Firth in the 1995 P&P, here’s Mr Darcy today:

51873706 Stars spotted on the set of the third Bridget Jones film, 'Bridget Jones's Baby' in London, England on October 8, 2015. Stars spotted on the set of the third Bridget Jones film, 'Bridget Jones's Baby' in London, England on October 8, 2015. Pictured: Colin Firth FameFlynet, Inc - Beverly Hills, CA, USA - +1 (818) 307-4813 RESTRICTIONS APPLY: USA ONLY

Come to that, what is sex life like for older women? this film doesn’t tell us but it asks the question. What about a lonely older man not keen to lay his soul bare (and for good reasons). It’s not 45 years but at least such questions are broached. As they are not in Clueless. And the questions do link back through the sequel trail.

It’s worrying to me that P.D. James’s and Juliette Towhidi through the genre of violent murder (Death comes to Pemberley) the diaspora Austen films, and wacky comedies (say Lost in Austen) can make these satiric courtship novels Austen wrote seem more available to thinking people (especially women) than the older romance mini-series or singleton semi-delusional romances.
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Hattie Morahan as Elinor stoically enduring her life alone (2009, Davies S&S, one of the last of the “heritage” dramatic romance Austen films)

Or maybe for now what is funded is the “appropriation.” Yet this year what had staying power in movie-theaters? Not P&P and Zombies but rather a Christianizing and cream-y version of Lady Susan.

So I’ll end on the question of genre. The first ever Jane Austen movie was made in 1940, an MGM Pride and Prejudice which was described as and is a screwball comedy with romance. Screwball comedy is one that makes no rational sense if you start to look at money, common things of life, probability, actual emotions. Since then there has been two other screwball comedies, with romance beyond the three Bridget Jones’ movies: the 1995 Clueless and the 2004 Bride and Prejudice (also an Indian Bollywood type film).

What genre of movie is the closest in movie terms to Austen’s texts? They are all women’s films; that goes without saying. L’ecriture-femme on film. Many have female narrators; POV a heroine or heroines, over-voice a woman, the woman character as linchpin to the stories. This fits Austen’s books. Now for typology.

Those who want to see Austen as comedy, and like the idea they are somewhat superficial or stay away from traumatic depths of emotion, praise the screwball comedies. More modern appropriations of these include Austenland (2104), P&P and Zombies (2016) and Death Comes to Pemberley (2013-14) have gothicized Austen as did the 1986 Northanger Abbey, the 2004 Lakehouse (out of Persuasion) and to some extent the 2007 Northanger Abbey (but Davies also parodied the form, and had an underlying feel of depth of emotion). There have been attempts at versions of comedies of manner, as in a stage play: 1991 Manhattan by Whit Stillman and Andrew Davies’s 2007 Room with a View (seen as a novel alluding to Northanger Abbey) comes to mind. There are the movies made from post-texts, including time-traveling ones (Lost in Austen), the Jane Austen Book Club.

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The group reading and talking together — seen through a porch

I suggest the movie genre that comes closest is the dramatic familial romance, lightened by parodic techniques and wit, the first instance of which was Fay Weldon’s 1970 Pride and Prejudice. There have been many of these since as mini-series, as one-off movies in theaters, heritage and appropriation alike; they can be Indian (Aisha) or deeply Anglo and traditional (Sandy Welch’s 2009 Emma), post-colonial humor (the 2012 From Prada to Nada) or bio-pics, as in the melancholy 2009 Miss Austen Regrets.

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Olivia Williams as an older Jane Austen

For those interested, have a look at my list of Austen movies. I have not updated it in a while but most of the ones made are there, those not are in a handy list of the latest appropriation films in 2015. For individual items, see my Austen Miscellany.

Ellen

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Claire (Catrionia Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan) amid the ruins of a Benedictine Monastery (Outlander, Season 1, Episode 3, The Way Out)

Friends,

I am returned from Cornwall and have begun watching Outlander, Season 1 for the fourth time. At midnight usually.

Yes. I have snapped stills from all 16 episodes thoroughly. I have read the novel as a script. I have downloaded all 16 scripts from a site which specializes in TV scripts. I have gotten myself Outlandish, a companion. What could possess me? (Stay tuned for tomorrow’s blog.)

Rather than pay money for yet a fourth tier of TV (surely I give Comcast enough money each month), or joining Amazon Prime where it aired on British sites (so I’m excluded anyway), I’ve tried other paths. I asked Daughter No 1 to download the series off Pirate Bay. She doesn’t have the time. Daughter No 2 is very law-abiding. So before I left on my trip, I ordered it on-line and have to wait. But this morning a friend told me she bought a copy of this second season on ebay for $16. I went over to ebay and discovered I must use paypal. Jim told me never to use paypal and I have a vague memory of reading warnings about what can transpire. I have just been fleeced, truly robbed of a lot of money, by Expedia. Beyond that it seems I must participate in bidding. Yuk.

Désolée.

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Mr (Desmond Barrit) and Mrs Allen (Sylvestre Le Tousel) in Andrew Davies’s 2007 Northanger Abbey, come to invite Catherine to at long last try Bath.

Then I remembered Mrs Allen and reread NA, Chapter 6, and found what did more than help; Austen suggestively amused me:

Isabella Thorpe: “It is so odd to me, that you should never have read Udolpho before; but I suppose Mrs. Morland objects to novels.”

Catherine Morland: “No, she does not. She very often reads Sir Charles Grandison herself; but new books do not fall in our way.”

Isabella: “Sir Charles Grandison! That is an amazing horrid book, is it not? I remember Miss Andrews could not get through the first volume.”

Catherine: “It is not like Udolpho at all; but yet I think it is very entertaining.”

Isabella: “Do you indeed! You surprise me; I thought it had not been readable.

I have always remembered this passage as poor Mrs Allen endlessly rereading this unreadable book because not many books come her way.

I no longer feel as alone in my state of deprivation.

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Ellen considering the nature of Austen’s humor and how through her wry irony comfort is on offer, bonding author and reader together.

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From Enchanted Cornwall — Cornish beach — to them this recalls Andrew Davies’s 2009 Sense and Sensibility

Dear friends and readers,

Since tomorrow I’m going to try to travel to Cornwall where I will spend a week with a beloved friend, I thought I’d orient myself by reading an overview of the place, and found myself again reading DuMaurier’s Enchanted Cornwall and Vanishing Cornwall. Though I’ve long loved a number of her books (basically the historical romances with female narrators, Rebecca, her biographies, life-writing, travel writing) my yearning to see Cornwall does not come from them, as what drew me were the atypical romance stories; it comes from the Poldark novels where the life experience, landscape, kinds of employment offered, society of Cornwall is central. Thus (with little trouble) I’ve picked photos from DuMaurier’s book which relate directly to the Poldark world:

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I remember Demelza frolicking on such a beach with her lover, Hugh Armitage (The Four Swans)

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19677-78 Poldark: Part 8, Episode 8: Demelza (Angharad Rees) and Armitage (Brian Stirner) cavorting along the beach —

and DuMaurier tells a tale of haunted vicar living a desolate life after he alienated the few parishioners he had in Warleggan church:

WarlegganChurch — From Vanishing Cornwall — Warleggan church

I’ve read all sorts of books on Cornwall since my love of these Poldark novels began, from mining to Philip Marsden’s archeaological reveries, Rising Ground, Ella Westland: Cornwall: The Cultural Construction of Place, to Wilkie Collin’s ode to solitude and deep past in his Rambles beyond Railways); to smuggling, politics beginning in Elizabethan times, poetry (its authors include Thomas Hardy, John Betjeman’s Summoned by Bells), to women artists (Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes, Dame Laura Knight), corrupt politics in this patronage-run Duchy. If I were to go back to count in the books on Arthur and the legends surrounding his figure, and literature, I have conquered whole shelves. Bryychan Carey’s website will lead you to much from a modern abolitionist left point of view, plainly set out. So much from one corner of a country.

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A photograph my friend took today, near Truro

DuMaurier’s lyrical prose carries so much information so lightly, one is in danger of not realizing how much is there. There is a film adaptation of Vanishing Cornwall (half an hour); it accompanies the movie, Daphne with Geraldine Somerville and Janet McTeer as the leading lovers) developed from her letters, memoirs, and Margaret Forster’s biography. Her stance is less subjective than Graham’s, legend, myth, than Graham does in his Poldark’s Cornwall, which dwells on his life, his career, the place of Cornwall in his fiction right now. Appropriate to Graham’s fiction so concerned with law, justice, in his travel book, we have a photo of Launceston jail gate today:

LauncestonGaol

The DuMaurier’s may be regarded as instances of l’ecriture-femme too: in Enchanted whole parts of her novels emerge from this or that landscape memory as well as the sea. I had forgotten how many of her novels are situated there, from the one I think her finest, The King’s General (set in the later 17th century, the heroine in a wheelchair almost from the beginning) to the later one, Outlander takes off from, Hungry Hill. Her historical novels are historical romances: at core they are gothic, erotic fantasies. Vanishing is circular in structure, at the core her retelling of legend is minimized so she can do justice to the geography, archaeaological history, various industry. There is a paragraph on the coming of pilchards every spring which owes a lot to Graham’s lyrical miracle in the third book of Ross Poldark (there used to be a podcast on-line from the BBC, now wiped away, alas). Legend blends into history; history becomes poetical writing. She is not much on politics, dwelling on the upper classes as they’d like to be seen (mostly the later 17th into later 18th century and again the 20th).

For now here a piece from Vanishing Ground read aloud, evocative.

As qualifiers:

A poem by Betjeman: Cornish Cliffs

Those moments, tasted once and never done,
Of long surf breaking in the mid-day sun.
A far-off blow-hole booming like a gun-

The seagulls plane and circle out of sight
Below this thirsty, thrift-encrusted height,
The veined sea-campion buds burst into white

And gorse turns tawny orange, seen beside
Pale drifts of primroses cascading wide
To where the slate falls sheer into the tide.

More than in gardened Surrey, nature spills
A wealth of heather, kidney-vetch and squills
Over these long-defended Cornish hills.

A gun-emplacement of the latest war
Looks older than the hill fort built before
Saxon or Norman headed for the shore.

And in the shadowless, unclouded glare
Deep blue above us fades to whiteness where
A misty sea-line meets the wash of air.

Nut-smell of gorse and honey-smell of ling
Waft out to sea the freshness of the spring
On sunny shallows, green and whispering.

The wideness which the lark-song gives the sky
Shrinks at the clang of sea-birds sailing by
Whose notes are tuned to days when seas are high.

From today’s calm, the lane’s enclosing green
Leads inland to a usual Cornish scene-
Slate cottages with sycamore between,

Small fields and tellymasts and wires and poles
With, as the everlasting ocean rolls,
Two chapels built for half a hundred souls.

Laura Knight paints the contemporary world’s hopes.

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Laura Knight’s rendition of a China Clay Pit (a detail, painting from early in the 20th century)

Ellen

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Grace Elliot (Lucy Russell) from Eric Rohmer’s The Lady and the Duke (based on her Ma vie sous la revolution)

‘Real solemn history, I cannot be interested in…The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all.’
Northanger Abbey, Chapter 14

Dear friends and readers,

A couple of weeks ago I was pleased to be asked to contribute to a series of memories for Diane Reynolds’s blog, Jane Austen and Other Writers where people are asked to describe their first encounters with Jane Austen’s novels and why they read her still. As luck would have it, around the same time I had agreed to give a lecture on Lady Susan to a group of students in a BIS program at University of Virginia. I’d told the story of my coming to Austen in bits and pieces before, but now having brought all but the role of specific critical books together, I thought I’d talk on a blog as an addendum to first encounters about my recent re-encounter with Lady Susan.

I was around 50 the first time I read Lady Susan. I am not alone in this belatedness: the text itself was not published until 1870, 53 years after Austen’s death, and (if I am right in saying the book was written between 1804-5), 65 years after she wrote it and copied it out in a beautiful fair copy which is a kind of imitation of the publication denied her. The first recorded Austen film adaptation was in 1940, since then there have been at least 35, so it’s taken 76 (!) years to film it.

If you look at mainstream fan sites, it’s hardly ever mentioned.

What can be so wrong? well it’s lumped together with late “fragments” (unfinished work, nothing more discouraging except to a devoted reader), and it breaks so many taboos that Jane Austen is thought by so many Janeite fans to have upheld, is written in an amoral tone, with an ironic presence at the center that I know (since reading Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones so carefully) the closest character to Fielding’s Lady Bellaston we have, except ever so much meaner, self-conscious and gayly morbid. Marvin Mudrick in his JA: Irony as Defense and Discovery thought in this one text alone Austen shows herself fully and we should use it as the lens by which we understand say Mansfield Park.

I discovered upon this re-reading (and I’ve read it several times since I was in my fifties, especially when I studied it to bring out its underlying calendar), that I did not (as I had expected) approach the book with so many pre-framings. I simply did what I have probably always done since age 12-13: felt an intensely primal response along my pulse as I came into contact this exhilarating woman. It is a truism (“a truth universally acknowledged”) that reading the same book years, decades later can have a very different effect on us.

So for me I remember when I read Lady Susan the first time I was strongly put off. I especially found her mockery of her daughter, and complete antipathy to Frederica’s kind heart, desire to read books for their content alone, lack of an ability to cope with the abrasive world or perform hateful. I laughed at her sending up of Alicia’s husband and marriage, but saw that the world around her of pious feeling was mawkish and somehow false. But she was the blight.

This time through I still saw that she must not be allowed to “mother” Frederica; that she would corrode the girl’s gifts and heart, Lady Susan was exhilarating. Far more so than Thackeray’s Becky Sharp at the opening of his Vanity Fair. I saw the that Frederica was in the narrative from the outset and underlying the book was an ongoing relationship of a mother and daughter who needed to get away from one another, but there was no doing it as the world is not organized that way, but I reveled in Lady Susan. This was release for Austen. I flaws in the others too or far more continually: Reginald, what a self-satisfied, easily deluded non-thinking fool! He’s a weathercock who believes the last person. Mrs Vernon was all suspicion and leading a boring, stultifying life: what she offered Frederica was calm from repression and never trying anything out of a small round of pious acts. She was working to marry her to Reginald because that would keep them close and thus to her “safe.” I could see that Alicia was not so enamored of her friend, and rightly didn’t trust her but where was she to turn for safety? She seemed to be living a life of lies.

The real problem in the novel is there are no good choices. I wished we had had scenes of Lady Susan with Manwaring so I could see if she had any gratification with him: was the sex good? Was he another clinging person? It seems that to survive one must marry a dense idiot (Sir James perhaps a version of Mr Collins). I saw the dark book Murdock in his Irony as Defense and Self-Discovery had, a book in the tradition of Tom Jones as I recently began to see it. Where was Jane Austen in all this? D. W Harding’s finding a release for anger is not enough. She wasn’t sending up the outrageous behavior of the rest of the world (as he rightly says she does in the four books she published before she died). There is a quiet desperation here, a disjunction between the stereotype she found in her culture and what she wanted to say.

I did not say the above directly in presenting the novella to students. One can’t. It’s not allowed. One must present an impersonal reading; the kind of talk that’s respectable is context and tropes, biography, sources. So much of my introduction came from framing (dating specifically) and is found in my remarks next to my timeline for the novel.

Here is what I told them out of that. Linking the class to the coming movie by Whit Stillman, Love and Friendship, I suggested to them if it’s that Stillman presents the novel as witty juvenilia, a moral send up of say self-indulgence, solipsism, egoistic romance like Love and Freindship, that’s a mistake which will trivialize the book. Lady Susan is a mid-career book; not a so much a product of the regency era reacted against (the thesis of their course), but an inverted protest novel by a woman, and coming out of a tradition heavily influenced by French novels and most often taking the form of epistolary narrative. Here is a little of what I told students for nearly 2 hours.

I suggested we couldn’t elucidate the content that mattered in it, close read its details through the regency period except to say the frank amorality of the heroine can be linked to the era. In a letter she wrote she detested the regent and when he prosecuted his wife for adultery, she was on the wife’s side simply on grounds she was a woman.

I suppose all the World is sitting in Judgement upon the Princess of Wales’s Letter,” Poor Woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband — but I can hardly forgive her for calling herself “attached & affectionate” to a Man whom she must detest — & the intimacy said to subsist between her & Lady Oxford is bad. — I do not know what to do about it; — but if I must give up the Princess, I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first. —- 16 February 1813

Lady Susan fits just as strongly with what she wrote in her History of England (a juvenilia) about Tudor queens (among them, Ann Bullen, Katherine Parr).

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Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn in proud procession

She is passionately on the side of several of them. She looks out on the world unashamedly from a woman’s perspective. As Mrs Vernon, Lady de Courcy, Fredericka, Alicia and Lady Susan herself. All of them. She rejects the regency as presented in books as devastatingly, stupidly patriarchal

My suggestion was it’s a radical inverted protest novel. Austen is getting away with protesting her own and other women’s situations through presenting a heroine all will detest. There were ways for women to express themselves “contra mundi”: I saw her as turning to a sub-genre or kind of book that allowed this. Epistolary narrative, and French amoral anti-heroines. She can express herself through such a heroine as a mask. This was an era when spinsters were harshly criticized and mocked in conduct books, sent up cruelly in novels. She was despised for not having sex, but as a woman with little money and no power she’d be worse ostracized and punished for admitting knowing about sex, much less trying to live a pleasurable life of sex on her own without a man controlling her. This is the type of woman we find in these novels, only they are often widows or domineer over husbands and lovers, or simply living independently (if they had wealth somehow).

Think about her life I said. In 1805 Austen was herself 30, in 1809 34. Lady Susan is 35 inflected by her peculiar undercurrent of grave melancholy. She was a poor spinster, dependent on relatives, hamstrung; if hearsay be true, having rejected an offer from a local squire, owner of Manydowne (which would have provided for herself, sister, mother, friend, Martha Lloyd), and, together with her sister, having decided to present herself as a spinster. All her brothers but Henry (who was out on his own, as a fourth son, as yet floating on banking) were provided with careers, niches; her oldest the house she had grown up in, so she and they and her sister had gone to live in Bath (where there was a marriage market, not too kind to women without dowries).

She had begun to write as a young girl, her first texts called juvenilia go back to 1787 when she was 12 or 13. She wrote endlessly and this includes rewriting her texts for years and years, but her first published book sees the light in 1811, 24 years after she started. She did try for publication, once a long version of Pride and Prejudice, probably an epistolary novel, in 1796: the letter by her father to a reputable publisher was returned that day. On her own she tried to publish a version of Northanger Abbey she called Susan in 1803 and had to get the manuscript back in 1815, unpublished to start working on it again. What a release this narrative might have been and like Nabokov she is allowed because the irony protects her from her own self-censor.

Epistolary narrative is a complicated form. Its main attraction is it enables the novelist to delve the human psyche. The 18th century was a revolutionary era, and one of the transformations of values that went on was to look at one values and norms as coming from individual psyches, and understand that truths were relative. Each person’s understanding of what happened would be the result of his outlook. The relativity of norms across cultures and inbetween people was central to the satiric mode of the period.

I quoted the outstanding voice of the first half of the era, Alexander Pope from the first of the four Moral Epistles. Moral Essay I: to Richard Cobham, Of the Characters of Mankind:

Our depths who fathoms, or our shallows finds,
Quick whirls, and shifting eddies, of our minds?
On human Actions reason though you can,
It may be Reason, but it is not Man;
His Principle of action once explore,
That instant ’tis his Principle no more.
Like following life through creatures you dissect,
Ye lose it in the moment you detect.
    Yet more; the diff’rence is as great between
The optics seeing, as the objects seen.
All Manners take a tincture from our own;
Or come discolour’d, through our Passions shown …
    Nor will Life’s stream for Observation stay,
It hurries all too fast to mark the way …
    Oft in the Passions’ wild rotation tost,
Our spring of action to ourselves is lost:
Tir’d, not determin’d to the last we yeild,
And what comes then is master of the field,
As the last image of that troubled heap,
When Sense subsides, and Fancy sports in sleep
(Tho’ past the recollection of the thought)
Becomes the stuff of which our dream is wrought:
Something as dim to our internal view,
Is thus, perhaps the cause of most we do … (1731-35)

Some of the most famous of the epistolary novels were this kind of delving: Richardson’s Clarissa (1748), boy meet, rapes girl, girl dies, boy dies. 2 million words. Samuel Johnson said a reader would hang herself who read it for the plot

But you can do other things with epistolary narratives. You can expose characters satirically; we can see them not meaning to pour their heart out and by seeing the difference between the action of the story and what the characters think of it, witness all sorts of psychological and moral states, from hypocrisy to self-delusion, to someone strategizing to manipulate someone, we can see spite, vanity, performances of all sorts.

Two important features of epistolary narratives: they are free from chronological time because people in their minds can jump back and forth. Therefore you can juxtapose letters very ironically. We watch “innocent characters being duped” because we know the reality of the other characters. We are looking at these minds on a stage; different voices come out interacting. It is also done in the present time so the characters do not know what is going to happen next and are all in the midst of anguish about it. We are dropped down into the midst of a mind in the throes of a present moment worrying what to do, what will be, what will happen, what should I do next. Lady Susan is a slender book and I don’t want to give it more density or value than it has, but Austen uses these techniques if in an epitomizing form.

Which books of the era is it in dialogue with or comes out of memories, an experience of. LaClos’s Dangerous Liaisons (1782) with its central amoral heroine, Madame de Merteuil – if you’ve not read it and want to have a quick acquaintance to start I recommend Stephen Frears’ film with Glenn Close as Madame de Merteuil and John Malkovitz as Valmont, the rake who is done in by the end. There was a full translation immediately and it was read and influential.

Merteuil
Close playing the innocent

Merteuilclose
Alone in thought

Madame de Stael’s Delphine (1804), with its cold mean calculating mercenary mother whose name is Madame Susan Vernon, both epistolary books. We know Austen read and much admired Stael’s Corinne; there’s a passing phrase in one of her letters which can be understood as suggesting she prefers Corinne to Milton’s Paradise Lost. As who wouldn’t? Madame Susan Vernon is especially cruel to her emotional daughter; she hounds her to marry a horror of a man for money. Bad mother type. And Austen’s Lady Susan is not only in herself mean, cold, vicious, cruel, she hates sincere people, wants to stamp out genuine feeling; aspirations for real learning (in her daughter) grate on her; vulnerable people exist to be preyed upon so she despises them. Stael’s anti-heroine’s values are slightly different but the complex of attitudes is analogous.

The frank amorality of Lady Susan can be found in much French literature through out the 18th century – Austen read French and the two countries traded books incessantly. Translations came out immediately, French books were published in London.

But there are English novels where the same pattern may be discerned or is a sub-plot.

There is a strikingly similar central amoral character in Maria Edgeworth’s epistolary Leonora (1809). (For this we must accept Butler’s thesis that the novel we have was written or revised into this text in 1809.) Here the heroine is someone whose husband is deep in debt and the way they mean to pay off the debt is she prostitutes herself. This is a reversal of most novels of the era which use this plot paradigm. In Fielding’s Tom Jones he shows that it was common practice for a high officer to pressure the men beneath them to allow their wives to go to bed with them – if you didn’t you were not promoted. But it’s only Lady Bellaston in Tom Jones and Edgeworth’s heroines who themselves are amusingly pro-active in this way. Lady Bellaston writes letters to Tom too. Or characters imitating her in later books.

Joan Greenwood  Tom Jones (1963)

tomjones40Greenwood
Joan Greenwood as the supremely plausible Lady Bellaston (Tony Richardson, John Osborne Tom Jones 1963)

This specific trope is a French pattern too. In Louise d’Epinay’s Montbrillant (a mid-century epistolary book) and the Duchess of Devonshire’s Slyph (1777-78) both epistolary again, the heroine is pressured and driven into going to bed with the husband’s creditor. I suggest the life of Grace Dalrymple Elliot and Rohmer’s film and script offer major insight into the context for Lady Susan and what type she stands for.

ReasoningwithEginals
Annette Bening as Madame de Merteuil — she could be Lady Susan persuading Reginald de Courcy to believe her (from Valmont)

If you read Lady Susan as tongue-in-cheek, and someone think that Lady Susan speaks ceaselessly as a conscious hypocrite and never believes a word she says about her emotions, she becomes a wild caricature. It seems improbable to me – you could not find any depth in the novel then. And of the female characters I’ve mentioned, Madame de Merteuil, Madame Susan Vernon are deeply involved emotionally in what she’s doing. If you read Lady Susan’s letters as partly self-righteous, at times fooling herself (as people do), really half-believing herself a misunderstood person trying her best to survive and dealing with a society indifferent to her, and only facing up to her hypocrisy when forced to, Fielding’s Lady Bellaston, the aristocratic amoral mistress of (only she keeps him, not the other way round) is closely similar. (When I taught the book the men in the room really protested against the idea Tom was a male prostitute servicing Lady Bellaston, i.e., the abject characterWe know that Austen read Tom Jones when she was young, and like its opposite number, Clarissa, did not forget it. Her relatives would never mention it, but then they’d never mention any of the others I suggest are where Lady Susan belongs.

To conclude: Austen’s first novels (S&S and P&P) began life as epistolary narratives; MP was in part one in a first draft. Love and Freindship is a crude one (not using all the devices), Lesley Castle an improvement. She wrote an ironic gothic — the gothic was another mode of protest (too long to go into here). She can also write memoirs and, if English, not publish them: we know through Anne Elliot and Austen’s letters to Cassandra Austen read French ones. They were often short as were Austen’s first attempts all. Think of Lady Susan as like Elena Ferrante’s first much briefer deeply frank raw novellas, Days of Abandonment, The Lost Daughter: see my “The Other Side of Silence”.

Eighteenth century women lacked any agency, and any true private space (so letters could function the way the Net can for some women in traditional cultures). That’s why Outlander has been so popular. Diana Gabaldon injected into the 18th century costume drama so frank about sex a woman who all agency, narrator, dreamer, who seeks her own fulfillment, looks at life that way. One thing we see Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser enjoy is sex; she is given liberty to choose as she pleases by her Scots partner, Jamie Fraser over and over again. Saul Dibbs’ and Jeffrey Hatcher’s The Duchess show the Duchess of Devonshire writhing under the controls of this world, punished into becoming a girl child-mother at the close. The movie opened with her running with girlfriends in play on the lawn; we last see her running after her children in play on the lawn. See my The Duchess: A Strong Protest Film. Stella Tillyard’s book Aristocrats based on memoirs of women with money reveals the ways in which actual women of the era tried to manipulate their position and yet stay within the confines of their world. Among these were reading and writing books like the above:

AristocratsCarolineWaitingforHusband
Serena Gordon as Caroline Fox, at her desk bought for her by her husband, Henry (Aristocrats, 1999 BBC, scripted by Harriet O’Carroll).

In the class towards the end we were finding characters in other of Austen’s novels which corresponded to those in Lady Susan: Charles Vernon is a kind of Bingley. Reginald’s behavior that of Edmund Bertram. And lines the narrator uses, say congratulating Lucy Steele at the close of Sense and Sensibility, that are echoed or anticipated in Lady Susan.

The whole of Lucy’s behaviour in the affair, and the prosperity which crowned it, therefore, may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an unceasing attention to self-interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience (S&S, Chapter 50, the last, towards the end)

Whether Lady Susan was, or was not happy, in her second choice — I do not see how it ever can be ascertained — for who could take her assurance of it on either side of the question? The world must judge from probability. She had nothing against her, but her husband, and her conscience (Lady Susan, Postscript)

They joined in on finding and reciting their favorite lines from Lady Susan and other of Austen’s novels.

Ellen

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