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Archive for the ‘women’s films’ Category


Mr Elton about to reveal Emma’s masterpiece of a drawing of Harriet overwhelmed by its frame (Emma 2020)


Our three heroines, Marianne, Heloise, Sophie making supper, tasting the wine, sewing garments (Portrait of a Lady On Fire, 2019)

What is curious about Wilde’s hollowing out of Austen’s Emma to surface scenes until near the end is that the language the actors/actresses speak is strikingly a good deal of the time taken directly from the book. I have not seen this kind of thing since the 1970s and 80s in the BBC series of Austen’s film and Andrew Davies’s 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice. This viewer found real pleasure in hearing Austen’s own lines, and that they were chosen regularly over any modernization gave the film what gravitas, intelligence and inner grace it had.

By contrast, The Portrait of a lady on Fire is often a silent film, sparse dialogue, with meaning projected through strong silent acting in emblematic scenes

Friends and readers,

While these two prominent women-centered films made and written by women (Eleanor Catton, a Booker Prize winner wrote the screenplay for this Emma) would seem to have utterly disparate characteristic scenes, as seen in the above high caricature exaggeration of the scene from Austen’s book where Mr Elton displays Emma’s drawing of Harriet brought back from London, framed and the quiet group scene of three characters existing together cooperatively in a daily task, they are at core surprisingly alike. This has not been noticed because with the exception of Anibundel on Sanditon and Emma (whom I know, not from her review, but from personal knowledge, has read both books), every single review I’ve read shows not just no knowledge of the book, but seem to misremember details and distort the book’s overall feel. Mr Martin is not a widowed farmer, Austen’s book is not filled with frenzied activity (Sheila O’Malley); Austen’s book is not generally hilarious, Clueless not in mood at all like Austen’s book (Mark Kermode).

Kermode does begin with a passing comment, that Austen’s Emma is capable of “endlessly reinterpretable gender politics,” and it’s there that the two films criss-cross terrains. Quite the opposite to this new Emma‘s obsessive gaze at all its males’ breeches for signs of phallic strength, Emma is about women’s relationships with one another. The first third of the book has Emma (here Anya Taylor-Joy) obsessed with Harriet (Mia Goth), because she is bereft without Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan) now removed down the street to the house and presumably arms of Mr Weston (Rupert Graves, sadly aged, into the harmless if ever so there male). It’s arguable the book is as lesbian as the screenplay and realization of Sciamma’s two heroines. Consider how in the book Emma has no desire to marry she says until near its end, and then it’s Mr Knightley’s companionship she would feel deprived of. But Miss Taylor is dismissed in the movie, and Emma and Harriet are treated as two women on the hunt for two males, Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn) and Robert Martin (Conor Swindells); only at two moments of intense feeling (from the second half of the film) do we see Emma and Harriet dwelling on one another — when finally Emma understands Harriet is now enamoured of Mr Knightley and Harriet grasps this is not acceptable by the woman who deprived her of Mr Martin. The second traces a slow growth of real relationship:

Both movies and stories have one young woman drawing the other and a great fuss made about the painting, but Emma takes this seriously only at the close of the movie where suddenly Emma appears to value the drawing because it is by her and of Harriet, and thus a commemoration of their friendship.


This is of Emma (Kate Beckinsale) painting Harriet (Samantha Morton) from Andrew Davies’s 1996 Emma; but a real dwelling on this substory is found in all the heritage Emmas

By contrast, all the stills in Emma which capture two characters actually in a relationship with one another capture heterosexual passion, Emma with Mr Knightley or Frank Churchill:


Emma and Frank at Box Hill


Emma and Mr Knightley dancing

The reviews of both movies have been uniformly filled with praise, but when I looked at the Rotten Tomatoes comments and percentages, it seems to me those who went to see Emma were not as ecstatic over the costumes (in both films the characters are just beautifully dressed) as the reviewers, were vaguely disappointed at this Emma, and treated it as ho hum yet another Austen film come down the studio pipes (72% rated it favorably), while the audience who registered their views of Portrait were deeply satisfied, gratified, awakened to something new (92% loved it), unexpectedly, deeply pleasurable.

I suggest that the new Emma fails to capture the book repeatedly; in the first half to two-thirds of the film, everything is acted out through artificial gestures, symmetrical behavior, caricature, exaggerated quirky behavior designed to draw laughter. We are not allowed to take the characters at all seriously until the last third, when at the point of the appearance in the story of Mrs Elton (Tanya Reynolds as effective as caricature here as she was as real living woman in Outlander as Lady Isobel Dunsany — it’s curious how actors/actresses in seemingly minor roles in Outlander are being found in key roles in quality films) there is a turn into gushing romance, when (most unlike the book) Mr Knightley acts out a besotted male and Emma melts into throbbing passion.

A structural sign something is wrong is that Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) while introduced early on by her adoring aunt, Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), is not seen again until well past the mid-point of the film; most of the scenes in the book and previous films between Frank and Jane are cut; they are utterly forgotten its close. Emma’s rivalry with Jane comes out in the scene where Emma plays the piano in such a banal and awkward way, and Jane is the policed classical performer, but nowhere else. The actress’s power is glimpsed now and again but essentially thrown away:

However briefly (and this kind of clarity about him is sort of new) Frank Churchill is presented as a hard cad; but there is no time given for any camaraderie between Jane and Emma to be built as there is in most of the other Emma films.

Autumn de Wilde, fresh from her career as a fashion photographer, music video producer, and generally pop culture pleaser, just did not take Austen’s book seriously at any level, seems not to have thought about it and granted Austen only the desire to tell stories of conventional heterosexual people moving towards marriage. Thus the movie is amusing but ultimately a bore; she missed what was unusual and interesting and moving in the book. She perhaps overdevelops one of the most famous scenes in the book, but Emma insulting Miss Bates is not part of any insight into the vulnerability of all women. The scene between Mr Elton and Emma coming back from the Christmas party where Austen gives license for a #Metoo encounter (taken up by most of the movies) is here turned into a duel of who is the greater snob, Mr Elton when he sneers at Harriet (everyone has their level) or Emma when she puts on a condescending hauteur that prompts Mr Elton to become physically angry, bang hard on the carriage roof and jump out precipitiously. You’d think he was the person sexually assailed instead of vice versa.

What is curious about this hollowing out of Austen’s book to surface scenes until near the end is that the language the actors/actresses speak is strikingly a good deal of the time taken directly from the book. I have not seen this kind of thing since the 1970s and 80s in the BBC series of Austen’s film and Andrew Davies’s 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice. This viewer found real pleasure in hearing Austen’s own lines, and that they were chosen regularly over any modernization gave the film what gravitas, intelligence and inner grace it had.

Turning to Portrait of a Lady On Fire, the incidents told include Heloise’s sister’s suicide rather than be forced to marry and at the film’s end Heloise seen crying silently across a theater by Marianne; Marianne and Heloise helping Sophie to find an abortionist, comparisons with Eurydice (who might have been glad to escape Orpheus as Carol Duffy’s poem, “The Big O,” suggests), discussions of allowing oneself to be painted as draining the life out of the subject. When left alone, the three women move into egalitarian patterns. A truly perceptive review of the film by Muriel Zagha (for Times Literary Supplement, March 6, 2020, p 25, behind a paywall) brings out its allusions to 18th century women artists, its use of female gazes, its cool egalitarian spectatorship.


Marianne listening to Sophie

Marianne and Heloise confiding


Gazing out to the sea together, wrapped up

One of the most remarkable sequences shows the all-female household going to the beach at night at mid-summer to find the beach filled with women dancing, drinking, eating together, exchanging gossip and folk remedies.

Both films rely heavily on a musical score – use explosions of music to convey complex or comical or emotional commentary on what we are seeing. Emma moves from recognizable operatic music, to Christian hymns, to modern rock, with a probably deliberately sought jarring effect; Portrait of a Lady on Fire jumped to the next century with recognizable symphonies, piano music, arresting chanting (the women on the beach) and modern electronic music.


Mr Knightley and Emma fiercely yet comically quarreling when Emma bullyingly persuades Harriet to refuse Mr Martin


The landscape is made up of 18th century material objects

My quarrel with Wilde’s Emma is not to dismiss its laughter, which we are in need of just now. I have compared the unexamined nature of the material in this woman’s movie (as all the Austen movies ultimately are, no matter how a particular director tries to wrestle into male action sequences) with Sciamma’s sincerely-done contemporary re-imagining of the past to point to Wilde’s dismissal of a sisterhood movie whose 18th century setting could have been used as a reinforcement of themes (from or in the book) embodying women seeking liberty.


Here Heloise as daughter cannot free herself of her mother’s (Valeria Golino) command she marry a man she has never met

I can’t help but remember how this year’s Sanditon attempted a resolutely contemporary re-imagining of Austen’s fragment and failed to carry it off fully. Perhaps what is needed is a new sweeping away of (recent) hagiographical Janeite readings of Austen — as was done by D. W Harding and Marvin Mudrick in the 1940s and 60s respectively.

Ellen

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Charlotte (Rose Williams) as she comes out into the sunshine and her first full look at


the sea …. followed by


downright frolicking ….

You and I, you and I, oh how happy we’ll be
When we go a-rolling in
We will duck and swim ….
Over and over, and under again
Pa is rich, Ma is rich, oh I do love to be beside the sea
I love to be beside your side, by the sea,
by the beautiful sea …

Friends and readers,

This experimental or innovative Jane Austen is not an appropriation: this is heritage all right. All the people in costume. If you attend carefully to the twelve chapter untitled fragment, the last piece of writing Austen got down (1817), known in her family as Sanditon, and then equally carefully into the continuation added by her niece Anna Austen Lefroy (probably after 1830), you will find that a remarkable number of the details and slightest hints have been transferred and elaborated from both texts (plus possibly a third, Marie Dobbs’s continuation) into this eight part series. Davies and his team (there are several writers, and several directors, though Davies is credited throughout as the creator, and has written a good deal of what we hear), the team have also availed themselves of Davies’ previous film adaptations from Austen: so the angry hardly-contained violence of Mark Strong’s Mr Knightley (1996 BBC Emma) has become the angry hard-contained violence of Theo James’s Sidney Parker:


This strident Sidney is one on whom apologies have no effect: he returns sarcasm and rejection: “I have no interest in your approval or disapproval”

The rude intrusive domineering insults of all Lady Catherine de Boughs and Davies’s Mrs Ferrars have become part of Anne Reid’s Lady Denham; the clown buffoonery of minor-major characters in Davies 2009 Sense and Sensibility just poured into Turlough Covery’s Arthur Parker &c.

And they have scoured all Austen’s texts (letters too) for precedents: female friendships and frenemys everywhere, game-playing (including cricket), piano playing where fit in, wild and heavy beat dancing, balls, show-off luncheons, water therapy — though they have nonetheless switched from the single feminocentric perspective of Charlotte of Austen’s present Sanditon (all is seen through her eyes, with the emphasis throughout on the women) to a double story where Sidney and Tom’s (Kris Marshall) two stories run in tandem with, and shape, Charlotte’s


Here Sidney and Tom are standing over Charlotte coming out from underneath the desk, discussing what they are to do next, the men call the shots, stride by seemingly purposefully — though except for Stringer they seem to have nothing much to do …

Charlotte’s story in this movie itself is continually interwoven with, shot through by, the on-going separate highly transgressive sexualized stories of 1) the incestuous Edward and Esther Denham (Jack Fox and Charlotte Spencer), 2) sexual abuse from childhood by men and now Edward and social abuse from her aunt seen literally in Clara Brereton’s (Lily Saroksky) doings (which seem from afar to include forced fellatio or jerking Edward off), and 3) young Stringer (Leo Sluter)’s aspirations in conflict with his loyalty to his entrenched-in-the-past father.


Charlotte glimpsing, shocked, Clara and Edward (in the book she sees them from afar compromised on a bench), a few minutes later the upset Charlotte is given no pity by her aunt

If you add in Charlotte’s pro-activity on behalf of getting Miss Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke as “half-mulatto” — Austen’s phrase) out of trouble, out of her room, and unexpectedly into flirting with an appropriate African-born suitor, now freed and working for the abolition of slavery (Jyuddah Jaymes as Otis Molyneux), you have a helluva lot of lot going on.

This is the busiest and most the most frolick-filled Austen adaptation I’ve seen (perhaps with the exception of the violent-action-packed Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) with an upbeat lyrical music that turns into a sharp beat rhythm now and again. Episode 1 after frolicking on the beach and in the water (twice) ends in a long gay dance-sequence. Episode 2 after more bathing (Charlotte rising from the sea), a super-luxurious dressed-up luncheon, with some excoriating wit and a rotten pineapple (talked about as an erotic object, seemingly phallic), and attempts to flee to London inside a mocking crowd, ends in several walks into the cliffs, with a apparently near suicide by Miss Lambe (rescued, just, by Charlotte), and a sexualized water clash (Sidney has tried to escape by diving in, only to discover in front of him as he emerges naked, Charlotte). Episode 3, a wild water therapy machine sequence by the latest of mountebanks or doctor-quacks, Dr Fuchs (Adrian Scarborough), followed by a serious accident inflicted on Stringer’s father, mostly the fault of Tom Parker for not paying them enough so they can have more workmen, but one which brings together Sidney and Charlotte for their first understanding (like other recent film heroines she is a born nurse) and walk on the wet beach.


Again amid the first love romance, Otis jumps off the boat to show his despair and they frolick over the splashing

And Episode 4, back again to scenes on the beach with varying couples (e.g., the genuinely amusing pair of Diana [Alexandra Roach] and Arthur, this time on donkeys), an escape to a woodland and canoeing up river (Charlotte with the uncontrollable Georgiana and compliant Otis), ending in a return to ferocious quarreling between Sidney and Charlotte after he witnesses Rose Williams’s funny parody of his own (Theo James’s) physical quirks in performance.


Rose Williams has caught the way he holds his elegant cigarette holder, his voce tones and the emphatic aristocratic (?) rocking of his body

The series does what it sets out to do: provide the pleasures of the place. The beach, the sea, the sands, the waters and landscape form another character, an alive setting. The series is fun to watch — from the bathing to (for next blog) the cricket playing. But is this series any good? you’ll ask. Yes, I think it is. Charlotte does not own the story, it’s not so centrally hers (as it feels in the book), no, but Davies has created through her a character who is a cross between the joy of life and longing for experience we see in his and Austen’s Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones), with the keen intelligence and wit of Elinor Dashwood (Hattie Morahan) and querying of Elizabeth Bennet (Jennifer Ehle) combined. Charlotte is (to me) so appealing, given wonderful perception lines and before our eyes is growing up. I feel I have a new heroine out of Austen.


And our heroine has a new friend, in a new whose mother was enslaved: Charlotte and Georgiana walking back from the cliff

The series also elaborates a theme about money: about our obligations to others, our responsibilities and how they tie us to one another. While the overt sexuality will leap at most viewers, including a sadomasochistic courting of Esther by the gallant Babbington (Mark Stanley is as effective as Charlotte Spencer — she is remarkable throughout), the drum-beat theme is money, finance, as it is in Austen’s Sanditon — and also the other film adaptation to come from Austen’s book with Lefroy’s as part of the frame (Chris Brindle’s).

Tom Parker is attempting to make a fortune by developing a property he owns, but has no capital for and he is doing it off money originally earned by Sidney (it seems, ominously, in Antigua, when he may have known Miss Lambe’s late father who would be the person who left her under Sidney’s guardianship) and now secured by loans. He has built a second house, he hires men he doesn’t pay, takes advantage of securing on credit tools and materials he has not bought; at the same time he goes out and buys an expensive necklace for his wife, the “gentle, amiable” (as in Austen’s book), Mrs Mary Parker (Kate Ashfield), who complacently accepts his lies. Critics and scholars have suggested the background for this is Henry Austen’s bankruptcy and what Austen saw of finances through that (see EJClery, the Banker’s Sister).

At the close of Brindle’s play, Sidney comes forward to maneuver humane deals out of the corrupt practices of Mr Tracy (a character found in Lefroy) with Miss Lambe’s money; in contrast, at the close of Davies’s eighth episode, we see Sidney agree to marry a very wealthy woman whom he dislikes very much but has a hold on him from his past (unexplained). Lady Denham is the boss of this place because she has a fortune; her nephew and niece are at her beck and call because they hope for an inheritance. Clara is similarly subjected to her; the hatred of Esther for Clara and Clara’s fear and detestation of Esther comes from money fears. Mr Stringer will die of his accident: exhausted, he sets the room on fire when his son has gone out for some minimal enjoyment. Not land, not rank, not estates but fluid money.

What Davies shows us is Tom continually pressuring Sidney to borrow more, Sidney resisting, then giving in and coming back with money, and then Tom wanting more. As the first season ends, Sidney has had to say to Tom the banks will give him no more and he does not think he can borrow more and ever get out of the hole they are in.


Mary asking Tom if Sidney has given him hope (and money to come)


and Tom lies, handing her a necklace he has just bought which he cannot begin to afford …

I am not sure that Austen’s fragment has centered on this power of banks by the time her fragment ends. Her book’s central theme is either marginalized, or erased in the film, at closest (in the assertion of feebleness in Arthur and Diana) immeasurably lightened: Austen wrote the fragment while dying and probably in great pain, and she is, as she does throughout her life, exorcizing her demons through self-mockery by inventing characters with imaginary illnesses. She certain does in the fragment write about breezes, and light, and sun and the sea with longing, but it’s not the longing of joyful youth, but the ache of the older woman remembering what she has been told about the sea and air as

healing, softening, relaxing — fortifying, bracing, — seemingly just as was wanted — sometimes one, sometimes the other, If he sea breeze failed , the seabath was certainly the corrective; — and where bathing disagreed,the sea breeze alone was evidently designed by nature for the cure (Ch 2. p 163)

Austen’s fragment also gets caught up with literary satire as she characterizes Edward as a weak-minded reader of erotic romantic poetry and novels.  Perhaps as with the long travelogue-like passage of Anne Elliot staring out into the hills in Persuasion, Austen intended to cut some of this kind of detail. But with Lefroy’s continuation and (I suggest) Brindle’s extrapolations (see Mary Gaither Marshall’s paper summarized), we can see that Davies is on the right track too. Austen’s fragment is waiting for Sidney to come to Sanditon to fix things — each reference to him while suggesting his cleverness, irony, sense of humor (and of the ridiculous too) also presents him as intensely friendly, caring for his family, responsible, and as yet in good economic shape (see Drabble’s Penguin edition of Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon, pp Ch 5, pp 171, 174, 176; Ch 9, p 197; Ch 12, p 210)


Young Mr Stringer and Charlotte confiding in one another

The series also brings home that outside this world of genteel people is another very hard one. The various people that Diana Parker and Tom want Mrs Mary Parker to apply to Lady Denham to relieve are made real in Austen’s Sanditon; in the workmen we see, the people on the streets doing tasks, our characters on the edge of homelessness we feel the world outside — as we rarely do in most of these costume dramas. Chris Brindle’s play makes much of the specifics of these vulnerable victims of finance and industrial and agricultural capitalism in the dialogue of the second half of his play — how when banks go under everyone can go under and the banker (Mr Tracy) hope to walk away much much richer.

So the latest Jane Austen adaptation is a mix of strong adherence to Austen and radical contemporary deviation and development.

Not that there are not flaws. Sidney is made too angry; it’s one thing to clash, misunderstand, and slowly grow to appreciate, but as played by Theo James he has so much to come down from, it’s not quite believable that our bright and self-confident Charlotte still wants him. He is unlikeable. The only explanation for her attraction to him is he is the hero and Stringer not a high enough rank, for the scenes between Stringer and Charlotte in Stringer’s house, & walking on the beach together, on the working site, are much more congenial, compatible. The writers have made too melodramatic Esther and Edward Denham’s lines.

On the transgressive sex (a linked issue):  I see nothing gained by having Theo James expose himself to Charlotte, except that the audience is shocked. This is worse than superfluous to their relationship; it is using the penis as a fetish. The incest motif functions to blacken Edward much in a modern way similar for the 18th century reader to his admiration for the cold mean pernicious rapist Lovelace (in the book he wants to emulate the villain of Clarissa). I grant Charlotte Spencer’s lingering glances of anguish and alienation, puzzled hurt, at what she is being driven to do (accept Babbington) are memorable.

In general, the series moves into too much caricature, exaggeration – the burlesque scene of the shower is even probable, including Clara in her bitter distress reaching for a mode of self-harm — burning her arm against the red-hot pipes bringing in the lovely warm shower water. But it feels jagged. Too much is piled in in too short a time. Space we have, but there needed to be more money spent on continuity and development of dialogues within scenes, in both the briefer plots and the central moments between Sidney and Charlotte. I felt the quiet friendship seen between Mary Parker and Charlotte, and again Stringer and Charlotte on the beach (at the close of Episode 4) in companionable silence were some of the best moments of the series — as well as the wonderful dancing.

We are half-way through the PBS airing. I look forward to the second half. I have seen this ending and do know how it ends, and to anticipate a bit, I do like the non-ending ending. When we get there ….


An unconventional hero and heroine would have an unconventional ending … walking quietly by the sea

Ellen

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The view from the cliffs of Walton-On-The-Naze, Essex from 27.10, Brindle, Sanditon Film-Of-The-Play (thanks to Chris Brindle for supplying it [Olympus Digital Camera]


Joanna Harker and Jennifer Ehle as Jane and Elizabeth, the central pair of the novel brought out beautifully by so many scenes between the sisters in Davies’s 1995 P&P


Sidney Parker (Theo James) and Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) bypassing one another in Davies’s Sanditon (Part 2)

Dear friends and readers,

A blog on Austen herself is long overdue, so by way of getting back to her texts, I offer tonight two videos on or of film adaptations.


Miss Bingley claims a dance from Darcy at an assembly ball (1940 MGM P&P)


Elizabeth Garvie as Elizabeth (1979 P&P, Fay Weldon)

Over on Janeites@groups.io, Nancy Mayer sent the URL to this interesting (not overlong at all) video: “Book vs. Movie: Pride and Prejudice in Film & TV (1940, 1980, 1995, 2005)” or “Pride and Prejudice by the Book:”

I find it an an excellent video review. It’s not original in approach but each of the four perspectives, and the points made are accurate and as a composition, the whole makes sense. Comparing these four makes sense too because they are (as the narrators says) of the faithful (heritage it’s called sometimes) approach. What makes the video especially good, gives it some distinction is the choice of shots, the scenes and dialogues chosen, and how they are put together. The video-makers had to have watched all movies four over and over again, made very careful slices, and then spent a long time putting together juxtapositions and montages. The one drawback is many of the dialogues from the movies in the clips, are too shortened, not enough of the conversation cited. For example, in Joe Wright’s 2005 P&P, when Claudie Blakeley as Charlotte accusingly says to Elizabeth, before telling Elizabeth of her decision to marry Mr Collins, “don’t you judge” (a few words to this effect), the eloquent speech just afterwards would have brought out not just the quality of the modernization of the language of this one, but the in-depth interpretation offered by the script-writer Deborah Moggach, with some help from Emma Thompson


The incandescent Lawrentian erotic close of Joe Wright’s 2005 P&P, Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFayden as Elizabeth and Darcy (tacked onto the American version)

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

Sanditon is now airing on ITV, will in January 2020 be shown on PBS, and the creator, script-writer, Andrew Davies, has a new and freer adaptation of Austen than he’s done before. After watching several of his adaptations over the 2 decades from 1990, we can see how far he has come (going with the era he’s developing a film for) from his first adaptation – he has now “done” P&P, Emma, S&S and Northanger Abbey — all of these very good in their Davies way, a re-vision partly from a male point of view. I note he has said no more and think to myself he is no fan of Mansfield Park and is avoiding the dark melancholy and unfinished state of Persuasion (captured very well in 2007, directed by Adrian Shergold, written by Simon Burke)


Two stills from Andrew Davies’ Sanditon, the first episode, the first glimpses of the place and beach; the second POV Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) and Tom Parker (Kris Marshall)

For some first impressions of the Part 1 Sanditon, and now Part 2

The second video, I offer by contrast: the cabaret style YouTube of the musical Sanditon as it played cabaret style in London this past late July.

I’ve written too many blog-reviews and commentaries on Chris Brindle’s filmed play of Sanditon (heritage style the faithful type), and a couple of the songs, so accompany this one just by a photograph of the English shoreline down south, here unspoilt (uncommercialized)

Here is a still I’ve not put up yet of Charlotte Heywood in comic anguish:


Act I of Brindle’s Sanditon — Amy Burrows as Charlotte Heywood


Part 2 of Davies’s Sanditon — Rose Williams as Charlotte emerging from bathing in English channel

A closing thought: it seems to me that a remarkable variety of types of films (genre, or heritage/appropriation), points of view, film techniques have been used across Austen’s corpus, testifying to how capable the books are of suggesting lines of approach for each era they have been read in.

Ellen

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


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

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

Gentle readers,

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

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

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


Lisa running alongside the bus

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

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


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

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

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


Matthew Broderick as the English teacher

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Clare


and Aidan from early in film

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


Hawkins confronting Billy

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Bonnet listening to Brianna’s demands

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


Demelza remaining angry

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Ellen

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Emily Mortimer as Florence near the close of The Bookshop (Croixet, 2018)

She [had] blinded herself, in short, by pretending for a while that human beings are not divided into exterminators and exterminatees, with the former at any given moment, predominating — Fitzgerald, Bookshop, Chapter 3, p 37)

Dear friends and readers,

I’m writing this in the spirit of my “39th footnote” to my review blog on the movie, Belle. This blog is a corrective, a qualifier of the one I wrote on the movie and book last summer. This time I take seriously poltergeist in Fitzgerald’s novella, align the novella with Austen’s use of a naif and satiric gothic in Northanger Abbey, and uncover a very different kind of novel than we (or Isabel Croixet) thought we had.

This summer I have been teaching a course based on Booker Prize books once again (see Autumn OLLI at AU, Spring OLLI at Mason). So for a second time I’ve read and discussed Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop with a class of retired adults. This time differed from the last because I’ve started bringing in my laptop and myself showing specific chosen clips from DVD videos to discuss film art for real, and connect what we learn from our viewing to the book.

Not because of the film, but because I managed to get more into the book with the class, into its details, this time I brought out the problem of the poltergeist in the novel much more emphatically. I suggested the existence of this poltergeist is a problem, because otherwise, even if the novel is not wholly realistic, is fable-like, it’s mostly realistic. And yet we have several terrifying scenes of rapping, harassing and haunted sequences where Florence alone and then Florence with her helper, the 11 year old Christine are frightened, made acutely uncomfortable. Add to the way the house is described as old, damp, falling into desuetude (needing work on pipes, on the heat): instead of a potential art center (which Mrs Gamart says she wants to make the building into) what we have is a potential trap for destroying a vulnerable heroine’s spirit or life. The book bears a mild resemblance to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

And that is precisely what happens because by the end of the book, due to the machinations of the spiteful domineering Mrs Gamart, and the complicit help of a banker, solicitor, people in the education department, Mrs Gamart’s nephew who passes a bill that enables Mrs Gamart to evict Florence, and the neighborhood which stops patronizing Florence’s store, Florence loses everything. Her life savings, the house she lived in before, all her furniture, and in the book is last seen at a bus stop with her suitcase and two salvaged Everyman books (Ruskin’s Unto This Last and Bunyan’s Grace Abounding), waiting to board a train to take her far from where she had had a home with her husband and after his death, the eight years of her widowhood. Shades of Cathy Come Home.

Then what happened is a couple of the people in the class said, why not take the poltergeist seriously. Between the three of us, we came up with the idea that the poltergeist is a doppelganger and surrogate for Mrs Gamart. This ghost stands for how Florence is undermined from within when Milo North, the treacherous BBC person, becomes an instrument of Mrs Gamart’s and tempts Florence to buy 250 copies of Lolita: an ambiguous book, both repulsive, pornographic, mean and yet much respected because thought to be “good” by Graham Greene and Mr Brundish, Florence’s one pro-active faithful friend, and a best-seller too. North offers himself up as an inexpensive employee when Christine is forbidden to work in the shop, but when Florence leaves, he turns the sign on the door to “closed” and allows the city inspectors to come in to find the house to be dangerous to live in. Jack Sullivan in his Elegant Nightmares argues that the ghost story is a popular version of Kafka where the universe itself turns malevolent and innocent victims who happen to be in the way of some harrowing vendetta end up destroyed or dead. Mrs Gamart is continually intrusive and insidious, a poltergeist herself.

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


Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe (Northanger Abbey, 2008)


Florence and Christine Gipping (The Bookshop, 2018)


Eleanor Tilney and Catherine reading Isabella’s letter (NA, 2008)

Another aspect of the book that came up in our discussions was its likeness to Northanger Abbey: like Catherine Morland, Florence is a good, kind person, generous, and more naive than is believable. Everything is so stacked against her. Everyone. It takes Florence a long time to realize that Mrs Gamart is closing a noose around her neck, and that she is fighting a battle she will lose. She is all heart and lives by love instead of distrust, false performative ways, manipulation. Northanger Abbey is an anti-gothic gothic novel: it critiques the gothic novel for exaggerations and promoting false (titillating fears) when real human nature is villainous enough. NA too has realistic sequences, and harrowing ones as Catherine begins to believe the general has hidden his wife away in some prison in the for 9 years. Mrs Gamart is just as much a vampire as Henry Tilney said his father was to his mother: she drained the life out of Florence’s shop and took the identity Florence wanted to build for herself.

The film by Isabel Croixet drops the poltergeist altogether and although she photographs the meadows, marshes, and the nearness of the seas, the basic tonal palette of the film is not grey, but often bright and blue, hopeful. She provides a narrator in the form of Christine now all grown up and looking back, concerned to explain, vindicate, show Florence’s courage and high selfless ideal to share her love of books with the people of the town. At the same time Florence has shown remarkable courage, a quiet desperate gentle heroism in holding out. And there are very happy moments, when for example, she sets up her shop and organizes her books, when she puts her sign out, and in the early days of interest and excitement; and in her relationship with Christine. At the close of the film unlike the book, Christine burns the shop down so Mrs Gamart cannot take it over, is seen waving Florence away, Florence still encouraging her to read, and now has herself opened up a very successful bookshop. In the book all we know is that Christine is “onto” North (“you’d better watch it”) and does not last in the bookshop that Mrs Gamart set up in another town as rival to Florence’s and that Christine’s mother sent her to.

But this time I did notice many more dark scenes, more distress, the indifference of the townspeople, their anger and alienation from Florence at the end precisely because they have given in & helped Mrs Gamart destroy her; and above all, the role of Bill Nighy, nervous recluse, who while his taste leaves something to be desires, goes out to fight like a knight, and loses the battle. Telling truths to Mrs Gamart does not deter her, and he has an heart attack from the effort.


The brilliant Bill Nighy as Mr Brundish trying & failing to get through


Sky afterwards


Leaves on the ground — it’s November


Far shot of body — we glimpse Florence’s kerchief in his pocket

It might not have taken that much to add genuine shadows of the gothic

The novel is very sad, melancholy, the darkest of all Fitzgerald’s books, and now I’m thinking that a gothic film more in the vein of Northanger Abbey might have been made out of it, and also one which would have more adequately captured the intuitive spiritual feeling of Fitzgerald’s book. See where I wrote a couple of years ago now on just Fitzgerald as a writer in the context of her life and other works, again especially The Bookshop, but together with Offshore, Hermione Lee’s biography and Fitzgerald’s study of the poet Charlotte Mew.

Ellen

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Jo in a Vortex


Dorothy’s red shoes

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

Dear friends and readers,

To begin with, a retrospective long overdue .

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

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


A once beloved volume

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

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

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

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

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

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

have I made myself … an exile

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

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

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

Vocation as radical behavior

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

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

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

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Italian edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Friends and readers,

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

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

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


Anita Raja

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

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

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Ann Goldstein who also translates Primo Levi

Now for her novels in translation and in the original Italian:

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


La figlia Oscura

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


The Beach at Night

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lenu and Nino (walking together in school)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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She has been involved in the film adaptation and it helps as an interpreter of her 4 novels: I’ll begin with Episode 2 (I won’t go through them all): The Money — and high brutal violence at the core of this world. Done in a muted black-and-white, it is in color but they are so muted. To give the impression of heat, chalk, lack of any beauty anywhere …. No trees, nothing to soften, make any beauty, or refreshment for the eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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