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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Ellen

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Hans Holbein’s (hostile) depiction of Thomas Cromwell

Dear friends and readers,

I attempt to capture something of the experience I have just had with a group of people at an Oscher Institute of Lifelong Learning (attached to George Mason). We read and discussed carefully Mantel’s two novels as providing us with a fresh angle on the Tudor Matter. Tudor matter includes all that happened, all that can be connected to people influenced by and influencing a family tree of Tudors, from the time of the ascension of Henry Tudor (1485-1509) to the English throne (also 1485) to the death of his son, Henry VIII’s third child, Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth (born 1533, died 1603).

In this case Mantel writes the kind of historical fiction which uses actual historical people for all its characters, remains faithful to what is historically documented as having happened while the novelist, like the historian, has a duty to realize the living experience and interpret the significance small and large of each event or character. Mantel presented a point of view so persuasive and well-supported that her book is now influencing the way historians as well as countless others evaluate Thomas Cromwell. The two books are labelled “the Thomas Cromwell trilogy,” though the third does not exist as yet (at least not as a finished published book) and will make up a fictionalized biography: all three will cover the years from Cromwell’s birth (said to be 1485) to execution (1540).


Mark Rylance as Cromwell

She was also an active spirit in Peter Straughan’s six part TV serial drama (2015) and Mike Poulton’s stage play (2012). I read aloud Mantel’s character descriptions at the beginning of the play text.


Ben Miles as Cromwell

It was important not to omit movies as the Tudor matter for many consists of movies. At the beginning of each session I’d play 3 clips from the 2015 Wolf Hall, for the 2nd through 7th session. Since (as in the case of Arthurian matter or the classical Greek and Roman stories) includes many others takes, I included the two books that constitute the powerful originating sources of Mantel’s: Robert Bolt’s play A Man for all Seasons, Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, and at the opening of our 8th session I played 4 clips from 2 movies made therefrom: Zinneman’s 1966 movie, A Man for All Seasons with Paul Scofield and Robert Shaw as man and master, Wendy Hiller as Alice; the highly original inward (daring) Philippa Lowthorpe’s 2003 BBC Other Boleyn Girl, with Jodhi May as Anne and Stephen Mackintosh as George Boleyn (central to the interpretation that finds Anne and George incestuous in a desperate attempt to produce an apparently legitimate son for Henry). I showed 2 very brief and a bit of the feature (with Philippa Gregory) of commercially successful Columbia 2008 Other Boleyn Girl (by the ubiquitous Peter Morgan, whose 2003 serial drama Henry VIII, with Ray Winstone, I also went over but could not show as I have only a Region 2 copy), remarkable for its depiction of strong women everywhere who are nonetheless forced to submit. Let’s gaze at those moments and characters less paid attention to:


Wendy Hiller bitterly telling More awaiting his death in prison as she awaits hers in poverty outside: “I’ll tell you what I’m afraid of: that when you’ve gone I shall hate you for it.”


Jodhi May as Anne Boleyn exiled to Hever for a year to bend her to comply with her father and uncle’s demands she serve the family interests first (2003)


Kirstin Scott Thomas as Elizabeth Boleyn, coerced not willingly into selling all three of her children, realizing two are going to be beheaded (2008)

So what we did was have themes we drew out from the books alongside talking of them section-by-section: I lectured on real early modern women I’ve studied (and translated) and what we know about Anne and Mary Boleyn (and a few other supporting characters so-to-speak, as Jane Boleyn, Catherine of Aragon, Margaret More, fast forwarding to Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor. A guarded bunch, easily rendered powerless, who left few papers, and most of those self- or other-censored. We talked about the spread of a religious movement across all classes which would satisfy people’s inner needs for self-understanding as well as justification, a matter of increasingly secular identity and conscience. Then there was how the political world worked. Finally, the fluid sexuality of the era. Mantel’s two books support such discussions, if you just extrapolate out (not too far) into the real world outside the book that the book continually has reference to. Mantel’s history fiction functions like life-writing, which does not begin to end at any book’s first and last pages. We don’t know all we can know about a character who lived from any single book. Many questions, all sorts we hashed out. I sent two articles a week (three by Hilary Mantel who is a witty essayist), and recommended and brought in biographies (scroll down).

One cannot yet explicate the structure of a work that is only (at best) 2/3s done. The central climactic tragedy, the execution of Anne, who is stealth heroine, is realized at length in the penultimate pages of Bring Up the Bodies, hard upon the interrogations by Cromwell of the five executed men, and Anne and George’s trials. What one notices is that at the close of Wolf Hall, the execution of More occurs off-stage; on-stage is Cromwell’s perhaps psychosomatic illness (or it’s from exhaustion) and the thematic clashes and dialogues, whole history of the rivalry (unknown to More until late in life) of More and Cromwell’s outlook on life and behavior begins only in the third book of Wolf Hall. Six parts; each section has a tripartite structure (3 chapters) of opening, long center, and brief coda.

Parts One & Two:

Fathers and sons: Across the narrow sea: Cromwell fleeing his violent father, at first rescued by his sister, Kat Williams; then on his own; Paternity: Cromwell’s relationship with Wolsey as true father and the problem of Henry’s lack of a legitimate son and demand Wolsey enable him to marry Anne Boleyn; Austin Friars: a good world he and his beloved wife, Liz, create together.


Natasha Little as Liz Cromwell who will haunt Cromwell ever

Visitation: The Downfall of the Cardinal, with all the powerful men who bring this about; Occult History; in the context of mythic to long past to immediate history of Britain as acted out by some of our central characters (we meet Mary and Anne Boleyn, the male courtiers including Henry Percy, and Cromwell’s pasts, in Italy, Antwerp, the death of his beloved wife, daughters, the coming of Rafe, in England Buonvisi as neighbor, first clashes with More; Make or Mar: Cromwell grieving with Cavendish, chooses to stay loyal to his master as a way to make or mar himself.


Cromwell’s household: We glimpse from the back Josh Porter as Richard [Williams] Cromwell, Thomas Brodie-Sangster as the invaluable Rafe, Saskia Reeves as his beloved sisterin-law, lover Johanne

Parts Three and Four:

Three-Card Trick: Mantel tracks time carefully, backwards again (circular structure typical of l’ecriture-femme: Wolsey at Esher, now Cromwell must get into Parliament, interact with ambassadors, cope with Henry, visit More himself; Entirely Beloved Cromwell: Christmas w/o wife and daughter; 1513 when Henry spent hugely stupidly killing all for nothing, Cromwell’s protest (the other side of Flodden Field); now caring for Cardinal under whose bed a kitten, Marlinspike, born; more of Gregory, his son, entirely beloved, the rise of Anne Boleyn is presented secondarily, we don’t see her that; we see her sister, Mary more; The Dead Complain of Their Burial: Christmas tide, 1530, King’s nightmare transformed by Cromwell’s allegoresis


Jonathan Pryce as the Cardinal, tucked into bed by Cromwell, praying for him — the ghosts accumulate

Arrange your face; “Alas, what shall I do for love?”;: profoundly dangerous time, he has to give up Johanne; court life, Anne people must say whatever will keep them alive, Mary’s role, her retreat, individuals acting out religious clashes, torture, execution; Chapuys emerges as emperor’s man, Catholic. The center of book a graphic depiction of the burning of an old Lollard woman witnessed by Cromwell as a young boy. Early Mass: Henry has fucked Anne and they are bethrothed


Joanna Whalley as rigidly catholic queen, Lily Lesser as her daughter, Mary Tudor, twisted, deeply in need

What was the appeal of this Protestantism? It appealed deeply to powerless men with whom women belong as a category, to servants, and it spread. It is often talked about in the most inadequate ways; one group says you saved by faith, Christ’s self-immolation paid for your sin, God has predestined you, so need to sit and feel intensely fearful you are going to go to hell if you have had a conversion experience: truly feel God in your heart. Other group says well what kind of God is that to damn so many people, and also say you need not perform good works, need not be public in church (where of course you can be controlled), just you and God and the book.

Going to reach for text some of you read with me, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, in the last part Margaret gets depressed and few will remember what book helps her after both father and mother are dead: it’s quoted at length in the text in French St Francis de Sales, “An introduction to the devoted or religious life.” Margaret finds much comfort in it. It’s translated in the back of those books with notes. Others did not want to look, wanted certainty of people saying your works would secure you, of authority figures

Before the 20th century if you were feeling terrible about yourself or your life there was no secular psychology free of blame to go to; and what these protestant re-tellings did was provide a way of thinking that absolved you. In this particular one Margaret reads how she should not “die of shame” because of what’s she done,” she has fallen into a pit,” but she can rise up if she thinks about what happened another way and realizes compassion and mercy are there. No blaming, no need to do anything for which you need power. Women began to write poetry in the 16th century and it was by an large paraphrases of the psalms or religious texts where they rewrote them in personal veins. Johane can be stopped from her love affair by her mother. A great deal of infamy was heaped on people over sex – that was part of Henry’s problem. There is good evidence to suggest – all you are ever going to have – that Anne Boleyn and Thomas Percy went through one of these informal bethrothals as did Anne Boleyn and the king and then she and Percy consummated.

Who were the kind of men who wrote this sort of thing? Thomas Kempis’s Imitation of Christ was huge continual re-translated best-seller for centuries; another one I’ve read is the Spanish so-called mystic, Juan de Valdes – Vittoria Colonna reread Juan de Valdes, Beneficio di Cristo obsessively. Methodism in the later 18th century show the intersection with power because they tried to throw off local landlords from choosing their vicars. Didn’t the rich and powerful in pews in the church.


Bainam burnt at the stake:

Parts Five and Six

Anna Regina and Devil’s Spit: women brought in: Helen Barre; Cranmer and Margarete the parallel; the half-mad Elizabeth Barton’s story, Anne as vulnerable woman by about half-way. Women doubles, surrogates, parallels; each reveals sides of man or men she is involved with. Cromwell’s kindness. Jane Boleyn emerges. Overriding mood is still paranoia: from enemies to crazy nun, all the reform depends on Anne who grows delusional and now wants daughter on throne. Rafe begins to emerge more. Painter’s Eye: Hans Holbein’s portrait. A theme:

An hour-long filmn Hans Holbein recommended by someone in the class; the speaker, an art historian named Waldemar Januszczak, art correspondent for the London Times, a controversial figure, often very provocative, who uses Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell to attack Hilary Mantel’s portrait of Cromwell on the grounds he looks like a murderer. I showed them a portrait of Cromwell where he does not look like a murderer. Holbein is tremendously arresting. We believe in his portraits. But Januszczak provides ammunition against his own thesis. He makes fun of Holbein’s imposing peacock, ever so tall and wide – Damien Lewis is hard put to look huge but does his best to strut. Why is Holbein’s portrait to be taken as gospel. Januszczak shows us Holbein came from Catholic people, he made many Madonnas, in fact he painted his own wife looking like a miserable madonna with two children.I suggest HOlbein’s portraits are catholic propaganda on behalf of More and against Cromwell. If you look at the portraits of Mary Boleyn as opposed to the one done by Holbein and thought to be her, they fit better. Juszcaak had a Holbein drawing of Anne Boleyn he says is her I’ve never seen and it looked convincing more convincing that that stiff woman in black we are often shown. Holbein could paint remarkable faces but that does not mean he is on oath –- he is like a modern camera or painter who can impose a view.


Partners: Rylance as More; Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn

Supremacy; A Map of Christendom: A rewrite of Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, to the point where speeches that Bolt plucked out of the historical records are re-plucked but uttered in contexts that reverse or at least significantly alter their significance. Cromwell attempts to persuade, with Cranmore uttering the same rationalities; in Mantel it is Rich who engineers More’s downfall along with his own scorn of Rich; from More salivating over torturing someone, through dialogue and the burning and torture of other Protestants we are led to see More as the harmful fanatic. More’s utterance near the end that he has wished and done no man harm and if that cannot keep him alive, he’d rather not live (rendered famously by Scofield on the scaffolld), is answered here by Cromwell as they sit over a table by a list of people that Cromwell cites whom More has destroyed viciously. In the final scene of More’s beheading, in Mantel and Straughan there is only the pathos of a wretched narrow man; in Mantel she has it happen off-stage and in the text we see Cromwell’s illness, his family all about him.Theme: how did power work?


Anton Lesser as More refusing to sign

Was it the king acting alone and at the center with aristocrats obeying him; or King-in-Parliament and factions vying for power. The latter seems far more accurate. Ordinary courts of justice were about property, property rights and it could be within a family or companies over contracts. Gov’t would go to court over taking people’s property – as Cromwell did when he dissolved the monasteries and nunneries. Or some act of violence. Anyone could bring a charge or ask prosecutor to bring a charge. You did not have the right to a lawyer or to speak in your own defense. All this came later. Women has no rights in such places as suitors but they could be accused. Parishes went to court to kick people out and control them. Short prison sentences. Wretched places where you were expected to provide for your own keep. Disease sites. Different courts for different purposes, and very powerful were the church courts. Your right to life, liberty and property is a later 17th century idea. Locally the JP or magistrate appointed by JP. Movement from king all powerful with henchmen aristocrats with castles and liege men in armies to whole change in fabric of society as commerce, capitalism, changes in agriculture occur. King did not control the people and land during
feudalism, power was local, and if you wanted power far away, you had to control through other people — life built on sales and money, middling people feared chaos and wanted security, peace, stability. Strong authority emotionally for most people began with parents and older relatives. Boys sent to train as pages or out to work after initial schoolroom; girls educated at home to read and to do accounts; Renaissance added history, languages, sewing. Lower class girls put into service, cook and sew and clean. Bible spread reading; 1566 Great Bishop’s Bible commissioned by Elizabeth I. Two agricultural recessions: 1530s and 1590s; on the whole period of expansion due to trade and cloth and what destroyed ordinary people was enclosure movements. Henry a strikingly volatile psychopath emerged from an educated young prince gradually. Enormously overweight. Domineering grandmother, neglected by father.

To Wolf Hall. Jane Seymour; Seymours replacing Boleyns. Over course of these three Cromwell becoming a darker harder figure.


Kate Phillips as Jane Seymour; contemporary portrait of Jane Seymour

Elizabeth I probably the victim of sexual harassment and abuse from Thomas Seymour during the time she was growing up in Katherine Parr’s household. It will come as no surprise she was interrogated and blamed as seeking to marry him and overthrow her sister. This early trauma from which Parr could not protect her could be linked to her decided uneagerness for a man; but it was also political. To marry would have been to take a master.

We did Bring Up the Bodies much more rapidly; in the film covered by Parts Five and Six.


Purefoy a cynosure for Anne

Falcons; Crows; Angels: Opens with display of falcons, birds who are fierce, vultures, turned into abject enslaved creatures, named after his daughters and wife. Kimbolton is where Katherine of Aragon is staying, Cromwell visits this dying woman and stays at a lodging house where he sleeps with the wife and thinks of doing away with her husband. Stepney and Greenwich, Christmas in Cromwell’s new household, with young men married, new children about him. He no longer is compassionate figure; less wit but still there: for Jane Seymour men “an unpleasant surprise.” Displaced by drive to manipulate, fierce anger at men, ambition to re-organize the world; Henry’s fierce anger at Cromwell (at Chapuys).


Jessica Raine as Jane Parker Boleyn, Lady Rochford (2015 Wolf Hall); we read Mantel’s witty essay suggesting yes Jane Parker’s evidence was sinister

Black Book: Anne has one last late miscarriage; the one called a monster and now she a witch, or because (as Jane Rochford and others had it, it was the child of an incestuous union). Retha Warnke in her historical biography offers the idea that the child was carried beyond quickening but then something was wrong with it (spina bifida?). Something wrong with Henry, or a mismatch of blood types.

Her dog killed; rumors rife as others begin to accuse Anne of sexual unfaithfulness. Closing in. Master of Phantoms: One member of Anne’s circle after another, first the women frightened, easily gotten to talk; then Jane Boleyn’s role, Smeaton’s stupid boasting; the ceaseless interrogations, the final trial, Anne and George and the execution. Spoils, London, summer 1536: divvying up the plums

How did we end? I gave Philippa Gregory full credit for being the first to develop new characters, a new perspective from Mary Boleyn on. Mantel picked up from that and Mary Robertson’s work on Cromwell, Cavendish’s great biography of Wolsey. We discussed the mystery of Henry VIII’s character and I told of Morgan’s take on him, and Ray Winstone’s performance.

Finally, I used Jessica Jernigan’s review in The Women’s Review of Books: Bring Up the Bodies filled with ghosts and monsters. I still love the style: it’s plainer and more popular or demotic than Wolf Hall but still a strong sardonic irony and use of concrete popular language as metaphor persists. In Wolf Hall Cromwell was also a fond husband, kind master, against the worst excesses of power, kindly easy to like; not this man whose virtues now are given a sinister cast as they are used to murder 6 people. His own evil twin meting out revenge. Protecting himself. Jernigan also brings in Mantel’s other novels. As with Larissa MacFarland whose New Yorker article I gave out, Jernigan sees an obsession with another world outside the probable sane one. We saw Cromwell fighting a blighted life and now? Jernigan singles out passages where she says that tricky “he” is not Cromwell any more; there creeps in an “us” – as with Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover, we the readers and Mantel herself are emerge from behind Cromwell and Henry. Perhaps in her third book we will move to continuity between present and past too:

Already you can feel the autumn. You know there cannot be many more days like these; so let us stand, the horseboys of Wolf Hall swarming around us, Wiltshire and the western country, stretching into a haze of blue – she wants us to feel the alders by the water’s edge, the early haze that lifted by nine; the brief shower, the small wind that died and settled; the stillness, the afternoon heat …

Ellen

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Steventon, a modern photo of the pump (inside the enclosing fence)


Ellen Hill’s picturesque illustration of the pump at Steventon, JA: Her home and Her Friends by Constance Hill, illus. Ellen Hill

I think that knowing where Jane lived can tell us who Jane really was — Lucy Worsley, opening to the film

Houses have their own way of dying, falling as variously as the generations of men, some with a tragic roar, some quietly, but to an after-life in the city of ghosts, while from others — …. the spirit slips before the body perishes … E.M.Forster, Howards End (Chapter 31)

Friends and readers,

Lucy Worsley’s Jane Austen: At Home may be regarded replacing the fantasy idyll the Constance and Ellen Hill biography offered the Janeite at the turn of the early 20th century. Worsley’s book is, like the Hills’ book, a biography of Jane Austen seen from the angle of the houses & places she lived in, visited, or just dreamed of ever after. Worsley works hard to recreate Austen’s world by providing a cornucopia of the tiniest concrete details of where and after that (sparser) how they lived nuanced into an almost subjective novelistic discourse. For the Hill combination of nostalgia for what never was, with visits to houses and places Austen lived in, Worsley substitutes hard scholarship, modern photography, and unassailable house and grounds information for what is known about Austen from herself through her letters, her novels, through hearsay, and through James Edward Austen-Leigh’s biography of his aunt.

Worsley is very clever, has read alertly, and has picked up the reality of Austen’s life as opposed to what she herself and her Janeite and other (often commercially minded) optimistic readers have stressed, so that her disillusion frequently jars us out of complacency. I finished the book convinced Worsley could have written much more in the vein of Austen’s justified bitterness, melancholy and hurt, acid jokes and deliberately flat reportage, but that Worsley is determined to maintain a light cheerful upbeat tone. Her book moves hurriedly now and again too. The result is an uneven book, sometimes feelingly so accurate and useful, at others simply repeating parrot-like a going consensus (about the librarian clark, an easy target). I was reminded of the crispness of Claire Tomalin combined with the empathetic tone of Claire Harman. Worsley tries to channel through herself the vivacity of Austen’s texts: he same attempts at suspense, allurement and quiet confiding, like our friend, without quite Harman’s subversive feminist point of view. In a nutshell, an entertaining, frequently absorbing book that feels like light reading, but isn’t quite because when Worsley gets down to the reality of Jane’s life’s circumstances and limitations from these Worsley shows us deprivation, frustration, powerlessness, but also in Austen bright determination to experience what she could of pleasure, fun.


We watch Worsley go through the process of creating ink to write with


Joanna David as the displaced Elinor Dashwood (1971 BBC Sense and Sensibility, scripted Denis Constantduros) — the first BBC film adaptation of an Austen novel, among the first scenes ….

I write this blog to advise seeing Worsley’s TV documentary movie, The Houses of Jane Austen, alongside, before or just after reading the book. At the end of the book’s first chapter, Worsley concludes that Austen’s was a “sad life, and a struggle.” Worsley’s relentlessly cheery tone, the grinning face (sort of half-frozen with too much powder) may get on your nerves, yet the story she plots by moving house to house, and taking us there, show a chart of a few high points (when a girl dancing, when on holiday, when arriving at Chawton and beginning to write), but generally a downward spiral with Trim Street, Bath, and the castle Southampton, Austen’s nadir. She was then rescued (in effect) by the offer of Chawton cottage to live in, their own space, time and just enough money to write in peace with. It turns out once Austen readies a ms for publication, she wants as many people to read it as possible. Crucial help from her brother Henry enables her to publish four of her books and revise two more to the point of near publication (while truncated, Persuasion is enough finished; and Northanger Abbey too). Then the darkness closes in despite all Jane’s best efforts, and we watch her decline into her last days.

What follows is an attempt to convey what makes her book & film interesting and enjoyable beyond the information and occasional new insights she offers: the quality of Worsley’s mixed tones.

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


We picture Jane Austen mostly indoors, and writing — here we see her writing desk

Some examples and points made from JA: At Home. Worsley begins with the 1833 publisher Bentley’s assertion that Jane Austen is emphatically the novelist of home. Now while we nowadays imagine her very cosy in Chawton cottage in our imagination, in fact for Austen home was a problem. Not only as an unmarried woman with no livable-upon income of her own or earned, she was always at risk for homelessness, the perpetual visitor who has somehow to keep earning her welcome. At the same time her home for Austen was a problem. She was given no private space of her own. If not for Cassandra, and even with, only a small part of the day she would have preferred to be at home all day writing & reading, had to be given over to socializing, homemaking. Not only finding the time & privacy to write. Where could she keep her ms’s safe. She carried some around in a mahogany writing desk (precursor of the modern laptop; see above, a gift from her father), which on one trip in carriage, became separated from her, headed for an entirely different destination, and there was a frantic search backwards to retrieve it, which luckily succeeded.


How important her father’s library and reading aloud — Worsley quotes Austen’s letters

So, says Worsley, the search for a home is an idea central to Jane Austen’s fiction. A permanent happy home is what a number of her heroines don’t have; they are many of them displaced from family or physical home. It is hard to secure a place of safety, of quiet …  in which one can be understood and loved. S&S death in the family forces heroines out of childhood home; P&P our heroines will be expelled; MP Fanny Price sent away twice, and the moderately wealthy and physical strong Mary Crawford is a female wanderer. Jane Fairfax will have to earn her keep and place as a governess. Anne Elliot packed off to relative or lodgings.


Jane Austen — the Abbey School, Reading, which she attended around age 8

We meet the women of her generation with whom she spoke frankly: Ann Sharp, governess; Martha Lloyd, the nearby beloved neighbor who works as a companion and by Southampton had come to live with the three Austens. Worsley does omit (and this would be part of her theme of housing, houses), that in Southampton Jane formulates a scheme for just herself, Cassandra and Catherine and Althea Bigg to go out on their own. But she needs her brothers’ money for help and the proposal is squashed. We may guess her desire to free herself of her mother’s continual supervision even when older. This is the sort of personal pain Worsley skims over.

As Austen grows older and is forced to move about, sees her family lack funds to obtain the housing they want, and especially when her father died, Worsley suggests Austen saw how women alone were impoverished, how the structures of their society and laws forced women to marry and then submit to men for endless pregnancies — in her family two sisters-in-law died of 11 childbirths. In her ending the only one of all the women Austen knew well or closely beyond Ann Sharp who never married was Cassandra, for Frank married Martha Lloyd — a surrogate for Jane? Worsley feels that absent from Austen’s fiction and letters is the idea that women alone are also held apart from the society — as widows avoided. This comes in the last section where Worsley points out that in her death for all the talk of her family’s kindness and her gratitude, the only people who came to see Austen were women. She catches on to Martha Lloyd as special but no more. None of her family or other friends came to stay during the three months of dying.

Nonetheless, in this book Jane Austen is no lesbian. Worsley like many shows Austen to have become a spinster by choice at the same time as locating no less than six suitors. I disagree with her that Tom Lefroy had not meant a great deal — Worsley believes Austen’s guardedness  as the whole state of the case. Not in the others. We learn of Samuel Backall, William Digweed, Edward Bridges (this was the most serious after Lefroy), Harris Bigg-Wither, the unnamed seaside wooer, William Seymour (her brother Henry’s partner), William Gifford. Charles-Thomas Haden, who looked after Henry Austen in London when Henry became quite ill, and whom Jane teases herself about as an apothecary is however slighted.


Hugh Bonneville as Edward Bridges and Oliva Williams as the older Jane Austen (Miss Austen Regrets, 2008, script Gwyneth Hughes based largely on David Nokes’s biography and Austen’s letters)

Much of this comes from the letters, which Worsley has mined carefully and is inclined to take as serious evidence of Austen’s attitudes and feelings, desires.  She takes my view the letters are a crucial resource. The convention structuring of Austen’s novels prevents her from presenting significant usual outcomes in characters’ lives so we are thrown back upon the letters and we read the novels mining them for Austen’s criticism, letters, poetry.


Austen’s earliest world


Sydney Place, Bath — today a Holiday rental

The book and film move through Austen’s life more or less chronologically, following Austen from her long period growing up in Steventon and then when the house is given over to James, from lodging to lodging, house to house in Bath, the damp Green Park Buildings, and after her father died ever more poorer, darker,


The most dismal of the houses

and then in the later years, seaside resort to seaside resort, at Southampton with Frank, and finally landing at Chawton. I found much new information about Jane Austen’s time in London with her brother, Henry: like EJ Clery (Jane Austen, The Banker’s Sister), Worsley finds Henry to be Jane’s closest brother, and especially important in her first two publications. She is careful to describe all the places Henry lived in, house and gardens. I appreciated how she kept careful track of where Austen visited in a given morning or afternoon and where at the same time another relative or friend (whose movements were important to Austen) was, so we get a sense of simultaneity in Austen’s world; she makes this cohere with what Austen is writing at a given time (starting in Bath especially) or negotiating for, where traveling and what she is reading. What plays are going on, what nights Austen went, and who and what was playing. This was where Worsley was at her best in the book; in the film showing the images of places, well picked angles.


One of the photos from Lyme, by the cobb

Worsley does adhere to the contemporary feminist desire to discover in Austen an entrepreneurial businesswoman but is more honest about this. She sees how Austen herself as well as Henry made the wrong decision in refusing Murray’s offer on reasonable terms to publish her four novels once he had the copyright. Murray’s experience showed him what Austen’s novels would fetch as to readership and money. She had a lot more trouble and make a lot less money by her distrust. Worsley does not see that Austen’s letter to the publisher of Northanger Abbey was naive. Austen needed her brother, Henry, to begin with, and needed Eliza as a knowing person in society; she learned through them and had to followed their advice too. In 1815 She sent her brothers to retrieve Northanger Abbey. All from a intensely careful scrutiny of Austen’s and other contemporary diaries and letters.

I think more than anything Worsley’s held-to thesis about Austen seeking a home for herself a place she controls and how this is reflected in the frustrations of her heroines in the novels is spot on. Read her books from this perspective and remember Fanny Price quoting Cowper: “With what intense desire she wants her home”. Perhaps the book is a bit too bright. Worsley’s mode of discretion is omission. Her worst moments for me were when she made assumptions about all readers. So she suggests we all see Sense and Sensibilityy as crude; Mansfield Park is her least liked book by everyone, and so on.

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By contrast, her hour long TV show, The Houses of Jane Austen opens with driving into the grounds of Stoneleigh Abbey, and thus gives an impression of Austen as an heiress. Perhaps inevitably since the houses still standing are the larger mansions. There is a comfortable friendly tone and appealing music. She can’t provide much detail but the experience is visceral. What the camera sees, Worsley as our surrogate going from house to house, place to place, revealing where Austen lived and her journey across the years: from small (wretched) lodgings on Trim Street, to large comfortable places like Godmersham. We these places, also the countryside, the seashores, the city of Bath, Southampton, the use of the maps including when the buildings are no longer there, the world that was is no longer there. Sometimes she has found a painting (like of the castle in Southampton) that substitutes.

She opens with the statement that where you were born and who born to for most 18th century people delimited where you ended up. Austen’s father was unusual for having the gentlemanly background and education and yet small income; this was matched by his wife, a fringe aristocrat. She goes with an archeaologist to where Steventon was and a dig is going on.


The two women filmed from on high

It was a packed house with 6 boys, 2 girls, boys boarding in a school; servants included dairy maids, footman, and outside ducks, cows, chickens outside. Mr Austens study was in the back but he had three occupations (clergyman, tutor, farmer). Austen walked to and with friends; she played the piano. We see Ashe rectory, Deane House (where she danced), watch Worsley and a professor act out one of Austen’s playlets.

Worsley thinks Godmersham had the greatest influence on Austen’s writing. She didn’t like Bath but Worsley or the camera does or Austen’s behalf. We are shown Lyme Regis and Weymouth by the sea — Austen did like the sea, could envy the itinerant life, loved Wales and landscape poetry. Even when the places are no longer there that she lived, what we see there now is suggestive.


Enjoying the seashore


Contemporary tourist book

Southampton another level down from Trim Street, and cramped — here it was 8 women and Frank Austen. No prospects at all was what Austen must’ve felt, Worsley suggests. Then the wheel turns and Chawton House is on display and Chawton Cottage on offer, and Jane comes into her own, for however short a time. 1809. Worsley reads from the four women’s thrifty cookbook. We move to Austen’s life with Henry and Eliza and just Henry and Madame Bigeon at Hans Place, Knightbridge. The film ends on a visit to Winchester where she died. It’s poignant

If I have repeated the story trajectory, that’s because it controls Worsley’s discourse in both mediums. What she adds to the Austen corpus is this singularly mixed braid, doing justice to the ordeals of Austen’s life as well as the enjoyment and achievements she knew. As I thought it over, I realized a linking sub-thread was Austen contemplative, and writing throughout.

“My dear, dear aunt,” she rapturously cried, “what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of any thing. We will know where we have gone — we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarrelling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers.”


Worsley acting out one of Austen’s texts (her presence and “costumes” important to her film’s effect)

Ellen

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Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, terrified because she has had another miscarriage (Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as dramatized by Peter Straughan, BBC 2015)

Friends and readers

I have been so surprised at Austen’s vehement defense of Mary Stuart in her History of England, that I’ve tended to read her words as ironic, playful, or somehow not really meaning it. But in conversation on the Net here I’ve learnt that Samuel Johnson also empathized with Mary: more, some of the terms in which he put his defense, or one reason he singled out for indignation on her behalf are precisely those of Austen.

She writes in the chapter, Elizabeth

these Men, these boasted Men [Lord Burleigh, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the rest of those who filled the chief offices of State] were such Scandals to their Country & their Sex as to allow & assist their Queen in confining for the space of nineteen Years, a Woman who if the claims of Relationship & Merit were of no avail, yet as a Queen & as one who condescended to place confidence in her, had every reason to expect Assistance & protection; and at length in allowing Elizabeth to bring this amiable Woman to an untimely, unmerited, and scandalous Death.

Johnson, said my friend, reviewed William Tytler’s book on “the casket letters.” This is scheduled to be published in the final volume (20) of the Yale Edition of Johnson’s Works (so it is not yet on the Yale Digital Site), nor (alas) can I find it ECCO, but in a conversation with Boswell recorded in Boswell’s Life, Johnson retorts:

BOSWELL: ‘I here began to indulge old Scottish sentiments, and to express a warm regret, that, by our Union with England, we were no more; — our independent kingdom was lost.’
JOHNSON. ‘Sir, never talk of yourr independency, who could let your Queen remain twenty years in captivity, and then be put to death, without even a pretence [sic] of justice, without your ever attempting to rescue her; and such a Queen too; as every man of any gallantry of spirit would have sacrificed his life for.’ (Life, 5:40)

I took down from one of my bookshelves (the one with books on Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots) and found in Jayne Lewis’s Mary Queen of Scots: Romance and Nation that Lewis has a section on a painting Boswell commissioned by Hamilton of Mary Queen of Scots for which Boswell wanted Johnson to write an appropriate inscription. Johnson would not as the painting is a travesty of what happened.


Gavin Hamilton, The Abdication of Mary, Queen of Scots (Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

Her captors (says Lewis) are in classical, she in historical dress.  Looking at the image, it does seem to me man is in armor, another in a clerical kind of outfit, with a 16th century cap on his head, and a third is some kind of white cape or overcoast.  Lewis remarks they are absurdly “restrained,” and I agree it’s not shown this was coercion. Johnson sent an inscription which ignores the falsely bland (decorous?) picture by Hamilton Boswell paid for, which is (in Boswell’s words) “a representation of a particular scene in her history, her being forced to resign her crown.” Johnson instead produced lines which referred to Mary’s “hard fate,” i.e. her execution.: “Mary Queen of Scots, terrified and overpowered by insults, menaces, and clamours of her rebellious subjects, sets her hand, with fear and confusion, to a resignation of the kingdom.”

Lewis provides an image by Alexander Runciman much closer to Johnson’s response:

Lewis says the review Johnson wrote of the book on the casket letters was “glowing” and that Johnson “reprimanded” the Keeper of the Advocate’s Library in Edinburgh for his countrymen in having “let your Queen remain twenty years in captivity and then be put to death.”

Johnson “understood, even felt the fatal role that the symbols and signs which reduced her to a thing — and thus potentially to nothing — had played both in Mary’s own tragedy and in the patriarchal farce so recently re-enacted by the artists, critics and collectors of Georgian England … it was the will to freeze her in symbolic form (through ‘insults, menaces, and clamours’) that once stripped Mary of her sovereignty, and that does so as she becomes again a sacrifice to the modern frenzy of renown” (Lewis, 118-19)

According to Lewis, Johnson felt personally (“especially”) close to Mary, perpetually aware of how her predicament could be re-enacted in the present. Austen too sees Mary as affecting her close friends and neighbors and about how her family deserted her: readers have been distracted and puzzled by the lines referring to Mary’s Catholic religion:

Yet she bore it with a most unshaken fortitude, firm in her mind; Constant in her Religion; & prepared herself to meet the cruel fate to which she was doomed, with a magnanimity that could alone proceed from conscious Innocence. And yet could you Reader have beleived it possible that some hardened & zealous Protestants have even abused her for that Steadfastness in the Catholic Religion which reflected on her so much credit? But this is a striking proof of their narrow souls & prejudiced Judgements who accuse her

But these lines show the personal identification that actuates her:

Oh! what must this bewitching Princess whose only friend was then the Duke of Norfolk, and whose only ones are now Mr Whitaker, Mrs Lefroy, Mrs Knight & myself, who was abandoned by her Son, confined by her Cousin, abused, reproached & vilified by all, what must not her most noble mind have suffered when informed that Elizabeth had given orders for her Death!

And this footnote remembering Charlotte Smith’s first novel, Emmeline, or The Orphan of the Castle reinforces Austen’s sense of Mary and Elizabeth’s contemporaneity. Austen writes of Robert Devereux Lord Essex.

This unfortunate young Man was not unlike in Character to that equally unfortunate one Frederic Delamere. The simile may be carried still farther, & Elizabeth the torment of Essex may be compared to the Emmeline of Delamere. It would be endless to recount the misfortunes of this noble & gallant Earl. It is sufficient to say that he was beheaded on the 25th of Feb:ry, after having been Lord Leuitenant of Ireland, after having clapped his hand on his Sword, and after performing many other services to his Country. Elizabeth did not long survive his loss, & died so miserable that were it not an injury to the memory of Mary I should pity her.

So when Johnson tried to convince Hester Thrale not to marry Piozzi, that “only some phantoms of the imagination” could “seduce her to Italy,” “eased [his] heart” “by reminding Thrale of Mary Stuart’s fateful flight from Scotland into England:

When Queen Mary took the resolution of sheltering herself in England, the Archbishop of St. Andrew’s attempting to dissuade her, attended on her journey and when they came to the irremeable stream that separated the two kingdoms, walked by her side into the water, in the middle of which he seized her bridle, and with earnestness proportioned to her danger and his own affection, pressed her to return. The Queen went forward. — If the parallel reaches thus far, may it go no further. The tears stand in my eyes” (quoted by Lewis, 119)

Johnson and Austen bring Mary into the present, and also acknowledge her distance from them, Austen by alluding to a novel which sets Mary in the world of “the fancy” (imagination), Johnson by saying “the parallel can go no further.”

Lewis goes on to say Mrs Thrale herself copied one of Mary’s poems into her private journal (244, n42). I don’t know which one but offer this as an example of Mary’s use of the sonnet form in a poem

First the original French:

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

Then a good modern English translation:

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

For good measure Lewis shows how “in private life” David Hume reacted spontaneously, personally and viscerally to aspects of Mary’s character and in his printed History did all her could to make Mary’s suffering present to readers (120-21). To all these later 18th century people Mary had not yet become wax-work, or an abstract site of scholarship.

I see close parallels in thinking between Austen and Johnson — how people are oblivious, dismissive, show a total failure of the imagination when it comes to the injustices towards the suffering of others — which offers another explanation for why Austen so devotedly and vehemently favored Mary Stuart.

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Hitherto when I’ve discussed Austen’s History of England or her ardent defenses (and attacks) on Tudor queens, I’ve tried to show a fervent feminism at work (For Austen’s birthday: what she said about Tudor queens, especially Katharine Parr).

But this does not help us understand her particular reactions to particular figures, e.g., “Lady Jane Gray, who tho’ inferior to her lovely Cousin the Queen of Scots, was yet an amiable young woman & famous for reading Greek while other people were hunting.” Now I’m thinking the analogy to make for Austen’s History of England is also our modern historical romances and historical films, where women writers especially mirror women’s modern experiences of victimhood.

The scene of Anne at the window parallels one close to it in time in the film where she looks out to show Thomas Cromwell how her beloved dog, Purkoy, has been cruelly killed in an act of surrogate threat:

Honestly, I look forward to when the 20th volume of the Yale edition of Johnson appears with that review of an 18th book on the casket letters. I still remember what deeply moving use Stephan Zweig made of them in his biography of Mary, and how by contrast, Antonia Fraser acted as a prosecuting attorney whose interrogation demonstrates Mary could not have written them (at least as is). Gentle reader you also owe this blog to my having begun to teach Wolf Hall: A Fresh Angle on the Tudor Matter and how much in love I have begun to be with Mantel’s first two novels of her trilogy on Thomas Cromwell. I think very highly of Bring Up the Bodies too.


Mary Queen of Scots by Federico Zuccari or Alonso Sanches Coello — an image from yet another era.

I will go back to my notes on Scott’s The Monastery and The Abbot and see what they yield. Scott is of Austen’s era, historical fiction begins with his Waverley (1815), though I admit the one early illustration for The Abbot I could find seems to encapsulate all the failures of historical imagination Austen, Johnson, Hume, Hester Thrale and now Hilary Mantel work against.


Getty image

Ellen

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


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

Friends and readers,

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


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

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

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


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

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


Nathaniel Bone talking with David Castlemain

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


Elizabeth McGovern is memorable in her brief appearance

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


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

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

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


Jonathan Pryce is pitch perfect in his easier role ….

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

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


Judy Davies when first pulled out of her lair by Tillie

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Jean Huber, Voltaire Planting Trees, 1775 (click to enlarge).

A Syllabus

Where a great proportion of the people are suffered to languish in helpless misery, that country must be ill policed, and wretchedly governed: a decent provision for the poor, is the true test of civilization. — Samuel Johnson

Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes — Pangloss, Voltaire, Candide .

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Day: Eleven Mondays,
Sept 24 to Dec 3
4801 Massachusetts Ave, NW. Washington DC
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

The Enlightenment: At Risk

It’s been suggested the ideas associated with the European Enlightenment, a belief in people’s ability to act rationally, ideals of social justice, human rights, toleration, education for all, in scientific method, are more at risk than any time since the 1930s. In this course we’ll ask what was & is meant by the term, how & why did this movement spread, against what obstacles, what were the realities of the era and what were the new genres & forms of art that emerged. Our focus will be Voltaire’s Candide, Diderot’s The Nun, Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands, and an abridged edition of Madame Roland’s Memoirs. But we will also see clips from films, and I’ll offer a group of famous on-line texts (in the philosophical treatise vein), which people are free to peruse or not for further context. It is suggested that before class starts, people obtain and read Dorinda Outram’s The Enlightenment: New Approaches to European History.


Garand, Diderot (1760)

Required Texts (in the order we’ll read them):

Voltaire, Candide, trans. Robert M. Adams, ed. NIcholas Cronk. 1966; rpt. NY: Norton, 2016. 978-393-93252-2
(Alternative: Voltaire, Candide, Zadig and Selected Stories, trans. Donald Frame, ed. John Iverson, afteward Thaisa Frank. 1961; rpt. NY: Signet, 2009.978-0-451-53115-5
Diderot, Denis. The Nun, trans., introd. Leonard Tancock. NY: Penguin, 1974. ISBN 978-0-140-44300-4
(Alternative: Diderot, Denis. The Nun, trans., introd. Russell Goulbourne. 2005: rpt. NY: Oxford, 2008. ISBN 978-0-19-955524-6)
Johnson, Samuel. A Journey to the Western Islands in Scotland, together with Boswell’s The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, ed., introd. notes, Peter Levi. NY: Penguin, 1984. ISBN:0-14-043221-3
(Alternative: Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, Journey to the Hebrides, ed., introd. Ian McGowan. 1996; rpt: Edinburgh: Canongate, 2001. ISBN 978-0-86241-4
Johnson, Samuel: Oxford Authors, ed. Donald Greene. NY: Oxford, 1984.
Roland, Marie-Jeanne Phlipon, Memoirs of Madame Roland: A Heroine of the Revolution, trans, abridged, introd. Evelyn Shuckburgh. NY: Moyer Bell, 1990. ISBN 1-55921-014-1. It is nowadays available in paperback.


Johnson and Boswell’s route through Scotland (click to enlarge)

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

Sept 24th: 1st week. Introd. What do we mean by this term? Overview of course. For next week read Letters on the English 5-11, 13; and all of Candide.

Oct 1st: 2nd week: Clip from La Nuit de Varennes; Voltaire, life, career. For next week finish or reread Candide, and Letters on England, 15-16, 18, 23-24. Also Roy Wolpert, “The Gull in the Garden,” Eighteenth Century Studies, 3:2 (1969):265-77. For those who bought the Norton, J. G. Weightman’s “The Quality of Candide,” pp 175-88.

Oct 8th: 3rd week: Candide & Letters on England. For next week, read one-half of Diderot’s The Nun.

Oct 15th:  Voltaire’s life and career;  then introduction to Diderot, life, career. The Encyclopedia, On Slavery, other works. For next week, finish Diderot’s The Nun.

Oct 22nd: Clips from Candide?  Diderot; career, Eloge de Richardson, Rameau’s Nephew, The Nun, introducing Johnson

Oct 29th: 6th week Clips from 2013 film, Finish discussion of Diderot. Introducing Scotland, Jacobitism,  Johnson and English enlightenment:

Nov 5th: 7th week. Johnson biography. Dictionary, Shakespeare.   ?ourney to the Western Islands of Scotland, Boswell’s Tour of Hebrides.

Nov 12th: 8th  Culloden; Discuss movies

Nov 19th: 9th week:  Finish Johnson; Begin Madame Roland and the 1790s in France, England, Ireland, US

Nov 26th: 10th week French Revolution seen from outlook of Roland Memoirs. Helen Maria Williams, Letters from France

Dec 3rd: 11th week. More on French revolution, 1781-1995; going over Roland’s text; final thoughts on what’s at risk; Richard Feynman’s Address to the Academy of Sciences upon his resignation


Stills from La Nuit de Varennes

Bibliography: Supplementary reading:

Blum, Carol. Diderot: The Virtue of a Philosopher. NY Viking, 1974. Very readable reasonably short biography.
Buchan, James. Crowded with Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh’s Moment of the Mind. London: Harper Collins 2003.
Cobb, Richard & Colin Jones, ed. Voices of the French Revolution. NY: HarperCollins, 1998.
Craveri, Benedetta, trans. Teresa Waugh. Madame du Deffand and Her World. Boston: Godine, 1994. One chapter on her correspondence with Voltaire.
Davidson, Ian. Voltaire in Exile. NY: Grove, 2004. You’ll learn a lot about Voltaire.
Diderot, Denis. Selected Writings on Art and French Literature, ed, trans. introd. Geoffrey Bremner. Penguin, 1994.
Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew, trans., intro. Leonard Tancock. NY: Penguin, 1966. Also Gutenberg pdf at University of Australia. http://tems.umn.edu/pdf/Diderot-RameausNephew.pdf
Diderot, Éloge de Richardon [In praise of Richardson], translated online: http://graduate.engl.virginia.edu/enec981/dictionary/25diderotC1.html
Greene, Donald. Samuel Johnson. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Has the real merit of presenting Johnson apart from Boswell.
Johnson, Samuel. Selected Writings, ed. Patrick Cruttwell. 1968; rpt. NY: Penguin, 1986. Wonderful choices of texts. You emerge with a good picture of Johnson and having read some of his finest texts.
Hitchings, Henry. The world in 38 Chapters, or Dr Johnson’s Guide to Life; Defining the World: The extraordinary story of Johnson’s Dictionary. Macmillan, 2018; Picador (Farrar, Strauss Giroux), 2006.
Yale Digital Works: http://www.yalejohnson.com/frontend/node/1 Complete Works.
Kant, Immanuel. “What is Enlightenment.” 1784. Online: http://www.columbia.edu/acis/ets/CCREAD/etscc/kant.html
May, Gita. Madame Roland and the Age of Revolution NY: Columbia, 1970. Superlative.
McLynn, Frank. The Jacobites. Law Book Co of Australasia, 1985.
Mitford, Nancy. Voltaire in Love, introd. Adam Gopnik. NY: New York Review of Books, 2012. A classic.
Outram, Dorinda. The Enlightenment. 3rd edition. London: Cambridge, 2013
Prebble, John. Culloden, The Highland Clearances. Both Plimico, new edition 2002.
Roland, Jeanne-Marie Phlippon. Memoires of Madame Roland, complete, unabridged, ed. C.A. Daudan. Paris, 1864. Elibon facsimile reprint
Shenker, Israel. In the Footsteps of Johnson and Boswell. NY: Oxford UP, 1982.
Trouille, Mary. Sexual Politics in the Enlightenment: Women Read Rousseau. State University Press of NY, 1997.
Voltaire, Letters on the English, or Lettres Philosophiques. Fordham University, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/1778voltaire-lettres.asp
Wain, John. Samuel Johnson. NY: VIking Press, 1974. If you can get hold of this one, it is so enjoyable.
Williams, Helen Maria. Letters Written in France, ed. Neil Fristat & Susan Lanser. Ontario: Broadview, 2001.
Wilson, Arthur. Diderot. London: Oxford UP, 1972. The standard and a great biography of the man.
Yalom, Marilyn. Blood Sisters: The French Revolution in Women’s Memory. NY: Basic Books, 1994. A long excellent chapter on Roland

Films:

Candide. Dir. Humphrey Burton. Script. Hugh Wheeler. Music: Leonard Bernstein. Featuring: Jerry Hadley, June Anderson, Christa Ludwig. Barbican, 1991.
Candide. Dir. Lonny Price. Script changed to Broadway comedy. Music: Marin Alsop. Featuring: Paul Groves, Kristin Chenoweth, Patti LuPone. Lincoln Center, 2004
Culloden. Dir, Peter Watkins. Fictional documentary. Featuring: Tony Cosgrove, Olivier Espitalier-Noel, Don Fairservice. BBC, 1968.
La Nuit de Varennes. Dir. Ettore Scuola. Script. Sergeo Armidei. Featuring: Jean-Louis Barrault, Marcello Mastroianni, Hanna Schygulla, Harvey Keitel. Opera Film, 1982
The Nun. Dir., Script. Guillaume Nicoloux. Featuring: Pauline Etienne, Isabelle Huppert, Martha Gedeck, François Négret. Les films de Worso, 2013.


Madame Roland, circa 1790 (click to enlarge)

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Emily Mortimer as Florence Green in the meadow contemplating opening her bookshop (2017, The Bookshop)


Kelly MacDonald her first visit to Robert, sees she can indulge in her secret passion, doing puzzles from among many many that at home she stashes away (2018, Puzzle)

Reading books & doing jigsaws — what’s not to like?

Dear friends and readers,

Among the kinds of blogs I’ve not been getting to recently, which I used to place here regularly — women artists, foremother poets, translation studies — and keep vowing to return to, is the summer woman’s film. I have more excuse for this last than mere lack of time and finding myself holding to a higher standard of sheer information: I’ve not seen any women’s films this summer until very recently, and then suddenly, two: Isabel Coixet’s The Bookshop, adapted from Penelope Fitzgerald’s superb novella of the same name; and Puzzle, directed by Marc Turtletaub, scripted by Oren Moverman and Polly Mann. My jump off point: I take the opposite view expressed by Neil Minow about Bookshop, which he thinks “never comes together,”, and Christy Lemire about Puzzle, which she finds “a lovely surprize.”

I think differently. These are from the once hallowed Roger Ebert site, which is not what it was when he was alive and its most frequent contributor. In both cases, the writers begin with a set of expectations: The Bookshop is supposed to be about books themselves, and is missing (so Minow thinks) critiques of books: why do we not hear how good Lolita is? or what the young girl clerk who so grates on Minow’s nerves, Christine (Honor Kneafsey) thinks of it or other books:


Florence and Christine reading together

On the other hand, Lemire was not expecting the wife of this utterly conventional family: garage mechanic husband, stay-at-home housewife to leave her husband. She does not even know how to operate a cell phone nor does she understand why one would want such a gadget, and has brought up two sons who expect her to serve them hand-and-foot:


Bubba Weiler as Ziggy, Austin Abrams as Gabe, David Denman as Louie (the sons and father) staring expectant at Agnes

Lemire is therefore just delighted that we are not stuck in this family-centered story, but move out from there to follow the wife’s adventures alone.

Perhaps Neil Minow should have read Fitzgerald’s book, for then he would have understood the source is a story about how power works in a community: it’s about how a woman who has been exercising control over central experiences of people in her town, Mrs Gamart (played by Patricia Clarkson) uses her connections, status, and subtle manipulative techniques fostered by the nature of the usually socially dysfunctional get-togethers (I say dysfunctional if you thought the purpose of getting together was to form friendships) to destroy another woman’s desire to find a function in life by using what money she has to sell books. I wrote an analysis of this book and others by Fitzgerald when Womenwriters@groups.io was having a group reading and discussion of Fitzgerald’s novels and Hermione Lee’s literary biography of her: Penelope Fitzgerald: The Bookshop and Offshore; Charlotte Mew. It’s about how a widow without the least trace of malice (so Florence doesn’t recognize a determined hatred) and kind heart cannot preserve herself against hostile inexorable power. We watch Florence after years of solitude and withdrawal come out of her peaceful shell to invest in, create, and build up a thriving bookshop business, only to have it destroyed insidiously step-by-step by an elite woman who knows how to get a law passed to enable the local gov’t to take over the shop, how to pressure a banker, a solicitor, an unscrupulous BBC layabout to undermine and sabotage the shop to the point where Florence is left without any money or a place even to live.

The only person on Florence’s side is the reclusive Mr Brundish, who, unlike Florence, knows exactly what Mrs Gamart is doing, and attempts to stop her by confronting her:


Bill Nighy (brilliant as the nervous man with unusual tastes) demanding to Mrs Gamart that she leave Florence Green alone

Coixet’s film has flaws or difficulties. Much that happens in Fitzgerald’s book is not visible, and it is only after Florence sees the effect of Mrs Gamart’s undercover and underhanded endeavors in say the form of a letter, or a school inspector taking Christine away from the shop, or a court order about her window (with the offending Lolita in it) that she slowly realizes she is being strangled by an encircling malign octopus. A film cannot go on for hours and must be understandable so Coixet gives us dramatic (sometimes too melodramatic) scenes or visualizations that are not in the book. Nighy and Mortimer manage to keep their scenes to the awkward, piquantly and/or poignantly comic (they are directed to behave in stylized ways)


Far shot


Close up

But all too often the need for pace makes for a seeming “tear-jerker,” which the story isn’t. It’s paradoxically a story about courage; Florence shows remarkable strength, which is part of Fitzgerald’s point. All Florence’s courage avails her nothing. Commercialization also demands a happy ending, uplift, hope, so a scene is tacked on at the end of Christine having grown up and from her experience learnt to love books, to read, and open a successful bookshop. The real world of the novel has Christine pushed into forgetting about the shop and Florence ending quietly but in anguish standing with her one suitcase waiting for a bus to take her to another town. The worst change is Coixet has Christine set fire to the bookshop: Mrs Gamart’s excuse was she was going to open an art center in the old house. I asked a friend I was sitting next to, how that helped? or had any meaning except (exciting to witness?) arson, for Florence would lose all whether the building lasted or not. My friend who can grasp a coarser understanding said to many people this means that at least Mrs Gamart will not be able to get her hands on the building. That’s to miss the central idea: Mrs Gamart wanted control and power, not the building.

OTOH, to give the movie its due (and so often when one compares a book to its film adaptation, it’s an undermining process), a reader can come away from the book feeling a horrible witch-like woman malevolently destroyed another, a sort of misogynistic perspective (soap opera like). The movie makes sure we feel that Mrs Gamart could not have done what she did by emphasizing how all the various characters cooperated in the destruction of Florence. We see them at work while in the book we only gradually understand their treachery. The movie also brings back all the faces in juxtaposed stills just before we last see Florence carrying her suitcase to a ferry. Mrs Gamart could not have done it alone. In the movie even Christine’s mother participates in destroying Florence with less reason (the book brings in how Christine fails her 11-plus and how unjust the 11-plus system is).


Florence dreaming in one of the movies’ early cheerful scenes

The powerful fable hits us strongly in the gut because as with the book, Mr Brundish’s attempt to help Florence, the first time he has left his house in years, ends in his having a heart attack. He is that upset by Mrs Gamart’s performance of surprised innocence. And Coixet socks this loss of her one true friend to Florence as she adds Mr Gamart coming to the shop to lie to Florence to tell her that Mr Brundish had visited his wife to give her his support for an art center. Florence has no proof, and she becomes (at last) hysterical and screams “Get out,” and ejects the wicked old man forcibly.

There is a good movie about American black people making the rounds this summer called Get Out (which I advise my reader not to miss); also be sure and see So Sorry to Bother You.

By contrast, Puzzle is puzzling. It may be that I need to see the 2009 Rompecabezas from Argentinean writer/director Natalia Smirnoff (a woman) to grasp why for at least one-half of the film we are in time warp: Agnes is a Donna Reed character, dressing and acting like a woman of the 1950s. Why Lemire is not bothered by this unreality I don’t know.  It is improbable that in 2018 Agnes should be so obedient to her husband; it seems utterly in another era when we find that she and her husband are not determined both their sons should go to college, but that the notion of college is one that needs to be introduced. Agnes is also made into a bingo-playing priest-friendly church-going Catholic:

who hides her least unconventionality in dreamy vulnerable-heroine moods:

Agnes’s one outlet is to do puzzles, of which she has many secreted away for afternoon bouts. Now it is not improbable that she might answer an ad in the newspaper by someone asking for a partner to do puzzles with for a contest, but could this woman suddenly start to deceive her husband, lie all the time in all sorts of ways in order to gain free time to take the train into NYC and begin a partnership with a completely unknown Arab man. Irrfan Khan has been in so many brilliant Eurocentric films (Namesake, The Lunchbox), showing virtuosity (he is usually as in this film kind, attractive, reasoning but can be vicious as in Slumdog Millionaire) that he carries off the character as utterly non-threatening. I find him very attractive and have been told the actor is a type found in Indian films: the intellectual.

The insistence in the film on then bringing out how Agnes immediately resorts to lying rather than saying she is going to NYC to participate in puzzle contests, how her husband is utterly faithful to her and never distrusts her (he feels only she gives of herself to others and not him too much), and then is willing to sell his favorite summer house to please her to get money to do something in the career area for the sons, gives the game away.  Also the intense sympathy given the husband who we see as within all his capabilities as meaning well as possible and even forebearing for not beating her (that’s how it’s presented). He says he can’t do it because he’s just not like his father.

This is a film (like Ladybird [scroll down]) masquerading as a woman’s film or point of view when it is told from the male point of view. The review on IMDB asked if the story is not about selfishness (hers) and deceit. For in the second half, as she begins to enjoy life doing puzzles, enjoys being independent, and especially winning she does start an affair with Robert. It quickly emerges that he is lonely, having been left by his wife. All these hard-hearted wives, you see.


Look at the promotional shot above: is she not coyly flirting?

The looming climax comes when Agnes and Robert have won to the point they must go to Belgium to be part of the final contest. It’s then Agnes must tell her Louie, but we are led to believe that guilt stops her from being willing to go to Europe with Robert. She does not phone him when she is supposed to, she looks very reluctant.  We might think she won’t leave her sons, and is going make sure about half the money will be used to send Ziggy whom her husband had insisted work in his shop to college to become a cook. That is what Ziggy loves to do, and what his father regards as unmanly and therefore unacceptable. Some of the other half (we are to assume) will go to Gabe who wants to travel around the world or the US with a vegetarian girlfriend.

I say some because just as we assume she is going to stay with her long-suffering if dull husband, we see her waiting for a train to go somewhere. We then see an airport and think to ourselves she is after all joining the disappointed Robert. But no, she is going to Montreal. She has to keep aside some of the money for herself, no?

Now, Montreal? There is a dialogue early in the film where she expresses a desire to Ziggy to go to Montreal on her own. Why? we are not told. To do what? we are not told that. I happen to know Montreal is a little north from the borders of Canada and cold. The radical point is that she is not going to escape the husband by running to the arms of a lover. But we are not told what are her ambitions or why? the ending reminded me of Ibsen’s Doll House where it’s enough that Nora goes out of the house, slamming the door behind her. The problem is this is not 1879 and a satisfied sly smile on MacDonald’s face aboard a plane to Montreal is not enough.

I don’t want to condemn the film as it is filled with quiet nuanced scenes, and slowly builds to an interesting ending, but suggest those who are praising it are doing so as a contrast to the perpetual high violence, action-adventure fascistic point of view of so many movies nowadays. It’s a gentle film, intelligently done, slowly unwinding itself.  My favorite line:  when Louie finally asks Agnes, “Are you having an affair,” all she can say is she “thinks” she is (not sure which astounds Louie) because what she has been doing is puzzles with someone and yes they did have sex but she “didn’t like it very much.” Now those are a woman’s lines.

I thought of Margaret Drabble’s The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws. Drabble turns to jigsaws to calm herself.

Are they a game? I think so: Drabble finds the earliest modern style puzzles are found in the Renaissance and first spread as a child’s game (think of the Alphabets in Austen’s Emma). Drabble suggests for the adult that you are working against the puzzle maker. You achieve something when all the pieces are in place.  I like to do puzzles and my method resembles Agnes’s: first she makes the frame and then she works on different portions of the picture. Of course the puzzle maker makes this second step hard and now you must follow the colors. For me since the competition is at a distance (I don’t go in for contests), it’s relaxed and I have aesthetic pleasure putting the puzzle together. It’s a rare game I enjoy.


A rehearsal shot

In Puzzle Robert teaches Agnes to follow the colors first, only when the competition begins she reverts. She trusts to her own instincts and methods — so there is a feminist “feel.” Robert also tells Agnes he does puzzles to give shape and meaning to life but does not elaborate on this idea, and it does not make as much sense as Drabble’s explanation.

Gentle reader, both these movies are worth going to see — as well as Get Out and So Sorry to Bother You. You can escape the Trumpite poisoned environment we live in in the US today to learn about living in normally hard worlds.

Ellen

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