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Archive for the ‘women’s poetry’ Category


I like the photo of her on this cover; the book written by her over the period she was also writing The Bull Calves


Carradale House, Kintyre, Scotland — bought by Mitchison by the time of WW2 and her home thereafter

Would Jane Austen have known of this incident, oh yes, and probably read Johnson and Boswell’s twin tours of the Hebrides; did she ever mention it, no; but she did mention and read avidly a number of Scots writers who did: Scott (Waverley), Anne Grant (1802 poem, The Highlanders) among them.

Friends and readers,

The last week or so I’ve been working towards producing a first draft of a paper for a coming 18th century regional conference, whose working title is “At this Crossroads of my Life: Culloden and its aftermath.” I read Naomi Mitchison’s novel about this matter where inside two days characters confront central crossroads of their lives successfully (and finished Jenni Calder’s splendid biography of her, The Nine Lives of Naomi Mitchison, which I recommend) and I re-saw a 1994 movie of the famous massacre, said to be much influenced, almost an imitation of Patrick Watkins’s classic 1965 pseudo-documentary, Culloden, and realized for the first time its individual story’s dramaturgy creates a literal crossroads where several beautifully individualized characters experience ironic destruction. The novel first:

Naomi Mitchison’s impressive novel, The Bull Calves, occurs over 2 days, June 16th to 17th, about 2 years after Culloden, 1747, on a family estate, Gleneagles, in rural Scotland somewhere between Edinburgh and Perth. It brings together members of the Haldane family, most of them now Whigs, and pro-Hanoverian, but much conflicted over its past chequered history of complex allegiances to Tory Jacobitism. At the center of the novel is Kirstie Haldane, a woman in her late 40s, previously miserably wed for many years to an abusive husband, and Black William of Borlum, a forward looking (Whiggish) ex-Jacobite, whose father died in prison after fighting in 1715, and who himself spent many years in exiled, wandering in America. William and Kirstie are recently wed, and burdened with secrets; she, that when her husband died, she was accused of murdering him through witchcraft; he, that he was also married for several years to an Indian woman, assimilated to her tribe until their bouts of barbaric violence so alienated him, he fled back to Scotland.

The story (explaining the title of the book) is concerns poisoned relationships. William is distrusted by Kirstie’s family, his family past, a severe disadvantage to them. Several aggressive young male Haldanes, instigated by another Jacobite, Lachlan MacIntosh of Kyllachy, who, jealous of Kirstie’s love and the powerful men of this now Whig family, accuses William of treachery in harboring yet a third Jacobite wanted for arrest in the house’s attic. In this book the past is in the present; conflicted histories, long held enmities, adversarial personalities, and immediate close relationships (Kirstie to her brothers, her uncle, her niece, and nephews) and responsive behaviors and talk are tightly knotted into a densely observed cultural and social environment. What is remarkable is how inward intimate experience is the medium of the book out of which external events are dramatized through memories. The first quarter of the book consists of Kirstie telling her niece, Catherine, of her traumatic previous life in the context of the present events of a family feast and daily life. The whole of William’s time in America is told by him to her lawyer brother as remembered flashback; Mitchison’s long notes form a third instrinsic part of the novel, and the resolution of the novel in favor of compromises and modernity recall Walter Scott. Her idea is mutual loyalty and trust ought to make people achieve together and know content, something they could not do separately.

I found myself fully absorbed by the intensities of the conflicts, the possibility dangerous outcomes (prison, transportation, more exile), a sense of their feelings, and was anxious over what would happen as our chief couple seeks to invent or continue their new life and re-formed identities. The characters seek to escape loneliness by finding sympathy in what they need to tell; and at the end of each part harmonies shape the action: dancing, feasting, going to bed. The book also felt drenched in layers of Scottish culture, mythical, supernatural, and uses Jungian archetypal theories so William needs the Kirstie’s humane inner self (her anima) and she needs his strength and force (his animus).

It is an analysis of the way Jacobitism poisoned the lives of those who got involved at the same time as it shows why they did so: the movement appealed to the underdog, the exploited and powerless, those who could not join in on the new capitalism and forms of power emerging in the 18th century. She defines Jacobitism complexly through a socialist perspective (you must read the book) and brilliantly in her notes and in the novel’s story. We experience how this complicated movement against Whig Hanoverian regime (capitalist lairds) plays out in real life circumstances then and now. Her use of language, a contemporary idiom mixed with a lyrical interplay of Scots 18th century dialect is also part of the book’s enjoyment.

It was written over the five years of Mitchison’s stay in a more remote part of Scotland during World War Two, managing a household, serving a community as its chatelaine; and she uses the Scottish defeat and struggles to express what she was feeling as the dreadful and later more hopeful end to the conflict. She was a Haldane, her brother, the famous JBS Haldane, and a number of the characters are partly modeled on people she knew and loved.  So the book resembles Daphne DuMaurier’s The King’s General, also written over the years of the war she spent managing a family estate in Cornwall, where a story of the English civil war making heavy use of real historical figures and particulars enabled her to come to terms with and express her anguish and personal experiences; also Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orchia, Susan Sontag’s 1993 Volcano Lover, while mostly set in the 18th century, also occurs a auction room in 1943. It’s not just women who turned to historical fiction: Winston Graham’s Ross Poldark and Demelza are the products of his five years as a coastguard in Cornwall. Diana Wallace says in her book on women’s historical fiction and romance, that in the 1930s and 40s women wrote books about the repeatedly defeated; they were also seeking reconciliation, commitment to compassion and reasoned progress in the face of nightmare. You can call all of these but Ross Poldark heroine’s texts.

Then this unexpectedly poignant absorbing fine film.


Brian Blessed as Major Eliot in Chasing the Deer

Chasing the Deer may be said to be an improvement on Watkins’s film. The line is from a stanza by Burns:

“My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.”

The thrust of the film is to create intense sympathy for the highlanders caught up in this war. The Scottish countryside is photographed with heart-aching beauty, the colors lovely, lots of sparkling water, indigenous plant-life, the usual stags and deer, small animals everywhere. The music by John Wetton (and others) is original and written for the film, with much bagpipe feel. As with Watkins many of the people were not professional actors at all; they were the people crowdsourced to provide adequate funds. The film is done with considerable integrity, nothing over-flashy, nothing ratcheted up for melodrama or sexual scene’s sake.

It is as anti-war (showing the brutality and horror of war) as Watkins’s film but the overall effect is to project the death and a mourning for a traditional Scottish way of life, however impoverished. The film-makers convey the inner experience of the calamites inflicted on immediately a few thousand men and then long range their families and homes all around them. The public story is conveyed by epitomizing scenes of leading generals, famous people discussing where they are just now. The film-makers present Prince Charles Edward (Dominique Carrara) as someone who is foreigner, there without resources or connections, without any initial understanding of the desperate conditions and lack of manpower and wealth in a group of people he has chosen to base a desperate bid for his family’s power on. Cumberland (Dominic Borelli) is made to seem yet worse: a dense cold fat bully understandably determined to make sure no more of these nuisance uprisings will happen again. We see the irrational glorification of the Prince by the crowds and his incompetence; the story of Murray’s inability to avoid the final disaster is doe full justice to and the horrors wreaked on the losers.

I also find the film also valuable for the human story it tells, which suggests all the people involved could be switched to the other side, so the action is senseless from the point of view of those who die or whose way of life is destroyed. For this we follow the story of Alistair Campell (Matthew Zajac) who wants nothing to do with wars, but is driven to go right the war as a Jacobite because his son, Euan (Lewis Rae) is snatched by a group of Jacobites, and he is told the boy has been put in prison and will be kept there or killed (for shooting someone) and only released if his father fights with them. Euan is re-captured by a group of Hanoverian soldiers, made a dummmer boy, and comes to the attention to a Major Eliot (Brian Blessed) still grieving over his only son’s death in India (so Eliot had taken the boy to the colonies as part of his career), who takes Euan as a servant and son and attempt to teach and protect him insofar as this is possible.

We also see the women isolated, losing their men one by one – sometimes carelessly killed. Euan has impregnated a girl before he left; his mother Morag (Carolyn Konrad) when she discoveres her son is taken by the Hanoverians attempts to find her husband to tell him so he will return home. She cannot and it is too late. In the Shakespearean scene I referred to Euvan is cut down early on at Culloden; as he falls Alistair glimpses him and on the Hanoverian side; the father runs to the son as the son lies dying unaware his father is looking down on him; Eliot, not far off, mistakes Alistair for the murderer, so murders Alistair and carries the boy away in his arms in a state of raging grief. The last scene is of the three woman and a new baby in the house, hugging in a circle, waiting for their home possibly to be destroyed.


On the march from Inverness (I apologize for my inability to block out the constant ad logo, an irritant while watching movies played on TV stations nowadays)

I thought of a line from the serial drama Outlander (I don’t know if it’s in the book): what kind of people do we become and how do we remain ourselves even when we think all is lost ….

Ellen

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Cassandra’s depiction of Jane Austen, said to be at the seaside, 1804


Kynance Cove, modern photo

Janeite friends.

As I hope to get onto a plane and fly to Cornwall tomorrow evening in order to spend a week there with a Road Scholar group headed by Peter Maxted (naturalist, environmentalist, author of among other good books, The Natural Beauty of Cornwall), I’ve been looking to see if there is any mention or connection by Austen of herself with Cornwall. I found one specific concrete mention, to which a friend has added another in the comments:

In a letter to Cassandra, from Castle Square, Southampton, dated Saturday Oct 1st 1808, Austen writes:

You have used me ill, you have been writing to Martha without telling me of it, & a letter which I sent her on wednesday [sic] to give her information of you, must have been good for nothing, I do not know how to think that something will not still happen to prevent her returning by the 10th — And if it does, I shall not much regard it on my own account, for I am now got into such a way of being alone that I do not wish even for her. — The Marquis [of Lansdowne] has put off being cured for another year; — after waiting some weeks for the return of the Vessel he had agreed for himself by a famous Man in that Country [Cornwall], in which he means to go abroad twelvemonth hence (LeFaye, 4th edition, pp 147-148).


A contemporary print of the high street in Southampton: the Austens rented a house in Castle Square

I feel for Jane: she has been used ill: anyone who does not tell of information or acts they have been getting or about, but leaves their friend to act as if they were not in possession of information vital to both, betrays that friend, makes a fool out of her. Cassandra has done wrong, not a big betrayal, but she has gone behind Jane’s back to do something she hoped Jane would not find out about. I am moved by Austen’s statement that she has “got into such a way of being alone” that she no longer wishes even for Martha Lloyd, whom Jane loved. I have just had such an experience of a “friend” not telling me of information she has had and so in effect misrepresented a situation. But I will no longer be misled.

Of course I also feel for her as a woman “got into such a way of being alone” that she no longer wishes for a beloved presence.

LeFaye’s typically insinuating note tells of John-Henry Petty (1765-1809) who was “widely travelled but rather solitary” who came to Southampton “to indulge his passion for yachting. He bought the ruined castle within the city walls, and enlarged it “into a gothic fantasy,” selling off the father’s library and art collection at Bowood house to pay for this rebuilding. He became Marquis in 1805, married his mistress, Mary Arabella, daughter of Revd Hinton Maddox and widow of Sir Duke Gifford. LeFaye then recounts nasty gossip about how Lady Gifford was “fat,” and as “strange” as the house Lord Lansdowne created, because she, in supposedly eccentric dress, went walking one day with her three daughters in wind, rain, on stony and mud-filled cobbled streets. LeFaye follows this with the more charitable account by James Edward Austen-Leigh, who turns a carriage this woman went round in into a “fairy equipage” (pp 542-43).

But we have had to take several turns to get there.

For the second I am indebted to Diana Birchall and her use of google, a reference in Mansfield Park, the mention is direct, including the word Cornwall.

“To be so near happiness, so near fame, so near the long paragraph in praise of the private theatricals at Ecclesford, the seat of the Right Hon. Lord Ravenshaw, in Cornwall, which would of course have immortalised the whole party for at least a twelvemonth!”

The upper classes in Cornwall behaved the way they did in Northampton: put on private theatricals and then wrote in absurd praise of themselves.


The Mansfield Park players hard “at work” (from the 2007 Mansfield Park, scripted by Maggie Wadey)

Another more speculative literary connection could be Richard Carew’s Survey of Cornwall; an Elizabethan antiquarian, he wrote the first intelligent thorough vivid description of Cornwall and its people; it was valued and reprinted in 1769 and 1811; Davies Gilbert provided an index. It has been reprinted in our era by Halliday.

Austen never mentions it, but it is the kind of book we find her reading: histories, travel books, culture, memoirs, and in good 20th and 21st century accounts of Cornwall’s history and culture and geography Carew is still quoted as an authoritative source. The mid-18th century sees the beginning of archeaological digs and accounts of them in books. I would like to assume she read it, for if she did, she could have known as much about Cornwall and more as most general readers would today.

For a fourth and speculative type, Austen could have read some of the sources Winston Graham used, like reformist exposés of prison conditions. See The History of Bodmin Jail, 1779, compiled by Bill Johnson (2006). We know she visited another prison with her brother and was too appalled to describe what she saw.

She would have known of the Wesleys and clearly knew of the spread of methodism (in its evangelical reactionary phases in Hannah More and elsewhere); but again we are up against mostly silence or no specific evidence.

On religious radical religious movements, emigration and myths and legends associated with or rooted in Cornwall gaining new ground in her period (Arthurian, Druidic), like some sceptical or careful Enlightenment types of her era, she might have shown little interest; like others newly interested in the history of poetry, e.g., Thomas Warton in his History of English Poetry, she would come across Arthur in Chaucer and Spenser. We know she read the poets of the later 18th century.

We can find some specific authors and books from the peripheries (so to speak) where we know for sure she read well-grounded observations, in this case mostly about Scotland: Johnson and Boswell’s twin tours and Anne MacVicar Grant)’s memoirs. Here is one of my favorite of Grant’s poems, from her Poems on Various Subjects, a “familiar epistle” to Anne’s good friend of many years, Beatrice, remembering when they were young and aspired to be poets:

When to part us, loud storms and deep gullies conspir’d,
And sublime meditation to garrats [sic] retir’d;
To the workings of fancy to give a relief,
We sat ourselves down to imagine some grief,
Till we conjur’d up phantoms so solemn and sad,
As, if they had lasted, would make us half mad;
Then in strains so affecting we pour’d the soft ditty,
As mov’d both the rocks and their echoes to pity [but]
The cottage so humble, or sanctified dome,
For the revels of fancy afforded no room;
And the lyre and the garland, were forc’d to give place
To duties domestic … (reprinted in Breen, Women Romantic Poets, 1785-1832, pp 88-93)

In Austen’s active life, she traveled all around the coast of southern and once to western England — once as far as Wales, about which (again) we have some sketch-y knowledge: see Diana Birchall’s Jane Austen at the Seaside.

So we can sort of connect our 18th century Austen with Cornwall: “philosophical” studies, and history; poetry and memoirs of travel-writers and others telling of life in the peripheries at the time, the newly burgeoning genres of survey and archeaological analysis, and her own summer travels.

And we can place her against a backdrop of 17th through 18th century history in Cornwall from our own modern perspective: here we have a cornucopia, and from a virtual library of books I recommend F. E. Halliday, The History of Cornwall, Philip Payton’s Cornwall, Philip Marsden’s Rising Ground; Winston Graham’s Poldark novels and The Groves of Eagles, and DuMaurier’s several novels set in Cornwall, especially Jamaica Inn and The King’s General, grounded in the real doings of the civil war, its aftermath and the Grenville and Rashleigh families, and 17th into 18th century history of Menabilly in Cornwall. I’ll bet Stevenson’s reading of DuMaurier’s novel is absorbing and enjoyable.

And we can go there ourselves.

Ellen

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Vivian Maier from the archive and film by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel (review by Manohla Dargis: “Nanny as Sybil”)


Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo in Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (review by Richard Brody: “There’s a voice left out”)


Sally Mann: What Remains, a film directed by Steven Candor, reviewed by Ginia Bellafonte)

Finding Vivian Maier, a complex film about a complex woman surrounded by complex people. As in the film, Kedi, on cats in Istanbul, the portraits by interview of those Vivian lived with as remarkable as the couple-of-hours portrait and Vivien. Another great poet of the camera (Dorothea Lange, and Annie Leibovitz the two I wrote of earlier this winter season). I allude to Cleo in Roma whose voice is also unheard for the most part; I bring in Sally Mann, about whom at OLLI at Mason this winter we also saw a film about; I used an Emily Dickinson poem as suggestive explanation …..

Friends and readers,

This was a season for nannies, from the meretricious new Mary Poppins, to the (however silent) heroicizing of Cleo (the film has now won the Bafta for Best Picture), and at OLLI at Mason, John Maloof’s slow emerging portrait of Vivian Maier, a brilliant street photographer, amateur in the best sense: she took pictures as a vocation, as a quest to record the actual world around her, seemingly against being ignored. In life “we” may not have paid any serious attention or respect to her, but she paid alert attention, respected unsentimentally us. I’ve blogged twice on Ellen and Jim have a blog, two, about a course I’m taking in films about women photographers: the first on Dorothea Lange; the second, Annie Leibovitz. Last week was Sally Mann, and this Vivian Maier.

It is so hard to tell original fine sincerely-meant authentic art & a film about it from the exploitative (which I think Mann’s photos of her children may be, carefully, it seems, posed like Diane Arbus to arrest our attention, shock, voyeuristic); and from the well-meaning compassionate and true to memory and actual experience (Roma) film.  If the criteria is selflessness, impersonal and distancing, so varied and yet intimately observed, Maier’s photographs pass the test. Just look at some of them on Malouf’s website. I was by turns riveted, bemused, fascinated, put off (some are too Diane Arbus),


A common type by Maier: the older hard over-dressed rich woman walking in the streets: here our eye is made to look at the unfortunate mink whom her camera makes look so alert, alive, sad …

touched,


Young black man looking up with a sort of uncertain hope, Central Park

fascinated by the enormous unexpected variety of images. Like Dorothea Lange’s of a terrified horse, this one of young African American riding a horse down a New York City Avenue under a raised subway is a revelation, though quite what of I can’t say:

There are photos capturing tragic existences: a black man who is a beggar on the street and has no legs. Vivian can capture the self-satisfied arrogance, or hardness of a face, someone all body or all clothes whom we grasp is all carapace. The ridiculous. She was liberal in her politics. Asked by someone what or who she was, she said “a sort of spy.”


I’ve walked in just this square in Central Park (which I so love) many times, including during snow

Her story is now well-known: the film is set up as a sleuthing expedition so there are ironies along the way: the professor who invites us to read his Ph.D. dissertation which he suggests proves his point that Maier had a faked French accent is followed much later by Malouf finding that Maier was born in a small village on February 21, 1926, in France, traveling there, meeting what’s left of her family, photos of her and her mother. At first we feel for the exploited nanny who is low paid and over-worked but gradually it emerges her employers were long-suffering and generous too: they gave her enormous space for her hobby, one made friends with her, another let her be part of the family. She worked briefly for Phil Donahue. Then we learn that she could be mean and cruel to the children under her care, and probably had had some traumatic experience in her teens, perhaps from a man.


But here with her charges she reminds me of my aunt and my cousins (and me) circa the Bronx, 1950s

She sought out pain — as when she insisted on photographing animals about to be killed to be made into meat or clothes (sheep).


Avert your eyes


She still has pride and dignity intact

She was utterly silently gregarious, and at the same time solitary. Someone says she dressed like one would expect a working class women in the Soviet Union, 1950; I think she looks more like someone from a lower middle class village in France. She would have been in dire distress late in life but that two people whom she was nanny for supported her.

There needs some explanation for her insistence on utter privacy, her never trying to publish her photos that she takes obsessively and ceaselessly that they are the point of her existence. I know how hard it is to publish, how hard to interest people, negotiate, how they judge you immediately as to class, rank, self-esteem. But she never put herself forward in any way at all.

She died before Maloof found and sought out and put together her corpus; she left only a few precious written documents; so it’s just us, the gov’t and church records, and 100,000 photographs.


The pity for the child afraid and the child neglected is palable

There are just so many sites on the Net of her photos, and I’ve casually counted what looks like 6 excellent books. I am (as usual) late, this time four years: the film was produced and received its nominations awards in 2019.

The New York Times critic of the film is too hard on Maloof as a salesman. It is true that Maloof is now making a living from his find, but he worked long and hard — though my guess is he had money inherited or given to him at some point during the years of sheer gathering (including looking everywhere and anywhere, from flea market to garage, finally to those she worked for one of whom had kept the material in a huge container), archiving, scanning. Maloof began on line with a blog, then twitter. He couldn’t get museums to take an interest for years, and even now after some hugely successful exhibits, he has not found a permanent home for Maier’s legacy. I spoke of Roma on my Sylvia II blog, and don’t want this blog on Maier to go on beyond what’s necessary to alert someone who may not have heard of Maier.

I’m ceded, I’ve stopped being theirs;
The name they dropped upon my face
With water, in the country church,
Is finished using now,
And they can put it with my dolls,
My childhood, and the string of spools
I’ve finished threading too.

Baptized before without the choice,
But this time consciously, of grace
Unto supremest name,
Called to my full, the crescent dropped,
Existence’s whole arc filled up
With one small diadem.

My second rank, too small the first,
Crowned, crowing on my father’s breast,
A half unconscious queen;
But this time, adequate, erect,
With will to choose or to reject,
And I choose—just a crown
— Emily Dickinson, refusing to accept the identity imposed on her, choosing another; what did Vivian move around the world for?

I also ask the serious question of photography, when is it art, if always, what kind are Mann and Liebovitz’s work. Lange I think is beyond question a great poet of images and after looking at Malouf’s site I trust you’ll agree that Maier is an authentic sincere heartfelt and ironic poet too. I don’t want to be hard on Mann: read her site and you discover, one of her sons killed himself.


A rare color photo

Ellen

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Mary, Queen of Scots: Ismael Cruz Cordova, Maria Dragus, Izuka Hoyle, and Saoirse Ronan in intimate flirting friendship scene

Don’t miss the latest Mary Queen of Scots: while it has its flaws, it is very much worth the watching. This is a must-see to gauge the sharp changes in the depiction of this icon once again. What makes the film intelligently different and interesting is it more or less follows the outline of a serious good biography of Mary by John Guy. … Each phase of Mary’s career is dramatized. Elizabeth as icon is also traced. After being initially all pageant, the stories are effectively dramatized. I disagree with some of Guy’s interpretation (especially over Bothwell) and say why. Moray’s importance emerges. There are fine performances, wonderful color palates.

Friends and readers,

Quite a number of women, even queen-centered films this winter: two on Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG, On the basis of sex), two on nannies, one poor and absurd, the other a masterpiece (Mary Poppins, Roma), the courageous reporter (A Private War), and the big budget costume drama variety updated to include what might seem to be uninhibited sex scenes: The Favourite, and Mary Queen of Scots. I’ve been nearly alone in calling out The Favourite for its repulsive, gut-level anti-feminism and have mentioned only in passing what makes Cauron’s Roma a compelling masterpiece. Josie Rourke’s Mary, Queen of Scots (the screenplay has as little complicated language as one could get away with so as to keep the film popular) shows some of the same obsessive masculinizing violence in women as The Favourite: Ronan as Mary is depicted on horse wherever possible; she’s as eager to shoot something as any of the crowd of men that crowd in, dominate the movie-screen. Still, I recommend going to see it, even if you are not fascinated and interested in this Tudor-Stuart Matter. If you are, this is a must-see to gauge the sharp changes in the depiction of these icon queens once again.

Mary is still or once again the victim; her downfall is once again (made explicit in this film) her erotic engagement with men, marrying, bedding, thinking she can rely on law and custom (towards divine rulers) to control rivals. Elizabeth has returned to her 19th century role as perhaps Machiavellian, and ghastly dried-up old maid by film’s end (because she must be this way since she never married, never had children).


Elizabeth with Dudley (also called Leicester)

During the film punctuating Mary’s story are swift suggestive moments of Elizabeth, now with Leicester (Joe Alwyn called Dudley), now Cecil (Guy Pearce); she gets small pox and looks just hideous for a time. Staring down at flowers because she hasn’t had children:

The scenes with Elizabeth are too stilted — popular depictions just don’t want to give Elizabeth I credit — in literary studies we have gone beyond choosing sides … but it is very rare for anyone to present her as the brilliant political success story. If people really wanted a heroine who made a success out of grim beginnings (including as a teenager harassment by her step-mother Catherine Parr’s husband, Thomas Howard, and accusations by Mary Tudor of plotting against her), it’s Elizabeth Boleyn Tudor.


Margot Robbie as the aging Elizabeth: a clown-face of grief (very similar to the way Elizabeth appeared in a recent Metropolitan opera production of Donizetti’s trio)

What has changed to make this pair once again palatable to the 21st century female film-goer? Make no mistake this is a film intended for women: when I went the audience was all women, except the husbands who came along: it was playing alternatively in the same auditorium as On the Basis of Her Sex (even in local art cinemas women’s art ghettoized). Nothing much for Elizabeth. For a while it seemed she was becoming the sentimental queen, first in love with Leicester and then Essex (Helen Mirren’s film with first Jeremy Irons and then Hugh Dancy as Essex); but here we revert without even giving Elizabeth any Machiavellian traits. Mary has changed; she is now ceaselessly pro-active, aggressive, and free of conventional restraining conventions and beliefs (see anibundel’s accurate assessment for NBC), at moments fierce.

This is the new type heroine from Offred/June in the second season of Handmaid’s Tale, to Demelza Poldark in the rebooted version, to Brianna Fraser in Outlander. Feminism turns out to be doing what you want, and complaining when you can’t.


First impression

What makes the film intelligently different and interesting is it more or less follows the outline of a serious good biography of Mary by John Guy. So you can learn where the icon has moved now. Each phase of Mary’s career is dramatized: however briefly, her time in France and first husband, Francois. The nature of her relationship with Darnley (Jack Lowden, he was central to Dunkirk and can be seen in good BBC serial dramas), her second husband: at first she did fall in love with him, but when she saw what a dullard he was, and felt his attempts to domineer and control her, she turned to her musician, David Rizzio. Apparently nowadays Darnley is “accused” (the word is accused) of homosexuality and in this film has sex with Rizzio. That was not part of the narrative in the older books and the way it’s presented here shows homophobia is by no means gone from movie audiences. We have the two murders, first Rizzio, horrifically violent with Mary pregnant there. Time for touching scenes of her with a baby boy, and (much later) a poignant effective scene of her being forced to part from an older child and him crying for her.

and then Darnley in the courtyard. In this version Mary is not at all guilty of Darnley’s murder, not even complicit.

I’m someone who has been reading biographies of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots since I was 18, and I know in the older biographies Mary was either accused of plotting to kill Darnley (pretending just collusion) as revenge and also simply to get rid of a nuisance; or she allowed it to happen. So the film whitewashes her here. More importantly, it denies she was in love with Bothwell. I remember being thrilled by Stefan Zweig’s, and then disagreeing with Antonia Fraser’s first revisionist story. It was she who began the idea that the letters Mary is said to have written Bothwell, her third husband: these first surfaced, suspiciously enough in a casket after her death, and were used to damn her as a “harlot.” Alison Weir’s best-selling biography makes the case for them as basically false and forged, conceding only there seems enough reality in them from Mary that they might be a set of letters tampered with and re-written.

Here is one of Mary’s poems, whose provenance no one has doubted:

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

Then a good modern English translation:

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

The denial of the letters depends on ignoring Mary’s poetry, a whole body of lyrics and sonnets in French, a number to a lover-husband who could be Darnley but it more likely Bothwell. The Casket letters come from the same mindset of self-doubt, self-berating, depression behind the French sonnets, both religious and of of enthralled love. Yet a third infatuation (the first Darnley, the second Rizzio) does fit Mary’s character and makes sense of events after the murder of Darnley — some time elapsed — and Mary’s flight to England. One of the sites (dungeon tower fort) I saw in the border country of England and Scotland (debatable land) is presented as famous for Mary coming there to meet with Bothwell. She probably did. Many feminists just don’t want to believe in the casket letters. Sophia Lee’s powerful Recess (early gothic novel, 1782) about Mary’s unacknowledged twins by Bothwell doesn’t help increase belief since this romance is as fantasy and erotically driven as Outlander.

Nonetheless, there is credible evidence of a late miscarriage (or some illness) — from Bothwell (Martin Compston here), because who else? She was not promiscuous. In the time after Darnley’s murder, and Mary’s imprisonment, Mary did enter into the civil wars that her presence and poor (non-)diplomatic acts (like trying to get Catholicism accepted by showing herself tolerant of protestantism) engendered. She did fight with Bothwell too. In the film she is forced to marry him. But who would do that? it was not in her step-brother, James Moray’s interest (yes that’s James McArdle inside all that hair and beard). In the film she is (confusedly forced) and we see Bothwell rape her; this moves rapidly and the man we remember (rightly too) is Moray.

The film moves rapidly into Mary and Bothwell’s defeat by Moray. All along we’ve seen Knox inveigh against her: she is not legitimately the monarch because no woman can rule, because she’s Catholic (Mary tried to use the “toleration” card — she would tolerate all Protestanism but as this did not work for James Stuart II more than a hundred years later, it did not work for her) and anyway is a “harlot.” David Tennant offers a fierce old man (he too almost unrecognizable because of flowing hair and beard). Now the two sets of armies converge, and we fast forward to a council which in effect de-thrones her, gives her son to Murray, and leaves her isolated.

Next her on the shore with what ladies are left; cross to England and incarceration awaits her. Montage takes us through uncounted years (during which we see the aging Elizabeth grieve over her lack of child, writhe over the demands she execute Mary) and we have the confrontation, which never took place, first invented by Schiller. It is done at length in this film, and Mary (somewhat improbably) is driven at last to insult Elizabeth by telling her she Mary is the rightful queen. I agree that Mary Stuart thought Elizabeth a worthless bastard when it came to rank or illegitimacy but even she never would have thrown this idea in Elizabeth’s face.

The film opened up with the execution scene, and we revert back, re-see some of it, but this time are taken through the beheading and gruesome carrying of a head. Saoirse Ronan is accurately dressed: Mary did get herself up in black with white lace, pull the outer gown to reveal a martyr’s red shift. And so it ends with Elizabeth sitting there hollowly: this icon goes back to Scott, but in the 20th century was first realized by Bette Davies her film of Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex (recently re-done with Helen Mirren in the parts as a sympathetic sentimental queen first loving Leicester and then the treacherous Essex).

All that said the movie is worth it. The music is good, the color palates fascinating and effective.  Grey and blue for Mary except when happy, then warm reds, oranges, golden light; garish red and greens for Elizabeth, cool white light. (Too much computer enhancement on Scottish scenery.) We see how Mary as a young woman could not realize all the pretense of respect when she first arrived in Scotland was fragile veneer. We see how Knox’s fierce anti-feminism was her first obstacle, which she failed even to address. The film however indirectly and as a sort of bye-blow of what’s happening that it was James Moray, her step-brother, who played the pivotal role at important moments and ends up inheriting the throne as regent and the boy as his ward. The film begins as grim and then luxurious pageant and progresses to dramatic effectiveness, with many effecive performances, e.g., Brendan Coyle as Darnley’s father; a couple of the actresses as one of the four Marys. The two queens are juxtaposed repeatedly, twinned

I would like now to read John Guy.

Ellen

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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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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.

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

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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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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