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Posts Tagged ‘Barsetshire sequel’


Anna Bouverie (Lindsay Duncan) waiting for Flora, her daughter’s school bus to arrive


Rev Peter Bouverie (Jonathan Coy) waiting to be called in to be told whether he’s to be promoted or not

“the suffering spirit cannot descend from its dignity of reticence. It has a nobility of its own, made sacred by many tears, by the flowing of streams of blood from unseen wounds, which cannot descend from its dais to receive pity and kindness” (Trollope of Mrs Crawley, in Last Chronicle of Barset, “Lady Lufton’s Proposition,” Ch 50)

Dear friends and readers,

I was first riveted by this tale, Joanna Trollope’s first strong success (in every way) when, as I read, I realized she was re-creating two of her renowned ancestor’s most powerful characters, the Rev Josiah Crawley and his wife, Mrs Mary Crawley.  Joanna recreates a closely analogous pair of troubled lives in the story of the highly intelligent and well-meaning but underpaid, mildly disrespected, and therefore deeply humiliated, proud, inwardly raging the Rev Peter Bouverie, and his (up to this point) selfless, compliant, overworked and not paid at all wife, an equally intelligent talented and loving wife, Anna Bouverie.  Change the vowel sounds and you have Emma Bovary.  The allusions underline the idea this kind of story — the wife seeking independence is bored and what she needs is titillating erotic romance and seduction is misogynistic.  What Anna craves is liberty, time and energy to be and find herself. My latest re-reading of The Last Chronicle of Barset left me with a newly aroused-to-anger and hurt-for Mrs Crawley. To me she was the disregarded tragic figure (all the worse since she bought into her obedient enslavement to a will and decisions against her own) and I thought to myself, this is how Joanna Trollope saw Anthony Trollope’s frequently silenced, half-starved wife.

Joanna Trollope has given some very disingenuous interviews where she says when she began to write, Anthony Trollope (she found) meant nothing to her (Trollope, Joanna, and David Finkle. “Joanna Trollope: Family Plots with Untidy Endings.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter, vol. 186, Gale, 2004. Gale Literature Resource Center).  The plot of her first novel, published with a pseudonym, Caroline Harvey, Parson’s Harding’s Daughter, and other of her early historical romance pastiche novels (using the same pseudonym), the literal happenings are very different from anything her ancestor wrote (Joanna’s colonialist, taking place in India); but names, character situations, motifs are taken from Anthony Trollope’s Barcestershire. In this one of her break-away from Harvey books we meet a Miss Dunstable, are in the familiar clerical world with caste and money problems.  I have to wonder what is gained by such denials.

To me much is lost. By reading the book as a re-write ( or post-text or sequel), Anna’s quest not just to be independent, but to stop being defined and controlled in her behavior by a category (the rector’s wife), or (generalizing out) one of many women supporting a male institution with work & a life no male would do or live — makes more sense. Joanna is objecting to the patriarchy. In the most searing and startling moments in the emotionally effective TV series (written by Hugh Whitemore, directed by Giles Forster), Anna is told she is not seeking individual liberty, to find herself, to carve out space for her to achieve some time for an identity apart from Rector’s wife & a mother). If she wanted that she would take a job more commensurate with her abilities  — as she does at the end of the book & TV series when she becomes a German & French teacher in the private Catholic school that has taken her daughter in.

No, she chooses to be a clerk in a supermarket to reveal to the world that the church establishment is refusing to pay her husband adequately, exploiting and preying on his silenced loyal family. Her closest friendship is with a woman deacon, Isobel Thomson (Gabrielle Lloyd) who confronts her with disloyalty to the church and God. Joanna’s book is a commentary on Anthony’s books & characters as her Sense and Sensibility is a commentary on Austen’s novel. It is a seriously intended depiction of people who take religious faith and their church seriously — if talking to God, discussing and acting for the church’s interests, trying to identify these are not just filler – and they are not.


Anna pushes back hard against the Deacon Isobel Thomson

It is also until near the end a defense of Trollope’s much distressed and half-maddened Josiah. We study or follow Peter becoming more and more rigid, more destructive of his own marriage, as he demands his own way and obedience to his will. He requires that Anna quit the job, refuses to because there is nothing to discuss.  He enlists sycophantic women to show Anna up. Finally he takes the extraordinary step of quitting for her.  He offends the people who work in the supermarket by implying the work his wife does is demeaning,somehow disgraceful distasteful work. Still as acted by Jonathan Coy he is suffering so strongly, aching with hurt and disappointment.  (A major theme for Joanna Trollope.)  We feel for him when he realizes he need not write a sermon this week for this is now the new Archdeacon’s job.


Anna with Jonathan (Stephan Dillane) on a bench near the Archdeacon’s home

I say until near the end, for in the close both book & movie go off the rails of a proto-feminist Trollopian fable: after all Anna falls into an adulterous love affair with the new archdeacon’s younger brother, a sexy idle university student (or lecturer), Jonathan (Stephan Dillane looking like a rock star from the 1970s), grief over which drives Peter to a half-suicide. Anna goes along with the church ceremonies but these over, professes herself so quickly (& to the archdeacon too) much relieved; it’s easier to be fonder of Peter now! She now assume her attitude, the choice of boyfriend will have little effect on her relationship with her children or their memories of their father. The last scene but one of book and movie has her sitting on her husband’s grave telling him it has all been for the best, and if he doesn’t think so he needs to be in paradise longer. The last phrase precludes the idea she is getting back at him for taking it upon himself to hand in her resignation. But there is a disconcerting lack of remorse.


Eleanor confiding in Anna during a visit, after a dinner party


Later that morning, Anne back home, waiting (again) for the bus, thinking

She now becomes a kind of guru or model to emulate for her friend, Eleanor Ramsey (Pam Ferris), a successful but bitter novelist who leaves her much berated despised husband. Brutish insensitivity characterizes other characters early on (her female rivals, her friend’s bullying ways); a kind of hard shell forms around the by this time over-serene Anna. As with her novel on adoption, Next of Kin, I felt embarrassed by the seeming unself-conciousness lack of shame with which her characters talk so explicitly and casually about their hitherto unthinkable hurtful behavior. People may think these things, but don’t often say them. I felt a oblivious selfishness and complacency in Anna’s behavior. How else escape? I don’t know.  I agree that Peter would not talk to her or respond to her overtures. I liked Anna thrusting a glass of water over Peter’s head when he continues to refuse to talk, to compromise, but can feel why so many critics and thinking readers are made uneasy by events in her novels.

Joanna Trollope has a Don Juan character, Patrick O’Sullivan (Miles Anderson) who mistakes her for an Emma Bovary and Anna lashes out more than once at him (as he does not give up easily) as arrogant and indifferently playing with her and other women. Trollope’s is a apt concise analysis of the cold egoism of the traditional rake. But her Anna is disconcerting too as she slipped very quickly into finding a lover in Jonathan. Peter is now dismissed facilely by all as having been sick — the community is let off the hook. Trollope registers her awareness that she has undermined her own book by having a comically cheerful singing rector and inflexibly bounce-y new Rector’s Wife take over after the funeral.

All this said, there is another aspect to this novel and the film adaptation that makes me want to read and see more of Joanna Trollope. The woman at the center of this novel and the film, as so beautifully enacted by Lindsay Duncan, embodied a reality and feel for a woman’s life with an unconscious self-enriched on-goingness I loved entering into. She is essentially good-natured, loving (which is why she has become the go-to person for everything in the parish and her home). The character does not look down on, is amused by what is different from her even when she sees it is someone living from a limited point of view or absurd behaviors (like the way she must stack cans on a shelf). In the film Duncan adds a sense of comfortableness in nature, with the things of society. She is so beautiful too.  I wanted to re-watch her the way I do Caitronia Balfe (in Outlander) and re-read scenes.

Joanna Trollope’s aim to give her female reader a character and experience to revel in vicariously is expressed reflexively in the character of Marjorie Richardson (played pitch perfectly by Prunella Scales), wife of a Major who has spent with him much time “in the colonies.”  Marjorie is seen by Anna as a snob, as critical of Anna, and superficially condescending from what Marjorie says and does — taken aback by finding Anna working as a clerk in a supermarket (!), saying aloud how glad she is that Peter doesn’t mind not being promoted (of course he will say that). But I noticed how the camera continually captures her standing behind Anna in church, near her here and there. After Peter’s death, she has her husband offer Anna a cottage to live in for free — a puzzling offer since it’s deep in the country, away from the town where the children go to school and lively social life goes on. Anna does not have a car after Peter totals his. This is never satisfactorily explained since when Anna comes to say no, Marjorie only says she wouldn’t want it either.


Marjorie (Prunella Scales) opening up to tell of her life


Again, after now renting her own flat — for herself and children

It functions as an excuse to provide Marjorie with an opportunity to open up to Anna for the first time. Anna learns that Marjorie gets through the day by drinking the occasional gin, and has led a frustrated non-life of the type Anne was trapped in as the novel opened. Marjorie was a category, a follower of male institutions, and now it’s too late for her to build her own life. Marjorie tells of her daughter, Julia, who, after giving her all for years during the war while her husband was away, found herself deserted and with no money when he came back and went off with another woman – and his salary. Marjorie wants Anna to meet Julia (or the other way round) and tells Anna she will be watching her in her new job and new flat enjoying from afar what she didn’t dare.

There is also some personal self-reflexivity in the film in the way Eleanor Ramsay’s books are marketed. Her name across the top, a cartoon figure of an over-feminized woman at the center, her picture at the back. In the book Anna has two girlfriends who became successful professionals, and details there suggest Joanna Trollope.

Yes it is a fantasy, wish-fulfillment, comfort novel. At the same time it is accurate to see the book and its heroine as in the tradition of 19th century domestic realism novels. Sarah Rigby writes of Anna Bouverie that she

takes a supermarket job because she needs money for her children. She could, more respectably, have chosen to teach, but the shop job seems less burdensome. The entire village (including her husband, the vicar) sees this as an act of betrayal and defiance; she neglects the church flower rota and her parish duties, and is no longer considered capable of ministering to her family’s needs. Alienated, she succumbs to one of many fascinated men, and by doing so precipitates a chain of events which leads to the death of her husband. She makes some money, moves to a smaller house, refuses all offers of help, and reconstructs her identity, to the frustration of her lover, who wants to rescue her himself, and who, ‘when he looked back … saw … her standing in a cage surrounded by people who were either longing to rescue her or determined that she should not escape’. Literature has many such heroines, trapped in stasis and admired as symbols all the subjects of male rescue attempts. Isabel Archer is one, with her sense of marriage as a safety net which would nevertheless trap her as ‘some wild, caught creature in a vast cage’.

It goes without saying that Trollope’s view of the world is not nearly as complicated as James’s, but the attraction to that security and the simultaneous reaction against it is one of her main preoccupations. As her own use of the cage image is developed, it is also subverted: ‘And then suddenly … the cage was empty and Anna had eluded all those people and had run ahead of them. … It was almost, now, as if she were in hiding, and they were all looking for her, guided only by bursts of slightly mocking laughter from her hiding place’ (Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter, vol. 186, Gale, 2004)

Trollope does break taboos, while keeping her heroines safe by placing them in anachronistic environments. I don’t know if the religious belief in this one is common; there is another good mother superior nun to provide a place for her daughter, a job for her (reminding me of Mother Hildegarde in Outlander). Her heroine’s struggle is that of other heroines of women’s novels, of her readership, and dramatizes their compromised solutions too. In The Rector’s Wife, Trollope is at her best in wry undramatic dramatized moments, as we feel for her characters and ourselves getting through the anxious hard moments of our lives. In this TV series the material is the strongest in the confrontational scenes, and evocative in including shots of landscapes of southeastern England. We are meant also to revel in the loveliness of rural suburban worlds, small towns, with a sense of embedded histories of which this story is just one.


Concluding stills — Anna leaning down in the grass over her husband’s grave, and then walking back to her flat in town

I had wanted to read a book by Joanna Trollope for ever so long; her talk for the Chawton House Lockdown Literary Festival got me to do it. I have her Other People’s Children, Next of Kin, and Sense and Sensibility (which I tried and now want to try gain), all picked up at used book library sales, and have now put Other People’s Children on my nightstand – next to Artemis Cooper’s biography of Elizabeth Jane Howard, another novelist who I may now be able to find time and room for as I have stopped spending hours driving places in my car. Middle of the night reading when I need easy company. Have I mentioned what an deft writer Joanna is, concise effective, putting us into the situations she imagines before we are at the bottom of the first page.

Ellen

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