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Posts Tagged ‘women’s life-writing’


Giovanni di Paolo, Paradiso (14th century)

Friends and readers,

Before concluding my reports on the JASNA AGM for 2017, I return briefly to my work on women artists. I’ve not forgotten this series of blogs, just had to put them on hold for a while. I was asked if I would collaborate on a paper on Virginia Woolf and Samuel Johnson as modernists, and set myself to reading what Woolf (and Johnson too, though his specific views are not germane here) had written about biography and in the biographical way. What a task. This was a couple of months ago, and it seems to me the one subject Woolf didn’t write about, which one might have expected, was her sister, a great original visual artist, Vanessa Bell (1879-1961). Woolf’s two longest most sustained biographies are of the great art critic and visual artist, Roger Fry (1866-1934), and her beloved friend, Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962)


Vanessa Bell by Roger Fry (1916) — they were lovers for a time


Roger Fry by himself (1926)

I’m struggling with this topic because there are not natural easy parallels between Johnson’s deeply felt realistic biographies of the poets, and tragic-ironic Life of [Richard] Savage (1697-1743) and Woolf’s traditional and great biography of Fry (it’s more or as much about his inner life than his life as an artist/art businessman); and new or modernist biographies, say many of her short or “obscure” lives in her criticism/journalism (“Miss Mitford,” “Geraldine and Jane,” “Laetitia Pilkington”), and especially the imagined ones in Memoirs of a Novelist (“The Mysterious Case of Miss V,” and “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn”); and post-modern parodic biographies, Flush, the biography of a [Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s] dog; and the time-traveling fantasia, Orlando: A Biography


Vita Sackville-West photographed in the Margaret Cameron [aunt to Virginia] manner, circa 1840

From my notes on Orlando: It does what masterpieces should do: astonishes me with its beauty, power, deep insight into the human condition, comedy and tragedy and farce and all. The description of the river Thames as ice and then turning to a flood and storm is stunning. Although the book is self-reflexive all along, the narrative begins to be a parody of biography and refer to Vita only in the second chapter,and then is so far away from Vita’s life. I have Sackville-West’s Knole and the Sackvilles, which is one of the sources for the houses and staff. Orlando is also a playful coterie book — all sorts of in allusions, especially to the elite world of the Sackvilles, and it is an imitation of a child’s book by Vita too … The transgender part is sheer flattery, obsequious and embarrassing with its references to the gypsy mother …

A number of Woolf’s ideals for biography correspond with those of Johnson (such as the central goal of realizing the inner life, of showing how the art, character, and actual life of the person intertwine). Boswell, it would seem, came closest to her criteria that a biography must combine granite (fact, what can be reported as objectively having happened, been said, written down) and rainbow (the realm of the mind and body unrecorded in words), with Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Bronte, doing this for the first time for a woman writer. But Johnson is no modernist in his biographical writing, though last night Richard Holmes’s book, Dr Johnson and Mr Savage began to render Johnson’s Savage in terms that are post-modern: Savage is the haunting figure of the poetic outcast, Johnson himself when young, a figure of both pathos and terror psychologically disturbed (p 52, 63), disabled, keeping a strange distance of otherness. (I find a good deal of Johnson’s political writing post-colonial, but that’s another matter altogether.) I wish Virginia whose relationship with her sister, can be said to resemble Johnson and Boswell in closeness and (ambiguously) influence, had written a traditional life of her sister (Suzanne Raitt wrote the book thus far: Vita and Virginia: The Friendship and Work of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf), for that would correspond to Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

But this morning I was stirred to feel I am on the right path after all, and this is a topic suited to my mind when in reading Frances Spalding’s Roger Fry: Art and Life (for comparison to Woolf’s), I came across a reproduction of a fourteenth-century predella panel, painted with tempera on a canvas, rendered in black-and-white, a full plate plate on art paper.

I was riveted by it. I had a few days ago told someone at this year’s East Central 18th century Society meeting here in DC, how I began to find myself (“When I was 17 …”), to find out who I am and what I can do in life for personal meaning and satisfaction by going when I was 17-19 twice a week in the morning to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Manhattan) to listen to lecture-tours, and one morning came across the most moving small drawing in a glass case of paradise. It seemed to me even then (before I had lost any beloved people to death) that this artist had captured what people long for when they imagine a life after death. Beloved friends reunited at last. Look how happy they are:


Here it is again, larger, albeit in black-and-white as printed by Spalding (I scanned it in and alas part of the left side could not be got into the scanner)

None of this nonsense about seeing gods, or nebulous awards, I half-remember thinking to myself. This, this is why.

I was prompted to tell of this because I was shown another image of paradise, also medieval, which reminded me of the one I had seen more than 50 years ago, but which missed the point, and I wanted to tell this friend who painted the image I had seen, and what was its name, but I didn’t know. I hadn’t thought to write it down, and anyway if I had, I would have long ago lost it. I could only describe it as understanding why people might long for an afterlife.

And now this morning here it was, with the name of the artist, of the picture, a scholarly description of what it is, where it came from. I had learned now that it was there in the museum that morning because more than 50 years before Roger Fry had acquired it for the museum. I felt my spirit soar as I looked at this image.

I would like to believe in the afterlife now, for then I might dream of seeing Jim once again, which I cannot. This longing is so strong that it is at the core of my engagement with the mini-series Outlander where the heroine travels though time and space through fantasy to see and be with her beloved again, though in 1945 on her first trip and again 1967 he is long since dust, and lying in a grave in a church, the kirkyard of st Kilda, near Inverness.

Kneeling among the unmowed grass she stretched out a trembling hand to the surface of the stone. It was carved of granite, a simple slab … Yes I know him. Her hand dropped lower, brushing back the grass that grew thickly about the stone, obscuring the line of smaller lines about the base: “Beloved husband of Claire” (Dragonfly in Amber, “Beloved Wife,” Chapter 5:76)

In my life-writing blog I’ve been writing about how my life has been and continues to be a journey through books and art, and if it is a trail with meaning, it ought to have some consistent inner shape where the parts relate. I thought of T.S. Eliot’s line: In our end is our beginning.

So I must be on the right track still, even if my project doesn’t necessitate my reading a biography of Vanessa Bell I also have in the house, one I discover also by Spalding, written 3 years after she concluded her book on Fry. It’ll be the one I read as soon as I finish this project-paper and be my first women artists blog, I hope this Christmas

Book-learning they have known.
They meet together, talk and grow most wise,
But they have lost, in losing solitude,
Something — an inward grace, the seeing eyes,
The power of being alone;
The power of being alone with earth and skies,
Of going about a task with quietude,
Aware at once of earth’s surrounding mood
And of an insect crawling on a stone
— Vita Sackville-West, from “Winter” in The Garden and the Landscape (a georgic)

Ellen

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Deane House: a slightly antiqued reprint of Ellen Hill’s illustration

Dear friends and readers,

I assume none of us has forgotten this year’s 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, with its outpouring of books, meetings, events, including lectures, parades, dances. I wrote no less than three blogs, one on the books and reviews published on and round that day, and Austen’s own last lines, in her novels, and that last week she lived one final parting shot (an ironic poem), the discovery that a picture long known is of Austen’s aunt Philadelphia, cousin Eliza, the aunt’s husband and Eliza’s legal father, Saul Hancock, and the maid, Clarinda, and the first where I sent along Chris Brindle’s poem and “Song for Jane.”

This evening I’ve two videos to share, one of Clara Chevallerau singing Chris’s song with herself in iconic places in Bath:

The other the Annual Jane Austen Festival Regency Parade, Bath, for this 200th year:

Chris is the author of the script and the director of the filmed play for Sanditon based on Austen’s fragment and her niece, Anna Lefroy’s continuation. Chris writes about the filming and Clara. She is “an intelligent girl; from Switzerland she speaks French, English, German and Spanish fluently. Only 20 she has already toured Europe and the USA in musical theatre productions. She read Pride & Prejudice at School (in English) and carried on to read Sense and Sensibility.
I wrote all the lyrics for the song, apart from the French chorus which is pretty much a literal translation of the English. Clara contributed:-

“Comment une jeune enfant, fille de vicaire
Née dans un petit village du Hampshire
A pu autant, changé la face de cette terre”

The filming took place in a day. I had caught the 6.30 from Colchester and had met Clara at Paddington and together we caught the 8.30 to Bath getting there at 10 o’clock. We caught the 5.43 back. I was carrying the guitar, my camera and a tripod, whilst Clara carried a bag which seemed to contain half her wardrobe. I had my phone and a bluetooth speaker and through that we played the song which Clara sang along to in numerous relevant locations. The glory of doing this is all the little incidents that you capture quite by accident.

You see all the tourists enjoying Bath in large part because of the association with Jane Austen, and which Clara sings with the Pulteney Street Bridge in the background, through which the Austens would have walked into town from their house at 4 Sydney Place.”

The reader may also want to know about a new opera adapted from Mansfield Park: in The Guardian Jonathan Dove explains the sources from Austen’s novel of his inspiration

To me, her reticence invited music, a way of revealing those hidden emotions.

Two scenes stood out as especially poignant – and musical.

In the first, Fanny’s beloved Edmund is distracted and entranced by the vivacious Mary Crawford, but one evening he joins Fanny to gaze out of the window at the stars. Fanny is overjoyed – but then Mary starts to sing, and Edmund is drawn back into the room away from the window where Fanny now stands alone, looking out into the night.

This follows a scene in which Fanny – alone, seated on a bench – helplessly watches Edmund as he walks off to explore a wilderness beyond the garden with Mary Crawford.

These scenes have haunted me for years

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/sep/11/the-silence-of-the-lamb-opera-jane-austen-mansfield-park-fanny-price

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

I’m just now reading one of the books reviewed at the time: Devoney’s Looser’s The Making of Jane Austen in order to review it for an academic periodical. Physically, the hardback is a beautiful book, good paper, sewn signatures, with good illustrations. As I do when I take a book seriously, I’m going to follow Looser on some of her trails. Most of the reviews remained on a level of generality where they did not tell the specifics of her arguments so that’s one way I can differ. Her tone (by-the-way) is anything but snarky or belligerent in the way of Helen Kelly in her JA: Secret Radical; Looser projects such generosity, benignity and charity to all, she makes the reader who might complain (or differ irritatedly) into someone grumpy.

In her first chapter, she adds a third text to the crucial early ones shaping the Janeite view of Austen first announced in modern terms by G. B. Stern and Sheila Kaye-Smith in their first published departure from male academic critics’ high-minded close-reading of the generally moral thematic kind, Speaking of Jane Austen: they openly sided with this character and against the other from a woman reader’s point of view; more importantly Austen’s books and the worlds she presented were refuges, sanctuaries. Looser says this began with two we know well (the “usual suspects”), James-Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir ofh his aunt, and the sanitized, cut, rearranged presentation of her correspondence by Lord Edward Brabourne, the son of her niece, Fanny Austen Knight. But Looser insists there was a third: Constance and Ellen Hill’s Jane Austen: Her Home and Her Friends. The book is by both sisters, Constance wrote the text, and Ellen drew the crucial picturesque illustrations.

Looser does sort of dismiss Margaret Oliphant’s keenly insightful review of JEAL which anticipates some of the arguments D.W. Harding was to make in his transformative “Regulated Hatred” (a paper published in Scrutiny): Oliphant understood Austen’s text clearly as acid; the work of a sharp satirist and skeptical female. I think Oliphant important but I agree her review was not influential. (It was only reprinted and noticed after Southern published his Jane Austen’s Heritage two volumes.)

Looser claims the Hill book was innovative, original — went beyond the family view — because they visited the places Austen lived in, visited, and they read original sources (borrowed manuscripts from the family). They were trying to evoke the past for us to enter into and picture places perhaps we have not the money or wherewithal to go to. In lieu of photos lovely picturesque illustrations. This is before cameras became so ubiquitous. Looser says they invented the term “Austen-land” (used recently by Shannon Hale in her book and then the film adaptation).

So I began the book. The Hill’s opening chapter shows the ploy. They are tracing the footsteps of the Austen ghosts: where did Mr and Mrs Austen drive that first night they were married. Ellen and Constance are seeking Steventon. But the sky darkens. There is no roadway, no map. Nothing where Steventon was either. The place they are told they can stay at has no room. But wait, the people suggest another, an inn in Deane! Was not Deane a place Austen stayed at? It’s nighttime but they forge on. You see all the world is good and all is right with the world now. They have trouble finding this place too, but not to worry, again they encounter good people who are eager to take them in. When this happens they know they have arrived in Austen-land.


Their destination: the pump where the vicarage stood (as drawn by Ellen in the original book)

The Hill sisters go beyond reinforcing JEAL; they are turning his view into something magical magical. This is time-traveling criticism. And it has been influential in anticipating a whole way of picturing Austenland.

Again a fan has worked on one of Ellen Hill’s illustrations: Ellen had pictures Manydown Park in the snow in the evening from the side; here it has been made more dramatic:

And of course I hope my reader will not define me as grumpy when I inject a note of somber realism: the 1790s was a period of severe repression of any political movement for social justice and equality in England, pressings were frequent and massive (read Gaskell’s Sylvia’s Lovers), mutinies punished harshly, the life of the average person, from whom Austen was not and never wanted to be immune was hard long working hours for a subsidence existence, women had no rights under the law and by custom. See Carolyn Steedman’s Labours Lost on the working livese of women in this era and until the mid-20th century. Let us not forget the Hills’ Austenland was a fantasy then too. Photographs (were there any) could have shown this. Those are real 21st century people walking in that Jane Austen parade got up somewhat incongruously in an attempt to wear styles from another era.

Ellen who loves pictures

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Dear Friends,

It is gratifying to be told that one of your blogs has prompted another blogger to write further on its subjects: the woman in question was part of my two series thus far of women artists: Ellen Epps Gosse.

Roger Wotton, Professor Emeritus of Biology at University College London, was moved to write about the woman he calls (as did many people she knew) Nellie as Nineteenth-Century Wonder Woman. He grew up in Devon and his book is on Philip Henry Gosse, Ellen’s father-in-law, Edmund’s father: Walking with Gosse, Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts, the introduction by Sir Patrick Bateson may serve as a review as well as short biography of Prof Wotton. His blog concentrates far more on Ellen and Edmund’s relationship as well as (understandably) Edmund and his father’s, while mine sets Ellen in the context of the remarkable number of other women artists in her immediate family and nearby kin: Ellen’s daughter, Sylvia Gosse (1881-1968):


The Semptress by Sylvia

Ellen’s sister, Emily Epps; another sister Laura Epps ,later Alma Tadema (1852-1909), and Laura’s daughter, Anna Alma Tadema (1867-1943)


Eton College Chapel by Anna

If you go over to my blog you will find I have supplied at least one picture by each of these Epps-related woman (with the exception of Emily). I was demonstrating the truth of Deborah Cherry’s argument in her Painting Women that in the 19th century women artists emerged in connected groups from connected families. When we are talking of the photographer artist, Julia Margaret Cameron, Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, and Angelica Garnett (the last two writers, as was Ellen Epps Gosse occasionally). We don’t see Cameron, Woolf, or Bell, as a somewhat self-enclosed family group, but this more famous Bloomsbury group fits this Victorian pattern too. I mentioned in the blog and here add a few pictures by a third less-well known group come from the Hayllarr family: Little Stackpole, Edith


Edith’s Feeding Swans

Jessica:


Jessica’s Peonies

Kate:


Kate’s Sunflowers and Hollyhocks

and Mary. Although very different in style and presentation, if you look at Vanessa Bell and even Dora Carrington’s paintings, you will find similar subjects, attitudes of tranquil stillness in reverie (scroll down to see Vanessa’s family group).

I’ve not forgotten my series of women artists. for the first series I made a linked in handy list; for the second my reader will have to be content with names you put into the search engine. I’ve been so busy with projects that will lead towards published papers, reviews, or a book to write anything new since then, except for my review of the powerful movie, Maudie, about Maud Lewis (1901-70), who now ends of the second series.

Sofonsiba and Lucia Anguissola (1535/6 – 1625; 1536/8 – 1565)
Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670)
Mary Beale (1633-1699)
Anne Killigrew (1660-1685)
Angela Kaufmann (1741-1807)
Henriette Ronner Kip (1821-1909), Posy Simmonds (b 1945)
Joanna Mary Boys Wells (1831-61)
Florence Ann Caxton (1838-1920)
Ellen Epps Gosse (1850-1929)
Beatrix Potter (1855-1943)
Ethel Reed (1874-1912)
Dora Carrington (1893-1932)
Remedios Varo (1908-1963)
Maud Lewis (1901-1970)

I have tonight at least made up a group of candidates for a third series: Anna Dorothea Therbusch, Adelaide Labille Guiard, and Elisabeth Vigee LeBrun for the 18th century; Mary Ellen Best English and German, naive art, American looking, includes illustrations, 19th century

Elizabeth Nourse and Marie Spartali Stillman for the 19th century; Emily Carr, Vanessa Bell and Paula Regno for the 20th. If I can find material, Giovanna Fratellini for 17th into 18th century Italy; and Helen McNicoll and Elin Danielson for late 19th into 20th century (the same cusp as Helen Allingham and Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes).

Two self-portraits: women often do self-portraits


Giovanni Fratelli, a Self-Portrait (1720)


Elin Danielson (1861-1919), a Self-Portrait (1890)

I would also like this time to write about women illustrators, especially Elizabeth Shippen Green (1871-1954)


One of Green’s An Old Woman

Ellen

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18th century print illustration of Weymouth, fashionable spa resort where Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax become engaged ….

At one point, ten years ago things looked very precarious when the majority of our residents had their accounts at the Bank of Eastbourne. I had borrowed heavily to build the foundations of this resort and was nearly forced, through no fault of my own, into bankruptcy. Fortunately we had a major investor from Antigua, the famous anti-slavery campaigner Miss Felicity Lambe, who was prepared to invest in our resort, and our new bank, “Parker Brothers – The Bank of Sanditon”, and that saved the day. It gives us great pride that the dividends we pay Miss Lambe fund her great campaign: – and her model plantation for free-men labourers in Antigua — from the concluding scene of Chris’s Sanditon

Friends,

Some six months ago now I posted a review of Chris Brindle’s play’s Sanditon, or The Brothers. It was filmed as a play, played on British TV, and a DVD was made available of the play, as well as a 40 minute documentary narrated by Amy Burrows (who plays Charlotte Heywood in the film). I thought it a splendid adaptation, which used the continuation by Anne Lefroy (published in an scholarly edition of Sanditon), which shows a real feel for the original and some knowledge of what her aunt intended. The documentary told of Anne Lefroy’s life as well as some of the circumstances surrounding Austen’s writing of this last unfinished work. Among these that Austen was dying and knew it, and at times in great pain before (and probably) during the writing of this fragment. The way Austen seems to have dealt with pain as seen in her writing was to distance herself, make an ironic perspective which both reflects on the issues at hand, and mocks them (see my The Depiction of Widows and Widowers in Austen’s Writing).

In the same blog I uploaded a beautiful song sung by Burrows and Nigel Thomas, “The Blue Briny Sea,” a composition enacting what seems to have been Austen’s longing to be beside the sea far more than she had been able to. Emma Woodhouse’s longing is repeated in Sanditon where the wish fulfillment element is the town is by the sea.

Since then I’ve been able to read Chris’s script of the play, and an outline of how to turn this 2 hour script for a play or single movie into a mini-series (it looks very doable). Chris explains how he originally wanted to develop a play about Anna Lefroy, but there was insufficient interest — and how he came to develop an ending for Sanditon. He sent me a pdf of his book, Hampshire: Discovering the 19th century world of the Portsmouth artist, R.H.C. Ubsdell in which he recreates intimately the local world of Hampshire both Jane and her niece Anna spent much of their lives in through Ubsdell’s pictures (from the gallery). Finally, a musical rendition (words by Amanda Jacobs) of Austen’s Three Prayers combined into a hymn of praise, “Father in Heaven.” All this material shows immense sensitivity to underlying motifs and feelings of Austen’s works as well as the subtle felt realities of Anne Lefroy’s relationship to her aunt, a real knowledge and empathy with one another.

So when Chris sent me another song he wrote re-imagining aspects of the completed Sanditon, re-enacting Austen’s deep grief at dying so young, looking to understand how she dealt with this seriously (partly by writing), what compensations she saw (her work), I was eager to listen. I was much moved. — among other picked-up suggestions from Austen’s later work, the song remember the poem Austen is said have written in the last day or so of her life, “Written at Winchester on Tuesday, the 15th July 1817,” with phrases like “When once we are buried you think we are gone/But behold me immortal!” With his permission, and encouragement, I upload the new song here: It is written by Chris Brindle, with a brilliant 20 year old Swiss French girl called Clara Chevallerau, and sung by her. (Although only 20 Clara has toured Europe with a Swiss version of “William Tell” and sung for Musical Theatre impresario Bobby Cronin on a Europe / U.S. tour.)

as well as the words:

When did you realise
That you life would soon come to an end
Did you always know your life would be so short?
What is a life what is it worth
– Is it what you leave behind you
When you take nothing with you at the end?

PRE-CHORUS

Your books and letters were your children
Left to others to inspire
– And maybe carry on your work

CHORUS

Do you die if a bit of you will live in others
Or memories of you will still remain?
How do you spend your last few moments
on this earth
When your journey has to come to its end

BRIDGE

In your pain you left us biting satire
A town built on sand in need of hope
But you left us characters who could save it
If in our imagination we could see how they would cope

May the Lord look on you with grace and favour
For this was the world you created
Reaching out for your future
A century or more away
When your pain was most intense
And your time was running out.

FRENCH CHORUS

Est-ce qu’on meurt si un peu de nous reste dans nos oeuvres
Ou des souvenirs de nous survivent encore?
Comment passe-t-on nos derniers jours sur cette terre
Quand le voyage arrive à son terme?

FALSE OUTRO:
Comment une jeune enfant, fille de vicaire
Née dans un petit village du Hampshire
A pu autant, changé la face de cette terre?

REPEAT CHORUS (last time)


Recent photo of Winchester — where Austen lies buried

As we near the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death ….

Ellen

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Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) and Maudie (Sally Hawkins) early on in film

Dear friends and readers,

A few days ago I saw a extraordinary movie which had a moment so uplifting that it caught my breath: Sherry (Kari Matchett) asks Maudie (Sally Hawkins) what has sustained her, enabled her to survive to paint these marvelously colorful expressionistic depictions of gardens, people, landscapes. Maud says with a deep sincerity, she has had windows to sit by and look at the world out of, and these experiences which she paints and from which painting and interaction within herelf give her such fulfilment, it’s enough. What more than this core does anyone have. Words to this effect.


An image of one of the real Maud Lewis’s paintings

She is living with Sherry because Sherry has taken her in after she left her partner-husband, Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) because his latest form of obtuse bullying includes trying to stop her from talking of the baby she gave birth to many years ago, and how it was taken from her immediately by her aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) and brother Charles (Zachary Bennett), how they claimed the baby was born deformed and died, but was in fact (her aunt has now out of guilt and respect for Maud told her) perfectly formed, and lived. Her brother “sold” the baby, says Ida, because the couple was a stable, good pair of people and they thought this was for the best. They cannot have had Maud’s feelings in mind: we now realize she experienced an agon of grief, loss, and despair (she was led to believe she should never have children).

This is just one of an at first ever-growing pile tragic traumatic experience visited upon Maud (that we get to see): when we first meet her, she seems old, wizened, badly disabled by arthritis or some such condition, and despite this painting gay flowers. Flashback (the rest of the movie) to her in say her twenties when she is living a stifled life with this same aunt, no money, no access to any enjoyment, spoken harshly to, ripped out of her mother’s house (which her brother has now sold — he is into selling things) and left to rot with this aunt. Late at night, she quietly leaves the house and haunts a nearby roadhouse, where people are drinking, dancing, talking, and she can cage cigarettes, a glass of beer, and dream amid the noise and stars. She finds (most improbably it might seem) liberty, and then creates her life as a painter and loving companion with a silent seemingly “retarded” (he is autistic) fish-peddler (precarious living) she sees in a general store asking someone to write an advertisement for him for a “housemaid.” His house is a filthy shack. Ignoring the aunt’s protests, sneers, predictions she will be a “love slave” (which she laughs at astonished), she approaches this man and gets permission to become his housemaid.


Everett at work

More oppression is what she finds: giving her hardly any tools, no money, he demands she clean the house, cook for him (he is clearly impoverished from the state of his kitchen pots, utensils, stove), is barely civil. She has nowhere to sleep but next to him in his bed in an attic room. He speaks of an orphanage, and we gather his abominable behavior is what he learned there: he seeks control as a way of stablizing his environment. It gets so bad, he is so distrustful of her encroaching on him, taking power, that when an associate of his (also staking out a precarious living) speaks to her, and she responds, he hits her hard across the face. Her startled scream of anguish made the single slap and its sound means more than 100s killed in other movies. I thought to myself, if this keeps up, I can’t stay, and wondered if my friend (I was with a new friend) would mind if I insisted on leaving. But this is the nadir of the film.


Ride in the Snow (the movie landscape is filled with ice and snow)

Gradually she wins him over, by her patient improvements of this cottage and then her cheerful naive paintings celebratory of all around them, the natural world (we learn eventually we are in Nova Scotia, Canada), everything in the cottage, him, her, invented anecdotes. First the walls, then we see her making her painful way to a shop, grudgingly he buys her paper and paints because she has begun to use one can of paint to paint on discarded boards of wood she found outside the shack. The state of their relationship may be measured by his beginning to follow or go before her with his wagon, and then his putting her in the wagon while he pushes it ahead of him. It is Sherry’s first visit to complain that Everett has not delivered the fish she paid for that effects the first transformative change: Sherry sees the paintings on the wall, and asks Maud to paint postcards for her. She will pay Maud. Out of his first success, and Sherry’s advertising Maud to other people, telling her NYC friends, associates in gallery, Maud’s first enlarged custom comes. By this time Maud is regularly lying with Everett at night and when once he is moved to try to have sex with her, she has told the story she was told of the birth and death of a deformed baby. At that, he moves back, but he is not turned off. She has begun to write down an accounting of his business (money taken in, fish promised), and he has begun to do some and then gradually more and more of the household chores while she paints. He is alive to the money she is bringing in. The film is not sentimental. They form a partnership.


The marriage day — outside the church

But it is touching even if we feel that the roughness from him, and abject acceptance from her never goes. If I were to characterize their developing emotional relationship for the rest of the film I would use the word tender: a vein of tender affection is drawn out of him as he increasingly compensates himself for what she cannot do easily. They do make love in that bed, and (very characteristic throughout) she says gingerly and then repeats the idea they should marry, and eventually we see both of them dressing themselves respectable and carefully and then with the original friend-associate and his girlfriend coming out of a church a married couple. The mood of their life is cheerful, because very unexpectedly as soon as she is treated with minimal decency, a kind of laughter comes out of her eyes, her face shines with eagerness; she is quietly buoyant and I was reminded of the first time I saw Sally Hawkins in Mike Leigh’s Happy-go-Lucky (as long ago as 2008), which was about a stalwart happy community (that I now associate with Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls). Hawkins has the unusual ability convincingly to bring joy out of anguish (that is what she did as Anne Elliot in the 2007 Persuasion). Aisling Walsh, the director gives them plenty of room for inward-outward display; Sherry White’s script is both simple and subtle.


Maud Lewis in front of the small house where she lived with Everett

Not until the end of the film did I realize that Maud Lewis was a real Canadian artist (1903-70), that this was a deeply empathetic biopic of a beloved artist, who had indeed been arthritic, disabled, and rescued by while she rescued, an isolated man, also disabled. Just as the credits are about to roll, photographs of the real Maud and Everett Lewis appear (and we see these actors modeled their bodily appearance on the original people). As Glenn Kerry puts it, “This film fits into a particular kind of sub-genre: the story of two lonely people, societal outcasts, who find comfort and solace with each other.” But it does not treat this theme (or any other) conventionally. It’s not a story about how wonderful is fame — indeed I as a viewer kept worrying that somehow the increasing number of people showing up at the cottage, and eventually the crooked brother, would somehow break this couple up. The suspense of the film comes from our fear they will lose one another because they remain inarticulate: each concession comes unexpectedly, not prepared for. After Maud returns to Everett, and a scene between them where each has trouble acknowledging love (for different reasons):


she listens to him, pays attention

After they come back together, he seemingly suddenly drives her to a respectable looking house outside of which is a young 20 year old woman and her husband. Everett says “there is your daughter.” He has found the girl and Maud begins to cry. They also do not move from this isolated existence, so towards the end when her arthritis is much worse and she falls in the snow while Everett is off selling fish, she is in danger of freezing to death, of badly hurting herself.

What breaks them is aging, her disability gets worse. She cannot walk far, can hardly hold her brushes. She has throughout the movie smoked and now she can’t breathe. A doctor shows up, and declares she has emphysema and must stop smoking. Everett declares (in his usual bullying manner) she already has. But it is too late. One night together in their now electric-lit, heated, comfortable home, she falls over unable to breathe. He rushes her to a hospital, where she gradually dies. Hawkins performs her usual spectacular acting (she was an inimitable Duchess of Gloucester, jealous, foolishly playing with superstition, then blamed and tortured, gone mad in the Hollow Crown), but Ethan Hawke is not far behind. He looks different, thicker than his usual types, gradually utterly convincing. As he walked away from the hospital to loneliness in this cottage filled with her things, her absent present I remembered him when young in Sunrise, and then five years later Sunset with Julie Delpy, then ten years on, Midnight, and somehow this movie seemed another phase, with his beloved partner now deeply aged and quietly much wiser.

I write this detailed review because the blurbs on IMDB are so distorted (this is the story of an arthritic housekeeper who makes good in her community one runs — what community?) and the reviews few and uncomprehending or uncomfortable. It seems disabled people living in poverty need to be prettied up more. Manola Dargis sees the film as “about the fantasies we make of our lives as we spin beauty and hope from despair.” There is a book, Lance Woolaver’s Maud Lewis: The Heart on the Door where he shows a desperate life. Everett Lewis was a far more difficult man to live with than the film makes out. The movie softens, but it’s often through remembering and emphasizing the paintings, the imagery, the artist painting.


Cats

I often despair, I’m alone much of the time, and it was good for me to have validated the kinds of moments (mine literary) I have which make all the hard and tiring parts of life, the awareness of how excluded I am, still worth enduring for me. This has come to be another in my series of women artists. Maybe I will find the spirit to return to these yet.


A slightly sadder picture

Ellen

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Photograph of DuMaurier at her desk

Dear friends and readers,

I’m relieved to be able to report that at least among a group of 50+ year olds (some 25 or more) Daphne DuMaurier’s fiction is not obsolete. Someone could say in reply, well, of course not, the production of film adaptations of her books has far from ceased. Two recent very well-done film adaptations, Jamaica Inn (2014, scripted by Emma Frost), a three part mini-series, featured Jessica Findley Brown (she of Downton Abbey fame), as Mary Yellan, with corresponding middle-range box office fine actors in the others, and My Cousin Rachel (this summer 2017, scripted by Roger Michell who’s done several Austen films), featured Rachel Weisz as Rachel dressed very like Olivia de Haviland in the famous Hitchcock film, and no less than Simon Russell Beale as the lawyer. Both were closely faithful to the original book –most unlike most previous film adaptations of DuMaurier. Very recently The Scapegoat has been filmed with Matthew Rhys as the hero who wants to take over another character’s identity. Nonetheless, a film is not a book, and a film may lend itself to a popular film genre and be re-made because it’s so well-known. Does the book itself still speak to readers?


Jessica Findlay Brown as he masculine Mary Yellan (Jamaica Inn, 2014)

Yes on The King’s General, from my own re-reading (decades after the first time when I was in my teens) and from the class discussion where several class members produced much subtler thorough analyses of the characters than I had, saw few flaws (transcending stereotypes), understood the underlying perspective of the book: much of the book dramatizes war as women experience it, battles, sieges, deaths, crippling, and especially the use of starvation (still very much with us) as a toolr from woman’s point of view. DuMaurier herself had just gone through a war (WW2– Cornwall was bombed) this in Menabilly, the mansion she lived in for decades as a renter, renovated, and was finally kicked out of, famous today as Manderley from Rebecca. The one element in the long sequence of chapters of the seige and sacking of Menabilly (7-19) omitted is rape (admittedly a central part of civilian women’s experience in war zones but one not admitted to in any of incriminating detail until World War Two. DuMaurier bases what she depicts after the seige of Menabilly (Honor Harris’s flight to another family mansion in Cornwall, Radford, and then another, Mothercombe on the book’s shaping insight that war for women does not end with any truce. Why not? People have died, and one person gone can change all, everyone left imitating themselves; people maimed, crippled for life, whole households destroyed and how do you bring back land, re-furnish a house. A woman who has been gang raped or coopted into concubine doesn’t forget, her memories don’t go away,see Marta Hilliers’ Women in Berlin, for which she was ferociously attacked for exposing war gang-rape and concubinage: we are supposed to swallow that, not shame ourselves (why are victims the shamed) and of course not the great warriors.

The 17th century in Europe provides us with our first documented replacement of men with women, women who themselves could write, so we stories of sieges from women from the English civil war era (see Lady Brilliana Harley in Eva Figes’s Seven Ages of Women); the closest non-fiction I could compare these to is Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-44 (extraordinary book); in fiction of course Gone with the Wind (siege of Atlantic, sacking of Tara).

We also see it’s a conscious decision to allow the countryside to be ravaged, ransacked in an attempt to win a war: winning the war, killing, is more important than what happens to those living in its countryside. And we see whichever side wins, the people lose.

The book is remembered (when it is) for its crippled heroine, but what emerged from our talk is how disability is a theme throughout the book: from the way Richard Grenville’s possibly homosexual son is abused from a young age for his lack of aggressive masculinity to the point he is abject and cannot defend himself (it’s not your disability that kills you but society’s response to it), to the maiming and destroying of valuable characters one by one as the battles are told.

The idea of the course I’m reading and teaching this book in is to show the contrast between historical fiction after say 1980 and before 1960: as the story goes, in the early part of the 20th century historical fiction had reached an all-time level of scorn. It has been regarded in the 19th century as the highest form of fiction, requiring serious research, about serious political issues and a tremendous imaginative input: Walter Scott was respected; George Eliot’s Romola set in the Renaissance; the most admired of Thackeray’s books was not Vanity Fair, but Henry Esmond set in the civil wars in Scotland in the later 17th century. In early 20th century until near WW 2 and just after still historical fiction was seen as bodice rippers for silly women and boys’ adventures stories for men who wanted to fancy themselves manly heroes. This way of looking at them is not gone from us and historical fiction and romance are still written in this mode sufficiently to be mocked. What are seen as women’s novels and women’s films are particularly susceptible to mockery.

Hard to pinpoint when this changed and the process was slow. I’d say a new form of historical fiction – or a return to higher norms, ideals, serious history begins just after WW2. Mostly people wanted to write about the war and found masquerade made this easier. The “jump” – changeover – begins to gather steam and many books in the 1970s: I’d date for convenience with Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, written between 1965 and 75, and called at the time of finishing “a landmark of post-war fiction. He won a Booker Prize for its coda, Staying On (which I’ll teach in another course on Booker Prize books this fall at the OLLI at AU). In short, the books got longer, they were seriously researched, they were political , and by the 1990s deeply anti-colonialist – the Raj Quartet occurs during the breakup of the British Raj and its complicated politics, ethnic identities, fierce hatreds leading into and out of World War Two. It’s very accurate if you can accept the Anglo- perspective. Salmond Rushdi could not.

It’s important to stress there is no hard and fast difference between the two eras, especially that there is a lot of romancing in the current books. All of them intersect the past with the present, realism with fantasy; it’s a matter of emphasis I suppose – Sontag gives her book, The Volcano Lover, the subtitle: a romance. The difference is an attitude of mind towards how your novel is going to function socially and historically. But what we discovered is while King’s General is not post-colonial, nor does it mean to undermine our Enlightenment ideals, it is seriously researched, accurate and implicitly political. Specifically DuMaurier is a Tory, and she sides with the Royalists against the oppression of the Parliamentarians after (in the book) Cornwall is taken by Parliament and the Protectorate confiscates property and attempts to impose its notion of a moral order (which included by the way secular marriage ceremonies, allowed for liberty of the press, decent trade agreements, better tax system).


Menabilly in the landscape

Within that slant, she really recreates the civil war as it played out from place to place in Cornwall. And many of the individuals in the Rashleigh family, Cornish gentry, and our hero and heroine are based on archives (albeit some of them in the Menabilly attic). DuMaurier cared about Cornwall. Cornwall was a place where the royalists made a last stand against the Parliamentarians – they had the sea at their backs, and they were with great difficulty slowly defeated. It was a royalist stronghold, rotten borough later on. At the end of the war when she wrote KG, she had already been living in Menabilly (Fowey, Cornwall) for some 8 years and even though just a renter had begun to renovate. The ancient house and grounds burnt into her soul. World War Two was coming to end and it seems the owner was seriously ill and perhaps dying; if he died, there was no guarantee his heir will renew the lease. He didn’t die, and the first of several such crises was over. But almost losing it, made her aware of the house. It was indeed sacked to the nth degree during the civil war; the family members, most of them (not sure about Honor Harris) said to be there in the novel were there. It was a linchpin house the way these huge houses were politically. She did serious research into the family and their papers – she found the Rashleighs were not as keen to be memorialized as she had thought. The various family members who is married to who, the names of the children, where they are, and how they end up are accurate in outline and to some extent their characters.


Godolphin House, Cornwall (one of the ancient ruins)

There was an Honor Harris, a Harris family (Honor’s oldest sister, Mary, did become the second wife of the oldest Rashleigh male, Jonathan. Honor left a memoir, and that’s the basis of this 1st person narrative, melancholy and somber in tone as it begins where the book ends, 1653, close to Honor and her brother, Robin’s deaths (they are living on charity), and her character (highly educated as she had the time to become so). The crippling by a hunting accident (Honor falls from a height to stones below) is DuMaurier’s addition. DuMaurier says of the crippling in a letter that she saw a wooden wheelchair from the 17th century once and it stayed in her mind and that she identified with this heroine – as with Mary Yellan. “Honor Harris beame an extension of the author, my persona in the past.” She had felt powerless as a woman in the war.


Early wheelchair — 17th-18th century

The outlines of Richard Grenville fit the portrait of the real man who did take money and supplies from Parliament telling them he would fight for them in Cornwall and then returned immediately the royal side. He was so violent to his wife Mary Howard left him; there were two lawsuits, one from her and another with her kinsman, the Earl of Suffolk. He did escape from prison and go to Germany for 6 years. A lot of the detail about the battles is accurate. He behaved very badly, enacting ruthless aggressive sociopathic behavior (like Trump no concern for other lives), hanging some men unfairly, even carelessly, extorting money, using war contributions for himself. He would not obey Royalist commanders; he was imprisoned more than once. St Michael’s Mount. Spent time in Launceston, and when released went to Italy. Excepted from Pardon in 1648, he found his way to Charles II. He accused Hyde deeds he knew that Hyde did not do. He wrote an account of the period war and it was published and used by DuMaurier, a vindication of himself. Hyde as Clarendon incorporated Grenville’s history straight into his own. As in the book, Grenville died a fugitive, disliked, looked upon as not worth trust (because he would not keep his word) in 1658, and buried in Ghent.

In her Enchanted Cornwall DuMaurier remarks there are no Grenville around now (there are Rashleighs) and while one man did write a vindication of him, there was no one around to become indignant in 1946. You think they wouldn’t? Think again. As with Max de Winter and a number of DuMaurier’s villain heroes, she meant us to be appalled by his behavior. Grenville descends from Jem Merlyn in Jamaica Inn: his cruel streak is visited on his illegitimate son in the book of whom he is fond: the Parliament king Joe Grenville where they know the execution will be seen by as many characters as possible.

It is also a gothic romance. It was in 1824 when some alterations were made to the house, the Rashleigh at the time he found in a redundant buttress skeleton in clothes of cavalier in civil war clothes, a stool, a trencher – a secret roo This incident, merely read about, was part of what drove her to write King’s General. Grotesque freakishness (which we see in Richard’s son Dick, rather like Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge) – these are typical of the gothic.

The same patterns emerge across DuMaurier’s books too. I’ll mention just two: in King’s General another mean domineering, near murderous female –- it’s Richard’s twisted sister, Gartred, who partly causes Honor’s accident. Readers have assumed that DuMaurier identifies only with the abject heroine, but from what she says we find she identifies with these rebellious angry types too; maybe in irritation at her readership, he almost sneers at the second Mrs De Winter whose name we are never told. She was conservative politically – common among the more popular romance and historical fiction writers (Winston Graham an exception to this rule – very progressive if you’ve been watching the mini-series or have read the books). Like other women before WW2 she will say she has two people in her, a loving wife and mother, and then this rebellious masculine self, hidden, giving power to her creativity.


Cornwall’s slate cliffs and hills (from Claude Berry’s Portrait of Cornwall)

And the centrality of Cornwall: many of her books are set there, and she writes two super ones on Cornwall: Enchanted and Vanishing. It is a periphery, a place outside the central boundaries. To the Lighthouse — PD James has a tale set in Cornwall which uses a lighthouse too. Later in life she was almost wholly in Cornwall, fought to protect it from tourist ravages; she was forced of Menabilly but lived no far away in Kilmarth. She maintained her privacy as far as she could but would break it with autobiographical memoirs which she is said to have regretted.

She was bisexual, probably more strongly lesbian and the two great loves of her life were Gertrude Lawrence and Ellen Doubleday. She also had a loving companionship with Christopher Puxley during the war which had to be brought to a close when DuMaurier’s husband returned. Forster says in her letters she shows herself to be homophobic and her children did and do what they can to squash the true story of her sexual life — told by Margaret Forster. I doubt they liked the movie, Daphne, based on the biography. The DuMaurier family are angry at Margaret Forster and today deny she ever knew their mother.


Geraldine Somerville as Daphne (2007)

The family has been gifted. Her grandfather was a Victorian illustrator, George DuMaurier, who late in life wrote two best selling novels: Trilby with its mysterious “oriental” character, Svengali was one of them. Her father Gerald DuMaurier was a prominent actor-manager in London, brilliant man about whom she wrote a wonderful biography. She met interesting people from her earliest years; a privileged existence; her parents connections got her publication early. Her sister, Angela also wrote, another sister, Jeanne painted. Family had journalists, her mother an actress, Muriel Beaumont. She’s described as uncomfortable, unhappy in the social whirl of London; she married a man she was not quite compatible with, but a good match, Frederick Browning and after WW 2 she was Lady Browning: he was himself a sensitive intelligent type (became attached to Philip Duke of Edinburgh and we may see him enacted in The Crown if it takes us back to World War Two, and forward to the 1960s, which I expected it will). DuMaurier was not a nice person – if you read about her behavior to her servants she could be deplorable, exploitative, especially of a governess who however was very loyal to her. She presents herself and others say she was distanced from her 3 children, Tessa, Flavio, Christian (Kit). If so, their later life shows them fiercely loyal to her, writing memoirs, nurturing her reputation.

Later in life she was almost wholly in Cornwall, fought to protect it from tourist ravages; she was forced out of Menabilly but lived not far away in Kilmarth. Her husband spent his last years at Menabilly too; he died in 1965. She maintained her privacy as far as she could but would break it with autobiographical memoirs which she is said to have regretted; she characterized herself as suicidal, sympathetic with why people have this impulse. She lived until 1989.

To conclude (as I don’t want the blog to be too long), when I looked at the Mason database for scholarly articles on DuMaurier, I found not a single one. On some of the Hitchcock movies made from her book, yes. Even Winston Graham (the Poldark author) and Diana Gabaldon (DuMaurier’s closet modern granddaughter, only Gabaldon is much less transgressive and subversive, disquieting) have a few scholarly articles. So when I began by rejoicing that for some readers (and probably some of those who persist in going to the DuMaurier films) is not dated, not obsolete, it’s true that with the exception of a few feminist critics (Nina Auerbach, Avril Horner, Sue Zlosnick), biographers and her children (and cousin) who wrote memoirs and edited DuMaurier’s letters and memoir, DuMaurier is still dismissed.

Ellen

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

Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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


Their scrabble game

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Serena Joy waiting for her husband to return home ….

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

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

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

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In a Disneyland sort of place

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

Ellen

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