We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Travel; Gothics, Realism and Other Worlds; McEwan's _Atonement_, Rivette's _La Religieuse_ · 3 January 09

Dear Friends,

Jim and I are going on a week-long jaunt we planned some months ago, 4 days and 1 morning in Oxford, and then 2 and 1/2 days in London. We leave tomorrow night, an overnight flight on British Air in steerage plus. We had vowed never to fly on overnight flights again, but it seems there are no day-time flights to England in the winter. I’m going to the BSECS conference at St Hugh’s in Oxford and we stay at a Landmark place (a flat in the Steward’s house by the Oxford students union) and in London we’ll go to Cloth Fair (Betjeman’s flat again). We are looking forward mightily to seeing some friends and perhaps a play or two. We will be back again next Monday. Yvette, Ian and Clary will hold down the fort.

Thus far I have talked only of the few special things Jim, I, and Yvette did for the seasonal holiday. Partly because we were going away tomorrow, the past week and one half has been filled with hurried reading and skimming of 9 books and watching 3 movies, 2 of which were more than 2 hours long. I had to get a new syllabus together before January 4th. What happened was this:

Late on December 23rd I got an email from the individual at GMU who gives out the sections to contingent faculty to tell me one of my Advanced Compositions in the Natural Science and Tech sections was cancelled (supposedly at a time it should get heaps of people, well, it didn’t), and offer me in its place a section of general introduction to literature. A whole slew of emails apparently went out as the “shit hit the fan,” and people’s sections were cancelled right and left for “insufficient registration,” and people up higher bumped some people lower and other right out of jobs. I had predictedt he result of the new squeeze would be I would have less sections and have no more literature, this partly based on what a tenured person had written in a report that circulated in the department. Instead I’ve immediately landed a literature course, the first in 4 years, a dumbed down one, but literature nonetheless. I took it. We can use the money.

Well, I went into nearly non-stop thinking, reading and watching mode, and came up with a decent course, a genuine set of books united by theme and subgenre. Hitherto (the last two times) I got a lit course, it was even closer to term starting and I merely moved books over from my 302 in the Humanities. I said to myself, I’m going down with all flags flying; if this should be my last lit course, let me do it right.

I’ve called what I came up with Gothics, Realism and other worlds. You can see the list here, just scroll down, and the syllabus here. Whew! I read for the first time two remarkable novels, Tsitsi Dangarembgas’s Nervous Conditions and Ian McEwan’s The Atonement, reread for the first time in a long time, Suzy McKee Charnas’s humane feminist vampire story The Vampire Tapestry and Michel Faber’s stunning horror gothic science fiction Swiftian dystopia, Under the Skin. A quick reread of Colm Toibin’s Blackwater Lightship truthful depiction of family life and dense egoistic bullies in it (the child, Manus) convinced me once again what an important, moving and courageous book it is, and I’ve got Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake (conservative, how a family gives meaning and is there to fall back upon, &c&c) to take on holiday with me—as well as Mary [that’s Mary] Shelley’s Frankenstein, along with my usual Trollope doses (Prime Minister this time) and Clary.

I will connect the books to one another. I’ve got at least one example of each type of gothic: ghost (“Afterward”), terror, horror (werewolf, that’s Hyde, and vampires, “Afterward,” Mary Reilly, the two Vampires fragments by Byron and Polidori in the Penguin Frankenstein), science fiction too (Under the Skin), female gothic (Mary Reilly and would you believe it The Vampire Tapestry in part). Gothic allows us to discuss things in real life we avoid other wise, brings out into the openly visible, crimes against the heart and humanity, and our fear of the supernatural and gods. I will use realism to go into novels of female development (Nervous Conditions, Namesake & The Atonement in part), novels about tabooed lifestyles and people (homosexual men in Blackwater Lightship), and other worlds (Indian-American life in Namesake). The tangle of fraught misery in family life as central to gothic, death, life after death, universe as unjust and fearful, the uncanny,all part of the terrain. In ending on Under the Skin we end where we begun, a profound anti-science book, showing the cruelties of human nature, of law, injustice, and so on and so forth. And then there will be films of all this to discuss.

Not to omit a morning’s bad distress: after spending days on reading and before sitting down to the hard work of making up that syllabus, I went to find out the room my class was in and was confronted with someone else’s name assigned to the section. It looked like this section had been given to a tenured person at the last moment without even telling me. I have had such switches pulled on me before, but usually the person who did it had had the minimal decency to tell me. However, once I was called the night before I was to start work and told there was no job there, and I’d been sent $200 for my time and trouble. At GMU I don’t get paid for any the work I’ve done when a course is cancelled. However, the person who gave me this course did answer my email before the morning was over, to assure me a mistake was made and it was my course. But I had bad back pain for a couple of days after that one, and it’s not yet gone altogether.

I had meant to spend the two weeks reading Richardson’s Clarissa, studying Austen films and the Pallisers. But it was not a total loss as one Atonement is a book I had wanted to explore for the Clarissa paper, and I just loved it and Joe Wright’s film adaptation, and I even got in a watching of Jacques Rivette’s 155 minute La Religieuse (or The Nun), & managed to get about 1/4 the way through Clarissa, kept up with my Palliser studies and was deeply moved by a close study of the 2007 Persuasion. And Yvette and I made it to an excellent movie I recommend too: Stephen Daldry and David Hare’s The Reader (also involved was the late Anthony Minghella).

The rest of this blog is about Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Jacques Rivette’s The Nun.


Ian McEwan’s Atonement is, as Jocelyn Harris suggested—but only in part—a rewrite of Richardson’s Clarissa. Consequently, the film adaptation has a relationship with the 1991 Clarissa film like that of the film adaptation of Fielding’s novel Bridget Jones’s Diary and Fielding and Davies’ film adaptation to Austen’s P&P and the Austen movies in general or better yet, since Atonement alludes to a number of books, like that of Fowler’s Jane Austen Book Club to Swicord’s movie and the Austen movies in general.

Atonement opens with a long epigraph from Northanger Abbey and the opening sequence gives us a young girl dreaming of romance, writing them as if the cliches were real. Briony is her name and she writes plays. Catherine Morland did not go that far. (I found a published academic-style essay by Brian Finney which demonstrates how McEwan comments on, fills out and rewrites NA: “Briony’s stand against Oblivion” in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Journal of Modern Literature, 27:3 (2004 Winter): 68-82.). Then we switch to Briony’s sister, Cecilia, and as the allusoins to the 18th century mount up, it becomes apparent to reader of 18th century texts, McEwan has Burney’s Cecilia in mind. She’s reading Clarissa and the references to it mount; I’ve counted 8. That’s a lot and is a chord meant to tell us something.

The hero’s name is Robbie. Robert Lovelace has become Robbie Turner and what we have is a male reading of Clarissa where the hero’s eroticism is presented very sympathetically (D.H.Lawrence point of view in part) and the Clarissa as naive, silly, and misunderstanding the nature of the male, poor dear. It’s a reading and he makes an entertaining case for it by having both his heroines (Briony too) and hero into writers of letters. We are to feel that Lovelace’s phoniness and rhetoric was a self-protective carapace. Indeed Richardson’s Clarissa early in the book does not want to marry at all, and well before she runs away could have married Lovelace by taking Lord M up on his word when he visited. She does fear him, sex, marriage with domineering males (rightly so, in 18th century mores she’s going to have to submit).

We have an intrigue over sexual betrayal and a rape where Robbie is falsely accused by Briony. Briony and Cecilia in a way combine aspects of Clarissa as seen by McEwan of course.

The text is highly literary and self-reflexive. McEwan is imitating Virginia Woolf in his description of the mother and house and life with servants. He is very much an Anthony Powell in his politics probably, and the text is a delight in its homage to previous literature: Malvolio, Twelfth Night, T.S. Eliot, and especially the 18th century. The hero wanted to be a gardener because he was so in love with 18th century descriptive poetry.

McEwan seems to be influenced by Henry James too—in his horror of war and human barbarity. Atonement is a sort of a womans’ novel written from a male point of view: the ending sequence parallels the horrors of war with a powerful descriptoin of what it’s like to be a nurse on the battlefront, in hospital (a great deal of bullying and breaking of younger womens’ characters by older women is what he shows). It’s the Clarissa story told from a male point of view and yet is a sort of female gothic for it’s about a thwarted and twisted female development, again the result of social worlds. The secondary heroine, the novelist counts here. The abject figure is Robbie, the lower class male wrongly accused of rape so we have a male heroine (so to speak). There is a subghost story too.

The final vision in the book emphatically grieves over what a poignant loss it is that Bobbie and Cecilia never became lovers for real, and that the world parted them. I’ve seen this point of view, grief that the two never had the love dreamed of in the 1981 film adaptation of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility with respect to Marianne and Willoughby. The scenes were nuanced and changed to make us grieve at the loss of their dream, and the poems he read aloud to her, the songs reinforced this idea. I’ve seen it bruited in modern romance movies meant for women, and it was
in Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of P&P (which was not of the
faithful type, but the commentary where much is changed while much stays the same). It was Joe Wright who did the film adaptation of Atonement.

I loved the ending, how the novelist told that the two never got together and urged on the reader and all novelist the courage of pessimism. She says she no longer has “the courage of my pessimism” and that’s why we get this ghost scene imagining the two got together (which is heartbreaking because in the film immediately afterwards we are told not so—that’s when my daughter burst into tears), but the impulse is on behalf of the truth. For this line I’m assigning the book—

It’s also about the problems of making atonement in a world where there is no God (the vision of the book is atheistic or wholly secular), how does someone reconcile herself to the wrongs she has done and live with it when she sees the havoc she has caused.

As for the the film adaptation, a startlingly unreal ferris wheel appears in the middle of the battlefield. One of Lovelace’s nightmare dream visions at the close of Clary (only in the 3rd edition, a later add-on letter, or inserted in later) includes a ferris wheel. Wright is alluding to Clarissa the book that way. Keira Knightley is also a favorite with him for the older romance type heroine which in this movie he presents as abject—as he does the hero. In the film too, the film-makers appropriately used “grounds at whatever estate they used” which “look like they could have been by Capability Brown (or, more likely, someone influenced by Brown), which would fit nicely.” Thinking about it, yes, the grounds in some of the older film adaptations of Austen’s novels and the 2005 P&P (also by Wright) are like those in the movie, Atonement. Much of the movie is visionary, from the beautiful haunted garden landscapes, to the nightmare battle fields, hospitals of writhing dying soldiers. I did love the way Vanessa Redgrave spoke her part as the aging Briony in the end: she reminded me of Emma Thompson in voice, intonation, the way she held her body and moved her face, tone, everything.


The confession aspect of The Atonement may link Ewan’s book and Wright’s film to Jacques Rivette’s La Religieuse, which I recommend as an austere uncompromsing mostly faithful adaptation of Diderot’s novel and a work of art in its own right, and important for women. Like Voltaire’s Candide, Diderot’s La Nun is as relevant today as ever.

At 155 minutes, Rivette’s film is as long as many a 3 part series;
close attention is paid to costume, milieu, mise-en-scene. It
didn’t help me with trying to evaluate the film adaptation of
Clarissa (1991 BBC, 4 parts, Robert Bierman, Nokes & Barron, Kevin Loader); very alike are the themes and inferences (what it is to be a hostage in effect, power relationships, harassment, cruelty in making someone ostracized, a pariah, bullying) and a few of the motivating events (like the reality that Suzanne’s relatives are determined to put her into the convent and keep her there, and will not permit her to marry because they want her estate parallels the central greed of the Harlowe family for Clarissa’s grandfather’s estate, especially her brother), but the working out and literal events are so different.

In particular Suzanne is sent to live in a convent and become a
nun. Rivette does not make this salacious and these were not opulent places, far from it. She is being deprived of a sexual life, not forced into one, deprived of ordinary social life, and forced into a framework of austerity and discipline she finds intolerable. I reread our postings on EighteenthCentury World (by me, Leslie Robertson, Judy Geater and occasionally others) and found they were a great help. In effect Rivette is attacking the church, and through a slide religion itself—even if Suzanne is herself devout or a believer. For this the film was attacked in France strongly by the church, and it’s probable that its non-existence in DVD is owing to this. There were problems in getting it distributed. See ”’Carnalto the point of scandal:’ on the affair of La Religieuse” by Kevin Jackson, Eighteenth-Century On Screen, ed. Robert Mayer (Cambridge, 2005):139-56.

Rivette uses a black-and-white or grey palette with colors coming in only when they must be.

I had a hard time watching it, harder than Clarissa for Suzanne is
treated worse over a long period of time. When she is scapegoated, not allowed any food, any place to sleep, and is mocked and ridiculed and beaten by gangs of (stupid) women, I could hardly sit there. The film brought home how much rougher Diderot is than either Laclos (Les Liaisons Dangereuses) or Richardson, and how unlike these, Diderot does not compromise and offer qualifications in his attack on how families will treat individuals in it or what human nature is capable of. He also does not exaggerate so the first mother superior who had a vocation
provides a peaceful place Suzanne doesn’t like but can cope with.

You also see how the women are subject to the men. The terrors the second mother superior inflicts on Suzanne are brought a stop to by the more powerful male clerics and she must kneel before them. The lawyers are all men, the deciders all men. Her biological mother was shamed by having her (she is illegimate) but not her lover. This is not made pointedly either, just part of the scene.

There is a lesbian sequence as there is in the book. I was glad to
see that unlike Diderot’s book which is really salacious (and could
provide sexy pornography), Rivette treated the incident seriously.
Alas lesbianism is a sickenss, but it’s a movie that presents the
Catholic church as sick and neurotic in all its attitudes including
those about sex, and the mother superior is sick because she’s living this deprived unnatural life altogether is the idea. It is the climate of repression and power relationships and how the confessor can control Suzanne that is emphasized. Confession is a mode of coercion.

The film ends end differently from Diderot’s novel. In Diderot’s book Suzanne finally escapes with the help of a priest who has no vocation (she meets people who have no vocation and have been forced into it like herself), and he tries to force her into sex, and she runs away and becomes a poor laundress. I forget if she is at risk of being put back in the convent, I think not. It ends so quietly and truthfully. She says she would almost go back as she has actually become a nun in lifestyle. She doesn’t know how to live “outside.” But she does not go back and ends impoverished and obscure. Not really in terror or permanently traumatized quite, which however I rather think such a young woman would be.

Rivette adds a sequence where Suzanne afraid of being caught flees the laundry, descends to the streets and somehow (improbable) ends up in high class prostitution and we get a glittering masquerade from which she flees and jumps out of a window and commits suicide. This last sequence is the closest to Bierman and Frears’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses (starring John Malkovitch and Glenn Close, screenplay Christopher Hampton): opulent, lush, mannered, a fearful masquerade. Nokes & Barron’s Clarissa also discovers (as does Richardson’s) she has no option for peace in the world between the egocentric implacable people around her, and does choose death. Rivette’s close was dramatic, but I feel Diderot’s book is closer to what such a person might have done in life. Diderot was stirred to writing by a real woman’s case, one probably of countless hundreds and hundreds over the centuries of such coercion inflicted on women. The film Clarissa and Les Liaisons Dangereuses get their melodramatic close also from a duelling scene where the rapist (in Richardson) and corrupt cruel man (in LaClos) is murdered.

Here is a brief excellent online reviews (see a more uncomfortably joking one at the New York Times)

Apparently there is a 140 minute version of the film, so one has to watch to make sure you have the unabridged version. What’s left out I can’t say.


Posted by: Ellen

* * *


  1. From Fran:

    “I remember La Religieuse as being very difficult to sit and watch, too, though I imagine Lilo Pulver actually enjoyed playing against her normal typecasting – in this film I think she was the predatory lesbian abbess whereas she normally acted the nice girl in chaste, hetero, romantic comedies. She’s still extremely popular over here because of such roles, even though she hasn’t made a film for over 10 years. I’m not sure what her usual public made of The Nun, though:)

    Elinor    Jan 4, 12:57am    #
  2. Catherine DeLors:

    Dear Ellen,

    In the book, Susanne’s ultimate fate is left open-ended. Actually the whole novel, narrated in the first person, is framed as an appeal to a potential male protector. How will this unknown man react to her story? We are not told.

    Thanks so much for the review of the film. I want to see it and will try to get a hold of it.

    Elinor    Jan 4, 12:57am    #
  3. From Arthur Lindley (Austen-l):

    “At one point, I had read just about everything Ian McEwan’d done, though I’m now a couple behind. I’d recommend On Chesil Beach (2007) and The Child in Time (ca. 1997). He started out as a writer of punk horror stories, the best of which is probably The Cement Garden, which was made into a pretty good film. He’s a lot bigger figure in the UK than the US. I directed an honours thesis on him years ago.

    Elinor    Jan 4, 12:59am    #
  4. From an ever kind Kathy:

    “What a great syllabus! They’ll love this class: the comparison of books, the comparison of books to movies, and one so often leads to the love of another. I still haven’t read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I’ll have to read this.”
    Elinor    Jan 4, 1:06am    #
  5. Thank you to Catherine for reminding me of the ending and framework of Diderot’s tale. It’d been a while.
    If you look in the Eighteenth Century Worlds archives, you will find some informative insightful postings by a group of us who read this book together and also Rameau’s Nephew (in English translations).

    Elinor    Jan 4, 11:48am    #
  6. Fran, by having a role reversal, Rivette gets more meaning into his film :) Thank you for telling me. She is a pretty woman in the film. The individuals who make up great mass of the public often say nothing aloud.

    Elinor    Jan 4, 11:55am    #
  7. Now having watched La Religieuse and Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the filmic presentation closest to that in Clarissa is the one found in Harriet O’Carroll’s BBC mini-series Aristocrats (based on Stella Tillyard’s book): the struggles of the eldest daughter, Caroline, to marry against the parents’ will, and the unhappy marriage of the youngest daughter, Sarah, her affair with another man, child by him, and longterm ostracism. So too perhaps The Duchess, based on Amanda Foreman's book. It may be a matter of what is the style and point of view of the BBC type costume drama.

    I thought Aristocrats very much a womens' film. David Snodin was one of the producers and he also produced the 2007 Persuasion which is mesmerizing, brilliant, and to my mind has elements in the characterization of Anne Elliot which ought to have been in Clarissa.

    Elinor    Jan 4, 2:25pm    #
  8. From Mary on French 18th century list:


    Thanks so much for the extensive review of Rivette’s La Religieuse. I remember seeing the film years ago after studying the novel and found it very well done, despite the changes Rivette made to the plot.

    I’m interested in using the film in my teaching. Could you remind me how to order it? I lost track of the information exchanged on the secfs listserve.

    I’m also interested in developing a course on the 18th-century on film. If you’ve taught such a course (or know of one) would you be willing to share the syllabus for it?

    Thanks so much for your help!

    Mary T"
    Elinor    Jan 13, 10:30pm    #
  9. Dear Mary,

    Thank you for your kind reply. I’m going to the ASECS this year again and I hope we meet. I’ll be giving a paper on the 1991 film, Clarissa. I’ve never given a course on films about or taken from 18th century texts and history. It’s intriguing to try and think of the films I’d use; there are plenty of them. I bought my copy of La Religieuse from Amazon.com. I discovered it’s best to look for it under the English title, The Nun. It's not available in DVD.

    A really superb film with genuine emotion in it. Alas, the 1991 Clarissa is more like the later mini-series Aristocrats. Not that I didn’t enjoy Aristocrats but that the style and mindset at the time preclude the kind of open candour necessary to make a true filmic transition from Richardson’s book. Nowadays some of these costume dramas do break taboos of decorum (the 2007 Persuasion and the last third of the 2008 Sense and Sensibility), but not when this Clary was made.

    Elinor    Jan 13, 10:33pm    #

commenting closed for this article