Women's fiction and l'écriture-femme

East into Upper East: Plain Tales from New York

by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Helen M. Turner (1858-1958), Morning News, 1915

Her Career as a Screenplay writer; Heat and Dust and The Remains of the Day; Suttee returning?; "Fidelity" and "Bobby:" Tales 11 & 12 from New York: The Devoured Mother

Subject: [Womenwriters] Heat and Dust: Jhabvala's 1983 film adaptation of her book/Christie
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

Dear All,

n Saturday night I rewatched the 1983 film adaptation of Jhabvala's Heat and Dust where she wrote the screenplay. It's famous for the numinous performance Julie Christie put in, but the virtuous acting is done by Nikolas who (daringly for the time) personates a gay man living with the Nawab.

It seemed to me not quite to stand up to time, and in a way that I thought interesting. The story set in the present is believable still, or done in a way that is creditable and moving. It's the inset piece that seems melodramatic and at moments something out of some 1930s woman's romance of the "women's silly novels" kind described so well by George Eliot. It's stilted partly because the text calls for open sex, open violation of taboos, frank violence, frank descriptions of the cruelty and nightmare of sex eunuchs represent -- all those things we have seen in the few fictions we've read on this list and Possession (from Litalk-l). In comparison, the recent film adaptation of Possession was much more satisfying in its ways of visualizing this material through physical symbols and archetypal kinds of scenes.

What I think this interesting is these inset historical novels are central to so much serious literature written partly for and by women that is admired today. Martin has this in her Great Divorce and Property (for which latter she won the Orange prize; those who have read her usually agree her Great Divorce remains her finest work to date). What this suggests to me is stories like O'Faolain's about Mrs Talbot are fantasy ways of expressing realities today which seem to find no way to come out using prosaic techniques of verisimilitude.

It has been suggested to me that the importance of Julie Christie is that she changed the image of the sexy-woman in UK films. Up to her advent, the sexy-woman type in UK had been modelled on Marilyn Monroe. The woman with super-big breasts, platinum blonde hair, the cupy (I don't know how to spell it) doll with high voice and exaggerated dress. Christie put in place a more subtle attractive woman, equally sexy, and the Marilyn Monroe type was relegated to Benny Hill and more pop vulgar kinds of venues (Dolly Parton stuff in the US). I've read this in more than one place so I'm not inventing a crazy idea. My feeling is she was at the right place at the right time to embody a changeover. She was deeply sensual in her stance in this picture in a quiet kind of way, and perhaps did pave the way for this physical type of woman to be seen as sexy, and thus these film adaptations from high-status books to substitute for the kinds of women's emotion pictures set in the present (which did include radical portrayals) which were dominant in the 1930s and 1940s and have since vanished from sight. There are a couple of good books on this phenomenon if anyone is interested.

I'm going to try to see a few more of Jhabvala's screenplays. She has adapted James and Forster and did the respected Jane Austen in Manhattan (it was a total flop in the film houses so is rarely discussed). She seems to me another serious woman writer trying to say something important not just about women's powerlessness and its roots, but about how women attempt to wrest perverted forms of pseudo-, ephemeral and real power back, and how they are alienated from one another, inflict the power relationships of their society on one another. This sounds so serious when her tone is of the lightest sardonic irony. She also continually undercuts her material by quietly celebrating utter autonomy and cosmopolitanism, being at home nowhere as well as everywhere. One thing the film of Heat and Dust did pervert or repress (as well as normalizing the relationship between the gay man at the center and the doppelganger heroine) was Jhabvala's strong secularism and sceptism. Her recent work has not been as "respected" as her older partly because she no longer makes use of India; her stories are set in New York. This allows this vein in her to come out more clearly.

As ever I invite people to write into the list about whatever woman writer you are reading, or film or art by a woman you have seen, heard, been involved with, and about women's issues.


Re: Return of Suttee?

Thank you for your thoughts on this story, Ellen. I think it's one I read a while back, but I'll try and make time to look at it again in the light of what you've said.

A propos things Indian, I had a very troubling conversation with an Indian woman over here to vist a mutual friend recently. She said that in her region the murder of babies, especially female ones, was becoming more and more prevalent again as was that of widows forced to commit suttee, all highly illegal, but apparently tolerated by the present incumbents of political and legal office in the region as central figures belong to some kind of conservative religious sect that sanctions these things. In fact, the death of the babies was part economic, part ritual.One of the most shocking things was the almost matter-of-fact way she said it, which she noticed and defended by saying it was such an everyday occurence that one's indignation became blunted.


Date: Tue, 11 Jan 2005
Subject: Re: [Womenwriters] Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: Her Career as a Screenplay writer;
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

Ellen Moody wrote:

Has anyone seen any of Jhabvala's films beyond Heat and Dust? (I've seen Heat and Dust several times now). Which one would you recommend if you have? She's written a screenplay out of Henry James's texts more than once:

Quite a few. The ones that actually make it to my small film library are then usually a fair indication of the ones I most liked, so in this case it's 'A Room with a View' , Howard's End, and 'The Remains of the Day', more or less in that order. I have another, 'Surviving Picasso', but I'd class that as a serious mistake, a rare spontaneous buy after seeing a spate of exhibitions and the fact that Anthony Hopkins was playing the man. I never finished watching it - too much soap opera and irritating voice-over if I remember correctly.

I've seen her Henry James stuff as well, but I've never got on with that author in the original and the actors and acting tend to be better in the other films I've seen as well: Maggie Smith - as ever- in 'A Room..' and a couple of beautiful performances by Hopkins and Emma Thompson in 'The Remains ..' especially, though they were also good in 'Howard's End'.

As a couple of your critics mentioned, however, there is a certain sameness of approach and gloss about the Ivory-Merchant films that tends to pall after a while as well - you seem to bounce off the mirrored surface.

Checking out the much older film 'The Guru' to see if it could possible have anything to do with a very recent and bad one I've just seen - it hasn't - I saw Jhabvala had even composed a song for that one, evidently a multi-talent.

A propos gurus, they seem to be quite a subject with her: the East/West stories I sampled before the voting that time took them as one of their main themes, too.


Subject: [Womenwriters] The Remains of the Day, script Jhabvala, director Ivory
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

I'm in a quandary whether to put this review on BookerPrize or WWTTA. Why? The character of the butler as played by Anthony Hopkins is archetypally the same presence or character that Colm Toibin develops in his The Master. If you look at John Singer Sergeant's portrait of Henry James, study the expression on the face, the guardedness, melancholy and something about the face looking like any minute it will crack, you think you are studying the image Hopkins took to heart when he decided to do Jhabvala's and Ivory's Stevens. I see so many of the BookerPrize books as exploring the same territory repeatedly with the same archetypes and similar themes, constructs (historical fiction sceptically presented). So a film adaptation which takes the story and some of the characters of The Remains of the Day gives insight into the story and characters in the novel of The Master. Or so it did for me.

I enjoyed the film very much. Fran mentions the performances of both Hopkins and Emma Thompson. She was superb, but he stole the show. Someone he conveyed a character with more gravitas; more intelligence or something deep in him. She was more ordinary, but because of this ended up having more human relaxation and thus happiness (as well as closer misery) than him. I'm just talking about the film here. I don't remember the book well at all, beyond that I liked it too and that its theme was a peculiarly Jamesian one: the story of a character who has allowed life to slip by and not lived it. It's not retrievable in the novel as I recall, and now in this film it's not retrievable either. But in the film at any rate you can try to re- experience and make contact and find solace that way. The film also showed Stevens (Hopkins) having much pride. Maybe one of the most poignant moments was when the housekeeper, Miss Kenton (Thompson) wrests the novel from Stevens that he's reading, thinking its a hard tome of abstract philosophy or history or science and discovers it's a sentimental romance. He didn't want her or anyone else to know this.

Beyond other films with Hopkins or Thompson I've seen, I compared it to a film I watched a couple of years ago, an adaptation of Washington Square. The director was a woman (I think): Agnieszka Holland. It was made in 1997 as an art film. Script Carol Doyle. The Remains of the Day was much softer; there was much less treachery and less cruelty and harm from human beings. It seemed to me Jhabvala might have been attracted to the Nazi theme: Lord Darlington is a Nazi, but we are supposed to believe an innocent or deluded one. In Jhabvala's film there's a lot of redemption; the characters find meaning in doing these jobs they have for the wellmeaning rich (ahem). Washington Square was much bleaker. It didn't make money. Another bleak picture which was a flop was Mary Reilly (Frears, with the original screenplay by Polanski).

My husband Jim tells me we saw A Room with A View and I have some dim memories of Denholm Elliot as very effective; also Maggie Smith. I'd try it again, and Howard's End too.

Of course WS is not a story about East meeting West -- nor those we've been mentioning. Heat and Dust is about a clash and a parallel disillusionment and retreat for women from both worlds. I think Isabel went to see Bend It like Beckham by herself. One problem with some of these recent films where we are given "Eastern" or oriental/Indian themes is Said's thesis remains accurate: it's orientalism. I can't remember if I've ever seen one of serious reconciliation between East and West.

Cheers to all,


February 26, 2005

Jhabvala: "Fidelity" and "Bobby:" Tales 11 & 12 from New York: The Devoured Mother

As I typed the header of this posting on the two penultimate tales of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's East into Upper East, I almost slipped into a Freudian moment and called the second Suicide. I was stopped as I looked at the header, Fidelity and Suicide because, as with last week's two stories, suicide could just as easily be the title for the first story. Utter fidelity=suicide, and Claire's self- sacrificing behavior to her nasty son, Bobby, who releases himself by making her friend his punching bag for all his resentments and losses, is as much an instance of self-immolation as Sophie's unqualified fidelity to Dave.

I suggest these are culminating stories to the volume: they pick up the examination and exploration of the mother figure we've had throughout by turning the kaleidoscope to see the pity of it. Last week I suggested the first of the two previous stories ("Great Expectations") was a metaphor for suicide, its thrust an imagined enactment of a death wish (which links it to frequent similar patterns in "l'ecriture-femme," e.g., Barrett's "Soroche" and subplots in many many novels); the second story was an outright story about a dying woman, Stella (star) exploited and preyed upon by everyone around her, agreeing to it as the way to have relationships.

Now this terrain is applied to loving wifehood and motherhood. At long last as the volume begins to come to an end a corrosive feminism can be seen to have been quietly working its way through. I'm personally usually bothered when in classrooms my students discuss marriage as if it's center were a sexual bargain where both people agree not to "cheat." The way it's presented in the language of many people suggests that they want to and would break away but that they made this bargain and if it's broken then the "contract" is broken so one should abandon or kick out the other person. Sometimes I've tried to explore this language usage with students, but I get only looks of surprize when I ask if they have ever thought this is a remarkably narrow basis on which to sign this contract. It's as if they are dying to have sex everywhere but have given up this wonderful privilege in order to be married as they are supposed to leave because the other person has "cheated." No one (not even the occasional older person in the room) has thought to argue the point by saying that people have long been permitted to get a divorce in the the west based on adultery. I have an answer for that one: it was the husband who sought divorce based on adultery (she cheated him of his property); the wife had to prove flagrant cruel abuse of her beyond this.

However, here we have one story where the heart of the tale is the husband's continued adulteries: cheating. And who does he cheat with: younger women. Admittedly in the story this cheating is just one aspect of his cruel indifference to and preying upon (emotionally living off) Sophie. The story opens and closes in a typical Jhabvala way: the opening sentence tells us the ending in a subordinated syntactical piece of language: she has a fatal disease ("When the doctor told Sophie her disease was incurable ..."), and in the end we see her die. Dave doesn't like to see her take pills (this reminds me of how Ibsen's husbands demand their wives sew outside the room; Miller's males don't like to see their wives clean the house in front of them) so she has done her best to lie about them and her state.

I don't see anything particularly startling about this story: the cliched truth which one comes across in many other similar ones gains its archetypal strength and general application by its place in the collection.

It is true Jhabvala shows us this apparently upper class male going to jail. This aspect of the capitalist class's experience is not much shown. For me one weakness of this collection (and other of Jhabvala's stories) has been that she has ignored the power of money by making at least some of her characters wealthy or comfortably well-off. If they run out or go broke, they are presented as not caring much, not profoundly distressed (as most people would indeed be), indeed happy to go off wandering in abysmal poverty as a guru who of course then necessarily collects acolytes. Here we do see a break in this apparent invulnerability of money to hurt anyone.

It's in the second story I see importance. If Jhabvala were a man, we might see readings of her work as belonging to the Becket-Coetzee perspective on life. Her presentation of sex last week was closely analogous to Becket's Malone Dies. Here in the romance mode with its visibilia and apparent realisms we have a version of the parents in the trashcan that Becket uses in a couple of his plays. Coetzee is actually more even-handed in his portrayal of the adversarial/supportive continuum of parent-child relationships in the one novel I could get through (Disgrace), but then his key figure is a man and the daughter is continually raped and abused by the native/black Africans (she cannot escape this in the milieu). Jhabvala's story is about the mother, and this one can be seen as the New York version of a story in Out of India, "The Widow" where in effect Jhabvala ironically (savagely) shows us a woman who comes to understand why maybe the suttee is the best thing for a woman after all after her husband dies leaving her with money.

I don't find much satire in these stories -- as there was very little in "Great Expectations" except as aimed in the Austen-way at the vicious parasites. There are "signs" of satire one can apply to a story: such as devices of invective, dramatic irony which turns the deluded person into a kind of naif, open sarcasm and startling juxtapositions which assume the reader has a certain common ethical point of view. Yes Dave and Bobby are appalling, and Dave's imbecilic sister, Betsy, not much better. Indeed Betsy is a kind of Mary Bennet, sent up for her sheer living out of cant -- though the chain-smoking shows Jhabvala's pity. One could argue though that what we have here is romantic satire or irony: the self-immolation and emotional despair that lie at the heart of Byron's poetry is usually taken as an example of romantic satire.

Here and there I picked up comic uses of language which echo New York Jewish accents. There's a level in which Miller's Death of a Salesman is a series of stand-up comic jokes turned into tragedy (jokes about the payments on frigidaires and vaccuum cleaners were once staples in routines) and here and there in both stories (some of the descriptions of Betsy a case in point) stand-up Jewish comic routines are lightly echoed. Sophie is a common Jewish name; Claire is a name redolent of rich Anglophilic Jews -- as well I suggest as intuitively going back to Clarissa, a name whose roots was archetypally the traditional victim-heroine, and can be plotted across the last 250 years: James's Claire in The American who ends up immolating herself in death-in-life in a nunnery in order to find some sanctuary from people preying on her is a case in point. So there's this same sort of twisted comedy one finds in some of Miller and other Jewish writers (Grace Paley for example), a kind of cry of anguish which mocks the self at the same time.

When I read some of Jhabvala's stories I get a little frightened. I was very upset and moved by A Backward Place because I could imagine myself having a very hard time refusing a husband like Bal my life savings. Luckily I don't live with a drone whose contribution to the marriage lies solely in a light sense of humor and steely insouiance derived from indifference and stupidity (in the Austen or 18th century sense -- stupid here means mindless, thoughtless, without imagination, not just intellectually impoverished). "Bobby" distressed me worse. I did identify with the mother -- this is not common for me as most of the time mother figures are presented in ways that I don't recognize myself in. As with the story, "The Widow" I thought to myself, yes, better to die first. Bobby is a persuasively real character.

What mother doesn't fear being devoured like this?

We never did finish our thread on Plath. I objected to the medicalization language as stigmatizing Plath or Woolf as sick, justified, utterly queer with two part heads. I agree with Szasz's and Phyllis Chesler's books on the myths of mental illness as convenient ways society has of blaming its victims, and avoiding seeing that the woman or man is behaving naturally. Suicide as I understand it often is an act whose immediate cause is the person cannot face what are his or her actual choices: both seem something so painful, death is easier. It can come from fear of public humiliation (after you make one of these unacceptable choices), but it's also been shown to arise from incessant harassment which the person cannot escape. Beatings in family groups where beating the woman up is just fine. Woolf and Plath are women who died young and whose relatives got to shape their narratives and destroy documents. I'd like to think (by-the-bye) Woolf really also chose to die because she thought the Nazis were winning and had gone through the barbarity and horrors of World War One and knew about the slave and death camps. (As many many many people did.) Plath I understand too: I've read her letters to her mother and about her life in the US: who could go back to that; and in England she had this horror of a husband, a freezing cold flat, and children burdening her. Not everyone can do like a Jhabvala character and wander off to be a guru (black humor alert). In real life of course the thing is to hold on to your money. Remember Lear.

It's sometimes asked if stories like these are "healthy" for people to read. In Persuasion Anne Elliot seriously advises a character who loves to read Byron to be sure to add to his daily intake of such material some admixtures of prose. She advises real life memoirs. Well we have one coming up -- about a survivor, one who had the courage to write about what she had known and endured much much more frankly than most even today.

Cheers to all,


March 4, 2005

Re: Jhabvala: "Fidelity and Bobby"

Ellen Moody wrote:

As I typed the header of this posting on the two penultimate tales of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's East into Upper East, I almost slipped into a Freudian moment and called the second Suicide. I was stopped as I looked at the header, Fidelity and Suicide because, as with last week's two stories, suicide could just as easily be the title for the first story. Utter fidelity=suicide, and Claire's self- sacrificing behavior to her nasty son, Bobby, who releases himself by making her friend his punching bag for all his resentments and losses, is as much an instance of self-immolation as Sophie's unqualified fidelity to Dave.

I definitely agree with Ellen that there is an increasing self- immolation theme in these stories, with characters who utterly hand their lives over to others, and are prepared to give up everything - typically for people who take it all as read, and don't appreciate them or what they are doing. The husband who moves out and lives with a young girlfriend, the son who hits and abuses his mother. (Bobby, though, seems to me ill rather than evil - another person who has fallen through safety nets in society.)

I find it hard to think of much to add to what you've said about these stories, Ellen. I agree there isn't much satire in 'Fidelity' and 'Bobby' - my feeling is overall that the atmosphere is one of sadness and pity, and of loneliness. Jhabvala makes it understandable that the characters will accept such appalling behaviour from the others in their world, because these are the only people they care about or feel they can know - they are not able to start again. For the dying Sophie, it is Dave and Betsy or nobody. It's hard to believe in this in realistic terms, but these stories don't seem to take place in a realistic world - it's more a sort of intense and suffocating dream.

I was a little surprised that Jhabvala moves away from the Indian theme in these chapters. It seems as if the stories have been carefully mapped out to follow a sort of journey from the Indian world of the opening to the American world of these last stories, with the emphasis on money in both sections. I again agree with Ellen that many of the stories sidestep the reality of money in most people's lives - characters seem to have enough to pay bills and even buy flats and houses without much need to worry about it, and also cope if they lose everything.

But the opening story in the collection, 'Expiation', was filled with desperation for money, with the younger brother who would attack his sister-in-law in order to get cash - and here, in these closing stories, that sort of desperation returns, in another form. I think it's bleakly clear enough that Dave goes round to Sophie's not just to see her for herself, but because he wants her money.

All the best,

Re: Jhabvala: "Fidelity and Bobby"

The transition from an interest in Indian people and culture to New York people and culture is clear, but I suggest that the two sets of stories are a diptych because underlying both cultures Jhabvala shows the same universal or essentialist patterns. This reminds me of an article I keep mentioning but at last have to hand: Dorothy K. Stein's "Women to Burn: Suttee as a Normative Institution," Signs 4 (1978): 252-67. While she would not for a moment suggest there is no difference between burning a woman to death or beating her when she has no biological family to protect her, Stein points out that in small continual and really felt physical as well as moral ways western women as widows experienced versions of suttee. In Out of India the widow in "The Widow" who does not go for suttee, has analogous experiences with the widow in "A Summer by the Sea" and these two stories: desperate for affection, she'll do anything and ends up exploited monetarily until there's nothing left to take from her; then gradually she's ignored.

I didn't feel these two were as symbolic as the ones last week -- the story of the realtor is particularly improbable and expressionistic. In my life I've seen women give over to others in just the way Claire does and the friend collude to keep the mother's affection. In a recent movie I seem to keep returning to in my mind, The Mother there's a scene where the grown daughter slaps the mother around hard: the mother does not hit back; she's there to be a punching bag. If such things happen (and they do), women are so ashamed they don't tell and don't write about it autobiographically. All we get is the daughter's story of the cruel bad mother -- as in Joan Crawford's archetypal "J'accuse."

These are very dark indeed. I have been thinking though of a reason for the vaccuum in which these characters live -- and those who march off to wander in abysmal poverty, to hang on to others. It comes from my reading of brilliant analyses of the plays of Robert Bolt: he's most famous for A Man for All Seasons, but he also wrote some masterly screenplays and a couple of other remarkable stageplays, highly allegorical and Brechtian. The critic is interestingly a woman, Sabine Prufer. I wrote about some of this on my blog the other day. Sabine contends that the thrust of Bolt's plays is to show us why and how people are driven to enact counterproductive and meaningless acts, live lives according to hollow norms, in order to have an identity somewhere. The question in Bolt is, Is there something you won't do, some act that goes beyond your forebearance and morality to keep in with this community you need, a community which can punish you if you step out of line in ways that threaten their salient members's place and power.

Well in Jhabvala we get portraits of women where these delusions of identity are wiped away. This would make sense in terms of her life: one of continual real and then emotional/ethical/intellectual exile and alienation. So we look at the bare forked animal in the Lear sense except this is semi- realistic women-centered romance.

I'll try to develop this line of argument for our last two stories. In the meantime I'd like to say I splurged on two novels by Jelinek: The Piano Teache and Women as Lovers. The latter is not a lesbian fiction, but instead presents the conventional 19th century story line of one woman marrying a man for love and the other for prudent worldly reasons; the sense from what I read about it is the old "moral" of prudential lesson is the one pointed to but from a perspective which damns the need for such a choice.

I've a week holiday coming up and hope to read them in the evenings then. What I'd like to do is see them in dialogue with Jhabvala. I look at books within subgenres as voices in a conversation. I want to see how what Jhabvala has shown us about women's lives and how she has manipulated women's romance-novels compares to what Jelinek does. What insights do they offer when read against and in terms of one another.

That's what intertextuality is all about, why Byatt writes the way she does in Possession and her other semi-historical romances. It's easy to see that Jhabvala's tales shed light on the fate of Christabel LaMotte, the tragic heroine of Possession: the pariah. And the suicide of Blanche Glover. And the frustrations and anxieties of Maud Bailey who succumbs to the non-macho male at the end. I also see some light on Ellen Ashe whose refusal to have full intercourse, and thus children, is a refusal to enter this maelstrom of self-erasure that Jhabvala plots for us. Jhabvala has no female who refuses sex, but she shows us why Ellen's wariness, self- containment and later years make sense -- even if Byatt doesn't present them in with enough attention to the fulfillment Ellen and Ashe really did have, we are given just enough to see it. Byatt is too conventional and limited, not woman-centered finally, but ambitious, a Freudian. (Atwood is the more radical clear-seeing cool writer.) Byatt has no wandering identityless heroines, but it's clear in Possession why one would become one and why a dream-hero like the refugee from an Allingham romance, Ewan MacIntyre, is necessary to shore up Val. Val is the lost kitten in Byatt; in Jhabvala she is the wanderer for Jhabvala offers us no drean Albert Campions for solace.

All these are predominantly romances. Turn our kaleidoscope to something more in the Jane Austen vein, say Anne Tyler, and we get these types from another angle.

Ah, I have discovered another of the comfort elements in Patchett's Bel Canto: Mr Hosakawa who is always called Mr Hosakawa, never Katsumi (his first name) by anyone including the heroine who goes to bed with him, enacts the Mr Knightley role from Emma. The heroine is the organizer, Emma.


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