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

Our trip in other kinds of pictures & routs · 27 August 05

Dearest Fanny,

I haven’t written to you in what seems such a long time. We were away for 3 long weeks, and when we returned I was for a full week alternatively shattered (at the airport the pain got so bad my chest contracted until I felt someone was stabbing me all along my ribcage), driven to catch up (drudgery making of syllabi for teaching, trying to read and respond to many postings on the three lists I own & moderate), and trying to rest, resorting to sleeping pills (to get my body back on an EST clock) and achieve emotionial calm once more.

I have conquered some of this. Syllabi done and projects for students worked out; read and tried to get the three lists back on track (including organizing a reading and discussion of Trollope’s The Vicar of Bullhampton); and threads of existence picked up and woven into my being again.

Routs. That’s what Daphne DuMaurier called her daily routine. There’s nothing like routs for peace and quiet fulfillment. Trollope loves to quote Macbeth to the effect that "the labor we delight in physics pain." More prosaically: work in our salvation; it scours the rust of the soul from the world’s contact (a paraphrase of something Samuel Johnson wrote).

Jim has been putting photos of some of the high points of our trip up. Thus far Oxford and Somerset. We have 300 photos! (Taken by Laura.) So perhaps more will come: of Brighton, Greenwich, Kew Gardens, Prior park gardens in Bath, the debased Longleat. I want to tell something of the inner life of our trip as I experienced it. I can do this indirectly partly through telling of my response to other kinds of pictures: in galleries and on TV. We saw and did so much I shall have to divide this into two. In a yet another blog I’ll talk of more about the plays we saw and perhaps yet another the books shared.

I did get to the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Tate Modern. I want to critique it and hope my attempt here is not read as somehow attacking the woman. Genuine critical appreciation should always include evaluation, not just be praise. Kahlo is certainly a major artist of the 20th century. Rooms and rooms of her work demonstrate this. I admired how brave and bold she wasi n her graphic depictions of miscarriages, childbirth and breast-
feeding. Painful the first; metalic (a metal breast) the third. I only wish more women would present the reality of these experiences in the prosaic real light she does. Two rooms were of pictures juxtaposing the "unimproved" world of Mexico and the capitalist industrial worlds of the US. Coarse, vulgar, ugly, leering, exploitative, every word you can think of can be applied to the pictures of the US and impoverished if tribal and colorful the world of Mexico. There are pictures of the original bus accident which broke her back. She uses bold colors and cartoon-like lines.

Nonetheless, I was glad to get away and didn’t "like" her or the
presence as presented in the pictures. She seethes with more
than anger or justified hatred. She is much in love with herself.
I’ve read that one way a woman artist can get attention and make a career is endlessly to paint herself arrestingly. This lies behind Vigee-LeBrun’s 18th century success. Kahlo was ambitious and relentless and by not giving up did not end up as many of Alice Munro’s American women artists: opting out, doing a few, being forgotten, returning to the home. Still, there’s a spiteful revenge feel in her depictions of her husband that disconcerted me. Particularly in the photographs of her in the cafe I was put off. How she loved to adorn herself with lots of jewellry: her culture it will be said, but there was something about it that was not art of the ethically fine type Woolf described in her Room of One’s Own and which finally I probably adhere to.

In general modern art seems to be about art, a rejection of art. In the rest of the museum, much on display was created by machines. Films of grotesquerie were prominent.

High magic joyful moments in the trip included meeting some of list friends. On Monday Angela R. and I met with Judy G and Marion H (she is a member of 19thCenturyLit and BookerPrize): we went to the Tate Britain and saw the exhibit of Reynolds’s paintings labelled (appropriately), "The Creation of Celebrity") and a large exhibit of landscape paintings of England. This last was based originally on an idea that became a 6 part TV series. (On these I’ll write separately). Wednesday Fran W and I managed to snatch a few hours together at the Wallace and went for a walk and bought books together. I had not brought a camera either time, but either Judy or Angela did remember and I have now put two photos of Judy, Angela and me in our members photo album to commemorate these happy days and scotch-taped up on my wall near my desk. I can look at them from where I’m typing right now. A picture of Diana B is just below these.

We did a lot (Jim, I, Isabel, Laura, and with Angela a couple of times). What a wonderful time we had watching an intelligent performance of The Importance of Being Earnest at Ham House (a 17th century house very much as it was) gardens with Angela. We had a picnic at night on the grass. This is not far from where Angela lives (Ealing) as is Kew Gardens. In Somerset Jim and I kept Laura and Isabel at it going to prehistoric ruins: Stonehenge, the astonishing Avebury, the little-visited (hard to find) Stanton Drew, Cadbury Castle (high grass, long hard climb). We made it to the lovely Prior Park gardens in Bath too. Laura fed the ducks and we drank tea. How pleasureful was the time on that ridiculous little palladian bridge. How picturesque. Unlike Henry Tilney when we got to the top of the Prior park hill we did not feel Bath was unworthy to make a picture.

Not all was uplifting. It’s not true that the English working class has vanished into middle classdom. They are changed and dress differently; drunkenness is not stigmatized anywhere (I wondered if domestic violence has now gone up), and the girls are at a very young age ludicrously overtly sexualized. Much moronic pop "culture" everywhere. England is still not educating its large underclass.

To return to the partly cheering (one must remember that the prehistoric ruins were probably places where savage human sacrifices went on; how Ralph Allen made his money and so on) :

For two long nights and one half-day we sat with Angela and watched the film adaptations by BBC of Trollope’s The Warden and Barchester Towers (hours and hours of this); the film adaptation of Nine Tailors (with Ian Carmichael as Wimsey and Glyn Houston as Bunter) the inseparable male pair; and Gaudy Night with Petherbridge as the yearning melancholy deeply romantic Wimsey and Harriet Walters as Harriet Vane.

A few words on these latter: I last saw Nine Tailors a quarter a century ago, but the minute Mary Deacon appeared in the film, I remembered the actress: I looked up her name, Elizabeth Proud. This woman is endlessly ceaselessly punished in this film. She is working class, at first the wife of the criminal with whom the story begins, and then the wife of a rough working class male who commits suicide. Neither male ever shows the least compassion or interest in her; she slaves for them with the most abject look in her eyes. She is victim all the way through. The function of the upper class genteel women seems to be to encourage her to accept her role as endless punitive object. She has the most powerful moment right before the film ends when she discovers her first husband died during the bell ringing. She has therefore been a bigamist and adulteress you see.

Talking about Nine Tailors to Angela, Angela remarked if the type woman were to be presented today, she’d be full of hate and presented as a criminal to be reprehended. Well, in Gaudy Night who is the most powerful character with a moment that occurs in the same place in the film? Lavinia Bertram as Annie Wilson who regards the upper class learned women as murderers, non-women (Sayers permits the implicit satire against intelligent women that the film quietly endorsed). In the book Annie torments one of the girl students (the film omitted this as too hard and real I suppose). At the end of Gaudy Night (made 17 years after Nine Tailors) the working class woman does not cry and beg and look abject; she hurls recriminations and curses. Of course we are to reject her point of view as inadequate (if understandable). At the heart of both films is a misogynistic icon, anti-working class or lower orders too.

I was gripped by the films anyway, and did enjoy, indeed loved the delicate witty interactions between Petherbridge and Walters, moving from the rebarbative and humanly complex to yielding. In the film of Gaudy Night Petherbridge does liken himself and Walters to Fred and Adele (Astaire and Rogers played this famous dancing couple in an early film). I also enjoyed the recreation of the milieu, gothicized and yet lightened in Nine Tailors. Small touches, shots of old churches, of the old cars. The earlier film did not worry about the homoerotic content of the central pair, and made Bunter very deferent. The new film with its new Bunter left a kind of hard rivalry between the new Bunter (Richard Morant, a perfect stand-in for the type Dirk Bogarde used to play) and Petheridge as Wimsey.

In comparison the film adaptations of The Warden and Barchester Towers were somewhat proto-feminist and progressive in thrust. You have to have seen Geraldine McEwan give Alan Rickman what-for (she as Mrs Proudie and he as Slope); despite Susan Hampshire’s overt sweetness and the censured nature of the plot-design of the film (her having been crippled by her husband is barely alluded to), Hampshire as the Signora Neroni had some sharp hard lines about marriage, sex, money and played the strong sexual woman in a way that Trollope might not have liked. For me she made a refreshing contrast in emotional feel to what one was supposed to or did feel watching Proud then Bertram punished, ostracized, shamed. If one must chose though, is it better to see Hampshire humiliate Rickman? By-the-bye Rickman had bad teeth in the film :). A substitute for Trollope’s stigmatizing him with red hair? Rickman did play the part with an Iago like dignity I loved. He seethed.

It seems there must be a scapegoat and it must be someone of the lower class who is ambitious, seeks power, stands up for her or himself. (Not that Mary Deacon did any of this. She just suffered and suffered, wept and wept, all trauma she.) Annie Wilson’s husband had had the temerity to write a scholarly book. Sayers seems not to want to bring out how everything one writes is personalized, and how she experienced this in the world of advertising work—instead being content to hit at learned ladies and poor man and his cleaning woman of a wife.

More on The Warden and Barchester Towers anon. I purchased the DVD when I got home and it arrived today. I look forward to seeing each episode separately over the next few weeks.

It’s significant to remember that the writers of the screenplays for all three films were men: Nine Tailors lists Raymond Menmuir as director, and Andew Stevens as screenplay adapter; Gaudy Night listed Christopher Hodson as director, and Philip Broadley as screenplay writer; and Barchester Chronicles (the title of this adaptation of the first two of the Barsetshire series), David Giles as director and Alan Plater as screenplay writer. Not that I think it would have mattered had women done the screenplay writing. The centrality of the punished working class woman was half-unconscious. I’ve been told that in-people who worked on the Wimsey films lament the change in the Bunter character and his marginalization; no one takes notice of what remains the same and the traumatic center of both pieces.

My dear Fanny, how relieved I am to be back. I’m the kind of person for whom amy long "vacation" is often partly an endurance sprint which functions to make me yearn intensely for home. What had become ennui has turned into delight and peace once again. Among other things I have happily rearranged my workroom and today was reading Louise D’Epinay

But I’ve gone on too long as usual. More anon.

A toute a l’heure, dear Fanny,

Posted by: Ellen

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  1. This is very interesting, Ellen. I wonder if Kahlo’s absorption in herself, as well as the harsh drama in her work, can be attributed somewhat to the way she was treated in her marriage. I suppose the pain was always there, but it seems not to have been softened by love. Or is this a banal thought? Also, your description of young working-class English culture reminds me very much of elements of African American youth culture, though I have the sense this is changing lately.
    Bob    Aug 27, 5:55pm    #
  2. Dear Bob,

    Kahlo’s bitterness is often attributed to her relationship with her husband, or we get these assertions about how desperate she was to have children. The pictures suggests she did not long to be pregnant at all :). Can love soften anyone when the reality is no love exists outside social pressures and customs and habits and laws which shape what can be?

    I’d say her anger is much more centrally directed at what the world is—except that I found this intense egoism and self-display which seems to suggest
    something far more selfishly driving than her desire to show herself to be driven on behalf of radical reform.

    On English working class people, I’ve been reading how the English working class has vanished. Not at all. And the class system seems as entrenched as ever—just like here in the US

    Chava    Aug 28, 9:12am    #

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