Category Archives: English literature

Nuns (2)

I’ve read none of the 60+ books published by Rumer Godden (1907-1998), though I remember that my mother owned one of her novels (A Breath of Air). Before the word was coined, I saw her as a purveyor of chick lit, albeit chick lit that drew some major film directors—Jean Renoir to The River, Michael Powell to “Black Narcissus,” both of which concern young Englishwomen in the India in which Godden grew up. Although I admired the color photography of both of those movies, I found the stories overly hysterical. Along with the screen adaptations of The Battle of Villa Fiorita and The Greengage Summer (released here as “Loss of Innocence”) that I have not seen, they are “chick flicks.”

Godden’s name was not what drew me to watch “In This House of Brede.” Rather, it was the 1975 BBC movie’s star, the estimable Diana Rigg, who has had far too few good big-screen roles. It was Rigg who piqued my interest. (I was a devoted fan of the original “Avengers” as an adolescent; I was also a big fan of the movie “Becket” in those days, and remembered Pamela Brown from it.)

Mrs. Peel would seem an unlikely nun (as do Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, Melina Mercouri, Glenda Jackson, Gladys Cooper, and others who have triumphed playing roles as nuns). In “In This House of Brede” she seeks the veil after a successful career in business. Like Audrey Hepburn in “The Nun’s Story,” she is a lot smarter than those around her in the convent and extirpating her pride and self-confidence and the awe some of her intellectual inferiors feel for her (and the backlash of her intellectual inferiors who are her elders in the convent…) are problems for her.

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Hepburn played a much younger entrant to an order that sent out medical missionaries to the Belgian Congo. Rigg plays a widow who is fluent in Japanese in a Benedictine order in England that receives postulants from Japan (some years after she has become Dame Phillipa (it’s not as if she knew that her new vocation was going to involve her familiarity with Japanese culture and language). Before becoming Dame Phillipa, an Oxford graduate, she also knew Latin, so that beginning Latin classes are more than easy for her.

The Abbess of Brede who had encouraged her to explore a contemplative religious vocation dies almost as soon as Phillipa becomes a postulant. The successor, Dame Catherine (Gwen Bradford), is sympathetic to Phillipa’s difficulties and conflict with the self-righteous and resentment-filled Dame Agnes (Pamela Brown), who is the teacher of Latin and later is determined to learn Japanese with no help from Dame Phillipa. (It is very fortunate for Dame Phillipa that Dame Agnes was not elected abbess!)

A cheerful younger postulant from the neighborhood of the convent, Joanna (Judy Bowker), is eager to be Dame Phillipa’s protege. The girl reminds Dame Phillipa of her own child who was killed in an automobile accident and her maternal concern is seen by the petty Dame Agnes as sensuality, and a suspect bond that must be broken.

Dame Phillipa mortifies herself by working in the infirmary (though the convent badly needs her business acumen to sort out its financial affairs, that would build pride and foster even more resentment).

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The film is well-acted and the convent (really St. Mary’s Abbey Grammar School in Mill Hill within London) is well-photographed. The stifling of talent for mortifying the self is not a program for which I have sympathy, but if that’s what Dame Phillipa wants, she manages it without destroying anyone else. Patience not being one of my virtues, I was somewhat impatient with Dame Phillipa learning patience which is just as unnatural to her as it is to me.

The music is dated and sometimes overly intrusive. The liturgy and details of convent routines have been lauded by those with personal familiarity with them. But if it weren’t for Dianna Rigg being the central focus, I probably would not screened the DVD or finished it if I came upon it.

“In This House of Brede” was directed by George Schaeffer, a frequent “Hallmark Hall of Fame” director and lensed by Chris Challis (The Tales of Hoffman, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, The Deep).

“In This House of Brede” is not as good as “The Nun’s Story” and is definitely no where nearly as funny as “Nasty Habits” but I found it considerably more plausible than “Black Narcissus” (if less colorful than the studio Himalayas in that (movie also based on a Rumer Godde novel) or the Africanlocations in “The Nun’s Story”) .

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“The nun,” (2013), based on Diderot’s 1760 “La religeuse,” “a film by Guilllaume Nicou,” is in color and has full-frontal nudity of hits vocationless, involuntary nun, played by Pauline Etienne who is tortured by one mother superior (Louise Bougon) and then coddled by a lesbian one played by Isabelle Huppert, who fails to seduce her (even after getting into the young nun’s bed). The movie adds a happy ending (escape from the convent) and a more spirited Suzane. Yves Cape provided beautiful cinematography, but the direction was very slack.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

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Daphne du Maurier’s original novella “Don’t Look Now”

Dame Daphne du Maurier, Lady Browning (1907-89), was an immensely popular Cornish author of Gothic historical novel, many of whose works were filmed, including three by Alfred Hitchcock (the Oscar-winning “Rebecca,” “Jamaica Inn,” and “The Birds”), plus “My Cousin Rachel,” “The Scapegoat,” and the 1973 movie directed by Nicolas Roeg from a screenplay by Alan Scott) and Chris Bryant of her novella “Don’t Look Now.” Reputedly, the screen version of “Don’t Look Now,” directed by Nicolas Roeg,  is closer to the source material than “The Birds,” the relocation of which from Cornwall to Bodega Bay (northern California) much distressed du Maurier.

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(author in 1930)

Having recently re-viewed and reviewed the movie, I’d acknowledge that almost everything that is in the novella is in the movie, though every thing if much clearer in the novella (or, alternately put, much obscured in the movie). There is, alas, much that defeated my ability to suspend disbelief in the movie that has no basis in du Maurier, including the accidental death of the daughter of the parents who visit Venice (the girl in Maurier’s story died a slower death of meningitis), the return of the wife (Laura, played in the movie by Julie Christie) to Venice, her restaurant fainting, the husband John having work (restoring a church) in Venice, the closing of the hotel in which John and Laura had been staying.

The novella opens not with the death of the child, but with a couple speculating that the twins intently looking at them in a restaurant and Laura laughingly suggesting that the older women are actually males in drag. In both book and movie, Laura who has been stricken with grief, is cheered by the message from beyond the grave from the blind clairvoyant that the dead daughter (Christine) is happy. (Having her faint in the restaurant in the movie is scenic but false to the mood du Maurier created).

In both media, Christine warns that her father is in danger. It seems the warning was off when the couple hears that their son back at boarding school in England seems to be having appendicitis. Laura books a morning flight to London and in the book John is going to drive to Milan and return by train with their car loaded onto the train. In the movie, he stays and almost dies in an accident on scaffolding in the church.

John imagines he sees the sisters (not twins in the movie) on a boat with Laura and involves the police in finding the sisters. One of the absurdities of the movie is that the blind one is left alone in the police station. Another is that Laura goes to the sister’s hotel (they have, incidentally, changed hotels from the one where she went to a séance added in the movie version) and John, knowing that she is going there, rushes off in pursuit of a young girl dressed (in the movie) like Christine when she drowned (in a red plastic raincoat). Du Maurier provided none of that absurdity, and has the clairvoyant warn that the hallucination of Laura with them is a premonition.

The original also provides some reason for the pell-mell chase John makes.

Though lacking the atmospheric shots of wintery, non-touristy Venice, I find the original text preferable to the overload of murk and portents of the movie (even though the accident in the church that is not in the novella is my favorite scene in the movie). And the protracted sex scene is entirely missing from the novella. The novella is, btw, primarily told from John’s perspective, but I won’t get into the masculine self-identification of the author.

Also btw, in the 1971 story collection in which it is the title story, “Don’t Look Now” occupies all of 54 pages and about the same in the current NYRB Classics edition that also includes “The Birds” and seven more stories.

©2012, Stephen O. Murray

Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part II”

Reading Henry IV, Part 2 (yet again), in my head I can still hear John Gielgud anguished about how he came to the throne and what will follow his imminent death in Welles’s “Falstaff,” I can see his breath—and also see the other characters, not least Welles himself. Is Prince Hal a parricide, speeding both his fathers to their graves (his biological father reassured, his drinking companion hearbroken) with some degree of intention? There are plenty of foreshadowings of reformation (and the concomitant deposition of Falstaff) in both Henry IV plays.

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The subterfuge by which John of Lancaster gets the Archbishop of York and his confederates to disperse the rebel troops, then seizes and executes them is less than honorable, recalling the blood of Richard II on his father’s hands and his brother’s the slaughtering of the prisoners at Agincourt to come in Henry V.

Warwick in IV.4 understands that the prince is exploring disorder better to govern it later, yet seems to have forgotten his insight in V.2. There is a lack of relationship between the good younger brothers and the sort of prodigal returned (although he could not take his inheritance of the crown in advance and does not leave the kingdom he will inherit).

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Henry III (John Gielfud) and Prince Hal (Keith Baxter” in Orson Welles’s “Falstaff”

I am convinced that Falstaff is impotent (“cannot go” I.2173. Poins: “Is it not strange that desire should so many years outlive performance?” II.v.267-8).

I don’t interpret Falstaff calling the crowned king “Jove” as casting himself as Saturn (but as the ruler), and attend more to “my heart” (V.5.48 in the exclamation that brings down the withering rejection of “the tutor and feeder of my riots”).

My attention was also grabbed by “the juvenal, the Prince, your master, whose chin is not yet fledge” (Falstaff at I.2.20-21) the conventional marker of a still-desirable youth. Hal does not otherwise seem like a Ganymede.

I don’t know what to make of “I am the fellow with the great belly, and he [Prince Hal] my dog” (Falstaff to the Chief Justice in discussing who misleads whom, I.2.150-1).

 

© 1996, Stephen O. Murray

Shakespeare’s “The Winter Tale”

I do not see how anyone could read Shakespeare’s late play ‘The Winter’s Tale” (first published in 1623) as “placid.” Antigonus being slain by a bear is not a usual transition for a courtier to the pastoral! The first three acts constitute a tragedy of jealousy (Leontes has no Iago—Camillo is Iago’s antithesis— his paranoia bout being cuckolded is spontaneous) followed by the next generation’s romance, which the audience knows reconciles the estranged former friends. Romeo and Juliet starts as a comedy and ends as a tragedy (as, more murkily, does Troilus and Cressida); The Winter’s Tale starts as a tragedy and ends as a comedy. I am disappointed that the climactic reconciliation scene is told rather than showed, even if another happy ending is still to come.

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(Hermione reviving from having been a statue)

 

I am not convinced that Leontes is a character and not a type. What I find most striking is the contrast between the view of adolescence of the old shepherd who finds and rears Perdita and Polixenes, (her future father-in-law talking to her mother Hermione before Perdita’s birth). The shepherd wishes that “there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty” or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting” (3.3.58-62), while Polixenes recalls a male-male paradise before the temptations of (owning?) women intruded:”Temptations have since been born to ‘s (1.2.78). In contrast,

We were as twinned lambs, that did frisk i’ th’ sun,

and bleat the one at th’ oher; what we [ex]changed

Was innocence for innocence; we knew not

The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed

That any did… (1.2.66-71).

It is Leontes who has since then tripped and jealousy unhinges him—to the extent of defying the judgment of Apollo and living long after to regret his badness (madness?) before undeservedly having friend, daughter, and wife restored.

(The more deserving Paulina is also to wed the wise Camillo who went with Polixenes when Leontes was going to murder Polixenes.)

©1996, Stephen O. Murray

A Bend in the River: Naipaul’s “masterpiece”? If so, scratch him from the list of “masters”!

I read in several obituaries that Bend in the River (1979) was V. S. Naipaul’s  (1932-2018) masterpiece. It has been gathering dust on a bookcase of unread books for nearly three decades. I was not engaged by the beginning, and was never very interested in the narrator, an unobservant Muslim of South Asian ancestry who grew up on the east coast of Africa and settled as a storekeeper in the middle (not Uganda, seemingly Mobutu’s Congo/Zaire). Salim has opinions about many matters, but the book seems more a set of mini-essays than a novel. It has Naipaul’s misogyny and cruelty to women, his contempt for Africans, though not developing his hatred for Islam and contempt for South Asians.

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I don’t think the book idealizes European colonialism, though painting a gloomy picture of a post-independence cult of a ruler who can only be toppled by violent civil war (that is likely to wear a tribalist mask). The corruption of the 1970s is not counterpoised to a golden age of Belgian colonialism, though invidiously contrasted to urbane London. (He does note that East African slavery both predated and postdates the colonial era, which is true.)

Naipaul was not much of a storyteller and none of the characters with the partial exception of the academic sycophant of the Big Man, Raymond, strikes me as a somewhat developed (hardly rounded) character. I was mildly amused by the burger franchise, imported lock, stock, and barrel from the West (though the beef is local), but did not believe in Yvette (Raymond’s wife who has a protracted affair with Salim) or the other characters, including the other alien (non-African) merchants.

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(Naipual in 2016, photo by Faizul Latif Chowdhury)

I think I’ve read eight Naipaul novels, though none during this millennium, plus The Search for Eldorado and various pieces published in the New York Review of Books. He is loathed by the Afro-Caribbeans I know, but if this was his best, I don’t think he was a great writer. I don’t want to risk rereading his early books set in Trinidad and finding that I no longer like them either,

Bend in the River was a Booker Prize finalist (he’d won for In a Free State in 1971) was on the Guardian’s (Robert McCrum’s) 2015 list of 100 best novels in English, on the Guardian’s best novels of all times, and Naipaul was awarded a Nobel Prize in literature in 2001.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Virginia Woolf (8?): Her Nephew Quentin Bell’s Bloomsbury Recalled

It’s taken me more than a decade since buying it to get around to reading Quentin Bell’s Bloomsbury Recalled (first published in 1995; Bell lived from 1910 until 1996). Though he set out to write an autobiography, after three failures he instead produced a set of memoirs of Bloomsbury figures of his parents’ generation (including both, or all three of them). All that I read (some are about figures in whom I have no interest) are not only perspicacious, but generous. He liked John Maynard Keynes and his Russian ballet dancer wife Lydia a lot, Leonard Woolf almost as much and is more than charitable toward Anthony Blunt (though appalled at Guy Burgess). As much as he revered Matisse’s paintings, he found the man an egomaniacal bore (Picasso was also egomaniacal, but perhaps Bell did not spend enough time in his company to find him boorish).

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He had already published an esteemed, award-winning two-volume biography of his aunt, Virginia Woolf (1972). Technically, there is not a chapter on her in BR, but there is an appendix discussing A Room of Ones Own and Three Guineas, both of which he considered novels (and the latter an argument with his dead older brother, Julian). She also figures extensively in the chapter on her husband, Leonard Woolf, and her sister, Vanessa Bell. In particular, in the latter instance, he takes on the question of whether the girls were raped by their half-brother, George Duckworth. Though what Duckworth did would count as abuse, Quentin Bell is certain that vaginal penetration was not involved, both sisters being virgins when they married. He regrets never asking his mother about the matter, though it is very easy to understand why any son would be reluctant to go there.

I didn’t learn anything about the Stracheys (except that Dorothy Strachey Bussy, Gide’s translator into English, revered Trotsky). I guess I didn’t learn anything about Morgan Forster, either, but I know a lot about his biography and found what Bell wrote not only very kind, but also quite wise, especially about A Passage to India (which was not Bell’s favorite Forster novel; he does not specify which one was).

He is as nonjudgmental about the homosexual and heterosexual liaisons of his elders as they were about each other’s (though he disliked one of Keynes’s, Gabriel Atkins, Bell quite liked another, Sebastian Sprott).

 

I want to append what I wrote in 1999 about Leon Edel’s Bloomsbury: A House of Lions:

Edel comes across as a prissy, pompous, reductionist Freudian homophobe, smug and racist (about the “race” of Jews and about “primitives”). In short, his psychologizing and attempts to provide racial and sexual anthropology appalled me. E.g. Woolf “could appeal to a homosexual like Lytton [Strachey], since her aloofness offered no womanly threat” (194) or repeating Leonard Woolf’s view of Keynes as a “mental hermaphrodite” (39), whatever that might mean!

Though Edel both biographical detail and some sense of connections of the famous circle, I much prefer Bell’s insider account and can heartily recommend Bell’s book

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Virginia Woolf (6) A Room of One’s Own

I  got around to reading A Room of Ones Own, which I have owned for decades. I thought the point was already in the title, knowing that what Woolf thought was needed for women to read was not just an unshared room with a lockable door but also dependable (unearned by their labor) 500 pounds a year (<$20K now).

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Education and being able to get out and about would make for a wider range than domestic novels focused on courting and marriage. Woolf brought up the limitations on Emily Bronte several times, but unless I missed it, did not refer to her sister(s). Woolf has to admit the greatness of Jane Austen and George Eliot, though seeing both as constrained by the restrictions on women. And she noted that all the great English poets, except for Yeats, who died very young, had some inheritances and education.

In wishing that women could get beyond novel-writing, it seems to me that Woolf overlooked a number of women who wrote insightfully about places far beyond the British isles.

I think she mentioned pioneer Gothic novelist Ann Radcliff, but not Clara Reeve, or Mary Shelley’s enduring Frankenstein, which certainly reached beyond the domestic sphere of women. Nor did she mention the pioneering female travel writers such as Isabelle Bird (Hawai’I, Colorado, Malaya West and East Asia), Mary Kingsley (1897-99), Edith Durham (Balkans, 1904-28), Hester Stanethroep (Middle East,1846) Alexandra David-Néele (whose My Journey to Lhasa had only appeared in 1927), Gertrude Bell (the Middle East, 1907-) , Annette Mekin (Turkistan, Siberia, Japan, Charlotte Mansfield (Rhodesia, 1911-16), or Lady Mary Montagu’s Turkish Letters (published in 1737-38; she also wrote poetry). Bird inherited money. Neele bought a house in 1928. Fanny Bullock Workman (lgeria, Himalayas, 1895-1916), Alexin Tinne (Sudan and Central Africa, 1863-69).

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Woolf would not know of Nella Larsen, whose novels came out in 1928 and 1929, and Zora Neale Hurston’s were still in the future. I don’t think that either of them, nor Loraine Hansberry (before “A Raisin in the Sun” opened on Broadway) had lockable rooms of their own or the steady support of the equivalent of 500 pounds. Hurston had a patroness, and Hansberry was supported by her husband, though. Larsen went to Fisk and worked as nurse (taking a sabbatial to write Quicksand).

Woolf mentioned Murasaki, but not the whole set of Heian female writers, the only Heian writers of any lasting interest to readers. I don’t think they had lockable rooms or much privacy to write, though financial support from courts, fathers, husbands.

Of Nobel laureates Kipling and Galsworthy, Woolf wrote that “it is not only that they celebrate male virtue, enforce male values and describe the world of men; it is that the emotion with which these books are permeated is to a woman incomprehensible”, “crude and immature” (102). The Light That Failed? It is a love story, even with military interludes. I wonder about Maugham (not the Asheden stories or the later The Razors Edge, but “Rain” and “The Letter”, The Painted Veil, the later Up at the Villa and Of Human Bondaeg, each with prominent female characters). Forster she does not mention (nor her companion at the two lectures, Vita Sackville-West). Sterne she sees as androgynous! Surprisingly, she thought that “the impulse for autobiography may be spent” (for women, 79) in 1929 (!)

“Why are women so much more interesting to men than men are to women?” she asked (based on cataloging contemporary book titles). (27-28) She said that women did not write books about men (though there are male characters whom I find credible—as well as important—in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse).

©2018, Stephen O. Murray