Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Muriel Spark – ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’

In 1982, Geraldine McEwan put in a relentlessly ball busting performance as Mrs Proudie in the BBC’s The Barchester Chronicles, a perfectly cast adaptation of Trollope’s The Warden and Barchester Towers, in which even against the apoplectic indignation of Nigel Hawthorne’s Dr Grantly, she was the one who came across as the force of nature. In 1978, she played Miss Brodie in an ITV adaptation of this novel, giving a subtler performance, but still in many ways domineering. Watching the TV series in the wake of McEwan’s death last January, I felt as though it was setting me a puzzle. She was – as in the novel – a maverick primary teacher at Marcia Blaine school for girls in Edinburgh, in the early 1930s. A dull school in the main, she was its ‘leaven in the lump’, wilfully disregarding the expectations of Miss Mackay, the headmistress; in fact disregarding every reasonable expectation that a teacher should teach the subjects set. She would put a long division sum on the blackboard in case of intruders, and then hold forth about her holidays in Italy, or about ‘Il Duce’ (Mussolini, her hero). She held that culture, and particularly art, are paramount, and taught these to the complete exclusion of anything mathematical or scientific. She tried to encourage – no, demanded – a passion for the arts, weaving her own life story into her lessons (a love lost in the Great War), to show that life and art are inseparable. She wanted her pupils to build successful lives on this foundation, rather than on one of learned dates and times tables. I mean, that’s great, isn’t it? All apart from the bit about Mussolini.

That was the puzzle, and it was never adequately explained. The series ended abruptly, having done the rounds of the Brodie set, which was all very entertaining, but didn’t explain this fascistic streak in a character otherwise, on balance, just about sympathetic. The novel is darker, though it’s possible to hold on to the benign Miss Brodie for quite a while, if you’re determined. You can even feel sorry for her:
Miss Brodie had a hard fight of it during the first few months when the Senior school had captivated her set, displaying as did the set that capacity for enthusiasm which she herself had implanted. (p. 83)
Talking to Sandy and Rose of an upcoming confrontation with her boss (‘I am summoned to see the headmistress’), she gives an attractive explanation of her philosophy:
The word ‘education’ comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem trudo, I thrust.’ (p. 36)
Sandy in particular doesn’t buy this, and sees the danger in Miss Brodie’s magnetic personality and iron will. What if she isn’t drawing out what is latent, but is carrying along these young, impressionable girls in a torrent of her own making? That is akin to what Mussolini and Hitler did. ‘Hitler was rather naughty’ (p. 122) she remarks to Sandy after the Second World War, in the last year of her life (she dies at 56 – strikingly close to Mrs Proudie’s 57, as though these forceful characters McEwan played were bound to blow themselves out before their time). The danger Sandy senses in Miss Brodie’s influence is borne out when she encourages a troubled pupil called Joyce Emily to run away to the Spanish Civil War – to fight for Franco. There is also an increasingly creepy love nonagon between Miss Brodie, art master Teddy Lloyd, music teacher Gordon Lowther, and the six girls of her set. Lloyd is married, so Miss Brodie renounces him, and he takes to inviting the girls round and painting them, with the resulting portraits all resembling Miss Brodie. She has an affair with Lowther, and invites the girls in pairs to his house, pumping them for information about Mr Lloyd, and trying to push Rose into an affair with him. This is unsuccessful, but Sandy takes Rose’s place (the girls are now 18), surrendering her will to the monstrous situation that Miss Brodie, losing control, sinking from her prime, has caused. And yet she eventually comes to acknowledge that there was something worthwhile in her after all:
It was twenty-five years before Sandy had so far recovered from a creeping vision of disorder that she could look back and recognise that Miss Brodie’s defective sense of self-criticism had not been without its beneficent and enlarging effects; by which time Sandy had already betrayed Miss Brodie and Miss Brodie was laid in her grave. (p. 86)
A puzzle.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Anthony Trollope – ‘The Last Chronicle of Barset’

Jael & Sisera, who feature in a sub plot.
There’s nothing quite like the winding down of a big Victorian novel: the hard part is done, for writer and reader, and all that remains is a series of farewells and tyings up of loose ends, maybe a sneaked glimpse into the future to make sure that the happy part of the ending really is happy. In a sense, The Last Chronicle of Barset is a victory marathon, recycling plots and characters from the five preceding novels, adding little; but that little is precious, because it’s the end. There are more simultaneous and more loosely connected plots here than previously (the Trollope Society site refers to the strands as ‘congeries’), but the main one concerns a stolen cheque for twenty pounds. Lord Lufton’s man of business, Mr Soames, last saw it at Mr Crawley’s house, and a few months later Mr Crawley, the impoverished perpetual curate of Hogglestock, had it cashed. ‘How Did He Get It?’ is the opening chapter’s title, and it’s six hundred odd pages before anything further is revealed on the subject. As a plot device, it’s a bit of a MacGuffin, lacking the pull of Mark Robarts’ spiralling debt in Framley Parsonage, partly because of its static nature. Robarts makes various bad choices in the former book, but Crawley is passive: misfortune falls upon him, first the accusation, then the progression from magistrate’s court to the prospect of a full trial at the next assizes, not to mention a clerical commission investigating his fitness to continue church duties, contrived by Mrs Proudie and ordered by her long-suffering husband the bishop. When he feels that the public believe in his innocence, he stands up to the misfortune, refusing to give up his parish while awaiting trial; but when they start to doubt it, and he starts to doubt it himself (not thinking he has deliberately stolen, but that he has inadvertently taken up the cheque), he relents, and almost relishes the act of giving up his parish unconditionally, before the trial can take place.

Mr Crawley is something of a masochist. This was already apparent in Framley Parsonage, when he refused his friend Mr Arabin’s help at a time of dire need for his family. In The Last Chronicle his character is expanded, but not altered. If Lily Dale was the refusenik of The Small House at Allington (refusing to marry Johnny Eames after Crosbie’s desertion), Crawley fulfils that role in this novel – and he does it much better:
He pitied himself with a commiseration that was sickly in spite of its truth. It was the fault of the man that he was imbued too strongly with self-consciousness. He could do a great thing or two. He could keep up his courage in positions which would wash all courage out of most men. He could tell the truth though the truth should ruin him. He could sacrifice all that he had to duty. He could do justice though the heaven should fall. But he could not forget to pay a tribute to himself for the greatness of his actions; nor, when accepting with an effort of meekness the small payment made by the world to him, in return for his great works, could he forget the great payments made to others for small work. It was not sufficient for him to remember that he knew Hebrew, but he must remember also that the dean did not. (pp. 532-3)
Which makes me think of this:
You know I’ve been wondering
You know all the way home
Whether the world will see
I’m a better man than others by far
        (The Sundays, ‘Skin & Bones’)
Who hasn’t listened to that and thought, ‘It definitely won’t!’ with a certain sense of pride? Not me, certainly. Mr Crawley is made to be the comical hero of anyone who was ever so foolish as to believe that thinking or working, rather than schmoozing, is what gets you on in life. In this he is the opposite of Archdeacon Grantly (who I still see as Nigel Hawthorne, though the series he was in didn’t make it past Barchester Towers), who is as in love with wealth and society as a clergyman can be – that is to say, as much in love with it as any lay person. The coming together of these two personalities through the engagement of their children is one of the great struggles of the book. These are his reasons for opposing the match of his son Henry with Grace Crawley:
One of his children had married a marquis. Another might probably become a bishop, – perhaps an archbishop. The third might be a county squire, – high among county squires. But he could only so become by walking warily; – and now he was bent on marrying the penniless daughter of an impoverished half-mad county curate, who was about to be tried for stealing twenty pounds! (p. 484)
This clash of father and son is strongly reminiscent of Lady Lufton’s opposition to her son’s marriage to Lucy Robarts in Framley Parsonage, and she does her best to soften his attitude because of her own experience. Another great clash is Mr Crawley vs. Mrs Proudie (who is forever Geraldine McEwan, even more than Archdeacon Grantly is Nigel Hawthorne); yet another is Mrs Proudie vs. Bishop Proudie, which has two surprising outcomes, the one I shall mention here being the bishop almost catatonic with depression after she too-obviously directs his official actions in front of outsiders, destroying his self-respect: ‘You have brought on me such disgrace that I cannot hold up my head. You have ruined me. I wish I were dead; and it is all through you that I am driven to wish it.’ (p. 577). He, like Lily Dale and Mr Crawley, finds his greatest strength is to refuse. Everywhere in this story are Bartlebys, declaring ‘I would prefer not to’.

There are also a few instances of young men – John Eames and the artist Conway Dalrymple – getting dangerously close to committing themselves to young women (Miss Demolines and Mrs Dobbs Broughton respectively), before finally finding a way to say ‘I would prefer not to’. To a greater or lesser extent, the women are trying to entrap them. Eames here is no improvement on the Small House at Allington edition: he is just as besotted with Lily Dale and just as likely to flirt with other women to distract himself. Trollope attempts an intervention against this interpretation of his character, but he is ultimately trivial: ‘light of heart’, as Lily puts it. The London scenes generally do not match up to the Barsetshire ones, but the whole I found more satisfying than The Small House at Allington, and it brings everything nicely to a close. It was good, too, to say goodbye to Mr Harding, the sweetest of the Barsetshire characters, and an important presence here, in his declining years. He even coaxes from his creator a half-decent grand-daughter (children are not Trollope’s strong suit), Posy, with whom he plays cat’s cradle as long as his strength allows.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

BAMS 2015: Were we even at the same year?

Now, I definitely wasn’t going to do a list of favourite records this year, because I hadn’t put in the legwork (earwork?) as usual, etc., etc. I apologised to Mike, and he said ‘oh go on’, so I did after all, hoping to bolster The Chills into a good position as I knew he loved Silver Bullets too. And do you know what? It wasn’t enough. In fact, nothing in my list made it into their list at all. Theirs is over there, with lots more on Twitter too; and here are the lovely seeds I cast upon their cold hard ground:
  1. Max Richter – Sleep
  2. The Chills – Silver Bullets
  3. Robert Forster – Songs To Play
  4. Four Tet – Morning / Evening
  5. Ela Orleans – Upper Hell
  6. Rozi Plain – Friend
  7. This Is The Kit – Bashed Out
  8. Twerps – Range Anxiety
  9. Mdou Moctar – Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai OST
  10. Flying Saucer Attack – Instrumentals 2015

Saturday, January 16, 2016

David Bowie

Monday morning, the day before my fortieth birthday, I went into the shower and switched on the radio. Nick Robinson was sort-of apologising for cutting an interview short, saying excitedly that they were pressed for time because of ‘the extraordinary news about David Bowie’. He was much too excited, actually, without seeming to give a damn for anything but the News Event side of it (mental note: stop listening to his programme). It seemed impossible news, three days after Bowie’s new album came out on his birthday. That’s not what happened the last time an album came out on his birthday. We know the drill now: he’s back, but he doesn’t want to talk. He’ll put out records that try to be David Bowie records again, and we’ll love him for it, even if they don’t quite manage to be. Maybe they even will, and he’ll close in on Scott Walker in terms of an accelerated late blossoming. ★ sounded good on Saturday, kept its tone better than The Next Day, I thought. He’s cleared the cobwebs, we’re ready for the off. I’m sure he won’t mind that I never bothered with Heathen, Reality, ‘Hours…’ or Earthling. He certainly won’t now, although looking online for Jon Wilde’s Melody Maker review of Tin Machine II, I found the aftermath: ‘Bowie’s PR later told me that Bowie read it and cried when he got to the last line. I’m not proud of that.’ The last line, from memory: ‘Sit down man, you’re a bloody disgrace’. He did care about the battering his reputation took, and the music press, in those days, could be as vicious as the tabloid press still is now. Wilde’s review set out the good against the bad, and contained a list of songs (‘Win’, ‘TVC 15’, ‘Heroes’, ‘Ashes to Ashes’) which served as a handy guide to the recent reissues of all those great ’70s albums. It was archetypal: don’t even think of listening to anything outside the Space Oddity-to-Scary Monsters window. That was the drill then. And now? It’s too late to be hateful. That’s a liberating thing.

Friday morning, 23rd January 1976. Eleven days old, I precociously set Station to Station on the turntable… well maybe not. But in 1991, I lapped up those re-issues. Ziggy Stardust makes me think of a nursery called Tiggywinkles at which I did work experience, and snuck in a first listen on the walk there from school, having borrowed it from Wolverhampton Central Library at lunchtime. Low makes me think of Florida, where you’re supposed to go to enjoy theme parks, but I still found a record shop and bought that. Back home, I got a non-re-issue of Aladdin Sane from Time Machine records, which someone had presumably sold in order to upgrade. “Heroes” was in Esso’s Tiger Tokens catalogue, and Dad kindly came through there. I don’t remember where I got Hunky Dory from, which probably means it was HMV. At university, my friend and flatmate Brian had a good line of argument about how dark Hunky Dory is. ‘And don’t give me that about “Fill Your Heart”, it’s a cover’. He listened to Bowie and Marvin Gaye non-stop, and I must admit this over-exposure over several years put me off a bit. He was more in love with the musicianship of the records than I was: another argument we had was about Bowie’s voice, which I said wasn’t that great, and he immediately walked off down a side street. He was right there, but what I was getting at was something to do with artifice and lack of warmth (Brian Wilson was my counter-argument). Momus’ beautiful tribute blog post has a riposte to that, playing with the idea that his death is a hoax:
He’d vicariously lap up the tributes, relish the tears, laughing at our sentimentality about someone we stereotyped, sometimes, as cocaine-cold, when in fact he was a histrionic volcano of emotion.
Poor Momus. Poor Brian. I hope they’re OK. I hope the explosion of affection there has been for Bowie on social media (which Brian probably hates) continues for a good while yet. It feels deserved, and Bowie’s exit feels like a riposte, itself, to the ’90s-and-onwards music press narrative. He’s outsmarted them all, with a move at once Pop and inarguably authentic. He has shown us that there is no such divide. Jon Wilde complained in 1991 that he couldn’t (or didn’t) do breathtaking anymore. With the last breath in his body, he has taken ours one last time. It’s not too late to be grateful.

Friday, January 01, 2016


My nephew (2¾) is going through a Rapunzel phase at the moment. I think it originated with Tangled, but it takes in every version of the story he can get, not to mention every tower, and every ribbon or rope he can make believe is Rapunzel’s hair. Visiting over Christmas, I read several versions of the story, and found some interesting differences. There is some censorship going on, I think, but also some Chinese whispers. At the beginning of the story, a woman looks from a window at her neighbour’s garden, and is overcome with a desire to eat something she sees growing there: either salad, lettuce, or rampion, depending on the version. The word ‘rampion’ is related to ‘rapunzel’, so it would make sense for that to be the right one. My dictionary traces both words back to ‘rapum’ (turnip) in Latin, and defines it as ‘A kind of bellflower, Campanula rapunculus, of which the white tuberous roots are sometimes used as a salad.’ Botanical.com has this:
The larger roots are reserved for boiling, sometimes the young roots are eaten raw with vinegar and pepper, and occasionally the leaves, as well as the roots, are eaten as a winter salad.
If the leaves of the plant are only occasionally used, it could be that there has been a misunderstanding of ‘salad’ with some of the translations and re-tellings, equating it with lettuce. The version of the story S. remembers has radishes as the tempting vegetable, which opens an intriguing link to The Tale of Peter Rabbit, another of my nephew’s favourites, also about stealing produce from a garden.

The husband steals the salad leaves, lettuce or rampion, and when he goes back for more the next day, gets caught by the owner of the garden, a witch. She demands his wife’s baby – if she has one – in payment for the stolen goods. In the old Ladybird version, there is no hint that the wife is pregnant at this point (she is described as thin), so the husband’s agreement to these terms comes over as a gamble that she will not conceive. This version makes little sense: if she’s starving, lettuce won’t help much, and in all the other versions it is the pregnancy which explains the unusual craving. To have the husband give up a baby he knows is coming makes for a better story, and makes clear the strength of the desire behind the craving. A different Ladybird version (two pages of which are available online) removes another of the story’s edges, having the witch steal the baby, rather than the parents handing her over.

Rapunzel meets a prince, who visits her by night, climbing up her hair as the witch does during the day, bringing her material from which to make a rope (he couldn’t just bring her a ready-made rope?) All versions agree that she gives the game away by telling the witch in an unguarded moment that she is heavier than the prince. None of them mention that she gets pregnant herself during one of the prince’s visits until later, and the more modern versions leave this out completely. When the witch surprises the prince and he falls and blinds himself in a thorn bush, I think of Rochester in Jane Eyre; in fact, that kind of symbolic event works much better in a fairy tale than a realist novel. Symbolic of what, though? The mystery and power of the story (and of many fairy tales) lies partly in the fact that it is not an allegory, I think. There is a point being made about the danger of desire – for rapunzel the plant, Rapunzel the baby, Rapunzel the woman, and (from her perspective) for the prince. It’s not exactly a warning, more an actuating force, driving events through contortions that only really come to make sense through repeated readings, when they become inevitable, but never quite lose their weird fascination. ‘No door,’ my nephew will explain, given half a chance. ‘Long, long hair’.


‘Rapunzel’ at Adelaide Ebooks.
More illustrations.

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