Friday, August 18, 2017

The Chastity Tree: Martin y Soler's L'arbore di Diana

Nikki Einfeld (Diana), Christine Brandes (Cupid), and the Sarah Berges Dance Company (the Chastity Tree),
in West Edge Opera's The Chastity Tree.

What was the most popular opera in Vienna during Mozart's lifetime? You might guess his Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786), Don Giovanni (1787) or Cosi fan tutte (They're all like that, 1790). Lorenzo da Ponte wrote the libretti for them all, and today they are among the most-produced operas in the world (Figaro is #8, Don Giovanni #9, and Cosi #15 over the past five years, according to Operabase).

But at the time they were written, none of those operas came close to the success of  L'arbore di Diana (The Tree of Diana, or as West Edge Opera's director Mark Streshinsky translates it, The Chastity Tree, 1787) written by Da Ponte for the composer Vincente Martin y Soler. By 1792 L'arbore di Diana had received 65 performances in Vienna, while another Martin-Da Ponte collaboration, Una cosa rara ([Beauty and faithfulness are] A rare thing, 1786) had received 55 performances. Mozart's most popular opera, Figaro, had received 38—a respectable success, but only enough to rank as the seventh-most popular opera of the time.

In his entertaining but untrustworthy memoirs, written 35 years later, Da Ponte stated his belief that L'arbore di Diana was "the best of all the operas I ever composed. . .it was voluptuous without overstepping into the lascivious." [1]

This is wrong on two counts. In my view the best libretto Da Ponte ever wrote was Figaro, although the excellence of the original Beaumarchais play might also have had something to do with its high quality. And as for L'arbore di Diana being voluptuous without being lascivious, clearly Da Ponte didn't anticipate director Mark Streshinsky's approach in his West Edge Opera production (seen August 12), which was broadly and audaciously camp.

The bawdiness began during the overture, when the dancers of choreographer Sarah Berges' company, representing the Chastity Tree, take the stage wearing "fruits of extraordinary size" on their chests. The "fruit" resembled nothing so much as a giant golden breast with an enormous pink nipple, which lit up on occasion. (By the way, the description "fruits of extraordinary size" is from Da Ponte's Memoirs. [2]) The deliberately over-the-top costumes were by Christine Cook, who was clearly given carte blanche.

Malte Roesner (Doristo) with members of the Sarah Berges Dance Company

In Jean-Francois Revon's set (the only aspect of this production where a less-is-more aesthetic could be said to prevail), the Chastity Tree cleverly suggested the industrial surroundings of the Pacific Pipe Company warehouse that is West Edge Opera's new home this season—yet another example of this adventurous company's ability to make a virtue of necessity.

In his memoirs Da Ponte explained the function of the Chastity Tree:
If the nymphs of that goddess were chaste in deed and in thought, as they passed under the tree, the apples began to glow and shine and from them, and from all the surrounding branches, there issued murmurs and sounds that harmonized in a melody of heavenly sweetness. But if any one of them had sinned against the sanctity of that virtue, the fruits became blacker than coal, dropped upon her head, or on her back and disfigured her face, bruised her body or broke her limbs, the punishment being proportionate to her crime. [3]
Into her garden the goddess Diana (Nikki Einfeld) has brought the rustic Doristo (Malte Roesner), who is supposed to guard the tree. He's far more interested, though, in romping with Diana's nymphs: the cautious Chloe (Kathleen Moss), the eager Britomarte (Maya Kherani), and the curious Clizia (Molly Mahoney).

Cupid (Christine Brandes), the God of Love, has become affronted by Diana's ostentatious chastity and wants to defeat his arch-rival. He seduces Doristo by dressing in outrageous drag, and recruits two shepherds, Endimione (tenor Kyle Stegall) and Silvio (the "other tenor" Jacob Thompson) to aid his plan. After being struck by Cupid's arrow, Diana falls in love with Endimione, but her oracle (Silvio in disguise) then demands that she herself undergo the test of the Chastity Tree. . .

Nikki Einfeld (Diana)

Streshinsky mounted a riotously colorful production that highlighted—at times, perhaps, too insistently—the salaciousness implicit in Da Ponte's libretto. What made it work was the fine cast who gamely embodied Streshinsky's concept and, no matter what they were enacting onstage, sang splendidly. There was not a weak link; particularly noteworthy were Malte Roesner's robust baritone as the randy Doristo, Kyle Stegall's lyrical tenor as Diana's crush Endimione, Maya Kherani's bright-toned Britomarte, and Nikki Einfeld's fierce Diana. Einfeld also looked smashing in Diana's floor-length sequined gowns. (I'm not sure how one would hunt in such an outfit, but never mind.)

In a pre-concert talk Streshinsky aptly compared the music of Diana to a cross between that of the Queen of the Night from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute. 1791), for its wide range and formidable coloratura, and Fiordiligi from Cosi fan tutte, for her anguished emotions as she finds her heart contradicting her vows. [4]

Here is a sample of Diana's music from the 2009 production of L'arbore di Diana from the Gran Teatre del Liceu, with Laura Aiken as Diana, accompanied by the Gran Teatre del Liceu Orchestra, Harry Bicket, conductor:

Da Ponte's words:

Teco porta, o mia speranza,
l’alma mia, che vien con te,
e la grata rimembranza
d’un ardor che vive in me.
Fosti il primo, e il solo or sei
bel desio di questo cor,
e a cangiar gli affetti miei
sfido il fato e sfido il cor.
Vanne, caro – ah, ch’io mi sento
dal tormento lacerar!
Torni, torni il bel momento
che ristori il mio penar.
Take with you, my dearest,
my soul, which follows you,
and the sweet memory
of the ardor that you have aroused in me.
You were the first and remain the only
desire of my heart,
and I defy fate and Love
to change my feelings.
Go, my darling!
Oh, the agony!
May the day soon come
when my suffering comes to an end.

Although Aiken's voice is not, to my ear, ideally sensuous as Diana—the role would have been perfect for a young Lucia Popp—this will give you a sense of Martin's sound-world.

Einfeld dispatched Diana's difficult runs with fire and brilliance, but also made profoundly affecting "those sweet melodies of [Martin's], which one feels deep in the spirit, but which few know how to imitate." [5]

One who did know how to imitate them was Mozart, who recognized good tunes when he heard them. There are numerous musical and narrative parallels between Mozart's operas and L'arbore di Diana. Because Mozart is familiar and Martin is now virtually unknown, I couldn't help but hear in Martin's writing echoes of Mozart. But perhaps it would be equally true to say that in Mozart we can hear echoes of Martin. (In Don Giovanni's supper scene, Mozart paid homage to the composer by having the onstage band play an aria from Una cosa rara.)

Sheila Hodges, author of Lorenzo Da Ponte: The Life and Times of Mozart's Librettist (University of Wisconsin Press, 2002) has written that the libretti Da Ponte wrote for Martin lack "the depths of character-drawing, refinement and poetry which Da Ponte achieved in his operas for Mozart." This is true enough, and it's also true that Martin's music is not as sublime as Mozart's. But it features "no end of tender melodies"; his "impulse runs to lyricism rather than dramatic intensity." [6] Conductor Robert Mollicone led a vivid performance of Martin's score by the WEO Festival Orchestra, among whom were recognizable some moonlighting members of well-known Bay Area ensembles.

West Edge Opera's bold production is a very welcome introduction to the work of a composer who seems ripe for rediscovery. The final performance of The Chastity Tree will take place August 19 at 8 pm; for more details see the West Edge Opera website.

  1. Memoirs of Lorenzo da Ponte, translated by Elisabeth Abbott from the Italian, J. B. Lippincott Company, 1929, pp. 177-178.
  2. Memoirs of Lorenzo da Ponte, p. 177.
  3. Memoirs of Lorenzo da Ponte, p. 177.
  4. The comparison may have been suggested by Roy Jesson, "Martin's 'L'arbore di Diana,'" The Musical Times, Vol. 113, No. 1552 (June 1972), p. 552. 
  5. Memoirs of Lorenzo da Ponte, p. 174.
  6. John Platoff, "A New History for Martin's Una cosa rara," The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 12, Issue 1, 1994, pp. 94-95.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Five songs

Judith und Holofernes, by Gustav Klimt, 1901 (detail)

I've written before of my struggle to appreciate art songs (see "The Songs of Erich Korngold and Reynaldo Hahn"). Such an appreciation would seem to be an obvious extension of my enjoyment of opera (at least, of certain operas). And yet I remain stubbornly resistant to lieder (at least, to certain lieder).

Songs accompanied by orchestra would seem to provide a natural bridge from opera to lieder. In fact, as a follow-up to my recent post on Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs, this post began as an introduction some of my other favorite orchestral lieder.

But along the way something funny happened. Some lieder exist in two versions, one with orchestra and another with piano. My assumption was that I would always prefer the more opera-like orchestral version, especially if I was already familiar with it. As critic Richard Wigmore has written, ". . .piano versions tend to stand in relation to the orchestral as a pen-and-ink sketch does to a painting." [1]

But it turned out that my preference wasn't always that clear-cut. This became apparent when I listened to the orchestral version of Franz Schubert's "Nacht und Träume" (Night and Dreams), and compared it to the piano version. The song, published in 1825, was orchestrated in 1914 by Max Reger. To my ears, the orchestral version is overdone; it lacks the delicacy and intimacy of the piano version. [2]

So I started exploring, and was surprised by what I found. Below I offer five favorite lieder in both orchestral and piano versions, so that you can make the same comparisons that I did. In a reversal of the perhaps expected order I've placed the orchestral version first, followed by the piano version, because that's how I first became familiar with most of these songs.

Of course, it's not a contest: for many lieder I can appreciate both versions for the different qualities they reveal. And much depends on the interpretive sensitivity of the performers. But I was surprised at how often the piano version held its own with (and in some cases seemed superior to) the orchestral version.

Richard Wagner: "Der Engel" from Wesendonck Lieder (1857-58)

Richard Wagner in 1860.

The Wesendonck Lieder are usually performed and recorded with orchestral accompaniment, but they were originally composed for piano and voice (the first title was Fünf Gedichte für eine Frauenstimme, or "Five poems for female voice"). The poems were written by Mathilde Wesendonck, wife of Wagner's patron Otto Wesendonck. At the time the songs were composed Wagner and Mathilde were carrying on an affair.

Mathilde Wesendonck by Karl Sohn, 1850 (detail).

Someone I know once said that lieder are bad Romantic poetry set to music. While that comment isn't completely fair, Mathilde Wesendonck's poems have been singled out for special scorn. Baritone Matthias Goerne has said,
"The worst doggerel Schubert ever set is better than the texts of Mathilde Wesendonck. It's all a mishmash of vague sentiment. . .But Wagner was intoxicated when he wrote the songs. . .The atmosphere he creates convinces you that you're hearing about soul-shattering things. His rapture overpowers the words." [2]
The "great man's rapture overpowering woman's vague mishmash of sentiment" narrative invites skepticism. In the hothouse atmosphere created by their affair (the third of the songs is actually entitled "Im Treibhaus" ("In the Hothouse")), Wagner may have been convinced that Mathilde's poetry was more profound than it reads today, at least in English translation. But obviously, he was responding to something in the words. The composer who was so unsatisfied by the literary efforts of others that he wrote the libretti for all of his operas himself somehow deemed Mathilde's "vague mishmash of sentiment" worthy of being graced by his music. (And as we all know, a great lyric is neither a sufficient nor even a necessary condition for a great song.)

The sound-world of the songs echoes that of Tristan und Isolde, which Wagner was also composing at the time. (In fact, two of the songs are subtitled "Studie zu Tristan und Isolde.") Wagner, with his typical egomania, probably saw himself and Mathilde in the story of the legendary lovers whose passion transcended all conventional constraints of honor and duty. Curiously, given how Wagnerian the orchestral versions sound, the songs were actually orchestrated by another composer, Felix Mottl, two decades after their initial composition.

The opening song of the sequence, "Der Engel," sung by Janet Baker with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult:


In der Kindheit frühen Tagen
Hört ich oft von Engeln sagen,
Die des Himmels hehre Wonne
Tauschen mit der Erdensonne,

Daß, wo bang ein Herz in Sorgen
Schmachtet vor der Welt verborgen,
Daß, wo still es will verbluten,
Und vergehn in Tränenfluten,

Daß, wo brünstig sein Gebet
Einzig um Erlösung fleht,
Da der Engel niederschwebt,
Und es sanft gen Himmel hebt.

Ja, es stieg auch mir ein Engel nieder,
Und auf leuchtendem Gefieder
Führt er, ferne jedem Schmerz,
Meinen Geist nun himmelwärts!

In childhood's early days
I often heard talk of angels,
Who would exchange Heaven's bliss
For the Earth's sunlight,

So that, when a heart in sorrow
Languishes hidden from the world,
So that, when it wishes quietly to grieve,
And melt away in a flood of tears,

So that, when it prays fervently
Only for release from life,
Then the angel descends
And gently raises it to Heaven.

Yes, an angel has also descended to me,
And on shining wings
Bears aloft, far from every pain,
My soul now heavenward!

"Der Engel," sung by Kirsten Flagstad accompanied by a young Gerald Moore:

Although the piano version foregrounds the singer's voice, to me it seems that the orchestra has a richness and emotional effect in this song that the piano can't match.

Richard Strauss: "Morgen!" from Vier Lieder (Four Songs), Op. 27 (1894)

Richard Strauss about 1890.

The Vier Lieder were written as a wedding present from Strauss to his bride, soprano Pauline de Ahna. They were married in September 1894 after a summer during which Strauss conducted Wagner's Tannhäuser at the Bayreuth Festival with Pauline in the role of Elisabeth, whose pure love and self-sacrifice offer redemption to the hero. (By all accounts Pauline was not a particularly self-sacrificing person.)

"Morgen!", the final song of the series, sets a poem by Strauss's acquaintance John Henry Mackay. As Alan Blyth has written, this is "a song of deep rapture," in which two lovers find their joy reflected in the sun, earth and sea. [4] These songs were originally written for voice and piano, but Strauss ultimately orchestrated three of them, "Morgen!" just a few years after its initial composition.

Pauline de Ahna as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser at the Bayreuth Festival, 1894. 
Photograph by A. Pieperhoff.

"Morgen!" sung by Gundula Janowitz with the Academy of London conducted by Richard Stamp:


Und morgen wird die Sonne wieder scheinen,
Und auf dem Wege, den ich gehen werde,
Wird uns, di Glücklichen, sie wieder einin
Inmitten dieser sonnenatmenden Erde.

Und zu dem Strand, dem weiten, wogenblauen,
Werden wir still und langsam niedersteigen.
Stumm werden wir uns in die Augen Schauen,
Und auf uns sinkt des Glückes stummes Schweigen.

And tomorrow again the sun will shine,
and I will follow the path
that will again unite us in our happiness
Amid this sun-breathing earth.

And to the shore, those wide blue waves,
we shall quietly and slowly climb down.
Silently we shall gaze into each other's eyes,
and upon us will fall the wordless silence of happiness.

"Morgen!" sung by Lucia Popp with Irwin Gage in Strauss's original piano arrangement:

I love how in both versions the singer enters as if the opening of the song had been a pause in mid-conversation (". . .And tomorrow. . ."). And how in the piano version the accompaniment falls silent at the words "Stumm werden wir. . ." (Silently we shall. . .) If for me this song's sense of both stillness and exaltation is more fully expressed in the orchestral version, both singers indeed convey a sense of rapture.

Gustav Mahler: "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" from Fünf Rückertlieder (Five Rückert Songs, 1901-02)

Gustav Mahler by Emil Orlik, 1902 (detail)

The summer of 1901 was the first Mahler spent in his new villa among the trees on the shore of the Wörthersee in Austria. At the time the composer was also the musical director of the Vienna Court Opera; his tenure was stormy and the workload was heavy, so he relished the summer months he spent away from the city at his quiet composing retreat.

Retreat from the clamor of the world is the explicit subject of "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" (I am lost to the world), one of several poems by Friedrich Rückert that Mahler set that summer.

"Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" performed by Janet Baker with the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli:


Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,
Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben,
Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen,
Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben!

Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen,
Ob sie mich für gestorben hält,
Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen,
Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt.

Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel,
Und ruh' in einem stillen Gebiet!
Ich leb' allein in meinem Himmel,
In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied!

I am lost to the world,
with which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing of me for so long,
that it may well believe I am dead!

To me it is of not the slightest concern
Whether it thinks me dead,
I cannot deny it,
for in truth I am dead to the world.

I am dead to the world's tumult,
And I rest in a quiet place!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love, in my song!

In 1998 the great mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt (later Lorraine Hunt Lieberson), accompanied by the pianist Roger Vignoles, performed the Five Rückert Songs in a recital at London's Wigmore Hall. (My partner and I attended a recital she gave in Berkeley's Hertz Hall a few years later that was one of the most most affecting live performances I'll ever witness; "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" was the final song in that program.) From the Wigmore Hall recital:

The extraordinarily poignant quality of Lorraine Hunt's performance is marred only by intrusive audience applause at the end (this song was performed as the final song in the full cycle), so from the embedded video I've cut out the applause. If you follow the link, I recommend that you pause the video at the 6:44 mark.

Fortunately there is no need to choose between Janet Baker and Lorraine Hunt; I would not want to be without either of these profoundly moving performances.

Alban Berg: "Traumgekrönt" from Sieben frühe Lieder (Seven Early Songs, 1905-1908)

Alban Berg.

Alban Berg was in his early 20s when he composed the Sieben frühe Lieder under the tutelage of Arnold Schoenberg. The original compositions were piano lieder; two decades later Berg revised and orchestrated the songs. They are strongly influenced by Wagner, Mahler, and (especially) Richard Strauss, but also show the incorporation of atonal techniques favored by Schoenberg.

But these songs aren't, or at least don't sound to me, entirely atonal. In fact, in Berg's setting of one of Rainer Maria Rilke's early Traumgekrönt poems (it is No. 2 of the "Lieben" series) there is what sounds like a shift from minor to major at the words "Und dann, dann kamst du mir. . .," (And then, then you came to me. . .) and again a few lines later at "Du kamst. . ." (You came. . .).

Those apparent shifts in key are not as striking in the piano version, and of course a composer can create fewer effects of tone color with a piano than with an orchestra. As a result, though, to my ears the piano versions sound less radical than the orchestral versions. I first encountered these pieces in a recital by Renée Fleming; with piano accompaniment the Berg songs did not seem wildly out of place when performed along with 19th-century lieder; with orchestra they have a different character: they sound dark, eerie, and very modern.

"Traumgekrönt" sung by Anne Sofie von Otter with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Claudio Abbado:


Das war der Tag der weißen Chrysanthemen,
Mir bangte fast vor seiner Pracht. . .
Und dann, dann kamst du mir die Seele nehmen
Tief in der Nacht. . .

Mir war so bang, und du kamst lieb und leise,
Ich hatte grad im Traum an dich gedacht.
Du kamst, und leis' wie eine Märchenweise
Erklang die Nacht.

That was the day of white chrysanthemums;
I was almost fearful of their splendor. . .
And then, then you came to take my soul
Deep in the night. . .

I felt so anxious, and you came sweetly and softly;
I had just been dreaming of you.
You came, and softly, as in a fairy tale,
the night reverberated.

"Traumgekrönt" sung by Anne Sofie von Otter accompanied by Bengt Forsberg:

Erich Korngold: "Liebesbriefchen" from Sechs einfache Lieder (Six simple songs, 1911-1913)

Erich Korngold.

Amazingly, Korngold was only 14 when he began writing the Sechs einfache Lieder. As a child prodigy he had been taken at age 8 by his father to play for Mahler, who declared him a genius and encouraged him to take lessons with the composer Alexander Zemlinsky. By the time Korngold entered his teens he was famous. His ballet Der Schneemann (The Snowman, orchestrated by Zemlinsky) had been given a command performance at the Vienna Court Opera in 1910 for the Emperor's name-day, and his Piano Sonata No. 2 was premiered by Artur Schnabel. Richard Strauss said, "One’s first reaction that these compositions are by a child are those of awe and concern that so precocious a genius should follow its normal development. . .This assurance of style, this mastery of form, this characteristic expressiveness, this bold harmony, are truly astonishing!" [5]

"Liesbesbriefchen" is the setting of a poem by Elisabeth Honold, about whom I am unable to find any information. Barbara Hendricks performing the song with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Möst:


Fern von dir denk' ich dein,
Einsam bin ich, doch mir blieb
treue Lieb'.
Was ich denk', bist nur, nur du,
Sehe stets hold und licht
dein Gesicht.
Und in mir immer zu
tönest du.
Bist's allein, die die Welt
mir erhellt.
Ich bin dein, Liebchen fein,
denke mein, denk' mein!


Far from you, I think of you,
I am lonely, but my love
remains true.
I think only, only of you,
my heart's peace.
Before me ever I see your bright and
lovely face.
And within me I always
hear your voice.
It is you alone who lights up
my world.
I am yours, my dearest love,
think of me, think of me!

For me it's difficult to untangle my preference for Anne Sofie von Otter's vocal performance of this song from my feeling that while the orchestration is lush, the piano accompaniment has an intimacy which better matches that of the poem.

So I think that Richard Wigmore's comparison of piano versions to a sketch and orchestral versions to a painting isn't really the best metaphor, or perhaps it has more shades of meaning than he intended. For one thing he seems to be implying a value judgment: drawings, he seems to say, are a lesser form than painting, as a piano arrangement is just a diminished version of the orchestral. There are indeed songs, such as "Der Engel" or "Morgen!", for which the orchestra powerfully conveys the sweeping, surging emotions. But what about songs, such as "Nacht und Träume" or "Liebesbriefchen," where the piano version expresses the desired sense of intimacy, and the orchestral version seems overblown?

Drawings are an artistic form in their own right, not just a lesser version of painting. A sketch is simply the right medium for some subjects; and as I've learned, sometimes the piano version is right for a song.

Update 16 August 2017: I wanted to alert readers in the SF Bay Area that LIEDER ALIVE! will be opening their 2017-18 Liederabend Series  with a Mahlerfest concert, featuring Kindra Scharich and the Alexander String Quartet performing transcriptions by ASQ first violinist Zakarias Grafilo of three of Mahler's orchestral lieder cycles: Songs of a Wayfarer, Rückert-Lieder, and Kindertotenlieder. I'm very much looking forward to the concert performance and the upcoming recording of these versions, which promise to "combine the lushness of the orchestral versions with the intimacy of chamber music."

Along with performances by Anne Sofie von Otter, Andreas Scholl and Philippe Jaroussky, Kindra Scharich's opening concert of the 2016-17 Liederabend Series and her performance for SF Music Day were among my Favorites of 2016.

  1. Richard Wigmore, "Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder: which recording is best?" Gramophone Magazine, 21 July 2014:
  1. You can hear the piano version of "Nacht und Träume" performed by Elly Ameling with Dalton Baldwin in my recent post on Terence Davies' film A Quiet Passion; the orchestral version can be heard on YouTube in a performance by Anne Sofie von Otter with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Claudio Abbado.
  1. Quoted in Matthew Gurewitsch, "Why Shouldn't Men Sing Romantic Drivel, Too?" New York Times, 6 Nov. 2005:
  1. Alan Blyth, "Strauss: Ten Songs," in Song on Record 1. Lieder, Alan Blyth, ed. Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 316.
  1. Quoted in Brendan G. Carroll. "Korngold, Erich Wolfgang." Oxford Music Online.

Sunday, August 13, 2017


I rarely post about politics on this blog. I can't remain silent, though, about the still-unfolding events in Charlottesville, Virginia. That an anti-racist protestor, Heather Heyer, has been killed and dozens upon dozens injured over the past few days is appalling. And that two state police pilots, Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Berke M.M. Bates, also died in a helicopter crash yesterday just compounds the horror.

You can read remembrances of Heather Heyer here:

Heather Heyer, Charlottesville Victim, Is Recalled as 'a Strong Woman'

I realize that the protests are not really about a statue. They are about the resurgence of hate, and that resurgence has to be opposed wherever it manifests itself.

But I think that the focus of social justice movements on symbols—statues and the names of parks—is misguided. There's an article in Slate about the racist history of the establishment of the Charlottesville parks and the dedications of the statues which you can read here:

Tools of Displacement: How Charlottesville, Virginia’s Confederate statues helped decimate the city’s historically successful black communities.

There is also an eloquent article by Charlottesville mayor Michael Signer about why he opposes removing the statues that can be read here:

Why I voted no on removing my city’s Confederate statue

In that position he is supported by many community members. As Signer writes,
Numerous Charlottesville African-American residents who have lived through decades of suppression of their history oppose removal on the grounds that it would be yet another example of hiding their experience. For them, transforming the statues in place forces remembrance of the dominance of slavery and Jim Crow white supremacy.

Read more here:
I agree. Removing these symbols erases history, and enables the whitewashing (to coin a phrase) of centuries of official support of white supremacist ideology. Take down the statues, rename the parks, and the next generation will not have to confront that history. As a former resident of Charlottesville, I feel that leaving the statues and the parks in place but contextualizing them with informative public displays and counter-symbols would provide thoughtful teachers, civic leaders, artists and ordinary citizens with opportunities to openly explore, and perhaps some day come to terms, with the legacies of the past.

The second thing to say is that Robert E. Lee, whose statue is the focus of the protests, was a complex figure. He opposed Southern secession and by his own testimony did not offer his services to the Confederacy in order to defend slavery (after the war he stated that "So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished"). He was in favor of state-funded education for black citizens, although he also opposed extending to black men the right to vote (of course, at this time white women also didn't have the right to vote). To view Lee simplistically as a monolithic symbol of white supremacy and hatred is a distortion.

The final thing to say is, that if you decide to make war on symbols from the past based on modern-day moral standards, it's not clear where you'd be able to stop. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, and George Washington were slaveowners; so, too, probably, was Alexander Hamilton. Abraham Lincoln married into a slave-owning family, and his attitudes towards racial equality were equivocal. That's a lot of monuments to tear down.

I think it's important not to kid ourselves: the fundamental motives of civic and institutional leaders who agree to remove monuments are not just a concern for justice but also a desire to eliminate sources of uncomfortable civic contention. Far better, I think, to leave the monuments of the past where they are and engage in dialogue, debate, and counter-symbolism instead of historical erasure.

Whether you agree or disagree, thanks for reading this.

Update 15 August 2017: In a press conference today Donald Trump made his own version of the argument I pose in the next-to-last paragraph: "I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?"

The first thing to say is that Trump's comments on the protests have been appalling, and are yet another demonstration, as if any were needed, of the moral and intellectual vacuity of the man who holds our highest office. And that Trump has adopted, even partially, any of my own reasoning about this question immediately makes me think I have to reevaluate my position.

In a nuanced and thoughtful article in the New York Times tonight by Jennifer Schuessler, historians consider Trump's question and respond to some of his other comments about the events in Charlottesville. One of the historians that Schuessler quotes is James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association. On the question of monuments, Schuessler writes:
"Mr. Grossman noted that most Confederate monuments were constructed in two periods: the 1890s, as Jim Crow was being established, and in the 1950s, during a period of mass Southern resistance to the civil rights movement.

"'We would not want to whitewash our history by pretending that Jim Crow and disenfranchisement or massive resistance to the civil rights movement never happened,' he said. 'That is the part of our history that these monuments testify to.'"
You can read the entire article here: Historians Question Trump’s Comments on Confederate Monuments.

Update 16 August 2017: Baltimore removed its Confederate monuments last night after the City Council voted for their removal on Monday. From the New York Times: Baltimore Removes Confederate Statues in Overnight Operation

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A Quiet Passion

Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson and Jennifer Ehle as her sister Lavinia in A Quiet Passion

A Quiet Passion, writer-director Terence Davies' film of the life of Emily Dickinson, has been widely praised. The New Yorker's Richard Brody calls it "a powerfully insightful and shatteringly empathetic bio-pic," while the New York Times' A. O. Scott writes that Davies "possesses a poetic sensibility perfectly suited to his subject."

Visually, perhaps. The film is filled with striking images (cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister), not to mention beautifully re-created 19th-century clothing and interiors. The friends who thought this aspect of the film would appeal to us were absolutely right.

But if Davies possesses a poetic sensibility beyond the visual, it isn't evident from his script. From its very first scenes of a young Emily (Emma Bell) scandalizing her teachers by refusing to attend church A Quiet Passion has the wrong tone. It's hard to say whether the acting is as bad as it sounds, whether the stiff line readings are the director's fault, or whether the blame rests with the stilted dialogue the actors are asked to recite, but I would guess it's a combination of all three. Davies may have a striking visual sense, but he has a tin ear.

Things don't improve very much after a transition to the world of the adult Emily (Cynthia Nixon). In place of conversation the characters lob epigrams at one another. Worst in this regard is Emily's friend Vryling Wilder Buffam (Catherine Bailey), who sounds as though she thinks she's appearing as Lady Bracknell in a dinner-theater production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Perhaps we can be grateful that there was no attempt to replicate patterns of speech from 19th-century New England; on the other hand, the wide range of accents displayed include many that to my ear are more blandly suggestive of Anaheim than Amherst.

Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson and Jodhi May as her sister-in-law Susan in A Quiet Passion

The only actors whose performances rise above the leaden script are Jennifer Ehle as Emily's sister Lavinia and Jodhi May as Emily's sister-in-law Susan. Not surprisingly, both have extensive stage and BBC television experience. Ehle was a luminous Elizabeth Bennet in the superb 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice and has won two Tonys; May has many stage and screen credits, including significant roles in the BBC adaptations of Daniel Deronda and Emma.

Davies' script makes Emily at times sound smug and self-satisfied, which does not match my perception of this supremely self-questioning artist. There is no doubt that Emily's deep strangeness and intensity could be disconcerting: her later editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson (inexplicably absent from the film) wrote after an in-person visit that she "drained my nerve power. . .Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her." But Davies' Emily is often deliberately rude and dismissive, particularly during an uncomfortable tea with a local clergyman and his wife. The black-and-white dichotomies that Davies sets up—the free-thinking artist versus the dull, convention-bound bourgeoise—lack subtlety, to say the least. And as Scott writes in his review, "the enemy of poetry is obviousness." Indeed.

More evidence that Davies is tone-deaf:  early in the film Emily attends a concert, and the singer onstage warbles an opera aria painfully off-key. My partner and I looked at each other: was this a parody, or a joke? Evidently not. As I discovered later, the singer is supposed to be Jenny Lind, "the Swedish Nightingale." At the time Lind was the most famous singer in the world. Her American concert tours in the 1850s were mobbed by frenzied crowds. The singer portraying her in the film, Marieke Bresseleers, is a Belgian pop star who was all too clearly overmatched by the music she was asked to sing.

Later in the film Bresseleers also provides the singing voice of Mabel Loomis Todd (Noemie Schellens) when she performs a shaky version of Schubert's "Nacht und Träume" (Night and Dreams). There, her off-key singing might have been indicative of what an amateur home lieder performance might plausibly sound like. But as Jenny Lind? No. And could Davies really not find a true opera singer to perform this music? Richard Brody writes, "All of Davies’s films are filled with music, but in 'A Quiet Passion' he raises cinematic musicality to a new height." I'm not sure what "cinematic musicality" is supposed to mean, but musical musicality certainly isn't raised to any discernible height in this movie.

Apart from its clunkiness, Davies' dialogue is also simply unbelievable. Midway through the film, Emily's father Edward Dickinson (Keith Carradine) has some news for her brother Austin (Duncan Duff):
Edward: "Fort Sumter has been fired upon."
Austin: "What does this mean?"
"What does this mean?" Again we wondered if this was supposed to be a joke. Is it conceivable that there would be an adult in Massachusetts in 1861, when the country was poised on the brink of civil war, who would not have immediately grasped the implications of the military forces of a secessionist state firing on those of the U.S. government? Never mind.

There is one moment of realness in Davies' script. When Emily returns to the family home after boarding school, she asks her father for his permission to stay up at night and write. Her pleading tells us volumes about Edward Dickinson's patriarchal sternness and the subordinate position of unmarried daughters in a 19th-century household. If only the rest of the script could have been so nuanced and insightful. Perhaps the next time that Terence Davies wants to make a period film he should let another Davies—Andrew—write the script.

Elly Ameling performing Schubert's "Nacht und Träume" with accompanist Dalton Baldwin.

(Matthäus Kasimir von Collin,
adapted by Franz Schubert)

Heil'ge Nacht, du sinkest nieder;
Nieder wallen auch die Träume
Wie dein Mondlicht durch die Räume,
Durch der Menschen stille Brust.

Die belauschen sie mit Lust;
Rufen, wenn der Tag erwacht:
Kehre wieder, heil'ge Nacht!
Holde Träume, kehret wieder!
(Matthäus Kasimir von Collin,
adapted by Franz Schubert)

Holy night, you sink down;
Down also drift dreams
Like moonlight from the heavens,
Through the quiet hearts of men.

They listen with longing
Calling out when the day awakes:
Come back, holy night!
Fair dreams, come back!

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Exotic and Irrational's 10th anniversary: 10 favorite posts

The internet technology in use when this blog began.

This week I'm celebrating the 10th anniversary of Exotic and Irrational Entertainment: my first post was published on July 22, 2007. Since that time I've published another 363 posts (including this one) which together have been viewed, to my astonishment, over 405,000 times. My profound thanks to everyone who has visited E & I over the past decade to read my thoughts and sometimes share their own.

Ten favorite posts

To mark the anniversary I've made a selection of 10 of my favorite posts. I've cheated by linking to post series and not just individual posts, but since I'm both making and enforcing the rules, I get to bend them at will. (Of course, my judgment about my favorite posts/series is rather unreliable, and is also subject to immediate and continual revision.) But here are 10 posts that struck me as perhaps worth revisiting. And if you are a new reader, these posts will certainly give you a sampling of my obsessions:

The first post: The Disappointment Artist (July 22, 2007)
"Sometimes the movies (and books and music and art) that are most immediately appealing don't end up sustaining our admiration, while those that are difficult, that we have to work a bit to understand (or that we find ourselves deliberately resisting), wind up being the ones we return to again and again."
It seemed appropriate for someone whose pseudonym means "the most pessimistic" to inaugurate this blog with a post about a book entitled The Disappointment Artist. The post focusses on the first essay in Jonathan Lethem's book, which is about John Ford's The Searchers. But I quickly followed a train of thought (not for the first or last time) and discussed instead my response to Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, which I disliked intensely at first.

Alfred Hitchock: Obsession, perversity and recapitulation: Hitchcock's Vertigo and its sources (September 13, 2015)

Of course, such is the gravitational pull of Vertigo that I had to return—some might say obsessively—to Hitchcock's masterpiece. I did so after seeing a little-known Cary Grant movie from 1932, Hot Saturday. There is a scene in that film in which, after being knocked unconscious during a drenching rainstorm, the heroine awakes to discover that she is in a strange bed and that all of her wet clothes have been removed and are hanging up to dry. The almost shot-by-shot parallels between that scene and a similar one in Vertigo are striking, and to my knowledge had never been noted before.

I would later notice similar parallels between a knife-murder that takes place in a Cuban bar in the 1946 film noir The Chase and the UN assassination scene in Hitchcock's great North by Northwest. You can read that post, and my post on Hitchcock's Rebecca, by following the Hitchcock tag.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: Fred & Ginger Parts 1 - 4 (December 19, 2009 - January 23, 2010)
"You may think you remember what a typical Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie is like. There's initial antagonism—they meet cute, but while he's instantly smitten, she is unimpressed. He pursues her; she rebuffs him, but eventually acquiesces to a dance. As they move in a sweeping, fluid duet to a gorgeously romantic song, now a standard, that was written for them—Irving Berlin's "Let's Face the Music and Dance," say, or "Cheek to Cheek"—she finds herself falling in love with this odd-looking but beautifully graceful man. . .So it was a bit of a shock to discover, as we began to re-watch the eight 1930s Astaire-Rogers comedies for RKO Pictures (excluding the musical biopic The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)), that only two of their first five movies together actually conform to this model."
Yes, Vertigo is my favorite film and Hitchcock my favorite director, but I don't just watch dark, perverse suspense films. For evidence you can see my posts on the films of Jean Arthur, Busby Berkeley, Ernst Lubitsch, Myrna Loy, Barbara Stanwyck and Pre-Code Hollywood. For a complete list of non-Indian movies discussed on E & I, please see the film index.

The Fred & Ginger series was in part sparked by my curiosity about how I would perceive the Astaire-Rogers movies several decades after seeing them for the first time. It was also in part a response to Arlene Croce's The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book (Outerbridge and Lazard, 1972), a copy of which I'd come across in a used bookstore. As you'll see if you read the posts, I often disagree with Croce's judgments about the films. But no one would disagree that seeing Astaire and Rogers dance together is one of the most purely enjoyable experiences in the history of cinema.

Rekha in Umrao Jaan (Beloved Umrao, 1981); image from Indian Cinema: Philip's Fil-ums

The first post on Indian cinema: Why I Love Bollywood (July 27, 2007)
"I'm a Bollywood-loving white guy. I want to make it clear that I'm not some hipster whose ironic or camp 'appreciation' is really a form of mockery—I truly enjoy Bollywood movies, and what's more I find myself unexpectedly moved by them."
A major inspiration for starting this blog was the articulate, thoughtful, and highly enjoyable writing by a group of Bollywood fans including Beth, Filmi Girl, Filmiholic, Memsaab, theBollywoodFan, Philip Lutgendorf, and many others who longer post, alas. Still, despite these excellent examples I felt the need to explain, or at least examine, my newfound love of Indian movies.

The opening sentences of this post would later cause some cross-cultural misunderstanding; for details, see the comments of Non-Indian fans of Bollywood Part II. To see all of my reviews of Indian films, take a look at my Indian film index.

Seeing things overlooked the first time: Vivah and India's missing daughters (July 10, 2011)
"On my first viewing of Vivah I called it 'porn for parents.' I wrote,
'Almost every character is unrelentingly good, and except for the last few minutes the story is almost entirely lacking in drama. Instead, we're treated to the beautifully photographed three-hour long spectacle of the 'journey from engagement to marriage' of two really nice young people from really nice families.

I loved it.'"
But by the second time I watched Sooraj Barjatya's Vivah (Marriage, 2006) I had become more aware of a real-world issue that Vivah addresses, obliquely but almost certainly intentionally. In 1990 the Indian economist Amartya Sen (later to win the Nobel Prize) wrote a now-famous article for the New York Review of Books entitled "More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing." He found, after studying demographic statistics for South Asia, China, Africa, and other areas, that there were more than 100 million fewer women than would be expected. One reason women in India are missing, as researchers Prabhat Jha, Shirish Seth and others have shown, is that girls are selectively aborted, particularly after one daughter has already been born.

Celebrating, honoring and valuing daughters is one of the main themes of Vivah. The second time I watched it I realized that Barjatya was addressing the issue of India's missing daughters, and detailed that realization in this post.

About ten months after I wrote this post, the first episode of Aamir Khan's journalistic television show Satyamev Jayate was devoted to the issue of gender selection in India. I sometimes have wondered whether the information cited in this post was part of the background for that episode. That speculation is not completely far-fetched, since a significant proportion of E & I pageviews are from India, and this post is among the most-viewed on this blog. Whether or not there is any connection, I would be deeply honored if this post had even a small impact on such a vital issue.

I later returned (briefly) to Vivah to touch on its connections to the Ram-Sita story—only, with the trial by fire becoming a test of the hero's worthiness of the heroine, and not the other way around—in Bollywood heroes: Ram vs. Krishna part 1.

Beyond Bollywood: Films by Satyajit Ray featuring Madhabi Mukherjee (December 15, 2015 - January 2, 2016)

When I would mention my enjoyment of Bollywood movies, friends and acquaintances would often look at me with incomprehension, disdain or pity. Although I thought those feelings were misplaced, I had long been wanting to see some of the major films of the renowned Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray. But the terrible prints of the Apu Trilogy and other films that were in circulation were a barrier to my appreciation of his work. I actually walked out of a theatrical screening of Pather Panchali because the umpteenth-generation print was so badly scratched and the print had such high contrast that the images were barely visible and the subtitles unreadable. It was like watching a poor photocopy of a movie.

But then the Criterion Collection undertook the restoration of many of Ray's early films, and I could finally see their gorgeous black-and-white cinematography (often by Subrata Mitra) in something approximating its original glory. So I did finally get to see the Apu Trilogy, and particularly enjoyed The World of Apu (featuring Soumitra Chatterjee and a young Sharmila Tagore).

But I think my favorite of Ray's Criterion Collection films are the three he made in the early sixties with the luminous Bengali actress Madhabi Mukherjee. In Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963, cinematography by Mitra) she plays a young wife seeking work outside her home in opposition to her husband and father-in-law; in Charulata (1964, cinematography by Mitra) she is a stifled and lonely wife whose husband's attention is consumed by his political interests; and in Kapurush (The Coward, 1965, cinematography by Soumendu Roy) she is the wife of a boorish plantation owner in a remote village who has an unexpected encounter with a former lover. As I wrote in the post Favorites of 2016: Movies and television, "All are brilliantly realized."

18th-century literature: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (July 26 - August 29, 2016)
". . .she was the medical heroine who introduced smallpox inoculation to Britain, saving thousands of lives. She was also an acclaimed poet, a woman noted for her learning and wit, and the first Western woman to give an account of Ottoman culture."
Lady Mary lived a life of extraordinary adventure, eloping with her best friend's brother to avoid a forced marriage to a man she hated, forming erotic attachments to both men and women, travelling to Turkey overland in winter (and quickly adopting Turkish dress and health practices, such as immersion bathing, antiseptic birth rituals, and having her infant son inoculated for smallpox), and in middle age abandoning her husband and adult children to pursue a much younger man to Europe. Much of her writing was destroyed by herself or her relatives; we only have her letters about her experiences in the Ottoman lands because the manuscript was pirated.

Lady Mary was only one of many extraordinary women in this period; I wrote about some other literary women of the 18th century, such as Eliza Haywood, Charlotte Lennox, Fanny Burney, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Charlotte Smith, in the series Jane Austen's predecessors.

Victorian Literature: The Victorians and opera: Trollope meets Verdi (September 4, 2011)
"I have looked for evidence that Trollope might have seen performances of La Traviata, and have found it."
It was a great surprise to me when I started reading the novels of Anthony Trollope—and discovered that I enjoyed them immensely. This was my first post devoted to one of Trollope's novels (I had previously written about some of the Palliser novels in the context of abandoning the 1970s BBC series The Pallisers a few minutes into the first episode). In The Last Chronicle of Barset there is a scene that is strongly reminiscent of a key moment in Verdi's opera La Traviata (The Fallen Woman, 1853); I was able to determine that it was highly likely that Trollope had seen a production of the opera before writing that scene.

A few weeks later I would go on to write a three-part series on Trollope's Chronicles of Barsetshire, the Palliser novels, and some other works. To see this series and my other posts on Trollope, please follow the Anthony Trollope tag.

I've also written about other 19th- and early-20th-century writers including Jane Austen, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, the Bronte sisters, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, Susan Ferrier, Gustave Flaubert and his translator Eleanor Marx, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Gissing, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Thomas Moore, Alexander Pushkin, William Thackeray, and Edith Wharton. For a complete list of the books discussed on E & I, please see the book index.

Opera: Opera guides 1 - 6 (January 4, 2008 - August 25, 2009)

I came to love opera through a highly unconventional path. Most people, I suspect, first encounter the form through one of its mainstay 19th-century works. Of the ten most-performed operas of the past five years, seven were written in the century between the end of the Napoleonic wars and the beginning of World War I, and five of those seven were composed by Verdi or Puccini. For us, though, the conversion experience was Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, a 17th-century opera in English that's about an hour long. And we saw it in a performance by the Mark Morris Dance Company, in which Morris himself danced both Dido, Queen of Carthage, and her enemy, an evil sorceress. A less typical opera experience would be difficult to find.

I started the Opera Guide series, not in the expectation that anyone else would necessarily follow the same path to appreciation of the form, but just to introduce some of my favorite operas. In chronological order by date of first performance, they include:
Claudio Monteverdi and Giovanni Busenello's L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea, 1642), which features some of the most corrupt, ruthless, and cynical characters in opera (Opera guide 5).

Henry Purcell and Nahum Tate's Dido & Aeneas (1689), our opera conversion experience (Opera guide 1).

George Frideric Handel's Alcina (1735), where loss of magical power becomes a metaphor for the loss of erotic power (Opera guide 6).

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte's Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786), in my estimation the greatest (and most warmly humane) opera ever written (Opera guide 2).

Giacomo Puccini, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa's La bohème (The Bohemians, 1896), which deserves its place as the most popular opera of all time (Opera guide 4).

Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Der Rosenkavalier (The Rose-Bearer, 1911), which contains some of the most sublime music in all opera (Opera guide 3). For the fascinating story of the sources of many of this opera's characters and scenes in the contributions of Count Harry Kessler to the libretto, please read The Rosenkavalier trio.
When I began the Opera Guide series I said that it would be open-ended. Although I haven't added to it since 2009, I have continued to write about opera regularly on this blog (to the dismay, no doubt, of some of my readers). For a list of operas discussed on E & I, please see the opera index.

Attunement: Conversion experiences (May 18, 2015)

How a typically insightful essay by Zadie Smith, a brilliant work by choreographer Mark Morris, the generosity of Dwayne to a regular customer of his San Francisco shoe-shine stand, and a few moments in an otherwise forgettable film each made me realize "the importance of re-evaluating my judgments, revisiting my conclusions, and trying always to remain open to changing my mind."

The future (?) of Exotic and Irrational Entertainment

Of course, ten posts aren't enough to cover the range of the subjects I've considered over the past decade: I didn't have room to include any posts on punk and post-punk music, BBC television series, contemporary fiction, behavioral economics and decision theory, chamber music and lieder. . .the list goes on.

I sometimes feel like E & I is one of the last blogs standing; everyone else seems to have decamped for Instagram, Twitter or Tumblr. As regular readers know all too well, though, I don't think I'm cut out for microblogging.

But despite having too little time to write, too many things that interest me, and finding the whole process of putting my thoughts into semi-permanent form to be pretty agonizing, I have no plans to stop anytime soon. I hope that in another decade you'll be reading my 20th anniversary post; until then, thank you again for spending time with E & I.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Jane Austen, 1775-1817

Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra, ca. 1810 (detail)

As it is now probably impossible not to know, Jane Austen died 200 years ago on July 18, 1817. I thought I would mark the sad occasion by inviting you to visit (or perhaps re-visit) my posts on Austen, her novels, film and television adaptations of her books, and the some of the writers who influenced her.

Six months with Jane Austen: Last year I spent six months re-reading the six novels she prepared or intended for publication, and wrote about some of their implicit and explicit themes.

Six months with Jane Austen: The plan

"Hasn't enough been written already about Jane Austen?" I wrote, just before adding more words to the millions devoted to Austen and her novels. "Perhaps it's just my impression, but I seem to be detecting a bit of Austen fatigue. . .For some readers her novels may have come to seem too genteel: what relevance can love stories set among the 19th-century British gentry have for our time of seemingly endless war, rising inequality, and human trafficking?

"But war, inequality, and human trafficking were inescapable features of Austen's world as well, and the novels actually say quite a bit about these issues." I outlined my plan to do a post every month on Austen's novels in the order of their publication. In the end there were 11 posts in all, written in the hope "that they may inspire your own reading or re-reading."

Sense and Sensibility: Inheritance and money

"Questions of inheritance are central to all of Austen's novels, but are particularly fundamental to Sense and Sensibility," I wrote. When the Dashwood estate is bequeathed to a male relative, the Dashwood sisters and their mother discover that they are unwelcome guests in what was formerly their home. And over the course of the novel, Edward Ferrars (the undeclared beau of Elinor Dashwood) and Willoughby (the undeclared beau of her younger sister Marianne) are both disinherited. The loss of expected wealth results in romantic crises that bring joy to one sister, and tears to the other.

Pride and Prejudice: The marriage market

"At a time when few women had sufficient means to live independently and divorces were difficult to obtain, the choice of a marriage partner was a fateful one. It was also a difficult one, thanks to a combination of interrelated demographic, geographic, and economic factors," I wrote. "At the beginning of the 19th century only about a third of the population of England lived in towns of 2500 inhabitants or more, and London was the only city with more than 100,000 inhabitants. Most women faced a pool of potential suitors that was indeed 'confined and unvarying.'" As do the Bennet sisters—until, that is, dashing strangers come to the neighborhood of Longbourn. . .

Mansfield Park:

Mansfield Park, an estate built on "the ruin and labour of others"

"In Mansfield Park we learn that Sir Thomas Bertram is the owner of an 'Antigua estate.' Antigua was one of the 'sugar islands' of the West Indies, where virtually all the cultivable land had been converted to the production of sugar," I wrote. "Sugar was the main driver of the slave trade: about two-thirds of all the slaves brought from Africa to the New World were sent to areas of intensive sugar cultivation. . .Mansfield Park has been built with the wealth produced by slaves."

Lord Mansfield and the antislavery movement

That Austen intended the connection with the horrors of slavery to be made by her readers is evident from the name of Sir Thomas' estate. Lord Mansfield was the Chief Justice of the Court of King's Bench, the highest court in Britain, and had ruled against slave-owners in two important legal cases that were key to the antislavery movement.

Fanny Price and Dido Elizabeth Belle

Lord Mansfield was also the adoptive father of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of his nephew and a freed slave, Maria Belle. Dido held the role in his household of a "'loved but poor relation,'" and may have been a model for Mansfield Park's heroine, Fanny Price. Fanny has grown to young womanhood at Mansfield Park, and has long secretly loved her cousin Edmund, the younger son of Sir Thomas. But dazzled by the worldly Mary Crawford, will Edmund (and the rest of the Bertrams) ever recognize Fanny's true worth?

Emma: The fate of unmarried women

Emma Woodhouse is "handsome, clever and rich"; as an heiress she has no need (as most women do) to marry to assure her future financial security. But what of the "'immovable plight of the single woman without money'"? Emma, although it is Austen's sunniest novel, offers bleak portraits of three possible fates awaiting women from the genteel classes who lack means: parlour-border (Harriet Smith), impoverished old maid (Miss Bates), or governess (Jane Fairfax).

Northanger Abbey: Women writers and readers 
One way for a woman to gain an independent income was to become a writer. But such a choice was perilous: "it lay on the fringes of respectability, involved a substantial degree of financial risk, and offered only a modest promise of return." Nonetheless, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries women increasingly entered the literary marketplace as writers and readers. New modes of distribution such as circulating libraries made both publishing and reading more economically feasible, and Jane Austen tried to take full advantage of these new opportunities.

In the character of Northanger Abbey's heroine Catherine Morland, Austen gently satirizes her own teenaged taste for Gothic novels. There is a mystery at Northanger Abbey, to which Catherine is invited as a visitor, but "that mystery. . .has its roots not in some lurid crime, as originally imagined by Catherine, but in ordinary human failings: greed, self-deception, anger." Catherine will learn that her love of the sensational colors her imagination perhaps too strongly, but this does not call the value or pleasure of reading into question. As one of Austen's most appealing heroes, Henry Tilney, tells her, "The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid."


The British Navy at war
Jane Austen's sailor brothers
Of Austen's novels, Persuasion is the one "most profoundly affected by war." Several of its characters have been directly touched by it. Admiral Croft is a hero of Trafalgar; and his brother-in-law Captain Wentworth is home on leave after the Battle of Santo Domingo in 1806 when he proposes to Anne Elliot. Elements of the characters and careers of Captain Wentworth and his friend Captain Harville seem drawn from the wartime experiences of Jane Austen's sailor brothers, Francis and Charles: Francis, for example, was home on leave after the Battle of Santo Domingo in the summer of 1806 when he got married.

The naval prize-money he has won through his almost suicidal bravery enables Captain Wentworth to seek a wife once peace is apparently at hand in the summer of 1814. But eight years after Anne was reluctantly persuaded to withdraw her consent, it is doubtful that Wentworth will be interested in renewing his addresses to the "gentle, wise, and steadfast" woman who still loves him.

Favorite (and least favorite) adaptations

A survey of 18 film and television versions of Austen's novels, including favorites such as the 1995 Persuasion, musts-to-avoid such as the 2007 Mansfield Park, and unexpected delights such as Kandukondain Kandukondain, a Tamil-language updating of Sense and Sensibility. This post also includes my final thoughts about the richly rewarding six months spent in the company of Austen, and a list of works by passionate scholars that were consulted in the writing of the series.

Jane Austen's predecessors: A continuing series on the authors who influenced Austen. A selection from this series of the writers whose works are significantly echoed in hers:

Fanny Burney:
Jane Austen's favorite novelist

In Northanger Abbey the narrator extolls three novels by title; two of them were written by Burney. And plot developments in Northanger Abbey echo aspects of Burney's Evelina, Cecilia and Camilla.
Jane Austen and Cecilia: A personal connection?
In Cecilia the heroine is mortifyingly rejected by the family of the man she loves, Mortimer Delvile. Austen herself may have experienced something similar when she and a potential suitor, Tom Lefroy, were abruptly separated by his family.

Cecilia later accepts Delvile's proposal, but almost immediately regrets her consent. "Yet to disappoint Delvile so late, by forfeiting a promise so positively accorded; to trifle with a man who to her had been uniformly candid, to waver when her word was engaged, and retract when he thought himself secure,—honour, justice and shame told her the time was now past." Jane Austen faced a similar crisis when she accepted the proposal of a close friend's brother. Like Burney's heroine, though, Austen summoned the courage to withdraw her consent. Perhaps these parallels to her own experience were one reason she felt that Burney's novels expressed "the most thorough knowledge of human nature."

Sensibility and sense: Camilla and Jane Austen
"Camilla, like Pride and Prejudice, follows the fortunes of five young women entering the marriage market in a small village in rural England." In Camilla there are also pre-echoes of Emma and Persuasion. But Austen also "recognized that the time of the novel of sensibility was past," and satirized it in her "Plan of a Novel according to Hints from Various Quarters."

Elizabeth Inchbald: "Do not read on—or be forever scarred": A Simple Story

Rehearsals for a performance of Elizabeth Inchbald's play A Lover's Vows, a translation and adaptation of German playwright August von Kotzebue's Das Kind der Liebe (Love Child), play a key role in Mansfield Park. So we know that Austen was familiar with Inchbald's work. It's not known whether Austen read Inchbald's novels, but in Inchbald's A Simple Story, "a beautiful and headstrong young heroine. . .disregards the admonishments of an older male mentor figure." I wrote that this "may sound familiar to readers of Emma."

Charlotte Lennox: The Female Quixote

Jane Austen read and enjoyed The Female Quixote, writing to her sister Cassandra that "it now makes our evening amusement; to me a very high one, as I find the work quite equal to what I remembered it." Arabella, the heroine, takes the French romances she reads to be literal, to the confusion and puzzlement of those around her. "Austen seems to have modelled Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, in part on Arabella; both characters have perhaps immersed themselves a bit too deeply in the worlds of their fictional reading." However, while on the surface The Female Quixote would seem to join in the condemnation of novel-reading by susceptible women, there is a subversive subtext: Lennox "suggests that women, in order to be fit for marriage and domesticity, must be 'cured' of their imaginations."

Samuel Richardson: Clarissa on a smartphone

The dashing and charismatic rake Lovelace woos, abducts, and ultimately rapes the heroine Clarissa, who then wastes away until she dies. This monument of 18th-century literature "clearly influenced Fanny Burney's Evelina (1778), in which the naïve heroine is subject to the aggressive pursuit of Sir Clement Willoughby, and Jane Austen's Elinor and Marianne (ca. 1795, later to be reworked in narrative form as Sense and Sensibility) in which the youthful Marianne is courted by the duplicitous Willoughby."

Charlotte Smith: "What have I to do now but learn to suffer?"

In Celestina, the orphaned heroine is raised (like Mansfield Park's Fanny Price) in the home of a wealthy relative. And, as in Mansfield Park, a son of this family falls in love with her. "His name, perhaps familiar to readers of Sense and Sensibility, is Willoughby." This is only one of multiple parallels between Celestina and several of Austen's novels. And is it a coincidence that a character in Smith's The Old Manor House asks of another, "'Why has she invincible pride, and obstinate prejudice?'"

Tracing Austen's influences does not diminish her accomplishments, but magnifies them. Although it's clear that she borrowed elements from other writers, she transformed them, creating characters that are more subtle, complex, and recognizable than their models. To paraphrase Ben Jonson on Shakespeare, Austen's novels are "not of an age, but for all time."

Watercolor of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra, ca. 1804