Pride & Prejudice & Elderly Fin-de-Siècle Actresses

Currently finishing the book – Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle. Yes, that is exciting. Except when it looks an awful lot like a person with a laptop and 9,000 printouts, who has inexplicably taken to writing her most important notes-to-self on small white squares of paper. Which blow everywhere. Given that I really need to finish the book, I am of course LITERALLY BURSTING with ideas for other creative and academic things.

this picture epitomises elizabeth bennet’s family / drink whenever mrs bennet

Sometimes these are useful. Sometimes they are the outline for a BBC Pride and Prejudice drinking game (drink when anybody says “Make haste!” drink when Mr Darcy looks like he’s swallowed an ostrich!), because 1) it is the single perfect piece of television in our time and 2) although popularly remembered as a witty comedy of manners about two witty and intelligent people who wittily and sexily find each other, it is actually about a witty, intelligent woman who is continually embarrassed by her family, and a young man wearing forty-nine layers of clothing who behaves like her embarrassing stalker and is continually dismayed like unto man who has sat down on a weasel.

The drinking game would also include “drink whenever a woman of mature years sports headgear like unto large burgundy shower-cap” and “drink whenever people discuss how Jane Bennet needs to Do More to entice Charles Bingley into matrimony, conveniently overlooking that thanks to Regency necklines she is practically topless“. There would be special shot forfeits whenever Mr Collins is sweaty and whenever you need strong liquors to sustain you in the face of imdb’s depressing responses to the perennial “Where are they now?” (this outstanding piece of television was apparently career Kryptonite for most of the supporting cast).

#marybennet2k15

Special mentions on rewatching also go to the fact that a) Lucy Briers, as Mary, does truly outstanding background acting every time David Bamber’s Mr Collins approaches the frame, and b) by today’s repulsive and totalitarian body standards, literally every young woman in the Bennett household would be considered a heifer and not allowed on TV. Do buy the DVD. Everything’s been especially remastered and the Making-Of Feature includes Colin Firth going flump onto a crash-mat.

imagine these 5 women with these 5 bodies being allowed to be the sexy leads on 2015 television

Anyway, so that this post may run the gamut of my current niche interests, back to the book. One of the late-stage/late-onset tasks in monograph completion is thinking about the images you’d like. This involves much foraging into online image archives, a job that I last did professionally, as a freelance rights assistant, and which I greatly preferred when I was being paid for it.

But never fear. This is not a post about anything as useful as “the process by which I decided certain images would best support and illuminate my text”. This is “Sophie Duncan’s personal guide to what the actresses in her monograph looked like when they were really, really old”.

‘Dame Madge Kendal’ (1928), by Sir William Orpen. Kendal was then aged 80.

Luckily for theatre and for me, my women tended to live long past their long careers. Madge Kendal was churning out her particular blend of vicious Victoriana as late as the 1930s in autobiographies, while Mrs Patrick Campbell saw the start of the Second World War.

Ellen Terry died somewhat earlier in 1928 (Kendal was palpably delighted to have outlived her), but – like Campbell – made a handful of films. Lillie Langtry died in 1929, as the if anything more languorously named Lillie, Lady de Bathe.

Ellen Terry (1847–1928), pictured in 1925.

There is something pathetic and unnerving in these images, of course – Ellen Terry’s eyes, made bleak by macular degeneration, in this film from 1925, and the frankly spooky sight of the most famous Victorian beauty dolled up by Cecil Beaton. Stella Campbell swelled up.

But they’re still there: more there, somehow, in the new and steadily more unflinching technologies of twentieth-century photography. They are a little ghostly, long past the century in which they made their fortunes and enjoyed so much professional and social freedom, but still marvellous.

Lillie Langtry (1853–1929), pictured by Cecil Beaton in 1928, aged 75..

I could also have included Sybil Thorndike (1882–1974), not because she’s the group’s sole successor, but because I think she was one of the most beautiful old women I’ve ever seen. It’s a frequent boast today that Britain’s older actresses do better across the Atlantic than their American sisters, because our women have had less recourse to surgery and retain more expression, character and emotional articulation. I like this idea a lot, of course, but I’m suspicious of the idea that Western culture has a special cache of appreciation for women’s character at any age. I think it’s perhaps just that some women get more beautiful as they get older (Judi Dench and Harriet Walter are two obvious examples).

Mrs Patrick Campbell (1865–1940), pictured by Cecil Beaton in 1938, aged 73.

In any case, it’s lovely for me, at the end of long, long familiarity with a handful of key images (Ellen Terry by Sargent; Madge as Galatea; anorexic Stella Campbell and Lillie Langtry’s bare legs as Cleopatra) to discover these women anew, once old. I hope you enjoy them too. Or, at least, that you enjoy this latest manifestation of a phenomenon wearily familiar to everyone who knows me in real life: my endless Weird Victorian Facts!

Elementary: the stroppy genius and the devoted helpmeet

Hello! I hope you’re well.  I’ve been to Grimsby. And Sheffield. I know how to live. I break my silence to deal with the five million or so posts that have been brewing over the summer. Naturally, the first is a rant about telly.
NOTE: given the spike in traffic, I think I should point out that this was written before seeing the preview, i.e. about my concerns re: the casting, rather than as a review of Elementary. I hope that clears things up!

I welcome adaptations of books that take the canon as a point of departure, rather than a blueprint. I may disagree that Elizabeth Bennett would ever have neglected her fringe, or played with pigs, but I will duly defend to the rights of writers and film-makers to jazz up, bastardise, queer, chop, and mess about with well-known literary works. This is probably why I enjoy studying Shakespeare in performance.

My views on adaptation particularly apply to radical re-imaginings of Sherlock Holmes: after all, if you don’t enjoy one version, there’ll be another along in a minute. There are three Sherlock franchises current in live media: BBC Sherbatch, the US Elementary, and the Robert Downey Jr. films. The original works by Conan Doyle are readily available, as are the ITV Granada adaptations with Jeremy Brett (the nearest thing to the books-in-motion).

Image shows Lucy Liu as Watson and Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes.Of these five incarnations of Holmes and Watson, the most recent, CBS’s Elementary has caused the greatest ructions by making the Watson of their New York-based adaptation a woman. Specifically, the Watson we’ll meet on 27 September is played by the Asian American actor Lucy Liu.

I am very happy for Watson to be a woman; it’s part of my broader policy of thinking we’re a good thing. Woman-as-sidekick is not exactly new or progressive (hat-tip to a British show where the profession of doctor-as-in-Doctor remains exclusively male), but, nevertheless, as a proud proponent of the feminist agenda, I’m excited by the story that could be told here. Conan Doyle’s John Watson is invalided out of the war in Afghanistan as a hero. Lucy Liu’s Watson is then, surely, the following: a woman of colour serving her country as an army doctor, thus succeeding at the apex of two historically racist and sexist institutions. Subsequently, she’s a veteran (presumably with physical and/or emotional challenges) adjusting to civilian life. A slightly less familiar trope than deerstalkers and seven per cent solutions.

Except Liu’s Watson isn’t going to be a hero. She’s been struck off. So instead of the Asian, female professional and military hero returning to metropolitan, post-injury life, we’ve got a woman of colour who failed at her own profession (most probably via malpractice, gross misconduct, or a  bigoted conspiracy) who – don’t despair! – finds new meaning as the helpmeet, conscience, caregiver and chronicler of a stroppy, white male genius without emotional IQ or social graces, but who does have a privileged background and an addictive personality. Great.

Byronic. Phwoar. But also, no.

I don’t need another incarnation of the female helpmeet who’s privileged to chronicle and mediate the unacceptable behaviours of a difficult male, and whose own achievements get forgotten as a result. Watson should be Holmes’s Boswell, not his Henrietta Bowdler, Dorothy Wordsworth, or Mary Shelley.

I’ll end by saying that I would be completely delighted to be proved wrong, and would rejoice in a new series that queers sex and race while triumphantly evading the depression of having Liu fall victim to the dynamic of male genius vs. female acolyte. Jonny Lee Miller played an absolutely splendid Byron – let’s hope Watson isn’t lost in the myth of the Byronic male.

early televised shakespeare

(Currently the idea is that) My doctoral research will look at Shakespeare performance history, focusing on stage performances of the Late Plays from about the 1860 to about 1933. I could go on, but the ideas are still as full of parentheses and italics as the King James Bible. But a post discussing television theatre before the war on the excellent Illuminations blog, makes me wonder how far I should include filmed performances. I’d thought about this in a leisurely way before, only been able to recollect one silent version of The Tempest (watched for interest, as an undergrad) and danced a mental jig, before shelving the thought again.

I’m not much further on (this post is just a placeholder), but reading John’s article made me realise how excited I am to be working on performance history in the first half of the twentieth century. Part of my Masters was a course on British Theatre 1850-1900 and 1950-2000, but 1900 (well, 1910-) to 1950 is something new. What I know so far hangs off (mostly) the later work of Terry, Achurch, Robbins and the Bensons – a heterogenous group.

Anyway, yes. It’s a sunny afternoon and I’ve spent it by the river, face-painted and reading stories to the under-5s, as part of the Stratford River Festival. Tomorrow, I’m going to see a friend perform his first Mass. My brain is enjoying a weekend off from work, and a chance to go ‘ooh, that’s interesting’ rather than dash between jobs. I’m also spring-cleaning and revisiting my teenage CD collection; without exception, anything that anyone could class as ‘good’ was burnt/bought for me by somebody else. This hasn’t changed.

P.S.: Happy Pride!

Bullingdon Revisited

Although few who know me will believe this, I do not, in fact, obsess over my blog statistics. When I first started this blog, those little graphs were something of an addiction, but the dependency wore off (Brrnrrd told me it would. At the time, developing RSI from the ‘refresh’ button, I didn’t believe her and took this as one more indication of her cool/nihilism/being totally dead inside). 

However. I just happened to check my hits this morning. And, apparently, today was Clamorous Voice’s second-busiest day, ever. All because of this post, and my incoherent-but-inviolable-views-on-the-Bullingdon. The Bullingdon Club (Oxford, tailcoats, Tories, wankers) has been on my mind again today, for the unrelated reason that yesterday my beloved (my Scottish male homosexual beloved; there are several) asked whether I’d been watching ITV’s Trinity. Apparently it is Just Like Our College. I can believe this. Whereas colleges like Queen’s, Trinity, most of the Sts and to some extent Worcester seem amiable but bland, everything about our own alma cogan has always been quite startlingly bonkers. I ought to do a post on college stereotypes one day, were it not for a) fear of libel, and b) almost all of my out-of-college friends were thesps and/or homosexuals, at least as an undergraduate, resulting in an extremely skewed but highly-coloured and entertaining version of events. But Trinity really does seem very boring.

Can only attribute ClVo’s  sudden surge in popularity to the fact that today is Sunday of 0th week (in English, the start of Oxford Freshers Week) and thus tiny Bullingdon wannabes are googling for advice. Mine is: don’t do it. Or, you know, in less spire-centric and more plausible news, because Channel 4 is fervently promoting When Boris Met Dave, a depressing look at the origins of everyone who’ll shortly be running the country (say it again: Oxford, tailcoats, Tories, wankers).

Anyway, hello to the first-time-callers; I hope you stick around.

swine flu no. 2

I still have swine flu. I am coughing and aching (EVERY JOINT. Apparently flu’s a generational thing on which we chillens missed out, although Katie’s had it and she’s only 25) and falling asleep at things. I am also simmering with resentment about how it is AUGUST, and GOOD WEATHER, and yet instead of the following —

  • being at the Fringe
  • earning money
  • travelling to distant lands and making an hilarious blog (English really needs ‘y’) about my time there, subsequently landing myself a book deal
  • writing a slim volume of something extraordinary
  • reading fat volumes of something(s) extraordinary(yies)
  • touring in a play
  • learning Welsh (my new LIFE PLAN, after ‘teaching deaf children’ and ‘photography’)

I am restricted to doing the following —

  • Watching all of Criminal Minds (note: this was nearly stopped this morning when my internet died. I spent half an hour composing impassioned posts about how it was wrong of the internet to stop when it is basically MY LIFELINE, then the internet came back on and I realised what an arse I was being),
  • Reading all of Achewood — I don’t even know. It’s not funny. It’s not clever. It’s certainly not attractive and yet I read at least two years’ worth yesterday. This despite the fact I can’t follow normal text unless it’s
  • Good Moon Rising, which is both AWESOME and DREADFUL and I so wish I’d read it at fifteen. Though it might have given me unreasonable expectations (it’s a gay, American Noel Streatfeild wherein nobody dies). Also I fell asleep midway through.
  • Falling asleep at my friends (do you see a theme?), and/or sending them emails which basically convey ‘bring me icecream’, and follow-up emails, ‘why isn’t the ice-cream here yet?’, and
  • Coughing. All the sodding time.

Crucially, I can only do the above in ten-minute bursts (well, except sleeping and watching CM) before exhaustion hits and I want to upchuck again (I am not actually upchucking). I now have no discernable interests except Criminal Minds and my own health. Can I say Criminal Minds some more? Criminal Minds. Criminal Minds. Criminal Minds.

I did make a blog for my photography, though (just slipping that one in). It’s here. I stole the title from a song recommended by somebody with better musical taste than me (possibilities: all). If you are my friend I will probably put your picture on there. I apologise in advance.