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Dear Friends,

These two reviews are written under the sign of Austen because I watched both to understand the genre of romantic melodrama and archetypes and norms shared by popular commercial drama and costume drama mini-series, as well as high status older novels by and for women (Austen comes in her) and recent popular ones too.

First Max Ophuls's 1948 Letter from an Unknown Woman. Screenplay is Howard Koch and it's based on a short story by Stefan Zweig. 

Stefan and Lisas, photographed on their night of make-believe in a train

It is a work of art and in its (maybe very sick) way perfect of its kind. It seems to me to contain all the motifs of pecular subgenre of novel to which Austen's S&S indirectly belongs, or at least its backstories. In brief, a dissolute musician, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) is seen coming home one night having agreed to fight a duel & jokes he doesn't mind being murdered, what he hates is getting up early in the morning; he tells his servant to get ready within the hour as honor is too costly.

Then a letter is delivered and the movie is a flashback with voice over as he reads this letter. A woman (played by Joan Fontaine throughout) whose name he could not remember the last time he saw her has spent her life in the grip of a vision of love for him since she was a child. He lived in an apartment in Vienna in the building she lived in as a child; she refused a match for him, and once one hight they met when she was a model for a seamstress and had a long romantic evening (with much make believe like being on a train pretending to go all over the world in a fair) and returned to his flat to make love. He cannot stay the next day to make their appointment but tells her he will be back in2 weeks. She sees him off at the station. He never returns. She is of course pregnant and marries a staid rich man who doesn't mind the child of another man she never married. Then at the opera one night she sees him again and her life is again lost. She puts the boy to school and runs after him. The boy dies on the trains going there of typhoid. She now lays dying (I forget why, but of course she does) and send the letter he will receive after her death. He took all night and it's too late to avoid the appointment, but now he wants to be honorable. Somehow it's conveyed the man he will duel is Lisa's (for she has a name) husband.

In Zweig's story (very likeDavid Lean's 1945 Brief Encounter in this, screenplay Noel Coward, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard), on the second night they make love. In the movie on the second night she flees (it would then be adultery) on the grounds he doesn't remember her, and that he has wasted his wonderful talent. (In the stageplay of Brief Encounter Laura and Dr Alec Harvey, her beloved, make love; in the movie they do not.) One theme important in movie and original story is music: his beautiful playing, her love of it. (In S&S Marianne loves music but it's dangerous; Austen's Brandon appreciates it, but from 81 on Brandon becomes a musician himself of increasing depths.) A set of words occurs in the movie not in the book: at the close of the letter she tells him he "found the love he never lost." "I have found it" is the title of the Tamil film, and one of the episodes (when Willoughby leaves to go to London) in the 81 film is the "love that was never had' or just missed and the word "found" is uttered ironically in the scene where Willoughby flees. Marianne comes near death, and in Montolieu's Caroline de Lichtfield Caroline does.

A silent nameless woman who gives up her life for this man. Pregnancy outside marriage. Death. Repetition. We first see the man coming in the morning after the duel has been set. Then in the flashback with a woman or women in the morning. He returns with Lisa the first time in the dawn, the second, and we end there too. A long night of a life..

Ophuls' films is done with exquisite tact. Despite the overdressing (to me ludicrious but what they did then), it works. The sentimental music works too -- today it would be more robust and classical stuff chosen, but it is there almost through (like the 1995 S&S). The use of soft-focus photography, the use of location (it reminded me of Orson Wells's 1948 The third man); the trains as ubiquitous as in Brief Encounter, from which I take this comparative still of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard as Laura and Alec bidding adieu on their second day out together.

An image of England in WW2, from clothes to expression, to lighting and yet utter romance

By contrast, Letter feels like "old Europe."Misogyny is a light hand: Lisa's mother is presented as harsh but understandably and wanting to find a good husband for her daughter and marrying herself for stability. No other women but a fellow seamstress, boss and nuns. She is ever alone and has no girlfriends; never wants to go out, does not enjoy social life. I now know why Joan Fontaine was chosen for Jane Eyre and also Rebecca in 39. In this movie her evasive angular face is strained continually in a way the other movies don't catch. Louis Jourdan is glamor man of the era.

I doubt I'm beginning to do justice to why this is a remarkable film. My instinct is it is because it's madness, over the top with no stops anywhere. It has the courage of its wild convictions, only not allowing the second night of love-making to occur. It has no mother-daughter (wayside) story, nothing of the remorse of the famous Now, Voyager or Stella Dallas (see directly below.

Now why do I outline it: because if made by men and under the aegis of a male hegemony, it is understood as woman's film. It's made for women and I am to suppose they made it a hit. But is is utterly subersive. It gifts the Eliza-Marianne character wih a lifelong worship of Willoughby and makes the Brandon character (who has in the Austen movies increasingly become the rescuer hero) dull (I had almost said again as in Austen), not mean and ugly (as in Wharton's summer).

The orignal story give the central male no honor and no ending of the night with doing something the society can admire him for (though why anyone should admire or the choice of suicide is where we get into sickness).

Anyone else seen this one? Any thoughts? It should be placed with Brief Encounter -- as a contrast for the latter is for repression and realistic, though at the close of Letters the woman has certainly suffered and been punished. By contrast, Laura returns to her husband, her children and she survive in peace. But perhaps we are to think she might spend a little time regretting her choice? Not in the film as constructed.

I do not think I am susceptible to this kind of thing nor really ever was. From the first I thought Marianne made the right decision, Willoughby a false dream, a shallow man. To turn to Little women where in the movies (from 1930s to 1970 to 1995) we get this weeping and women carrying intense emotional burdens, I was for Jo marrying Prof Bhaer. When young I never did think she should not marry as I thought then (and know now still) without a life companion it's veyr lonely and as Austen says old women alone often are very poor too.

Now for Stella Dallas.  directed by King Vidor, screenplay by Harry Wagstaff Gribble and based on a very popular novel by a woman, Olive Higgins Prouty, at the time.

Moment of hopeful love for mother and daughter

It seems harder to put into words than Ophuls' Letters from an Unknown Woman, because in comparison it's uneven. I should start in what is so strikingly moving and relevant about it.  At the center is Stella Martin (Barbara Stanwyck), a young woman, working class, vulgar, dresses sexily and pretends to maternal instincts towards her brother (bringing him lunch, to meet and to lure Stephen Dallas (John Boles), a more upper class male in the brother's firm and  her local neighborhood to date and then marry her. Although she appears to want to aspire to be a person in this upper class milieu, after she gives birth, it appears that she cannot get herself to obey his strictures on self-control and repression. For example, she wants to go dancing as soon as she gets home from hospital; while there she embarrasses him with her behavior and her taste for low class humor and men, one named Ed (Alan Hale) especially, and fun.  He argues before they go out, she is in no state to go out and is childish and doesn't know what she's doing; she produces wry and angry remarks about how she learned a lot about life on the maternity ward and especially during the time of childbirth. When he proposes to go to NYC to better himself, she refuses to go with him.

Thus there begins a many year estrangement where she stays with Laurel (Anne Shirley) or Lollie, their daughter and becomes very close to her.  The movie skirts making this set of motives as clear as I did - I think because such a class issue is dynamite in the US.  Much more explicit (though avoiding words like labor in childbirth) is her resentment over what she experienced in giving birth, but this si countered because she is in such good health (no harm) and has this baby which she proceeds to give her life up to. It is a giving up. She never works. She appears to have no friends but Ed, the one rough vulgar uneducated stupid harddrinking man she took up with at the one dance she went to after giving birth.  Her husband, Stephen, apparently sends home tons of money with which she buys herself vulgar clothes and sends her daughter to exclusive upper class schools. What she does not realize is she is educating the girl out of her class.

She loves to sew and spends all her time sewing clothes for this child. Then comes the first devastatnig incident. She wants to make a birthday party for her daughter. She makes a very fancy outfit for her and herself, decorates the house extravagantly, and invites all the friends from school and the teacher.  The teacher has seen her and is horrified and doesn't show, nor does any friend, not one.  Slowly this dawns on them but they hold hands and together at that table celebrate.

Years go by and it's Xmas and we see Laurel has been visiting her father and Helen Morrison (Barbara O'Neil) a very upper class rich widow he has fallen in love with her who has three sons. One Xmas the father comes and asks if he can have Laurel for Xmas; even he sees how cruel it is to take from Stella all she has, and is about himself to spend the day with them after Stella appears in modest outfit and controlled, but alas, Ed has turned up drunk and disgusted and suspicious, he removes his daughter.

He wants a divorce but at first Stella will not give it to him. She determines to bring the girl out herself but when she accompanies her daughter to an upper class holiday place, and the girl fits in, she is a laughing stock, and the daughter, appalled, insists on returning home. Stella overhears people laughing at her and realizes what has happened. 

Throughout Laurel realiznig how much her mother loved her and how happy they have been together when alone is loyal to the mother. But now the mother realizes she stands in her daughter's way. She visits her husband's new wife and offers to give Laurel up to her; the new wife is not fooled by Stella's attempt to hide the self-sacrifice and agrees only to a long visit, but Stella will not hear of just a visit and send the girl away from her without telling her this. When Laurel is brought to stay, she protests and runs home even though she does long to stay.

But when she gets home, Stella pretends to want to get rid of her, to be waiting for Ed, says she has a life to live beyond mothering and we see her suddenly smoking, in a sexy nightgown, reading a remarkably stupid magazine called Love. We have seen her so dressed throughout the film and reading things like True Confessions (she has no respect for the books Stephen would send the girl over the years), but never before was this pointed in a way to make her look like a frivolous sexy woman who had no concern for her daughter. Lollie's reaction to believe this act is one of the false notes of the film.

Lollie does run back, remeets and marries an upper class male and the famous last scene ensues where Helen leaves the curtain open so Stella, now dressed very plainly (for once) comes and watches behind an iron fence her daughter married away. A policeman tries to push her on, but lets her stay just to watch Lollie give her groom the final kiss. Lollie has shown disappointment that Stella never even showed up for the wedding, but as helen couldn't know for sure that Stella was out there (and anyway how could she explain that), Lollie is left to believe her mother cares nothing for her for real and deserted her.

The last scene shows Stella walking away, now alone and in triumph.

I suggested it has scenes of astonishing heartbreak.  These include when no one shows up for the party, during the Christmas Stephen takes Lollie from Stella (she had planned a dinner and exchange of gifts and then hoped Stephen would stay after all), and especially when Stella realizes that she is an incumbrance on her daughter and resolves to give her up.  I think the truest moments of the film are these quiet ones where Stella realizes she is excluded by virtue of her class, manners, talk, and instead of raging or becoming resentful or hitting out, becomes abject.

The film has true feeling at a gut level I rather think Letter from an Unknown Woman doesn't have. Ophuls' film is about a fantasy that doesn't exist, and the story is improbable throughout. Stella Dallas shows profound human feeling violated by social status, and while there is exaggeration and crudity in the way the story and circumstances are presented, I know from experience, that such violations occur all the time, and believe (have known of) where they can be central and wreak irremediable damage on a psyche and a life.  This is not just a woman's issue, but it can be more likely for a woman, especially as Stella is working class and appears to be a woman with a low class lover, Ed.  In fact she's not interested in Ed or any man, only her daughter, and I've seen this: woman who are mothers first, last and foremost.

Where it's uneven is in the way the class issue is glided over. The sets are unconvincing, the movement of the scenes jerky. It's just not probable that Stella would give up Stephen just like this and refuse to go to NYC and he accept that. It's not probably Stella and Lollie would be so alone.Also the men are emasculated. I read an article about pre-code movies in a recent issue of the NYRB, "When Hollywood dared," by Geoffrey O'Brien (July 2, 2009, 56:11) where he suggested after the code was set in most depcitions of men were absurd. Stephen is ludicrously gentle and would not have made a dime; he walks about in absurd suits and in the house elegant bathrobes and does not make any gesture about sex that is in the least suggestive; Stella's brother is child-like as is Ed.  The depiction of men this way allows for Stella's unreal decisions and also her chastity all the years she is along with her daughter growing up. Also that Stephen is superrich as is Helen and everyone dressed in these simpering glamor clothes (including Stella even if hers are vulgar). I realize pop movies were presented this way, but NOT Letter from an Unknown Woman where the dress was consonant, the men believable and sets persuasive, direction of scenes felt real.

Nonetheless, I think Stella Dallas is if possible a more important movie for women than Now Voyager which is at once sickeningly sentimental over motherhood, presents a mother as a vicious harridan (I wrote about it on my old blog as I did Brief Encounter, but it seems both blogs were not retrieved), and Bette Davis as a lonely terrified spinster turned into beauty queen when Paul Henreid condescends to fall love with her on board ship and she becomes a glamor queen:




It's a fashion show. It is also based on another popular novel by Olive Higgins Prouty. I suppose I ought to look up Prouty and read about her novels.  Both Now Voyager and Letter from an Unknown Woman are about fantasies, pernicious fantasies but compensatory, consoling, and supportive of the male hegemony and class system, and marriage and children as the be-all and end-all of women's existence, with fatherhood and running a family and commercial success and achievement in society for men.

Stella seems to me as crude and unacknowledged as it is, about something that happens still and all the time: violation of people's deepest and best instincts and the game of exclusion as cenrtral to human groups. Had the men been realer and the code not there, and sex allowed to be presented as it probably would have been experienced, it could have been a profound indictment of the way motherhood is experienced by many women. The tearing apart of the daughter and mother for the girl's marriage as the crucial scene.

Stella asked to move on

Important articles are: Maria LaPlace, "Producing and Consuming the woman's film:  Discursive Struggle in Now Voyager," Linda Williams, "'Something Else Besides a Mother;" Stella Dallas and the Maternal Melodrama," Tania Modleski, "Time and Desire in the Woman's Film," Christine Gledhill, edd. Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman's Film (London: BFI, 1987):138-166, 299-338.
Pam Cook's books, Fashioning the Nation (London:BFI:1966) is the book to read on Brief Encounter and Gainsborough Costume Drama.



( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 19th, 2009 08:50 pm (UTC)
Dear Ellen, I'm intrigued now to see both of these films - the Max Ophuls is available in the UK and I've added it to my list at lovefilm, but sadly 'Stella Dallas' isn't available over here. I do remember there is a lot about it in the Jeanine Basinger book we read together on WWTTA.

'Now Voyager' is one of the Bette Davis films I saw on the big screen last year, rereleased to mark her centenary, and it made a strong impression on me because of the power of her performance, although I do remember there are strong sentimental aspects to the story. Judy
Jun. 23rd, 2009 10:35 am (UTC)
What's not available
Thank you for your comment, Judy. I must go back to Basinger to read the passages. I had forgotten there was some on Letters from an Unknown Woman.

Curious what's available on one or other side of the Atlantic, or available or not anywhere. No DVD for _Letters for an Unknown Woman_ except at very high price. No packages of DVDs of Ronald Colman, none for Jean Arthur, none for Cary Grant; is it the American popular classic audience the DVD makers seek to please? If so, why not Jean Arthur? Because she's a woman? Then why not Cary Grant? Ronald Colman was popular with American audiences. Is it the non-macho content that doesn't go over or is instinctively not wanted?

I found there is a DVD I could get which plays any regions, and I've seen a multiregion or purpose videocassette player, but can't as yet tell where to buy them :)

A muse,

(Deleted comment)
Jun. 24th, 2009 11:24 am (UTC)
Re: What's not available
Just to thank you. I will try to persuade Jim to buy a multi-region DVD/VHS player. Jill has a multi-region DVD player.

I understand the reason for this multi-region is the studios want to drive people into theatres when movies first come out. Most governments accede to the movie lobbyists, but in Australia where the average person wants to see movies made in Region 1 and 2, these multi-region players began to be made and then spread.

Jun. 23rd, 2009 01:32 am (UTC)
Letter from an Unknown Woman: the choice
Dear Ellen,

"To turn to Little women where in the movies we get this weeping and women carrying intense emotional burdens, I was for Jo marrying Prof Bhaer. When young I never did think she should not marry as I thought then (and know now still) without a life companion it's very lonely and as Austen says old women alone often are very poor too."

My goodness! As I am alone, a true spinster or old maid, what a day and what a future you give me to expect!

I think that, first, it is rather difficult to find a life lover/companion/friend, etc., and prefer staying alone whatever the difficulties than having to share my life the way most of my contemporaries do. Then, women can stand alone much better than men. Compared to Trollope's women for instance, I feel we have found a financial freedom, more liberty to express ourselves, and since I still belong to a generation where girls were taught their mothers' or grand-mothers' accomplishments in householding and housekeeping, I find myself more fortunate than more men around me: whatever they be think, they depend on women and despise them.

I agree that things could be better for women in general but at least I am no unusual Miss Dunstable from _Framley Parsonage_ or _Doctor Thorne_ and I advocate for a content life by myself as I have not found my "sister-soul" under a masculine guise. Now should I have found someone like the Admiral... :)

All the best.
Jun. 23rd, 2009 01:40 am (UTC)
Letters from an Unknown Woman
A brief answer to Francoise. My comment was made in the context of what I'm told were insistent objections to _Little women_ on the grounds Jo should have married Laurie, as well as the way Jo's life was presented, especially in the movie adaptations.
These are romances and concocted in part to please a mass audience

In fact Alcott remained unmarried, probably partly or even largely by choice.

I was disappointed when Trollope married Miss Dunstable off to Dr Thorne; he did it with such delicacy and tact, and brilliant personated letters it was hard to complain, but I know I preferred Miss Dunstable in Dr Thorne to Mrs Thorne in _The Small House_ and _Last Chronicle_

And I agree a little thinking, imagination, experience proves it's better to be at peace and congenial with oneself and one's friends than a marriage to be married and these fantasies.


Jun. 23rd, 2009 02:04 am (UTC)
Operatic Austen
Dear Ellen:

I have just finished reading several of your very interesting articles, beginning with perhaps the latest, concerning the films Brief Encounter, Letter From An Unknown Woman and Stella Dallas. The Noel Coward film caught my eye because of the recent opera made from it by Andre Previn, produced in Houston. You wrote of the importance of music in the first two of these films, but you didn't mention that the Brief Encounter film was saturated with the the ultra-romantic, nostalgic, heart-breaking second piano concerto of Rachmoninov. It made the film work and it made Rachmoninov the most popular classical composer of the next few decades. Previn is a good, experienced composer but is no Rachmoninov and the opera was a dud.

I am a composer who has recently completed an opera on Pride and Prejudice. Reading your acute, detailed, knowledgable essays on Austen's works and the films spun off from them makes me extremely nervous. I have done my best, within the limitations imposed by opera, to be true to Jane, but I am very afraid of what you might think. My first opera was based on another classic, Tartuffe, and you may have seen it, as it was produced recently by George Mason University. But a play is much easier to translate into opera than is a novel. I srongly believe that P&P is ideal for opera: great characters, a fascinating love story, humor, dancing -- what more could a composer want? And yet, as far as I can tell, no other composer has seen it this way in the 200 years since it was written. There have been one two musicals, probably trivial, as few people have heard of them. What struck me when writing my libretto was how many of Austen's scenes are constructed so dramatically that one could think she had been writing for the stage. (Later I learned that she and her family loved to produce plays at home.)

I have no idea why I am writing this. I am very busy, but was struck by your writing and fearful of the close analysis my opera may receive from proprietary Janeites.




Jun. 23rd, 2009 02:05 am (UTC)
Operatic Austen
Dear Kirk,

I rush to reassure you. I can write only briefly as I am away from home and visiting a friend and on her computer. I assure you that I have no narrow idea of Austen movies or adaptations I can love the apparently faithful (they are usually unfaithful in all sorts of necessary and interesting and good ways), the commentary type film (somewhat faithful and in costume but making major departures) and free adaptations. I agreee with Linda Hutcheon in her book, Adaptations. Do you know it? I am no expert in music and that's why you saw in my blog I scanted it. Your comment is well taken. In another blog I wrote about film adaptations (my old blog, now on my website) I summarized a beautiful paper I heard about Tom Jons the movie where the man showed how central music is.

I'm delighted to hear you are doing an opera of P&P and sincerely hope it does very well.

Thank you for this strong praise of my work on line. I am working on a book to be called The Austen Movies

Ellen Moody
Jun. 24th, 2009 04:15 pm (UTC)
Old Movies
Thanks for the reviews! I love old movies, watch one every week, and always need advice about new ones.

Jun. 24th, 2009 07:56 pm (UTC)
Re: Old Movies
I'll be writing on Random Harvest and Lost Horizon next. In my blog on Livejournal for today (Why Miss Sylvia Drake) I recommend the Astaire-Rogers movies by way of likening a wonderful mini-series to them, Gaudy Night.

I prefer recent (last quarter century) costume drama myself.

Jun. 26th, 2009 07:23 pm (UTC)
Jeanine Basinger's take on Stella Dallas
I took this book down from my shelves and read the 6 pages or so on Stella Dallas and have to say Basinger's analysis is not persuasive. Basinger says Stella is made to suffer the way she does because she's a woman; the problem is in the movie Barbara O'Neill, John Boles's preferred wife doesn't suffer, nor are to to think Laurel will, nor Laurel's woman teacher or friends who don't turn up for her party.

What destroys Stella is her class, her vulgar manners, her lack of savoir faire and class-based self-control. It's true her husband comes to despise her because he thinks she's unchaste with Alan Hale, but had she had the right manners, she would have went with John to NYC and done fine.

I agree with Basinger that Stella's real deeper problem is her vulnerability as a woman, but that's not the emphasis in the movie except insofar as being a mother makes her emotionally vulnerable. The movie indicts the cruel class system which separates mother from daughter.

Jun. 30th, 2009 04:39 pm (UTC)
Letter from an Unknown Woman
From Nick:

"I loved the blog on Letter from an Unknown Woman and Stella Dallas - I certainly remember loving the first from a long time ago and think I have seen the second too, the plot summary certainly rings a bell - apparently it is unavailable in the UK though according to one of the comments (probably Judy?) - I can't work out the comments on LiveJournal - it seems you either have to join or leave one anonymously which I don't like doing. Anyway all the analysis is brilliant as ever.

Much Affection Again,


Edited at 2009-06-30 04:56 pm (UTC)
Jun. 30th, 2009 05:46 pm (UTC)
Letters from an Unknown Woman
To respond to Nick, there's an excellent analysis of Letters in Molly Haskell's from Reverence to Rape which brings out the self-sacricial myth at the heart of the woman's dream. E.M.
Jul. 16th, 2009 12:53 pm (UTC)
Intelligent book dealing with these movies: _Contesting Tears_ by Stanley Cavell
Dear Livejournal community (maybe I should address my blogs and comments this way),

I have come across an intelligent book which has sepaarate chapters on Gaslight, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Now Voyager, Stella Dallas. Stanley Cavell's _Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman_ is on melodrama and explores these psychoanalytically. He does not present his case as feminist, and takes out time to defend himself against Tania Modleski (who writes on women's films), but in effect this is a book deeply sympathetic to womens' films, one which understands them from a generic and archetypal point of view (masculinist yes, but still good). It's a companion to his previous book on _The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage_, subtitle to _Pursuits of Happiness_ where he deals with such films as the Lady Eve, Bringing Up Baby, It Happened One Night, The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, Adam's Rib and the Awful Truth. One problem with Contesting Tears is he assumes one knows his previous one and derives his definition of melodrama as a reversal of what we find in Hollywood romantic comedies. It's insightful to see (by the way) that modern comedies are not really about virgins and love is second as what Austen would call a second attachment, much wiser than the first.

Both books have a jargon but it's not overwhelming and they are not dry. For someone interested in the classic Hollywood movie, I should think they would be illuminating.

Aug. 20th, 2010 11:14 am (UTC)
Exiles and middle European romanticism
I wrote my friend, Nick:

Azar Nafisi in her book (Reading Lolita in Tehan) has some good things in it: one is her idea of "internal exile," someone who feels exiled while they are supposedly at home (their country, within their circle of family or friends or community). George Sand is much underestimated; instead we hear of Balzac -- it's not just he's a man and she's a woman; she's not liked for her deep sentiment and feeling, her outlook. I don't claim to have read a lot by her but I have read a few of her books. Her Lettres d'un Voyageur (the title is usually not translated) is very great. She was radical; although artistically so different, she and Flaubert were great friends in letters. There exists a big fat book of them between the two . . .

He replied:

"Yes the whole 'exile' thing is absolutely fascinating. By the 1850's all the political (leftist) exiles of Europe were gathered in London, because England was almost the only country which would have them (the other was Switzerland but they didn't want to go there!). They were a sort of very fractious community with lots of internal jealousies and disagreements and national rivalries. The comic aspect is that this was at a time when English society was at the height of Victorian respectability and pomp: but it is perhaps a good corrective to remember that it did offer this home for radicals, even if they had no entree into or connection with 'society'. However what really fascinates me is this issue of Sand's influence and the R/romantic idealism which these people lived under. It is a bit hard to summarise and explain, but the story at the heart of the book is about the relationships between the Herzens, Alexander and Natalie, and a couple called the Herwegh's, Georg and Emma (Georg was a poet). Natalie and Georg had an affair, under the nose of Alexander. This was actually promoted by Emma because she wanted Georg to have everything he wanted. Eventually Herzen found out and gave Natalie an ultimatum that she had to choose. She chose him and Herwegh turned bitter ; he accused Herzen of being bourgeois and Natalie of prostituting herself because she slept with her husband when she did not love him. Everyone behaved very badly. But what are extraordinary are the letters and the sentiments that they contain - full of extremely high-blown idealism and talk of the sanctity of 'love' which almost becomes comic at times. 'Love' is set on a pedestal and no other values are allowed a look in. This was all very influenced by Sand and Natalie's pet-name for Herwegh was from one of her novels.

I am quite undecided how to read all this. Obviously it is radical - the basis for relationships should be love and marriage without love a form of prostitution, at times it becomes radical feminism avant la lettre, but in practice it inevitably seems to have ended in disaster (as it did here) and it was the women who suffered above all. In large part this was because the women were not allowed or chose not to have (mainly the former but the idealistic elevation of 'love' subsumed all else) anything else in their lives. So in fact it ended up being in a way conservative. That makes little sense! But Letter From An Unknown Woman (and many thanks for the blog link which was very helpful to me) is shot through with this kind of sentiment and elevation of 'love' - this R/romanticism. The latter fascinates me because in this later mid- and East European variation of Romanticism (which is some 50 or 60 years later than first English and German developments) romanticism is so central. What a vast spectrum the word covers."
Aug. 25th, 2010 04:46 am (UTC)
Nick's profound meditative reply
Do, gentle reader, read Nick's profond meditative dialoguing with me in his blog, Moving Toyshop:


I put my reply here too:

An extraordinary meditation, Nick. What makes it transcendent and escape my cavils, both pragmatic and realistic, is your contextualizing it with the 19th century world of romantic art. My feeling is the letters, novels, and memoirs these people wrote are believed in by them as _art_; that is they only half-believe what they write as part of a living life. They dismiss the real physical world, life, its sordidness and compromises and all the venal fleeting motives and create another realm they know doesn't quite exist. We can see this best in their music.

On some of our disagreements: the comment about not allowing adultery in the movie refers to how the studio or film-makers expected the average movie-goer to react. To the average movie-goer literal adultery and imaginative are worlds apart. If a woman doesn't go to bed with the man, it's not "cheating" (how I loathe that stupid word used in the way it usually is, but it's the word used by so many people for sexual intercourse with someone other than a spouse). I agree with you but the average movie-goer would not begin to listen to you.

Quite right on Austen: she's evasive, very evasive, partly because she's careful not to offend her family and because she's narrow herself about literal sex. In all her fictions moral people make one another happy and amoral ones don't; that holds true of many 18th century English writers (Fielding comes to mind). The French go beyond this.

There is in this film a kind of paean to death, a wish for oblivion itself; this is part of what makes the ending happy -- I admit I do not call _Clarissa_ sick when I say she desires death as oblivion from the viciousness she finds herself confronted with at every turn, but the problem with Ophuls is that the heroine was not tortured by cruel and mean people at every turn. It may be said she was bored and wanted to soar; the reply comes from the Faustus story where the hero discovered that his dreams when realized were repeatedly fragments of sordid appetite, he could not get beyond his animal humanity. That's why it's so important (to return to 19th century romanticism) that the love be recognized as not carnal but spiritual.

As I wrote and you agree with me I see, this is a sight too refined for me. I do appreciate the ethical Mr Knightley for safety and quiet _real_ content.

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