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Showing posts with label Charles Dickens. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Charles Dickens. Show all posts

Monday, 24 February 2014

Dickens in Love

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

24 February

* Contains spoilers *

This is a follow-up piece to a review of The Invisible Woman (2013), and a question asked of actor / director Ralph Fiennes, partly about Dickens’ wife Catherine’s motives.

In Manchester, during the after-play party near the start of the film, Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones) is sitting next to Catherine Dickens (Joanna Scanlan), and the former says how she had not expected anything to be so lasting in her memory as Bleak House, but is finding a rival in what she is now reading [David Copperfield ?]. One must judge with what motive, but the latter retorts ‘Tis a fiction, designed to entertain, with which opinion Nelly briefly, but strenuously, states her disagreement.

When the women meet again, Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) has sent his wife to Nelly’s mother’s house, and she asks Nelly if she is fond of Dickens. She scarcely allows Nelly to answer before she intervenes to say Silly question – he is Mr Charles Dickens !. The question arises (as it did in the Q&A with Fiennes) whether what she goes on to say to Nelly is out of any sort of envy or desire to put her off, or just from the simple motive of telling the truth, how it is with Dickens and her :

Essentially, she reports her own experience, that Dickens has an extra-marital devotion to his readership / audience that makes her uncertain to say which he cares more for, them or her. In saying what she does, she suggests that it is not easy to find his affections divided, and that may merely be a statement of fact.

But why express it to Nelly ? Out of sheer feminine feeling and a desire to be helpful ? The context is as follows :

* Some time before at the Dickens' home, Charles expresses his defiance in the garden at what his sister-in-law and Catherine are urging about the rumours, and declares that he will not stop seeing Nelly* – he then goes back to playing with the children

* At some other point that summer, it is Nelly's twentieth birthday, and we are at the Ternans' house – this is when Catherine calls, with the redirected present from Charles

* When, later that day, Charles and Wilkie (Tom Hollander) whisk Nelly away to Wilkie's home, and she leaves, she confronts Charles on the steps of her family home (just before a policeman intervenes), criticizing him for sending the mother of his children to her – he says that he wanted Catherine to see what he sees in Nelly, and says that Catherine has no understanding

* There is the ambiguous scene of proximity indoors, then the next thing is the boarding-up to partition the Dickens house, a very quick scene

* After the awkward meeting between Charles and Nelly and Charley, Charley reads the letter in The Times about the separation to Catherine

It indicates what Catherine thinks of Charles, he of her, in these clues : as early as sending Catherine around with the gift that he had intended to have delivered to Nelly, he wanted Catherine to see that it was over between her and him, and why (he tells Nelly so that day). Catherine is not stupid. She knows herself to have been humiliated by being told to call on Nelly, but she can use the call to her advantage :

Doubtless, there is truth in what she says about Charles being torn away from her by his public, and that one will never know which he cares for more, but, if one watches the scene closely, she has a subtle way of laying it on thick, and does hope to discourage Nelly, if she cannot discourage Charles, but with the subtext I've seen it all before, and let me tell you, as a friend, how it is....

What Catherine does not reckon on is that ambiguous scene of near-kisses, and that Nelly then seeks out advice from her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and from Wilkie, before making an entry, dressed and framed as a Pre-Raphaelite subject, in Charles' rooms. There, she gets close to him, in an energetic meeting of minds over the galley-proofs, through the closing chapters to Great Expectations – until then, taken to see Wilkie living unmarried with a woman, she thinks that Charles sees her as his whore.

Catherine had her own agenda, but was prudent enough to act the part of the woman on the way out looking after the new one.

At the end of the film, hurt and anxious Nelly uses the words shadow / parting / haunting to describe being separated from Charles in the life that she lives now, where she cannot admit how she knew him. As her husband says :

The memories of a child, Nelly

Or, then again, 180 years since Charles Dickens sneezed publicly in Cardiff - to great acclaim...

End-notes :

* Catherine says 'More gossip in The London Diary', as Dickens sits down with the newspaper. After comments around the table about not having kept it a secret, and denying it, she says 'You must stop this', to which Dickens replies, 'What if I do not wish to ?'. She retorts, 'Do not be foolish - you cannot keep her a secret', and a challenge to which - then and later - he rises.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Friday, 7 February 2014

Lit by Saul Leiter

This report is from a special preview screening of The Invisible Woman (2013)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

6 February

* Contains spoilers *

This report is from a special preview screening of The Invisible Woman (2013) at The Arts Picturehouse (@CamPicturehouse) on 1 February, followed by a Q&A with director and lead actor, Ralph Fiennes

The time of the film is clearly the nineteenth century, but labels are largely given to places, not to dates. Charles Dickens died in June 1870, and an important scene has him showing Nelly (Felicity Jones) the galley-proofs of what would have been chapter 59 of Great Expectations, which was being published in instalments between 1 December 1860 and 3 August 1861.

The title-character really has to be Nelly, but, when Catherine Dickens (Joanna Scanlan) visits her with a gift that the jeweller wrongly had delivered to Catherine, she says what the following question, asked of Fiennes (during the Q&A in Screen 1 at The Arts Picturehouse), summarizes :

Mrs Dickens, probably out of envy, warns that her husband is drawn to his audience as well as to her. Is the challenge that Nelly faces to know Dickens not as a writer, but as a man*?

Catherine does not appear to have wanted herself the acclaim that Charles receives, from other things, at public readings, so she presumably allowed herself to be relatively in his shadow : after such a reading, Nelly’s mother, Frances Ternan (Kristin Scott Thomas), expresses regret that Catherine could not have been there (and Charles gives some reason why she is not there), which means that she is unlike a royal consort, and is free not to do what he chooses to do.

(If she is envious (see more here), maybe it is of Nelly that she can see Charles as a writer, for a comment early in the film (when The Ternans, mother and daughters, have travelled to Manchester to the production of Wilkie Collins The Frozen Deep (published in 1856), which Dickens is mounting with Collins) suggests that she does not personally view the novels as more than entertainment (‘Tis a fiction, designed to entertain), at which Nelly, expressing her surprise, says what she sees in them. So, in Manchester, Catherine was with Wilkie and Charles, but she later appears to withdraw from that role.)

In Collins, we have the example of a man co-habiting since 1858 (with Caroline Graves (Michelle Fairley) and her daughter Harriet (known as ‘The Butler’)), but perhaps at the expense of the greater reception of his writing** ? If so, he compromised greater success and not living with Graves (they were only apart for two years, when she married another man), and with spending part of his time with her and with Martha Rudd, a woman whom he met as a nineteen-year-old when researching Armadale. The family arrangements that we know so well from The Pre-Raphaelite Brethren (founded in 1848, and initially secretively operating under the initials PRB) and from Dickens in this film (based on Claire Tomalin’s book of the same name) were actually closer with those of Collins than we might have imagined.

It is for those such as Tomalin to explain and speculate why Dickens felt himself different from his friend Collins, in not being able to copy an arrangement that was less complicated than his own would have been. It was not until a century later that our present divorce laws were enacted, but it appears that an informal separation, such as Dickens is quoted as announcing to his family in The Times, might have been an acceptable position, whereas an affair with Nelly being known of during it clearly would not. Only such reading can shed light on this question…

Back at reviewing the film, Abi Morgan had written a script that sounded as though it might have been spoken 150 years ago, but without drawing attention to its age :

The emphasis is on the spoken words resembling speech. Amanda Randall (@amandarandall5) reports that the dialogue in Slave sounds as it does, because it is taken directly from Solomon Northup’s book, which can easily be believed : it satisfies her that it should be, but, to some, that might seem a cop-out… (After all, Northup wrote his memoir, with the help of a writer, during the course of three months, and he is in, in this way, writing dialogue that could have occurred ten years earlier, so it can scarcely be verbatim.)

This is not one of Andrew Davies’ celebrated adaptations of Dickens or of other classic novelists, but giving a plausible voice to Dickens the man. It is a voice that is strengthened by the judicious use of very effective music by Ilan Eshkeri (who scored Fiennes debut as director, Coriolanus (2011)) – more detail will have to wait until another time, when (furniture-shifting for) the Q&A (and the consequent lack of detail about musicians on IMDb) does not obtrude reading the credits…

None of that would be worth a candle without Fiennes, who brought to the figure, familiar through Simon Callow (and even Doctor Who), a conviction and a humanity – it was not for nothing that Dickens was amongst those who campaigned for sanitary conditions for all, and we see him here at a benefit for The Hospital for Sick Children, and also hear him privately speak poignantly of his father’s and his family’s plight in poverty***.

A character very different either from Fiennes’ last Dickensian film role, as Magwitch, or his self-directed part as Caius Martius Coriolanus (let alone in Potter), and there we find his compelling versatility. To Dickens, a man shown to be not without tetchiness or anger, Fiennes seemed to bring some of the qualities that his character Stephen Tulloch had in his sister Martha Fiennes’ writer / director feature Chromophobia (2005) : despite that film’s fate in history, nothing is wasted.

Opening with a gorgeous expanse of the coast at what we are told is Margate, and, with Nelly’s introduction, anxious, quick cutting, and one wants to know what drives her there, what her anguish is. We know of a connection with Dickens, but has she just come from him**** ? Nelly is a true Wilkie-Collins-type heroine, in her black against the washed-out sand (in more senses than one), and this could be The Shifting Sands, and some source of mystery.

Both within the dynamic of a scene, and from one to the next, the film is paced beautifully : once we have seen a later Felicity Jones in a Dickens-laden situation where she is unable to say what she knows, it unfolds with her in an almost Becketttean way, seeming to revolve it all, and without a friend to turn to*****. Nelly has been out too long, yet she knows what she must do, and straightaway does it, throwing herself into the rehearsal of Collins and Dickens’ No Thoroughfare.

Perhaps they are her memories, or maybe it is purely by the medium of cinema, but the play connects with the event of arriving in Manchester on a foul day, and first meeting our two writers in another collaboration. Nothing is over-explained, with ambiguity to keep us involved (Is the young man called Charley with the umbrella somehow the young Dickens … ?).

It is a fairly dark rehearsal space, and the polarity between so many interiors to come and the luminescence of views such as that beach at Margate is one of the themes of the film : the interiors are shot, by Rob Hardy, in a way that Fiennes told us came out of finding that Hardy and he had a common interest in the photography of Saul Leiter, and with Hardy’s eye for composition, but using Leiter’s effects and aesthetic. The effect, and the result of shooting on film, is gorgeous and inviting.

We guess at what has happened between Nelly and Charles, but it is only when Wilkie and he take her to the former’s home that it becomes clear that the state of affairs is more fragile, this coming hard on the heels of Catherine’s visit that day. In fact, it is apparent that Charles does not seem to know what he seeks, although he enjoys Nelly’s company, his writing, and appearing in public, but that more has been claimed in the press.

In all of this, Kristin Scott Thomas, as Nelly’s mother Frances, has been more apt than any to see what is happening early on, and to raise her concerns about Nelly with Charles – hers is a modest part, but, along with that of Wilkie (Tom Hollander), central to what unfolds, and both convincingly portray a circle of those close to Nelly, which later she seems to lack. A reflective and poignant film, which will repay watching again.


* Fiennes, although questioning Catherine's envy, did indicate that Jones had followed such a path in preparing her role with him. The way in which what Catherine says to Nelly about Charles' public is structured does, however, suggest not only that she is sharing her experience of Charles to benefit Nelly, but also that she may hope to put her off by it.

** Having said that, Collins wrote four novels in ten years, which allowed him to give others financial support : The Woman in White, No Name, Armadale and The Moonstone.

*** Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dogson (1832 – 1898), i.e. Lewis Carroll courted social danger in this same century not only by going to the theatre, whether to see, say, the celebrated Ellen Terry perform, or his child-actor friends, but also by his association with Terry, such as seeing her backstage, or keeping up a correspondence. (In Carroll’s case, that might partly have been because the theatre was not thought a fit place at which a member of the clergy should be seen.)

As the opening scene of the film wisely avoids making clear (because having due regard to class and social distinctions would have complicated the story : Rev. Benham’s (John Kavanagh’s) admiration for Dickens’ works and seeming interest in theatrical matters), the theatre was frowned upon often enough, and there would have been an attitude towards Mrs Ternan and her daughters for the way that they supported themselves, and the film does not disguise their lack of means at home, and so why they act.

**** We are told that it is 1883, but the year might not register (not least because of the stunning view of the shore), unless one knows Dickens’ era well.

***** We do not know what has befallen her mother and sisters, but she is the youngest.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Young 'lack attention for Dickens' (according to Yahoo! News)

More views of - or after - Cambridge Film Festival 2011
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

5 February

There is a huge range of comments on an article under this heading at:

Claire Tomalin, the most recent biographer of Dickens, has attacked the educational system and its effect on young people's literacy (and Dr Christopher Pittard of the University of Portsmouth, where Dickens was born (Portsmouth, that is, not the university), also commented on the significance of these works*):

What Dickens wrote about is still amazingly relevant. The only caveat I would make is that today's children have very short attention spans because they are being reared on dreadful television programmes which are flickering away in the corner.

As I say, there is a wealth of opinion about whether Dickens is - or should be - read, and, if he is not, why that could be...

To which I shall but add:

(1) Think of my attention span what you will, but, in an earlier generation (or two), I grew up in a house where there was a t.v. from when I was very small - my father's business was selling, renting and repairing them (which, for those renting, was covered by the rental charge) and radios.

(2) The quality of programmes when I was a teenager and now bears no comparison - how anyone could be compelled to watch, let alone pay attention to, some of the output that our multi-channelled world has given us is beyond me.

(3) I used to do my homework whilst watching t.v. (but, as my mother reminds me, that third ingredient of holding a conversation and still concentrating was beyond me), although I am sure that homework - as have 'A' levels - has become harder since.

(4) I have even read many a long novel, and, in one week at university, Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones in full.

(5) Reading such a book, unless you have to do it to that timescale, is nothing to do with the so-called 'attention span' - your attention is not uniterruptedly on Bleak House for its however many hundred pages, which will depend on the edition, but you will read it as and when you can (or can make time for it). That simply is not an issue that relates to attention span, except to the obvious extent that, if one can only - given the best opportunity
to do so (see point (6), below) - read a short section at a time, then covering the whole text will take longer, in terms of the accumulating intervals between such a section and resuming, and prove more disheartening to the reader: I'll never finish this!.

(6) Some, particularly the cheaper, versions of 'The Classics', such as Dickens, are such poor photographic reproductions of earlier editions that anyone would rightly struggle to read them: it should not take William Morris or Eric Gill to tell Ms Tomalin how important the choice of typeface and the design of a book are both to the enjoyment of reading, and, thus, to the likelihood that one will persist with the activity (especially if the book is long).


* Dr Pittard's view is that 'while his novels have a very definite shape to them, there's a hidden structure which isn't comprehensible at first, they are more like the DVD boxset of their time', thereby, sadly, perpetuating the belief that this, not 'boxed set', is the correct term.

As to the university, this appears (but I might be wrong) to be the most noteworthy thing** in the news about it (since it ceased being known as the University of Padua):

29 Sep 2011 – A STUDENT naked calendar is facing the chop following complaints that unedited photos of girls were leaked onto a pornographic site.

You don't want an unedited photograph at any cost - if it hasn't been 'touched up', it really shouldn't be visible!

** SIlly me, I missed this, but I'll let you, dear reader, look yourself at:

New Chancellor for former University of Padua

Thursday, 29 December 2011

180 years since Charles Dickens sneezed publicly in Cardiff - to great acclaim

More views of - or after - Cambridge Film Festival 2011
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

30 December

No, it's the 200th anniversary of birth or death*, as usual, and, since we never know which, we don't know what we are celebrating
(and, to me, it seems inapt to celebrate the years since someone's death).

That said, if claims are to be made for Dickens, let them establish something that he would have thought worthwhile. And yet, on The Verb a few weeks back, Kevin Jackson told us that Dickens had innovated with the names of his characters, and with the supposed advantage over the big Russian novel (where, of course, we are willingly familiar with the tripartite system of naming, and cannot confess not even to trying!) that one could easily keep track of someone in, say, Bleak House because of the choice of name:

Well, as much as a name that I recognize in Dostoyevsky may recur and I recognize it by its shape, so names in that Dickens novel will be more easily identifiable and probably memorable, but it is a far cry from asserting that, on that account, I know what function that person performs in the novel. No, as with the less major characters in any novel, one sometimes has to look back to see who they are, and there the Russian novel anticipates the need with a Dramatis personæ.

Memorable names (and whether they are memorable just because quirky remains a separate, and unexamined issue - who can forget Tom Jones?) in a longer work do not, I believe, necessarily guide me as to who that person is in relation to everyone else, not least when (again in Bleak House) Dickens deliberately rattles on about the presumed oil-wells of the Reverend Chadband's countenance, or the perpetual need for a cushion to be readjusted, in such a way as to sabotage the progress of his own novel and distract our concentration.

Although, in Wemmick, for example, Dickens chose a very fitting name for its bearer, it is because I see him linked to his castle that I remember him for who he is, not because of the name per se.

At any rate, in a fanciful desire to laud Dickens for this above all else, the contributor to the programme dismissed, as their
novels not containing comparably witty or descriptive names, both Tobias Smollett (1721-1771) and Henry Fielding (1707-1754). This, without giving a single example, whereas the eponymous heroes alone of the former's Ferdinand Count Fathom and Roderick Random make demands on our attention. As for Fielding, Mrs Tow-wouse in Joseph Andrews is foremost in my memory, but the novel's pages are peppered with Tom Suckbribe, Jenny Bouncer, Sir Thomas Booby, Mrs Slipslop, Peter Pounce, etc.

If Dickens excels, without the endeavours of other writers at least a century before Dickens even being considered, such as Laurence Sterne (1713-1768), but only Shakespeare (who was only credited with Aguecheek and Belch, because he allegedly took all of his names from his sources), then so be it, but why give Dickens a crown that he doesn't exclusively deserve, and which does not even typify the best things about him?

(In fact, anyone who has heard of William's contemporary Ben Jonson, or who ever took a look at The Alchemist, would find it hard to understand what the fuss about names in Dickens is...)

Since posting the above, and in looking vainly for somewhere on Radio 3's web-site to leave a comment, I've now found the following work, a slim volume published in 1917 by Elizabeth Hope Gordon:

The Naming of Characters in the Works of Charles Dickens