Lady Audley’s Secret and the PRB

October 23, 2013

Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) by Elizabeth Braddon, is a pot-boiler that was fantastically popular among the Victorians.  (Thanks to that savage reading guy for pointing me to yet another good read.)  The book falls within the genre of “sensation novels,” dealing with explosive forbidden topics, e.g. incest (see A. S. Bayatt’s novella Morpho Eugenia, or its great film adaptation, Angels and Insects, for a modern take on this.), madness, murder, adultery, and the like.  I’m not giving much away by saying that Lady Audley’s secret involves madness and murder, sort of…

There’s nothing too surprising or shocking in the plot for a modern reader, except perhaps how anti-climactic the unmasking of Lady Audley turns out to be:  After she is confronted with her crimes, the novel carries on with a lengthy dénouement involving yet more not-too-surprising plot twists.  It was all by way of good fun, nevertheless!

It’s interesting to compare the novel to Wuthering Heights published about fifteen years before:  that could be seen as a sensation novel of a sort, if you accept the Heathcliff-Catherine incest Freudian interpretation.  All the tempestuousness of Lady Audley would barely muss the hair of the demonic and haunted inhabitants of Wuthering Heights!

Lady Audley is a nice example of the Pre-Raphaelite femme fatale.  Here is a passage from the novel that makes that explicit:

If Mr. Holman Hunt could have peeped into the pretty boudoir, I think the picture would have been photographed upon his brain to be reproduced by-and-by upon a bishop’s half-length for the glorification of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood [PRB].  My lady in that half-recumbent attitude, with her elbow resting on one knee, and her perfect chin supported by her hand, the rich folds of drapery falling away in long undulating lines from the exquisite outline of her figure, and the luminous, rose-colored firelight enveloping her in a soft haze, only broken by the golden glitter of her yellow hair—beautiful in herself, but made bewilderingly beautiful by the gorgeous surroundings which adorn the shrine of her loveliness. Drinking-cups of gold and ivory, chiseled by Benvenuto Cellini; cabinets of buhl and porcelain, bearing the cipher of Austrian Marie-Antoinette, amid devices of rosebuds and true-lovers’ knots, birds and butterflies, cupidons and shepherdesses, goddesses, courtiers, cottagers, and milkmaids; statuettes of Parian marble and biscuit china; gilded baskets of hothouse flowers; fantastical caskets of Indian filigree-work; fragile tea-cups of turquoise china, adorned by medallion miniatures of Louis the Great and Louis the Well-beloved, Louise de la Valliere, Athenais de Montespan, and Marie Jeanne Gomard de Vaubernier: cabinet pictures and gilded mirrors, shimmering satin and diaphanous lace; all that gold can buy or art devise had been gathered together for the beautification of this quiet chamber in which my lady sat listening to the mourning of the shrill March wind, and the flapping of the ivy leaves against the casements, and looking into the red chasms in the burning coals.

Note the reference to PRB photo-realism, and the emphasis on how female allure is enhanced by the material abundance of the interior.  This is materialist kitsch-decadence at its finest, or worst, depending on your taste and morals.

Lady A feels cursed by her physical beauty because it gave her the means to work her will upon the world, giving rein to the “taint of madness” in her blood, inherited from her mother.  But she makes good use of it, turning it into a powerful witchcraft with which she bedazzles and ensnares her male (always rich, or so she thinks!) prey.  She has a horror of ordinary, pedestrian life, without the richness of ornament to confirm and reflect her splendid female charms.  Exiled to a posh maison de santé (bourgeois euphemism for madhouse) at the end, she shrivels up and dies without an audience with energy for her to feed upon.

Just a note on the authoress – she seems to have been a sympathizer with the South in the Civil War.  So much of the British elite was – that’s where they got their cheap cotton to keep their mills humming.

Let us hope that when Northern Yankeedom has decimated and been decimated, blustering Jonathan may fling himself upon his Southern brother’s breast, forgiving and forgiven.

 Keeping the UK from intervening to help the South was a major diplomatic initiative of the Lincoln administration.

Here’s a gallery of PRB images of women, including a few by William Holman Hunt.


Drainage Made Him Do It!

December 4, 2012

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Laid low by some sort of virus, Fritz Lang’s House on the River (1950) is just the sort of relatively light-weight confection I needed to keep boredom away.  A low-budget gem to be sure, this gothic-noir features a rich author, Steven Byrne, who is having a bit of writer’s block.  We learn that he has a not-too-healthy relationship with his co-dependent brother, who complains about the thousands of scrapes he’s helped his literary brother escape.  He even lives modestly as a bookkeeper so his brother can have the luxury due to an artiste, all on their joint inheritance.

Steven has a pretty wife and a wandering eye.  He is delightfully twisted, and always speaks with an upper crust calm and suavity, even when he is responding to his wife’s charges that he stays out at night, comes home drunk and smelling of cheap perfume.  “The smell of cheap perfume can be quite exciting, my dear…”  he replies.  Honest to a fault, that Steven.

The plot is set in motion by his desire for the fresh-faced young girl who is the housemaid.  She tells him that the servant’s quarters bath is not yet fixed, and he graciously allows her to use the upstairs one, his wife’s, who is away with friends.  The sound of the bath water sluicing down the pipe is too much for the imaginative Steven – he must have her.  (Pipes in those days were often mounted outside of the walls, as shown here.  The film takes place in the early 20th century.)

Drainage made him do it

click to animate – drainage!

His romantic advances are spurned, they struggle, he kills her, quite by accident of course.  He enlists his mush-brained brother to help him cover it up by dumping the body in the river.  His brother will do anything to avoid disgrace or discomfort for Steven’s wife, whom he secretly loves.

All seems to go well as they dump the body, but then a leaping fish breaks the calm of the night, terrifying Steven.  The image of the leaping fish will come back to haunt him, called up by the sparkles of light on the vanity mirror in his house.

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When Steven’s brother confronts him, the author admits that he feels he gained something from the murder; his writing is so much better now.  His brother tells him he must be very ill to think that way.  Steven (top image) replies, “Ill…?”  Well, it’s a thin line.  

His relationship with his pretty wife seems rather cool, but here, they are in quite a passionate clutch.  Of course, he’s just about to start strangling her.

That’s Fritz all over.
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Chabrol & Playing God – 1925

February 7, 2010

Van Horn lives and rules in 1925 forever.

Ten Days of Wonder is a film by Claude Chabrol based on a mystery novel by Ellery Queen, the pseudonym of two cousins who produced a stream of very popular mystery tales and products in the 40s and 50s.  Chabrol said he became an avid fan during the German occupation of France:  I don’t share his love of mysteries – even Poe’s tales of deduction leave me cold – but I liked this film a lot.  It’s a weird gothic tale with a soundtrack by Bach.

I find it hard to grasp the notion of Chabrol getting the idea to make a movie of a Queen book, but, like any culture-struck Yank, I guess French means Art to me.  On their side of the sea, they are fascinated by our pop culture – Jerry Lewis, murder mysteries, noir, and detectives.  I don’t quite get it, and thus, the New Wave of French Cinema leaves me cold.  Funny, this issue doesn’t come up for me with Hitchcock, another cinematic artist who was at home with the whodunnit, and to whom Chabrol has a close connection.

In the film, the elder van Horn (Orson Welles) lives in splendid isolation in an Alsatian manor, and likes to pretend it’s 1925 – everything was good then.  His drunken mother hangs out in the attic.  His adopted son, Charles (Anthony Perkins)  worships him, but has a father complex, as well as a passion for his young stepmother, a pretty, lithe thing that God, …er Dad, rescued from rural poverty and then married.  She worships him too, of course, but loves Charles.

The two lovers fear the wrath of Father and are being blackmailed by an unknown caller who is in possession of some love letters that Charles sent.  After the second money drop, I figured out the identity of the blackmailer – am I good with voices or was I supposed to know? – but since I don’t care about cinematic exercises in deduction, it didn’t matter to me.

Charles, poor stressed-out boy, is subject to blackouts now and then that last for days,  and he fears he may kill someone during one of them.  He invites Paul Regis (Michel Piccoli), his former professor, to the manor to try and help sort things out.  Paul’s renowned logical mind can surely produce some light in his darkness, and he consents to play the part of the Ellery Queen detective figure in this drama.

I have never read an Ellery Queen, and this plot doesn’t make me want to start now.  Ah…but in this film, the entire story is a complex fabric of themes related to patriarchy, oedipal frustration, sin, repression, arrogance, Original Sin, and more…There’s something about these lapsed Catholics (Chabrol was one) – the old black magic never quite lets go.  The film seemed to me to be two running parallel at once – the weird psycho-drama,  and the tedious detective story.  Clearly Chabrol is someone I must investigate further.  The only film of his I know is La Ceremonie.

The stills below are from the mesmerizing sequence when the elder van Horn/Yahweh (Welles) exacts his terrible revenge on his young wife, Helene (Marlène Jobert)

This sequence recalled to my mind another strange film that involves a mad, arrogant, male god-figure who dispatches passive beautiful women using a straight razor with balletic finesse, The Night of the Hunter.

On the DVD, there is a comment by Chabrol that is something like, “What I like is beautiful women being sliced with razors in circumstances  très distinguées.”  Hmm…and that chilling blue!


Stolen Light, Pale Fire

November 12, 2007

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The moon is a thief, and steals her pale fire from the sun. So says Shakespeare, and so Nabokov has named one of his books, a novel, it’s called. So, the moon’s light is not its own; the author’s story is not his invention, but is partly a biography; artists steal tales, people invent false identities, one story reflects, repeats, alludes to another; is anything what it seems? So it goes with Nabokov, but first things first.

Lolita has become synonymous with sleazy, nymphomaniac sex, a fact which seemed to disgust and amuse VN in his lifetime. Before that book, and the subsequent Kubrick adaptation of it, he was a “niche” author, known to few, but Lol made him world famous. The story of another immigrant from the Old World, another madman, another unreliable narrator with some murderous passions to control.

Madmen with revolvers seem to crop up in VN’s work a lot – might have something to do with the fact that his father was killed by some fanatical monarchists who shot the wrong man – it would almost be funny if it weren’t true. Of course, in his books, it is almost funny…and we wince when we realize what we are laughing at.

The “hero” Humbert is in love with Lolita, or he thinks he is. How else can he justify raping and kidnapping her? He takes her on a road trip through America, a landscape transformed by the deranged, ironic, brilliant point of view of the disturbed narrator. We, the readers, cannot help laughing at Humbert, and with him – he’s so witty when he puts down American pop culture – his use of language is dazzling. In the end, a shootout. He addresses his readers, his jury, seeking to excuse himself – “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury…” Is he mocking Dostoyevsky here?

Pale Fire tells the story of an American poet and how his masterwork came to be written, or how it should have been written if he had been listening to his close friend who was feeding him such glorious and romantic ideas, and how this friend has come to publish this poem in a book that is overwhelmed with his own obsessive “commentary” on it. Yes, there is a shootout in the end of this one too, the wrong man is killed, a madman fires the gun. (A madman tells the story.) The blizzard of truths, half-truths, non-truths, beautifiul lies and delusions is so thick in this book, such a tightly woven fabric of biography, memory, fantasy, invention, satire, and pathos that you feel dizzy when you finish it. “What was that?!” That’s what a friend asked me about another Nabokovian tour de force, Invitation to a Beheading, after he finished it, and it could just as well have been Pale Fire he was asking about.

At the core of these two books is terrible sadness, even more poignant and painful to us because we see it in glimpses, in between the flashes of idiocy and comedy that inundate us as we move through the plot. It’s like meeting an attractive person at a party, chatting a while, being a little dazzled, then, later, glancing over and noticing him or her sobbing alone in a corner. What was going on? Did I miss something? You never know with people, what their stories are.

Lolita, the little nymph, the vixen, the sexpot – she’s a young girl with no father, raped and stolen away when her mother dies. Humbert keeps her under his thumb by scaring her to death with fictions about what will happen if she tries to escape, but in the end, she does. How do we allow ourselves to be complicit in his crime by not taking his book – so charming, witty, almost believable – and throwing it across the room? How can we be blind to what is really going on here?! And in Pale Fire, we have the pathetic delusions of the mad commentator on John Slade’s poem, and we have the sadness of the poem itself – the poem that we can almost forget about as we read the “novel.” The story of a man, his wife, and their homely daughter, and what happens to her.

Another of VN’s characters, Pnin, in the novel of the same name, is a hapless refugee in America, an academic, rather bumbling. He never feels comfortable in his new home, his new culture, his new language, despite his considerable intelligence. People find him amusing, sometimes laughing at him openly. Once or twice, VN tells us his thoughts as they stray to a loved one who died, years ago, in a gas chamber or shot at the edge of a ditch, somewhere in the empire of the Reich. When you read that, your breath is taken away, as if by a full body blow.

Nabokov had a very particular view of art and what it should be. He was not shy about trashing other authors, especially dead ones who were regarded as “classics.” He wasn’t interested in writing books of “illustrated ideas,” as he contemptuously referred to the works of George Orwell. The idea of “identifying” with a fictional protagonist was, he said, “adolescent.” His is not the only valid notion of art, though he may have talked as though it were, but he thought that art should change the way the reader sees the world, and his can.


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