Sunday, March 18, 2018

The mysteries of Dido and Aeneas

Guillermo Resto (Aeneas) and Mark Morris (Dido) in the Mark Morris Dance Group's Dido and Aeneas.
Original image from

It's remarkable that we have so little information about the greatest opera in English, Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. The scores that exist are neither complete nor original; instead, they are partial copies that don't agree with one another, made for performances that occurred decades after Purcell's death in 1695. There is only a single surviving copy of Nahum Tate's libretto from the first (or at least a very early) performance. It does not indicate who sang the roles, or even the title of the opera, and it includes sections for which the music has been lost. We are fortunate indeed that enough of the work remains to enable staged performances.

Many questions and controversies remain. As musicologist Ellen Harris has written about Dido, "we know even less than we did [30 years ago], or at least less than we had imagined. We can no longer say with certainty in what year the opera was written, where it had its premiere, who performed it or even what the original score contained — the very things that normally provide the foundation for our understanding of a piece of music." [1]

But evidence uncovered relatively recently and discussed in Harris's Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (Second edition, Oxford, 2018), has, in my view, helped to partly clarify rather than further confuse our understanding of Dido's origins. To take Harris's questions in a slightly different order:

Where was the opera first performed?

The one surviving 17th-century libretto for Dido is for "An Opera Perform'd at Mr. Josias Priest's Boarding-School at Chelsey By Young Gentlewomen."

The first page of the libretto of Dido and Aeneas printed for the Chelsea school performance (detail).
Original from the collection of the Royal College of Music.

In 1684 the young gentlewomen at Priest's school had performed John Blow and Anne Kingsmill's Venus and Adonis, the work that clearly provided a model for Dido. It is known that Venus and Adonis was first performed at court, probably in 1683; a libretto from the Chelsea school performance of Venus and Adonis states that it is "An Opera Perform'd before the King. Afterwards at Mr. Josias Priest's Boarding School at Chelsey By Young Gentlewomen."

The first page of the libretto of Venus and Adonis printed for the Chelsea school performance (detail).
Original from the collection of the Cambridge University Library.

This has led some scholars to speculate, despite a lack of direct evidence, that Dido may also have been first performed at court. A major issue with this idea is that the libretto for Dido says nothing about a court performance; its title page merely designates it "An Opera." Surely if Dido had been first performed at court the libretto would have trumpeted the fact, as the Venus libretto does.

There is one circumstance under which the Chelsea school libretto would have been silent about a previous court performance: if that court performance had occurred while James II was king, but the libretto was printed after he had been deposed in the Glorious Revolution of December 1688. That possibility has been virtually ruled out by recent developments, as we'll see in a moment. So it's most likely that no court performance ever took place, and that the performance at Priest's school was the opera's first.

Who performed the opera?

The libretto states that the opera was performed "by young gentlewomen." Dido and Aeneas, of course, is the tragic love story of Queen Dido of Carthage and Aeneas, the heroic Trojan warrior. Some scholars, perhaps perplexed or offended by the thought of a young woman portraying Aeneas, have suggested that a male singer must have been brought in to sing the role.

However, when the tragic love story Venus and Adonis was performed at Priest's school in 1684 the young gentlewomen took all the parts; a note on the libretto mentions that "Mr. Priest's Daughter acted Adonis."

John Verney's inscription on the libretto for Venus and Adonis
Original from the collection of the Cambridge University Library.

So we have contemporary evidence that operas at Priest's school were performed by all-female casts, and no evidence to the contrary. It seems reasonable to assume that a similar practice was followed in staging Dido and Aeneas, and that Aeneas and the other male roles in the opera were sung by young women.

How was the opera performed?

The version of Dido that was performed at Priest's school was probably half again as long as the version that is generally performed today. The libretto for that performance includes a mythological prologue in two scenes in which Phoebus (Apollo), the sun-god, and Venus, the love-goddess, are honored and the arrival of spring is celebrated.

The prologue was clearly accompanied by music; it includes choruses and dances for Tritons, Nereids, Nymphs, shepherds and shepherdesses. [2] And most likely the prologue was preceded by its own overture. Unfortunately the music for both the prologue and its overture has been lost, as well as that for some of the dances that are indicated during the course of the opera.

After the opera a poem was recited aloud. Thomas D'Urfey's New Poems (1690) contains an "Epilogue to the Opera of DIDO and AENEAS, performed at Mr. Preist's Boarding-School at Chelsey; Spoken by the Lady Dorothy Burk." [3]

From Thomas D'Urfey's New Poems (1690), p. 82.
Original from the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery 

The surviving music of Dido takes less than an hour to perform; together, the first overture, the sung prologue, the missing dances and the spoken epilogue may have added another 25 minutes or so to the runtime.

When was the opera performed? 

The texts of both the prologue and the epilogue have been parsed for clues to the likely date of their performance. The prologue, with its scene celebrating the arrival of spring, would seem to point to a performance in April or May. Of course, it's also possible that the celebration of spring could be allegorical, and celebrate a rebirth or renewal of another kind.

For those who read the prologue allegorically, it has been suggested that Phoebus and Venus represent the king and queen (but which king and queen?). Venus is described as "the New rising star of the Ocean" and Spring "Welcomes Venus to the shore." These references have been interpreted by some to indicate that Venus is meant to represent Mary II, who had returned across the English Channel from the Netherlands in January 1689 to join her husband William after her father, James II, had fled.

D'Urfey's epilogue includes the following lines:
Rome may allow strange Tricks to please her Sons,
But we are Protestants and English Nuns,
Like nimble Fawns, and Birds that bless the Spring
Unscar'd by turning Times we dance and sing. . . [4]

From Thomas D'Urfey's New Poems (1690), p. 83.
Original from the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery 

"Rome" is generally a reference to Catholicism (James II had converted in the late 1660s). "Strange Tricks" may refer to the "warming-pan baby," the allegation that the son to whom the wife of James II, Maria of Modena, gave birth in June 1688 was not hers. According to this (almost certainly false) rumor, the warming-pan baby was a substitute infant smuggled into the birth chamber in a bed-warming pan after Maria's child was stillborn in order to insure that James could claim a Catholic heir. The arrival of that son excited fears in Parliament about the establishment of a Catholic dynasty on the British throne, and led to the secret invitation to William of Orange to invade and overthrow James. "Turning times" is thought by some to refer to the Glorious Revolution.

So based on these admittedly speculative readings of the prologue and epilogue, we have a tentative time frame for the performance of Dido and Aeneas: spring 1689, probably after the coronation of William and Mary on April 11. The mystery is solved, no?

Well, no. There are two major problems with a date of spring 1689 for the first performance of Dido. The first is that we don't know whether the libretto and the epilogue derive from the same performance; and the second is that we now know that Dido was likely performed a year or more earlier.

The Letter from Aleppo

In 2009 scholar Bryan White made a stunning archival discovery. While investigating the letters sent home from Aleppo by a music-loving English silk merchant, Rowland Sherman, White came across this passage in a letter dated February 1689 (new style; 1688 old style, when the new year was celebrated March 25):
If Harry has sett to the Harpsechord the Symph[ony] of the mask he made for Preists Ball, I should be very glad of a copie of it. There's another Symph[ony] in the same mask I think in C♭, in the 2d p[ar]t is a very neat point th[a]t moves all in quavers [eighth notes]. if he's applyed th[a]t to the harpsechord, 'twould be very acceptabl[e] too. [5]
"The mask he made for Preists Ball." Assuming that "Harry" is Henry Purcell, an acquaintance of Sherman, there is only one known dramatic entertainment he composed for Priest's school: Dido and Aeneas. If "the Symphony of the mask" refers to the overture to the prologue, then "another Symphony" may refer to the overture played before Act I of the opera. Fortunately, that overture has survived. It is in the key of C minor (C♭), and has two parts; in the second part the upper strings play chasing runs of eighth notes. In the performance that follows by the Amsterdam Bach Soloists conducted by Jan Willem De Vriend, the second part of the overture begins about 50 seconds in:

So Sherman must have been familiar with the score of Dido and Aeneas before he sailed to Aleppo. It was a journey that took almost three months, and Sherman arrived at the bay of Scandroon (Iskenderun) in late October 1688. White has determined that Sherman must have sailed from London no later than the end of July, 1688.

If Dido was made for Priest's school, there was no court performance. And if the score was written before July 1688 it seems unlikely that it wasn't performed until a full year later. In the allegorical prologue, Phoebus and Venus could as easily refer to James II and Maria of Modena as to William and Mary. So on the evidence of Sherman's letter it seems that the first performance of the opera was in spring 1688 or earlier.

But what about D'Urfey's epilogue published in 1690 (or late 1689) with its references to "Rome," "strange tricks" and "turning times"? If the epilogue was performed in spring 1688 or earlier it obviously couldn't allude to the Glorious Revolution; if it wasn't performed until 1689, how can Sherman's familiarity with Dido's score in 1688 be explained?

The Letters of John Verney

The letters of John Verney may shed some light on these questions. Verney was a silk merchant living in London; his wife's family lived in Little Chelsea, not far from Priest's school. Verney's niece Mary attended Priest's beginning in August 1683, when she was eight years old. John Verney wrote to his brother Edmund, Mary's father, who lived well outside London, about how Mary was doing at the school. Verney mentions Mary's performances in Priest's "Grande Balles"; from these references we know that balls were held on 17 April 1684 (when Venus and Adonis was performed), 21 May 1685, 15 and 22 April 1686, and 1 December 1687.

Harris suggests that there may have been at least two performances of Dido at Priest's school: one before July 1688, and one in 1689 (probably in the spring). For the date of the first performance both she and White choose 1 December 1687, the last documented school ball before Sherman's departure from England in July 1688. However, there are no letters from John to Edmund Verney between December 1687 and August 1688, and in any case Mary was probably withdrawn from Priest's school in February 1688 because of Edmund's difficulties in paying the fees. So if there was a ball in spring 1688 (as seems highly probable) it would not be documented in Verney's letters.

I am less convinced than Harris and White that Dido was first performed in December 1687. For one thing, the prologue is full of spring imagery; for another, by the date of his letter in February 1689 would Sherman remember so vividly (and be so excited about receiving the music for) a piece that he had heard 14 months previously? It seems to me more likely that there was a school ball in spring 1688 at which Dido was performed and where Sherman encountered the music.

And D'Urfey's epilogue certainly suggests that there was a performance in 1689 as well. Not only are there the cryptic references that may allude to the Glorious Revolution, but it is known that D'Urfey was employed as a singing-master at Priest's school in the summer of 1689, the most likely circumstance for him to supply a poem to be performed during a school ball. [6]

So: in my view the most probable scenario is a first performance in spring 1688, and a repeated performance with the addition of D'Urfey's epilogue in May or early June 1689. The mysteries of Dido and Aeneas are not quite solved; documentary evidence for both of these occasions is still lacking. But based on the evidence we do have, at least this sequence of events is plausible.

Aeneas and Dido (detail), by Pierre-Narcisse, Baron Guérin (1815)

Dido and Aeneas performed by young gentlewomen

As part of the 2018 Berkeley Festival and Exhibition of early music Dido and Aeneas will be performed by the San Francisco Girls Chorus accompanied by the instrumental ensemble Voices of Music on June 7 and June 9; see the Berkeley Festival website for details. The website states that "this concert is a recreation of what may have been heard" at Priest's school; since a male singer, Jesse Blumberg, will perform the role of Aeneas, that claim is doubtful. Nonetheless, I hope my San Francisco Bay Area readers will not miss the opportunity to hear this brilliant and moving work.

  1. Ellen Harris, "The More We Learn About ‘Dido and Aeneas,’ the Less We Know." New York Times, 15 December 2017.
  2. Nahum Tate. Dido and Aeneas: Prologue.
  3. Thomas D'Urfey, New Poems, 1690, pp. 82-83.;view=fulltext 
  4. D'Urfey, New Poems, p. 83.;view=fulltext
  5. Bryan White. "Letter from Aleppo: dating the Chelsea School performance of Dido and Aeneas." Early Music, vol. 37 no. 3, 2009, pp. 417-428.
  6. How D'Urfey wound up teaching at Priest's school is unknown. He was notorious for his bawdy songs and verse: New Poems includes "A True Tale of a True Intrigue," in which the poet describes being discovered in bed with two sisters; "A Dialogue between a Town Spark and his Miss," about what to do with their child born out of wedlock; "Paid for Peeping: A Poem, Occasion'd by a Peeping hole into a Chamber where a Beautiful and Virtuous young Lady Lodg'd, through which undiscover'd, I could observe all her Actions"; and two lewd ditties "set by Mr. Hen. Purcell" about husbands' difficulties in sexually satisfying their wives. He is a curious choice as a singing teacher for adolescent girls.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Professor Marston and the real Wonder Women

We recently watched Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017), written and directed by Angela Robinson. At the end of the film we had two main thoughts:

First, that it was amazing that this movie ever got made. After all, it's a film "based on a true story" that features disgraced psychology professor William Marston, the man who, while living in a ménage-à-trois with his wife Elizabeth and a former student, Olive Byrne, created the superhero Wonder Woman. (The byline pseudonym Charles Moulton was a combination of the middle names of Max Charles Gaines, the comic's publisher, and William Moulton Marston.)

Wonder Woman became a huge hit during and just after World War II, at one time outselling Superman. Aimed ostensibly at 12-year-olds, the comics featured an eye-popping mixture of:
  • kick-ass feminism
  • anti-fascism
  • bondage
  • more bondage
  • even more bondage
  • yet more bondage
  • still more bondage
  • and homoeroticism

Our second thought after seeing Professor Marston was that the film, entertaining as it is, simplifies and at times falsifies the even more startling true story it's based on. In the discussion that follows I'm relying mainly on Harvard historian Jill Lepore's fascinating New Yorker article "The Last Amazon," later expanded into the book The Secret History of Wonder Woman, as well as some of her other articles and interviews. [1]

Josette Frank. In the movie's frame story, set in 1945, Marston (Luke Evans) is being questioned by Josette Frank (Connie Britton) from the Child Study Association of America, who is portrayed as an anti-comics crusader.

This frame story a little too obviously enables Marston to explain to both her and us the recurrent themes and underlying ideology of the Wonder Woman comics. In the film Frank's inquisitorial questioning of Marston (which never happened in real life) is juxtaposed with images of comics being burned in front of a jeering crowd of children and adults, suggesting that Frank and her organization are whipping up hate. But those images wrongly conflate Frank with figures such as Sterling North or Frederic Wertham, whose infamous book, Seduction of the Innocent, would not be published until a decade later.

Josette Frank; image from Yereth Rosen,

In the 1940s Frank, as staff advisor of the Children's Book Committee of the Child Study Association, was helping to guide the association's much more measured approach to comics. In 1944 she published an article in a special issue of the Journal of Educational Sociology devoted to "The Comics as an Educational Medium." In her paper "What's in the Comics?," Frank takes a far from censorious approach even towards those comics of which she disapproves. "Magazines that exploit the female form or picture amorous embraces with the obvious purpose of stimulating sex interests are certainly not suitable for children," she writes. But she goes on to say,
We cannot choose children's comics for them, since their choices will be guided by their own particular interests. But we can help them to evaluate differences in quality and worth, remembering, however, that taste and discrimination develop slowly . . . The road to wholesome balance lies not in forbidding or confiscating, not in bargaining or cajoling, but rather in broadening the child's real experiences. [2]
In the article Frank notes that "here is a form of reading which children take without coaxing"; children read comics with "avidity and absorption." She was sufficiently convinced of the potentially positive role of comics that she agreed to serve on the editorial advisory board of Gaines' All-American Publications.

Besides Frank, Gaines recruited several other psychology experts for his board. After reading an article bylined "Olive Richard" in Family Circle magazine in which Marston extolled the imaginative value of comics for children, Gaines approached him for the advisory board as well. ("Olive Richard" was the pseudonym of Marston's lover Olive Byrne, who had become a staff writer for Family Circle; "Richard" was her pet name for Marston.) Marston agreed to serve as a consultant, but after he started writing Wonder Woman the other members of the board asked him to step down. In the film Marston has to pursue a busy Gaines around the offices of his comics company to pitch his Wonder Woman idea; in reality, he had special and direct access to Gaines.

The advisory board was mainly seen by Gaines as a means to deflect criticism; he had little intention of actually taking the board members' advice when it threatened to interfere with sales. In a series of memos to Gaines, Josette Frank did deplore Wonder Woman's skimpy costume and the recurrent themes of bondage. When it eventually became clear that Gaines and Marston would ignore her repeated suggestions, she resigned from the advisory board.

But she was hardly leading comic-burning marches in the streets, and to make that association is deeply unfair. According to her granddaughter Yereth Rosen, the real-life Josette Frank was a feminist, a progressive (and a Progressive), worked for social justice, and was inclusive long before that term gained currency (see "Reel Grandma versus Real Grandma"). As Rosen notes, in 1998 the prestigious Children's Book Award was renamed the Josette Frank Award in her grandmother's honor. [3]

The lie detector. In the film, a flashback to the late 1920s shows Marston and his acerbic wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston (Rebecca Hall) working to develop a lie detector with a student from Marston's Radcliffe (actually Tufts) psychology class, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote). Olive's flustered responses to Marston's insistent questions about her feelings during a sorority "Baby Party" (a real thing) gives Elizabeth the insight that lying might be correlated with increased heart rate and thus systolic blood pressure.

Only, the real Marston had published papers on the link between blood pressure and emotion a decade previously. The insight had nothing to do with Olive Byrne (although it may still have been Elizabeth's idea.)

Marston administers a polygraph test to a secretary in his law firm, 1921; image from

And although Marston was an enthusiastic promoter of the polygraph, even today polygraph tests remain notoriously unreliable, and are still not admissible in court except under extraordinary circumstances. In the film the lie detector is shown as unerringly revealing the truth of the characters' feelings for one another, but the American Psychological Association has stated that "there is no evidence that any pattern of physiological reactions is unique to deception" and that "there is little basis for the validity of polygraph tests." [4]

In the film, Frank points out that Marston has incorporated the lie detector into the Wonder Woman comics:

Actually, in the Marston-written comics Wonder Woman's Magic Lasso compels obedience, not just truth-telling—although of course those bound by the Magic Lasso could be ordered to tell the truth as well.

By the way, Marston's Baby Party observations seem to have inspired a storyline in Wonder Woman. In the chapter "Love" in his book Emotions of Normal People (1928), Marston reported that during the Baby Party first-year students had to dress like babies and were punished if they disobeyed the older girls. [5] In the film during the party Olive is forced to spank another student:

In the Wonder Woman story "Grown-Down Land" from 1942, modern parents (named, in case readers didn't get the point, Frank and Selfa Modern), are shown as too self-involved to give their children the attention and care they need. In protest, the Modern children refuse to wake up, and Wonder Woman enters their dream world, "Grown-Down Land." There, while a crowd of babies look on, the children punish her:

Olive Byrne. In Angela Robinson's film Olive tells the Marstons that she has been raised by nuns in a convent school. She has a wallflower's fascination with theater, playacting and costume, but she is portrayed as shy and naïve.

But the real Olive Byrne was a bit more colorful. For one thing, her uncles had a drag queen act on the vaudeville circuit, The Giddy Girls, and as a teenager she had gone on tour with them, singing in the chorus. Her mother was the feminist activist and birth-control hunger striker Ethel Byrne; birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger was her aunt. To Robinson's credit, both women are mentioned, but not Olive's active involvement as the birth-control connection for her fellow Tufts College students. She gave them referrals to Sanger's clinic in New York, and worked there herself during semester breaks; in the film she says "I don't know her very well."

Olive wore her hair cropped short, often dressed like a boy, and was voted the "wittiest, cleverest, and most distinctive student" in her graduating class, according to Lepore. [6] It would be hard to see the film's quiet and apparently conventional Olive being voted the most distinctive student.

The origins of the romantic relationship among the three in the film also changes what seems to have happened historically. Marston is shown as being infatuated with Olive, which Elizabeth recognizes immediately (and initially responds to with jealousy and anger). But Olive is portrayed as having a crush on Elizabeth, and acting on it by kissing her. Eventually Elizabeth agrees to a threesome, and their ménage becomes established.

But in real life the threesome seems to have begun without Elizabeth. During the academic year 1925-26, while Marston was teaching at Tufts in Boston, Elizabeth was staying in New York. She had taken a job as the managing editor of the psychology journal Child Study. (The journal was published by the Child Study Association, and Josette Frank was one of the editors.) At Tufts that fall Olive, a senior, took Marston's Experimental Psychology class, and possibly attended a clinic he held for students with "adjustment problems." In the spring Olive took three more classes with Marston, getting A's each time (the four A's she earned in Marston's classes were the only academic A's she received at Tufts). It seems likely that Marston and Olive began an affair during this time.

Olive Byrne (second from left) with members of the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority at Tufts, 1923 (detail). 
Image from the Tufts University Digital Collections and Archive, reprinted in The Secret History of Wonder Woman, p. 106

After Olive graduated in June 1926 and Marston's appointment was not renewed, possibly because their affair had become known, Marston brought Olive to live with him and Elizabeth in Connecticut. According to Lepore's Secret History, Elizabeth may not have been enthusiastic about the arrangement, at least initially. [7]

Marjorie Wilkes Huntley. This was not the first time that Marston had begun an affair while separated from Elizabeth, nor the first time he had introduced his lover into his household and marriage. In 1918, while in the army, he had been sent to Camp Upton, New York (Elizabeth remained at their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts). Marston was assigned to treat soldiers suffering from shell shock, what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. Huntley, a suffragist activist and a divorcée, was the camp librarian.

It's probable that over the six months Marston and Huntley were together at Camp Upton they began an affair. When Marston was discharged from the army in May 1919 he invited Huntley to visit him and his wife in Cambridge. That summer she did so; she later said that she, Marston and Elizabeth "became a threesome," and her visit is the most likely time for that to have happened. [8] Huntley would continue to be a recurring presence in their lives until Marston's death in 1947. She is absent from the film.

Left to right: Marjorie Huntley, Byrne Holloway Marston (son of Olive), Olive Ann Marston (daughter of Elizabeth), Pete Marston (son of Elizabeth), William Moulton Marston, Olive Byrne, Donn Marston (son of Olive), and Elizabeth Holloway Marston in 1947

The social context of free love. The film portrays the mutual love of Marston, Elizabeth and Olive as occurring in a purely personal context, but the three were actually self-conscious participants in a social movement that had been reshaping sexual relations for decades. Utopian experiments such as the Oneida Community, feminists and suffrage leaders such as Victoria Woodhull, and leftist activists such as Emma Goldman questioned the state-sanctioned institution of marriage and explored other erotic arrangements beyond the monogamous heterosexual dyad.

There were often spiritualist leanings in American advocates free love. Marston's aunt Carolyn Marston Keatley was a believer in Levi Dowling's Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, which predicted that a new age of peace, harmony and love was dawning. Keatley held sexual seminars in her Boston apartment in 1925 and -26 that Marston, Olive, Huntley, and Elizabeth attended. According to notes of the meetings probably written by Huntley entitled "Wonder Woman: The Message of Love Binding," Keatley preached that the perfect "Love Unit" consisted of a "Love Leader," a "Mistress" or "Mother," and a "Love Girl." The categories seemed to be fluid; at one point the notes mention that women should "expose their create in males submission to them, the women mistresses or Love leaders, in order that they, the Mistresses, may submit in passion to the males."

The notes mention "Messenger Betty" (Marston called Elizabeth "Betty"), "messenger R" ("Richard" was Olive's pet name for Marston), and "the girl Zara" ("Zara" was the name given to Huntley by Marston and Elizabeth). Later, Elizabeth would say that "all the basic principles" of their "non-conformist" sexual lives were established "in the years 1925, 26, and 27 when a group of about ten people used to meet in Boston at Aunt Carolyn's apartment once a week." [9] That other people in the Marstons' circle were experimenting with nontraditional sexual arrangements is a dimension entirely absent from Robinson's film.

Despite its sometimes clunkily expository dialogue, Robinson's film is enjoyable on its own terms and has an appealing cast. But as I hope I've shown, the real story of Marston, Elizabeth, Olive, and Wonder Woman is far more complicated and interesting. Lepore's articles and books are fascinating reading, and make far stronger connections than does the film between Wonder Woman and the social and political movements that influenced her creation.

  1. Jill Lepore, "The Last Amazon: Wonder Woman Returns." New Yorker, 22 September 2014.; "The Surprising Origin Story of Wonder Woman," Smithsonian Magazine, October 2014.; "The Man Behind Wonder Woman Was Inspired By Both Suffragists and Centerfolds," interview with Terry Gross, Fresh Air, originally broadcast Oct. 27, 2014.; The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Scribe, 2014.
  2. Josette Frank, "What's in the Comics?" The Journal of Educational Sociology, vol. 18 no. 4, December 1944, pp. 214-222.
  3. Yereth Rosen, "Reel Grandma versus Real Grandma," Anchorage Press, Nov. 1, 2017.
  4. American Psychological Association, "The Truth About Lie Detectors (aka Polygraph Tests)." 2004.
  5. William Marston, Emotions of Normal People, International Library of Psychology, Philosophy and Scientific Method, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1928, pp. 299-300.
  6. The Secret History of Wonder Woman, p. 109.
  7. Secret History, p. 118.
  8. Secret History, p. 58.
  9. Secret History, pp. 118-119.

Friday, March 2, 2018

A guide to the novels of Anthony Trollope, Part 4: Can you forgive me?

Mr. Fenwick came round from Farmer Trumbull's side of the church, and got over the stile into the churchyard.
Illustration by Henry Woods from The Vicar of Bullhampton; image from Project Gutenberg.

Over the past few months I've read five more novels by Anthony Trollope. Yes, I can't help myself. If you haven't yet read any Trollope, I wouldn't recommend starting with any of these books, good as some of them are. Instead I would suggest reading The Warden (1855) and its sequels in the Chronicles of Barsetshire. But if these novels aren't the place to begin with Trollope, they still offer certain characteristic pleasures: vivid characters, compelling situations, and often perceptive psychology.

The Vicar of Bullhampton (1870)

Mary Lowther writes to Walter Marrable.
Illustration by Henry Woods from The Vicar of Bullhampton; image from Project Gutenberg.

Like the Barsetshire novels, The Vicar of Bullhampton is about the passionate conflicts taking place just beneath the surface of a seemingly placid English village. In ministering to his parishioners, Frank Fenwick, the well-meaning but incautious Anglican vicar of the title, finds himself entangled in their troubles.

First, there is the attempt of Frank and his wife Janet to encourage the courtship of his longtime friend, the local squire Harry Gilmore, with her longtime friend, the near-penniless Mary Lowther. It does not go smoothly. Mary feels pressured to accept a man she doesn't love. And while she is vacillating she meets her cousin, Walter Marrable, to whom she feels strongly attracted, but who can't afford to marry her. Walter has a rich uncle, but is only the third heir in line, and it seems very unlikely that he will succeed to the estate.

Next, there is Frank's involvement with the gruff miller Jacob Brattle, his unruly son Sam, and his disgraced daughter Carry, all of whom get caught up in a murder investigation. And finally there is a low-intensity religious war carried on by the village's rival minister, Mr. Puddleham. The opportunistic Puddleham seizes the chance offered by a breach between Frank and the largest local landowner, the Marquis of Trowbridge, to promote the building of a new Methodist chapel right across from the Fenwick's vicarage.
"If I were you, Frank, I should not think so much about it."
"Yes, you would, old boy, if it touched you as it does me. It isn't that the chapel should be there. I could have built a chapel for them with my own hands on the same spot, if it had been necessary."
"I don't see what there is to annoy you."
"This annoys me,—that after all my endeavours, there should be people here, and many people, who find a gratification in doing that which they think I shall look upon as an annoyance. The sting is in their desire to sting, and in my inability to show them their error, either by stopping what they are doing, or by proving myself indifferent to it." (Frank Fenwick to Harry Gilmore, Ch. 31)
Other Trollope novels . . .
  • that turn on inheritance plots: Doctor Thorne, The Eustace Diamonds, Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite, Cousin Henry, Miss Mackenzie
  • that involve mysteries: Phineas Redux, The Eustace Diamonds, The Last Chronicle of Barset, The Land-Leaguers 
  • that feature conflicts between the representatives of the established church and those of Low, evangelical or Dissenting churches: The Chronicles of Barsetshire
Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite (1871)

She came up to him quickly, and gave him her lips to kiss

"She came up to him quickly, and gave him her lips to kiss."—[Page 96.]
Illustration from Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite; image from

This novel could almost be described as Trollope's Clarissa, although in keeping with its author and its era there is thankfully no abduction or rape of the heroine. Emily Hotspur, the beautiful and vivacious daughter of a landed family, is desired by her parents to marry a wealthy, decent man who fatally lacks charisma. Instead she falls in love with her handsome and deeply indebted cousin George. Emily's marriage to George would fulfill her father's dearest wish by uniting the family titles with the family estates of Humblethwaite and Scarrowby. What Emily doesn't fully realize, but her father gradually discovers, is that George behaves badly: he is a gambler and a liar who keeps a married actress as a mistress.
But his own child, his only child, the transmitter of all the great things that fortune had given to him; she, in whose hands were to lie the glories of Humblethwaite and Scarrowby; she, who had the giving away of the honour of their ancient family,—could she be trusted to one of whom it must be admitted that all his early life had been disreputable, even if the world's lenient judgment in such matters should fail to stigmatize it as dishonourable? . . . He knew that Cousin George was no fitting husband for his girl, that he was a man to whom he would not have thought of giving her, had her happiness been his only object. (Ch. 4)
And then Sir Harry discovers that George has done something far worse. As in Clarissa, the love of a virtuous young woman for an inveterate rake will lead to tragedy.

Other Trollope novels that feature young women pursued by honorable but unexciting men, but who find themselves drawn to charming but disreputable profligates with suspect motives: the Palliser novels, The Small House At Allington, The American Senator, The Way We Live Now

Cousin Henry (1879)

Cover of Cousin Henry; image from Oxford University Press.

Although George Hotspur doesn't have many redeeming qualities, Trollope excelled at creating flawed characters with whom, nonetheless, the reader comes to feel a certain sympathy. "We are too apt to forget when we think of the sins and faults of men how keen may be their conscience in spite of their sins," writes Trollope (Ch. 17), and the conscience of the title character in Cousin Henry torments him mercilessly.

Henry Jones, a London clerk, is the nearest male relative and thus heir of the old Squire Indefer Jones. Henry is something of a weasel, and is roundly disliked by the squire, the squire's ward Isabel, and all the servants and tenants who will one day be in his charge. The squire is tormented because his wealth is mainly tied up in the properties which Henry is set to inherit; the squire can bequeath to Isabel, his young niece who has lovingly looked after him for the past ten years, only a modest legacy.

After the squire's death evidence grows that he made a new will as he lay dying, only no trace of it can be found. Henry comes to be suspected of knowing what happened to the squire's final will—which, in fact, he does. Henry is conscious of possessing the estate fraudulently, and yet can't bring himself either to reveal or destroy the true will. So the will remains hidden, and Trollope masterfully depicts Henry's increasing sense of guilt and entrapment.
"I have come to tell you," said he,—not understanding her feeling in the least, and evidently showing by the altered tone of his voice that he thought that his communication would be received with favour,—"I have come to tell you that the legacy shall be paid in full. I will see to that myself as soon as I am able to raise a penny on the property."
"Pray do not trouble yourself, Cousin Henry."
"Oh, certainly I shall."
"Do not trouble yourself. You may be sure of this, that on no earthly consideration would I take a penny from your hands."
"Why not?"
"We take presents from those whom we love and esteem, not from those we despise."
"Why should you despise me?" he asked.
"I will leave that to yourself to judge of; but be sure of this, that though I were starving I would take nothing from your hands." (Isabel to Henry, Ch. 8.)

Kept in the Dark (1882)

When the letter was completed, she found it to be one which she could not send.
Illustration by John Everett Millais from Kept in the Dark; image from

After a brief acquaintance Cecilia Holt accepts the proposal of the dashing Sir Francis Geraldine. As their engagement continues she discovers that their sensibilities are not in sympathy; he is older and far more jaded. She ultimately makes the difficult decision to break it off—difficult because a woman who ends an engagement is seen as inconstant. (She can't win: if she is the rejected one she is viewed as tainted by the man's repudiation.) As she tells a friend, "I am prepared to bear all the blame. I must bear it. But I am not prepared to make myself miserable for ever because I have made a mistake as to a man's character." (Ch. 1)

A few months later she meets George Western, a man nearing 40 who is just getting over the heartbreak of being jilted by his fiancée. George finds a sympathetic ear and a kind heart in Cecilia, and soon proposes to her. She wants to tell him about her past engagement but keeps putting off her confession. Events overtake her intentions, and once they are married, that previous engagement becomes a secret she must conceal.

And then Sir Francis visits Cecilia in George's absence, and writes a letter to him alluding to the engagement. When George reads the letter, he "felt for a moment as though he had received a bullet in his heart." He imagines that Cecilia and Sir Francis are in league together. His wild suspicions are without foundation, of course. Cecilia is affronted and angered by his jealousy, and George finds her denials unconvincing. He soon decides to separate from his wife and go to live on the Continent.
That one damning fact was there,—clear as daylight, that she had willingly bestowed herself upon this baronet, this creature who to his thinking was vile as a man could be. As to that there was no doubt. That was declared. How different must she have been from that creature whom he had fancied that he had loved, when she would have willingly consented to be the wife of such a man? . . .
It was grievous to be borne,—the fact that he had been so mistaken in choosing for himself a special woman as a companion of his life. He had desired her to be all honour, all truth, all simplicity, and all innocence. And instead of these things he had encountered fraud and premeditated deceit. (Ch. 12)
The only hope for their marriage is if both learn to admit error and bring themselves to ask for forgiveness, but both are too stubborn and unyielding to do so. Trollope portrays two people whose desire to reconcile is overwhelmed by their need to cling to their outrage and sense of injury.

Other Trollope novels that feature couples whose mutual misunderstanding threatens their marriage: He Knew He Was Right, the Palliser novels.

The Land-Leaguers (1883)

Title page of The Land-Leaguers; image from

This novel was left unfinished by Trollope at his death. It is set in Ireland, a place with which Trollope was intimately familiar. He lived there for much of the 1840s and 50s while working for the Post Office; it was in Ireland that he met his (English) wife, Rose Heseltine, and began his writing career.

Trollope was dismayed by the misery and suffering he witnessed in Ireland, a dismay he expressed in his early novels such as The Macdermots of Ballycloran and Castle Richmond. But he was also disgusted by the violence of the oppressed. The immediate impetus for the novel seems to have been the assassinations of the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and the Permanent Undersecretary at the Irish Office, Thomas Henry Burke. In May 1882 while strolling in Dublin's Phoenix Park the two men were stabbed to death by members of a splinter nationalist group, the Invincibles. A month later Trollope began dictating The Land-Leaguers to his niece and amanuensis, Florence Bland.

The novel opens with the deliberate flooding of the fields of an English-born landlord, Philip Jones, by a shadowy group of toughs ostensibly seeking rent abatements but whose ultimate goal is to drive Jones off his land. Jones' 10-year-old son Florian witnesses the opening of the floodgates, but under threat from the men and pressure from the village priest is sworn to silence. As Jones is boycotted by villagers who face reprisals if they deal with him, he is deeply hurt that, in his view, Florian is siding with their enemies rather than confiding in him.

Kate Field; image from the Boyd B. Stutler Collection, West Virginia State Archives.

A second plot concerns Jones' elder son Frank and his sweetheart, the Irish-American singer Rachel O'Mahony. (Rachel seems to have been based at least in part on the American actress Kate Field, and possibly as well on Trollope's niece Beatrice, an amateur singer.) The union of Frank and Rachel faces two major obstacles. The first is that Rachel's father Gerald is an Irish nationalist politician, but a rather comically ineffectual one, who supports policies antithetical to Jones. Again there is a connection to a real person: John O'Mahony was the founder of the Fenian Brotherhood, an American group that provided advocacy and financial support for the Irish Republican struggle.

The second obstacle is Rachel's desire for an opera career, which takes her to London in the company of her Jewish manager, a particularly repellent character improbably named Mahomet M. Moss. While Rachel is alone and ill, Moss tries to force himself on her—only to receive a shock.
"Rachel, say the word, and be mine at once."
"You do not understand how I hate you!" she exclaimed.
Then he got up, as though to clasp the girl in his embrace. She ran from him, and immediately called the girl whom she had desired to remain in the next room with the door open. But the door was not open, and the girl, though she was in the room, did not answer. Probably the bribe which Mr. Moss had given was to her feeling rather larger than ordinary.
"My darling, my charmer, my own one, come to my arms!"
And he did succeed in getting his hand round on to Rachel's waist, and getting his lips close to her head. She did save her face so that Mr. Moss could not kiss her, but she was knocked into a heap by his violence, and by her own weakness. He still had hold of her as she rose to her feet, and, though he had become acquainted with her weapon before, he certainly did not fear it now. A sick woman, who had just come from her bed, was not likely to have a dagger with her. When she got up she was still more in his power. She was astray, scrambling here and there, so as to be forced to guard against her own awkwardness. Whatever may be the position in which a woman may find herself, whatever battle she may have to carry on, she has first to protect herself from unseemly attitudes. Before she could do anything she had first to stand upon her legs, and gather her dress around her.
"My own one, my life, come to me!" he exclaimed, again attempting to get her into his embrace.
But he had the knife stuck into him. She had known that he would do it, and now he had done it.
"You fool, you," she said; "it has been your own doing."
He fell on the sofa, and clasped his side, where the weapon had struck him. She rang the bell violently, and, when the girl came, desired her to go at once for a surgeon. Then she fainted . . .
"I knew it would come," she said to her father [afterwards]. "There was something about his eye which told me that an attempt would be made. He would not believe of a woman that she could have a will of her own. By treating her like an animal he thought he would have his own way. I don't imagine he will treat me in that way again . . . a man must be made to understand that if a woman won't have him, she won't! I think Mr. Moss understands it now." (Ch. 43)
The Land-Leaguers is filled with violence. Not only is Rachel sexually assaulted and Moss stabbed by her in self-defense, but multiple characters are shot or shot at, several are murdered (including one of the major characters), and had the novel been finished it would have ended with a hanging. It is a dispirited and dispiriting work that is definitely not the place to begin with Trollope. And because I didn't want it to be the place I ended with this author whose work has given me so much pleasure, it inspired me to read the other novels discussed in this post.

Although I imagine I'm not quite done with Trollope—I've only read a little more than half of his fiction, and none of his nonfiction beyond An Autobiography—this may well be my last Trollope post. After this I'm not sure I will have a great deal more to say about him or his books. No promises, though!

For other posts on Trollope, please see:
I've also written about the parallels between a scene in The Last Chronicle of Barset and Verdi's La Traviata (The Victorians and opera: Trollope meets Verdi) and about the British television series The Pallisers and Doctor Thorne.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

In memoriam: Sridevi

Sridevi. Photo: Reuters

I learned this morning with shock and sadness of the untimely death of Sridevi. She was, of course, an electrifying presence onscreen. Vivacious, beautiful, and a wonderful dancer, she elevated the films in which she starred. She retired from the screen after her 1996 marriage, but returned a few years ago with the charming English Vinglish, in which her intelligence and emotional truth as an actress and her flair for comedy were showcased. Our thoughts go out to her family, loved ones, and many fans; she was taken from us far too soon.

Posts on the films of Sridevi:

Monday, February 19, 2018

Dorothea Roschmann and Malcolm Martineau

I first encountered the German soprano Dorothea Röschmann through her 2000 recording of Handel's German Arias with the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. Her lovely singing in those pieces was aptly described by Richard Wigmore in Grove Music Online as possessing a "clear, silvery tone." She also gave a compelling performance of the aria "Blute nur, du liebes Herz," in Nikolaus Harnoncourt's landmark 2001 recording of Bach's St. Matthew Passion.

What I hadn't realized when those recordings were added to my shelf over a decade and a half ago was that Röschmann was already in mid-career. And since then, although she has had a busy opera and concert schedule in Europe and continued to issue recordings, we had lost touch with her. So as we planned to attend her Cal Performances recital Friday night, we wondered whether her voice would show wear and strain from nearly three decades of opera singing.

We needn't have worried. From the first notes it was clear that Röschmann was in beautiful voice, retaining all of her silver purity in the higher register. But what had not been clear from recordings is that her voice has developed an especially dark, powerful, almost alto-like lower register. Her low notes can send chills up your spine.

Röschmann fully understands that, while loud singing can be dramatic, understatement can be even more effective. Much of the recital was sung in a range between pianissimo and mezzo forte, creating a hushed, inward atmosphere. When occasional fortissimo climaxes did come, revealing a hint of steel in her otherwise lush voice, they were all the more effective for being employed sparingly.

Malcom Martineau was Röschmann's superb accompanist; his playing was admirably subtle and he was unafraid to play softly. He supported Röschmann sensitively, and also (particularly during the introductions and endings of the songs) showed that he is a wonderfully expressive musician in his own right.

The program was well-chosen to highlight Röschmann's ability to weave a spell. It opened with Schubert's Four Mignon Songs, which set the exquisitely melancholy tone for the evening. Mignon (a character from Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship) doesn't know her father, and has been abducted from her homeland; in the novel she dies of unrequited love for Wilhelm. Röschmann brought out the character's girlish quality, but also an undercurrent of sadness. These songs were followed by Schubert's solemn "Nachtstück" (Nocturne), in which an old man faces death. "Nachtstück" served as a coda to the Mignon songs; in Goethe's novel, Mignon's unknown father is the elderly harpist who accompanies her, and who ultimately commits suicide out of guilt.

The mood lightened with the first two of Mahler's Five Songs on Poems of Friedrich Rückert, a playful "Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder" (Don't peek at my songs!) and a blissful "Ich atmet' einen Linden Duft" (I breathed the gentle fragrance of a linden branch). These were followed by a harrowing "Um Mitternacht" (At midnight), in which Röschmann allowed her voice to become almost guttural as she bit off the consonants of the title phrase. The first half closed with a darkly beautiful reading of "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" (I am lost to the world) that suspended time.

We had purchased our tickets for the chance to hear Mahler's Rückert Lieder and Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder (which closed the program). But it was also wonderful to be introduced to Schumann's Maria Stuart cycle, which begins with the young queen bidding farewell to her beloved France, and ends with her prayer on the scaffold moments before her execution. Röschmann has recorded her poignant performances of these songs on her album Portraits (although no recording seems to capture the richness of her voice heard live); here is "Abschied von Frankreich," with Martineau as her accompanist:


Ich zieh' dahin!
Ade, mein fröhlich Frankenland,
Wo ich die liebste Heimath fand,
Du meiner Kindheit Pflegerin.
Ade, du Land, du schöne Zeit—
Mich trennt das Boot vom Glück so weit!
Doch trägt's die Hälfte nur von mir:
Ein Theil für immer bleibet dein,
Mein fröhlich Land, der sage dir,
Des Andern eingedenk zu sein!
Ade, ade.

I'm going away!
Goodbye, my joyous France,
Where I found the dearest home,
You, who nurtured me in childhood.
Goodbye to the country, to the wonderful time—
The ship will carry me so far from happiness!
But it bears away only half of me:
One part shall always remain yours,
My joyous land, and it urges you
To remember the other part!
Goodbye, goodbye.

The final group was Wagner's Tristan und Isolde-like Wesendonck Lieder. Röschmann sang the radiant "Der Engel" (The angel) ravishingly. Perhaps even more striking, if possible, was her performance of "Im Treibhaus" (In the hothouse), which fully exploited her lower register and achieved a quiet stillness as Martineau's piano suggested the slow dripping of water from the leaves. Magical.

As an encore Röschmann performed (I believe) Liszt's "Es muss was Wunderbares sein" (It must be a wonderful thing). This simple and touching song sent us out into the night exhilarated by what we'd experienced. Many thanks to Matías Tarnopolsky, the director of Cal Performances, for bringing Röschmann and Martineau to Berkeley—we hope, not for the last time.

Note: On behalf of the audience member whose cell phone rang in the middle of a song because he or she couldn't be bothered to turn it off beforehand; the audience member who compounded the disruption by guffawing at the ringing cell phone; the same audience member, who decided as several songs drew to their hushed conclusions that it was the perfect time to cough; and the audience member (a different one) who, when Martineau announced that the encore was about a couple loving faithfully through life until they are united in death, shrieked with laughter (bitter, are we?)—I want to express my deepest apologies to the artists.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters

It's hard to describe Emil Ferris' My Favorite Thing is Monsters. It's partly a coming-of-age story set in Chicago's gritty Uptown neighborhood in the late 1960s; we read the sketchbook diary of the 10-year-old narrator, Karen Reyes, as she discovers some of the secrets of the adults around her and begins to harbor a few of her own. The book is printed to resemble a lined, spiral-bound notebook of the kind that Karen carries with her and draws in obsessively. Ostracized and bullied at school, Karen symbolizes her sense of difference from everyone around her by drawing herself as a young werewolf, with elongated lower canine teeth, protruding jaw and pointed ears.

As that self-portrait suggests, My Favorite Thing is Monsters is partly an homage to the horror comics of the era, which make up the bulk of Karen's reading (the story is interspersed with mock covers of titles such as Terror Tales, Ghastly and Dread).

It's also partly a cancer memoir, as Karen watches her mother slowly being ravaged by the disease. And it's also a mystery, as Karen sets out like a trench-coated, fedoraed Harriet the Spy to solve the murder of a sympathetic neighbor, Anka Silverberg, and learns of the hidden torments in her past.

It's also an expression of a love of art nurtured not only by lurid comic-book illustrations but by afternoons spent at Chicago's Art Institute (or as one character has it, "the art castle"), where Karen is taken by her protective older brother Deez.

To encompass such a wide range of narrative registers and tones Ferris deploys an equally wide range of drawing styles: highly detailed and finely cross-hatched realism, comic-book fantasy, corrosive Weimar-style expressionism, dashed-off sketches, and renderings of famous artworks.

As Karen discovers, "there are a lot of things we don't see every day that are right under our noses. . .Just maybe — monsters are right under our noses, too. . ." My Favorite Thing is Monsters portrays many kinds of horror, and the saving (and disturbing) power of art.

This is one of the most strikingly drawn and vividly imaginative graphic novels I've encountered. The only disappointing thing about it is that the story isn't yet complete. For that we'll have to wait for Book Two, which was initially announced for October 2017, but has had its publication date pushed back twice and is now scheduled for release in August 2018.

For an interview with Ferris in which she discusses being paralyzed by West Nile virus (and which links to the story of the entire 10,000-copy first print run of her book being held hostage in the Panama Canal by the shipping company's creditors), see "Emil Ferris: 'I didn’t want to be a woman – being a monster was the best solution'" in The Guardian.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Doctor Thorne

Harry Richardson as Frank Gresham and Stefanie Martini as Mary Thorne in Doctor Thorne

To make an enjoyable literary adaptation for the screen the source doesn't have to be a masterpiece. In fact, trying to adapt a masterpiece for film or television can raise expectations that are hard to fulfill, since great novels offer a richer imaginative experience. Jane Austen's novels, for example, have frequently been travestied on film: badges of shame have been earned by adaptations of Pride and Prejudice (1940 and 2005), Mansfield Park (2007), and Persuasion (2007). [1]

On the other hand, Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Samuel Taylor took a little-known French thriller with an improbable twist, Boileau-Narcejac's D'Entre les Morts (From among the dead, 1954), and turned it into a masterwork of romantic obsession, Vertigo (1958). [2] So a source of the highest literary quality is hardly a necessary condition for a good film or television version.

In 2016 Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, adapted Anthony Trollope's novel Doctor Thorne (1858) as television series broadcast on ITV in Britain and on Amazon Prime in the US. (The Amazon series and the DVD split the original three episodes into four.) Doctor Thorne is probably the weakest entry in Trollope's Chronicles of Barsetshire series. It relies on not one but two highly implausible plots, one a rags-to-riches story and the other an inheritance narrative so contrived that I previously wrote that it "seems like it was taken from Charles Dickens' reject pile." [3] Nonetheless, Fellowes' version makes for very enjoyable watching.

The series was not well received on its initial broadcast. After the final episode The Guardian's Viv Groskop wrote, "I thought I needed a lie-down (by which I mean 'full medical sedation') after Downton. But after this I need some kind of horse tranquiliser. Or a memory drug to forget it ever happened." In The Telegraph Gerard O'Donovan damned it with faint praise by saying that "it was a rare case of pretty much everything coming to an end exactly as expected. . .all the more relaxing for removing the need to constantly guess at what might happen next." In other words, Doctor Thorne managed the neat trick of being both utterly farfetched and absolutely predictable. [4]

Well, yes. But this is true of the novel as well. You don't read Trollope for his plots; he himself wrote in his autobiography that plot "is the most insignificant part of a tale." [5] Trollope excelled at creating indelible characters, and Doctor Thorne (in both incarnations) offers its full share:
  • Sir Roger Scatcherd (played in the series by Ian McShane), a former mason who after spending time in prison for killing the seducer of his sister makes an immense fortune building railroads;
  • his long-suffering wife (Janine Duvitski), who from a laborer's helpmeet finds herself suddenly elevated to Lady Scatcherd;
  • Lady Arabella Gresham (Rebecca Front), whose husband owes vast sums to Sir Roger, and who in order to rescue the family fortunes does everything in her power to get her son Frank (Harry Richardson) to marry a rich woman;
  • Mary Thorne (Stefanie Martini), Frank's childhood sweetheart, beautiful but poor and of "uncertain birth," who finds herself suddenly unwelcome in Lady Arabella's home;
  • Miss Martha Dunstable (Alison Brie), an American heiress whose considerable wealth (derived from her father's dubious patent remedy) frees her to say what she thinks and do what she pleases;
  • and the decent and kind Doctor Thomas Thorne (Tom Hollander), Mary's uncle and surrogate father, and the friend, confidant and physician to most of the other characters.
You might wonder exactly how an ex-convict stonemason became the richest man in the county and a baronet. Fellowes doesn't bother much about that, or about Henry Thorne (Tim Wallers), Thomas's rakish brother who seduces and impregnates Roger's sister—Henry appears in the first moments of the first episode only to be struck and inadvertently killed by a drunk Roger. Many of the novel's other side-plots and characters are reduced or shed entirely to keep the focus in the series firmly on the obstacles facing the union of Mary and Frank.

Rebecca Front as Lady Arabella Gresham and Phoebe Nicholls as the Countess de Courcy

Chief among these is Frank's mother. Rebecca Front does a wonderful job as the formidable Lady Arabella Gresham, who is far more concerned about her family's (meaning her own) status than her son's happiness. She even demands that Frank propose to Miss Dunstable, but when he tries to do so (and Fellowes doesn't have him go as far in the series as he does in the novel), Miss Dunstable is flattered but has to remind him that he should be true to Mary.

The other obstacles to the marriage of Frank and Mary, of course, are her relative poverty and lack of social status. If only Mary were an heiress. . .which she becomes when—mild spoiler—Sir Roger wills his estate to the eldest child of his sister should his own son, the worthless souse Louis (Edward Franklin), pass away before he turns 25. But for Mary to inherit, both Sir Roger and his son will have to die, and be quick about it. . .

Apart from the too-obvious creaking of the machinery of the plot, the weakness at the center of Doctor Thorne is that both Mary and Frank are more acted upon by others than themselves active shapers of their destinies. Frank is definitely made less fickle and more sympathetic in the series than in the novel. Among the scenes Fellowes left out is one in which he thrashes the inept Mr. Moffat (Danny Kirrane), who has jilted Frank's sister Augusta.

  Mary Thorne with her uncle, Doctor Thorne (Tom Hollander)

As for Mary, she is sweet, self-sacrificing and forgiving. In his Alastair-Cooke-like commentary before and after every episode on the DVD release Fellowes mentions that Trollope's heroines are more complex than those of Dickens. In some cases, certainly. To mention just a few, Lily Dale in The Small House at Allington has a sparkling vivacity; Grace Crawley (in The Last Chronicle of Barset) has a firmness of principle belied by her young age; and of course Lady Glencora Palliser (in the Palliser novels), as I wrote earlier, "is one of Trollope's most compelling characters—headstrong, willful, with a delightfully witty tongue. She is not always wise, but somehow always manages to engage our sympathies." [6] But Mary could be precisely one of those "virginal and flawless" heroines that Fellowes claims is typical of Dickens.

Ian McShane as Sir Roger Scatcherd

Really, it takes more than gorgeous gowns, stunning country houses, lush greenswards and elegant candlelit interiors for us to enjoy a 19th-century literary adaptation. But not much more. While Frank and Mary are attractive and charming, and Tom Hollander's Doctor Thorne provides the series' (and the novel's) moral center, the real entertainment is provided chiefly by McShane's blustering, bibulous Sir Roger, Front's dismissive, disapproving Lady Arabella, and Brie's genuine and gamesome Miss Dunstable, one of Trollope's most delightful characters (although Brie, whose striking beauty cannot be disguised by a severe hairstyle, is nowhere near as plain as my image of her novelistic counterpart).

Alison Brie as Martha Dunstable

Fittingly, the series ends with a nicely subtle suggestion that Miss Dunstable, after fending off the overtures of several fortune-hunters, may have found the man she wants to marry—only clearly he's not yet aware of it. Perhaps we'll have to wait for the sequel, Framley Parsonage, to discover if she succeeds. Here's hoping that Fellowes (or better yet, Andrew Davies) is working on it now.

  1. For my favorite and least favorite Austen adaptations please see the post Six months with Jane Austen: Favorite adaptations and final thoughts.
  1. For a discussion of the parallels and differences between the novel and film, as well as the source of a key Vertigo scene in the obscure Pre-Code film Hot Saturday (1932), please see the post Obsession, perversity and recapitulation: Hitchock's Vertigo and its sources.
  1. For more on Trollope's Doctor Thorne and the other Chronicles of Barsetshire novels please see A guide to the novels of Anthony Trollope, Part 1: The Chronicles of Barsetshire.
  1.  Viv Groskop, "Doctor Thorne recap: episode 3 - let's take a memory drug to forget this disgrace." The Guardian, 20 March 2016. Gerard O'Donovan, "Doctor Thorne delivered a fairytale ending - review." The Telegraph, 20 March 2016.
  1. Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography. William Blackwood and Sons, 1883, p. 169:
  1. For more on Lady Glencora and Trollope's Palliser novels, please see A guide to the novels of Anthony Trollope, Part 2: The Palliser novels