Sunday, February 26, 2017

"The best I could do": Eleanor Marx and translating Madame Bovary


Eleanor Marx

As I wrote in "These long, sad years": Madame Bovary and Eleanor Marx, in 1886 Karl Marx's daughter Eleanor published the first translation into English of Flaubert's great novel. In her thoughtful introduction (all or most of which is omitted from many later editions of her translation) Eleanor wrote,
Certainly no critic can be more painfully aware than I am of the weaknesses, shortcomings, the failures of my work; but at least the translation is faithful. I have neither suppressed a line, nor added a word. That often I have not found the best possible word to express Flaubert's meaning I know; but those who have studied him will understand how impossible it must be for any one to give an exact reproduction of the inimitable style of the master. . .

My work, then, I know is faulty. It is pale and feeble by the side of the original. Yet, if it induces some readers to go to that original, if it helps to make known to those who cannot thus study this work of the greatest of French novelists after Balzac, I am content. . .I do not regret having done this work; it is the best I could do.
In this post I will compare several English translations of Madame Bovary and talk about some of the choices made by each translator. My own command of French is pretty lamentable: whatever remains of a couple of years' worth of classes in middle- and junior high school. (But did I let my complete lack of any Russian comprehension whatsoever keep me from a comparison of Eugene Onegin translations?)

A translator has two main tasks, which unfortunately are often at odds: faithfulness and readability. The latter, of course, is a highly subjective judgment; for the former, I'll rely on some writers far more fluent in French than I am. The four translations I will compare are by Eleanor Marx (1886), Gerard Hopkins (1948, revised 1981), Francis Steegmuller (1957), and Lydia Davis (2010).


The new fellow

Madame Bovary is famous for Flaubert's use of le style indirect libre, in which a character's thoughts or speech are incorporated into a third-person narration without attributions such as "she thought" or "he said." An example from midway through the novel: the evening after her first seduction by Rodolphe, Emma stares into her bedroom mirror. Her thoughts are rendered in free indirect style:
But when she saw herself in the glass she wondered at her face. Never had her eyes been so large, so black, of so profound a depth. . .So at last she was to know those joys of love, that fever of happiness of which she had despaired!. . .Had she not suffered enough? (Marx, pp. 186-187)
But the novel actually begins in the first person; the narrator is initially a witness to and a participant in events. Here are four versions of the novel's opening sentences:
  1. We were in class when the head-master came in, followed by a "new fellow," not wearing the school uniform, and a school servant carrying a large desk. Those who had been asleep woke up, and every one rose as if just surprised at his work. (Marx)
  1. We were in the preparation room when the head came in, followed by a new boy in ordinary day clothes, and by a school servant carrying a large desk. Those of us who were asleep woke up, and we all rose to our feet doing our best to give the impression that we had been interrupted in the midst of our labors.  (Hopkins)
  1. We were in study-hall when the headmaster walked in, followed by a new boy not yet in school uniform and by the handyman carrying a large desk. Their arrival disturbed the slumbers of some of us, but we all stood up in our places as though rising from our work. (Steegmuller)
  1. We were in Study Hall, when the Headmaster entered, followed by a new boy dressed in regular clothes and a school servant carrying a large desk. Those who were sleeping woke up, and everyone rose as though taken by surprise while at work. (Davis)
The original passage:
Nous étions à l'Étude, quand le Proviseur entra, suivi d'un nouveau habillé en bourgeois et d'un garçon de classe qui portait un grand pupitre. Ceux qui dormaient se réveillèrent, et chacun se leva comme surpris dans son travail.
Marx uses the phrase "in class" for Flaubert's "à l'Étude," which isn't quite right. Class would have involved a teacher calling on students to recite a lesson from memory, but clearly that is not what is going on. Hopkins' "preparation room" sounds like they could be scrubbing for a medical procedure, and makes the reader wonder for a moment whether "the head" that is coming into the room belongs to a cadaver—clearly the worst version of the three. "Study hall" sounds as though it should be a separate room dedicated to quiet study, but the students are evidently all in their usual classroom, into which the new boy's desk is being carried. "Study period" might be the closest English equivalent.

The new boy (Marx's "fellow" seems more genuinely 19th century) is dressed "en bourgeois," that is, in an ordinary or typical way. Hopkins almost gets it right, but the "day" in "ordinary day clothes" is unnecessary. Also, it raises the unanswered question of why it's remarkable that his clothes are ordinary, as does Davis's "regular clothes." Marx recognizes the implication that the other students are wearing school uniforms and renders the phrase more meaningful at the cost of departing from a literal version of the text: "not wearing the school uniform." Much clearer, though it's a little clunky. However, she couldn't say "out of uniform" because clearly the new boy has never been in uniform, a point that Steegmuller makes with his "not yet in school uniform."

Who is carrying the desk? For "un garçon de classe," literally "a class boy," most of the translators follow Marx's "school servant," which indicates a man-of-all-work and is clear enough. Steegmuller departs from the rest with "handyman." I think this is a bit more narrow than the person Flaubert is describing; a school servant isn't just someone who fixes things around the school (as a handyman would), he also probably deals with keeping up the grounds, cleaning the rooms, and perhaps even works in the kitchen or serves at meals.

Flaubert's style is notoriously spare, and Marx economically renders the first phrase of the next sentence as "Those of us who had been asleep woke up." Hopkins follows her lead with "Those of us who were asleep woke up." Davis is perhaps even better with her "Those who were sleeping woke up," which pares away the unnecessary "of us." Instead of paring away, Steegmuller's "Their arrival disturbed the slumbers of some of us" introduces an ambiguity not in Flaubert (it leaves open the possibility that only some of those who were sleeping woke up, which is not what Flaubert is saying). He also adds a phrase not in the original, "their arrival" (what has disturbed the boys' sleep is hardly ambiguous).

It's Hopkins, though, who gets the prize for over-explanation with his version of the next phrase: ". . .and we all rose to our feet doing our best to give the impression that we had been interrupted in the midst of our labors." The added phrase "doing our best to give the impression" clangs on the mind's ear in a very un-Flaubertian way. Steegmuller's version is redundant and uses the conjunction "but" instead of Flaubert's "and": "but we all stood up in our places as though rising. . ." Can you stand up as though sitting? And how else would you stand up but in your place? Davis's variant, "everyone rose as though taken by surprise while at work," conveys the sense. But I prefer Marx's more vivid version, "every one rose as if just surprised at his work."

Even though we've only looked at two sentences, I think a couple of things are apparent. The first is the sheer number of choices that confront the translator at virtually every point. Depending on those choices, translated versions of the same passage differ in tone, structure and shades of meaning. And the second is that Marx's translation is quite good, more faithful to Flaubert than those of Hopkins and Steegmuller, providing a bit more contextual meaning than that of Davis, and offering some felicitous English renderings. If it sometimes sounds slightly old-fashioned (as with "'new fellow'"), her diction is authentically of the 19th century.

Flaubert's italics

In the novel's opening passage Flaubert italicizes "nouveau," as he does many phrases in Madame Bovary—generally signalling a habitual or hackneyed expression. But in English italics function differently: they provide emphasis or indicate words kept in the original language. Marx generally chooses to place Flaubert's italicized phrases in quotes, while Davis provides italics wherever Flaubert does. Paradoxically, Marx's quotes seem like a closer English equivalent to Flaubert's intended meaning than do Davis's more literal italics. (Hopkins and Steegmuller are inconsistent; often, as in the opening passage, they silently ignore Flaubert's italics altogether.)

Here's an example from later in the novel. Rodolphe, who will become Emma's first lover, brings one of the laborers from his estate to see Emma's husband Charles, a doctor. The man is suffering from "des fourmis le long du corps"—literally, "ants along the body." Marx seeks an equivalent English phrase which she places in quotes, "he felt 'a tingling all over.'" Hopkins italicizes: "because of a tingling sensation all over his body." (What else is tingling but a sensation? Never mind.) Steegmuller has "because 'he felt prickly all over.'" He's placed the phrase in quotes, but by moving "he felt" inside them he indicates that this is reported speech rather than cliché. Davis originally translated this phrase almost literally: "he was feeling ants all up and down his body." As Jonathan Raban asked in his review of Davis's translation, "Which is more 'accurate': fidelity to the text, or fidelity to the shopworn character (as I take it to be) of the expression?" Probably the best English rendering would be "pins and needles." [1]

The dancing Marianne

In Part III of the novel Emma arranges a meeting with Léon—the man with whom she was first emotionally unfaithful to her husband, and with whom she will soon be physically unfaithful—in Rouen Cathedral. When Léon enters the cathedral at the appointed hour he passes under a sculpture over the door. It represents three scenes: several figures, two wearing crowns, watching a woman doing a handstand; one woman offering another a basket containing a decapitated head; and a praying man about to be beheaded.


Flaubert calls the figure doing the handstand by the familiar name used by the citizens of Rouen, "Marianne dansant."  Marx calls it "the 'Dancing Marianne,'" Hopkins "the figure of the Dancing Marianne," and Davis "the Marianne dancing." All of these are literal translations, although Davis's version is the least colloquial.

But as the iconography of the sculpture makes clear, "Marianne" is Salome, dancing on her hands before Herod and Herodias. Salome was often represented performing acrobatic feats in the Middle Ages; it connected her to the morally suspect jugglers and troubadours that entertained at medieval courts.

Steegmuller, recognizing that "dancing Marianne" will have no meaning for most readers, departs from literalism and calls it "the figure of the dancing Salome." Julian Barnes writes, "This is instantly comprehensible, and has the additional virtue of pointing up this image of lasciviousness beneath which Léon passes on his way to the tryst." This seems like a case where the sacrifice of a dogged faithfulness for greater comprehensibility is justified; as Barnes notes, however, "some would find it overly interventionist." [2]

Charles confronts Rodolphe

A final comparison: after Emma's death Charles discovers the unwelcome news of her unfaithfulness with Rodolphe and Léon. One day he travels to the market town of Argueil to sell his horse (showing how low his fortunes have sunk; a horse is essential for a country doctor). There by chance he encounters Rodolphe, who to cover up their mutual embarrassment invites him to have a beer. Rodolphe is filling the awkward silence with empty talk when he notices that Charles is becoming furious, and stops. But Charles almost immediately subsides into his usual "weary lassitude," before speaking:
  1. "I don't blame you," he said.
    Rodolphe was dumb. And Charles, his head in his hands, went on in a broken voice, and with the resigned accent of infinite sorrow—
    "No, I don't blame you now."
    He even added a fine phrase, the only one he ever made—
    "It is the fault of fatality!"
    Rodolphe, who had managed the fatality, thought the remark very offhand from a man in his position, comic even, and a little mean. (Marx)
  1. "I don't hold it against you," the doctor said.
    Rodolphe remained silent, and the other, his head in his hands, went on in the same dead voice and the resigned accents of an infinite sorrow.
    "No, I don't hold it against you—not any longer."
    And then, for the first and last time in his life, he uttered a deep thought:
    "It was the fault of destiny."
    Rodolphe, who, after all, had been the instrument of the said destiny, felt that such an attitude, in a man so placed, was good-natured to excess, and, on the whole, rather despicable. (Hopkins)
  1. "I don't hold it against you," he said.
    Rodolphe sat speechless. And Charles, his head in his hands, repeated, in a dull voice, with all the resignation of a grief that can never be assuaged:
    "No, I don't hold it against you, any more."
    And he added a bit of rhetoric, the only such utterance that had ever escaped him:
    "No one is to blame. It was decreed by fate."
    Rodolphe, who had been the instrument of that fate, thought him very meek indeed for a man in his situation—comical, even, and a little contemptible. (Steegmuller)
  1. "I don't hold it against you," he said.
    Rodolphe had remained silent. And Charles, his head in his hands, went on in a dull voice and with the resigned accent of endless suffering:
    "No, I don't hold it against you anymore!"
    He even added a grand phrase, the only one he had ever spoken:
    "Fate was to blame!"
    Rodolphe, who had determined the course of that fate, found him very good-natured for a man in his situation, comical even, and rather low. (Davis)
In her essay "Eleanor Marx and Gustave Flaubert" Faith Evans, herself a translator, calls Marx's use of the word "fatality" "a howler." She goes on that Marx "is surely wrong to render 'fatalité' as 'fatality' rather than the French word's alternative meaning of 'fate' or 'destiny'. . ." But the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines "fatality" as "a fatal influence," "fate," or "the quality or condition of being predetermined, esp. doomed, by fate." Although this is not the common usage in 21st-century America, Marx's diction is that of a 19th-century English contemporary of Flaubert. [3]

"Dumb" is another word whose primary meaning has shifted over the intervening century, which is hardly Marx's fault. But Flaubert says that "Rodolphe etait resté muet," or literally, "Rodolphe remained mute" or "silent"; Marx (and to some extent Steegmuller with his "Rodolphe sat speechless") doesn't quite convey the sense that Rodolphe's silence continues as he waits to see where Charles is taking their exchange.

None of the translators quite captures Rodolphe's judgment of Charles. The word Flaubert uses is "débonnaire." Marx has "offhand," which seems just a bit different from the intended meaning, while Steegmuller chooses "meek," which is quite a bit different. Hopkins and Davis opt for "good-natured," which is also not quite right. An anonymous reviewer of Marx's translation in the Athenaeum suggested "complaisant" or "obliging," either of which would be a better choice.

Like "fatality" and "dumb," the word "mean" in Marx's phrase "a little mean" might sound a bit odd to a modern reader. However, "mean" doesn't signify hostile or nasty, but rather its 19th-century senses (according to the Shorter OED) of low, inferior, ignoble, or contemptible: a reasonable rendering of Flaubert's "un peu vil."

Hopkins, over-explanatory as usual, adds the phrase "such an attitude," which is not in the original. Davis opts for "low," cousin to Marx's "mean," while Hopkins' "despicable" or Steegmuller's "contemptible" seem closer to contemporary usage.

In fact, Davis often seems to follow Marx's approach and even her word choice fairly closely. Which makes it faintly bizarre that in Davis's introduction to her own translation she calls Marx's version "stolidly literal" and "sometimes inaccurate." Sometimes inaccurate, perhaps (as every translation must be to one degree or another), but there is nothing stolid about Marx's rendition. It stands up quite well to the later versions. [4]


Eleanor Marx in 1877/78

Sympathy versus antipathy

Davis has made other odd comments about Madame Bovary. In a remarkable interview with the Times of London, she said:
I was asked to do the Flaubert, and it was hard to say no to another great book—so-called. I didn't actually like Madame Bovary. . .I find what he does with the language really interesting; but I wouldn't say I warm to it as a book. . .And I like a heroine who thinks and feels. . .well, I don't find Emma Bovary admirable or likeable—but Flaubert didn't either. [5]
The idea that Emma Bovary doesn't think or feel would come as a surprise to her creator. Had Davis read Flaubert's letters, she might have come across these passages, written to his mistress Louise Colet during the time of Madame Bovary's composition:
You speak about women's sufferings: I am in the midst of them. You will see that I have had to descend deeply into the well of feelings.

. . .I have been writing Bovary. I am in full fornication, in the very midst of it: my lovers are sweating and gasping. . .At six o'clock tonight, as I was writing the word "hysterics," I was so swept away, was bellowing so loudly and feeling so deeply what my little Bovary was going through, that I was afraid of having hysterics myself.  . .I feel like a man who has been fucking too much (forgive the expression)—a kind of rapturous lassitude. . . [6]
A stark contrast with Davis's disapproval of the title character is provided by Eleanor Marx, who lived within the same 19th-century constraints on women's expression and action as Emma Bovary:
Her life is idle, useless. And this strong woman feels there must be some place for her in the world; there must be something to do—and she dreams. Life is so unreal to her that she marries Bovary thinking she loves him. Where a man would have been taught by experience, the woman with like passions, like desires, is left ignorant. She marries Bovary. She does her best to love "this poor wretch." In all literature there is perhaps nothing more pathetic than her hopeless effort to "make herself in love." And even after she has been false, how she yearns to go back to him, to something real, to a healthier, better love than she has known. . .In a word, Emma Bovary is in search of an ideal. She has intellectuality, not mere sensuality. It is part of the irony of fate that she is punished for her virtues as much as for her vices.

Into Emma Bovary Flaubert put much of himself. He too dreamed dreams that ended in nothingness; his imaginings were ever brighter than the realisation of them. . .Both strained after an unattainable heaven. [7]
As I wrote in the previous post, "Eleanor could have been writing about herself. She, too, sought an unattainable heaven, in the transformation not only of the political and economic relationships between classes, but of the intimate relationships between men and women; her dreams also ended in nothingness."

Marx may not approve of Emma's thoughts, feelings, and actions, but she recognizes and understands them. As Barnes writes, "we might fantasise the translator of our dreams: someone, naturally, who admires the novel and its author, and who sympathises with its heroine; a woman, perhaps, to help us better navigate the sexual politics of the time; someone with excellent French and better English, perhaps with a little experience of translating in the opposite direction as well. Then we make a key decision: should this translator be. . .Flaubert's contemporary, or ours? After a little thought, we might plump for an Englishwoman of Flaubert's time whose prose would inevitably be free of anachronism or other style-jarringness." Madame Bovary was fortunate to have as its first translator someone who comes close to this ideal: Eleanor Marx. [8]


  1. Jonathan Raban, "Flaubert, Imperfect." New York Review of Books, October 10, 2014. For the paperback edition of her translation Davis changed this passage to "pins and needles all up and down his body," a distinct improvement.
  2. Julian Barnes, "Writer's writer and writer's writer's writer." London Review of Books, 18 November 2010, pp. 7-11.
  3. Faith Evans, "Eleanor Marx and Gustave Flaubert,"  in John Stokes, ed., Eleanor Marx: Life, Work, Contacts, Ashgate, 2000, p. 85, 91.
  4. Lydia Davis, Introduction, Madame Bovary,  Penguin Books, 2010, p. xxiv. 
  5. Erica Wagner, "The goddess of small things," The Times (London), 31 July 2010.
  6. Gustave Flaubert, letters to Louise Colet of 1 September 1852 and 23 December 1853, in The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, selected, edited and translated by Francis Steegmuller, Picador, 2001.
  7. Eleanor Marx Aveling, Introduction to Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary: Provincial Manners, W. W. Gibbings, 1901, p. xx-xxi.
  8. Barnes, LRB, 18 November 2010, pp. 7-11.

Monday, February 20, 2017

"These long, sad years": Madame Bovary and Eleanor Marx


Eleanor Marx, about 1886

This story begins, as so many do, in a used bookstore. While browsing idly one lunch hour I came across a copy of the New Modern Library edition of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, published in 1927.

Opening the book to the title page I noted with surprise the name of the translator: Eleanor Marx Aveling. I knew only that Eleanor Marx was Karl Marx's daughter, and I had had no idea that she had done any literary translations. Intrigued, I bought the novel, began to re-read it, and started to investigate how she came to be its translator. The story was stranger and sadder than I realized.

Examination Paper

. . .

E1 had an unclouded childhood but emerged into adulthood inclined to nervous crisis.
E2 had an unclouded childhood but emerged into adulthood inclined to nervous crisis.

E1 led a life of sexual irregularity in the eyes of right-thinking people.
E2 led a life of sexual irregularity in the eyes of right-thinking people.

E1 imagined herself to be in financial difficulties.
E2 knew herself to be in financial difficulties.

E1 committed suicide by swallowing prussic acid.
E2 committed suicide by swallowing arsenic.

E1 was Eleanor Marx.
E2 was Emma Bovary.

The first English translation of Madame Bovary to be published was by Eleanor Marx.

Discuss.
—Julian Barnes, Flaubert's Parrot
There are actually multiple additional parallels between Eleanor Marx and Emma Bovary. Both loved the theater, for example, both took physically unappealing men as life partners, both were temperamentally incompatible with those partners, and both stayed with those partners until a final crisis led them to commit suicide.

Eleanor Marx, known as "Tussy" to her family and intimate friends, was the youngest daughter of Karl Marx and Jenny von Westphalen. From her late teens onward she was a political organizer, orator, and writer. She also translated some of her father's work into English, as well as writings by other radicals. She frequented the Reading Room of the British Museum, where she met many of the political and literary figures of the day.

Enter Edward Aveling

One of them was Edward Aveling. Trained as a natural scientist, Aveling was an actor, a playwright, and a social activist. A political rival of Aveling's described him as possessing "a forbidding face—ugly and even repulsive." George Bernard Shaw said that he had "the face and eyes of a lizard, and no physical charm except a voice like a euphonium." Olive Schreiner wrote to Havelock Ellis, "To say I dislike him doesn’t express it at all, I have a fear, a horror of him when I am near." [1]


Edward Aveling in the mid-1880s

The revulsion that many felt in Aveling's presence wasn't misplaced: he was a habitual liar, a serial philanderer, and a man who felt no hesitation about exploiting friends, allies and political organizations for money. By the time he met Eleanor Marx he was more than £400 in debt—about US $50,000 in today's money. [2] It only got worse.

When Eleanor first became involved with him, shortly after her father's death in 1883, Aveling was married. He told Eleanor that he and his wife Bell were separated, but that she refused to grant him a divorce. Although Aveling was unable to marry her, in mid-1884 Eleanor announced to her friends that she and Aveling were moving in together, and she wanted to be referred to as "Mrs. Aveling."

It may be surprising that Eleanor, a political radical, should so readily adopt the trappings of conventional marriage. In 1886 she and Aveling published an essay entitled "The Woman Question," which stated that "marriage is based upon commercialism." Eleanor and Aveling understood marriage to be an institution that subjugated women in order to preserve the economic dominance of men. For Eleanor to actively embrace the status of "Mrs. Aveling" while holding this view of marriage seems contradictory. As she wrote to her sister Laura, "Is it not wonderful when you come to look at things squarely in the face, how rarely we seem to practise all the fine things we preach to others?" [3]

Throughout their relationship Eleanor was forced to confront Aveling's unscrupulousness about money and his continual attempts (frequently successful) to seduce other women. Eleanor's biographer Rachel Holmes writes that "Shaw, Havelock Ellis and many of her close friends thought Edward's hold over Tussy was predominantly sexual." Eleanor translated Henrik Ibsen's A Lady from the Sea, in which the heroine, in sexual thrall to a magnetic but unreliable lover and recognizing the "horrible, unfathomable power he has over my mind," manages to reject him in favor of a kind, devoted, but less exciting man. Eleanor, unfortunately, never found that strength. [4]


Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary

In 1885 Eleanor was asked to translate Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary for London publisher Henry Vizetelly. Vizetelly had begun publishing books by French authors considered transgressive in England, including Émile Zola (Nana and L'Assommoir) and Guy de Maupassant (A Woman's Life). A few years later he was twice put on trial for violating the Obscene Publications Act by publishing these authors, was convicted and imprisoned for three months.

Madame Bovary had been published in France for the first time as a serial nearly 30 years previously, in 1856. Although the most scandalous scenes were cut from the manuscript for the serial version, Flaubert and his publishers were put on trial for obscenity. They were acquitted, and when the novel was published in book form the cut material was restored. But the prosecution had a chilling effect: until Vizetelly, no British publisher had been willing to issue a translation.

Eleanor not only translated the work but provided an introduction in which she defended it against charges of immorality:
The story of Emma's life could be only a warning, never a temptation. Flaubert holds up a mirror. That some, recognizing their own image, should be shocked, is only natural. [5]
She writes of Emma,
Her life is idle, useless. And this strong woman feels there must be some place for her in the world; there must be something to do—and she dreams. Life is so unreal to her that she marries Bovary thinking she loves him. Where a man would have been taught by experience, the woman with like passions, like desires, is left ignorant. She marries Bovary. She does her best to love "this poor wretch." In all literature there is perhaps nothing more pathetic than her hopeless effort to "make herself in love." And even after she has been false, how she yearns to go back to him, to something real, to a healthier, better love than she has known. . .In a word, Emma Bovary is in search of an ideal. She has intellectuality, not mere sensuality. It is part of the irony of fate that she is punished for her virtues as much as for her vices.

Into Emma Bovary Flaubert put much of himself. He too dreamed dreams that ended in nothingness; his imaginings were ever brighter than the realisation of them. . .Both strained after an unattainable heaven. [6]
Eleanor could have been writing about herself. She, too, sought an unattainable heaven, in the transformation not only of the political and economic relationships between classes, but of the intimate relationships between men and women; her dreams also ended in nothingness.

In "The Woman Question" she and Aveling wrote, ". . .in the Socialistic state. . .we believe that monogamy will gain the day. . .the highest ideal seems to be the complete, harmonious, lasting blending of two human lives. . .For ourselves, we believe that the cleaving of one man to one woman will be best for all, and that these will find each in the heart of the other, that which is in the eyes, their own image." Her own relationship with Aveling, of course, exhibited the "one-sided polygamy" of men's sexual freedom and women's sexual constraint that was common in bourgeois marriages. [7]

Eleanor's translation introduced Flaubert's masterpiece to English-language readers, and it remained the standard for many decades. It was the version that Vladimir Nabokov, that fastidious stylist, taught in his classes at Wellesley and Cornell. Nabokov, though, found fault with her choices on almost every page, including her use of the simple past ("her thoughts wandered") when Flaubert used the past imperfect ("her thoughts would wander").


The first page of Nabokov's teaching copy of Madame Bovary. [8]

Eleanor herself was aware of the unavoidable imperfections inherent in the task of translation. In her introduction to her translation she outlined three categories of translator: the genius, who "re-creates a work in his own language"; the hack, whose "work is too often a perversion, not a rendering"; and the "conscientious worker," in which category she placed herself:
Certainly no critic can be more painfully aware than I am of the weaknesses, shortcomings, the failures of my work; but at least the translation is faithful. I have neither suppressed a line, nor added a word. That often I have not found the best possible word to express Flaubert's meaning I know; but those who have studied him will understand how impossible it must be for any one to give an exact reproduction of the inimitable style of the master. . .

My work, then, I know is faulty. It is pale and feeble by the side of the original. Yet, if it induces some readers to go to that original, if it helps to make known to those who cannot thus study this work of the greatest of French novelists after Balzac, I am content. . .I do not regret having done this work; it is the best I could do. [9]

The parallels between Madame Bovary and Eleanor's life are almost too painful to contemplate. The womanizing M. Bovary (Charles' father), the preening Rodolphe, the hypocritical Léon, resemble Aveling all too closely.
Once married, he lived for three or four years on his wife's fortune, dining well, rising late, smoking long porcelain pipes, not coming in at night until after the theatre, and haunting cafes. . .

His wife had adored him once on a time; she had bored him with a thousand servilities that had only estranged him the more. . .She had suffered so much without complaint at first, until she had seen him going after all the village drabs, and until a score of bad houses sent him back to her at night, weary, stinking drunk. Then her pride revolted. After that she was silent, burying her anger in a dumb stoicism that she maintained till her death. She was constantly going about looking after business matters. She called on the lawyers, the president, remembered when bills fell due, got them renewed, and at home ironed, sewed, washed, looked after the workmen, paid the accounts, while he, troubling himself about nothing, eternally besotted in sleepy sulkiness, whence he only roused himself to say disagreeable things to her, sat smoking by the fire and spitting into the cinders. [10]

The suicides

Emma Bovary's suicide is precipitated by several crises. She has secretly borrowed money that she and Charles can never repay. When the loans are called in and their belongings are to be publicly auctioned, Emma turns to her former lovers, only to discover the stark truth that their declarations of love were made only for their own gratification. Utterly disillusioned, facing financial ruin, social disgrace and a life without love, Emma tells the druggist's assistant that she needs some arsenic to kill rats. She then swallows it herself, dying in agony.

Eleanor's suicide was also precipitated by multiple crises. First was Aveling's continuing philandering, which often reached grotesque proportions. As Olive Schreiner wrote to a mutual friend,
. . .she has come to me nearly mad having found him in her own bedroom with two prostitutes. Just before I left England. . .a friend of mine a married woman with many children, came & told me how he had made love to her, & she had & her husband forbade him their house. [11]
In August 1897 Aveling had left Eleanor, taking all the cash (and everything convertible to cash) he could lay his hands on, and telling Eleanor she could only contact him through a friend. A week or so later, out of money again, he returned, and proposed that they pretend to their friends and the world that they were still together.

Why would Eleanor agree? Aveling may have blackmailed her by threatening to reveal the truth of the parentage of Freddy Demuth, the son of Karl and Jenny Marx's housekeeper Helen Demuth. Freddy had been supported throughout his life by Friedrich Engels, and the assumption had long been that Freddy was Engels' son. However, a few years previously Eleanor had learned that Freddy was in fact her half-brother; he was not Engels', but her father's son. Aveling had also learned the secret, and was probably using the threat of its exposure to extort more money from Eleanor. The day after Aveling returned Eleanor wrote to Freddy:
. . .I am face to face with a most horrible position: utter ruin—everything to the last penny, or utter, open disgrace. It is awful, even worse than I fancied it was. . .I am heartbroken. [12]
Aveling was also compelled by the legacy of £7000 that Eleanor had received from Engels a few years previously. He knew that he was the sole executor and chief beneficiary of her will, and may have been concerned that if he stayed away she would change its terms.

In order to protect his access to Eleanor's money Aveling harbored secrets of his own. Eleanor had recently discovered that his story about his wife Bell's reluctance to divorce him was untrue. Aveling had abandoned Bell after spending her dowry. She had been eager for a divorce; it was Aveling who had refused to divorce her so that on her death he would inherit what remained of her money.

His scheme worked. Bell had died in 1892, and Aveling had inherited more than £125, about three years' wages for an average laborer. He kept both the money and his wife's death hidden from Eleanor. When she finally found out by accident several years later, she clung to the hope that Aveling would finally marry her.

But her hope was in vain. Eleanor didn't know that as of June of 1897 Aveling was once again a married man. He had secretly married Eva Frye, a 22-year-old actress (at the time of the marriage Aveling was 47). While he continued to live with Eleanor, he was leading a second life as "Alec Nelson" (his stage name); his wife called herself Eva Nelson. It was Eleanor's money that, without her knowledge, was supporting the spendthrift "Nelsons."

Aveling became seriously ill in the fall and winter of 1897-98; he demanded that Eleanor pay for his treatments, but often would not allow her to accompany him on his expensive trips for recuperation or medical consultation (he was probably secretly meeting Eva). Eleanor wrote Freddy, "That is sheer cruelty, and there are things he does not want to tell me. . .I have nothing; and I see nothing worth living for." [13]

At the end of March 1898 Eleanor finally discovered the truth about Aveling's remarriage, perhaps from an anonymous letter. On the morning of March 31 she and Aveling had a bitter argument. A little before 10 am she asked her housekeeper to take a sealed envelope to a nearby pharmacy; inside was a note initialed by Aveling requesting chloroform and enough prussic acid (cyanide) to kill a dog. Neither Eleanor nor Aveling owned a dog. The housekeeper came back with the pharmacist's "poison book," which required a signature; the book was signed "EMA," initials Eleanor used in her journalism but not in letters or notes. When the housekeeper left to return the poison book Aveling was still in the house. He left shortly afterwards to attend a political meeting in London. On his arrival at the meeting he called attention to the time: 11:15 am.

When the housekeeper came back from the pharmacist's for the second time, Eleanor was no longer in the study. The housekeeper entered her bedroom and found her dead. She was lying on her bed, wearing a favorite summer dress of white muslin, her eyes open, hair loose; her skin had purple blotches from the effects of the poison. Utterly disillusioned, facing ruin and disgrace, and with the collusion of Aveling, she had swallowed a fatal dose of cyanide.

Among her final letters was a note written to Aveling:
DEAR. It will soon be all over now. My last word to you is the same that I have said during all these long, sad years—love. [14]

The aftermath

After Emma's death, Charles Bovary declines rapidly. His small fortune is entirely consumed in trying to pay Emma's debts. Over a few short months he wastes away, and in the late summer he dies.

After Eleanor's death, Aveling seized control of what remained of her inheritance from Engels, which she had intended to go primarily to her deceased sister Jenny's children. Over the next four months Aveling and his new wife spent most of it, over £1000. But his ill health continued; he was wasting away, and in early August he died.

He is now all but forgotten. By contrast, millions of people have benefited from the radical proposals put forward by Eleanor and her compatriots: the 8-hour workday and 40-hour workweek, the right to organize, and women's right to economic independence, equal access to education, and sexual autonomy. And millions have experienced Flaubert's great novel through Eleanor's translation, which more than 125 years after its first publication is still in print.

Next time: "The best I could do": Eleanor Marx and translating Madame Bovary



  1. "Ugly and even repulsive": Henry Hyndman quoted in William Greenslade, "Revisiting Edward Aveling," in John Stokes, ed., Eleanor Marx: Life, Work, Contacts, Ashgate, 2000, p. 41.
    "Face and eyes of a lizard": quoted in Fiona McCarthy, "A Tragic Heroine of the Reading Room," New York Review of Books, July 9, 2015.
    "Fear and horror": The Olive Schreiner Letters Online. Letter of 2 August 1884 to Havelock Ellis. https://www.oliveschreiner.org/vre?view=collections&colid=18&letterid=51
  2. Greenslade, footnote 2, p. 41.
  3. "Based on commercialism": Eleanor Marx Aveling and Edward Aveling, "The Woman Question," in J. Muller and E. Schotte, eds., Thoughts on Women and Society, International Publishers, 1987, p. 18.
    "We preach to others": quoted in Rachel Holmes, Eleanor Marx: A Life, Bloomsbury Press, 2014, p. vii.
  4. "Predominantly sexual": Holmes, p. 335.
    "Horrible, unfathomable power": Quoted in Holmes, p. 335.
  5. Eleanor Marx Aveling, Introduction to Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary: Provincial Manners, W. W. Gibbings, 1901, p. xvii.
  6. Marx Aveling, Introduction, pp. xx-xxi.
  7. "Monogamy will gain the day": Eleanor Marx Aveling and Edward Aveling, "The Woman Question," pp. 27-28.
    "Each in the heart of the other": Eleanor Marx Aveling and Edward Aveling, "The Woman Question," p. 29.
  8. Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980, p. 129.
  9. Marx Aveling, Introduction, p. xxii.
  10. Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, translated by Eleanor Marx Aveling, Modern Library, 1927, pp. 6-7.
  11. The Olive Schreiner Letters Online. Letter of June 1898 to Dollie Radford. https://www.oliveschreiner.org/vre?view=collections&colid=128&letterid=1
  12. Quoted in Holmes, p. 418.
  13. Quoted in Holmes, p. 427.
  14. Quoted in Kate Summerscale, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi." Financial Times, 4 May 2012. https://www.ft.com/content/24d99c36-92dc-11e1-b6e2-00144feab49a

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Designing Woman: Helen Rose

Designing Woman (1957), directed by Vincente Minelli with cinematography by John Alton, written by George Wells from an idea by Helen Rose.


Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall in Designing Woman

Some films are memorable because of an excellent script, great performances, notable direction. Others are memorable because they seem to perfectly epitomize an era's view of itself.

Designing Woman is the second sort of film. The sets, clothes, hairstyles and lifestyles depict a certain ideal of late-50s luxe. If no one actually lived this way, the clothes, the apartments, the offices, the alcohol and the cigarettes are clearly presented as models for aspiration: this is what it meant to be an adult. Within a few years, of course—less than a decade—those models would change profoundly.

In the world of Designing Woman, apartments are tastefully beige and men wear charcoal-gray suits with narrow lapels, pocket squares and slim ties. The art is semi-abstract, the clocks are ornate, and there's a stiff scotch ready to be quaffed:


This is also a New York populated almost entirely by white people, with the exception of a waitress who does not speak and is ignored by those she serves:


Everyone smokes, everywhere:


This movie was made when Bacall's husband, Humphrey Bogart, was dying of cancer, and she's hardly ever on camera without a cigarette. Not to mention that there's always a drink handy:


(In the uncropped version of this still there are more bottles than people in the frame.)

You might recognize the man on the right in those last two images. Yes, it's Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) from Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), and it's never a good sign when he pours you a drink—it means he wants something from you.

Speaking of Vertigo, I wonder whether Hitchcock saw Designing Woman and asked Edith Head to model the elegant gray suits worn by Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) on the one worn by fashion designer Marilla Brown (Bacall, with the inevitable cigarette):


In Designing Woman Helmore plays Zachary Wilde, Broadway producer, who wants Marilla to design the costumes for his new show featuring Lori Shannon (real-life Broadway star Dolores Gray). But Marilla has just gotten married to sportswriter Mike Hagen (Peck) after a whirlwind Palm Springs courtship. Complicating matters is that Marilla is Wilde's ex-girlfriend, and Lori (unbeknownst to Marilla) is Mike's.

Marilla soon finds herself in the company of hard-drinking, cigar-chomping newspapermen, while Mike and his poker buddies wind up in the middle of a presentation to the backers of Wilde's show. The clash between Mike and Marilla's sensibilities and social worlds is a variation on the Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy classic Woman of the Year (1942), where Hepburn portrayed a journalist and Tracy a sportswriter. In that movie Hepburn attended a baseball game in an outfit more suited to a garden party; in this one Bacall goes to a prizefight in mink:


Mike has been writing a series of articles on corrupt boxing promoter Martin Daylor (Edward Platt). Hot news: who would have guessed that there was criminal involvement in boxing?

Daylor and his gang in their lair:


If you've watched as many TV reruns as I have, you may recognize a number of the supporting actors from their later roles:
  • Chuck Connors (sniffing the fruit: Lucas McCain in The Rifleman)
  • Edward Platt (seated on the couch: the Chief in Get Smart)
  • Sid Melton (far right: Make Room for Daddy, Green Acres and The Golden Girls, among many others)
Not to mention frequent appearances by Jessie White, later the Maytag Repairman:


Daylor's gang threatens Mike, who is eventually sent to a hotel under a false name by his fast-talking editor (Sam Levene) so he can continue his exposé. Daylor decides that the only way to flush Mike out of hiding is to kidnap Marilla, just as opening night for Wilde's show approaches...

But the plot is entirely secondary to the production design, and especially the women's clothes, which were designed by Helen Rose.


Oh, for the days when airplane travel was chic, and gloves, a mink stole and a hat were de rigueur:


Back home in New York, Marilla apparently goes to bed in full makeup:


Backstage at the theater, a working woman needs simple, casual outfits:


(Note the casual string of pearls.)

One expects of showpeople, of course, a certain flamboyance:


Dolores Gray as Lori Shannon

The dress designs often emphasize shoulders and backs:


What's a movie about a clothing designer without a fashion show? In, of course, a beige salon:


Helen Rose wasn't a costume designer I previously knew. If asked to name a designer from Hollywood's pre-1960 era I would have said Edith Head, Adrian, Irene, or maybe Orry-Kelly.* In fact, until I saw Designing Woman (1957), I wasn't aware that I had seen any of Rose's films.

But it turns out that she designed for dozens of movies, primarily for MGM in the 1940s and 50s, including On The Town, It's Always Fair Weather, High Society, and Silk Stockings. Designing Woman, though, is probably her greatest showcase. Ignore the plot, but enjoy the almost anthropological perspective on late-50s style, and especially the gowns by Helen Rose.



* Just a few of the films they designed:
  • Edith Head: The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity, Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Funny Face, and Hitchcock's Notorious, Rear Window, Vertigo, The Birds
  • Adrian: Grand Hotel, Dinner at Eight, The Merry Widow, The Wizard of Oz, The Philadelphia Story, Pride and Prejudice
  • Irene: Shall We Dance, Intermezzo, You Were Never Lovelier, Meet Me in St. Louis, Lady in the Lake, Easter Parade, The Pirate
  • Orry-Kelly: Female, Baby Face, 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Now, Voyager, One Touch of Venus, An American In Paris

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Rosenkavalier trio


Elina Garanča as Octavian, Wiener Staatsoper, 2007. Photo: Wiener Staatsoper/Axel Zeininger

At the heart of the opera Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose, 1911) is a love triangle involving Octavian, an impetuous and ardent 17-year-old, his older married lover the Marschallin, and the beautiful 16-year-old Sophie von Faninal, who has been engaged against her will by her father to a loutish country baron.

The curtain rises in Act I on the boudoir of the Marschallin, who, it is clear, has just spent the night with Octavian (a role sung by a mezzo-soprano).


The Marschallin (Renée Fleming) and Octavian (Susan Graham) in Act I of Der Rosenkavalier.
Photo: Metropolitan Opera, 2010

In Act II Octavian meets Sophie, and it is love at first sight for both.


Sophie (Julianne Gearhart) and Octavian (Alice Coote) in Act II of Der Rosenkavalier.
Photo: Seattle Opera, 2006

In the final act the triangle is resolved in a trio in which Octavian is torn between his sensual connection with the Marschallin and his love for Sophie, Sophie recognizes the disturbing intimacy between Octavian and the older woman, and the Marschallin realizes that the time has come for her to give up Octavian. This trio and the love duet for Octavian and Sophie that follows are among the most sublime moments in all opera; they suspend time.


Sophie (Anneliese Rothenberger), Octavian (Sena Jurinac), and the Marschallin (Elizabeth Schwarzkopf)
in the trio from the 1960 film directed by Paul Czinner.

In Creating Der Rosenkavalier: From Chevalier to Cavalier (Boydell Press, 2016), Michael Reynolds describes a little-known French operetta, L'ingénu libertin (The young libertine, 1907). Composed by Claude Terrasse with a libretto by Louis Artus, L'ingénu libertin was based on Jean-Baptiste Louvet de Couvray's risqué eighteenth-century novels about the amorous adventures of the youthful Chevalier de Faublas.


Robert Hasti as La Jeunesse and Arlette Dorgère as La Marquise de Bay, caricature by Yves Marevéry from Le Radical, 12 December 1907.
Source: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b53049799z

In Act III of L'ingénu libertin the curtain rises on the boudoir of the Marquise de Bay, who, it is clear, has just spent the night with the 17-year-old Faublas. The rapturous half-dressed Chevalier kneeling at the bedside of the Marquise was sung by a woman, Jeanne Alba:


Jeanne Alba as the Chevalier de Faublas in L'ingénu libertin

Faublas' childhood sweetheart, Sophie de Pontis, has been engaged against her will by her father to a rakish Count. She makes her way to the home of the Marquise, where she encounters Faublas and the Marquise together.


Arlette Dorgère as the Marquise de Bay from Act II of L'ingénu libertin, 1907

Faublas is torn between his sensual connection with the Marquise and his love for Sophie, Sophie recognizes the disturbing intimacy between Faublas and the older woman, and the Marquise realizes that the time has come for her to give up Faublas. The love triangle is resolved in a trio: "two youngsters, reunited and looking forward to their wedding day, the older woman, abandoned and hurt but with elegance and dignity intact, blessing their union. Curtain." [1]


Sophie (Jeanne Petit), Faublas (Jeanne Alba) and the Marquise de Bay (Arlette Dorgère) in Act III of L'ingenu libertin (detail)
Source: Creating Der Rosenkavalier

The parallels between Der Rosenkavalier and L'ingénu libertin are too direct, surely, to be coincidence. But although L'ingénu libertin had a highly successful run at the Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens between 11 December 1907 and 2 February 1908, it closed after its 66th performance and, curiously, was never revived in France or elsewhere. How did the French operetta come to be known to Der Rosenkavalier's German creators, the librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal and composer Richard Strauss?


Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss around the time of the composition of Der Rosenkavalier
The answer points to the key role played in the creation of Der Rosenkavalier by a third man, Count Harry Kessler. Kessler was an avid connoisseur of art, literature, theater and music. While the friendship between Kessler and Hofmannsthal has long been known, it is only with the relatively recent publication of Kessler's diary for the years 1908-1909 and some archival detective work by Michael Reynolds that the full significance of his role has become apparent. Without Kessler, it's now clear, there would be no Rosenkavalier.


Count Harry Kessler in 1909. Source: Creating Der Rosenkavalier

We know from his diary that on 18 January 1908 Kessler had attended L'ingénu libertin. During a visit by Hofmannsthal to his Weimar home in February 1909, Kessler recounted the operetta in detail. That night Hofmannsthal went to bed with a copy of one of Couvray's Faublas novels from Kessler's library; the next day, the two men began to develop the scenario for what became Der Rosenkavalier.

The characters and situations combined elements from a number of sources. The loutish Baron Ochs, to whom Sophie is unwillingly engaged, was derived from Molière's Monsieur de Pourceaugnac (1669)—in fact, in early drafts of the scenario the character was referred to as Pourceaugnac. Sophie's name comes from the heroine of Couvray's novels and L'ingénu libertin. In early drafts Octavian was called Faublas, also after Couvray and L'ingénu libertin; of course, in addition to Faublas Octavian was based in part on Cherubino, the 16-year-old page (also sung by a woman) in Mozart and Da Ponte's The Marriage of Figaro (1786). The Marriage of Figaro also provided, in the character of the unhappy Countess Almaviva, a model for the Marschallin. Further inspiration was derived from William Hogarth's series of paintings (and later engravings) Marriage à la Mode (1743-1745).


The Countess's Levée, by William Hogarth, ca 1743
Source: National Gallery of London: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/william-hogarth-marriage-a-la-mode-4-the-toilette


Act I of Der Rosenkavalier 
(Eric Cutler as the Italian Singer, Martina Serafin as the Marschallin, Sam Meredith as the hairdresser Hippolyte, Peter Rose as Baron Ochs)
Source: Metropolitan Opera/John Elbers, 2014

Kessler owned the Couvray Faublas novels, had seen productions of Figaro, had visited London exhibitions of Hogarth's work (and may have owned a volume of his engravings), and was the only one of Der Rosenkavalier's creators to have attended L'ingénu libertin. It seems clear that Kessler supplied most of the sources for Der Rosenkavalier.

But he did more than point Hofmannsthal to theatrical, literary and artistic precedents that could be borrowed; he actively helped to reshape the material. On 12 February 1909, after Hofmannsthal had been staying with him for three days, Kessler recorded in his diary:
In conversation the work done by Hofmannsthal and by me is so intertwined that it becomes impossible to separate out our respective contributions. One of us has an idea, a train of thought, the other criticises and as ideas pass to and fro, something quite different emerges; it is often the case that ten minutes later neither he nor I can say who actually thought up a given scene. [2]
This is not, however, the way that Hofmannsthal described their work together to Strauss. In a letter dated 11 February he wrote,
I have spent three quiet afternoons here drafting the full and entirely original scenario for an opera, full of burlesque situations and characters, with lively action, pellucid almost like a pantomime. There are opportunities in it for lyrical passages, for fun and humour, even for a small ballet. I find the scenario enchanting and Count Kessler with whom I discussed it is delighted with it. [3]
This is misleading in several ways: it was not Hofmannsthal alone who drafted the scenario, it was hardly "entirely original" (see the list of sources above), and Kessler might well have been delighted because he made major contributions to it.

We know, for example, that it was Kessler who came up with several key elements. At one point the opera was set to begin at the house of Sophie's father, with characters awaiting the arrival of the Pourceaugnac/Ochs character. Kessler realized that the order of the first two acts should be reversed; it would be more effective to introduce Ochs by having him burst into the Marquise/Marschallin's boudoir as Faublas/Octavian scrambles to disguise himself as a chambermaid.  (Faublas cross-dresses in L'ingénu libertin, as does Cherubino in Figaro.)

Kessler's second inspiration was that, unlike L'ingénu libertin, in which Faublas and Sophie de Pontis are childhood sweethearts, Octavian and Sophie von Faninal should first meet during the Presentation of the Rose—and fall in love at first sight:
As I got dressed the solution came to me, and I told it to Hofmannsthal in the carriage:. . .Faublas does not yet know Sophie at all, but is sent to her by the Marquise on Pourceaugnac’s behalf, to announce P. to her. This is where the fun begins with 1) Faublas falling in love with Sophie, 2) Sophie meeting Pourceaugnac and loathing him on sight. . .These changes will turn Pourceaugnac from an almost passive figure into the main driving force of the work; he is the cause of all his own misfortune and he is even responsible for Sophie and Faublas getting to know each other. . .Hofmannsthal accepted all this immediately [4].
Finally, several months later when Kessler was reviewing Hofmannsthal's libretto-in-progress, he pointed out that all three acts ended quietly. Kessler suggested that it would be more effective if the second act had a boisterous comic ending that provided a contrast (Hofmannsthal and Strauss reworked the ending of Act II precisely along those lines).

It's unclear who suggested developing the character of the Marschallin along the lines of the Countess in Figaro. While Baron Ochs may drive the plot, the Marschallin is the emotional center of the opera. In her great Act I monologue we learn that as a young woman she was brought from a covent to marry the Feldmarchal, whom she had never met; marriage to a much older and emotionally incompatible man is also the fate intended for Sophie von Faninal before Octavian intervenes. It is also what awaits Sophie de Pontis in L'ingénu libertin: when the operetta begins, Sophie is in a convent and is intended to marry the disreputable (and much older) Count Rosambert. The L'ingénu libertin connection may indicate that Kessler made a contribution here as well.

And again deriving from L'ingénu libertin is the idea that the opera should conclude with a trio for Octavian, Sophie and the Marschallin. Here is the trio from the 1984 Salzburg Festival, with Anna Tomowa-Sintow as the Marschallin, Agnes Baltsa as Octavian, and Janet Perry as Sophie:



(If you click on the link, the trio ends at 5:05...but why stop there?)

It seems appropriate that Der Rosenkavalier, a work structured by threes (Octavian/the Marschallin/the absent Feldmarschal, Octavian/Sophie/Ochs, Octavian/the Marschallin/Sophie), should end with a trio. How fitting as well that Reynolds' detective work has shown that the opera itself owes its existence to a creative trio: Richard Strauss, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and the collaborator who has finally gained some recognition for the extent of his contributions, Count Harry Kessler.

Now, where is that revival of L'ingénu libertin?


Cover image source: Boydell & Brewer

Creating Der Rosenkavalier is a revised version of Reynold's doctoral thesis, and sometimes it shows. There are repetitions that weren't caught in the editing, for example, and material that is peripheral to the book's main argument that was probably included to satisfy a thesis committee's expectations of scholarly thoroughness. But these are minor issues. Reynolds has uncovered a treasure trove of production photos, programs, scores, and other materials, and has thoroughly investigated the myriad sources of both Der Rosenkavalier and the work that it was largely modelled on, L'ingénu libertin. (The Artus-Terrasse operetta does not appear in any of the other books I've seen about Der Rosenkavalier, including Alan Jefferson's excellent Cambridge Opera Handbook (1985)). If you love Der Rosenkavalier, Reynolds' book is essential—and fascinating—reading.

For more on the Strauss/Hofmannsthal/Kessler opera, see Opera Guide 3: Der Rosenkavalier.



  1. Michael Reynolds, Creating Der Rosenkavalier: From Chevalier to Cavalier, Boydell Press, 2016, p. 1.
  2. Quoted in Reynolds, p. 137.
  3. A Working Friendship: The Correspondence Between Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, translated by Hanns Hammelmann and Ewald Osers, Random House, 1961, p. 27.
  4. Quoted in Reynolds, p.142.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

A knife in the back: The Chase and North by Northwest


The Chase is a 1946 film directed by journeyman Arthur Ripley. Remarkably it seems to prefigure several of Alfred Hitchcock's 1950s movies, including Stage Fright (1950), Dial M for Murder (1954), Vertigo (1958), and most especially North by Northwest (1959). Never seen it? Well, then, you know what you have to do now. The Chase has just been restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and issued on DVD by Kino Films.

It's based on the Cornell Woolrich novel The Black Path of Fear (1944), but screenwriter Philip Yordan, who also wrote the screenplay for The Big Combo (1995), introduced some radically new elements into the story. Robert Cummings (the poor man's Dana Andrews) is Chuck Scott, a pill-popping, down-and-out WWII veteran who may be suffering from what we might now diagnose as PTSD. Chuck is hired as a driver by psychotic gangster Eddie Roman (Steve Cochrane); another indication that taking the job may not be the smartest move on Scott's part is that Roman's sinister right-hand man Gino is Peter Lorre. Scott's main responsibility is to chauffeur Roman's unhappy wife Lola (French actress Michèle Morgan) on nightly drives around Miami Beach.*


Soon Lola is offering Scott $1000 to escape with her to a place where no 1940s gangster could ever find them: Havana. Before you can say "Is that really a good idea?" Scott has booked a passage for two on a steamship headed to Cuba leaving the same night; he ignores some obvious signs that perhaps he should reconsider this move:


Note the warning over Scott's shoulder

In a Havana nightclub the couple are murmuring tender endearments when suddenly Lola stiffens, then slumps to the floor. When Scott takes her in his arms his hand touches something; pulling it away he discovers that he's clutching a knife:


The knife resembles one that Scott bought earlier that day, and the circumstantial evidence of his guilt is damning. But we know that the cops are after the wrong man; Scott must escape arrest in order to find the evidence that will prove his innocence.

This image may recall another scene filmed more than a decade later. In the United Nations, a conversation between two men is interrupted when knife thrown by an unseen assassin finds its mark, and an innocent man finds himself hunted by the police:


Both scenes take place in a crowded public place. In The Chase, it's La Habana bar:


In North by Northwest, it's the UN public lounge:


In both scenes a photographer is present:



In The Chase in the background of a shot the photographer has inadvertently captured the image of the real killer:


In North by Northwest a photographer instead takes a picture of Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) holding the murder weapon, a picture that makes headlines and seems to prove his guilt:


Did Hitchcock or North by Northwest screenwriter Ernest Lehman see The Chase? The parallel of a murder by a knife-throwing assassin implicating an innocent man seems too direct for coincidence. And the knife-throwing man was one of the details introduced by The Chase's screenwriter Yordan; it wasn't derived from Woolrich's novel, in which Roman's wife is stabbed by a man standing next to her. If Hitchcock and Lehman did borrow and rework the elements of this scene, they could only have encountered them from a viewing of the film.

Circumstantial evidence that Hitchcock knew The Chase is also provided by additional parallels to several of his other films. Here are some other suggestive connections:
  • Towards the end of The Chase we learn that some of what we've seen occurred in the dream of one of the characters. This dream sequence violates film conventions because it is presented objectively (for example, scenes occur in the dream that the dreamer isn't present to "witness"). Towards the end of Hitchcock's Stage Fright (1950) we learn that some of what we've seen occurred in a false flashback related by one of the characters. This flashback violates film conventions because it is presented objectively (for example, as in The Chase's dream sequence details are depicted that did not actually occur).
  • The Chase stars Robert Cummings. He had earlier appeared in Hitchcock's Saboteur (1942), and would later portray Grace Kelly's lover in Dial M for Murder (1954). It wouldn't be unusual for Hitchcock to make a point of viewing his other films. It should be noted as well that in Michèle Morgan The Chase features an elegant blond heroine of the type that Hitchcock favored in many of his movies.
  • In The Chase, Cumming's character Chuck Scott (often referred to as "Scotty") is tormented by the apparent death of the woman he loves. In Vertigo (1958), James Stewart's character John Ferguson (often referred to as "Scotty") is also obsessed with a woman he believes has died.
Hitchcock often reworked narrative elements or scenes in his films. A character precariously dangling from a height, for example, occurs in his Young and Innocent (1937) and Saboteur before reaching its perfected form in the finale of North by Northwest. Famously, he even entirely remade one of his early films, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956).

But as I have tried to show previously, I don't think his borrowings and reworkings (which generally resulted in improvements) were limited to his own movies. In the same way that the UN assassination scene in North by Northwest seems to have made use of elements from the parallel scene in The Chase, a key scene in Vertigo seems to have had its visual origins in a Cary Grant film from 1932, Hot Saturday (for more details, including stills, see the post "Obsession, perversity and recapitulation: Hitchcock's Vertigo and its sources".)

Raymond Foery has looked at the Frenzy-related material in the Alfred Hitchcock papers held at the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills and reports that during the casting of that film "Hitchcock screened literally dozens of films, in whole or in part, as he scanned them for suitable actors and actresses...[H]e spent hours in the screening room...in order to evaluate performances." [1] There is no reason to think he did anything differently in preparing for his other movies. Perhaps a closer look needs to be taken at those "dozens of films" Hitchcock watched in order to trace how some of them—such as, perhaps, The Chase—may have influenced his distinctive visual style.



* Both the Internet Movie Database and Wikipedia give Morgan's character's name as "Lorna" (it's Eve in Woolrich's novel). But Lorna is a Scottish name, while "Lola" would be congruent with her obviously French nationality. Roman never calls her by name; Chuck Scott does, but Cummings swallows the middle consonants in such a way that it's impossible to distinguish which name he's saying. Since Lola makes sense in the context of the film and Lorna doesn't, I'm sticking with Lola until I see a copy of the script (the movie credits don't name the characters).

1. Raymond Foery, Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy : the last masterpiece, Scarecrow Press, 2012, pp. 40-41.