Monday, May 27, 2013

Gold Diggers of the Gilded Age: Arabella Trefoil vs. Undine Spragg

In 19th-century fiction, a young woman of the middle classes or above faces a stark sexual double bind. As soon as she comes "out" into the marriage market, she has to use whatever exists of her family's social position and wealth and her own personal advantages to try to find a husband—preferably one significantly higher in social and economic standing than herself. Although this quest is understood by everyone around her, she cannot be too open or brazen in her angling for a rich husband without risking social censure. She cannot commit to a potential partner too soon, in case she encounters a better offer, but after she passes her mid-20s her marriage prospects diminish rapidly. And the cost of a mistake is high. A woman who becomes publicly engaged but who breaks it off is considered a faithless jilt; a woman who becomes publicly engaged but whose partner breaks it off is tainted by his rejection.

Anthony Trollope and Edith Wharton each created several characters who skirt (and sometimes transgress) the boundaries of respectability in their search for a husband. In Trollope's The American Senator (1875) we meet Arabella Trefoil, a woman fast approaching 30 who has just engaged herself to John Morton. Morton is an official in the Foreign Office and has inherited a country estate that, on her first visit, Arabella finds disappointingly modest. She then contrives to be thrown together with Lord Rufford, the richest landowner in the neighborhood, by angling for invitations to fox hunts, the homes of mutual acquaintances, and Rufford's own estate (in the company of her mother, of course: the mothers of marriage-eligible women act both as procuresses and chaperones). Arabella has to maintain her engagement to Morton, in case her scheme to hook Lord Rufford goes awry, but must also deny her engagement in order to leave herself free to pursue Rufford.

Arabella is a liar and schemer who has no scruples about using underhanded methods to try to entrap Rufford. But Rufford himself isn't above trying to take advantage of the situation to steal a kiss or an embrace; he's flattered by Arabella's attentions but struggles to avoid committing himself. And as we come to realize, despite her many shortcomings Arabella would actually be a good match for Rufford. Trollope portrays not only her greed, selfishness and dishonesty, but also her courage, her boldness, her defiance of confining social limitations, and her clear-sightedness about herself and those around her. Arabella also changes over the course of the novel, coming to realize that Morton truly loved her.

Perhaps Trollope's own relatively humble origins made him sympathetic to the underdog, but we actually wind up hoping for Arabella's ultimate success. That's not the case, for this reader at least, for the heroine of Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country (1913), Undine Spragg. Undine has all of Arabella's faults—vanity, selfishness, venality, dishonesty—but few of her virtues. Undine is also vulgar and ignorant: feigning an interest in the arts (her only real interest is in opportunities for displaying herself and jockeying for social position), she recalls seeing the actress "Sarah Burnhard" (Sarah Bernhardt), and she wants to go see "that new tenor" (presumably Enrico Caruso) in an opera she calls "Cavaleeria" (Cavalleria Rusticana).* Undine is extremely beautiful in face and form, but, along with her fellow Midwestern husband-hunters Mabel Blitch, Indiana Frusk, and Ora Chettle, is intellectually and emotionally vacant.

The discordant names and the risible malapropisms all too clearly signal Wharton's own contempt for these characters, and for Undine in particular. And here Wharton—born into a socially prominent old-money New York family, the Joneses—seems to betray her own class prejudices. She even has a minor character, Charles Bowen, explain how the commercial values that drive American society have marginalized women. Money is the bribe wives receive for remaining incurious about what their husbands are doing all day at the office, and results in a feminine fixation on clothes, jewelry, cars, and other visible signs of wealth. Undine, Bowen says, is "a monstrously perfect result of the system: the completest proof of its triumph" (Chapter 15).

Unfortunately, Wharton's disdain for Undine means that she is allowed no redeeming features. She is utterly self-absorbed and cares nothing for her husbands, her lovers or her son; they are merely the means for her social advancement. And most of the men in her life are equally cynical. For them Undine is a trophy, one more beautiful possession to place among their pictures, porcelain or tapestries—just another manifestation of their material dominance. It would be a devastating portrait of pre-war society, except that Wharton so clearly disapproves of most her characters. She tells us all too explicitly what we should think of Undine, and her judgments tend to close off our engagement with her characters.

Ironically, while Wharton herself had experience of the double bind (and the double standards) of the marriage market, it is Trollope who is able to portray a woman caught in the implacable forces of that market with the greater understanding. Both Arabella and Undine are women who trade on the promise of sex to try to make their way in a man's world, but only Arabella ultimately engages our sympathies.

Both novels are available for free in multiple formats from Project Gutenberg.


* Oddly, Wharton gives us a scene at the opera house that doesn't fit with the work she has named. The narrator tells us that there are three "entr'actes": "the curtain fell on the first act," "the curtain fell again," and "when the last entr'acte began..." (all quotes from Chapter 5). However, Mascagni's one-act Cavalleria is usually performed with a second two-act work, a combination that would result in two intermissions (one between the operas, and one between the acts of the second opera). And, indeed, the work that was paired with Cavalleria during Caruso's 1908 Metropolitan Opera debut in the role of Turiddu was Puccini's two-act Le Villi. There are no performances by Caruso in Cavalleria at the Met before the publication date of the novel which would have had three intermissions.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Amar Prem

As someone whose short list of favorite Bollywood movies would include Devdas (2002), Umrao Jaan (1981), Mughal-e-Azam (1960), and Sadhna (1958)—don't ask me for the other titles on the list right now—I've clearly got a major weakness for tragic-courtesan-with-a-heart-of-gold stories. And the creators of Amar Prem (Immortal Love, 1972), director Shakti Samanta and writers Arabinda Mukherjee and Ramesh Pant, know exactly how to push my emotional buttons.

Mukherjee was the writer and director of the original Bengali version of the film, Nishipadma (1970), which was based on the short story "Hinger Kochuri" by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay. (Hinger kochuri is a typical Bengali dish of fried dough stuffed with lentils and chickpeas.) If Bandopadhyay's name sounds vaguely familiar, he was also the author of the novels Pather Panchali (1929) and Aparajito (1932), which Satyajit Ray adapted as The Apu Trilogy (1955-1959).

The childless Pushpa (Sharmila Tagore) is violently driven away from her village home by the brutality of her husband and his second wife. As Pushpa is about to commit suicide, a solicitous neighbor, Nepali Babu (Madan Puri), stops her and offers her a job in Calcutta. Of course, the job is fictional, and Pushpa discovers too late that she has been sold to a brothel. On the first night that she performs for the brothel's clients, singing "Raina beeti jaye, Shyam na aaye" (The night has passed, and Shyam (Krishna) has not yet arrived), the drunken Anand (Rajesh Khanna) follows the sound of her voice and is instantly smitten:

Tawaif movies tend to have excellent music, and Amar Prem is no exception. The songs were composed by R. D. Burman, with lyrics by Anand Bakshi, and were performed by Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar and R. D. Burman's father S. D. Burman.

The wealthy Anand is trapped in an unhappy marriage to a faithless wife, and has been drowning his sorrows in drink and the allurements of the pleasure quarter. He immediately becomes Pushpa's patron. Although they quickly fall in love, they each recognize that they'll remain forever separated by caste and status. The melancholy mood is beautifully sustained in "Chingari koi bhadke" (A raging fire), as Anand and Pushpa drift on the Hooghly River at night:

Meanwhile, the Sharmas, a couple from Pushpa's village, move in across the way from her. Their 8-year-old son, Nandu (Bobby), is mistreated by his stepmother (Bindu) and finds a refuge with Pushpa. She, in turn, sees in him the child she never had, and lavishes affection on him.

Of course, the tenuous happiness of Anand, Pushpa, and Nandu can't be permitted to continue, as it's an implicit critique of the lovelessness of the more conventional relationships that surround them. Anand's brother-in-law (Rakesh Pandey) demands that Pushpa separate from Anand. Meanwhile, Nandu's stepmother forces Pushpa to agree never to see Nandu again; before Nandu's family takes him back to the village, though, Nandu gives Pushpa a cutting of night-blooming jasmine that she literally waters with her tears.

Twenty years later the night-blooming jasmine is a flourishing tree, and the adult Nandu (Vinod Mehra), now an engineer, returns to Calcutta. Will Nandu ever find the woman he thinks of as his real mother...?

Almost every socially-sanctioned union in the film—Anand with his unfaithful wife, Pushpa with her violent husband, and the unhappy Sharmas—seems to offer nothing but misery and emotional deprivation. The only happy marriage in the film is that of the adult Nandu with his wife (Farida Jalal). Amar Prem remains radical more than 40 years on for suggesting that true families are those formed by love.

Thanks to Rajshri Films, you can view Amar Prem online, for free, with English closed captioning.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Handel's Apollo e Dafne and Sileti venti

Apollo and Daphne (detail), Tiepolo, 1744

Repression leads to sublimation. When public performances of opera were banned in Rome by papal edicts in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries—opera audiences engaged in "casual and promiscuous social intercourse, always noisy, sometimes riotous and indecent" [1]—composers instead turned to the cantata.

Cantatas were a more intimate form for one or two singers with instrumental accompaniment, were performed in private residences, and were not generally staged. But, like opera, they required a very high degree of virtuosity from their performers. And under the cover of portraying mythological or historical figures, cantatas could treat the same subjects that the Pope found so objectionable in opera: lust, madness and death. Cantatas became miniature operas by another name.

When Handel travelled to Italy as a young man in the first decade of the 1700s, he spent much of his time in Rome, a major center of musical patronage, and quickly mastered the cantata form. Before he left Italy four years later he'd written more than a hundred cantatas. (The composer he took as his model, Alessandro Scarlatti, wrote more than 600!) Apollo e Dafne (Apollo and Daphne, 1710) is one of the longest and most richly scored of these.

Apollo and Daphne (detail), Bernini, 1622-25

It tells a story from Book I of Ovid's Metamorphoses: the god Apollo is smitten with the chaste nymph Daphne, and when she resists his advances he pursues her; unable to escape, Daphne prays to the gods for deliverance, and is transformed into a laurel tree. Handel wrote the cantata for soprano and bass-baritone, and it contains some exquisite music, such as Dafne's first aria, "Felicissima quest' alma, ch'ama sol la liberta" (Happy is my spirit, which loves only freedom):

This lovely performance is by Karina Gauvin, accompanied by Les Violons du Roy conducted by Bernard Labadie. Her partner in this recording (Dorian xCD-90288) is baritone Russell Braun, who delivers Apollo's final lament with an understated lyricism:

On a last-minute impulse last Sunday I attended a concert by American Bach Soloists, conducted by founding music director Jeffrey Thomas, that featured Apollo e Dafne along with Handel's sacred motet Sileti venti (Silence, ye winds, 1708) and three arias for bass from Bach's cantatas. The soloists, who were in excellent form, were bright-voiced soprano Mary Wilson and the bass Mischa Bouvier.

Bouvier's voice has a very appealing timbre, warm and robust, and so hearing the Bach cantata arias was a real pleasure. But I do have to question the decision to combine Bach and Handel in the first half of this program. Bach's forbidding Lutheranism was in perhaps too stark contrast with Handel's joyous Italianate sensuousness. In Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben? (Dearest God, when will I die?) Bach set the text "Nichts, was mir gefällt, Besitzet die Welt" (Nothing that delights me belongs to this world). The singer in Sileti venti, by contrast, speaks of the soul's "felicissima laetitia" (supreme joy) as she asks to be pierced by sacred love. The performance in this video is by British soprano Sarah Fox:

In this cantata Handel and his anonymous librettist, perhaps deliberately, suggest parallels between sacred and erotic love. And Wilson's alluring voice and thrilling coloratura only heightened the confusion.

I'm very glad I took the opportunity to hear these rarely performed Handel masterpieces in the serene setting of St. Mark's Lutheran Church, one of San Francisco's best venues for music. It was a delightful way to spend a late spring Sunday afternoon. And it proved that repression can sometimes have its uses.


1. David Kimbell. Italian Opera. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 108

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart mysteries

Like many people, I'd guess, my first encounter with the work of Philip Pullman was His Dark Materials. Marketed as young adult novels, the trilogy—Northern Lights/The Golden Compass (1995), The Subtle Knife (1997), and The Amber Spyglass (2000)—featured themes not usually found in books aimed at middle schoolers, such as the murder of children, the death of God, and cosmos-healing sex between 13-year-olds.

But before Pullman became famous for His Dark Materials, he wrote another young adult series: the Sally Lockhart mysteries. It's pretty unusual for a male writer to feature a heroine; Pullman did it in both of these series.

In the first Sally Lockhart title, The Ruby in the Smoke (1985), the heroine is a 16-year-old in late Victorian London. As the book opens she is trying to learn more about the death of her father, Matthew Lockhart. Matthew was a shipping agent who drowned when his company's schooner was sunk in the South Seas with the loss of (almost) all hands, leaving Sally orphaned and virtually penniless. Sally's investigation brings her into contact with a gritty underworld of opium dens, brothels, East End slums, and street gangs.

It also brings her into contact with the legacies of British colonialism: the military occupation and exploitation of India, and the forced opium trade with China. (It soon becomes clear that the ruby of the title is derived from the former, while the smoke derives from the latter.) The later books in the series deal with the arms trade (The Shadow in the North (1986)), Jewish immigration and 19th-century social and labor movements (The Tiger in the Well (1990)), and great-power conflicts over resource-rich smaller countries (The Tin Princess (1994)). But while the books are firmly grounded in the grim realities of 19th-century capitalism and imperialism, they are also ripping yarns featuring criminal masterminds, powerful industrial magnates, international spies, and other fiendishly evil nemeses for Sally.

Aiding Sally over the course of the series are Frederick Garland, a photographer who is a few years older than Sally; Jim Taylor, an office boy and former street urchin, who becomes Frederick's assistant; and later, Daniel Goldberg, a Jewish refugee and labor organizer. As with Will in His Dark Materials, the men occasionally threaten to take over the narrative; fortunately, Sally is such a compelling character that the focus never shifts away from her for too long.

The voice of the narrator is also somewhat unusual. Sometimes the narrator adopts the limited point of view of the characters, especially when the situation is suspenseful or perilous. But at other times the narrator takes time out to explain the world of Victorian England from the standpoint of our contemporary mores—probably a necessary concession to the teenagers who are the books' intended audience, but a slightly disorienting shift in perspective nonetheless.

Apart from the narrator, there are a few other mild anachronisms as well. In The Shadow in the North, a factory is illuminated by electric light several years before the commercial manufacture of incandescent bulbs, and a character is described as having "a wide knowledge of matters on the fringe of psychology" at least a decade before the term "psychology" was in wide use. Pullman also discreetly signals his own tastes, as when he name-checks Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope. Jim has a substantial collection of penny dreadfuls, referred to throughout the series, that he enthusiastically shares with other characters; after the first two novels in the Sally Lockhart series were published, Pullman wrote a book based on a character from penny dreadfuls, Spring-Heeled Jack (1989).

The level of violence in the series is amazingly high for books ostensibly aimed at young readers. Savage beatings and fights are described in gruesome detail, and over the course of the series characters are shot, stabbed, burned to death, killed by dogs, mutilated by bombs, drowned, crushed, felled by heart attacks, and plummet to their deaths. And it's not just the bad guys who get hurt: Frederick, Jim and Sally all sustain major injuries at various points, and (not to give too much away) one of them doesn't survive the series.

Another atypical aspect of the books is Pullman's frankness about sex. Prostitution, rape, and sexual torture are alluded to, although not described graphically. In the second volume in the series, The Shadow in the North, Sally and Frederick go to bed together—outside of wedlock!—while in the third volume in the series, The Tiger in the Well, it's suggested that Sally sleeps with a man she finds loathsome in order to divert suspicion and extract information.

If those aspects of the books seem aimed at modern sensibilities, other features are derived from sensationalist Victorian fiction itself. As Philip Pullman has written, "I wrote each one with a genuine cliché of melodrama right at the heart of it, on purpose: the priceless jewel with a curse on it—the madman with a weapon that could destroy the world—the situation of being trapped in a cellar with the water rising—the little illiterate servant girl from the slums of London who becomes a princess . . . And I set the stories up so that each of those stock situations, when they arose, would do so naturally and with the most convincing realism I could manage."

How convincing that realism is depends on the reader, of course. For me, the books get steadily more fantastic as the series progresses. The Tin Princess, in particular, reads a bit like a novelized Tintin adventure: it's set a central European principality riddled with spies, skullduggery and nefarious plots, which our protagonists confront with forthrightness and pluck.

A gap of several years separates each subsequent volume in the series from the previous books. The Ruby in the Smoke takes place in 1872, when Sally is 16; The Shadow in the North takes place six years later, in 1878; The Tiger in the Well three years after that, in 1881; and The Tin Princess the following year. Pullman may have created a minor dilemma for himself by spacing the books so far apart chronologically; Sally is an adult by the start of the second book, and a mother by the start of the third, which is perhaps why she only has a cameo role in the last book. I'm thinking, though, that should Pullman ever want to return to these characters—and I hope that he does—there might be room for an adventure or two in the gaps between the books in the original series.

So if you give the books to a 12-year-old, be prepared to face some interesting questions. I recommend reading them yourself first—but that's a task that will be highly enjoyable whether or not you intend to pass them on to a young person later. As with His Dark Materials, the Sally Lockhart series is utterly addictive. Once you're hooked (which for me happened by the time I hit the second chapter of the first book), you'll want to devour them all.

The first two books in the Sally Lockhart series were adapted for television, with Billie Piper in the role of Sally. I haven't yet seen these films, but it strikes me that Piper may perhaps be miscast as the autodidact Sally (she was certainly miscast as Fanny Price in ITV's dreadful 2007 Mansfield Park, miswritten by Maggie Wadey and misdirected by Ian McDonald, and broadcast in the US as part of the PBS series The Complete Jane Austen). Still, I'll reserve judgment until I have a chance to see them.

Philip Pullman's informative website includes the author's own discussions of his books, along with brief extracts from each, and was the source of the cover images of the Sally Lockhart novels in this post.

Update 8 May 2013: Last night we watched the first of the two BBC Sally Lockhart adaptations, The Ruby in the Smoke (2006), and thought that it was pretty well done—but we would have been lost in places without having read the book first. Billie Piper acquits herself well as Sally, although the actress is clearly somewhat older than the character. Pullman's Sally is 16, while we're told at the beginning of screenwriter Adrian Hodges' television version that it is 1874, making Sally 18; Piper looks to be in her mid-20s. Jim, too, who is about 13 in Pullman's book, is here portrayed by Matthew Smith, a (very tall) actor who also clearly left his teens behind half a decade ago.

Hodges makes a few other changes as well, minor (Sally gets back the pistol her father gave her, rather than having to buy another one) and major (the final confrontation with Mrs. Holland takes place at Hangman's Wharf rather than on the more dramatic Tower Bridge). The filmmakers have also made the interesting choice to bring in a third British colonial reference after the military occupation of India and the opium trade with China by casting three of the characters as Afro-Caribbean. Among them are the sailor Matthew Bedwell and his twin brother the Rev. Nicholas Bedwell, both played by David Harewood. In addition to the reference to the slave trade in the British Caribbean, there is another historical basis for this choice: the Rev. George Cousens, a prominent Afro-Caribbean minister in the mid-19th century.

In other roles, JJ Feild, a wonderfully sympathetic Henry Tilney in ITV's 2007 Northanger Abbey, is a wonderfully sympathetic Frederick Garland here. And Julie Walters is a magnificently malevolent Mrs. Holland; her performance is reason enough to watch the film.

In adapting Pullman's book into a 90-minute runtime there was necessarily some compression, particularly at the denouement, but most of the scenes, incidents and characters in the novel make it into the film. Inevitably, perhaps, the movie feels like the introduction to a series, with (as in the book) a couple of major plot threads left dangling; it's unfortunate that to date only one more entry in the series has been produced. Still, on the basis of the strengths of this film we're looking forward to seeing its sequel, The Shadow in the North (2007)—I'll post about it here once we do.

Update 17 May 2013: The adaptation of The Shadow in the North is more straightforward than that of Ruby in the Smoke, and the outlines of the story should be clear even for those who haven't read the book. As before, the Victorian setting is nicely evoked, and Billie Piper, JJ Feild, and Matt Smith make most welcome returns from the first episode.

The flaw of this second (and likely final, alas) episode in the series is its villain. In Ruby, Elliot Cowan wasn't my image of Hendrik van Eeden, but it didn't much matter—Julie Walters was the perfect embodiment of the relentlessly malignant Mrs. Holland. In Shadow, Jared Harris is also not my image of the amoral industrial magnate Axel Bellman. But here it's a bigger problem: Bellman is the central villain, and Harris simply wasn't sufficiently sinister.

I also found the blind casting, admirable though it is in theory, to be distracting in practice. Nellie Budd is played by Doña Croll, an actress born in Jamaica; casting the spiritualist medium as an Afro-Caribbean woman seemed to flirt with cliché. And the dreadlocks on Bellman's henchman Mr. Brown (Vyelle Croom) seemed, er, dreadfully anachronistic.

Still, this adaptation is pretty effective. It's a shame that the series never reached the third and fourth books, both of which have key scenes that would lend themselves readily to cinematic treatment.

Update 1 May 2013: The comments below contain spoilers—if you plan to read the books, you may want to wait until you have before taking a look at the comments.