Sunday, April 16, 2017

Mamta

Mamta (A Mother's Love, 1966), directed by Asit Sen, story by Nihan Rajan Gupta after his novel Uttar Falguni, dialogues by Krishen Chander and Pandit Bushan, music by Roshan, lyrics by Majrooh Sultanpuri

Suchitra Sen as Pannabai in Mamta

I have a huge soft spot for many classic Bollywood narrative devices:
  • tragic courtesans, as in Amar Prem (1972)
  • forbidden love, as in Parineeta (1953)
  • maternal self-sacrifice, as in Sharafat (1972, also directed by Asit Sen)
  • children in danger, as in Brahmachari (1968)
  • reunions between long-separated lovers, as in Veer-Zaara (2004)
  • reunions between long-separated parents and children, as in Aradhana (1968)
  • double roles, as in Seeta aur Geeta (1972)
  • courtroom scenes, as in Awara (1957)
Mamta manages to combine every single one of these devices, and (as do so many tragic courtesan films) adds great music as a bonus.

Pannabai (Suchitra Sen) is a renowned dancer who entertains men every night in Lucknow's pleasure quarter. One afternoon a drunken man asks for her not as Pannabai, but as Devyani. She tells him he's mistaken:

I am Pannabai, a courtesan

The man is Rakhal (a very creepy Kalipada Chakravarty)—the abusive husband from whom Devyani fled several years ago. She'd thought she was safe from him, but:

Who has ever got rid of anybody in this world?

Pannabai does not yet know how true those words will prove to be.

Rakhal has discovered Devyani's new identity, and demands money, or else:

I will sue you for restoration of conjugal rights

While Pannabai/Devyani is getting the blackmail money for Rakhal, her daughter Suparna wanders in to see the stranger. A mistake:

Come to me. Want a toffee?

Devyani returns in time to save Suparna from Rakhal, but realizes that she must send her to a place where he can never reach her: Mother Mary's convent school in Calcutta. (The subtitles have "Mother [or Madam] Marlin," but that seems like a mishearing.) At first Pannabai is refused; her profession is too scandalous. She pleads with Mother Mary:

Madam Marlin, I was not a courtesan always

Backstory time! We learn that as a young woman Devyani fell in love with a poor law student, Manish (Ashok Kumar). He went to London to study law for three years, and the lovers pledged themselves to one another: they would marry on his return.

While Manish is abroad, though, Devyani's father Ghishta (Chaman Puri) becomes heavily indebted to a moneylender: Rakhal. The predatory Rakhal has noticed that Ghishta has a beautiful young daughter, and offers him a way to clear his otherwise crushing debt:

Either pay my money, or get Devyani married to me

Her father doesn't want to ask Devyani to marry Rakhal to clear his debt. But she is so dutiful she doesn't need her father to implore her to rescue him. First she goes to Manish's mother to ask for a loan, only to be rejected:

I was against this alliance since the very beginning

Devyani feels she has no choice:

To save my poor father from debt, I forgot Manish, I forgot myself

She marries Rakhal. On the wedding night he is drunk and cruel:

If you act stubborn, even I will use force


She steels herself to "tolerate every atrocity":

Thereafter, every night was darker than the first

But when Rakhal tries to force her to sleep with other men (who have clearly paid him for the privilege), a pregnant Devyani realizes she must escape.

She flees on the train to Lucknow, but, despairing, tries to commit suicide. The woman sharing her berth prevents her from throwing herself off the train, and once she's able to calm Devyani down, explains who she is: Meenabai (Chhaya Devi), the owner of a house of (men's) pleasure. She offers Devyani a home and a means of supporting herself and her soon-to-be-born child. Devyani, by now used to tough decisions, accepts. Devyani dies, and Pannabai is born:

Pannabai

And now, Pannabai tells Mother Mary, she wants to save the daughter she has raised from her dissolute father, "and from myself." Mother Mary is moved by her story; on Pannabai's promise to have no contact with her daughter, Suparna is accepted into the convent school.

Shortly afterwards Pannabai is leaving a shop when she encounters someone from her past:

You?

It's Manish, returned from London and now a famous barrister. After exchanging a few pained words with him, she jumps into a taxi and speeds off.

A friend of Manish expresses his amazement that he accosted a "cheap woman" in a department store, and fills him in about Pannabai's profession. When Manish angrily expresses disbelief, his friend offers to prove it by hiring Pannabai to perform for him.

That night, almost as soon as Pannabai walks in she realizes whose house she has entered. An anguished Manish conceals himself behind a curtain in another room, but Pannabai knows exactly who is listening. "I had to swallow all kinds of venom to survive; I have borne every humiliation," she sings. "Don't spurn me."



The subtitles on the version I quoted above are a bit less decorous than the ones on the embedded/linked video; Suchitra Sen's playback singer on "Rehte thhe kabhi jinke dil mein" ("The one who dwells forever in my heart") and the other songs in this post is Lata Mangeshkar.

When Manish's friend tries to pay her for her performance, Pannabai disdainfully refuses the proferred money. Manish follows her home to find out what happened while he was in London. Trapped by the curfew, Manish must remain at Pannabai's. In Suparna's now-empty room over the long night, Devyani tells her story.

As dawn breaks, a devastated Manish asks her to come home with him:

You are still Devyani for me

But she realizes this is impossible: Manish would be bringing home Devyani, but the world would assume he is consorting with Pannabai.

My life has been ruined. Why should I ruin your life?

Instead, she begs him to look after Suparna. Manish readily agrees to become Suparna's guardian, and to help realize Pannabai's dreams for her:

Maybe she becomes a barrister like you one day

This is only the first hour of the film.

As the years pass and Suparna becomes a young woman, Pannabai's dream will come true—with unforeseen consequences. While studying law in London Suparna (Suchitra Sen in a double role) has met a classmate, Indraneel (Dharmendra), and love has begun to blossom. But Rakhal returns and threatens Pannabai with exposure. If Pannabai's identity is revealed, she fears that her dreams for Suparna—a professional career, a respectable home, and the love of a good man—will be utterly shattered. And a mother's love can never allow that to happen. . .

Mamta has some fairly radical-for-their-time propositions to offer: that children's destinies should not be determined by their parents' status, that women should have the same opportunities as men to enter professional life, that romantic but non-sexual friendships are possible between men and women, and that we should not judge criminal acts before understanding the extremity that may have led to them. That we still can't take these propositions entirely for granted says something about how much further we still have to go.

Suchitra Sen's excellent performances as Devyani/Pannabai and Suparna are the main reason to watch Mamta. She makes us feel all of Pannabai's pathos and all of Suparna's joy and hope. And although she was in her mid-30s, she convincingly embodies her characters at every age from late teens to mid-40s. Both she and Chakravarty were reprising their roles from Asit Sen's Bengali version, Uttar Falguni (1963), which (together with Suchitra Sen's other Bengali films) is now at the top of my to-view list. Although Ashok Kumar as a young law student is a bit of a stretch, he excels at expressing the range of emotions—from bitterness to self-accusation to deep affection—experienced by the older Manish, as "Rehte thhe kabhi jinke dil mein" shows.

To end the post, two songs from the film that are so brief they seem almost like throwaways, but which are freighted with emotion:

"Chhupaa lo yoon dil mein pyaar mera" (Hide my love in your heart):


https://youtu.be/PCIPuIQjkOw?t=8m57s (song ends at 10:10;
the male playback singer is Hemant Kumar)


"Hum Gavanwa Na Jaibe Ho":




For another perspective please see Dusted Off's review. Mamta can be viewed for free on YouTube.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

My city of ruins


Howard Street, Baltimore (Google Street View)

Young men on the corner
Like scattered leaves,
The boarded-up windows,
The empty streets
While my brother's down on his knees
My city of ruins

—"My City of Ruins," Bruce Springsteen, The Rising
I recently had occasion to travel back to Baltimore, a city I knew in my late teens and early twenties. I was staying in Mount Vernon, a neighborhood of wine bars, fine restaurants, and lovingly renovated historic buildings. And please don't misunderstand me: I like wine bars, fine restaurants, and lovingly renovated historic buildings.

I was attending a conference that was being held at the Baltimore Convention Center in the Inner Harbor, an area of high-rise office buildings, malls, chain restaurants and chain hotels. To get there I walked down Howard Street from Madison to Pratt Street, a distance of about three-quarters of a mile. In making that journey every morning and returning every evening, I was brought face to face with the effects of decades of racist urban planning and economic and political choices that have kicked those who are no longer considered useful into the gutter.

Block after block of Howard Street is lined with abandoned buildings and shuttered businesses. Some of these photos are taken from Google Street View, but most are mine:


Howard Street at Franklin, east side



Howard Street between Franklin and Mulberry, west side (Google Street View, October 2016; 
the central building has since been reduced to a pile of rubble. 
There are four more empty buildings to the left out of the frame.)



Howard Street at Mulberry, west side (Google Street View, October 2016)



Howard Street between Mulberry and Saratoga, east side
(The sign on the empty building to the left advertises beepers and VCRs; it must date back two decades or more.)



Howard Street at Saratoga, east side



Howard Street at Clay, east side



Howard Street at Fayette, west side



The entrance to the former Marble Bar, 306 W. Franklin Street between Howard and Eutaw


Baltimore has always been a gritty, struggling city. But I don't remember this level of devastation even after the massive urban disinvestment of the 1970s. The core of the city has been hollowed out. My city's in ruins.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Not beautiful: The Beethoven string quartets part 2


Portrait of Beethoven by Willibrod Josef Maehler (detail), 1815

The Takács Quartet returned to Berkeley in early March for the middle two concerts of their Beethoven quartet series. (For my previous post on the first two concerts in the series, see "For a later age.")


The Takacs Quartet: Károly Schranz (second violin), András Fejér (cello), Geraldine Walther (viola), and Edward Dusinberre (first violin). Photo: Keith Saunders, http://www.takacsquartet.com

Once again the concerts were introduced by a series of residency events. This time they included an open rehearsal; a panel discussion led by UC Berkeley faculty member Nic Mathew and featuring first violinist Edward Dusinberre and visiting scholars Mary Hunter and Mark Ferraguto; and pre-performance conversations between Mathew and each of the visiting scholars. The theme for the weekend's concerts was "When Old Media Were New Media," or as the Cal Performances residency events program had it, "the role of audiences, institutions and technologies in shaping our experience of this music."

One of the key new modes of experiencing the Beethoven string quartets was the public string quartet concert itself. Before Beethoven, string quartets were often played at home by groups featuring skilled aristocratic amateurs, with an audience of an invited group of friends. (A recent book about the Mozart string quartets was entitled Mozart's Music of Friends.) After Beethoven, string quartets were increasingly performed in concert halls by professional musicians with an audience of paying ticketholders.

The shift from amateur to professional performance is epitomized by the Op. 59 "Razumovsky" quartets. They were commissioned by Count Andreas Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to the Habsberg court in Vienna, who was an avid and talented violinist. Beethoven delivered three quartets based on Russian musical themes, but they were too difficult for their patron to play. [1]


Portrait of Count Andreas Razumovsky, by Johann Baptist Lampi (detail), ca. 1806
Source: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/642687#pl07

Razumovsky had to hire the professional Schuppanzigh Quartet (named for its first violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh) for the first performance in 1807. That performance was received with bewilderment.
Three new, very long and difficult Beethoven violin quartets dedicated to the Russian ambassador, Count Razumovsky, are attracting the attention of all connoisseurs.  They are profound in conception and admirably written, but not generally comprehensible. . . [2]
"Not generally comprehensible." Even fifteen years later this same journal would state that Op. 59 No. 2 involved "bizarre sounds."

Among the "bizarre sounds" may have been the first violin part in the second, slow movement, which is marked "Molto adagio. Si tratta questo pezzo con molto di sentimento" (Very slow, with a great deal of feeling). At around the 1:37 mark in the 2002 recording by the Takács Quartet the first violin starts playing a two-note figure that sounds like a heartbeat, as Mary Hunter pointed out:




It's unusual for the first violin to play a part that is so clearly intended as an accompaniment to what the other musicians are playing. It must have made those first listeners wonder whether the players had inadvertently switched parts.

The Op. 59 No. 2 quartet was performed by the Takács during the Sunday afternoon concert. In the panel discussion on Friday night, a page of the first violinist Edward Dusinberre's part for this quartet was projected onscreen. Over one of the measures (around 6:05 in the recording), he had written the words "not beautiful."


I had an opportunity to ask Dusinberre what he was warning himself against in that passage; he replied that as a student his training had emphasized producing a beautiful sound. As a professional musician, he had to learn to use beauty when it's appropriate, "and not just ladle it on." Beethoven's direction to play "with a great deal of feeling," in Dusinberre's view, meant that in these measures he should maintain a certain rigor and precision.

That precision is especially needed in the slow movement of Beethoven's Op. 132. This nearly 20-minute-long adagio was described by Beethoven on the score as "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenden an die Gottheit" (Holy Song of Thanks from a Convalescent to the Deity). Beethoven had become seriously ill while working on Op. 132, and had miraculously recovered. The Holy Song of Thanks consists of five parts, alternating Molto adagio (very slow) with Andante (moderately slow). In inexpert hands this lengthy slow movement could easily bog down or become static; the Takács were able to maintain forward momentum while remaining emotionally expressive and playing in perfect unison.




In concert, this movement simply stopped time.

In the pre-performance conversation on Saturday night with Mary Hunter, Nic Mathew quoted someone as saying that "If you don't like the early quartets, that's Beethoven's fault; if you don't like the later quartets, that's your fault." Of course, it's never your "fault" if you don't like a work of art. As modern and postmodern (and whatever comes after postmodern) art have shown, the history of art is not a slow but steady march of progress from the worthy but primitive forms of the past to the increasing perfection of today.

But it is your mistake if you dismiss a work without trying to understand its historical context and the artist's aims and methods. We live in a world that has been musically shaped by the middle and late Beethoven quartets; when they were first performed, of course, they were unprecedented. In his day Beethoven was seen as revolutionary, and the residency events that Cal Performances has sponsored around the Takács Quartet's Beethoven cycle are designed in part to try to help us recapture that sense of radical innovation. For me they have immeasurably enriched the experience of these difficult works. I'm very much looking forward to the next (and, alas, final) concerts in the series.


  1. Mark Ferraguto, a panelist in the Friday night discussion and a participant in the Sunday pre-performance conversation, believes that he has identified the "missing" Russian theme in Op. 59 No. 3; see "Beethoven à la moujik: Russianness and Learned Style in the 'Razumovsky' String Quartets." Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 67 No. 1, Spring 2014, pp. 77-124. DOI: 10.1525/jams.2014.67.1.77
  2. Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, 27 February 1807. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Suggested reading: Psychohistory is now real

Your portable (or desktop) personality test


Isaac Asimov.
Source: New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress

In Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels, published shortly after psychological testing became widespread during World War II, a secretive group applies mathematical formulas—or as we would say today, algorithms—to psychological data in order to predict and shape the future course of human history. Asimov called this amalgam of prediction and manipulation "psychohistory."


The 2016 presidential election has shown that psychohistory is now real. Today using psychological profiling to manipulate people is called "psychometrics" or "psychographics," but it's essentially the system that Asimov foresaw 65 years ago.

In their article "The Data That Turned the World Upside Down," journalists Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus describe how two Cambridge graduate students, David Stillwell and Michael Kosinski, correlated results from online personality tests and Facebook profiles. (I've posted about Stillwell and his research group before.) They realized that, with a dataset of millions of subjects, they could link a particular set of "likes" with specific personal tendencies and attributes: gender, sexual orientation, ethnic heritage, political affiliation, intelligence, religion, the use or abuse of alcohol and drugs, whether your parents divorced before you were 21, and the Big Five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (OCEAN). As Grassegger and Krogerus write,
". . .before long, [Kosinski] was able to evaluate a person better than the average work colleague, merely on the basis of ten Facebook 'likes.' Seventy 'likes' were enough to outdo what a person's friends knew, 150 what their parents knew, and 300 'likes' what their partner knew. More 'likes' could even surpass what a person thought they knew about themselves."

Presumably, "likes" are voluntarily shared. But often without our explicit knowledge or consent, our computers and smartphones are constantly transmitting data on our behavior and interests. Companies are collecting, aggregating, sharing, and reselling that data. "Our smartphone, Kosinski concluded, is a vast psychological questionnaire that we are constantly filling out, both consciously and unconsciously."


Ingrid Bergman, Michael Chekov and Gregory Peck in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945)

Enter Cambridge Analytica, a "predictive analytics" company that combines data from many sources to create detailed profiles of specific individuals. Cambridge Analytica claims that they have "profiled the personality of every adult in the United States of America—220 million people." By name.

All sorts of companies—employers, insurance companies, and marketers, to name three—might be interested in this information. But there's another class of client for whom detailed personal profiles are highly desirable: political campaigns. Cambridge Analytica worked for Brexit and the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Both achieved stunning upsets and defied conventional political wisdom. Cambridge Analytica helped them both to win against the odds.


The vote for (orange) and against (blue) the Brexit referendum, from 50% (light) to 80% (dark).
Source: New York Times.

Two key strategies were used by both campaigns:
  • Micro-targeting messages to specific individuals to motivate them to vote, often against their own interests and beliefs. In one day, Grassegger and Krogerus report, the Trump campaign tested thousand of different ads for effectiveness with various types of voters.
  • Micro-targeting messages to specific individuals to convince them not to vote. A series of "dark posts"—nonpublic posts that appear in the Facebook timelines of users with specific profiles (in the US election, Sanders supporters, African Americans, and young women, among others)—promoted heavily negative views of the opposing side. The object was not, as in traditional political advertising, to gain these voters' support, but rather to discourage them from going to the polls at all. The Trump campaign boasted of its voter suppression efforts to Bloomberg Businessweek.
The Trump campaign also automated the amplification of its messages on social media platforms. As Sue Halpern writes in the NYR Daily, at one point nearly 40% of Trump's Twitter followers were bots masquerading as humans and retweeting his messages.

How effective was this approach? As reported by Andrew Cockburn in Harper's, in the final days before the election, the models used by Clinton's campaign predicted that she would win Michigan by 5 points, or about a quarter of a million votes. Instead she lost by 11,000 votes.

Why facts don't change our minds

The spectacle of working-class people voting for a developer of luxury resorts, women voting for a self-confessed sexual predator, and Affordable Care Act beneficiaries voting for a man who has vowed to repeal the ACA may be dismaying. But do you think that you respond to well-reasoned positions cogently argued, and that you're immune from manipulation?


Think again. As Elizabeth Kolbert writes in The New Yorker in her survey of three recent books on cognitive psychology, all of us repeatedly exhibit an immunity to information that contradicts our beliefs.
  • We are highly suggestible. Students who were told they were especially good or especially bad at a judgment exercise assessed themselves as, respectively, better or worse than average—even after they were told that their assignments to the original groups were random. The researchers who carried out this study were surprised that "even after the initial evidential basis for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs."
  • We are subject to confirmation bias, "the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them." Students presented with statistics on capital punishment that supported their already-held opinions, either pro or con, became more hardened in their positions even after they were told that the statistics were falsified.
  • We fall victim to the "illusion of explanatory depth," which is our tendency to believe that we are far more knowledgeable than we actually are. Shortly after the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, the farther off US survey respondents were when asked to identify Ukraine on a map the more likely they were to favor military intervention.
You should take the evolutionary rationales that are presented for these tendencies in Kolbert's article with a grain of salt, since they're not testable. But the implications in a world of fake news, Twitter bots, and other tools of deliberate misinformation are incontrovertible. The Big Data that we ourselves supply makes it ever more possible to identify, exploit and manipulate our biases.

This year three European countries in which right-wing parties have made recent gains are holding elections: Holland, France, and Germany. Brace yourself for more surprises.

Update 7 March 2016: In a New York Times article, Nicholas Confessore and Danny Hakim write that "a dozen Republican consultants and former Trump campaign aides, along with current and former Cambridge employees, say the company’s ability to exploit personality profiles — 'our secret sauce,' Mr. Nix once called it — is exaggerated. Cambridge executives now concede that the company never used psychographics in the Trump campaign."

Hmmm. Cambridge Analytica is a company that was founded to exploit personality profiling. It is largely funded by Robert Mercer, "a Trump backer and investor in Breitbart." It had Steve Bannon on its board of directors until he was officially hired as the Trump campaign's manager (although, as The Daily Beast reports, "Breitbart's ties to Trump were long suspected before Bannon was brought aboard the campaign following the ouster of campaign chairman Paul Manafort in August 2016" and that Bannon wrote in an August 30, 2015 e-mail, "'I'm Trump's campaign manager.'") The company was paid a reported $15 million by the Trump campaign for its services.

And yet the campaign operatives and company executives quoted in the article now claim that Cambridge Analytica was not heavily involved in the Trump campaign, or that it was involved but did not employ its proprietary methodology, or that it was involved and used its methodology and but that it wasn't effective.  You'll have to pardon me, but this denial simply does not seem credible. And the denial is contradicted by an article by McKenzie Funk published right after the election in November, which appeared in The New York Times.

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