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December 06, 2011

Wuthering Heights

Writing about web page http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1181614/

“With regard to the rusticity of Wuthering Heights, I admit the charge, for I feel the quality. It is rustic all through. It is moorish, and wild, and knotty as the root of heath.”

In Andrea Arnold’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights,these reflections by Charlotte Brontë on her sister Emily’s novel become more pertinent than ever: not so much in that it is moorish, wild, knotty, rustic, but in the suggestion that we “feel the quality”. In Arnold’s stripped-bare adaptation it is feeling, both physical and emotional, that dominates this Wuthering Heights.

It is, from the start, a violent film: raw and bleak, muddy and bloody. The film doesn’t shy away from a brutal violence either amongst its characters, or in its depictions of rural life. The landscape is, throughout, prominent – more so, perhaps, than in Brontë’s novel – but not sentimentalised, idealised or romanticised. Here, the landscape simply is; through camera-angles burrowing through the heath or focusing on a grub, the land is left to speak for itself. The absence of music – or even much speech –contributes to this: detailed sights are accompanied by sharply focused sounds that further add to the effect of not just seeing, but really feeling the landscape.

Likewise, the emotions here are raw, bleak, simple; characters simply are rather than given the feeling of being “interpreted” or presented. They are left largely unexplored in terms of psychological depth, driven by emotion – not so much in terms of there being explicit, recognisable forces or motivations, but that there is little other than response and feeling behind each action and movement. Interpretation seems to take a back seat for both actors and viewer; it’s a strange experience to watch this film, as we’re not asked to interpret, question or even engage in the way we might usually with a film or text. It’s a form of realism which, whilst appearing to strip back technique, or mediation simultaneously persists in making us aware of the process of viewing.

Wuthering Heights

As a result, the film seems to resist much of what we might want to read into it in terms of its depiction of gender and race. In the first half of the film the young Cathy and Heathcliff, both individually and together, resist being interpreted as raced/ gendered types and, as with the rest of the text, simply exist in and of themselves; individual mannerisms, behaviours, emotions surface here.

This in turn complicates how we read what has become the most talked-about aspect of the film, that this Heathcliff is the first non-white Heathcliff; but how significant is this in the film's presentation? The problem with so much critical interest in this aspect of the film is that the viewer goes in with an expectation and, perhaps, an agenda to focus on the portrayal of race and what interpretation this lends to the text. This is, to an extent, always true in so far as a film of Wuthering Heights has to take a critical judgement on the most interesting ambiguity of the text, Heathcliff’s unknown origins. One of the most interesting and anxiety-ridden elements of the text is that the question of Heathcliff's origins resist interpretation: it's the fact that Heathcliff could potentially be from anywhere that lingers as the text's most pervasive yet unspoken fear.

Equally, it isn’t impossible that Heathcliff “could” be black: his origins are unknown and he is variously read as being Chinese, Indian, Spanish, American, or African. As critics such as Susan Meyer have argued, regardless of his “actual” origins, Heathcliff is read by others in the text as "black", positioned as the black subject through the treatment by other characters who subject him “to the potent gaze of a racial arrogance derived from British imperialism” (Imperialism at Home).

Here, Heathcliff’s origins remain a subject of some doubt: the film retains lines in which he’s referred to as a “little Lascar”, or speculating that he might be "the son of an African prince or Chinese queen" (slightly altered from “your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen” in the text). This brings to the surface the nineteenth-century Imperial perspective in which all non-white subjects are collectively grouped together as “black”, regardless of actual origins; the brutality of violence enacted on Heathcliff here served to reiterate the power dynamic within this. But beyond this, it didn’t feel as though the film was working to make a particular point "about" race and the nineteenth century; the violence extends throughout all characters and, as with other elements of the text, his race is presented in a matter-of-fact manner.

If the film does anything to make this about Heathcliff, it's that it centres him as narrative perspective. This gives more structure and coherence to a text which is notably unstable in its narrative perspective, and for that reason this becomes a narrative of Heathcliff. Perhaps as a result of this, the blurred relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff felt less prominent and less intense; and of Cathy’s most famous lines “he’s more myself than I am” and“Nelly, I am Heathcliff”, the first is cut short and the latter omitted. Interestingly, this therefore serves to break what Susan Meyer notes as a recurrent motif in the nineteenth-century novel of a representational yoking of white women with people of non-white races.

In terms of structure, the film follows most other adaptations in only focusing on the first half of the novel. Having said that, it’s still very much a film of two halves, with the switch in actors when Cathy marries and Heathcliff leaves and then returns. As others have noted, whilst Solomon Grave and Shannon Beer are excellent, the second pairing of James Howson and Kaya Scodelario doesn’t maintain much of what the younger actors achieve so well, and the relationship lacks the earlier chemistry; but in some ways, this discontinuity and jarring seemed right to me. Heathcliff returns changed by his journey away, and to find Cathy socialised as Edgar's wife; the connection of their youth is clearly lost, and the stilted atmosphere that now existed between the two reiterated the inability to recapture what had been lost and the new maturity of the characters. There's a commentary here, too, about the social impossibility of their relationship, something the text doesn't engage so much with in its focus on the passion between them. This half of the film therefore operates in the way that the second half of Bronte's novel does, holding up the first half to scrutiny.

These are just some initial reflections on a film that offers much both in terms of its interpretation of Bronte's text and in terms of wider ideas about adaptations of nineteenth-century texts; but I’ll be thinking more about both the film and adapations of nineteenth-century texts in general in a piece for the Knowledge Centre with Francesca Scott.


July 14, 2008

"The Novel and its Borders": 8th–10th July, University of Aberdeen

Writing about web page http://www.abdn.ac.uk/novelconference/

"The Novel and its Borders", a 3-day conference held at the University of Aberdeen from the 8th-10th July 2008, was by far the largest conference I have attended; the conference attracted nearly three hundred academics from a great many universities around the world. As almost every delegate was presenting a paper over the course of the three days, this inevitably meant there were a huge number of parallel sessions- 10 to 11 panels running at any one time- and therefore it was impossible to see everything of interest. This large number of attendees meant, however, that the conference's broad theme of "the novel" was approached from a multiplicity of perspectives, giving the conference a hugely stimulating diversity in the themes, subjects, and interpretations that were presented.

The conference opened on the Tuesday with Professor Jonathan Lamb giving the first of three plenary lectures, entitled "Persons, Fantasies, and the Drift of Fiction". Lamb's talk was an interesting and appropriate beginning to the conference, discussing the interplay of ideas of "character" and "person" in the formation and rise of the novel; Lamb stated that the "fictionality" of the novel could not have taken root purely through a reliance on "character", and that instead the notion of the "idea and function of the person" was a necessary factor in the emergence and construction of the novel.

Over the next 3 days, the panels I attended were mostly those concerned with the Victorian period. In a panel on Sensory Perception and Victorian Realism, I was interested in Lara Karpenko's talk on "The Victorian Novel and Physical Reading" which discussed the readership and reception of Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone. In one part of the presentation, Karpenko drew attention to Collins' concern with typological layout and the formal elements of the page; this awareness of the materiality of the text and its effect on the physical reading experience interested me as it resonated with some recent ideas on the notion of "textual space" which not only consider the representation of space in literature but also, as Andrew Thacker has proposed, how social spaces intrude upon and dialogically help fashion, the formal, spatial features of literature, such as layout on the page. This is an area of spatial textual study that I have not yet explored in Victorian literature so the talk provided a useful starting point for where some of these ideas might be explored further.

The panel on "Genre Theory" also provided stimulating ideas concerning the novel's relationship to ideas of geography, space and mapping. Irma Ratiani's paper on "The Intermediate Passage Between the Real and Imaginary Worlds" addressed concepts of liminality, thinking about the liminal nature of literature and the novel's position in-between real and imagined worlds. Doina Cmeciu's "(Un)Mapping the Novel" approached the theme of mapping in the novel from a number of directions, considering writers as map-readers and readers as engaged in a process of re-mapping or un-mapping.

On the second day of the conference, I attended panels on George Eliot, Victorian Economy, and Nineteenth-Century Society. The last of these proved most useful to my research, with a talk by Ian Middlebrook on "Wilkie Collins, Cabs and Cityspace" which explored Victorian attutides to public transport, particularly cabs, through the work of Wilkie Collins. This raised interesting parallels with my own research as Middlebrook used a framework of spatial theorists to posit that Victorian cabs articulated a new, "modern", way of occupying space in the city.

The final day of the conference began with the panel on which I was presenting a paper entitled "'Everything Dissolving into Cloud': The Space of the Journey in Dickens' Little Dorrit." The other presentation in this session was by Jason Finch on "'Hints of Local Life': Sub-National Place in Forster's Howards End and 'The Challenge of Our Time'"; arguing against many critical readings of place in Forster's work, Finch asserted that place is represented by Forster as more than symbolic, rather as real, distinctive localities.

After a final parallel session on Virginia Woolf, the conference ended with the final plenary lecture by Terry Castle on "Brunette Coleman and the Lesbianism of Philip Larkin". Having found Castle's work to be an enlightening and useful resource throughout feminist courses in my undergraduate and MA degrees, it was wonderful to finally hear her talk, and her exploration of Philip Larkin's lesbian stories written under the pseudonym Brunette Coleman provided a very different perspective on the poet who, as Castle put it, is characterized as the "shy, sardonic English bachelor".

The conference was a great opportunity to meet and hear so many academics from around the world working on different authors and aspects of the novel and I came away with many ideas and suggestions to think about over the summer.


October 22, 2007

A Book of Travellers' Tales

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This was a useful discovery in Leamington's Oxfam Books this weekend (in fact, I had a good weekend for second-hand buys as I also picked up Angela Carter's Love and Heroes and Villains, a copy of Charlotte Brontes' Tales from Angria which includes many of the Brontes' poems and memoirs, and I'm waiting for delivery of an 1842 map that I came across on ebay). This collection brings together a vast number of extracts from over 300 travel writers from nearly every period of written history, from the Ancient Greeks Xenophon and Pytheas, to writers from the 1980s (the collection was published in 1985) such as Patrick Marnham and Colin Thubron. Predictably, the anthology includes only a handful of women travel writers (see my previous entry for more on this). However, it does at least incorporate a selection of multicultural voices, allowing for a diverse range of perspectives on different countries, such as a Russian naval officer's description of a Maori chief, a Macedonian general's observation of the customs of the "Ichthyopagi" on the Makran coast of Baluchistan, and a Chinese sailor's impressions of eighteenth-century London. The arrangement of the book according to the continent being written about aids this sense of shifting perspectives and also makes it a useful resource. There's also a nice section at the beginning called "Advice on Travelling" with interesting ideas on what to take and how to behave: Prince Hermann Puckler-Muskau, for example, advises "in Naples, treat the people brutally; in Rome, be natural; in Austria, don't talk politics; in France, give yourself no airs; in Germany, a great many; and in England, don't spit." (16). I'm certainly looking forward to reading this book more thoroughly as it seems as though it will hold many new discoveries.


The Illustrated Virago Book of Women Travellers

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This is a wonderful anthology of writing by women travellers, originally published in 1994 as The Virago Book of Women Travellers and re-published in this larger, illustrated paperback edition earlier this year. The collection draws together 46 extracts spanning nearly 300 hundred years, from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's 1717 letter in Embassy to Constantinople to Leila Philip's 1989 The Road Through Miyama. The extracts are arranged chronologically, allowing the anthology to "chart feminism through women and their journeys" as Mary Morris writes(11), whilst emphasising the book's concern with providing the beginnings of a tradition of women writers. Travel literature is a field that has historically been somewhat dominated by male writers, largely due to the simple fact that less women have been able to travel: "for centuries it was frowned upon for women to travel without escort, chaperon, or husband. To journey was to put oneself at risk, not only physically but morally as well" (8). Yet this collection seeks to make clear that many women have travelled and written seriously about their journeys, and provides a space in which these narratives may be heard. The women in this collection are the exceptions, and their writing is often exceptional, frequently portraying events in which perceived gender constraints are overcome by women determined that their sex should not prevent exploration. Sometimes their defiance is explicit, such as in Lady Mary Anne Barker's narrative in which she is the only woman on a bush-trekking expedition in New Zealand, in amongst a group of men who share, as she writes, the "unexpressed but prevailing dread" that "I should knock up and become a bore, necessitating an early return home; but I knew better!" (57); at other times, gender limitations are surpassed more discreetly, as in the case of Isabelle Eberhardt who, maintaining that "the human body is nothing, the human soul is all" (55), travelled through North Africa in disguise as a man.

Whilst gender issues resonate throughout the extracts, the anthology is striking in its variety. The extracts are taken from a number of different narrative forms, including letters, travel books, journals, diaries, extended prose narratives, articles, anecdotes, memoirs, and essays. The accounts encompass a wide range of destinations, including Turkey, Peru, the American Prairies, West Africa, Morocco, New Zealand, Madagascar, Persia, Russia amongst many others, each location offering a new adventure or encounter, whether it's rambling across the Dolomites, horse riding in Iceland, or harvesting rice in Miyama. The style of each writer is as varied as the content, but each displays a vivid attention to detail whether describing unfamiliar landscapes or the customs of foreign societies.

The collection draws together writers who are well-known for their travel writing, such as Flora Tristan and Isak Dinesen, those who we may be more familiar with as writers of fiction, like Edith Wharton, women who we may know for their non-fiction writing, like Mary Wollstonecraft, along with many others who are relatively unknown, especially to readers who know little about travel writing. The collection does have its limitations, the editors recognising in the introduction that the selection lacks racial diversity in its focus on women writers from England and America. However, the anthology provides an excellent and highly enjoyable introduction to women's travel writing for general readers and many indicative starting points for further research for those who want to find out more; I've already been prompted to investigate the work of Frances Trollope from reading some of her writing here. Although each extract is short, the anthology gains from being read over time as the pieces have been well selected and are packed with ideas that engage the reader and leave you needing time for reflection before moving onto the next piece- it's taken me a couple of months to get only half way through as I've been enjoying reading the book so much! The beautiful illustrations encourage this, making it the perfect book to leave lying on your coffee table to dip into on a lazy afternoon.


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