Monday, August 14, 2017

Prisoners of Zenda

Prisoners of Zenda
Kathleen Spaltro

Anthony Hope's minor Victorian classic, The Prisoner of Zenda, is great fun to read and hugely entertaining. This novel from 1894 exudes no Victorian fustiness but instead impresses me as extremely well-written and engaging. The most notable of its many dramatizations include films made in 1937 and 1952. Although I enjoy the 1952 color remake, mostly because I like Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr, and James Mason, the 1937 version in black and white is much better. The excellent performances of Ronald Colman, Madeleine Carroll, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., are those of actors, not merely of movie stars. Both films portray Hope's fairy tale for adults, set in a mythical Central European kingdom, with a royal romance, many references to honor, and extended, vigorous swordfights. 

Problems we will never have

Long ago, an Eastern European prince while visiting England had impregnated an English countess. After Prince Rudolf dueled with her husband, the fifth earl, and departed for home, the faces of the next earl, and of some of his descendants, bore the royal features. In Rassendyll portraits, "you will find five or six, including that of the sixth earl, distinguished by long, sharp, straight noses and a quantity of dark-red hair; these five or six have also blue eyes, whereas among the Rassendylls dark eyes are the commoner." 

Rudolf Rassendyll, the rootless younger brother of an English lord, decides to visit his ancestor's kingdom, Ruritania, where he encounters another of Prince Rudolf's descendants, the uncrowned King Rudolf V. Rassendyll and Rudolf V are near-doubles: "the King of Ruritania might have been Rudolf Rassendyll, and I, Rudolf, the King….The likeness was certainly astonishing."

When the king's brother tries to prevent the coronation by drugging Rudolf V into a stupor that will make him, a chronic drunkard, seem unfit to be crowned, Rassendyll impersonates his royal friend at the coronation. Besides finalizing the ceremonial accession to the throne, Rassendyll advances the king's courtship of his cousin Princess Flavia, who had always detested the king but feels surprised by his apparent reformation. Rassendyll, for his part, surprised by his growing passion for Flavia, finds it challenging to control his love for the princess. The king's brother secretly holds Rudolf V prisoner in the castle of Zenda. Rassendyll distracts himself from the temptations presented by Princess Flavia by seeking to rescue the king from eventual murder and then to restore the king both to his throne and to his intended royal bride.

This story's many attractions include its twinning/doubling theme, the romance between a princess and a commoner who is a better man than her royal suitor, Rassendyll's adventures as he attempts to find and then release the king, and the renunciation of their love by Rassendyll and Flavia after the king's restoration. With regard to his difficulties adjusting to his unaccustomed role among strangers and traitors, Rassendyll comments, "A real king's life is perhaps a hard one; but a pretended king's is, I warrant, much harder." The virtuous fraud of substituting himself for the king as a crowned head and as a suitor of a woman whom Rassendyll really does love makes Rassendyll a second prisoner of Zenda, just as much as the king himself.

He seeks to free the king, but he cannot free himself, especially after Flavia learns of the deception and realizes why she feels passion for a man whom she previously disliked: "Somehow love gives even to a dull man the knowledge of his lover's heart. I had come to humble myself and pray pardon for my presumption; but what I said now was: 'I love you with all my heart and soul!' For what troubled and shamed her? Not her love for me, but the fear that I had counterfeited the lover as I had acted the King, and taken her kisses with a smothered smile. 'With all my life and heart,' said I, as she clung to me. 'Always, from the first moment I saw you in the Cathedral! There has been but one woman in the world to me—and there will be no other. But God forgive me the wrong I've done you!' 'They made you do it!' she said quickly; and she added, raising her head and looking in my eyes: 'It might have made no difference if I'd known it. It was always you, never the King!' "

Honor binds me

Separated by the king's restoration and by his imminent marriage to Flavia, these star-crossed lovers both pledge and renounce their undying ardor. Although tempted almost beyond endurance by their mutual affinity, Flavia will enter into the marriage arranged for her when she and the king were children, but Rassendyll will marry no one at all.

" 'Is love the only thing?' she asked, in low, sweet tones that seemed to bring a calm even to my wrung heart. 'If love were the only thing, I would follow you—in rags, if need be—to the world's end; for you hold my heart in the hollow of your hand! But is love the only thing? But if love had been the only thing, you would have let the King die in his cell. Honour binds a woman too, Rudolf. My honour lies in being true to my country and my House. Your ring will always be on my finger, your heart in my heart, the touch of your lips on mine. But you must go and I must stay. Perhaps I must do what it kills me to think of doing'." And Rassendyll replies, "My part is lighter; for your ring shall be on my finger and your heart in mine, and no touch save of your lips will ever be on mine."

They simultaneously renounce and declare their undying passion in a platonic, genteel, and sinless adultery. This renunciation seems "romantic" but actually is anti-romantic; the romantic temptation to run away together is overcome by their unromantic dedication to duty and obligation. Honor binds both Rassendyll as an English gentleman and Flavia as a Ruritanian princess.

The English gentleman

While the romantic hero, overcome by ardor, would persuade his lover to elope and defy the world, as well as to abandon their obligations, the English gentleman, a pre-romantic ideal, rejects being controlled by his passions and chooses the guidance of reason and custom. He values himself and his lover, but he also values society's traditions and mores. If morally challenged, he musters the inner strength needed to meet those challenges as they should be met, with "the moral excellence that defines a gentleman and is called 'integrity'." Central to the ideal of a gentleman is his sense of responsibility. Erotic love that violates the gentleman's code is a madness because unbridled passion disregards reality. Responding according to his social code and the dictates of reason, the gentleman does not repress his passion but chooses to mold it in another way, to find a different satisfaction of his love.

Once every year, Rassendyll and Queen Flavia secretly send each other little boxes. In each, "lies a red rose, and round the stalk of the rose is a slip of paper with the words written: 'Rudolf—Flavia—always.' That message, and the wearing of the rings, are all that now bind me and the Queen of Ruritania. Far—nobler, as I hold her, for the act—she has followed where her duty to her country and her House led her, and is the wife of the King, uniting his subjects to him by the love they bear to her, giving peace and quiet days to thousands by her self-sacrifice. Shall I see her face again—the pale face and the glorious hair? Of that I know nothing; Fate has no hint, my heart no presentiment. I do not know. In this world, perhaps—nay, it is likely—never. And can it be that somewhere, in a manner whereof our flesh-bound minds have no apprehension, she and I will be together again, with nothing to come between us, nothing to forbid our love? That I know not, nor wiser heads than mine. But if it be never—if I can never hold sweet converse again with her, or look upon her face, or know from her her love; why, then, this side the grave, I will live as becomes the man whom she loves; and, for the other side, I must pray a dreamless sleep."

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope is available in many editions. The quotation about integrity and the general understanding of the English gentleman come from the well-known study TheGentleman in Trollope: Individuality and Moral Conduct by Shirley Robin Letwin.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Brontës in Childhood

The Brontës in Childhood

(c) Copyright (2017) by Kathleen Spaltro

All Rights Reserved

Numerous dramatizations of the Brontë sisters' fiction have preceded the recent excellent British miniseries about their lives, "To Walk Invisible." With all of the Brontës' gift for melodrama, they could hardly have invented a family history more lurid or terrible. When Maria Branwell Brontë, their mother, died shortly after the family's move to Haworth in rural northern England, she left 6 children 7 years old and younger in the care of a desolate widower who disliked small children in any case and who now avoided them because they awoke memories of his wife.

Tragedy in Triplicate

The eldest, Maria, assumed the role of mother to Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne. When their father, the Reverend Patrick Brontë, sent his 4 older girls to a residential school for clergymen's daughters, physical and emotional abuse by teachers and administrators—combined with ignorance of sanitation and with contaminated or inedible food—so undermined the health of Maria and Elizabeth that they left the school, only to die at home. Thus, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne—now 9, 8, 7, and 5 years old—lost their mother twice in less than 4 years.

Twenty-three years later, as the trauma of triple bereavement recurred for Charlotte and her father, she herself connected the earlier with the later deaths:  "It is over. Branwell—Emily—Anne are gone like dreams—gone as Maria and Elizabeth went 20 years ago."  Of "the autumn, the winter, the spring of sickness and suffering," of the 8 months disfigured by their successive deaths from the family's scourge, tuberculosis, she wrote, "I should have thought—this can never be endured."

Endure it she did, only to re-encounter a malignant fate. The love and marriage that she had thought impossible came, despite her father's vehement opposition, bringing much-belated joy. But marriage to the Reverend Arthur Nicholls also brought pregnancy to 38-year-old Charlotte—pregnancy fecund with death for both her and her baby. "Oh," she helplessly protested to her deeply grieved husband, "I am not going to die, am I?  He will not separate us, we have been so happy."

And yet, while such a history—lived out in a parsonage surrounded on 3 sides by graves—certainly inspires pity and terror, out of it somehow came irreplaceable classics of English literature. The 3 surviving sisters all managed to realize their gifts as much as fate allowed, but their brother, Branwell, as an adult created nothing lasting and indeed perished, both physically and emotionally, consequent to his drunken and drugged self-destruction. The siblings' disunited adulthood followed their extraordinary childhood, one of intense happiness fashioned by grief and of deep emotional sustenance fostered by neglect.

Pairing Off

The children's grief over their mother's and their sisters' deaths—combined with their father's emotional remoteness and physical absence as well as with similar qualities in their remaining caretaker, their maternal Aunt Branwell—caused them to turn to one another. Heightened by their lifelong habit (except for Branwell) of little converse with their Haworth neighbors, their reliance on one another created very profound and prolonged emotional bonds. This closed circle of sibling intimacy also resulted in their entertaining themselves by fantasizing about, and then writing poems and stories concerning, extremely elaborate imaginary countries. This habit, most satisfying to their precocious imaginations, developed their literary skill but also unfitted them in various ways for more ordinary social life and for the trials of earning money. 

After Maria and Elizabeth died at Haworth, until Charlotte left for another residential school, she, Branwell, Emily, and Anne spent the next 5-and-a-half years flourishing under the detached governance of Aunt Branwell and Papa. Inspired by their father's gift of a set of toy soldiers to Branwell, they began taking the parts of characters in group games that evolved into a saga about the Glass Town Confederacy. Charlotte and Branwell began to write the saga down when she was 13 and he was 12. Their imaginative partnership coincided with their growing emotional intimacy as coauthors and "twins." 

The Glass Town Confederacy acquired a capital, Glass Town, later renamed Verdopolis. Not content with a mere confederacy, Charlotte and Branwell imagined an empire, Angria. These 2 older children displayed enormous energy and wide-ranging curiosity. Charlotte created tiny volumes (4.5 by 3.25 inches) containing an average of 20,000 words or more, 1,200 words to a handprinted page. Emily and Anne, at 13 and 11, impatient with Branwell's militaristic and political obsessions, seceded and developed the antithetical, female-dominated Gondal. Their new imaginative partnership also coexisted with a profound emotional "twinship." More than a childish invention, Gondal was the secret life they shared at each hour of every day. 

Charlotte and Branwell continued to elaborate upon the Angrian situation until she was 29 and he was 28, and Gondal actually outlived its rival empire. Prolonged twinship and imaginative absorption created for all 4 siblings for many years deep creative and emotional satisfaction. 

"You Are the 3 Suns"

Haworth Parsonage being a charmed enclosure, what would happen later to them as they ventured outside it?  Highly stimulated emotionally and imaginatively by these completely secret imaginary worlds, each would have trouble adjusting to outsiders, though to varying degrees; all would find it difficult, if not impossible, to substitute everyday reality for the far-preferable fantasy lands. Their social awkwardness, their unhappiness earning their living, and their boredom with the mundane all resulted in part from their finding their fantasy kingdoms (and one another) far more absorbing than anything else life offered. They seemed to experience some difficulty, not only in relinquishing the fantastic, but also in clearly distinguishing it from commonly accepted reality. 

Charlotte later clearly mourned the difference between reality and fantasy, Branwell grew to prefer states of mind artificially created by alcohol and opium, and Emily always remained indifferent and impervious to outside pressures of any kind. Somewhat paradoxically, her immunity to the outside world demonstrates strength of mind and character. Anne also displayed these qualities but did so quite differently from Emily. Suffering least from the family confusion of reality with fantasy and compromising most easily with the external world, Anne surpassed all of her siblings in her ability to remain employed.

The siblings' prolonged emotional and imaginative bonding thus, in varying ways, complicated their adjustment to the world outside the parsonage but also promoted the development of their gifts. Maladjustment to reality, however, sundered the brother from his sisters and created a new triad.

A memory of Charlotte's friend Ellen Nussey of her July 1847 visit to Haworth beautifully symbolizes the nurturance of genius that the adult sisters now provided to one another. Ellen and the sisters witnessed on the moors 2 parhelia, optical illusions that paired the sun with 2 reflections of itself. "That is you," Ellen remarked, "You are the 3 suns."

First published in The Woodstock Independent

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Are the Movies Dying?

Are the Movies Dying?

(c) Copyright (2017) by Kathleen Spaltro

All Rights Reserved.
It used to be common to enjoy reciting or memorizing poetry. Working-class Italian-American men used to attend operas or listen to recordings as a favorite pastime. Will cinema, the twentieth-century art form embraced by the multitude, go the way of poetry and opera and become an esoteric interest for only a few?

Two Cheers for Hollywood: Joseph McBride on Movies, a thematically organized collection of 64 articles, worries that cinema as a popular art form is dying. Poetry, opera, and film all appealed to the popular audience at the same time as they scaled the heights of artistic achievement. There is no opposition between popular movies of quality and films of great cinematic achievement. They coexist along a continuum of artistic effort and achievement that allows for multiple kinds of appreciation and understanding.
The opposition that is killing cinema, according to McBride, is not between classic popular movies and films of the highest artistic quality. The opposition is between popular and great art, on the one hand, and movies damaged by the interference of political and social views and the control by financiers. The enemies of art are government, ideology, and commerce. Just as with the book publishing industry, the lust for immediate and certain high profit prevents the creation of high-quality films of artistic merit.

The Magnificent Ambersons, McBride's favorite film, exemplifies the damage done by corporate control of a cinematic project with both popular appeal and artistic merit. Orson Welles's most likeable movie, The Magnificent Ambersons depicts the effect of the coming of the automobile on a Midwest community's inhabitants. McBride asserts that Ambersons (1942) could have been the greatest film ever made. Instead, studio producers who prematurely feared a commercial failure butchered its ending. But even the mutiliated Ambersons retains immense appeal and charm. Welles expressed a passionate faith in the general audience's capacity to enjoy his work. "Nothing has ever been too good for the public," Welles noted to himself in the early 1940s, "Nothing has ever been good enough for the public." McBride agrees with Welles about how wrongly the industry has underestimated the public's intelligence and capacity to appreciate art.

Great art presents multiple layers of meaning. Not all of these layers need to be understood immediately for art to be enjoyable. Alfred Hitchcock, another director discussed by McBride, created a body of work from which viewers can derive multiple meanings and different kinds of gratification. Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Hitchcock's favorite of his own films, can be enjoyed as the suspenseful discovery of a murderer's guilt by his favorite niece; as an orchestration of Hitchcock's recurrent themes of sin, guilt, and redemption, of the porous boundaries between good and evil, of the difference between innocence and goodness; or as an example of Hitchcock's obsessive and masterful manipulation of images.

McBride's book records at length his own lover's quarrel with the medium of film by expressing his disappointment about how corporate control, the difficulty of finding adequate financing, and the emphasis on immediate high profit have wasted the vast potential of cinema. Pointedly, the title gives two, not three, cheers for Hollywood. Nevertheless, McBride, like a disappointed yet still smitten lover, still portrays the beauties of his lost beloved.

He does so by adding to our ability to understand the great films and high-quality popular movies of the American past, especially the two golden ages of the 1930s-1940s and then the 1960s-1970s. By writing book-length studies of Frank Capra, Stephen Spielberg, John Ford, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, and Ernst Lubitsch, as well as the articles reprinted in this collection about such figures as Capra, Ford, John Huston, and Billy Wilder, McBride helps us to appreciate many kinds of cinematic achievement.

He does so, not by overemphasizing the film director as the sole author/auteur of a body of work, but by depicting the medium as a collaborative art and respecting the contributions of screenwriters, cinematographers, editors, and producers. The first section concerns some important screenwriters, such as Robert Riskin, directly responsible for the content and tone of Capra's characteristic films. In a subsequent section, McBride discusses the integral importance of Hitchcock's wife and artistic partner, Alma Reville, to Hitchcock's achievement. Actors, of course, are also essential collaborators in the joint effort to create a film. McBride's interviews vividly portray Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, and Peter O'Toole. Every discussion mentions films that I want to see for the first time, now plan to see again, or regret never being able to see, like Hitchcock's never-made Mary Rose.

"My nature is subdued," Shakespeare reveals in a sonnet, "To what it works in, like the dyer's hand." McBride's mind, deeply dyed with the knowledge he has acquired of American films, culture, and history, offers us broader, deeper, and more varied perspectives on the films we thought we knew.

Two Cheers for Hollywood: Joseph McBride on Movies is available only from at

first published in The Woodstock Independent