Gogol Critical Theory Workshop – Contributions by our Members

Recently, we held a critical theory workshop at ARU exploring Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’ where we all took turns to analyse the short story from a wide variety of different critical standpoints. It was a fascinating and rich session, with some thought-provoking and nuanced interpretations emerging. Three of our members have written up their responses:

Hannah Cox – Postcolonialism 

The workshop was a fantastic experience! Using the short story ‘The Overcoat’ to discuss a variety of theoretical analyses demonstrated how using different lenses can bring about wildly significant interpretations of a text. I chose to analyse Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’ in line with a Postcolonial reading. The Russian colonies inhabited between 1732 and 1867 were Alaska, Hawaii, Northern California and the Aleutian Islands. They were constructed primarily for the maritime fur trade which provided furs for Russia as a result of their continued depletion of animals used to provide fur. We can see evidence of the rising fur costs in ‘The Overcoat’ as ‘marten on the collar and a silk-lined hood’ (p.225) would increase the price of the overcoat by 50 rubles. Other furs included in The Overcoat, such as ‘cat, beaver, fox, bear-skin’ (p.246) demonstrate the variety as well as associations of wealth and hierarchy linked to furs in Russian culture, which Chris Lyon discussed in relation to Thing Theory. Nikolai Gogol was Ukrainian-Russian, and his assimilation and mimicry of Russian culture is demonstrated effectively throughout The Overcoat, as the narrator conveys himself as a Russian well acquainted with the culture and social subtext. Ukraine was absorbed into the Russian Empire in the late 1700s and Ukrainians faced measures imposing russification, such as their language becoming illegal in school settings and publications. Ukrainians were called Little Russians, a derogatory term opposed by Ukrainian nationalists. Akaky Akakievich in his ghost form, is known as the ‘little clerk’ (p.246), and having been condescended towards his entire life, he finally seeks justice for the wrong committed against him. Interestingly, there was a passage that many in the workshop highlighted and were able to interpret through different lenses:

“he would hear the words, “Let me be. Why do you do this to me?” and within those words rang the phrase, “I am your brother.” (p.217)

Having researched the Ukrainian/Russian conflicts of the nineteenth century, I was able to interpret this as equality among different races and countries. Notably, Edwin drew upon Marxist ideas and the comradeship and equality between classes and social hierarchies, drawing on the building of communist ideals in Russia. I would like to thank Edwin for a very interesting workshop, and a very good choice of text.

Edwin Marr – Marxism 

As Terry Eagleton explains in his book Marxism and Literary Criticism, ‘Marxist criticism is not merely a “sociology of literature”, concerned with how novels get published and whether they mention the working class. Its aim is to explain the literary work more fully; and this means a sensitive attention to its forms, styles and meanings. But it also means grasping these forms, styles and meanings as the products of a particular history.’ In other words, Marxist approaches explore literature as a product of a particular society, and therefore see literature as embodying the values, structures and ideology of that specific society. Russia in the 1840s was still a serf economy, and even by 1858 there were still 22.5 million private serfs. In addition, Russia was fighting wars throughout the century, leaving them politically strong in the eyes of the world, but financially weak. Education was increasingly important, but censorship ran rife, with direct political criticism illegal and petty police interference the norm, something Gogol fell victim to on multiple occasions. This was the environment that ‘The Overcoat’ was written against, and as a result, a Marxist reading is concerned with seeing how these values are reproduced within the text.

‘The Overcoat’ features the clerk ‘Akaky Akakievich’ as its central character, a name equivalent to ‘John Johnson’ in English, suggesting that he is a sort of everyman figure, representative of the Russian working classes and their situation. In fact, Akaky’s status as a lowly clerk is established from his very birth, as Gogol writes ‘when they christened the child it cried and twisted its features into a sour expression as though it had a foreboding that it would become a ninth-class clerk’. Akaky’s status is written on his face even from his infancy, and it suggests his status as a cog in the capitalist machine is his fate even from his birth, presenting class as inescapable and pre-destined. When he starts working in the office, his fellow clerks treat him harshly, forcing him to do work beyond his remit, to which he responds, ‘“Why do you do this to me?” and within those words rang the phrase, “I am your brother.” His plea of ‘I am your brother’ is reminiscent of the rallying calls of Marxism, and Communism, a declaration of equality and comradeship.

As the narrative continues, Akaky’s coat wears out, requiring the purchasing of a replacement. Whilst the coat could be seen as a necessity against the St Petersburg winter, the fact he seeks a luxury, handmade overcoat reveals it to be a luxury too, tying into Marx’s theories of commodity fetishism. As he writes in Das Kapital:

The products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

As Marx highlights, when the object is constructed by human hands it takes on a unique aura and a heightened sense of value. Akaky seems to be aware of this, with the coat becoming an object of fetishism, emphasised by the care and construction with which it is designed and made, ‘For the lining they chose calico, but so good and thick that, Petrovich said, it even looked better and glossier than silk. They did not buy marten because it was too expensive. Instead they got cat, the best available – cat which at a distance could always be taken for marten. Petrovich spent two full weeks on the overcoat because of all the quilting he had to do’. The fact that Petrovich is even described as finishing the coat with his teeth, adding corporeality to the material object, and thus increasing its monetary and social value. Indeed, the effect of the new overcoat on Akaky’s social network is profound and instantaneous, ‘Immediately everybody rushed out into the hall to have another look at his new overcoat’. Akaky, so long overlooked and neglected suddenly gets invited to parties and events due to his new coat elevating his social position.

Increasingly Akaky’s identity becomes intertwined with his coat, such is the power of the object. As a result, when Akaky is robbed and his overcoat is stolen from him, he begins to unravel. ‘Akaky Akakievich felt them pull off his coat, then he received a knee in the groin. He went down on his back, and after that he lay in the snow and felt nothing more…He felt cold, and when he realised that the overcoat was gone, desperate.’ Initially after the assault Akaky is unfeeling and senseless, it is only once he realises that his overcoat has been stolen that he revives and feels ‘desperate’. His office colleagues feel so sorry for Akaky, that ‘They decided on the spot to take up a collection for him, but they collected next to nothing because the department employees had already had to donate money for a portrait of the Director and to subscribe to some book or other’. Although they have good intentions and seek to fund a new coat for Akaky, a new portrait for the director takes precedence, demonstrating the rigid class structure of Russian life, and implying that an object designed for commemoration and celebration of senior management takes priority over an object of necessity for a lowly clerk.

After the theft of his coat, Akaky falls increasingly ill, until unable to survive without it, he dies. Yet even in death, Akaky feels incomplete without his overcoat, and he returns to find it. ‘The ghost, which looked like a little clerk, was purportedly searching for a stolen overcoat and used this pretext to pull the coats off the shoulders of everyone he met without regard for rank or title’. It is significant that in death Akaky is able to transcend the rigid class structures, and in ghost-form, he pulls the coats off the shoulders of all those he meets, regardless of ‘rank or title’ as he frantically seeks his missing overcoat. Although he does not find his own coat, he does steal the coat from the police inspector who refused to help him in life, and ‘after that night, Akaky Akakievich’s ghost was never seen again. The important personage’s overcoat must have fitted him snugly. At any rate, one no longer heard of coats being torn from people’s shoulders’. In death, a sense of order can be restored, with Akaky’s ghost finally disappearing after he takes vengeance on society for robbing him of his valued posession. In this way, ‘The Overcoat’ is clearly a product of 1840s Russian society, it replicates the rigid class structures, the nonchalance of the police force and the increasing emphasis on commodification and object fetishism.

Kathy Rees – Darwinian

This approach foregrounds evolutionary principles of the survival of the fittest, reproduction, and adaptation.  The life of Gogol’s protagonist, Akaky Akakievich, seems initially to be characterised by type rather than variation: he duplicates both the name and occupation of his father, and the world he inhabits as a ninth-class clerk is dominated by the act of copying documents, never originating anything new. Unlike other Petersburg clerks who exhibit a range of behaviours, engaging in entertainment, exercise, and social interaction, Akaky focuses only on the copying of documents. When his superior tries to vary the nature of even that limited task, Akaky cannot adapt, and so “they left him copying forever” (218).

Akaky’s mode of behaviour inhibits any drive towards reproduction: while ordinary clerks “inspect ladies’ hats” or pay “compliments to some prettyish damsel” (219), Akaky is caricatured by his fellows as the sexual partner of his sterile “seventy-year-old landlady” (216). Both physiologically and environmentally, Akaky is disadvantaged. Because he is “small”, “pockmarked”, “somewhat blind” and has “thinning reddish hair”, “wrinkled cheeks” and a “haemorrhoidal complexion” he is not attractive to potential mates. Furthermore, his weakness and poverty make him “defenseless”(221) against the harsh Petersburg cold.

Akaky’s overcoat is so old and worn that “nothing can be done with it” (225). In order to protect himself from the environment, and therefore survive, Akaky adapts his behaviour to achieve the goal of purchasing a new coat: he deprives himself of tea, candles, and new soles for his shoes to save money. Despite these bodily restrictions, Akaky is psychologically energised by this “ultimate goal” (229). Having achieved it, Akaky manifests a very slight shift towards the reproductive instinct, by “staring curiously at a picture of a pretty woman kicking off her shoe and thereby showing her whole leg” (233-34). However, before this instinct can be developed in any way, Akaky is subjected to a primitive act of physical violence, depicted by Gogol in terms of a disembodied “fist about the size of a clerk’s head” and “a knee in the groin” and Akaky’s overcoat is stolen (236).

Darwin argues that the ability to negotiate with other humans is an evolved and adaptive capacity. Akaky lacks the social resources to organise the retrieval of the coat through legal channels, and the physical resources to withstand the climate: he is therefore doomed. Despite his one immense effort towards adaptation, Akaky is too physically and psychologically weak to compete for limited resources: he dies and is buried.  Gogol’s intimation of Akaky’s expendability anticipates Darwin’s argument that more offspring are born than can survive: the superfluous Akaky is quickly replaced by a new clerk. After his burial, “Petersburg went on without him exactly as if he had never existed” (245), evoking the Darwinian concept that the extinction of the individual occurs within the framework of the constant regeneration of life.

 

Reflections on the IES George Eliot Study Week 2018

In May 2018, two of our PhD students and unit members, Edwin Marr and Marie Moxon, attended the IES study week on George Eliot. Edwin Marr has reflected on the experience below:

In May 2018 I was funded by Anglia Ruskin University to attend the five-day study week on George Eliot in London organised by the Institute of English Studies. As the initial chapter of my PhD focuses on George Eliot’s literary representations of the railway, this week proved extremely valuable to my research.

Following introductions by Isobel Armstrong, who directed the week, Rosemary Ashton began by exploring the events of Eliot’s life, her publishing history as well as the psychological realism that has come to define her fiction. The next day, Laurel Brake took us to the British Library to see Eliot’s earliest known publication as well as first editions of Middlemarch. For me this was a particular highlight of the course, giving me a rich insight into the importance of periodical studies, and the significance of researching the texts within their wider publishing context, something I am currently working on extensively throughout my PhD.

On the Wednesday, Isobel Armstrong delivered her lecture on Hegelian Dialectics within Eliot’s literature, explaining how this grew out of Eliot’s intimate knowledge of European philosophy. The Thursday brought Ruth Abbott with her discussion on the importance of notebooks as textual documents, and the extensive research Eliot carried out in Florence for Romola. The week then closed with Hilary Fraser’s lecture on Victorian re-imaginings of the Renaissance, and the importance of the visual arts within Romola.

I am extremely grateful to ARU for funding my attendance of this study week, as in addition to offering a fantastic opportunity to interact with leading nineteenth-century scholars, it has given me fresh perspectives for my own research, and contributed significantly to the scope of my thesis.

The Institute of English Studies are running another study week this year, focusing on the Brontës. Full details are available here.

Great Expectations at the Cambridge Arts Theatre

I very much enjoyed giving the pre-show talk on Great Expectations at the Cambridge Arts Theatre last Tuesday. I have since been asked for details about the material I discussed, so I thought I would share some links and further references here.

I began the talk by discussing the initial publication context of Great Expectations. It was published in weekly parts between October 1861 and January 1862 in Dickens’s Journal All the Year Round. You can browse through the journal on Dickens Journals Online. This site also includes a film about the London of Great Expectations and details of the online community who are reading the novel week-by-week, as the novel’s first readers did. In my module on Victorian Literature and Culture at Anglia Ruskin University, I ask students to read a novel in weekly parts over the course of a semester in order that they might get a taste of the experience of the early readers who were engaged with a novel over months and sometimes even years. It is always really interesting and exciting to reflect on how reading a novel in this way affects our experience of the plot and the characterisation.

After outlining the initial context of publication, I moved on in the talk to discuss issues relating to adaptations of Dickens’s novels and to highlight the theatrical elements in Great Expectations. If you would like to read more about Dickens’s own experiences with the theatre then I would recommend this piece by Simon Callow on the British Library website. These are the details of some of the three cinematic adaptations of Great Expectations which  I discussed:

David Lean (dir), 1946

Alfonso Cuaron (dir) 1998

Mike Newell (dir), 2012

In the Q&A time, I brought up the mini-series Dickensian. I would strongly recommend it and am very pleased to see the whole series is now available on Netflix. An earlier post by unit member Valerie Purton offers some reflections on the production.

Finally, my thoughts on Dickens and adaptation have been shaped by the following books:

  • Linda H. Hutcheon. A Theory of Adaptation (Routledge, 2012)
  • Karen E. Laird. The Art of Adapting Victorian Literature, 1848-1920 (Ashgate, 2016)
  • James, Naremore (ed). Film Adaptation (Althone, 2000)

Elizabeth Ludlow

Reflections from unit member Abderrezzaq Ghafsi on the 56th anniversary of Algiers’s University Library fire and on the burning of Dickens’s novels

As good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, God’s Image; but he who destroys a good Book, kills reason itself, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.

― John Milton, Areopagitica

This blog post recounts the bombing of the Algerian library and the burning of Dickens’s Pickwick Papers and Bleak House in Algiers’s University Library 56 years ago. In 2015 the Algerian Newspaper El-Massa published a column entitled ‘The Burning of Algiers’s University Library: A Forgotten French Tragedy’ which described how, on 7th June 1962 at around 12:40 pm, three phosphorous bombs exploded, leading to a disastrous fire in the Library which destroyed about 600,000 rare transcripts and books. Many observers considered this event as a terrorist attack intended to destroy Algerians’ cultural memory. Some Algerian politicians attributed the fire to the French policy known in Algeria as ‘The Scorched Earth’. Others argued that the fire had been planned by a terrorist group known in Algerian history as OAS (French Secret Army Organisation). For more details, please click here.

The fire at Algiers’s University Library increases the challenge of tracking the reception history of Charles Dickens’s works in Algeria. In September 2016, I conducted fieldwork to look at the holdings of Dickens’s novels at Algiers University Library during colonial Algeria. The early novels the library held were in two languages: French and English. As a researcher in the publication history of Dickens in Algeria, I encountered many difficulties in locating the archives and pinning down the dates of the acquisition of the novels by the library. There are two main reasons for this. First, the systematic organization of archives in Algeria did not begin until the early twentieth century. Second, the huge fire in Algiers University Library shortly before Independence in 1962 meant that copies of The Pickwick Papers and Bleak House were included in the many volumes that were destroyed or partially burnt.

 The Burning of The Pickwick Papers and Bleak House at Algiers University Library in 1962

Elizabeth Gaskell and the Brontës: Discussing the adaptations

Last semester, I enjoyed teaching a new 12-week module on Elizabeth Gaskell and the Brontës. The module covered the Brontë juvenilia and a number of novels in addition to literary, stage, and cinematic adaptations. After having discussed adaptation theory and having completed a formative analysis of the 2016 BBC film, To Walk Invisible, students were asked to post to Canvas two summative 500-word discussion-board pieces on selected adaptations for 20% of their final grade. Please read on to see a selection of the excellent work that was produced through the semester.

To see the adaptations discussed through the module, take a look at the Box of Broadcasts list here.

Review of Jane Eyre (2011 film. Dir: Cary Fukunaga) by Catherine Hall

The simple and authentic-looking costumes in Jane Eyre, the 2011 adaptation by Cary Fukunaga, were designed by Michael O’Connor. Fukunaga used these costumes and in particular, scenes of undressing, to both mark key elements of plot and to show the development of Jane’s character.

The first instance of this is shown at Lowood School where Jane is undressed out of her smart gown. In chapter 5 of the novel, Jane comments: “To-night I was to be Miss Miller’s bed-fellow; she helped me to undress.” Miss Miller’s kind and almost sympathetic nature to the new young girl mirrors that of a nurse or mother, and so the undressing appears a simple routine. However, in the 2011 adaptation, it is Miss Scatcherd who briskly undresses Jane, looking almost in distaste at her gown and commanding her to “step out of your fine dress”. Jane is compliant, and the zoomed-in camera shot of her stepping out illustrates her stepping into her new life at Lowood. Jane is also left alone in her white undergarments and, again, the camera allows us an insight into her isolation and the humiliating nature of the undressing by panning out to a view of the rest of the dormitory with the other girls looking towards her. I agree with Emma’s comment above that “Fukunaga has used the camera… to manipulate the audience” as here we feel pity due to the zoom out and isolation of Jane.

The second poignant scene of undressing takes place when Jane arrives at Thornfield. In chapter 11, Jane describes how Mrs Fairfax “conducted me to her own chair, and then began to remove my shawl and untie my bonnet strings: I begged she would not give herself so much trouble”. This marks a change from a child being undressed at Lowood, to a young adult by her embarrassment of being aided. In the adaptation, the scene also shows Jane’s change in status, due to the servants and Mrs Fairfax waiting on Jane. Thus, Fukunaga shows the development of Jane’s character from childhood by another scene of undressing, and also introduces the kind, almost familial figure of Mrs Fairfax.

Tim Robey, in his review for The Telegraph, comments: “Fukunaga’s delicate artistry leaves it hard to ask for much more”. I agree with Robey, as there are some moments of beautiful stillness that allow reflection on the development of Jane’s character. For instance, when Jane hurriedly takes off her wedding dress, the action pauses as Jane looks at herself in the mirror in her under-dress. I was instantly reminded of the young Jane standing alone after being undressed from her fine gown at Lowood. She mirrors the same expression of sadness and to some extent, humiliation as she looks at herself and the wedding dress on the floor. Therefore, this final scene of undressing, acts as a pause from the fast-paced action, and a reflection of Jane’s innocence and isolation as first shown at Lowood.

Review of Wuthering Heights (2011 film. Dir Andrea Arnold) by Hannah Cox

Arnold’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights saw animals being used for symbolic imagery in relation to the characters. With the removal of Nelly Dean as the diegetic narrator, the film takes on Heathcliff’s perspective. Our first encounter with Heathcliff shows him growling at the dogs and unable to communicate in English. As he is forced to serve under Hindley in order to remain with Cathy, he is degraded to be like the animals, being forced to sleep on the floor “like the animal [he is]” (Hindley). Peter Bradshaw states in his review that ” the gap between human and beast is narrowed” in this film. Seeing Heathcliff’s sadness and frustration at being treated like an animal, helps us to understand why he returns in such an inhuman state, when the only human compassion he has is taken away from him.

Animals in the film rarely escape death. Early on, we get a tracking shot showing two white geese ascending a lane together. This mirrors the no-stabilizer tracking shots of Heathcliff and Catherine on the moors. Later, Nelly holds one of the geese upside down, dead and being plucked, mirroring Heathcliff as he takes his first wash as a servant and being separated from Catherine – his reason for living. The remaining white goose could represent Catherine as she climbs the social ladder and marries into the Linton family, as the Linton’s associate themselves with only white horses and dogs and Catherine is repeatedly mirrored by bird symbolism. Moths also represent death, as two bright yellow moths sit on the windowsill of the Heights, but later reappear during Mr Earnshaw’s death as white. The same happens again when Hindley is ill, as a white moth appears signifying his approaching death.

At the Linton’s, a yellow canary bird is singing in its cage. Nearing Catherine’s death, the bird is seen again with its shadow prominent against the wall, the sunset casting it’s light and signifying the end of Cathy and her being trapped in a marriage she did not wholly want. A feather is used as Catherine’s bookmark and, through it, we see her story being stopped and her life ended. Cathy’s death is followed by a view of Heathcliff on the moors.  An analeptic moment reveals Catherine showing him her favourite feather, and then a panoramic shot reveals a bird dropping a feather and flying away: a symbol that he was truly loved, and that Catherine is free.

The animals emphasise the presence of death. Heathcliff kills animals on screen with very little emotion. With such an emphasis on Heathcliff, the film effectively shows how death had little significance for him, and how Catherine is the only being of any importance to him. Having been treated like an animal, he desires revenge for being degraded and deemed unsuitable for marriage by Catherine. Animals have no general significance for him, except for the birds, which symbolise Catherine and remain to the end the animal she herself shows most appreciation for. This vicarious appreciation again demonstrates Heathcliff’s love for Catherine, the only person of any significance from his perspective.

Review of Wuthering Heights (2011 film. Dir Andrea Arnold) by Raj Mann

Following on from the important point that Hannah made in her discussion that this adaptation eschews the diegetic narration that is in the novel, I shall be exploring the ways in which Andrea Arnold represents the character of Heathcliff during one scene. In comparison to Emily Brontë who represents Heathcliff in both mimetic and diegetic ways, Arnold shows us rather than tells us. This difference in representation of the same character could be linked to the Linda Hutcheon quote that Jessica acknowledged in her discussion: “adaptation is a form of repetition without replication” (2013, pxiii). I shall be focusing on the scene commencing around 1:29:27.

Whilst in the novel we are told that: “It’s surely no great cause of alarm that Heathcliff should take a moonlight saunter on the moors, or even lie, too sulky to speak to us, in the hay-loft” (2009, p74), also that he is “rather morose” (2009, p3) and a “miserable, degraded character” (2009, p101), we are never actually shown Heathcliff in one of his supposed ill-humours alone on the moors. In this adaptation, however, Arnold elaborates on the novel by showing us this. The establishing shot of the scene, a long-shot of the moors looking eerily dark and gloomy, instantly works towards creating a sombre tone. This is partly due to the exact same establishing shot being used earlier (46:00) after Heathcliff is told by Hindley that he cannot talk to Cathy again without his permission or else he shall be dismissed. The only differences are that the sky is now even darker and that there are no birds flying. As the darkness from the sky and empty moors fill the frame, the fact that the frame is a long-shot makes the darkness and sense of emptiness seem all the more pervasive and large. Moreover, the use of sound in this shot has a subtly effective quality. As Béla Balázs outlines: “Silence, too, is an acoustic effect, but only where sounds can be heard. The presentation of silence is one of the most specific dramatic effects of the sound film. No other art can reproduce silence.” (1972, p205). The faint sound of the wind blowing whilst we are presented with the long-shot of the daunting moors draws our attention to the prior silence in the same shot. Significantly, the wind here creates only a tiny, faint sound and is therefore not prominent enough to disrupt the wider sense of silence. This empty sense of sound, accumulated with the vast, desolate and gloomy image of the moors, might connote a sense of emptiness to the viewer.

The sombre tone that the initial shot begins to create comes into full fruition following the next shot. In the next shot, we see Heathcliff lying down on a moor in the dark fog from a high angle long-shot. The high angle shot reflects Heathcliff in a rather vulnerable and pathetic way, especially as he is lying down with his body spread out. The long-shot, conversely, further aligns Heathcliff with the pervasive, frame-filling darkness and emptiness that was rife throughout the initial shot. It also reflects him in contrast to the wider picture, making him seem more alone. This then affects what James Monaco would call the “syntagmatic connotation” (2009, p181) of the initial static moor shot. Looked at in relation to the following shot of Heathcliff lying down alone in the fog, the moor shot seems to have not only contributed towards creating a sombre tone, but also to have vicariously represented the darkness and emptiness that Heathcliff is evidently feeling.

Bibliography:

Balázs, B (1972) Theory of the film. New York: Arno Press.

Brontë, E (2009) Wuthering Heights. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hutcheon, L. and O’Flynn, S., 2013. A theory of adaptation. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

Monaco, J (2009) How to read a film. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

Review of North and South (2004 4-part TV mini-series; Dir Brian Percival) by Kaileb Bryant

I will be investigating the episode where the Hales embark on their journey to Milton and analysing how Milton starkly contrasts with the countryside. I argue through using visual and aural representation, Brian Percival amplifies the social divide Gaskell implemented in North and South between country people and townsfolk

Amber Topping asserts “North and South, in fact, is visually quite stunning […] the production design [is] artistic”. Percival’s “artistic” judgement to include this additional train carriage scene shows a beautiful, green, countryside view from the windows, ready to juxtapose with the city scenes. The carriage is well lit, full of rich colours, the vibrancy connoting joy; with the gentle sounds of the train moving over the tracks implying the country’s tender characteristics. Hopefulness transpires from Margaret with “we’ll stay at a hotel until we find a house, it won’t take long” (0.09-0.13) which her father then reiterates (0:23 – 0:25). Her tonality is sincere, genuinely believing this. The ironic last words spoken in this scene are from Margaret who says, “We will manage, mother. It’s not another planet!” (0.43-0.46). The green trees behind her as she speaks firmly place them as countryside people, accentuating the divide between country and city, different “planet[s]”. In the next instant, a jarring scene of the train pulling into Milton takes place. A loud, harsh, screeching of the train braking (0.47) immediately alerts the viewer of a location transformation. The gentle sounds of discussion are replaced by shouting, and Margaret’s mother crying (0.59). Margaret’s speech is altered with the words, “we have arrived.”(1:15-1:16), becoming severe and blunt, contrasting with her earlier hopeful voice. Milton’s bleakness develops when Margaret’s mother cries “it’s going to be awful, I know it is” (0:59 – 1:07), judging the appearance of Milton of a future miserable life. Sarah Seltzer argues “it’s filmed in a mostly muted register of colors to signify the dark, industrial vibe of ‘Milton'”, seen with the dismal carriage lighting on arrival, the dark, unclear station, and how the crowd consists of shadowy, ambiguous figures. But the “industrial vibe” is emphasised through utilising the station sounds; the noise of bustling crowds, trains, and whistles contrast with peaceful countryside experiences. Mary was wrong; this is “another planet”, far removed from country life.

Once Margaret leaves the station, her first view of Milton is revealed (1:43). The streets consist of dull and dreary grey colours, as Seltzer remarks, a discernible difference from the countryside’s vibrancy. The camera is positioned at head-height, the viewer seemingly part of the Milton crowd, watching Margaret. People walk past the camera, projecting an impersonally distanced Milton; there is no consistent view of Margaret, echoing Topping’s argument of “haunting cinematography”. The camera pans out as Margaret stops in place (2:04-2:17), mimicking her observing the new sights and sounds of the streets. The colour grey is overwhelming in this shot, suggesting a dirty, industrial atmosphere, different to the freshness of the countryside, which her bewildered expression (1:59-2:00) suggests further.

As the divide between the city and the countryside is such a prominent theme in the novel, adding to the romance plot, it would be interesting to explore how this divide is portrayed throughout the series.

 

Review of Cranford (2007 5-part TV mini-series; Dir Simon Curtis and Steve Hudson; teleplay by Heidi Thomas); Series 2: Return to Cranford (2009) by Jessica Ludlow

Whilst watching Steve Hudson and Simon Curtis’ adaptation of Cranford, I found the way in which the town itself was presented particularly interesting. I believe that Hudson and Curtis show Cranford to be the most important ‘character’ within the adaptation and this is what I would like to explore.

Firstly, the opening of Simon Curtis’ adaptation and the frontispiece to the 1864 edition both depict the town of Cranford; this immediately presents to the reader/viewer that the neighbourhood is the core to this novel and production. Curtis has made the decision to instantly demonstrate the power and importance of Cranford, the character.

Secondly, I would argue that Cranford has a physically changing personality which in turn affects the surrounding characters. The director chooses to dress the ‘character’ appropriately, for example, the physicality of the town is melancholic when Lady Ludlow dies. Her son, on arrival of his mother’s death, notes that ‘I’ve never in my whole life known this house to sleep’. The director chooses to envisage the town as desolate on a dark and gloomy day where even the buildings are dressed with black ribbons and silks. This personification of the neighbourhood depicts the town as almost having a soul in mourning, which is aided by the set dressing. A noticeable place of constant change is Mr Johnson’s shop. For example, when Lady Ludlow dies, Cranford’s shop is dressed in black and when the exotic ‘grand magician of Arabia’ is visiting, Mr Johnson’s shop is decorated in various colours accompanied by different types of tea. Therefore, the shop is the part of the character which most frequently changes its costume. As with the other characters’ costumes, the attire informs the viewer how to feel. The shop’s facade entices an excitable group of ladies to huddle around, what I am calling, the heart of Cranford town. Indeed, during Season One, the Johnson Store holds mundane household objects, such as candles and gardening rakes. However, by Season Two the shop holds a vast array of objects such as china tea sets and expensive clothing. The ‘character’ has a personality that is continuously changing and growing. It is the beating heart of all social activity, which includes a band to arouse the spirits and excitement of the inhabitants before the presentation meeting regarding the Railway: this is why Cranford’s heart is the Johnson Shop.

The train, and the characters’ reactions, is evidence of the turbulent industrial world of mid-nineteenth-century England. It is only through Mr Buxton agreeing to sell the entirety of the Ludlow Estate and part of the Buxton’s, that the skin of Cranford is physically breached by the railway. The map that Captain Brown displays of the railway plan appropriately highlights the train’s route in a bold red, which slices through the heart of the delicate green Cranford, ‘directly in to Cranford itself’ (1:34:08). This presentation rather aptly reveals the residents’ fear of alteration. Curtis’ adaptation shows the physical intrusion as a surgery proposal, arguably even a murder proposition. Captain Brown also explains that building the railway will amount to the destruction of certain cottages and town buildings, these homes within Cranford would be demolished and therefore removing some of the character’s personality. A rather far-fetched simile, but still arguably appropriate, is likening this intention to a lobotomy. Although the train does indeed conquer in the end, it must be supposed by viewers that it did not badly affect the significance of Cranford’s character, and the train line only made the heart of Cranford expand.

Thank you to all the students who agreed to their work being included here!

Lizzie Ludlow