Sherlock Review: The Abominable Bride

“I’m your housekeeper, not a plot device!”

Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss

Sorry, Mrs Hudson: as it turns out, you are a plot device. You and ALL WOMEN EVER.

I just spent the last couple of hours trying to write a serious review of The Abominable Bride. It was quite good, actually. I was going to argue that the episode’s ridiculous metafictional reversals were part of an attempt on the writers’ part to discredit Conan Doyle’s body of work as no longer relevant and, of course, suggest their own as alternative.

But my heart wasn’t really in it. The Abominable Bride may be the worst thing I have ever seen on television, and if there is any coherent sense to be made out of it I don’t have the time or energy to tease it painstakingly out. I don’t think it deserves that kind of attention, much less rewards it.

The episode begins as a horribly campy Victorian tale featuring Our Heroes as they attempt to solve the case of a woman who apparently kills herself and then returns to murder her husband. This is a terrible idea. Cumberbatch and Freeman make a fantastic modern-day Holmes and Watson, but only indifferent Victorian ones, and you’re much better off watching Jeremy Brett in those interminable ITV episodes of Sherlock Holmes if Victoriana is what you’re after. The case itself is just awful, tedious watching: a Dr Hooper so transparently female that Sherlock must be blind not to see it, a not-very-scary ghost who we know from the word go is absolutely not going to be a ghost, which makes the transports of fear that Our Heroes indulge in over-the-top and ridiculous, a Mycroft who makes himself mordibly obese for a bet (because that’s funny, right?), a pointless conversation between Sherlock and Watson about whether Sherlock has ever you-knowed which fails to establish anything we didn’t know already.

That’s before we reach the frankly offensive denouement, when it transpires that the bride is actually a group of suffragists punishing abusive husbands by going out and murdering them. Moffat and Gatiss are clearly trying to prove their feminist credentials in the face of profound disagreement from many, many people, and it fails spectacularly when Sherlock proudly tells all the women that yes! the mighty Holmes agrees with their cause! go forth and multiply!

Thanks, Moffat/Gatiss/Holmes, but I don’t actually need you to validate my feminist rage, and nor does anyone else. That’s sort of the point.

Also, pro tip: it doesn’t really help your cause when you dress your feminists like members of the Klu Klux Klan.

But this is just not bad enough for Moffat and Gatiss; they have to go a step further:

“And he woke up and it was all a dream.”

Sherlock, it turns out, is working out a hundred-year-old case in his mind palace (which is swiftly becoming the most irritating way of representing abstract thought processes ever devised, and by the way real mind palaces do not work like that) in order to help him work out how Moriarty has come back from the dead to threaten England. The episode dips in and out of dream and reality for about half an hour, the net result of which is Sherlock realising that Moriarty is dead but has a lot of friends, which we already knew anyway. There’s also a dream-confrontation at the Reichenbach Falls which is probably supposed to reveal the deepest depths of Sherlock’s demons but actually just tells us that he really, really hates Moriarty, which, let’s see, oh, yes, we knew already.

There was more, but to be honest by this point I had given up the will to live.

My issue with all of this isn’t the dream-device per se, which can in the right hands be used to great effect; it’s that none of it feels very significant. It’s just showing off. It isn’t clever, or experimental, or bold; it’s a pair of showrunners who have created a very successful series not being accountable to anyone, and just writing whatever the hell they like because why not?

I sincerely hope the upcoming series won’t be more of this, because it’s just boring. Boring, and bad.

Review: Fly By Night

“Sacred just means something you’re not meant to think about properly, an’ you should never stop thinking!”

Frances Hardinge

Fly by nightThis review contains spoilers.

Fly By Night, Frances Hardinge’s first novel, is the story of a twelve-year-old girl, Mosca Mye, who seizes the chance to flee her damp, dull little town and her neglectful, exploitative uncle and aunt when one Eponymous Clent, professional poet and liar, strolls into town. When he inevitably gets himself into trouble, she rescues him with the help of her vicious pet goose Saracen, and, entranced by the exotic words he brings into a life mainly characterised by workaday terms, follows him to the vibrant and bustling city of Mandelion, a city rife with the politics of the Guilds, where the wrong words are profoundly dangerous, where the Guild of Stationers burns any book not sanctioned by them; a city that has succumbed to censorship through fear of a distant and unmentionable evil. Mosca, Eponymous and Saracen soon find themselves entangled in the dangerous politics of this city, and what follows is a wondrous, steampunky romp through coffee-houses and marriage-houses and public houses and great houses.

It’s worth, I think, examining the significance of the name Mosca for just a minute. “Mosca” means “fly”, of course; Our Heroine is so named because she was born on a day sacred to Palpitattle, He Who Keeps Flies out of Jams and Butter Churns. (I’ll come back to this, because I think it’s important to Hardinge’s feminist agenda in Fly By Night.) But Mosca has literary roots, too: he’s the trickster-servant of Ben Jonson’s rich old prankster Volpone in his 16th-century play of the same name. Jonson’s Mosca weaves words into traps, creating a glorious tapestry of falsehoods, playing on the greed of those around him to win riches for himself and his master.

This may sound like a far-fetched comparison for a middle-grade novel involving a girl with a pet goose, but it would seem more far-fetched to me if Hardinge, who read English at Oxford, were unaware of the significance of the name, which, after all, is hardly a common one. Besides, Fly By Night does feel intensely Jonsonian, sharing many of the concerns of his city plays: an interest in words and how they can be used to deceive and to create, an intense and joyous depiction of the anarchic energies of the city, a careful amorality which allows people to be people, not straightforwardly “good” or straightforwardly “bad” (mostly).

Mosca wet her lips, took a breath and began to speak. She pulled out rags of wedding words she had heard by listening through the thin marriage-house walls. She patched them with pompous-sounding phrases from her father’s books. She stitched the whole together with the scarlet thread of her own imagination.

Here, Mosca and her Jonsonian namesake seem almost to come together. The posthumous wedding ceremony she creates for her friend the Cakes, who lives in secret shame because her parents were not married, has a palimpsestic, stitched-together quality which bears a heavy resemblance to similar ceremonies concocted by that other great Jonsonian trickster, The Alchemist’s Subtle, who mashes up alchemical texts, popular literature, Biblical exegeses and thieves’ cant (this last is something which Fly By Night is particularly interested in) to con gullible Londoners out of considerable amounts of money.

The difference lies in the intent; and this, I think, is the crux of what Hardinge is doing in Fly By Night. For while Subtle’s purpose in conning his “gulls” is essentially greed, Mosca is creating her imaginative tapestry at least partly for altruistic reasons, to help the Cakes feel better, and to gain her esteem. While both Moscas, and indeed Subtle, are amoral to some extent – in that we find ourselves rooting for them despite their often questionable actions – Jonson never intends us seriously to excuse the actions of his liars. Volpone‘s Mosca is tried and punished for his lies; Subtle’s con ultimately fails, his anarchic potential contained by the play’s obvious artifice. Hardinge’s Mosca, on the other hand, is very definitely valorised by her story: her ending is left open, the anarchism of a girl who can think and speak for herself remaining uncontained and full of dangerous potential:

“What can I offer a secretary but a life of sleeping in hedges, chicken stealing and climbing out through midnight windows to avoid paying innkeepers in the morning?”

Nothing, except…loose strands of possibility snaking like maypole ribbons. Roads fringed with russet bracken, roads sparkling with frost, hill roads split with the rising sun, forest roads livid with fallen leaves, the Crystal Court with its million windows throwing tiaras of rainbow colour upon the floor, ladies with legends of days past embroidered along their trains, wine as dark as blackberry juice sipped under a green-fringed canopy, accents as strange as a walking cane worn by another hand, estuaries bold with man-o’-war ships and perhaps beyond it the shimmering, much-dreamed-upon expanse of the sea…

Jonson was an upper-class, classically-educated man who may have loved words, but decidedly did not love those who used them for less than honest ends (as, for instance, Eponymous Clent does in this novel). His plays feature, and often admire, the small and voiceless of his society; but they always contain and judge them in the end. Hardinge, on the other hand, gives a voice to these voiceless and refuses to judge them for what they say: her rewriting of The Alchemist and of Volpone places the voiceless front and centre, and if it doesn’t give them power, exactly, it gives them agency, possibility, potentiality in a way which Jonson doesn’t. Which is why it’s important that Fly By Night switches the gender of Jonson’s Mosca: because who, in Jonson’s world and in the vaguely seventeenth-century setting of Hardinge’s novel, is less powerful than twelve-year-old girls?

There’s something that needs to be said with regards to Mosca’s characterisation about the role of niceness in femininity. Mosca is not nice. She is named after a fly-god. She has a “ferretty face”, she wears breeches under her skirts (a habit left over from her home town, where young girls frequently wear breeches because it’s simply more practical in a place that’s about 50% water), she reads. She steals, she lies, she tells tales – because she has to, because she is “unloved”, because she has no other choice, and Hardinge refuses to punish her for it as Jonson punishes his characters. It would be wrong to call Mosca a Strong Female Character: she is an imperfect female character and she is a real female character, neither sanitised nor demonised.

And this, it seems to me, is ultimately what Hardinge’s project is in Fly By Night: rewriting Jonson’s male-dominated, cautiously self-contained plays to open up their anarchic potential, to expand on everything that troubles Jonson and his contemporaries: the rising poor, able to think for themselves, to transgress the boundaries set for them.

In case you couldn’t tell, I loved Fly By Night; it’s exactly the kind of book I hoped it would be, a twisty and beautifully-written steampunky yarn with a current of thought running deep below its surface. Possibly one of my favourites of 2015.

Top Ten Books that I Bought for their Titles and/or Covers

“If you’re not careful, time will take away everything that ever hurt you, everything you have ever lost, and replace it with knowledge.”

Charles Yu

In no particular order:

  1. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe – Charles Yu. I read this earlier in the year – because, seriously, how could anyone resist the promise of that title? – and it was truly fantastic. See? Gambles do pay off, sometimes.
  2. A Novel Bookstore – Laurence Cosse. The blurb did not wow me, but it had “bookstore” in the title, and that was enough for me. And it is a very lovely book about books which I heartily recommend to everyone ever. (I actually recently sent a copy to my grandmother.)
  3. How Not to Write a Novel – Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman. Huh. I guess I’m a sucker for pseudo-self-help books. Anyway, How Not to Write a Novel is a very funny and useful guide to Things You Probably Shouldn’t Do if You Want Anyone to Buy Your Book.
  4. Victorian Sensation – Michael Diamond. Actually, I didn’t buy this one; it was in my college library. But I read it for this spectacularly retro cover. It was quite a good read, too.
  5. The City of Dreaming Books – Walter Moers. I mean, books. And it has an awesome and fun-looking cover. It was not as good I was hoping, though.
  6. By Light Alone – Adam Roberts. I just adored the Art Deco, steampunky feel of this cover; it really stood out in the bookshop. Another one which was unfortunately mildly disappointing (but worth owning just for that cover!).
  7. Magyk – Angie Sage. The cover of this book is so lovely. I adore covers made to look like old books. Plus, the book, a gentle fantasy about a seventh son and a slightly evil government, is sweet and original and nice.
  8. The Diamond of Drury Lane – Julia Golding. This is going back quite a few years now, but for a long time I had a slight obsession with the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane because I went to see the musical version of The Lord of the Rings there and this obviously meant that everything that had happened there ever was automatically awesome and deeply interesting. I don’t remember very much about the book, but I think it was quite good.
  9. Wicked Lovely – Melissa Marr. I think it was a combination of the cryptic title and that atmospheric orange wash that drew me to this one. I remember almost nothing about the quality of the book, though.
  10. The Looking Glass Wars – Frank Beddor. An Alice in Wonderland retelling? Sold! Pity the execution wasn’t terribly good.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

 

The Last Kingdom Review: Episode 1

“A village can be rebuilt; a warrior can die only once.”

Stephen Butchard

The Last Kingdom seems to be the BBC’s answer to Game of Thrones. Based on a Bernard Cornwell novel, it’s a story of the last Anglo-Saxon kingdom to stand against the Danish invasion of the late ninth century, following as it does Uhtred, the son of a Saxon nobleman, who’s taken hostage by the Danes and brought up as one of them.

This first episode seems to trace, then, a kind of cultural blurring which feels quite relevant right now, in an age when politicians are once again seeking to define what it is to be British (and not really succeeding). A story full of betrayals and changed allegiances, it seems to be groping towards a discussion of how invasion (or migration) attacks the boundaries between Them and Us: far from adhering slavishly to these boundaries, characters are constantly using the gaps between them as leverage for their own schemes and plots, manipulating identity politics to gain revenge, or money, or power, or land.

The episode doesn’t go as far as it could in this line, but then it is a first episode, so I can forgive it that. However, I can’t forgive it the fact that it gives us a “historical” narrative in which women are literally only there to be slept with. I had enough of this shit from Game of Thrones, and even that let its women have proper opinions. Sorry, Kingdom; however interesting your thoughts in migration are, I won’t be coming back to be patronised.

Doctor Who Review: The Woman Who Lived

“I call myself ‘Me’. All the other names I chose died with whoever knew me. ‘Me’ is who I am now. No one’s mother, daughter, wife. My own companion – singular, unattached, alone.”

Doctor Who

The Woman Who Lived is, together with The Girl Who Died, fundamentally an atheist story. It continues The Amazing Adventures of Ashildr, seeing the now-immortal Viking all grown-up, living the life of a highwaywoman in the 1650s, calling herself Lady Me, and generally hating humanity. She’s teamed up with Aslan Leandro, a being from another plane who’s going to spirit her away from Earth, where the people come and go like mayflies or, alternatively, smoke. Obviously, because she’s an intelligent and empowered woman trying to preserve her own sanity rather than sacrificing it for everyone else, her plan is Evil and the Doctor has to stop her.

The lesson here (and it is not a subtle one) is that immortality is a really bad idea and Lady Me needs to stop whining about it and get on with being nice to people. It’s no coincidence that the two parter is bookended by false gods making rents in the sky: Fake Odin with his Valhallan lies and Leandro wielding the so-called Eyes of Hades. It’s a nice device that subtly reinforces the themes of the story: religion, and promises of eternity/afterlife, are deceptions which rob human life of meaning. I don’t necessarily agree with this; but it’s a nice bit of visual parallelism which doesn’t wave itself in your face.

Unfortunately, this is the only decent thing in the entire episode.

I think Lady Me/Ashildr is supposed to be a feminist figure. I think we are supposed to look at her and go, “Wow! Look how strong she is! Making her own way in life! She doesn’t even want a husband!” (Side note: if feminism in 2015 hasn’t got beyond “women don’t need husbands” then something has gone very wrong.) But, with typical Whovian arrogance, the episode tells us that Lady Me needs someone to save her from herself. More specifically, she needs the Doctor (who is, as we remember, of the male gender) to save her from herself. Her humanity, says screenwriter Catherine Tregenna, needs to be saved by the very man who, according to the terms of the episode, actually literally ruined her entire existence and robbed it of meaning.

Lady Me is understandably desperate to leave Earth: desperate to leave the people who are no longer her people, who pass through her life like smoke and leave her always, eternally alone. She begs the Doctor to take her with him when he departs. Repeatedly, he refuses her “because it’s a bad idea”. Why, precisely, is it a bad idea? Patronisingly, he refuses to tell her – because, of course, being a man, he knows better than her. Never mind that she has looked after herself for approximately 1000 years. (Inevitably, someone is now going to tell me that I have got the dates wrong.)

When the reason is finally revealed, it’s pathetically insubstantial and can be boiled down to: because plot. The Doctor doesn’t travel with immortals. Um. Awesome Romana, anyone?

The Doctor also continues to call her “Ashildr, daughter of Einarr”, despite her frequent assertions that she wants to be known as “Me”, that is, nobody’s daughter, self-named and self-identified. (Einarr, we note, is a man she hasn’t seen for the aforesaid 1000 years. How is he relevant to her identity, exactly?) The episode ends with her agreeing to become a sort of cosmic housekeeper for him: cleaning up the mess he makes whenever he lands on Earth. We have gone from a woman who lived her own life to a woman whose life, whose very purpose, revolves around a man. You want to see the galaxy? Your place is at home, woman, wearing the name your father gave you!

Anyone still think Ashildr is feminist?

None of this is helped by the casting of Maisie Williams as Lady Me. Williams made a decent Arya in Game of Thrones, but she doesn’t have the maturity or the presence to play an immortal. She looks and acts like a 15-year-old throughout the episode, which of course makes it all the easier for the show, and for us, to dismiss her as immature and mistaken, while the 57-year-old white man Capaldi speaks the wise, wise truth. It was a mistake, I think, to write Clara out of the episode; it would have been a much less problematic narrative if we’d seen Clara and Lady Me interacting, instead of the Doctor handing out directives and refusing to answer any of his equal’s questions.

Did I just say I wanted Clara back? Lordy, things must have been bad.

Doctor Who Review: The Girl Who Died

“The universe is full of testosterone. Trust me, it’s unbearable.”

Doctor Who

What is Doctor Who?

Doctor Who is a lie.

* * *

This week’s offering sees the Doctor and Clara landing in the middle of some Vikings, who immediately proceed to capture them and march them off to their village two days away. There, the Doctor and Clara witness a face in the sky claiming to be Odin harvest the village’s finest warriors and take them off to Valhalla. It turns out that “Odin” is actually the king of the Mire, a warlike alien race who wants to mash up the warriors and turn them into testosterone. That he can drink. To be more warlike.

I wish I was joking.

Anyway. This is not the point.

“What is the point, English Student?” I hear you cry.

The point, Constant Reader, is story.

The Girl Who Died is from its very title an episode which points up its own createdness. It is a story about mythmaking: its central character, Ashildr, the titular Girl Who Died, is a storyteller who Saves the Day using story. It’s no accident, either, that Odin shows up, improbably, right at the beginning of the tale: “What’s the one thing that gods never do?” asks the Doctor, rhetorically. “Show themselves!” In the Doctor Who universe, of course, gods are the most mythological myth of them all.

Initially, I was thinking of The Girl Who Died as a story that reveals itself as story; an episode that rather tautologically highlights the role of the individual because that’s what stories inevitably do. A story that reminds its principal character that he is story, and that he has to behave as stories do.

But I think it’s more (or less) complex than that. What The Girl Who Died is telling us is that stories are lies.
The title is, of course, a lie. (It has to be – otherwise spoilers.) The title is in itself a story – like the Impossible Girl, like the Girl Who Waited; but it is a lie. Because Ashildr isn’t going to be remembered for dying – she’s going to be remembered for living.

Odin, the god (and what are gods but collections of stories – remember The Rings of Akhaten?) is not really a god. His tale of Valhalla and glory is – a lie.

The story that the Vikings cook up for the Mire and for their king is a lie; the big giant snake is a lie, cleverly revealed through the use of an anachronism (another lie), the smartphone camera.

Fate itself, the story that time attempts to tell, is a lie, a lie which the Doctor chooses to challenge.

In the words of the Killers, then: “You’ve got to be stronger than the story.”

The question we have to ask, of course, is “What about this story?”

Is Doctor Who a lie? Or, rather – is the episode aware that it is a lie?

Well – yes. Look at the way the episode belies its own title. Look at the way the Doctor bangs on about the laws of time while squishing a space bug onto the grass of Earth. The quotation of The Fires of Pompeii reminds us that these laws are always being broken. Look, too, at Clara’s filming of the fake giant snake, which feels like it’s supposed to remind us that we are watching a filmed artefact: we’re watching the equivalent of a carved horsehead on a stick (a blue police box from the 60s) and imagining that it’s an enormous basilisk (a time machine). Look at the visual echo of The Pirate Planet in the Mire’s king – which is just that, an echo, without semantic content. It is the lie of story and storytelling which winds this all together. Like Before the Flood, The Girl Who Died deconstructs the processes which created it.
But if stories are lies, we also have to remember that they save the day – for the Vikings, at least. The right story in the right hands is powerful. So long as we know that the story is only a story – only a tool, to stop you doing something you shouldn’t, or to defend your home and your reality – stories are, like, the best thing ever. So The Girl Who Died doesn’t think of itself – or of Doctor Who – as a true story; only as a necessary story. Necessary for the Doctor, perhaps; necessary for us, as well.

Which is where I, personally, have issues. The Girl Who Died doesn’t subvert its title by complicating it – suggesting that perhaps there is more to girlhood, to womanhood, than dying – it subverts it by having the Doctor break his own laws. We can just as well call Ashildr the Girl Who Lived; that’s, when it boils down to it, all the achievement the episode ascribes to her. The BBC website tells us that “She refuses to take on the traditional role of a Viking girl”; I can only imagine that this bit of her character ended up on the cutting-room floor, because I don’t remember anything about it. Ashildr is a trophy, a cypher around which the Doctor’s moral dilemma can revolve. She is reduced, precisely, to a story, to be subverted or upheld; she is, in the lexicon of this episode, reduced to a lie. A tool to support male self-definition.

This story is not true. And it most certainly is not necessary.

Film Review: Guys and Dolls

“To make a fortune I need a fortune.”

Guys and Dolls

I do love a good musical. There’s something infectiously joyful about a dozen people all launching into a coordinated song-and-dance routine, and the opening sequence of Guys and Dolls, a musical romp through a vibrant New York City, is perfect in that respect.

The story begins with the trials and tribulations of Nathan Detroit, a small-time gangster who needs money to secure a venue for his famous floating craps game. In a desperate bid to come up with the cash, he bets Sky Masterson, a well-known gambler, that he can’t get a specific woman to go to Havana with him for dinner. The woman is Sarah Brown, a teetotal member of the Save a Soul Mission – the last person who’d ever get on a plane with the likes of Sky Masterson.

What follows is pretty standard musical fare. It’s a little too long, and relies on no perceptible logic, and, being a product of the Fifties, is so blatantly and unashamedly sexist that there seems little point even in complaining about it. What it does have going for it is a certain vibrancy: a capturing of all the strange, criminal, joyful life of the city. It charts a clash in values that can be described in terms of belief: while Sarah Brown and her Save a Soul pals believe in a God, and a life, that is constant, steady and unchanging (“I’ll Know”), Sky Masterson and the illegal gamblers follow a way of life that is fickle and in flux, seizing the day whenever it comes (“Luck Be A Lady”). The film tries, with middling success, to reconcile old certainties with new realities, old morality with the vitality of the new, the simplicity of religion with the moral messiness of the city; the disparity is, as the title suggests, aligned along gender lines, which is not so much deliberately sexist as simply an obvious way to bring the film’s polar opposites together – through marriage.

It’s a reasonably good film if you’re looking to while away your evening, although I suspect it would be better onstage. There are a couple of great songs (“Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat”), and some lovely set pieces. I’ve seen better, but I’ve seen worse, too.

Partners in Crime Review: The Secret Adversary, Part 1

“It’s too early for rampant optimism.”

Partners in Crime

Partners in Crime is another new BBC period drama (I persevere, you see) based on Agatha Christie’s short story collection of the same name. It features Tuppence and Tommy Beresford, a pair of unsuspecting members of the public, who are drawn into a series of mysterious and unfortunate events when they encounter a distressed young woman named Jane Finn on a train. Tuppence, being a reader of mystery novels, is immediately struck by Jane’s plight, and resolves to Investigate.

I enjoyed Partners in Crime very much more than I did Life in Squares, partly because it never tries to be more than it is: a cheerfully unrealistic, joyfully Technicolour fifties romp through a post-war London, full of larger-than-life characters, a pleasant antidote to the grimdarkish thrillers of the Silent Witness variety. (Not that I don’t like Silent Witness, mind.) The star of the show is undoubtedly Jessica Raine, she of Call the Midwife fame, playing the sharp, intelligent Tuppence Beresford with just the right mixture of brisk efficiency and foolhardy intrepidness; David Walliams lags behind her as her hopeless husband Tommy. The story is the purest escapism, full of Clues with a capital C – anonymous tip-offs, bits of paper wedged in improbable places, addresses written on the backs of photographs – a light and cheerful thing which encodes the pleasant fantasy that everything, up to and including a marriage, can be solved by a bit of sleuthing. The world is a solvable puzzle, utterly transparent to the right reader.

And that’s a nice message after a long day at work.

Life in Squares Review: Episode 1

“You cannot find peace by avoiding life.”

Virginia Woolf

Life in Squares is a new BBC period drama following two sisters, Vanessa and Virginia, as they seek artistic and personal freedom in the early years of the twentieth century among a group of similarly enlightened writers and artists who will eventually form the Bloomsbury Group. Sharp-eyed viewers will notice that Virginia is the writer who will later become Virginia Woolf, but the show makes precisely no effort to signal this; Life in Squares is not a drama whose main draw is going to be Woolf’s Life and Works.

What is it, then? It’s hard to tell, on the whole, what the show is driving at. Clearly it’s faintly obsessed with the traditional narrative which sees Victorian strictness moving into Edwardian debauchery (mainly represented by gay people having sex and wives not kicking off when their husbands have affairs), but it’s not a show that throws any new light on this rather hackneyed theme. We’re not even really encouraged to think about the consequences of the supposed stiff-upper-lip social restraint from which the Bloomsbury milieu emerge, with the sisters’ prudish aunt banished off screen in the first twenty minutes and the only hint that homosexuality was still a punishable offence a policeman swinging his truncheon menacingly in the background. It all feels as if the Bloomsbury group have just come up with the idea of decadence and nobody ever had thought of it before.

As a result, there’s very little tension to the episode; or, rather, what tension there is is fatally mismanaged. It begins as a potentially fertile exploration of the relationship between sisters, and how that can be threatened when a man comes on the scene; but too many characters are introduced, too many problems worried about, and the issue becomes lost beneath sex scenes and cod-feminism. This happens again and again throughout the episode: a tension is introduced and quickly defused or forgotten, because actually to explore the rise of libertinism is to damage the myth of the Bloomsbury group, the myth that they were pioneers, social entrepreneurs if you like, forging their own way in a world of rules. We forget that they had servants, that they were at least a little anti-Semitist, that they weren’t totally enlightened and golden and shiny.

And this is the heart of the matter. Life in Squares  just feels a bit conventional: soft-focus, romance-heavy period drama ultimately more interested in preserving a popular myth than in historical or psychological reality. The costumes are pretty, but there’s nothing much beneath the set-dressing.

Jonathan Strange Review: The Black Tower

I shall teach all the women and all the poor men magic. I will give England back its heritage.”

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

OK, so, it turns out there are seven parts to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, not six as I said last week. The Black Tower, then, is the penultimate episode of the BBC mini-series; it sees Jonathan, a fugitive from justice after the events of Arabella, holed up in Venice, attempting to summon up the thistledown gentleman and finally resurrect Arabella.

It’s an episode primarily about madness: Jonathan concludes that his best chance of actually seeing the thistledown gentleman is by going insane, and proceeds to do so by executing a bargain with an old lady whose heart’s desire is to become a cat, who dismays her relatives by her indecorous behaviour. This is, I think, crucial to the episode’s conception of madness: not a pathological illness but a refusal to conform to the dominant social paradigm. It’s a concept which also, of course, empowers the marginalised, the ill, the oppressed, the forgotten – Jonathan’s quote above, about restoring magic to the marginalised, is in sharp contrast to Mr Norrell’s continued efforts to censor magic, to silence the oppressed. And if magic is the place where oppression is revealed, where the dominant social paradigm becomes visible, then Norrell’s repeated assertion that “magic can’t cure madness” becomes ironically, actually true: magic can’t cure madness, because madness is magic’s antithesis as well as society’s. It’s not magic that’s radical: in this world, magic is part of the structure of history. Madness is radical everywhere, because it’s precisely a refusal of structure. This is, I think, the cleverness both of Clarke’s novel and of the TV adaptation: we’re asked to believe in the unfamiliar so as to cast new light on the familiar; we require the unreal to read the real.

There’s a rather interesting subplot to this episode which sees Vinculus, the roving magician consistently cast as mad by his more respectable social peers, travelling back to London with Stephen, who’s chosen to free him in return for his, Stephen’s, own freedom. Again, this is a narrative which sees Vinculus resisting oppression using madness, or the appearance of madness – and I feel like by this point in the narrative the appearance and the reality of madness are functionally the same thing. He’s seen as mad because he lives not as the vagrant Regency society says he is but as the Raven King’s prophet, triumphant and gleeful; Stephen’s promised freedom comes not in a technical sense – a release from the thistledown gentleman’s enchantment – but from a realisation that social truth is not the only truth, that things can be more than they appear; the freedom Vinculus offers is an opportunity to look below the surface, beneath race and gender and social rules; to think with new paradigms and see with new eyes. Madness is a choice here: a choice to resist social roles, to rage against one’s situation as Lady Pole does, a choice not to accept.

And people say fantasy is irrelevant.