Musical Selection: Mise Éire

Celtic Woman’s newest single—to hint at their upcoming album Postcards from Ireland—is a touching new interpretation of of the 1912 poem by the Irish poet and Republican revolutionary Patrick Pearse, set to music by Patrick Cassidy. ☘️

Mise Éire means I am Ireland. It is the story of Ireland in the person of an old woman, grieving that her own children have sold her.

The Man under the Umbrella

I am well aware of Friedrich Bhaer’s unpopularity, but I don’t understand it. I am aware of it, because it has been so often stated and explained; I don’t understand it because nothing of it makes sense—personal preferences aside, everyone has a right to like (or dislike) whoever they want, after all.

“Me wants me Bhaer!”—Tina, the daughter of Mrs Kirke’s French maid, said as she flung herself into the arms of this controversial character, and her words express my own feelings perfectly.

The accusations are numerous: Bhaer was merely an afterthought, to screw the readers, he is unattractive and boring, suppresses Jos own freedom as a writer and forces her to express herself in a posh manner, and of course, he isn’t Laurie.

But we’ll start in the beginning. Little Women has originally been published in two parts: Little Women and Good Wives. Later editions often put them together, but the distinction between the two books is an important point in the discussion of Friedrich Bhaer.

After Little Women first came out, Louisa May Alcott received several letters from readers who asked about the further lives of the March sisters, and especially about whom the little women would marry. Ms Alcott was not delighted by this question, and of her character’s being reduced to the subject of matrimony, as was rather usual back then, and which, in return, brought many modern readers to the conclusion that marriage by itself were a sign of a lack of liberation in the heroines and could therefore not correspond with Ms Alcott’s own intentions.

In particular the still popular wish, that Jo and Laurie should become a couple and marry displeased the authoress. But that does not make the insinuation that Friedrich’s part was caused by mere spite true.

Criticism of Friedrich Bhaer comes from those who would have liked to see Jo with Laurie, as well as those would have preferred her to remain unmarried. An argument for the latter is that Louisa May Alcott herself has never been married, and that Jo was based on her in many respects. But Little Women is no direct autobiography and contains many elements that didn’t happen as described in the lives of the author and her sisters. The common attempt to equate Jo and Louisa cannot succeed. The Marchs are obviously based on the Alcotts, but they are not them. But this awkward mingling of real person and fictional character is applied nearly exclusively to Jo.

The desire for an unmarried role model is common and understandable, especially as many readers identify with Jo and often think differently about these things than the 19th century audience—although it cannot be denied that the marital status of a novel’s heroine continues to receive a great deal of attention.

But to say “For this reason I would have preferred Jo to stay unmarried,” would be a better choice than, “Jo was never really supposed to marry, it’s only in the book because Louisa May Alcott has been pushed to do so. Jo is in truth single!” But in truth Jo doesn’t exist, only Louisa, and in the book, Jo married, and she did so because the author wanted her to.

The question, whether a marriage of Jo and Laurie would have received as much rejection, nowadays, I mean, because even those would prefer Jo to be single, seem to rather tolerate Laurie than Friedrich. But this is not supposed to be a comparison of both men—I like Laurie a lot, and I would not have had any issue had he and Jo become a couple. But they didn’t: Jo didn’t want it, Louisa didn’t want it, and in the end it turned out that Jo and Laurie could continue their wonderful friendship, though in a matured way, and still find a different sort of love each.

The notion that it was a sign of conformation or even submission, shows a completely incorrect understanding of the societal context of the story’s time. It may come from the cliché of the young woman who has to marry a boring old man, and who liberates herself by eloping with a brooding young rake; or from the good social standing of Germans, especially German academics, in contemporary America.

But Friedrich is, according to all economical and societal standards of that time, no reasonable, let a lone conforming choice—not within the story, and not from the point of view of the then audience. To claim that his character had been created because of societal pressure is completely incorrect.

Friedrich is poor; the idea that older men used to be preferred was based on the fact that they usually had build an existence (or increased it) and this promised financial security. To prefer a poor, older man over a young, very rich man, who still had the prospect of becoming even richer, was no decision made of reason, and not at all understandable for onlookers.

Beyond that, Friedrich had a very bad position as a German. German immigrants were a fairly large minority in America back then; most of them were poor, and even more so very unpopular. One must not forget that the Hummels, from whom Beth contracted the scarlet fever that later led to her death, were Germans, too. But the Alcotts liked Germans—and so did, apparently, the Marchs. Louisa May Alcott’s parents were transcendentalists and felt very drawn to German culture, in particular literature. Louisa May Alcott was born in the same year that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe died. She loved Goethe and visited his house in Frankfurt—thought she didn’t have time to go inside. It is obvious that Friedrich is a character whom she liked to write and who came very close to her personal literary ideal.

But what is much more important: Friedrich supports, respects, and values Jo.

It brings me nearly physical discomfort to read what’s claimed about Friedrich and his attitude towards Jo and her writing. That he would belittle her, keep her from writing, push her to betray herself and lose her way. Yes, even the fact that Jo writes in later years, is read as a rebellion and secret disobedience towards Friedrich.

It’s a mystery to me, how one could read a book and interpret it in such a twisted manner. It seems that, whenever Professor Bhaer appears, some readers throw all reading comprehension overboard. To think Friedrich had condemned Jos own stories and asked her to write what he considered “higher literature” is complete nonsense. And so is the idea that he had asked (or forced) her to stop writing altogether.

Friedrich knew that Jo wrote and was very enthusiastic about it. He also had reason to assume that she published stories in papers, but he could neither be sure about that, nor about what sort of stories they were. He saw a magazine of the sort, for which she hadn’t written anything, and criticised this sort of stories (and their title illustrations) in general, especially their accessibility for children, without referring to Jo’s own stories, as is commonly maintained.

He did worry however, that Jo, due to a lack of money, protection and experience, could possibly write for exactly this sort of paper, and, rather impulsively, made an effort to dissuade her. Jo argued that one could earn money that way, and Friedrich, a poor man, mind you, remarked that one should rather sweep dirt in the streets.

One can—and should—not deny that Friedrich wanted to influence Jo in this matter. But I’ll have to remark two things: For once, I don’t see what’s wrong about that. He didn’t take the decision away from her, which he neither could nor would do, he simply stated his opinion—an opinion she valued from her own free will. Jo wouldn’t have changed anything, had she not agreed with him. Jo was stubborn and headstrong, and would not even have her nearest and dearest change her mind. She wouldn’t have read her story with Friedrich’s eyes, if she hadn’t truly agreed with what he’d said. That aside, it’s Friedrich’s right to tell his opinion, regardless whether Jo or the reader liked it or not. The idea that a “good” man in a novel always has to tell the heroine what she wants to hear, is a horrible, pseudo-feminist trend, which goes hand-in-hand with the idea that a person (especially a woman) would betray themselves (herself) through learning and growth. Anyway—to claim that Friedrich oppressed Jo, and that she would let him do so, is an insult to both of them.

Secondly: Friedrich has not once talked degradingly about Jo’s own stories. He hadn’t read them, couldn’t even be sure whether she had published any. He also never criticised that she wrote. His criticism was directed towards a specific genre, one could even say business or even milieu, which he thought would be harmful to both Jo and her work. He wanted Jo to write, but he didn’t want her to do it only to earn money, instead to write what she truly wanted. Jo’s first reaction was to write an overtly moralist, sermon-like story, but with time she balanced it out and found her way (back) to what she truly liked.

Here, too, the criticism describes the absolute opposite: Friedrich never wanted Jo to stop writing what she liked. He wanted her to start. At that time, Jo cared more about her income than her own development and expression, which did her no good, and of which Friedrich couldn’t approve.

Later on, Jo wrote neither secretly, nor in rebellion—she wrote as she liked, and Friedrich always supported her.

Friedrich also didn’t consider (commercial) writing to be unsuitable for a woman, and wanted Jo to get published and be successful as a writer. He even took her to a symposium of famous writer, which in the end disillusioned and sobered Jo, but which also helped her not to feel intimidated by the so-called Greats. Friedrich, too, would not be intimidated and, reserved as he normally was, argued ardently for his convictions, which impressed Jo persistently.

Friedrich did not make Jo more womanly. In fact, Jo and Friedrich liked and respected each other’s characteristics and peculiarities that were often seen untypical for their respective gender. Jo became, as she grew older, less boyish, but that was partly due to her increasing maturity, as she mostly left behaviours behind that would also not have suited a grown man, and on the other hand, because her appreciation of other women had grown—Jo had, after all, the tendency to take men and “manly” things more seriously.

Friedrich liked and loved Jo just as she was. But he also supported her development and growth. And it’s funny that this of all things is so often criticised, even condemned, even though it is what Little Women is largely about.

No character in Little Women is perfect. Not Friedrich, not Jo, and nobody else either. But Jo is often seen as a perfect heroine, and her development as self-betrayal. But one cannot rob a book of its own essence to modernise it. The notion that Jo could only be a good role model if she would never think or act differently than she did at the age of fifteen, because all maturity, all learning, were a sign of submission and an antiquated world-view is a dreadful way of thinking by itself. But if one happens to be of that opinion, then one should also stand by it rather than selling it as the author’s own belief.

That aside, it seems that nobody is allowed to criticise Jo. No other character, and no reader. Her sisters have all been degraded cruelly, but Jo has to be considered perfect, just as she is. She is the representative of all strong girls and completely infallible, or else valuable only through her faults. That is the common opinion—though not the writer’s, who considered her protagonists mistakes, and her development, and to acknowledge them, very important. That does not make her a lesser character or a bad role model for young girls—on the contrary, it makes her human, and gives her room to grow.

Transcendentalism was an important influence for Louisa May Alcott, although she did not at all view or take it uncritically. Growing up is the central point of this novel, and, although I am sure that Jo would have managed to do so very well on her own, Friedrich was a great help for her, to look forwards, and to become a big woman, while always staying true to herself.

And, at last, the romance. I’ll say three things:

Every person feels differently. The interaction of romantic and other feelings, and the cognition of them, is highly individual, and Jo and Friedrich have found what is just right for themselves.

The chapter Under the Umbrella can be re-read over and over again. Those who have forgotten just how romantic Jo and Friedrich are, should read it again.

Thou is often a subject of criticism—and perhaps the most painful one of all. What is presented as Friedrich’s attempt of shaping Jo to his demanding ideals, is nothing but his way of approaching her. For thou is viewed quite wrongly nowadays—it’s old-fashioned, and thus often seen as posh or dusty, and as a distanced form of address. But the English you is much rather comparable to the German Sie, which is formal and impersonal, and used by strangers and people whose connections are merely business-like. Thou on the other hand, is Du, the informal, personal and intimate form of address, used by friends and family. It is also to be noted that children are always addressed Du, while children address all adults, aside from family and friends, with Sie, which indicates the adults’ authority. This is was much stricter in the 19th century, and through initiating thou, Friedrich opened towards growing intimacy, while raising Jo on the same level as him, a grown woman and his equal. It is a loving and respectful gesture.

These Old Shades, from page to screen

There should be a film adaptation of These Old Shades, and frankly, I should be in charge of it. It’s a pity in itself that there is no Georgette Heyer movie to speak of, with all her Regency novels being a bonanza of material for beautiful films and mini series in the vein of our well-beloved Jane Austen adaptations. But These Old Shades, that’s a different matter altogether. It’s not gentle colours and dry wit, combined with romance and a dash of adventure, it’s far too 18th century, far too lavish and rich, too powdered and patched.

No, with new adaptations of beloved classics, made in different styles, being all the rage right now, we should be making a screen adaptation (whether an extra-length movie for the theatres or a mini-series made by one of our favourite public television broadcaster is of less importance) in a new playful interpretation of the characteristic style of classic period dramas.

The reader might not yet know what I mean, but I do. The problem with this book is that two possible things in a film adaptation could happen: 1., that the makers take the book too seriously and try to present all of it in a completely true manner (or, worse, try to fix what seems wrong!) and 2., that the makers look down on the source material as a silly vintage romance novel and make just a travesty of it, or try to make it modern.

But These Old Shades is a good book, and it’s a book to adapt into film respectfully, but it also sometimes a silly book, with some of its silliness being full intention, and some of it maybe just a sign of age, and both needs to be considered. A loving, respectful self-irony is what it needs, playing all what is meant seriously in a truly serious manner, but not forgetting the wonderful humour, and gently poking at all that is silly about it, showing the nonsensical class snobbery that is, already, called out in the book, and the strange whatnots of the time.

Many reviewers seem to think that the book stands for all that it shows, but that is not entirely true—a certain hypocrisy is exampled, and the protagonists are not always meant to be agreed with (or always agree with each other!), but the strange logics of innate desires…of farming, for example…make a good base for in-jokes that carry and light up parts of the film, and show a certain humorous view of what can be read in the novel, without deprecating it.

But some things need to be played straight. The page boy with the Titian hair, for example. No matter how obvious it might be to all the audience, there shall be no hints beyond what can already be read in the book, or, as we see him, even fewer. Play it straight, no matter how ridiculous it may appear. Play it straight, and reveal it in full glory. And the same goes for certain physical similarities…

And be careful of what you do with the main characters’ relationship. Show what is written, truthfully and with full understanding of context and situation, not wrong readings of others.

What brings me to another—show Avon and Léonie, and all the others, in their full light. Don’t try to make them any better or worse than they are, instead show how flawed and lovable they are, and how they, especially Avon, grow.

I want to see a Léonie who’s all energy and misbehaviour, loneliness and distraught, a strange and elegant boy at one time, and a rogue, yet sweet girl at another. Her eagerness to fight and use weapons, to bite and kick, and fence and shoot, should be shown in exactly the true, wild, chaotic way it is, and not polished to make her a Strong Female Character, devoid of all personality and originality. Her equal delight in her attire as a boy and her new-learned girlhood should be equally shown, and she should not be made into either a tomboy, who hates all feminine things she should wear or do, or into a girl who’s changing entirely through suddenly putting on a dress, leaving all what was behind her, because both would be a simplification of her character and sadly stereotypical. Léonie likes what she likes and does what she wants, whatever that may be.

But above all: show her maturity. And her sadness. Two things that are often told of and sometimes shown in the book, and which are important to her character, even more when we see her moving and talking than in a book which tells a great deal through narration, and through the eyes of Avon:

“A certain cynicism, born of the life she has led; a streak of strange wisdom; the wistfulness behind the gaiety; sometimes fear; and nearly always the memory of loneliness that hurts the soul.”

Léonie, though often called that, is not a child—or maybe she is, but then she is a small child, a true infant, as much as an ancient, and that has to be shown. Making her all cheerful and wild would be unjust, and I dare say, to make better use of modern times in a film adaptation of an old book, than to include pointless nude scenes or lessons in misunderstood feminism, show some of her past, of the cruelty she experienced, and the things she has seen, and not just the results, but the reasons of her having to be a boy for seven years. All this could only be allured to in the book, and while I don’t want anything overtly dark or explicit in a film, I think it would be good to take a tiny glimpse behind the surface.

As for Avon—show his growth. His desire to live up to Léonie’s expectations, or to what he thinks them to be. Let him grow tired of his old image, but don’t overdo it—show that there has always been kindness in him, and that he would never cease to be a dangerous men. Show also his reluctance towards his and Léonie’s relationship, and his fear not to be good enough.

But again with Avon, the matter of dress is important. It would be such a pity if he were to look in a way that would be appealing—and “manly”—today. He is powdered, he is patched, he has a fan, he’s wearing shades of lavender and pink, and ensembles in pure gold, and he is always holding his snuff box tight. He is also frightening and dangerous, nearly sinister, and he thinks himself to be a worse person that he is, or at least, than he becomes. And he is the leading man in a romance. These three must work together, despite the general reluctance of the film industry to make it work.

Which brings me to another thing—the 18th century costumes, and sets, and general aesthetics, must work in accordance to the ideals of the time, not to ours, or what we now deem pretty of that time. But a few decided anachronisms, of the type often found in old period dramas, might just work for the fun of it. I don’t really know right now how to describe what I mean, but it’s the sort of thing I would find just right.

All in all, it has to be grand—bright, rich colours, big costumes, lavish sets, gorgeous scenery, full music, plenty of historically appropriate, but extravagant whatnots, all the strange ideas and ideals of that time, have to be shown in full grandeur. No minimalism, very little realism, no reluctance and no shyness; it has to be bold! And the style, the overall vibe, should be more of something made in the mid of the last century, but with a certain whimsy unique to itself, and an intricacy often found nowadays, all while staying faithful to the book.

Small and silent scenes should be equal to loud and large ones, Léonie and Avon’s sweet moments of Pygmalion given as much importance as Léonie and Rupert saving each other and riding away.

The side characters and their relationships should be explored wholly, but of most importance shall be the relationship of the Duke, and of his Soul. In fact, making Léonie his Soul should be a continuous thread throughout the entire film (or series). Not too much, of course—not to the degree that it gets annoying in narration, and especially not so as though Avon thought of Léonie of a sort of device to become a better person, or any such thing. Only gentle subversion of a common literary theme—a character who has not sold his soul, but, through buying what can not be bought, and what became his, and yet not his property, found his way back to his own soul.

It would be a pity if their love story became one of a cheerful girl fixing a bad man. Léonie is sometimes worse than Avon, at times he is even concerned about her own outbursts, though she may have better, if one can call it that, reason to be so. They both grow through each other and save and protect each other, or at least mean to do so, and at times it even seems that the tables have turned and it is he, who has to make sure that she is not growing too dangerous—which she must not, any more, having him.

For personal reasons, the scene of the drive back from Versailles needs to be included, unshortened, maybe even prolonged. And Léonie’s letter has to be the most heartbreaking thing, naturally.

And as for something I have already mentioned vaguely, and now have to say more to: It is of importance that Léonie is made Avon’s ward so that he can work his scheme against Saint-Vire and so that she can be respectably and legally with him. He thinks that she would only look at him as a “grandparent”, whereas she thinks that he would never want her as for matters of class. He refused her to be his mistress, and both thought the other should not marry them for their respective better. These aspects are too often overlooked by people who want to make everything bad. Naturally, their relationship grows from master and (overjoyed) servant to platonic, even familial affection, to romantic love. This growth is important and more of an example of friends who become lovers, than of anything else.

Now I have to say one last thing: The loveliest ending would be a voice over, maybe of the Duke, or of Léonie, perhaps of Hugh, or even of Saint-Vire, or several together… no! I got it, of the Curé! of the quote from, or even the entire, Epilogue to Eighteenth Century Vignettes by Austin Dobson, from the beginning of the book. It embodies just what I want for the film—a warm and loving, yet critical and gently ironic view of the magnificence, extravagance, splendour, bigotry, concealment, arrogance, and humanity of a not quite so distant century, and of the people in this lovely, silly story, who represent it all so wonderfully.

‘WHAT is it then,’—some Reader asks,—
‘What is it that attaches
Your fancy so to fans and masks,—
To periwigs and patches?

‘Is Human Life to-day so poor,—
So bloodless,—you disdain it,
To ‘galvanize’ the Past once more?’
—Permit me. I’ll explain it.

This Age I grant (and grant with pride),
Is varied, rich, eventful;
But, if you touch its weaker side,
Deplorably resentful:

Belaud it, and it takes your praise
With air of calm conviction;
Condemn it, and at once you raise
A storm of contradiction.

Whereas with these old Shades of mine,
Their ways and dress delight me;
And should I trip by word or line,
They cannot well indict me.

Not that I think to err. I seek
To steer ‘twixt blame and blindness;
I strive (as some one said in Greek)
To speak the truth with kindness:

But—should I fail to render clear
Their title, rank, or station—
I still may sleep secure, nor fear
A suit for defamation.