Summary of Discussion on Miss Christina

Our discussion of Alexandru Maftei’s Miss Christina (2013) ranged across various matters such as how the film related to both the gothic and horror genres. This included our recognition of some staples of the gothic (the old dark house, a portrait, keys and locks) but also interesting innovations in terms of the gothic heroine. We commented on the fact these genres sat uneasily with one another and ways in which the film was marketed. Other areas of interest were the adaptability of the author whose novella the film was based on, and gothic films certain aspects reminded us of.

The opening of the film establishes the large, deserted, gothic house, in the depth of a harsh winter and creates mystery around the dishevelled man looking at and chalking portraits of a faceless woman. Portraits become more important to the film later, as we see this man when he first becomes enraptured by the beautiful woman (the eponymous Miss Christina) he is attempting to capture in her original portrait. Indeed, she seems to step forward from this as she enters the man’s dreams. We particularly noted the significance of the portrait, and the haunting presence of a woman, to Rebecca (1940).

After the long opening scene, the action shifts to a young couple, sat next to one another, as they journey on a train. Despite the very different colour schemes of these scenes (from bright whites to red and yellow tones) it soon becomes clear that the well-dressed and happy young man, Egor (Tudor Aaron Istodor), is a slightly younger version of the man in the dilapidated house. It is mentioned that Egor is a painter. More significantly, further elements of the gothic are introduced, as the young woman, Sanda (Ioana Anastasia Anton), tells Egor that in her family home ‘guests can lose their way’.

Soon after their arrival at the isolated house, with its few inhabitants, odd happenings occur at dinner. Sanda’s mother, Mrs Moscu (Maia Morgenstern), and Sanda’s young precocious and sinister sister Simina (Ioana Sandu) look at a figure unseen to some of the other characters and to the audience. Furthermore, Sanda’s mother eats bloody meat with an undisguised appetite. Mention is made of a relative, Miss Christina (Anastasia Dumitrescu), who is Sanda and Simina’s aunt – their mother’s sister. Other characters provide information on the fact Christina is long dead and comment on her unsavoury character. The presence of a professor of archaeology (Nazarie, played by Ovidiu Ghinita), coincidentally excavating a nearby necropolis, further adds to the sense of the macabre.

We discussed Sanda’s character, and her problematic gothic heroine status. Sanda is seen weakened by anaemia, unable to get out of bed, while her mother seemingly summons mosquitoes. She might therefore be identified as a gothic woman in peril, at the mercy of blood-sucking insects. Egor manfully undertakes to protect her, asking for her hand in marriage so that he has justification in separating her from her family. The fact he then locks himself and Sanda in her bedroom, still causes eyebrows to be raised. While Sanda is in some ways a victim, her seeming willingness to collude with what we presume to be Christina’s vampiric tendencies, complicates the matter. Worried that Sanda is losing her fight for life, Egor briefly leaves his post and, on his return, sees that Sanda’s family has gathered around to ‘help’ her. The family portrait of the three women suggests Sanda’s complicity in whatever process has revived her.

We thought it was especially interesting that the film inverts some gender expectations as in addition to playing the male defender, Egor takes on the active investigator role of a gothic heroine. He prowls around the house at night, lantern in hand, trying to find the answer to the odd goings on. Like Sanda, Egor is also threatened by, and compelled towards, Christina. We realise in retrospect that Egor has in fact been broken by her as she foretold

A significant departure from the gothic narrative is that it is not just one character, and the woman, who feels something is wrong. The archaeology professor, who is already resident when Sanda and Egor arrive, wants reassurance from Egor that he too can hear the light footsteps which pass by their bedrooms. They are later joined by another man – a medical doctor with a penchant for hunting – who also needs to be ensured the other men are experiencing these strange occurrences. It is important to note that we are therefore offered three men’s points of view, two of whom are scientists, rather than the more usual potentially hysterical female protagonist.

The four women share an interesting connection beyond their shared genes and gender. When Egor finally realises that Christina is a vampire and attempts to drive a stake through her grave and into her heart, Sanda and Simina also die. While their mother does not suffer the same fate, she chooses to run into the now-blazing house, ensuring her own death

We found the blazing house itself recalled earlier gothic films. In Rebecca the fire is set by a vengeful Mrs Danvers who hates the current Mrs deWinter (Joan Fontaine). Thornfield in Jane Eyre (1943) burns to the ground due to the lack of care of the nurse responsible for Jane’s (again played by Fontaine) fiancé’s mad first wife. The fire in Miss Christina is notably different. It is started deliberately by Egor (either as, or in protection of, the film’s gothic heroine) as he first attempts to rid himself of Christina.

Despite the film’s many gothic elements (the house, the portrait, keys and locks, the innovative gothic hero/heroine) it unconvincingly lurches towards horror in its final half hour. What was previously heavily implied – Miss Christina’s vampire status – is confirmed as Egor goes on a melodramatic rampage. The pacing of the film seems odd. From a slow build up in the more gothic two thirds of the film, the ‘revelation’ of Christina’s vampirism is rapid. In addition, it is not really a revelation at all for an audience immersed in film and folk lore. The rather heavy hints of bloody meat and anaemia, are joined by embodied items which suggest Egor is not dreaming when he sees Christina – she leaves behind one of her pink gloves as well as her scent of violets.

Maria gave us information about the film’s production, marketing and exhibition (see also the previous post) which shed light on the way it drew on the gothic and horror genres. Despite the film’s high production values (seen in the lavish costumes, settings, and CGI) and its obvious nod to the Hollywood blockbuster in its turn to horror towards the end, the film was released on the festival circuit. This satisfied neither the horror junkie, since the film has no jump cuts or gore, nor those, perhaps more discerning smaller audiences, hoping for a more psychological film with developed characters where we are unsure as to what is real and what is not. Maria also mentioned that Mircea Eliade’s novella apparently gave Christina a more nuanced character, acknowledging that many of the tales of her promiscuity and insistence on having peasants whipped were not true. The film represents these more straightforwardly, with Eliade’s social commentary on the crumbling of the Romanian nobility also missing. It was noted that another adaptation of the author’s work – Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth (2007) – was similarly problematic.

In addition to Rebecca and Jane Eyre, we also commented on other films we were reminded of. The scene in which Sanda is at her window waiting for Christina brought Nosferatu (1922) to mind. The claustrophobic and enclosing atmosphere of the film (we are mostly confined to the house and its grounds) caused us to discuss The Others (2001) since its characters are also bound to the main house and its environs. Crimson Peak (2015) was also compared to Miss Christina. Both films mixed gothic and horror elements with varying degrees of success, with the later film more strongly appealing to horror.

Many thanks to Maria for introducing us to such an interesting film which allowed for useful examination of both the gothic and horror genres, and the background information on  the film’s production, marketing and exhibition.

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Summary of Discussion on The Devil’s Vice

Our discussion on The Devil’s Vice included comments on: its Gothic elements; references to other Gothic films; Richard’s ‘Gaslighting’ of Susan; the audience’s genre expectations; the audience’s alignment with Susan; Richard and Susan’s relationship in terms of control and isolation and Susan’s realisation that Richard is her abuser; the role of technology; the film’s contemporary setting; the film’s purpose of the promotion of awareness of domestic abuse and the relation of this to the Gothic.

Like last session’s The Diary of Sophronia Winters, The Devil’s Vice contained a checklist of gothic elements. The opening shots of Susan, as a woman-in-peril, falling through the space from the top of the stairs onto the hard floor beneath emphasises the importance of the house. This is where much of the film’s events take place (the only other settings are a hospital, a  local library, a coffee shop and a police station), with its two staircases also playing prominent roles. Other aspects of the house are significant: there is a mirror on the stairs, several locked doors, focus on a keyhole, creepy portraits (specifically an old black and white formal photograph of a group of children and their schoolteacher, nicknamed ‘Smiler’ by Susan and Richard and seen as a demon), bats in the attic (and later in reference to this a comparison to Dracula’s house) and a disturbing doll in the no-longer needed nursery. In addition to Susan’s status as woman-in-peril she, like many other gothic heroines, is an active investigator who is seeking an answer to what is happening – and engages in the often-present action of walking down the stairs in her nightwear. In keeping with the contemporary setting, Susan is clad in pyjamas rather than a nightdress, and lacks a candlestick to light her way.

More specific references to gothic and horror films abound. The spiral staircase invokes memory of Robert Siodmak’s 1945 film. Susan’s research into the possible presence of a poltergeist summons up thoughts of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), and her misleading suggestion that they call in a catholic priest brought to mind William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). Other points of plot similarity to gothic films include the pain of child loss (in J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage, 2007) and concern for Susan expressed by her husband Richard to his wife’s friend (Douglas Sirk’s Sleep My Love, 1948). Aspects of The Devil’s Vice’s style also appeared to be referencing other films: the black and white footage of Richard’s attack on Susan was likened to scenes in Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2009).

Smaller moments also inspired comparisons. The appearance of the sunglass and strange oculist equipment-wearing medium, Madam Barbara, reminded us of Insidious (James Wan, 2010). Shots of Susan painfully and slowly crawling across the floor after being attacked in the kitchen were similar to Michelle Pfeiffer’s attempts to escape her husband in Robert Zemecki’s What Lies Beneath (2000)Richard’s sing-song taunting while addressing Susan by her name as she’s attempting to find proof of his attacks echoed that in The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980). The colour red also gains significance when Richard is about to repaint the no longer needed nursery in a blood red hue; when combined with The Devil’s Vice’s concern with children and the occult, this made us think of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

We also brought in our own knowledge of other gothic texts and films. Particular attention was paid to Susan’s moment of realisation that her husband is her attacker. This occurs in the office as she watches footage form the cameras she has placed in the kitchen. It was noted that this pivot is in some ways is akin to Bluebeard’s eight wife entering the secret room which contains the bodies of his previous wives.  Such a device was also used in Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door (1947) when Celia (Joan Bennett) uncovers her husband’s secret.

The film’s self-aware drawing on of other gothic texts is probably most obvious in its use of Gaslighting.  The term comes from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gaslight (notably filmed in the UK by Thorold Dickinson in 1940 and the US by George Cukor in 1944) in which a husband attempts to make his wife think  she is going mad and thus gain control of her fortune. In The Devil’s Vice, Richard engages in such behaviour by placing the creepy photograph in their home. Susan later doubts herself when she remembers that the schoolteacher’s eyes in the photographs have always been closed while Richard insists the opposite is the case.  (He has presumably used digital alteration to support his position, since the audience agrees with Susan.)  Not all Richard’s manipulations are as clear-cut. His suggestion that Susan research the history of the house seems less than helpful, while his subtle undermining of Susan to her friend Helen and the hospital doctor includes him planting the idea that Susan harms herself.  We even wondered if the anti-depressants in Susan’s system were only present because Richard was drugging her in order to undermine her at this point.

Much of this is only seen in retrospect, once it is revealed that Richard is an abuser. This is also true of the way in which Madam Barbara’s ambiguous warning to Susan that ‘he’ will kill her, and that she should leave the house, becomes reframed as a clear denouncement of Richard. Similarly, Susan’s friend Helen asking Susan if she has received the messages she gave to Richard, and indeed her straight forward question of whether Richard is hurting Susan, are afforded extra significance. The oddness of the latter was made more apparent when we considered it later – Helen would hardly have asked this unless she was already concerned.  Some of us suspected Richard early on; he seemed too perfect and his ever-ready smile caused us to make connections with ‘Smiler’ in the photograph. In addition, we are familiar with Gothic tropes, and in the gothic the husband is often the perpetrator. Yet like Susan, who is clearly also aware of some of the horror tropes present (she researches the Occult, knows about poltergeists and considers calling in a catholic priest for an exorcism) others in the group, despite their awareness of the related matter of the gothic, only realised later.  It was knowledge of horror films which led to this. It occurred just after Richard claimed he had been attacked by the demon – while the woman often sees the demon in horror films, this is far less true of the man.

The delayed realisation reveals the success of the film’s attempt to align us with Susan. We spend most of our time with Susan, with Richard’s life away from the house little commented on – we just see him in his pinstripe shirt and suit, setting off for an undemanding day at work. Our alignment is not just in terms of sympathy, but in point of view. This is not strictly literal, but significantly we, like Susan do not physically see her attacker until the camera footage is screened. This means the revelation is indeed a plot twist for some of the audience.

We further pondered Susan and Richard’s relationship, speculating on how long they had been together and when the abuse started. Susan seems highly conditioned to her situation, accepting Richard’s control and her isolation without question. Oddly many of us also accepted Susan’s isolation until considering it more after the screening. In addition to the earlier mention that Richard has isolated Susan from Helen, we found it troubling that she had no friends or family to turn to – even by telephone. The house, in which Susan spends the majority of her time, is also physically isolated – with Richard using the couple’s one car to go to work every day. Some of us even credited Richard with more control than he possessed by wondering if he planted the card for Madam Barbara in the library book on the Occult. What happened during her visit discounted this theory, since Madam Barbara does not reinforce Richard’s ideas on the presence of demons. While Richard has not arranged the Madam Barbara’s appearance, she nonetheless seems frightened of him too since she leaves after giving only an ambiguous warning to Susan, and does not return to check on Susan.

Instead, Susan takes the matter into her own hands. She escalates the situation with Richard by goading the ‘demon’ until he attacks her – in full view of the cameras in the kitchen. Susan is prompted to take this action after ‘Smiler’ has apparently attacked Richard. The couple sits in the car, with Susan at the wheel, ready to drive them both away from the danger in the house. She is stopped by Richard, who asserts that Susan will never be able to escape from the demon, who he claims is feeding off the guilt she feels at losing her unborn children. This argument is illogical since Susan’s miscarriage occurred when she was attacked (seemingly by the demon). Susan does not question Richard’s logic.  It is only after Susan sees the visual evidence from the cameras that the two parts of her brain which have previously been dissociated, join together, and she sees Richard as her abuser.

The consequences of this realisation are grim for Susan. Richard hits her over the head with the laptop on which she has been viewing the camera footage. We wondered if perhaps a similar realisation had prompted the attack at the start of the film. It is also possible that Richard deliberately timed it so that causing the loss of her babies would further punish Susan, make her more vulnerable, and place her more fully in his control. Sadly it is the case that an abuser never needs a reason to abuse. The morning after Susan’s discovery, Richard seems a little wary of her. Susan is especially forceful in her squashing of sausages in the frying pan, perhaps causing him, like us, to wonder if he was about to be attacked with this most domestic of weapons. He is right to be concerned. Although Richard foolishly takes at face value Susan’s suggestion they consult a catholic priest, she finally finds proof of his abuse (courtesy of the camera she placed in the fruit bowl which she has previously overlooked)  and leaves him.

Symbolically Susan leaves behind her rather ostentatious engagement/wedding ring. Susan and Richard are obviously comfortably off; they rent or own a large house, have a four wheel drive car, neither is overworked, and Susan can spend several hundred pounds on her investigations without blinking. The ring is another sign of this wealth. It is also indicative of something else though. A member of the group was reminded of the Adrienne Rich poem ‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’. This discusses the ‘massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band’ on Aunt Jennifer’s hand and references imperialism and the oppression of women by men. (You can find the full poem here: http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88v/rich-jennifer-tiger.html)  As with The Yellow Wallpaper and The Diary of Sophronia Winters, patriarchy is signalled to be damaging, and women are advised to avoid marriage.

Susan, with the help of technology, manages to extricate herself from her situation. Seeing film footage of Richard attacking her is what makes Susan see the truth, and also provides proof for the police. Susan was also able to access this technology via other technology – she orders the cameras over the internet she perhaps surprisingly has some access to. Technology is not wholly positive, however, since Richard uses it to physically attack Susan.

Such instances of technology clearly place the film in the modern day. The modern is also reflected in the decoration of the central aspect of the house. While it has Gothic elements (an almost church-like appearance, especially evident in its windows) the interior is stylish and modern. The fact it is largely functional also suggests emptiness. There seem to be few personal items, with the main photograph that of a group of children and their schoolteacher. While some Gothic films are set in contemporary times (notably Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), Secret Beyond the Door, and Bryan Forbes’ The Stepford Wives (1975)), more often they take place in the past (Gaslight, The Spiral Staircase, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Dragonwyck (1946) and Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961).

Setting films in the past provides the audience with distance from the narrative, to allow them to deny the relevance of the gothic (and its disturbing overtones) to the present day. By contrast, The Devil’s Vice is set in contemporary times since social documentary and feature film maker Peter Watkins-Hughes’ main remit was to raise awareness of domestic abuse and to encourage people to seek help.  It was released at the time Clare’s Law –the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme was rolled out across the UK. The law allows people with concerns to make enquiries about a partner. You can find out more on the film’s website: http://www.thedevilsvice.org.uk/

We thought that the film was very effective in using its small cast of fewer than ten, limited running time and few locations. These all added to the sense of constraint. However, the tone was occasionally uneven (especially in Helen’s visit to the house seemingly being played for a little comedy), and we found Susan’s desire to return to home a bit unbelievable. Regardless of how much Susan is being controlled, she has suffered not just terrible physical trauma but the emotional effect of losing her unborn babies. This is dealt with quickly. While the focus on extreme physical violence is understandable in terms of seeing what is already in plain sight, it underplays the significance of the more subtle ways people abuse others. Since the film’s release, the matter of coercive control has also been more discussed, and indeed in March 2015  was included in the Serious Crime Act https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/482528/Controlling_or_coercive_behaviour_-_statutory_guidance.pdf)

But the film did raise our awareness in making the connection between Gothic heroines and domestic abuse – whether physical, emotional, or both. This crystallised for us the continuing relevance of the Gothic, especially in a world that continues to be unequal.

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Summary of Discussion on The Yellow Wallpaper and The Diary of Sophronia Winters

We first listened to a copy of the radio version of The Yellow Wallpaper. This included the original advertisements before, within, and after the show. We discussed this especially in relation to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story.

The unnamed heroine suggested connections to the second Mrs de Winter in Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca. Because the radio dramatized action more than the short story – we ‘objectively’ heard conversations – the fact the narrator is not addressed by name by those around her is more evident. We especially noticed the terms used, like ‘pet’, ‘goose’ and ‘dope’.

The issue of the audience the narrator was addressing was also raised. While in the radio version we hear the scratching of her writing, her thoughts are of course conveyed by her speech. Significantly this is not a simple rendering on the short story – a kind of journal. The aural medium almost precludes the need for writing, and makes the narrator seem both less and more cut off: we feel more connected to than since we appear to be more directly addressed, but this reveals that we are all she has.

Indeed the speaker also seems more confined in terms of her activities (in the short story she goes riding) while the radio version foregrounds the house and the attic room. This is evident at the very beginning which opens with description of arriving at the house, which once more reminded us of both the novel and film versions of Rebecca. Significantly the narrator in the radio version of The Yellow Wallpaper describes the atmosphere as pertaining to  ‘ghostliness’ and asks her husband if the house is ‘haunted’.

This nod to the gothic appeared far less subtle and ambiguous than the short story. It does, however, fit with the radio show Suspense’s focus on thrills and spills. (Well indicated by long-term Allred Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann’s theme tune to the series.)  This also connects to the way in which the characters are portrayed. In the short story all is framed by being from the narrator’s point of view. The very fact we hear all characters in the radio version – and get seemingly ‘objective’ takes as to their attitude to the narrator – creates complexity. The husband and sister seem more reasonable in their tone. (Even though we found the husband’s declaration that ‘I’m a doctor and I know’ less than convincing, this could be attributed to concern and despair for his wife.)  This is especially highlighted by the narrator’s speaking over such comments as they happen to assert her family’s bad treatment of her. A potential disconnect is therefore evident.

This is furthermore connected to the decision to emphasise the narrator’s madness from earlier on than in the short story. It can be debated in both the short story and the radio version whether the narrator is already suffering from madness, is sent mad from being perfectly sane by her situation, or if a precondition is exacerbated by her family’s treatment of her. The short story is more open to interpretation, but the radio version has its own audience to consider.  Since it would be a departure from the short story to reveal that the narrator is not mad, but in fact in danger from her husband, the nature of the radio series perhaps demanded a more straightforward, and less ambiguous approach. This was largely conveyed by Agnes Moorehead’s powerful acting of the narrator’s  hysteria which fairly swiftly signals that she is unhinged. We found the scratching of writing on paper to the action of tearing the wallpaper, with her teeth, especially effective.

The narrator’s confinement in the attic and its possible effect on her mental state was a point of discussion. We spoke a lot about the significance of it being a former nursery, and later a gymnasium for children – this infantilised her. The mention of bars and rings, to which she might be chained, in both the short story and radio versions made her confinement more concrete.

We found the ending of both versions especially powerful. The narrator is creeping or crawling, possibly on all fours, like a small child or indeed an animal. The latter is further suggested as we are told of a line at a certain height which is present around the whole room. In some ways, this suggests the tethering of an animal which is then only permitted to exercise in a reduced area. It was also mentioned that it was possible that she was kept in effectively, or indeed actually, in a padded cell.

There were some jarring elements in the radio version, in addition to the heightened emotion. The tension is at times very heavily scored in a way which distances the listener from the intimate story. While they more closely mirrored the original listening experience of 1948, we found the appearance of advertisements throughout the drama disrespectful, disruptive and unsettling. While the break allowed for time to be moved on by 2 weeks (as mentioned by the narrator), we felt we had been taken too far away from the story by the insertion of dramatized advertisements;  two men met the advertising spokesman and not only commented on their products- Autolite Spark Plugs – but also the drama and performances. We pondered whether a few references to cars were not only used to create a more contemporary setting than the 1892 short story, but to provide a connection with the advertiser’s product. We found it especially disturbing, and ironic, that the spark plugs evoked thoughts of Electro Convulsive Therapy. ECT was an intense, and now deeply controversial, treatment which is likely to have been used at the time for similar cases as the narrator.

We also discussed The Yellow Wallpaper’s status as feminist tract. It was noted that the narrator’s exasperation that she was told to both exercise and rest (‘I can’t do both!’) reflected the double bind or the push/pull in many women’s lives.  Furthermore we debated whether the heightened hysteria in the radio adaptation furthered, or diminished, its feminist clout. Some thought that the focus on madness made it harder to argue for it as feminist. Others argued that the drama was not preaching to the converted; it was heard by a wide US audience who perhaps would not have experience of Perkins Gilman’s short story. They might well, however, have been familiar with the presence of psychoanalysis in 1940s cinema and other popular culture. We can also consider that the show was staged again nearly ten years later, again with Moorehead, on the 30th of June 1957. This potentially reached more people at a later date.

We also commented on Elaine R. Hedges Afterword in the 1981 Virago Modern Classics edition. This mentioned that, according to Perkins Gilman, her father had abandoned the family when she was very young, as it was thought having more children would put Perkins Gilman’s mother in danger. (p. 42, this is quoted from her 1935 autobiography, published after her self-inflicted death in the face of terminal cancer).  We spoke about the latitude it is likely that her father, but not her single parent mother, might have enjoyed; he could move away, and perhaps remarry bigamously and start another family. Such an option was not open to Perkins Gilman’s mother.

This led to discussion on the ways in which women are institutionalised when they do not conform to ‘norms’ while this is less true for men. A Spanish film in which a mother is sent to a lunatic asylum after the death of her child was mentioned. It was noted that now the woman was no longer fulfilling the mother role society had expected her to fill, she was classed insane. This was also related to Sarah Waters’ 2009 novel The Little Stranger. We extended this to consideration of single unmarried mothers and those in non-hetero normative relationships.

Finally associations of the colour yellow were spoken about. It was noted that in addition to having connections with sickness and disease, it was more closely linked to mental illness through the work of Vincent Van Gogh, who suffered from severe depression and eventually took his own life because of it.

Next we listened to and discussed The Diary of Sophronia Winters. This threw some of the issues from The Yellow Wallpaper into further relief and commented more directly on matters relating to the gothic.

The episode was written as original Suspense story by Lucille Fletcher – also of Sorry Wrong Number fame. The version we listened to had the advertisements cut, allowing us to engage more with it than with The Yellow Wallpaper.   It is set in 1932, as revealed by Sophronia mentioning that she is 40 and was born in 1892. Coincidentally, perhaps, this is the first publishing date of The Yellow Wallpaper.

Again we spoke about the heroine. We wondered about the unusual name Sophronia. It means sensible and prudent, but such connotations are undercut almost immediately. Sophronia’s introductory narration (in which she is speaking to her diary) prattles about her ‘gorgeous new permanent wave’ and she is conveyed as giddy and frivolous. (We especially commented on Moorehead’s versatility both throughout his episode, as her fear grows into madness, and in comparison to her performance in The Yellow Wallpaper.)

Sophronia views her life as beginning at 40 since she has spent the last ten years caring for her father before he died. This connects to the second Mrs de Winter’s situation in Rebecca – as indeed does her surname. Like the second Mrs de Winter, Sophronia is inexperienced – however she desperately wants to be experienced. This does not go as far as speaking to a gentleman first though. This shows 1930s Emily Post style decorum.

The evocation of St Petersburg, Florida, a playground with its beaches, bingo, alligator farms and sun and fun seekers, was deemed effective. One of the group commented on the accuracy as it was similar to her grandmother’s experience from around the time.

After the initial brisk opening, and the very hasty marriage of Sophronia to Hiram Johnson, the man she meets and who strikes up a relationship with her, events soon turn darker. This is especially seen as the newly married couple arrive at Hiram’s family home: a deserted 125 room gothic-style hotel a taxi driver has refused to take them to.  Sophronia’s initial recoiling from this Old Dark House is substantiated when Hiram angrily rejects her suggestion they stay in town and physically harms her.

It was noted that the US does not have old family piles (like Manderley in Rebecca) and that a large building is more likely to be a hotel than a mansion. The use of a hotel also signals the merging of the private and the public.  If Sophronia has initially had concerns about Hiram, at least the couple will be in the presence of others. This turns out not to be the case and it is after Sophronia is made aware of this that she suggests they find another hotel. We also spoke about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) in terms of a hotel’s potentially malevolent effect on someone staying there– in this case Hiram or Sophronia, or them both.

Hiram emphasises the locking of the gate behind them: after all, no one will be visiting – or leaving. The reference to locked rooms later – and the fact Hiram has a pass key to all the rooms- also draws on the gothic. We were especially reminded of women who are in fact in charge of the house keys (chatelaines) in such films as Rebecca (1940), Notorious (1946) and Crimson Peak (2015). In all of these the keys are controlled not by the heroine, but by her enemy: the housekeeper Danvers, her mother-in-law, and her sister-in-law. Sophronia does not have access to the keys, and therefore is not in charge of the space – Hiram is. This is especially well conveyed by Sophronia’s later pitiful reaction when she realises that on one occasion Hiram has left her room unlocked. He emphasises that there is still no way for her to escape since the front and back doors, all the fire escapes and most of the windows are locked. The very fact there are so many potential ways of escape, but that all of these are cut off to Sophronia, heightens the awfulness of her plight.

After they enter the house, Sophronia hears more about the namesake Hiram has earlier referred to – his sister-in-law, Sophronia Johnson. (We even wondered whether the assertion they share the same first name was an invention on his part.) Hiram reveals that Sophronia Johnson murdered his brother with a fire axe. Hiram’s earlier way of inveigling a relationship with Sophronia was to mention while they were collecting 9 pointed starfish that his sister-in-law too enjoyed that hobby too. Now he points to a further connection: he shows Sophronia a portrait of his sister-in-law and insists on a physical similarity. Since we cannot see this portrait, it is ambiguous whether there is a likeness, but Sophronia’s response suggests recognition of little more than a passing resemblance. The use of the gothic trope of the portrait, and Hiram’s increasingly demented behaviour, further bodes ill for our heroine.

Before long, Hiram is offering to show Sophronia his sister-in-law’s grave in the grounds in the middle of the suitably stormy night. Even more disturbingly, he tells of the graves of the other ‘Sophronias’ he has hunted down. Hiram replies to Sophronia’s question of whether Sophronia Johnson haunts the grounds, that the ‘she-devil’ is a ‘restless sleeper’ often found in ‘disguise’ in ‘warmer climes’ – like St Petersburg. The terror escalates as Hiram states he always has an open grave ready – for the next time he finds Sophronia…

Sophronia Winters is heard to be especially in peril as after her night time excursion her coughing is focused on. While the episode was unfolding, some wondered if this signalled to Hiram’s poisoning of his wife. He appears superficially solicitous, however, suggesting she stay warm and perhaps fetch Sophronia Johnson’s dressing gown from her wardrobe. These scenes in Sophronia’s bedroom (which used to belong to Sophronia Johnson) are especially unsettling. Hiram comments that Sophronia seems to be familiar with the room. She denies this, and puts her odd behaviour down to the fact that it just seems odd since the room has a sense of being lived in. Later, Hiram notes that Sophronia has the embroidery his sister-in-law enjoyed working on in her hand. This surprises Sophronia, and perhaps suggests to the audiences that the Sophronias are merging – or perhaps they have always been the one person. This is an especially interesting take on the concept of the double used in the Gothic.

Such merging of the Sophronias becomes more pronounced as Hiram asks Sophronia to sing a hymn for him while he plays the harmonium. This mirrors the situation when Sophronia Johnson killed Hiram’s brother, and indeed Hiram appears to almost be setting the stage for another such occurrence. Despite his seeming manipulation, Hiram still seems surprised when confronted by Sophronia and the fire axe.

We spoke further about Hiram’s character. We thought that he represented a Bluebeard character- but unusually one with a motive, at least in his own mind. We also commented on Hiram’s age – we thought he sounded about 50, which is similar to the stated age of his family hotel in Maine. This ties Hiram to the hotel space more closely, perhaps even making it complicit in his campaign of terror.

The epilogue of the episode elicited much discussion about whether Sophronia had been driven insane. Sophronia asks a nurse if her ‘dear brother-in-law Hiram’ is dead. This is confirmed, and Sophronia hysterically claims responsibility. While this may signal a medical professional simply indulging her patient, it also suggests that interpretations other than Hiram having sent Sophronia mad are possible. After all, she is Hiram’s widow, not his sister-in-law. Or is she in fact Sophronia Johnson, who Hiram claims he keeps finding? Or is the entire Diary a reflection of Sophronia Johnson’s fevered imagination (perhaps she killed both her husband and Hiram at the time) in which she invents a new role for herself as Sophronia Winters and creates the whole narrative we hear?

Taking the story at face value, and assuming that the women were separate people (or indeed that Sophronia Johnson perhaps never existed), we were pleased to hear that Sophronia was able to protect herself physically from Hiram. As with The Yellow Wallpaper, we also mentioned the way in which women were contained. While the deranged Hiram was allowed to roam the country, Sophronia is at the end institutionalised. We would have preferred to hear of her successfully running the hotel, or indeed for a twist to reveal that she was now searching for Hirams in Florida…

We also spoke of the effectiveness of some of the sound effects in establishing space and atmosphere. The hotel’s creaking doors and ticking clock spoke of age and the uncontrollable passage of time. The fog horn convincingly evoked dreary outside space and the harmonium was a suitably creepy musical instrument to employ. We compared it to the use of the Theremin in The Spiral Staircase (1945).

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the episode was restaged on the 17th of August 1944 – once more with Moorehead and Ray Collins. On the 10th of August 1958 the roles were taken by Mercedes McCambridge and Jerry Hausner.

We concluded with comments drawing together our experiences of the twoi narratives. Both The Yellow Wallpaper and The Diary of Sophronia Winters are tales told by women (played by Moorehead on the radio) who express themselves in writing. They are advised not to by male doctors. The narrator’s husband in The Yellow Wallpaper suggests she should not write, while at the end of The Diary of Sophronia Winters the nurse tells Sophronia the doctor does not approve of her doing so.

Both women are in peril – from their own madness. Whether this is deliberately or unthinkingly brought on, or made worse, by their husbands is a moot point. Fletcher’s episode takes the matter of Gothic further, as she provides a checklist of tropes: the hasty marriage, the tormenting husband, the creepy house, the locked rooms, the portrait and the notion of the Double.

Neither of these stories suggests that marriage is a good idea and the Gothic as a whole questions the rights and consequences of patriarchy. We thought it was especially significant that this wariness of marriage was present most strikingly in The Diary of Sophronia Winters, first broadcast in 1943. This was a time when hasty marriages were being entered into as men were called away to war. By the time of The Yellow Wallpaper radio version (in 1948) this was less pressing and suggest perhaps another reason, other than the format and the original story, for the heightened hysteria of the narrator from earlier in the narrative.

As ever, do log into comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Old Time Radio Links:

The Yellow Wallpaper:

29th of July 1948: https://www.oldtimeradiodownloads.com/thriller/suspense/yellow-wallpaper-1948-07-29

30th of June 1957: https://www.oldtimeradiodownloads.com/thriller/suspense/the-yellow-wallpaper-1957-06-30

The Diary of Sophronia Winters

27th of April 1943: https://www.oldtimeradiodownloads.com/thriller/suspense/the-diary-of-sophronia-winters-1943-04-27

17th of August 1944: https://www.oldtimeradiodownloads.com/thriller/suspense/the-diary-of-sophronia-winters-1944-08-17

10th of August 1958: https://www.oldtimeradiodownloads.com/thriller/suspense/diary-of-sophronia-winters-1958-08-10

Summary of Discussion on Affinity

Tamar has very kindly provided the following notes on our discussion of Sarah Waters’ novel Affinity.

 

Warning: spoilers!

The group had a lively discussion about Sarah Waters’ 1999 novel, Affinity. Paradoxically, we began by discussing the ending, and our reactions to it. While some of us declared we had never believed in the possibility of magic, that it might actually exist within the world of the novel, others had, and were more likely to empathise with the heroine, Margaret. The sceptics found that they were somewhat detached from her, prevented from fully engaging with the character because of her gullibility over this point.

It was noted that the particular world Waters evoked Margaret inhabiting – brilliantly, we agreed – was stifling in its privilege. It was a closed world, and she was unwittingly yet inevitably forced into her position of ignorance and naivety because of this. The narrowness of her horizons accounted for her belief in, her desire for, the possibility of magic being real. We felt that though the “magic” was achieved through cynical manipulation, perhaps having a working class character who managed to be in charge of events, her own and others’ destinies, would seem like sorcery within the novel’s world. Throughout, Ruth played her class-based invisibility to her own advantage, using it to manipulate the people who literally could not see her possessing subjectivity.

We then pondered whether the novel was Gothic? There was more agreement on this, with group members unanimous in seeing Affinity fitting within the Gothic genre. It possessed many of the usual tropes, characters and narrative patterns. It was easy to read Millbank, the prison as a very Gothic building, fitting with the customary locus of the Old Dark House of books and films. As Joanna Russ lays out in her template of the 70s paperback Gothics, the cast and setting of these are permanent, fixed:

            To a large, lonely, usually brooding House (always named) comes a

             Heroine who is young, orphaned, unloved and lonely. She is shy

and inexperienced…. (Russ, 1973:667)

We also noted that the prison as described seemed alive, organic – wet, cold, animate – which reminded us of the infested space ships in Alien and Aliens, two further films we would claim as inspired by the Gothic.

Affinity also placed the Gothic’s usual significance on keys – though put to an ingenious use, multiplying the usual locked door via all the cells in the prison – and a dead parent, here the father, rather than the original Gothic’s more usual mourned mother. The novel also perpetuated the Gothic’s habitual play with doubles, as Margaret in the house was paired with Selina in prison, and, eventually, with Ruth, as the latter emerged as Selina’s true beloved, her real “affinity”.

We did wonder if the novel could be described as participating fully in the Gothic genre when its seemed that the phallic observation tower at the centre of Millbank was the only overt symbol of a powerful patriarchy operating in Affinity. Indeed, while as usual in the genre all women were victims in its world, yet there was no dominant husband or father figure; although Margaret’s brother did control her money, this seemed to be his only power over her or other women in the family. Unusually for the genre, the men characters were peripheral, non-powerful, non-threatening. Here the heroine’s unkind and stifling mother replaced the evil husband of the 18th Gothics. We wondered if we could see the novel’s world still being subject to patriarchal rule if there were no dominant men in it, but concluded that, within Affinity, masculine power was so taken for granted that it did not need actual men to impose it: the women characters had internalised its dominion.

We concluded our enjoyable debate by returning to the significance of the novel’s treatment of magic. It was wondered whether the reader herself were betrayed, along with Margaret, if she wanted a happy ending for the heroine and the woman she loved, if she wanted the magic to be real. We did not reach a conclusion about this or whether this might be a flaw in the novel, or a device to makes the reader feel the novel’s actions – perhaps, its tragedy – very acutely. Although we ended without tying down an answer, we all enjoyed reading and discussing Affinity, whatever our final conclusions.

Thanks for the great summary, Tamar!

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Melodrama Meeting, Monday 28th of November, 5-7pm, Jarman 7

All are very welcome to join us for the next Melodrama Research Group meeting. Tamar has very kindly provided the following introduction to this week’s text:

affinity

Affinity, Sarah Waters’ 1999 novel, introduces the reader to two different women: Margaret, melancholy, wealthy, stifled by the protocols of upper-middle class Victorian society and its assumptions about appropriate goals and desires for women, and Selena, clairvoyant, desperate, and literally confined by the walls of Millbank prison, where she is serving a custodial sentence for ‘fraud and assault’. Both women’s lives are easily readable within the parameters of the female Gothic; the novel’s iconography and tropes are familiar, with abundant uses of the genre’s secrets, keys, doubling and uncanny occurrences, and with Millbank standing in for the Old Dark House. But Waters’s work pushes us to think, and to work, harder, challenging us not only to interpret her data but also to judge the genre itself. It seems the question we should be asking as we see the two women’s paths converge is: who is the heroine?

Come and join us at the usual place and time (Jarman 7, 5.00- 7.00pm, Monday 28th November) for discussion of the novel and its implications for the Gothic genre.