Friday, 28 November 2014

Dylan Moran: Some Things With Him In



Things With Dylan Moran In…that aren’t Black Books or Shaun of the Dead.  He’s an Irish comedian and actor I’ve been following for ages, as I love his quirkiness and I love his vagueness, as well as his flights of weird fancy.  He made his mark over here in the UK with Black Books (with Bill Bailey and Tamsin Grieg) which is marvellous; and also his appearance as an arsehole boyfriend famously torn to pieces, in Shaun of the Dead. So here I’ll ramble about some other stuff he’s done, less well known, as well as the controversial recent film, Calvary (2014).

  1. Good Vibrations (2012)
    (This film made me sniffle. We can dispose of Dylan Moran immediately, as he was hardly in it and had very little to say - the one line that he had that did make me laugh was: “I don’t want that sort of carry on in here”, in a wonderful prissy voice.  Nope.  This film was not a Dylan Moran film, he was just in it; but I’m very glad that this idea of a post for Things With Dylan Moran In, a good excuse to watch loads of TV, got me to this film. 

    Never have I seen such an uplifting film with these elements in it before: Punk, Belfast, the IRA, the RUC, the bombings, shootings, beatings and the terrible daily ongoing mind-grinding brutality of the whole thing.  When you think about it, it’s pretty amazing punk wasn’t born right there; it’s not surprising it took off right then and there.  I’d never heard of Terri Hooley.  I’m amazed that he managed to make music such a binder in this area at this time.  What an incredibly brave person.  I had no idea this was where Fergal Sharkey started, or that all those band members from Rudi and the Outcasts ended up in Thin Lizzy or Wings…I just did not know about any of this!  I love learning new things and I am happy that today brought me someone who said get lost to sectarianism and taking sides and just wanted to play music. He comes off as incredibly na├»ve, and yet because of it, got things done that other people - and I suspect that friend of his worrying about money was meant to be the rest of us, with our practical attitudes - just wouldn’t have thought doable.  I can’t believe this little bit of good history is true - this is why the news is so rubbish; only the bad stuff, the despair – they do not show us that “victory doesn’t always look like others think it does” as Terri’s dad said to him - this man and his music accomplished so much in a small way, in a bloody awful period for the people living there.

    Such a hopeful film.  You can stand up to bullies. You can stand up for something you want to believe in: something like the power of art, music, words, to unite us rather than divide us.  I was most impressed.  Can you tell?!)
  2. Dylan Moran Stand Up – Yeah Yeah (2011)
    (I’m a great fan of stand up.  You can really drink in someone’s mind, or persona.  It’s weird, as I’m watching these gigs backwards, because I’d previously seen the earlier ones and wondered what his newer work was like as I’d not yet seen it, so suddenly…he’s aged.  No idea why I was surprised, I’ve not seen him for a few years and he’s changed his outfit a bit and his hair has grey. 

    This is one of the best things about Dylan Moran: he embraces however he is at the time.  I remember the last gig I saw he was beginning to talk about age, but now, he’s got it perfectly – he echoed so many of my own thoughts, but better, more bitter, more accepting, funnier [obviously].  He referred to the Voices that plague myself and Fry, and mocked them: “Why do you want breakfast again today, you fat fuck?  You had breakfast yesterday?”  Followed by the competing voice that just wants “More Jam! More Jam!  Put it in your pocket and run off to the toilet and eat it there!  No one will see!” He kills the paranoia with absurdity.  Only the Irish do language this way. He sums up the voices: “it’s just age”, he says, waving his hand vaguely.  It doesn’t matter.  It just happens to us.  Don’t take it seriously, is what that hand is saying.

    He gets both more accurate and more distantly philosophical, and appears - so artfully – to be both bored and half cut in his performances [I’m privately convinced he IS definitely this grumpy, but also much more sober].  It was lovely just watching him meander about, demanding cake.

    I took issue with him though.   He managed to do the hand gesture of dismissal over the whole of feminism with one joke.  Which of course pissed me off.  He mentions equal pay, equal rights, this and that, this and that, and then says we could have had all of that if we females weren’t…basically…so bitchy to each other.  Illustrated by an anecdote of he and a woman listening to a story about an inspirational woman, and he turning to the female and gushing with praise about how wonderful the accomplishments of the woman were; his female companion just says: “yeah, but her calves are kinda chunky”.  “THAT”, he says, pointing at the audience smugly, playfully – “that’s the fucking thing, there”.

    You know why that pissed me off??  Cos it’s so 100% true.  We women are our own worst enemies.  And the face he pulled after he did that joke, the look of ‘I’ve nailed you, ha’ and the hand of dismissal…GRRRRRRRR….Thing is, yes, he is totally right, we don’t help ourselves at all with that stupid behaviour; we’re brought up to care for others [mostly men and children, not ourselves or other women] and compete with others [women]. We’re brought up to be a bit schizo…cos of the culture we’re in.  All of us, everywhere, are products of our time and place and culture.  Some of us blend right in; some of us are behind times, and some of us seem light years ahead - the pioneers, the inventors, the Harvey Milks etc.  Some of us stand outside and watch and analyse, some of us find the pressure crushing, feeling stuck inside and not fitting.  We can’t all be perfect feminists – and his joke was accurate with no background, no explanation.  It dismissed feminism with no history, or understanding of [groans as I am about to say this], no understanding of being a woman. Ok sorry about that. True though.  And he touches on it, cleverly.  This is the way some humour works: it’s funny cos it’s true; but sometimes it manages to do a universal truth, to cut through all bullshit - and other times, it cuts through half the bullshit, derails the issue and blames the underdog for his predicament without context.  Victim blaming;though I don’t want to take the role of victim, that’s annoying.  That’s lazy jokes though; that’s how Bernard Manning works.  Yeah, I didn’t like that joke.[1]

    But I loved the rest of the gig. I loved the way he opened with words to the effect of: “hello hello….[pause] oh I don’t know…There’s too much…of everything.  And not enough, you know?”  Could he be in my head any more? I loved his delineations of political stances [lefties are boring and have no friends as they are the voice of conscience; righties look at anything and just say with great honesty: ‘do we fuck it or eat it’, and Liberals have no purpose as they are neither one thing nor the other].  The way he sums up nationalities seen through English eyes. Why women wear tiny little dresses to go clubbing: it’s all about winter. How belief in science has ignorantly replaced belief in religion; we understand neither.  I won’t give away anymore of the jokes - go and watch it.  He is clever, and sometimes mean – but I can’t deny he’s spot on, and I laughed all through this - even at the bit I got cross with.)
  3. Dylan Moran – What It Is (2009)
    (This was recorded in Sydney, so has lots of references to locations and manners of the Australians.  I found it funny he spent most of the show demanding cake - and by the later show Yeah Yeah, that I watched earlier, just to be awkward, someone had fed him some, which he joyfully eats on stage while still talking. 

    Some excellent jokes about the recession and its morbidity and boringness; a lovely aside about religion “a formalised panic about death” fought off by camp gold hats - “I prayed very hard then the fairy came, good for you, have a biscuit”. He decides we need God as an idea because as children we had our parents to notice and validate us; as adults we need an idea that big and all encompassing, so we invented God, to miss us when we’re gone, keep an eye on us - it all rang scarily true. A sad joke about small beans…

    Some lovely political observation - the scariness of actually believing in a politician, hence Obama gets nothing done because we all watch him with starry eyes and say, “no, you do it!  You are Super Jesus!” and give up any personal responsibility.

    I really don’t want to keep quoting the jokes, as it must be very annoying to be a performer, spending what must be ages composing all this, then some thoughtless blogger comes along and summarises years of work and says all the punchlines, badly no less, etc.  Sorry. They are just such good jokes, delivered so well, and with such thought behind them, and such excellent use of language and imagery [if I was a teacher he’d get an A+], that I want to pass them on.  I want you to go and rent or buy the DVD.  But you’ll be disappointed if I’ve ruined it for you by telling you all the jokes. So I’ll stop. This gig is well-paced, it’s clever, its bang on as usual, and it’s worth watching.  Off you go.)
  4. A Film With Me In It (2008)
    (A series of beautifully unlikely household accidents, 5 of them, kill a dog, a brother, a landlord, a girlfriend and a policewoman.  Everyone in the house who isn’t Dylan Moran [out of work writer, drinker, better on the horses], and Mark Doherty [likeable loser type, also out of work actor].  Because this amount of accidents can only be considered farce and doesn’t work as a plot for film or real life [says Dylan], they start to try and come up with other scenarios to explain the accidents so it doesn’t look like they killed everybody. This is so simple, and so funny. It also reminds me that this is the second thing I have seen where Keith Allen ends up dead and his body is a problem; a weird niche for anyone to be in, actingwise. 

    Two of my favourite lines - which you probably need to see in context to appreciate properly:
    “This isn’t a lie!  It’s the new truth!  Right?”
    “I borrowed these trousers.  Mine are covered with forensics.”

    The film has a stupid ending [even though it involves Jonathan Rhys Myers], but other than that, is a lovely little character based farce, as Dylan Moran’s character says.  When you think about it, it could have been an Ealing comedy - the delicious little set ups to the house accidents [like living in our house where the landlady fixes nothing], and the unlikely but inevitable deaths as a result of disrepair.  Or a Hammer horror from the old days, say: ‘The House That Ate People’. Why haven’t I seen Mark Doherty in more things?  And why hasn’t he written more things? He wrote this, and it was very funny.  Recommended.)
  5. Dylan Moran: Like, Totally (2006)
    (I know I’ve seen this gig before, but for some reason I just can’t remember it properly.  There was one joke that was just so funny in his telling of it that I have to spoiler it for you here - don’t worry, my rendition of it is so banal, his is much better! 

    He was talking about different kinds of imperialism in the past, and now.  The English, he nods indulgently at the audience, tended to go about to foreign places and simply be horribly rude and superior - ‘hey! You, you and you!  We’re having tiffin here, fuck off! Go and get water’.  Whereas today, the Americans…he imagines a country where lots of Americans have just turned up and started to buy everything and do things their way with no words to the people of the country. Some people of that country get together and come to a place to have a meeting and discuss this cultural imperialism. As they talk intently, the Americans appear, and quietly, oh so quietly, build a Starbucks round the meeting, and bring them drinks. Before the people know it, they are addicted to macchiatos and tall skinny soymilk lattes with sugarfree hazelnut syrup [that was my drink there].  Imperialism: accomplished.  He told it so baldly, and smoothly…I was barking with laughter.

    There were many good truisms in this gig.  As I go backward and backward in the gigs, I see how much more animated he used to be - never as mad as Ross Noble or Lee Evans, never that sort of physical comedy; just more animated.  Now, in the most recent available gig, it was as if I were watching him have tea from far across a room: still as relevant as ever, wiser and both more mellow and sharper.  Also, back in 2006, proving it was another world, he smoked on stage.  It’s so weird to see that now…)
  6. Calvary (2014)
    (This is going to be a hard review to write because I have to say, this was a very good film, but I hated it, really hated it. I’ll try and explain.

    It was about a good man, a priest, in Ireland, trying his best in a community that I am not exaggerating, hated his guts, for all the wrongs the Catholic Church had ever perpetrated on their country and themselves. The film starts when he is hearing confessions, and someone comes to tell him graphically how they were abused by a priest all their childhood; a priest now dead, so no justice was or can be done, personally. Brendan Gleeson, playing the good priest – and magnificently too – doesn’t know what to say, he is horrified but also, you can tell, deeply depressed himself about the state of his life, his faith, the Church, the country, the people he has to deal with.  His reaction is quiet.  The confessee then goes on to say he will take his pound of revenge/justice flesh from Brendan Gleeson.  “I’ll kill a good priest”, he says.  He gives Gleeson a week to set his house in order, and then he will kill him.  That’s quite a premise to start a film with.

    But then…you go with Gleeson through his week. You meet all the people he has to deal with. They are all [with the exception of his suicidal daughter, gained from before he was a priest], horrible people – filled with anger, and bitterness and hatred, all focussed on Gleeson, as the representative of the Church. The only two other Church characters you see, are a daft priest a little a la Father Ted-ish, in his naivety and prissiness; and a Cardinal who will take responsibility for nothing, and help no one, while sitting in his plush apartments.

    The characters are all exceedingly well done - haven’t seen Aiden Gillen spit such venom for a while, for example; Chris O’Dowd has never been so funny and so sad.  They all feel real, they are all different, they all have perfectly plausible axes to grind against the Church, and after an hour of them bullying and mocking poor Gleeson [he’s mistaken for a paedophile at one point, after an innocent conversation with a girl child], I just wanted the film to end.  It was depressing the hell out of me.

    It was billed as a very powerful black comedy, and while it did have some very funny lines [e.g. Chris O’Dowd on his nymphomaniac wife, who acts out sexually at all times due to a horrible Church influenced childhood, he says: ‘I think she’s bipolar, or lactose intolerant…one of the two’, as if these are equal things, with equal results], it was by no means a comedy. O’Dowd burns down the priest’s Church - everybody seems quite happy about it, joking and watching raptly; someone kills the priest’s dog [the point at which I genuinely started to hate the film, as I don’t do animal or child cruelty in anything I watch – though they did make good hay of the point of crying over a dog as opposed to crying over children victims of priestly paedophilia, later, a very good point].

    I was going to describe all the characters here, as they were all well painted.  But I won’t, I’ll leave it to you to go and watch.  I’ll stay with Dylan Moran’s character.  He was interestingly cast as the rich ex-banker who has bought up the big house down the road.  Nothing means anything to him.  He pisses on his exquisitely expensive paintings [literally, and as Gleeson says, ‘people like you have pissed over everything else’], and he makes donations of vast amounts of money to the Church for guilt he imagines he should have over his part in the mess of Ireland’s finances. The arrogance and sad disaffectedness of this totally unpleasant character, his weakness and lostness, is done brilliantly by Moran. I hated his character, and I’m sure I was sposed to.

    The thing is, I just finished watching the BBC comedy series Rev, which has some similarities to the aims of this film, vaguely.  The vicar in Rev is utterly decent, human and irrelevant, there’s no respect for him anymore, but he tries his best – at the end he loses his church and resigns his job, yet he kept his faith [just about] and there is a palpable feeling of hope, of a nebulous but real kind. Here, in Calvary [obviously aptly named], Gleeson is a good man, suffering personally for all the Church has ever done wrong to everybody everywhere - the Missions are mentioned several times too, the Church abroad.  At the end, bad things happen [not to spoiler]. There is also a glimmer of hope at the end, but it’s a glimmer, that’s all, and it doesn’t feel like it makes up for the rest of the film, filled as it is with vitriol and such such bitterness.  I see why this is. 

    The C of E over here in England, is, unless it revivifies itself in some way very soon, so increasingly irrelevant and neutered, as to not be a threat to anyone; as the priest who does Thought for the Day on Radio 4 – himself mocked in Rev as media whore - said in a review of same programme, we English, since the Civil War, prefer our clergy sweet and neutered and ineffectual; because we associate muscular and strong clergy with a wealth of bloodshed and strife.  The C of E are…dying, in my opinion [please note, no angry comments – just my opinion, brought up amongst C of E, and more evangelical and scary strains of Christianity], unless something changes this, and I’m not sure what that would be.  Whereas the Catholic Church and its empire are not yet dead – they are still powerful, still extremely wealthy while some of their best populated countries live in squalor, and still not properly apologising for all the paedophilia past and present. 

    THAT’S why this film is SO ANGRY - because the war still rages, the damage is still being done.  I read somewhere that this film was atheist criticism of the Church, just propaganda.  It doesn’t NEED to be, the sins of the Church are great enough that anyone can find evidence of them just by googling respectable news sites – and I don’t think it is atheist propoganda – what it is, is a howl and a kicking from a whole section of a whole country at an institution it feels has betrayed them in the worst, multiple, ways.  This is previous believers feeling horribly let down and angry and unsatisfied with the response from someone who was supposed to be trusted and reliable, to protect them…and who didn’t.  And even the good ones stood by. That’s why the end of this film had to happen.  And why the whole film feels so horribly soul destroying to watch.  Such damage.  Such anger.  Not that funny, really.

    Brendan Gleeson was great, Dylan Moran was great. But I won’t be watching this again in a hurry.)





[1] I went back and watched that section of the show again to make sure I had the gist right.  I didn’t have the same strong reaction to it I had the first time, which was interesting. I also didn’t see him putting as much venom into it as I read the first time I watched.  Which means he doubly got up my nose there, because he was doubly right, that’s a real sore spot for Feminist BlackberryJuniper. Aren’t reactions fascinating?

Monday, 24 November 2014

Some Cats I Have Had The Honour to Know




 An extremely old phone pic of the small tabby, Elsie,who happened also to be the spitting image of my beloved Minnie. The Elsie who wandered off one day and never came back. 

I was wandering about the garden earlier, shuffling in the orange and red leaves and watching the sparkly wetness, when white FluffyCat ran through, spitting more wetness with him.  Followed by black and white AlfieCat, then the extremely nervous and highly strung ginger and black HuntingCat. They all bombed off before stopping for strokes and helloes, and reminded me that I haven’t put any tuna or mackerel out for a bit.  Which I do tend to when I know they are around.  They also like mushroom soup. And chasing sticks, and having their furballs trimmed away from their tails.


I seem to have always been putting food out or playing with other people’s cats when I haven’t got any of my own. Cats are just great.  The absolutely awesome fluffiness, especially the softer haired breeds (long and short hair), the cleverness spliced with extreme silliness and lack of common sense.  The way they have the ability to lie and deceive to the dexterity of a four year old person (i.e. you tell them to not go near something, so they just sidle up to it a different way, from behind, and yet still very obvious…bless). I love the way they sit on your lap when you’re trying to get up, the way they lift their chins for nuzzling.  The way they expect stuff from you; the way they give back whatever they please - but it’s never nothing. I regard cats as one of my favourite animals. We get on incredibly well.

When I lived with my parents, and then Troubadour, I always had house cats (cats that were for some reason agoraphobic, who couldn’t/didn’t want to go out), so I always had one very specific cat to pay attention to – all hail Blossom, then the King of All My Cats: Tarquin the Roving Minstrel (Minnie for short), and lastly Zoe (one of those cats who are insane from the start and part feral; they do their own thing, which involves scratching, not sitting on your lap and tearing about at 3 a.m. – all fair enough to the cat lover).  I’ll talk about them another day.  They are episodes of their own.

When I lived in Vernon Road with Stanley, I noticed the neighbourhood cats started to come to visit.

First there was Bodmin, all black, with a patch of hairlessness on her back that seemed to be bigger sometimes than others. I think it was from a past car collision, and sometimes it annoyed her and she worried at it, pulling bits off with her teeth. Then Elsie, a little tabby with all colours on her, lots of ginger.  Bodmin used to behave like she utterly owned the house; just coming in, eating whatever was available, then going upstairs for a nap as if she knew the geography of the place, and had lived there before.

Elsie was warier to begin with, but then ended up even more cuddly than Bodmin – she would come upstairs and sleep with us on the bed. It was wonderful, waking and knowing the dent where you couldn’t move your feet, was in fact her. 

Then one day she didn’t come back anymore. It was months.  We thought maybe she died; we hoped her human companions had simply moved and taken her with them…Bodmin once disappeared for 2 months, but then reappeared. But it was way longer than that with Elsie. Elsie had a warmth of character that was lovely. 

This is why I find outside cats hard. The pain of their just…not coming home one day; and never knowing again if they are alive or dead. I was brilliant with the agoraphobic and nervous cats: I knew where they were, and lavished them with love and attention – apart from their agoraphobia (and all went out to the balcony and sunbathed in the end, they just would startle at noises and run back in), they lost all their fears, and seemed happy and to feel safe. I managed to make their worlds appreciably bigger; while gaining such love in return. It’s a brave person, braver than me, who can have an outside cat for their own companion.

Bodmin, oddly, became a little territorial with age – she started to behave like an old lady cat, who was jealous.  Which is very common among multiple cat areas: one area is claimed by one cat, with no word to the others; and suddenly you have a turf war, where previously all were cuddled up together. I never know what sets it off; but if you have multiple cats, it will happen eventually, I have found. Bodmin would suddenly start to bop other cats on the nose that she used to hang out with, hissing at them, refusing to come in if they were there. Yet they showed no superior or dominating behaviour toward her; no suggestion she would have anything to be afraid of.  Whereas they…In the end, we could only have Bodmin in when the others were out.

Emmie, the newest cat to visit, was a kitten when she came by.  Very wiggly and playful and affectionate – after an aeon of deciding whether or not you were trustworthy and could come anywhere near her.  Interestingly, once we tamed her a little with patient love (just sitting near her and not making any quick moves), and lots of food left about, her mother – or big sister – appeared.  And Mother-of-Emmie was just as skittish as the kitten Emmie.  Her eyes even warier.  We lost count of the times MotherOfEmmie would peer worriedly out of our living room, craning her neck to see where her daughter had gone, and not feeling able to come back in herself. Though she did in the end. And once each of them decided it was ok, they were curious indeed. In and out of all rooms, swarming over each other.  Sleeping on my lap with the trust of tiny children, using my hand as a pillow, so I couldn’t turn the pages of my book.

Emmie got sweeter by the day, her temperament solidifying into generosity as Bodmin’s gelled to meanness. Though Bodmin remained the cuddliest, in terms of letting us pick her up.  I think she must have worried, in her cat way, that the other cats meant less of us for her.

Now we are here, it didn’t take long for cats to appear again.  First AlfieCat (who we originally called Felix, as he had no name and address collar and really looked cartoonish).  He is majestic and confident and strides about with great dignity; except when he falls off walls and such. When he then sits, twitches his head and cleans his hands and face as if nothing happened, in the way of cats everywhere. We used to feed him often, with the permission of his companions next door.  Then there came HuntingCat. She has no tags, and is so monikered because of her starey eyed obsession with all the magpies in the garden.  And her stiff bodied manic attempts to get at them that always fail. She always looks very surprised. She is very clumsy, always falling off of things, and extremely nervous. After a year of coaxing, she will not come.  So I leave her be, and just leave her treats. Some cats walk alone.

The last cat to come by was the best one, in the sense that she is outrageously friendly, and loves small energetic Fluffhead.  White FluffyCat will sit next to him, with her immensely bushy tail and not mind it being enthusiastically pulled in a stroke way, for up to an hour sometimes. She loves to have sticks poked from side to side and chase them insanely. Fluffhead laughs till he gets hiccups; they are great friends. FluffyCat’s human companions are of the extremely laissez faire type.  I am annoyed with them.  FluffyCat has an eye infection and terrible furballs on her lower back and tail (she is extremely long haired, very fine). When she visits, I comb her fur out (which she loves) and cut away the worst of the tangled furballs. I would take FluffyCat to the vet if I were her companion. I’ve seen that eye infection before (Minnie got it once); it’s not infectious, to either her other eye, or humans – but its sore.  They should sort it. I did tell them that – seriously, I was the soul of diplomacy…however. It was one of my less successful human interactions, in that nothing came of it for FluffyCat, and the humans looked at me oddly.  I don’t know why some people have pets, if they aren’t going to look after them. (There’s no point me kidnapping her and taking her to the vet, as she doesn’t come regularly enough to have the ointment she needs put on. If she did, I would seriously consider it.)

As I finished my walk, all three cats came back and sat at the foot of the fir trees and examined their paws, embarking on a mammoth washing session. Such are cats. Just watching them makes me smile. I sat and watched my friends for a bit, then went inside to make hot chocolate. If they come back nearer dinner time, I’ll break out the tuna.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Women, Money and Debt in the 18th Century, Part 4 - Amelia, Section 1


Women, Money and Debt in the 18th Century Novel, Part 4:
Amelia, Section 1

Looking at the prevailing obsession with money, the getting and managing of it (and what happens when you can’t pay your debts), in eighteenth century English literature – with specific reference to female heroines in Daniel Defoe’s Roxana (1724); Henry Fielding’s Amelia (1751), and Fanny Burney’s Cecilia (1782).

We left Roxana for good last time – she had made a good deal of money, and had lost even more.  She ended, as so many novels of the time, broke, shamed and virtually friendless – a female casualty of trying to make it in a man’s world before those opportunities were available, and before it was considered morally acceptable for a woman to be ‘of business’.  Like so many pioneers, amoral and visionary in some respects, Roxana burned out. 

But what happens when we examine a character that did all the right things, and only once breaks out of the confines of her strictly delineated role? Who is the perfect wife?  What happens to the perfect wife when she has a (basically) loser husband?  How can she hold everything together, financially, when he can’t and yet the world pays little attention to her? Let’s see how this was dealt with, back in the 1800s. It will tell us so much about the times: as all fiction does – it tells not only its direct story, but the implications, the connotations; the mores of society, its author…     
                                    ***
And just in case you’re a trifle lost – here are the earlier posts in this series:

=> that’s the Introduction and Abstract to this mammoth undertaking!

=> that’s Roxana, Part 1…in a galaxy far far…etc…

=> that’s the last part of Roxana’s story and it’s analysis.

Welcome to Amelia – the last novel written by Henry Fielding (famous for Tom Jones), and published December 1751.  It’s part of what was referred to at the time as ‘domestic’ novels. To cut along plot short – Amelia, a good and quiet girl, runs off with a soldier to London after a blisteringly romantic attachment and marriage, where he is then wrongly imprisoned.  Disaster.  She is tempted on all sides by offers of help from unscrupulous people, mainly men, and resists them; meanwhile her husband is seduced by another woman in prison.  Their difficulties worsen and worsen, in the way of these novels, until Amelia saves the day by inheriting some money from her mother – she pays off the debt her husband was imprisoned for, and they make a run for it back to the respectable country, from the wicked and dissolute city.  The End.  It’s a real eye opener to the attitudes of the times.

                                                ***
Issues of independence, fear of dependency and a desire for personal freedom are the themes of Roxana; whereas in contrast, the results of dependence and a lack of personal freedom are the basis of Amelia. Barbara Benedict believes the main theme of Amelia, is to explore “kinds of freedom and limitation”[1]. Amelia Booth is the wife of a soldier on half pay, whose troubled married life is the subject of the novel.  Andrew Wright notes that for Fielding it was a bold stroke to begin Amelia where most eighteenth-century books with a female heroine end: marriage[2]. However, Amelia’s marital problems are not love entanglements; Amelia is not a romance. Her problems centre around the moral character of her husband, whose confusion over how to live his life after his army position ends cause her and her children ever more distress.  Eventually, they are thrown almost into beggary.  Billy Booth is not a bad person at all, but has a “blind spot where his financial common sense should be”[3].

My aim in this part of the Women and Debt essay, is to look at the couple when they reach London, exploring Fielding’s presentation of London as a place of both financial corruption and moral danger. The debtor’s prison will be briefly examined, to highlight Fielding’s attitude to the financial and moral venality inherent in the practice of debt laws.  I will explore the issue of Amelia as contained within the private sphere, and how this results in her financial dependency and lack of personal freedom.  I will explain how she resets her own ‘value’ at a pivotal point in the novel, and how her husband finding his way out of the moral maze (and into contemporary approved Christian thinking) sets the stage for Fielding to allow Providence to save them from destitution near the end[4].


London 1750

 At the start of their marriage, the Booths live comfortably in the countryside.  This, for Fielding, is shorthand for his location of all things pleasant, traditional, trustworthy and honest.  It is where “all eighteenth-century couples of Christian values and right-thinking should wish to be”[5].  Almost immediately, the family are beset by problems, centring around Booth’s inability to support his family.  Despite his genuine worth as a soldier, he cannot progress further without the purchase of a commission.  Meanwhile, Amelia is swindled by her sister out of the small family inheritance that could have maintained the family’s financial stability.  Booth, who is deeply in love with Amelia throughout the book (despite his failings), is for the first time seriously troubled about money, explaining later whilst in debtor’s prison:

This was the first time I had ever felt that distress which arises from the want of money; a distress very dreadful indeed in a married state: for what can be more miserable than to see anything necessary to the preservation of a beloved creature, and not be able to supply it?[6]

Dr Harrison’s efforts to set them up in the country fail when Booth succumbs to social pretensions and poses as a gentleman when he is a farmer.  Debt and social ostracism follow, and the Booths are forced to flee to London to escape debts they cannot pay[7].  Here, Booth is beset by failure after failure, as he attempts by one means or other to extricate himself from debt and regain a livelihood – with an increase in debt as the usual result of these schemes.  He is hoodwinked repeatedly by those in power, who are more interested in the pursuit of Amelia than in aiding Booth in any real way.  Muriel Brittain Williams observes: “the way of advancement is always open at the price of Amelia’s honour.  Thus, the financial problems of the Booths merge with their moral problems”[8]
 

A typical image of London as dangerous, popularised by the King of This Sort of Thing: Hogarth.  Here, a 1732 drawing of a harlot dying of venereal disease in an enclosed and overcrowded living space...

In the dangerous London painted by Fielding, extremes of poverty and wealth abound, with social mobility possible but unstable in its results due to economic fluctuation.  Fielding’s London is a very volatile environment.  W. Austin Flanders suggests that the sort of moral isolation faced by Booth in London life is a problem often dealt with in eighteenth-century thought: “the city [is] the distillery of all the corruptions of economic individualism”.  That is, over the age, many writers touch on the twin issues of the growth of mercantile economics and the concomitant depersonalization of humans before market forces[9].  The closeness to what James Thompson terms “the cash nexus”, causes Amelia’s London characters to have a grasping quality, where the mercenary connotations of a legal contract bleed into all aspects of people’s relationships, leaving them “stripped of obligation and become simple items of possession, negotiation or bribe”[10].  The prison scenes in particular, show Fielding as reacting against the so-called ‘freedom’ of the market, where obligation and corruption seem a necessity, and justice and freedom have to be bought.

John Richetti believes that the prison scenes, especially those so close to the start of the book perform the function of “providing an […] initial tone of confusion and contradiction, of aimless disaster and hopelessness that is never fully dissipated in the rest of the book”[11].  Indeed, the early chapters are dominated by the procession of iniquity that is the sentencing of Justice Thrasher’s court, where plaintiffs are judged on appearance and race.  Thus, barely allowing one man to speak, Thrasher interrupts: “ ‘Sirrah, your tongue betrays your guilt.  You are an Irishman, and that is always sufficient evidence with me.’” (p.17). Fielding satirises Thrasher thus:

The magistrate had too great an honour for truth to suspect that she ever appeared in sordid apparel; nor did he ever sully his sublime notions of that virtue, by uniting them with the mean ideas of poverty and distress. (p.19)

There are many examples of Thrasher’s prejudicial judgements: perhaps the most notable being a maid on an errand for her mistress to fetch a midwife for a birthing, judged a streetwalker (p.17).  Booth himself is sentenced unfairly for his part in trying to prevent a mugging, and duly finds himself in jail.  There, unable to pay his way by means of garnish and ‘civility’ money, he discovers the hierarchy of forms of imprisonment: the poorer inmates have a much lower standard of life in terms of food, space, clothing and accoutrements.  One man languishes in jail although his sentence has been long quashed: he cannot afford to pay his legal fees (p.26).  Small financial crimes of necessity are punished harshly with excessive prison sentences: for example, a daughter is incarcerated for stealing a loaf of bread for her starving father; he is imprisoned with her, “for receiving it knowing it to be stolen” (p.25). In prison, everything is clear, if bleak: a debt is to be paid, by whatever means possible; not having the wherewithal is not the problem of those working within the system, as Booth finds out in a later prison experience, dealing with the bail bondsman, Bondum.  Bondum has a pure economics market view of debt (which Defoe would back as logical).  He expounds to Booth, when Booth explains he simply cannot pay the money he owes:

To be sure men must be obliged to pay for their debts, or else there would be an end of everything. […]  Would not it be the hardest thing in the world if a man could not arrest another man for a just and lawful debt?  Is not liberty the constitution of England? (p.318)

Money is seen as the essence of a person: Bondum, by his reasoning, is in this sense morally superior to Booth.  He argues that to be debt free is to be a more worthwhile person:

Newgate, to be sure, is the place for all the debtors that can’t find bail. […]  I owe nobody a shilling.  I am no beggar, nor debtor.  I am the King’s Officer.  As well as you, and I will spend guinea for guinea, as long as you please. (p.357).


Rioters set fire to Newgate during the Gordon Riots of 1780

 John Zomchick postulates that Bondum is: “part of a structure that legitimizes particular passions [in this case, the acquisition and possession of material goods] by bringing them into accord with the law”[12].

It is in prison that Booth meets an acquaintance, Miss Mathews, whom he has not seen for many years.  She is a character with the moral scruples of Roxana; and her function in the book is unclear: she does, however, show the reader that Booth has trouble resisting temptation, and needs a moral guide to be with him constantly.  She is also quite wealthy through her liaisons and acting career, implicitly suggesting, by her presence, that it is much easier to advance, or even to merely subsist, in the economic world, if one is prepared to be pragmatic and amoral.  She pays his way in the prison for much of his stay.  Booth has a spontaneous and ill-advised affair with her, whilst they are in prison; he spends a portion of the rest of the novel trying to break it off with her. 

Ms Mathews is an interesting character, for in many ways she is the dark double of Amelia, being anything but the adoring wife: instead she moves from liaison to liaison, her emotions ebbing and flowing according to how they suit her material needs and monetary whims. Richard J.Dircks feels her a worthy foil to Amelia’s goodness, describing her as “a sprightly opportunist, […] an attractive personality possessed of shifting standards of virtue”[13].  Wright goes one farther, describing her aptly, as “a kind of waif: a Defoe character in a Fielding world”[14].  Richetti sees Amelia as about betrayal and adultery, for sexual favours and power.  Booth’s infidelity with Ms Mathews is an unusual case in its spontaneity, and in his remorse afterwards, as most of the other couples (and singles) in the book “are bent without shame or scruple upon conspiracy and betrayal to serve their own pleasure” – and monetary interest[15].

                                                            ***

That’s where we’ll leave it today – a grim picture of life in prison for Booth.  Next instalment, we’ll see what temptations and troubles befall Amelia outside of prison, and how she reacts.


[1] Barbara M. Benedict, Framing Feeling: Sentiment and Style in English Prose Fiction, 1745-1800 (New York: AMS Press, 1994), p.31.
[2] Andrew Wright, Henry Fielding: Mask and Feast (London: Chatto and Windus, 1965), p.53.
[3] Judith Frank, Common Ground: Eighteenth-Century English Satiric Fiction and the Poor (Califormia: Stanford University Press, 1997), p.52.
[4] Twin obsessions of Amelia critics seem to be: her incredible goodness and patience as a wife; and second, the incredible mass of incident and incidental characters presented in the book as a whole: the layering of one unfortunate circumstance after another. It would be unprofitable to lay too much extra emphasis on ground already so well covered, so this examination of Amelia will only touch on these two factors contextually, and on the way to making other points.
[5] Frank, pp.108-9. See also, ‘Introduction’ to The Rural Idyll, G.E. Mingay (ed.), (London: Routledge, 1989), for a summary of the eighteenth-century town and country dichotomy.
[6] Henry Fielding, Amelia (London: Penguin, 1987), p.117.  All further references to this text are given in the main body of the chapter, without parentheses.
[7] Craig Muldrew comments that credit had a real transforming impact on eighteenth-century society, with “no one able to avoid it: the poor as well as the rich, rural people as well as urban”.  Craig Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England (London: Macmillan Press, 1998), p.97.
[8] Muriel Brittain Williams, Marriage: Fielding’s Mirror of Morality (Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1973), p.101.
[9] W. Austin Flanders, Structures of Experience: History, Society and Personal Life in the Eighteenth Century British Novel (Colombia, S. Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1984), p.277, 292.
[10] James Thompson, Models of Value: Eighteenth Century Political Economy and the Novel (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996), p.1.44.
[11] John Richetti, The English Novel in History, 1700-1780 (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), p.151.
[12] John P. Zomchick, Family and the Law in Eighteenth Century Fiction: The Public Conscience in the Private Sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p.139.
[13] Richard J. Dirks, Henry Fielding (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983), p.116.
[14] Wright, p110.
[15] Richetti, p.157.