Thursday, April 11, 2024

What shall I play next?

Favourite pitches #1: halfway across this footbridge leading from the carpark to the shops and cafés. Lots of passers-by, not much road noise. Also used by other musicians, homeless beggars, Big Issue sellers, so I usually only play here at quiet times. If it's a market day, recorded music from a nearby stall can make it unfeasible. 

It's beautifully simple, but there's a process. Before leaving the van, I tune the guitar with my electronic tuner. Later adjustments I can do by ear, but I do like to start off knowing that my E really is an E. It stops me imagining that the songs all seem too low today, or too high. 

A classical guitar with two unclassical aspects: a strap and a capo. (The wide-neck capo, which cost £40, is my pride and joy.)

And of course a hat (ground-baited with a few coins), and a bottle of water. 

That's it. No amplification and no means of taking electronic payment (these are matters of principle). 

I'm always learning to play a new song, and others I go rusty on, but here's a list of what I think I could play today without thinking about it; a longer list than I expected! 

I'll take a glass
Sweet sixteen

Two songs Laura found on YouTube,  performed by Finbar Furey. The latter one dates back to the 1890s. Both of them strong and nostalgic, making an instant emotional connection.

La mer

The great song by Charles Trenet that he wrote on a demob train at the end of WW2, celebrating the unglamorous Mediterranean coast near his birthplace of Narbonne; and for his nation the half-forgotten possibility, at last, of something called leisure. For some reason I decided at an early stage to switch the rhythm to triple time. 

Singing in the rain

For obvious reasons, a handy song to have in your repertoire. Just four chords, and loads of fun to play.

The weight

Robbie Robertson's 1960s classic of mundane hanging around and getting tangled up in complications, that somehow takes on a biblical resonance and encapsulates a new youth culture.  Lots of opportunity for neat little guitar fills. You'd think the chorus wouldn't work with just a single voice, but I enjoy trying.

A matter of time

Two songs I've lived with for forty years, since Los Lobos released their first album. Both in different ways songs about leaving home, the experience of Mexicans seeking a better life in the USA. I feel I do pretty well emulating the band arrangement of Matter of Time, but the awesome guitar introduction to Evangeline still eludes me. 


The Michael Nesmith classic, from Magnetic South; challenging falsetto bits, a bouncy rhythm and irresistible melody.

Grandpa (tell me 'bout the good old days)

Another song Laura put me on to, bringing back distant memories of the Judds. A song whose sweetness contains irony, doubt and anger.

Our last summer

The Abba song about a Paris romance in flower power days. I always (mentally) take a deep breath before starting it; it's all action, with no pauses for thought. Of course it's not unusual for me to make a mistake, in this and all the other songs, but that doesn't matter much when you're busking, when people are mostly just hearing snatches. The emphasis is on keeping going and communicating a feeling, and playing as loud as you can without it falling apart. It's a completely different skillset from the expressive dynamics and subtleties of playing in a quiet room.

Thanks for the memory

I discovered this on a CD by one of my heroes, Mildred Bailey. Fantastic swing era number; it's a lot of fun trying to emulate a swing band on an acoustic guitar. 

Georgia on my mind

This was on the Mildred Bailey CD too; it's from her I learnt the introductory verse, which Ray Charles and The Band didn't use. I never have the feeling that my British passers-by recognize this song or care for it, but I do.

Get set for the blues

Another jazzy song that steps from seventh to seventh. I heard it many years ago on Julie London's About the Blues, and I've loved it ever since.

Baby I'm feeling it now
Lay all your cards on the table
Waltz 1
Waltz 2

Three songs composed by me, and two guitar pieces that have no titles. Waltz 1 really needs Laura's harmonica. 

Please help me I'm falling

I've been playing this song so long that I can't really remember how it came about. I knew Don Gibson's version, but that was in prehistory. I think I must have been reminded of it more recently by a cheap country compilation CD that I listened to during dull commutes. 

Den första gång jag såg dig
Så länge skutan kan gå
Dansen på Sunnanö
Sjösala vals
Sol vind och vatten
Fryksdalsdans nr 2

Five Swedish songs of various ages, and a schottische to get the fingers working. (On cold days I know it's time to stop playing when I can no longer manage the chord shape of C.) No-one in England has shown any recognition of these songs, but in Stockholm they did.

Calle Schewen's Waltz

Another Swedish song (by Evert Taube, like three of the previous) -- for some reason I tend to sing this one in my own English translation.

Who knows where the time goes

Sandy Denny's song, with a lovely easy progression based on the E shape. As you've already seen, I often seem to be attracted to songs associated with women singers. I think detaching the singer from the song and its protagonist, as folk singers have always done, opens up many creative possibilities. There's something appealing, too, about applying my very limited vocal skills to songs sung by amazing vocal stylists like Sandy. (The song I'm learning at the moment is Al Green's Sha La La.)

I want to see the bright lights tonight

This is another one: a Richard Thompson song originally sung by Linda. 

Streets of Forbes

Australian folk ballad, the only real story song in my repertoire. It seemed appropriate to have a bare bones accompaniment using only the middle four strings, the right hand never shifting position. 

Hickory wind
You're still on my mind
You don't miss your water

Three songs I discovered half a century ago on the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Gram Parsons' Hickory Wind is an entrancing use of the most basic three-chord trick for a song about growing up too fast. You're still on my mind is a George Jones swing country blues about trying to treat heartache with alcohol. You don't miss your water is William Bell's song, originally from 1961. 

I won't let you down

An obscure song these days, by Albert Lee; it appeared on the final album by Heads Hands and Feet in 1973ish. A sweet song about love and memory with an extended coda of joyous guitar at the end.

Wide open road

The W. Australian classic by the Triffids; the same chord progression throughout, but you can be very inventive with it.

Atlantic City

Bruce Springsteen's song, again mostly on the same chord progression. 

You wear it well

The big Rod Stewart hit, still appealing even without his voice. 

Warwick Avenue

One of many fantastic songs on Duffy's first album. Like a lot of others here, I learnt the chords from online sources. They don't all appear to match the complex original arrangement, but never mind.

Always on my mind

As sung by Elvis Presley, but my version comes mostly via Willie Nelson.

Celluloid heroes

By Ray Davies: a wonderful hymn to Hollywood's golden age as seen from Muswell Hill, though it feels rather different from the songs of the Kinks' greatest years. 

The water

Johnny Flynn's song, originally a duet, about dying: the river of life merging into the sea. 

The mayor of Simpleton

By XTC; great fun to play on an acoustic guitar. My tribute to my Swindon years. We often used to take a walk over to the estate where, I later discovered, Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding were both raised.

Favourite pitches #2: beside what is now just a pollard stump, but last year was a fine clean-limbed lime tree. (The council were worried about the hollow at the base.) Plenty of people going past on this riverside walk. Well away from the noise of motor traffic. Sometimes I get drowned out by birdsong; not so much the constant low-register chatter of the rooks, as the piercing jubilations of the wrens. 

Saturday, April 06, 2024

the little feast



Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not—some people of course never do,—the situation is in itself delightful. Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent pastime. The implements of the little feast had been disposed upon the lawn of an old English country-house, in what I should call the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon. Part of the afternoon had waned, but much of it was left, and what was left was of the finest and rarest quality. Real dusk would not arrive for many hours; but the flood of summer light had begun to ebb, the air had grown mellow, the shadows were long upon the smooth, dense turf. They lengthened slowly, however, and the scene expressed that sense of leisure still to come which is perhaps the chief source of one’s enjoyment of such a scene at such an hour. From five o’clock to eight is on certain occasions a little eternity; but on such an occasion as this the interval could be only an eternity of pleasure.

(Opening of Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady (1881).)

Well yes, I can relate to the last bit. It's like the tea interval during a test match, when you know that the longest and often most eventful session of play still lies ahead of you.

To really relish the "little feast" we seem to need an expanse of green and a lot of leisure. 

Perhaps, too, the absence of too much food: the outcome should be energising, refreshing us for a longer pull. Heavier meals slow us down, change our mood, break our impetus. But afternoon tea, not overly laden with cakes, prolongs it. 

And one final element of the agreeable hour (James' "hour" means a certain time of day, not a period of sixty minutes): the preparation of the tea should be carried out by others. Gardencourt, like everywhere else in this novel, is sustained by unnamed invisible servants. The characters in the novel need do no more than occasionally order a change of location. (It's a pitiful sign of Pansy Osmond's constrained position that she's always busying herself with pouring the tea.)

Who, actually, is experiencing this agreeable feeling? Most evidently the reader, guided by the pleasant narrator. We're perhaps being readied too for Isabel Archer's response to the scene when she emerges from the house in the next chapter. 

But as for this afternoon's three partakers (or non-partakers) it's a bit less clear. It's perfect weather for tea outdoors, though Mr Touchett must keep the shawl over his knees, Ralph insists. It's nice that Warburton has ridden over. (That's what Ralph calls him; the narrator wouldn't dare.) Still there's a consonance between the hour (mellow light, ebbing sun) and the sickly father and son, the father much declined in the last year. His tea, we'll learn later, is diluted. There isn't much to talk about. The younger pair spin jokes out of misrepresenting what they've said to each other. Father and son have gone over and over Mrs Touchett's cablegrams, teasing every possible ambiguity out of their fairly plain substance. It's evident that the unknown niece has been much talked of; Ralph is very clear about her name, though it isn't in the cablegrams. And she's very much wanted too, in these senescent, comfortably numb surroundings. The moment they see her in person, see that she's pretty and smart, both Ralph and Lord Warburton are powerfully stirred, and it's just as the elder Mr Touchett has foreseen: the crosscurrents of acquisitiveness and protectiveness that will ripple through his exclusive backwater.

The freighted word "interesting" is thrown around in relation to Miss Archer; that familiar euphemism, in 19th-century literature, for feelings of a romantic nature. Still, the word of which the gentlemen are most aware is "Miss". Isabel's availability, her not yet settled state, is apparently like the unsolved clue that people can't stop being pleasantly tormented by. The Portrait of a Lady is monomanically obsessed with marriage; this tiresome staple of mediocre novels fills its every nook.

Litter, weedkilled field


Marriage is apparently highly desirable, hyperinflatedly identified with the lover's self-realization and summation, yet the actual marriages we glimpse in The Portrait of a Lady seem quite out of key with that idea. If not patently unsatisfactory (like the Touchetts'), they're at best rather mundane: Lilian's you would call a happy marriage, but not a magical one of the sort that the suitors seem to think is in their grasp. Anyway, Lilian's anxiously aware that her own kind of marriage wouldn't appeal to her sister; and that Isabel might do something awful, like marrying a foreigner. 

It's crudely pictured, but her insight is sound. Lilian and Edmund are doers, their marriage and their life are productive. But Isabel doesn’t look like being one of life's doers; for her, marriage isn't about doing but about experiencing, like a visit to Egypt.

Only at the end does Isabel really do something, when she makes her small rebellion and travels to England, against Gilbert's wishes, to say goodbye to Ralph. When she goes back to Gilbert and Pansy, we hope it's to do plenty more, but that isn't an inevitability.


Henrietta’s letters from Spain had proved the most acceptable she had yet published, and there had been one in especial, dated from the Alhambra and entitled ‘Moors and Moonlight,’ which generally passed for her masterpiece.

I think that's my favourite sentence in The Portrait of a Lady.

(Here, as often in Sherlock Holmes etc, "dated" refers to location as much as date.)

In his later prefaces Henry James fought a rearguard action against readers who saw too much in Henrietta Stackpole and Maria Gostrey, figures he saw as ancillary, or even light refreshment. He knew he couldn't dictate how his novels would be read, but he didn't want their central focus to be overlooked in a simplistic or perverse way. 

Nevertheless, I sometimes think he wrote most naturally and penetratingly when he wasn't so fixed on making out his theme; when he neither overtreated nor undertreated -- in fact did not "treat" at all -- but just allowed his fancy free rein. 

Late blackthorn, unopened hawthorn buds

Freedom is highly problematized here. It must be freedom to do something; if it's just freedom it's an empty set, for instance the idleness gently criticized by Mr Touchett in that opening chapter. Ralph has an idleness licensed by ill health; Lord Warburton's is maintained by a framework of opposing values (upper-class guilt, as it were) and we readily believe Ralph when he predicts that his friend, in consequence, won't do anything very much.

Mrs Touchett's freedom is mainly expended in asserting itself. For instance, by an uncowed judgment of "the great ones of the earth", or by proceeding with her own plans in proud disregard of her husband's or son's approaching deaths. Isabel "found her a strange and interesting figure: a figure essentially—almost the first she had ever met".

But that's a delusion; this isn't the kind of freedom that Isabel's looking for, which is something like freedom to fulfil her destiny. None of the Touchetts, enablers as they may be, can give her that freedom. It's a freedom that no-one can give you, you have to take it. 

Perhaps the wretchedness of being married to Gilbert Osmond confirms Isabel's youthful premonition that she, at least, needed adversity to fully come to life.

Weedkilled field


I wrote this after reading The Portrait of a Lady in the revised version published in 1908.

It wasn't a conscious choice, and I might not have chosen the revised version if I'd seen Nina Baym's essay, in which she demonstrates how it overlays a rather different story onto the one James told in 1881. (But without completely obliterating it, producing a sometimes blurry impression of character and action.)

Nina Baym, "Revision and Thematic Change in The Portrait of a Lady", Modern Fiction Studies, Vol 22 No 2 (Summer 1976), pp. 183-200.


The Portrait of a Lady ... The definite article is teasing. James liked a definite article; most of his novel titles begin with "The". It usually suggests something that the novel is about: a character (The American), a symbol (The Golden Bowl), a theme (The Awkward Age)... Yet in this case the simplest thought is that it refers to the novel itself: to James's remarkable attempt to draw a large novel out of his initial vision of a young woman. Which would more naturally be A Portrait of a Lady.... like A Tale of Two Cities.

So I find myself looking for possible acts of portraiture within the story; for instance Gilbert Osmond framing his wife as a living artwork; or Isabel's own behaviour being shaped by how she wants to see herself. I'm not sure it works out, but I'll keep on being bothered about it.


Sunday, March 17, 2024

In the periphery I was secret gong

In spare online moments over the last few months I've been reading poetry (and interviews etc) by Catherine Wagner. I'm not sure what started it, her name just popped into my head. I've known it for twenty years but that was all, I knew she wrote the kind of US poetry I liked; I still haven't read or seen any of her books. On the other hand, there's plenty about her books online, mostly from across the Atlantic. Of Course, her fifth collection, was published in 2020 after an eight year hiatus.

Here's a short poem, or part of a poem, from Of Course -- one of three in the Old Pal ezine. 

“In the periphery”

In the periphery I was secret gong
hanging the hammock thinking CALL MY MOM
not doing that or any other task ha
HA I'll do my job of 

putting head outdoors    the garden ringing  
unfocused my eyes allowed 
  moving shadows on the lawn       
                        like baby whales playing 20 feet underwater
   to shift their noons  
Sun on green leaves brings out their yellow 
      My eye drags tree to sky, prints violet margin.

In the periphery, not on the periphery. 

The story continues in the next two poems. She goes out of the garden to the "trash thicket" on the border of the neighbouring golf-course -- that is where the "course" in the title comes from -- we learn there's a problem with one of her contact lenses, hence the unfocused aspect, which combines with a enhanced awareness of sound -- it's a messy, vibrant, sense-evading nature . . . we see a dead ash tree, the poet curses the Emerald Ash Borer.

In the poem sound comes from unseen sources, blurs remind of other blurs, even what is seen (green leaves) turn out to be not just green and not just leaves. Nature is squeezable i.e. reduced to this periphery ("wildlife corridor") that exploits a legal border (privacy, ownership, segregation), but nature remains ungraspable, we're in it and it's in us.


(Emerald Ash Borer, Agrilus planipennis, a NE Asian beetle that does not kill the ash trees of its native range but is destructive elsewhereThis is the scourge affecting ash tree species in the USA; there's plenty of it in the Cincinnati area where Catherine Wagner lives. It's also approaching Europe from the east, but hasn't reached us yet. However, European ash species are already being hard hit by ash dieback caused by the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus first noticed in Poland in 1992 -- which is possibly identical to the Japanese species Lambertella albida (again, harmless to its native flora).) 


Re the first line, there might be more specific reference but the spiritual tradition of the gong is doubtless relevant, e.g. 

Masters of the Gong Tone of Life recognize that ‘Now’ exists suspended in the ocean of the gonging experience ...

Because the gong feeds the non-linear mind or the mind behind the mind, it is a consciousness supportive tool that fosters spiritual wholeness.

The gong is not an enemy of the linear mind, but a................

friend to all in all dimensions. Hence, the name of Maitreya or Mithra is associated with it.

The concept of the mysterious alchemist stone that the ancients sought and which is able to transfer its powers of transmutation to the beholder can also be understood to be the secret Gong Effect caused by universal resultant tones channeled through its remarkable alloy pulled by the Source, the mysterious attractor we call 1.618033989, and which is the frequency of 207.1 Hz. G#, or approximately, the orbital tone of the Uranus Gong, ruler astrologically of the new present Aquarian Age.

(Source .)

Some more extracts from  Of Course :

Maybe these poems come from it too. Anyway, I just liked them:

"English is 99% buckled to a rock":


I walked in the house
on the flat aspect of the wood
I took rectangular instruction of the wood

                                                             Something electric charged into our account
and zinged out of it, pre-instructed
and paid for the house. I felt
house on my heel then instep and toe.
I had a bad foot and I paid
to get it fixed so I could walk here.
I paid for the house and I paid for the
foot that touches it. I paid to be
directed rectangularly and down a hall.
I curved my body to direct
my waste through a hole. I am helped
and paying for it.
all of me exchanged,
housing exchange.

                                   I saw us standing
   up in the world.
And we sank into
  vibrating transparency
                 like a sea nettle
              afloat in the night sea
the edges of the sea-veil
      tensed slapping above, visible
when the wind crevassed and doilied


Just a taste of another favourite poem, "I walked in the house", from Macular Hole (2004). You should definitely read all of it -- it's only about twice as long as what I've quoted, but for some reason I got cold feet about pasting the whole lot. 

I love that her two chosen examples of capitalism in action are housing and healthcare, not fluff like fancy clothes and sports cars. 

The poem bangs up against not doing this: letting the house fall apart, sitting at the broken window keeping the pain of your broken arm to yourself. 

What's maybe not so clear from the poem in isolation is that there's more at stake here for the protagonist: there's a baby (the overarching theme of the poems in Macular Hole). A roof over your head, healthy and fit ... these things matter, or they seem to. (Hence the subsequent reference to dirty bathwater, as in, throwing out with...)


Friday, March 08, 2024

More flowers of the Torrevieja coast

I've been in Torrevieja, near Alicante, for a week at the beginning of March, and of course I've taken a few snaps of the common early flowers. 

I don't promise to identify them all. My guide over here is Wild Flowers of the Mediterranean by Marjorie Blamey and Christopher Grey-Wilson (1988), a book I don't often have much joy with.

The yellow plant above is a case in point. It must be the commonest wild flower round here, but I still don't know what it is. Here's some more pics of it.

It's a scrambly sort of plant. The leaves are pinnate with narrow, backward-pointing lobes. Some have clasping leaf-bases, flamboyantly pointed. The stems are fairly slender, solid and the ones I examined were basically hairless.

Hairless, that is, except for this distinctive white felty stuff at the base of the involucre and at stem-nodes.

The backs of the ray-florets are sometimes reddish, sometimes just a bit dingy.

Anyway, with the help of online image searches I've nailed it. It's Slender Sow-thistle (Sonchus tenerrimus). I think I was put off by Grey-Wilson describing the species as "often local". I'm sure that's true, from a pan-Mediterranean perspective. But round here it grows just about everywhere.

A smallish broom-like plant, flowers just starting on 2 March. Maybe Dyer's Greenweed (Genista tinctoria), a plant I last saw in a Sussex meadow 35 years ago.

A Stork's-bill. I'll have a guess at Erodium chium. (Other leaves I've seen are more distinctly lobed than the ones in this pic.)

Well this one's easy at least. It's the ridiculously pretty blue form of Scarlet Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis), with hairy margins to petals.

Blue-leaved Wattle (Acacia cyanophylla), native to W. Australia. A major part of the coastal scenery at this time of year.

Pretty confident this is Euphorbia segetalis, though I wish Grey-Wilson had been more specific about the height than "short". Anyway, it's a common spurge round here.

[I should say, I was pretty confident. These plants must be about 50cm, taller than most heights quoted online for E. segetalis (though they're a mixed bag). Also these plants don't look like annuals to me.]

The vicious fruits of Small Caltrops aka Maltese Cross (Tribulus terrestris). I picked them out of my hand after steadying myself to photograph the spurge.

More about caltrops:

Unopened male flowers of the local pine (Aleppo Pine, Pinus halepensis).

More about it here:

Bermuda Buttercup (Oxalis pes-caprae). Introduced from South Africa to Malta in c. 1806, and soon a common sight around most of the Med, spreading vegetatively to form dense patches.

Yellow Sea Aster (Asteriscus maritimus), growing on a cliff wall.

It has other names. More about it here:

Don't know. It's very common, though. Every time I flick through Marjorie Blamey's pictures I hover over Urospermum dalechampii but that's supposed to be sulphur yellow and have backward-pointing leaf lobes, so no.

(Oh, I'd forgotten, I went through all this before. It's Reichardia tingitana.)

Purple Viper's Bugloss (Echium plantagineum)... I think. One of the commonest plants round here. You can find it at almost all times of year, but March is when it looks prettiest.

(It's also in the pic at the top of the post.)

Growing on the close-mown promenade at Mar Azul. A medick, maybe Medicago littoralis.

I was on my own this time, so there was a relative flood of reading.  I dived into a Spanish book that I'd bought the last time I was over, the Penguin Clásicos edition of El sí de las niñas by Leandro Fernández de Moratín, a comedy from 1806. I wrote about it in a separate post: 

When I'd mopped up all possible entertainment value from Moratín's play I switched over to Swedish, a genre novel I picked up in a charity shop, Klar Himmel by Kristin Fägerskjöld. This was her first novel (2020); I think she's up to her fourth now. It's a saga, multiple times and narrators, revolving around three women during WW2 and a dark secret, set partly in Sweden and partly in England, just the thing for expanding my vocabulary. My Swedish is now at about the same level as my French: I relish an easy novel, but literary novels remain forbidding. I read more slowly and hence with more interest than if I was reading the same kind of book in English. (Consequently, I'm learning quite a bit about what life was like in Sweden and England in 1941.)

Reading Swedish being hard work for me, needing regular breathers, I spent more time than usual looking at the cover. It's a collage, bombers flying overhead while a girl in a summer dress walks her bike idyllically. That seems to allude to Léonie's bike rides in Lincolnshire, and it's her dress (red with white spots), but she would have been in uniform. I think the girl must represent all the female leads at once, and above all the reader, entering and delighting in the world of the novel. (The leads themselves are keen readers, always looking for a quiet corner.)

I spent a bit of time wondering about the leaves, too. I don't recognize them; not a European tree, I'm thinking. Shutterstock creates strange new worlds. 

Mind you, when Léonie arrives on her bike at the old ruin in the spring of 1944, "the daffodils and goldenrods competed to see which were the most numerous..." That feels a bit like a collage, too.


Meanwhile, I finally managed to finish off a post that's taken me forever, about Scott's inexhaustible novel The Heart of Midlothian

Torrevieja is a multi-lingual sort of place, and you hear a lot of Nordic languages being spoken. The first euros I made, I was singing Den första gång jag såg dig ... I was delighted to finally add a new currency to my income history, to go with sterling and kronor. I've been trying when in Europe the last couple of years, but never found the right place and time. Superficially, conditions didn't seem ideal here either, down on the seafront, which was windy all week (I don't use any amplification, so wind, crashing waves and traffic are major considerations). Nevertheless, something unlocked in the cosmos and people started coming over, the coins came and even one note. 

I cycled and ran but never felt like getting into the chilly sea. I made a batch of vegetable soup and mostly ate dinner in. But who could come here and resist tostada-tomate for breakfast, the occasional napolitana, the occasional krakauer...? My diary summarizes: Went to Bar El Botijo a few times, Elite a couple of times, Marco Polo (the one on C/ Scorpiones, handy for after shopping at Consum), El Carmen once, LaZia upstairs twice while using the launderette, Zenia Boulevard Bombon Boss twice, Miño (Av/ Desiderio Rodriguez) three times when heading Torrev direction. Andrea's bratwurst stall and our favoured restaurant whose name I think is Gelateria Italiana, though it's somewhat vague. (It's really a food place, with a German flavour to the menu; they stopped selling ice cream altogether when the electricity prices went mad, though I think it's back on now.)

Some other posts from visits to Torrevieja,  including some of the same plants...

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Wednesday, March 06, 2024

El sí de las niñas (Leandro Fernández de Moratín)

Don Diego (Pablo Sanz)

[Images clipped from this 1970 Radiotelevisión Española presentation of El sí de las niñas: . ]

La escena es en una posada de Alcalá de Henares.

The scene is a guest-house in Alcalá de Henares.

El teatro representa una sala de paso con cuatro puertas de habitaciones para huéspedes, numeradas todas. Una más grande en el foro, con escalera que conduce al piso bajo de la casa. Ventana de antepecho a un lado. Una mesa en medio, con banco, sillas, etc. 

The stage represents a public room with four doors to guest bedrooms, all numbered. A larger doorway leads to the hallway, with a staircase descending to the ground floor. A chest-high window to one side. A table in the middle, with a bench, chairs, etc.

La acción empieza a las siete de la tarde y acaba a las cinco de la mañana siguiente.

The action starts at seven in the evening and ends at five the following morning. 

Acto I, Escena I

Sale DON DIEGO de su cuarto, SIMÓN, que está sentado en una silla, se levanta.

DON DIEGO comes out of his room and SIMÓN, who is sitting in a chair, gets up.

DON DIEGO.-   ¿No han venido todavía?

So they still aren't back?

SIMÓN.-   No, señor.

No, sir.

DON DIEGO.-   Despacio lo han tomado, por cierto.

They're taking a damned long time.

SIMÓN.-   Como su tía la quiere tanto, según parece, y no la ha visto desde que la llevaron a Guadalajara...

Since her aunt loves her so much, it seems, and hasn't seen her since they took her to Guadalajara ...

DON DIEGO.-   Sí. Yo no digo que no la viese; pero con media hora de visita y cuatro lágrimas estaba concluido.

Yes. I'm not saying she shouldn't see her, but a visit of half an hour, four tears and it's over.

SIMÓN.-   Ello también ha sido extraña determinación la de estarse usted dos días enteros sin salir de la posada. Cansa el leer, cansa el dormir... Y, sobre todo, cansa la mugre del cuarto, las sillas desvencijadas, las estampas del hijo pródigo, el ruido de campanillas y cascabeles, y la conversación ronca de carromateros y patanes, que no permiten un instante de quietud.

Strange decision of yours, to go two whole days without setting foot outside the guest-house. Reading gets boring, sleeping gets boring... and what's most boring of all is the dirty room, the rickety chairs, the prints of the Prodigal Son, the sound of church bells and service bells, the shouted conversations of wagoners and peasants so you never get a minute's peace.

DON DIEGO.-   Ha sido conveniente el hacerlo así. Aquí me conocen todos: el Corregidor, el señor Abad, el Visitador, el Rector de Málaga... ¡Qué sé yo! Todos. Y ha sido preciso estarme quieto y no exponerme a que me hallasen por ahí.

It suited me to do it this way. Everyone knows me round here: the judge, the abbot, the auditor, the rector of Málaga, and God knows who else... Everyone. And that's just why I chose to stay quietly here and not to reveal myself to whoever might run into me.

SIMÓN.-   Yo no alcanzo la causa de tanto retiro. Pues ¿hay más en esto que haber acompañado usted a Doña Irene hasta Guadalajara para sacar del convento a la niña y volvernos con ellas a Madrid?

I don't get why you're keeping such a low profile. Is there something more to this than you escorting Doña Irene to Guadalajara to pick up her little girl from the convent, then going back with them to Madrid?

DON DIEGO.-   Sí, hombre; algo más hay de lo que has visto.

Yes, my lad; something more than what you have seen.

SIMÓN.-   Adelante.

Go on.

DON DIEGO.-   Algo, algo... Ello tú al cabo lo has de saber, y no puede tardarse mucho... Mira, Simón, por Dios te encargo que no lo digas... Tú eres hombre de bien, y me has servido muchos años con fidelidad... Ya ves que hemos sacado a esa niña del convento y nos la llevamos a Madrid.

Something, something... You'll have to know about it eventually, and it can't be delayed much longer... Look here, Simón, for God's sake don't go spreading this around... You're a good man, and you've served me faithfully for many years ... so you see we've collected this child from the convent and we are taking her to Madrid.

SIMÓN.-   Sí, señor.

Yes, sir.

DON DIEGO.-   Pues bien... Pero te vuelvo a encargar que a nadie lo descubras.

Well, then ... But I repeat, you absolutely must not tell this to anyone. 

SIMÓN.-   Bien está, señor. Jamás he gustado de chismes.

It's all right, sir. I've never been fond of gossip.

DON DIEGO.-   Ya lo sé. Por eso quiero fiarme de ti. Yo, la verdad, nunca había visto a la tal Doña Paquita. Pero, mediante la amistad con su madre, he tenido frecuentes noticias de ella; he leído muchas de las cartas que escribía; he visto algunas de su tía la monja, con quien ha vivido en Guadalajara; en suma, he tenido cuantos informes pudiera desear acerca de sus inclinaciones y su conducta. Ya he logrado verla; he procurado observarla en estos pocos días y, a decir verdad, cuantos elogios hicieron de ella me parecen escasos.

I know that. That's why I want to trust you. I, this is the truth, have never seen Doña Paquita before. But, through my friendship with her mother, I've often heard about her; I've read many of the letters she wrote; I've seen some more from her aunt the nun, who she's been living with in Guadalajara; in short, I've had all the information I could ask for, concerning her inclinations and her conduct. I've managed to see her, I've taken the opportunity to observe her these past few days, and to be frank, all the eulogies they make about her seem to me to fall far short.

SIMÓN.-   Sí, por cierto... Es muy linda y...

Yes indeed... She's very pretty and....

DON DIEGO.-   Es muy linda, muy graciosa, muy humilde... Y, sobre todo, ¡aquel candor, aquella inocencia! Vamos, es de lo que no se encuentra por ahí... Y talento... Sí señor, mucho talento... Conque, para acabar de informarte, lo que yo he pensado es...

She's very pretty, very gracious, very modest ... And above all, what candour, what innocence! Come on, that's something you just don't find these days... And talented ... Yessir, very talented... And so, to come to the point, what I have been thinking is...

SIMÓN.-   No hay que decírmelo.

You don't need to tell me.

DON DIEGO.-   ¿No? ¿Por qué?

No? Why not?

SIMÓN.-   Porque ya lo adivino. Y me parece excelente idea.

Because I've already worked it out. And it seems to me an excellent idea.

DON DIEGO.-   ¿Qué dices?

What are you saying?

SIMÓN.-   Excelente.


DON DIEGO.-   ¿Conque al instante has conocido?...

And so you knew instantly? ...

SIMÓN.-   ¿Pues no es claro?... ¡Vaya!... Dígole a usted que me parece muy buena boda. Buena, buena.

Well, isn't it obvious?... Wow! ... I'm telling you it seems to me a great match. Great, great.

Simón, Don Diego's servant (Alfonso Gallardo)


I've been reading Leandro Fernández de Moratín's* most admired comedy El sí de las niñas, published in 1806 (written a few years earlier).

Complete text of El sí de las niñas in Spanish:

(This is the original version of the text. The book I've been reading is based on Moratín's final revision: which cuts, e.g., the bit about the Corregidor, the Rector de Málaga, etc.)


As they go on talking, it becomes apparent that they're at cross purposes. Simón assumes that Don Diego intends the sixteen-year-old Doña Paquita for his nephew (a much more suitable match in terms of age). Don Diego, who is 59, has to spell out that he is actually intending to marry the girl himself.  Embarassment all round. 

At this stage you might anticipate a story where a lecherous old fool gets his deserved comeuppance, like January in the Merchant's Tale. But it doesn't work like that here. Don Diego isn't much of a lecher and he isn't even, except in this opening scene, much of a fool. As the play proceeds he becomes increasingly dissatisfied with the bland assurances of the loquacious mother and the almost equally maddening compliance of a daughter who seems to be just going through the motions. 

(The title means literally "The Yes of the girls" and is usually translated as something like "The Maiden's Consent".)

Doña Irene, the mother (Carmen Bernardos)

He begins to see that there's something radically amiss with an educational system that trains girls to comply absolutely with their elders' wishes and hence to conceal all their real feelings. When he discovers that the supposedly closeted Doña Paquita is in fact in love with the aforementioned nephew, he generously stands aside, to the happiness of everyone (even Doña Irene, once she's got over wanting to scratch her daughter's eyes out).

Doña Paquita [= Francisca], the daughter (Isabel María Pérez)


Antonio Calvo Maturano's lively 2012 essay introduces El sí de las niñas to readers of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, usefully bringing out the differences between the literature of absolutist Spain and democratic England, the different questions being asked; the progressivism isn't all on one side, both works treading a path between conservatism and reformism.

An interesting point he makes is that Moratín's attack on unequal marriages was in line with the thinking of the absolutist regime, alarmed by an upper-class culture in which marital infidelity was becoming the norm. They thought it led to social instability (as well as a lot of young, unmaintained widows).

Rita, the ladies' maid (María Silva)


A chat with Doña Paquita (in Spanish), along with some fabulous pictures, by María Ángeles Merino:

Don Carlos, the nephew (Carlos Larrañaga)

El sí de las niñas has been translated into English a few times over the years. I couldn't find any of the older translations online, but what I did find was a 2007 version by Christopher O. Kidder (for his Masters degree) that's a whole lot of fun:

It's part way between a translation and an adaptation (the sort of halfway house that was the norm in most earlier eras of drama, until copyright started to get in the way): overall, it gives a pretty faithful idea of the original play, but it slims down some of the more historical detail, turns Doña Irene's thrush into a parrot, and sprinkles the play with a bunch of new wisecracks and gags. (The idea of attaching Don Carlos' love-letter to a brick is absolutely inspired.)

Calamocha, Don Carlos' servant (Tomás Zorí)

Moratín was a firm believer in the dramatic unities, the gospel promulgated in Spain by Luzán. El sí de las niñas is set in a single location over a period of less than twelve hours, and it has just seven roles, all of them good opportunities for the actors to show their chops. (After all, it's not enough for a play to just please the public. If it pleases the actors too, it will get performed.)

You can see the good and not so good in this. In drama things happen and characters change as a result, but there's something artificial about character changes that occur within such a constrained timescale. It highlights the performance aspect of drama rather than the mimetic aspect; it unfolds like an intricate dance. But when we see Hamlet change, or Horatio, we believe it; we recognise the characteristic flow of a personality through time. Because in Shakespeare's double-time dramas, it isn't possible to say exactly how much time passes between Act I and Act V.

And lot gets excluded from such unity. Only afterwards do we wonder about the past and the future; for instance, how such an eligible gent as Don Diego happened to be still single at 59, or how a professional soldier like Don Carlos is going to square career with marriage. 

But at the same time, there's a pleasure to such a well-engineered mechanism. It feels like it can never go stale, like every time we set the play going we'll want to see it through to the end, the dramatic impetus never flagging, each new scene accompanied by fresh anticipation, and our applause at the final curtain just as assured as all the rest.


* That is his short name. His full name was Don Leandro Antonio Eulogio Melitón Fernández de Moratín y Cabo. He was born in Madrid in 1760 and died in Paris in 1828.

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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Sir Walter Scott: The Heart of Midlothian (1818)


The Interview between Effie Deans and her Sister in Prison, 1873 engraving by James Faed from a painting by Robert Herdman.

[Image source: Wikimedia .]

A strangely powerful title, The Heart of Midlothian. (Or Mid-Lothian, as the first edition had it.)

In the introductory chapter, the two young Edinburgh lawyers explain to Peter Pattieson that it means the Old Tolbooth prison, still in use but now scheduled for demolition. (In fact it was demolished in 1817, just a year before Scott's novel was published. ) In those days the historic county of Midlothian included Edinburgh, and the Tolbooth indeed stood at its heart, right next to St Giles' Cathedral. This was because it was originally the burgh's main municipal building (that's what "tolbooth" means in Scotland); it included the town hall and customs offices as well as the jail. It was only after 1639 that the other functions were moved elsewhere, leaving the Old Tolbooth as purely a prison.

There's something remarkable about the idea (however jocular) of the heart of a place being its prison, as Peter immediately comments:

“I think,” said I, with the bashful diffidence with which a man lets slip a pun in presence of his superiors, “the metropolitan county may, in that case, be said to have a sad heart.”

“Right as my glove, Mr. Pattieson,” added Mr. Hardie; “and a close heart, and a hard heart—Keep it up, Jack.”

“And a wicked heart, and a poor heart,” answered Halkit, doing his best.

“And yet it may be called in some sort a strong heart, and a high heart,” rejoined the advocate. “You see I can put you both out of heart.”

(The Heart of Midlothian, Introductory chapter)

This discussion of "the heart of Midlothian" (expression) somehow resonates with our own  debate about The Heart of Midlothian (novel). What, many of us have asked ourselves as the story winds on, is the heart of The Heart of Midlothian? Because it isn't the Tolbooth, important as that is. Nor is it the law, important as that is. To readers with expectations of a thematic organisation like those of Little Dorrit (prisons) or Bleak House (the law), Scott's novel, while no less intricate than Dickens' masterpieces, may seem elusive. It is one of his novels with a shifting sort of structure, moving steadily (or sometimes unsteadily) away from the place where it begins. In this respect it most nearly resembles Guy Mannering (1815) among its predecessors. Both books have, ultimately, a sad heart, a tragicomic one anyway, and one of the things they say to us (as it were from the margin, but none the less powerfully), is that in life we (and Guy, and Jeanie, and Effie) can't ever go back. 

But as novel-readers, happily, we can: and be stirred and enchanted and troubled and puzzled all over again.


So to clear our heads it's good to recall that The Heart of Midlothian (like Guy Mannering) was a huge popular success. For the enchanted public, and for the artists whose work is shown in this post, there was no doubt about the heart of The Heart of Midlothian. It was the story of Jeanie and her sister, this simple, profound and deeply affecting tale in which one sister will not lie to save the other but instead sets out on an extraordinary rescue mission. It was a story about a family, that perennial staple of the popular bestseller. 


The sisters

A novel that hinges on two sisters; it might make us think for a moment about Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, published in 1811. 

Scott had read it, of course; he read everything. In his review of Emma (published in March 1816), he has this to say of Sense and Sensibility

The interest and merit of the piece depend altogether upon the behaviour of the elder sister, while obliged at once to sustain her own disappointment with fortitude, and to support her sister, who abandons herself, with unsuppressed feelings, to the indulgence of grief.

[Source: .]

Scott's remark, the particular aspect that struck him in Sense and Sensibility, vaguely foreshadows the sisterly dynamic in his own novel of two years later. Elinor Dashwood having to be the grown-up both for her younger sister and for her silly parent: yes, you could see a hint of Jeanie Deans in that. But of course the main point of mentioning Austen's novel is to highlight the differences.

Elinor and Marianne are gentlefolk, albeit somewhat impoverished since their father's death. Jeanie and Effie are uneducated peasant girls (though their father has done rather well for himself, if not quite as well as is reputed).

Nevertheless, both Elinor Dashwood and Jeanie Deans become romantically attached to churchmen in search of a living. But there the contrast is almost comical. Jeanie's beau, the sickly Reuben Butler, without prospects or family, has spent ten years looking for a living, with no success. But when it comes to the personable Edward Ferrars, from a wealthy family, the surprise is rather that he's in search of a living, even for a moment. 

Elinor and Marianne are close in age (19 and 16 when the novel gets underway), and live with their mother. 

Jeanie is ten years older than Effie, and their important relationship is with their fond, fiery, opinionated father. They are only half-sisters; both mothers died when they were young children. (Jeanie must have known Effie's mother, when she was alive, much better than she knew her own. What she really thought of Rebecca McNaught, is one of the novel's many pregnant silences.)

Elinor and Marianne are both, we may assume, good-looking girls (Austen disdains describing the appearance of her heroines). Scott, on the other hand, underlines that Jeanie is wholesomely plain but Effie is a beauty; though they do resemble each other in low stature and full figure.

The word "religion" appears in Sense and Sensibility -- once (and it's Marianne, at the pitch of distress, who uses it). It is a subject one simply doesn't discuss. But on the other hand, it's central to the sisters' story in The Heart of Midlothian. Theirs is a household that stands for an intense, vehement and exclusive religion, though their father asserts it much more in talk than in practice (the portrayal of Davie Deans isn't quite merciless, but it's deeply exposing). The girls react in different ways to this upbringing, yet both, you might say, are driven by a sense of election. Religion is why Jeanie cannot lie (though under extreme temptation), but also why she has the faith and strength to achieve the impossible and win her sister's pardon; it's easy for us to overlook how Jeanie's position on telling a saving lie, which we feel so inclined to indignantly reject, is grounded on a living faith in God. And when Effie goes astray, it's with a commitment to her personal destiny that she understands in religious terms, prefigured by the fearful text from Job, and finally issuing in Catholicism.

Elinor and Marianne spend all their days together. In the unrecounted past, Jeanie and Effie shared a bed and they too must have been together a lot, Jeanie watching over her little sister in loco maternis.  But during the course of the novel, they are nearly always apart. Effie's in service in Edinburgh, and then confined to prison, and then exiled; but those are outward manifestations of something more fundamental, that the sisters' lives have gone in different directions. Jeanie is content in the ambit of her father, but for Effie to realize herself she needs to get away: from her father, certainly, and perhaps from Jeanie too. 

[We'll say farewell to Sense and Sensibility now, but not without regret. I wrote more about it here.]

Altogether, the central relationship in The Heart of Midlothian yearns towards a true sisterliness, but never attains it for more than a few heartbreaking moments. 

The reported exchanges between Jeanie and Effie are brief, compared to the scale of the novel, and for just that reason they have a magnified importance. We don't doubt that the sisters themselves remember every word. 

Exchange #1 slides in during a retrospect (introduced, with Scott's customary misleading understatement, as if it's merely a sample of their talk).

“Whisht, Effie,” said her sister; “our father’s coming out o’ the byre.” — The damsel stinted in her song. —“Whare hae ye been sae late at e’en?”  

“It’s no late, lass,” answered Effie. 

“It’s chappit eight on every clock o’ the town, and the sun’s gaun down ahint the Corstorphine hills — Whare can ye hae been sae late?” 

“Nae gate,” answered Effie.

“And wha was that parted wi’ you at the stile?”

“Naebody,” replied Effie once more. 

“Nae gate? — Naebody? — I wish it may be a right gate, and a right body, that keeps folk out sae late at e’en, Effie.”

(Ch 9)

Then Effie, throwing off the confinement of this sisterly anxiety, launches her unkind counter-attack, followed by instant remorse. Their conversation settles down, and (the narrator remarks)

It is very possible, that, in the communicative mood into which the Lily of St. Leonard’s was now surprised, she might have given her sister her unreserved confidence, and saved me the pain of telling a melancholy tale . . .

(But it doesn't happen, because their father blunders in and ruins it.)

This is two years before the action of the novel begins, formally speaking; Effie is only fifteen, and it's in that context that we must understand her extraordinary thought, that were she to say more to Jeanie, "she’ll maybe hing it ower my head that she’ll tell my father, and then she wad be mistress and mair". Jeanie as domestic tyrant... Really? (But then her obvious capability, her incredible strength of will... she certainly is the long-established mistress of the household... It might alarm, as well as impress, a younger sister.) Anyway, there's a great difference between fifteen and twenty-five. Effie, we suddenly perceive, feels alone; Jeanie and her admirers seem to belong to an older generation. 

The other communications between the sisters are:

2. Visits by Jeanie to Mrs Saddletree's, mentioned in Ch 9 but not described. One of them forms the crucial topic of Fairbrother's questions in court (Ch 22). 

It was necessary, he admitted, that he should produce more positive testimony of her innocence than what arose out of general character, and this he undertook to do by the mouth of the person to whom she had communicated her situation — by the mouth of her natural counsellor and guardian — her sister. 

(Ch 22)

Under examination Jeanie says she had noticed Effie looked ill and asked what ailed her. But Effie said nothing in reply.  (Jeanie has already told George Staunton the same thing.)

3. Another failed communication, when Effie shows up at St Leonards, after giving birth but without a baby. She's in a terrible state and gives no coherent answers when Jeanie plies her with questions. (Ch 9)

4. The meeting in prison the day before the trial, with Ratcliffe in attendance (Ch 19: probably this is the scene portrayed in the pictures by Herdman and Scheffer, though it could also be the post-trial one in Ch 24.) It begins and ends in tears and embraces; in between, this great and painful scene, constantly switching direction, shows the love between the sisters but also their imperfect sympathy, each unable to act differently. Those tears and embraces are not just warmth of affection but also frustration, a lament for a relationship that cannot get beyond its limitations. (As the novel draws on, these tears and embraces almost take on a performative aspect.)

5. Not really a conversation,  but, in court, when Jeanie is called as witness, Effie cries "Oh Jeanie, Jeanie, save me, save me!" and  

Jeanie in the meantime had advanced to the bottom of the table, when, unable to resist the impulse of affections she suddenly extended her hand to her sister. Effie was just within the distance that she could seize it with both hers, press it to her mouth, cover it with kisses, and bathe it in tears, with the fond devotion that a Catholic would pay to a guardian saint descended for his safety; while Jeanie, hiding her own face with her other hand, wept bitterly.

(Ch 22; the scene shown at the foot of this post)

6. Straight after the trial: another meeting in prison, once more with Radcliffe in attendance. 

“What signifies coming to greet ower me,” said poor Effie, “when you have killed me? — killed me, when a word of your mouth would have saved me — ....."

.... “My sister shall come out in the face of the sun,” said Jeanie; “I will go to London, and beg her pardon from the king and queen. If they pardoned Porteous, they may pardon her; if a sister asks a sister’s life on her bended knees, they will pardon her — they shall pardon her — and they will win a thousand hearts by it.”

(Ch 24).

Now follows Jeanie's heroic journey, during which she's of course out of contact with her sister. 

7. In Ch 38, after obtaining a pardon for Effie, Jeanie writes to George Staunton, her father, and Reuben Butler, but not to Effie herself. There are many good reasons why this probably isn't significant, but it seems worth mentioning. 

8. In Ch 43, Butler tells Jeanie about the letter he received from Effie after leaving her father's house and going aboard with Staunton. Effie knows, of course, that its substance will be passed on to her father and sister.

“... That she could not endure that her father and her sister should go into banishment, or be partakers of her shame ... her father meant weel by her, and all men, but he did not know the dreadful pain he gave her in casting up her sins. If Jeanie had been at hame, it might hae dune better — Jeanie was ane, like the angels in heaven, that rather weep for sinners, than reckon their transgressions. But she should never see Jeanie ony mair, and that was the thought that gave her the sairest heart of a’ that had come and gane yet.  ...  she would, in some warldly respects, be far better off than she deserved. But she desired her family to remain satisfied with this assurance, and give themselves no trouble in making farther inquiries after her.”

9. Ch 45: the unexpected appearance of Effie on the shore of Jeanie's new home. Before they speak, it's a moment of sheer magic. Then the painful realities break in.

“There is nae danger — there shall be nae danger,” said Jeanie eagerly. “O Effie, dinna be wilfu’— be guided for ance — we will be sae happy a’ thegither!”

“I have a’ the happiness I deserve on this side of the grave, now that I hae seen you,” answered Effie; “and whether there were danger to mysell or no, naebody shall ever say that I come with my cheat-the-gallows face to shame my sister among her grand friends.”

 “I hae nae grand friends,” said Jeanie; “nae friends but what are friends of yours — Reuben Butler and my father. — O unhappy lassie, dinna be dour, and turn your back on your happiness again! We wunna see another acquaintance — Come hame to us, your ain dearest friends — it’s better sheltering under an auld hedge than under a new-planted wood.”

 “It’s in vain speaking, Jeanie — I maun drink as I hae brewed — I am married, and I maun follow my husband for better for worse.”

(Effie, I suspect, would rather see anyone else than her father and Butler.)

10. Five years later, in Ch 47, Effie's letter (prompted by fear of the Duke of Argyle finding out who she is), to which Jeanie reacts by  resentfully detecting "a smothered degree of egotism" before putting herself into "a better frame of mind". Jeanie sends a letter in reply.

In entering into her own little details of news, chiefly respecting domestic affairs, she experienced a singular vacillation of ideas; for sometimes she apologised for mentioning things unworthy the notice of a lady of rank, and then recollected that everything which concerned her should be interesting to Effie.

Further letters pass between them over the next ten years (Ch 48); Effie laments the lack of a child.

“Had he but a child,” said the unfortunate wife, “or had that luckless infant survived, it would be some motive for living and for exertion. But Heaven has denied us a blessing which we have not deserved.”

11. Ten years later (Ch 49), Jeanie sends the account of Meg's confession to Effie, and Effie visits her, staying with Jeanie until the novel's final page. (Effie's term of exile from Scotland has now expired; but perhaps, too, this visit feels more possible because their father is dead.) The sisters' affectionate meeting:

Jeanie was so much overcome by wonder, and even by awe, that her feelings were deep, stunning, and almost overpowering. Effie, on the other hand, wept, laughed, sobbed, screamed, and clapped her hands for joy, all in the space of five minutes, giving way at once, and without reserve, to a natural excessive vivacity of temper, which no one, however, knew better how to restrain under the rules of artificial breeding.

Effie now speaks completely differently; she calls Jeanie "my dear", not "lass". (But actually Mrs Butler, too, speaks in a more refined way as the novel draws to a close.)

When they were alone, her sister could not help expressing her wonder at the self-possession with which Lady Staunton sustained her part. “I daresay you are surprised at it,” said Lady Staunton composedly; “for you, my dear Jeanie, have been truth itself from your cradle upwards; but you must remember that I am a liar of fifteen years’ standing, and therefore must by this time be used to my character.”

This is the last time we'll hear the sisters speak directly to each other, though a lot happens thereafter. On George Staunton's death

In the vivacity of her grief she gave way to all the natural irritability of her temper; shriek followed shriek, and swoon succeeded to swoon. It required all Jeanie’s watchful affection to prevent her from making known, in these paroxysms of affliction, much which it was of the highest importance that she should keep secret.

(Ch 51)

(I suppose this must mean, the secret that Lady Staunton is the sentenced criminal Effie Deans. It's now only of social importance, not legal. Jeanie in these later years has become habitually secretive. She is willingly complicit in maintaining Effie's new, false position, perhaps at root terrified of raking up the past. A pardon doesn't take away the family shame.)

Effie stays with her sister for more than a year after that. Butler and Jeanie conceal from Effie what they learn of her son (now or later isn't entirely clear). Effie is grieving. 

In the latter months, [her grief] assumed the appearance of listlessness and low spirits, which the monotony of her sister’s quiet establishment afforded no means of dissipating. Effie, from her earliest youth, was never formed for a quiet low content. Far different from her sister, she required the dissipation of society to divert her sorrow, or enhance her joy.

(Ch 51)

When she goes "the departure was a relief to both sisters". 

Effie and Jeanie (and Ratcliffe) again. Painting by Ary Scheffer (1795 - 1858).



But this list of meetings and non-meetings gives a slightly unbalanced impression of the novel. The feeling of sadness is there, all right; there's a bitter wisdom in The Heart of Midlothian, as in Scott's other novels of c. 1816-1819.

But what's unbalanced is that it doesn't fairly represent Jeanie's passionate efforts to save her sister's life. She finds it easier to express her love for Effie when Effie isn't there (something many of us will uncomfortably recognize). An early instance is keeping her tryst with a frightening stranger at Muschat's Cairn (Chs 13-14), an adventure that no-one knows of until Butler hears of it, and Butler doesn't approve. In this, a premonition of her later and greater mission, we see the same pattern: when Jeanie cuts herself loose from family and friends something is released in her, she becomes herself, someone very different from the quiet and strait-laced woman of her domestic life. If the something is terror it's also joy, the joy that strangely animates her on the very day her sister is sentenced to death (Ch 24); the joy of finally knowing what you're going to do and acting with spontaneity and decision.

At this moment of despair it's as if a light has been switched on (and Scott reveals, what he has carefully withheld up to now, that it's suddenly springtime). 

And Jeanie, contriving (as before) to keep her father in ignorance, leaving behind Effie threatening to starve herself to death, leaving behind a sickly and not very supportive Reuben Butler, sets off to walk to London to see the king.

The suggestion of a quest in a fairy tale is entirely deliberate. Indeed Jeanie's first encounter (Ch 25), with the vicious tongue of Mrs Balchristie, Dumbiedikes' housekeeper, is like a comic version of encountering a dragon (while also a pitiless sample of what the disgraced Deans family can expect from now on). Jeanie negotiates this first obstacle with grace and decision, obtaining the money she needs from Dumbiedikes without the slightest compromise, and as she walks south barefooted, she seems like a woman who can do anything.

And this simple fairy-tale image is retained thereafter, occasionally to reinvoke it, more often to play reality off against it. For Volume III is a paradox, both settled and unsettled. On the one hand, all you have to do is keep walking and trust... ; on the other hand, the dizzying and chaotic switches of mode and genre that lie in wait, for both Jeanie and the reader.

When Jeanie, now in England, sees people starting to look at her curiously (Ch 27),  it's the first clouding of that image; she is not journeying into fairyland, she is bringing fairyland with her. What, more specifically, she's bringing with her is a religious conviction, "borne in upon my mind" (as she writes to her father from York); but in her letters she deliberately exaggerates her confidence: "I hae nae doubt to do that for which I am come — I canna doubt it — I winna think to doubt it —" (as she writes to Butler) -- for, be it said, Jeanie is by no means pernickety about being totally honest in private life. (It's the momentousness and gravity of the question in court that, she considers, would make it a grievous sin to reply untruthfully in this instance. Readers, moral philosophers or not, have debated her decision ever since; but most of us, I imagine, would feel exactly the same.)

And then, as so often in this novel, Scott starts to tweak on the rudder, shifting us into other narrative modes. The kindly Mrs Bickerton, with her "prejudice" for a neighbour Scot and her negus, gives excellent advice but is also a yardstick of the distance from Jeanie's home and heart that she will experience from now on. But her course is more violently disturbed on Gunnerby Hill; falsely signalled, once more, by recognition in this land of strangers ("A braw good-night to ye, Jeanie Deans..."). The novel goes a bit mad, dropping us into a robber's den along gothic lines, then into the stifling folklore of Madge Wildfire and her lost baby (the darkest element in the whole book, and never wholly explained), then into the unlikely interviews with a posh George Staunton and his father. What is this quest turning into, we wonder?

And yet, somehow, Jeanie carries on, until the remarkable chapter when, through sheer conviction and force of character, she does indeed get to plead her case before royalty, and she triumphs. But for all the transporting magic of that scene in Richmond Park, and for all the stronger magic that Jeanie carries within her, this brilliant scene (Ch 36) is remarkably unlike a fairy tale. It's a display of power, certainly, but within a real political context of futureproofing alliances, controlling the narrative, concession without prejudice.... Entering such a world you may sometimes get what you came for, and yet it never turns out quite the way you thought.


Jeanie Deans, painting by William Drummond Young (1855 - 1924).

[Image source: .]


When Volume IV begins (Ch 37), Jeanie doesn't even know she has triumphed. That's the first of her disappointments, in a way: that instead of a definite statement that her sister's life will be spared, she's asked to pin her faith on a house-wife case and the Duke of Argyle's confidence in what it will boil down to. In the mean time, the mundanities of real life don't stop; the nosy Mrs Glass has to be negotiated, letters must be written, her return journey must be thought of. The Duke offers transport to Scotland, an offer not to be refused, and a safer journey too; and yet we sense already how Jeanie's freedom, the fierce joy of committing to her own decision and to all its risks ... that era in her life is definitively over. And getting sucked into the Duke's travel arrangements will indeed have consequences.

Jeanie writes her letters (Ch 38). To George Staunton she writes: "Alwaies, sir, I pray you will never come again to see my sister, whereof there has been too much." To her father she writes: "And oh, my dear father, since it hath pleased God to be merciful to her, let her not want your free pardon, whilk will make her meet to be ane vessel of grace, and also a comfort to your ain graie hairs." To Butler she writes: "And mind this is no meant to haud ye to onything whilk ye wad rather forget, if ye suld get a charge of a kirk or a scule, as above said. Only I hope it will be a scule, and not a kirk, because of these difficulties anent aiths and patronages, whilk might gang ill down wi’ my honest father." As it turns out, not one of these hopes will be realized. Of course Butler's school doesn't matter so much, but the point is the same; through extraordinary heroism Jeanie has achieved what she wanted, she has saved Effie from the scaffold. It's huge, but it's not everything. She has no control over how it all plays out, no control over others' wills and dispositions and destinies. 

Meanwhile another disappointment comes -- and it's somewhat jarring that the Duke announces it, after all, to nosy Mrs Glass and not to Jeanie -- the condition that Effie is to be exiled from Scotland for fourteen years. It "greatly grieved her affectionate disposition", but Jeanie's somewhat mollified by an unwontedly sweet-tempered letter from her father, which has her dreaming of them all together at "a wild farm in Northumberland". Jeanie's idea is of a return to their lives as they were before Effie's trouble: an Effie free of Staunton, presumably repentant, and happily reunited with her father and sister (and Butler nearby). Alas, Jeanie! It's never going to happen.

He thrust upon her a large piece of cake, nor would he permit her to break off a fragment, and lay the rest on a salver. “Put it in your pouch, Jeanie,” said he; “you will be glad of it before you see St. Giles’s steeple. I wish to Heaven I were to see it as soon as you! and so my best service to all my friends at and about Auld Reekie, and a blithe journey to you.”

(Ch 39)

Thus says the duke, with "the frankness of a soldier". The frankness needed underlining, because, actually, Jeanie will never see St. Giles’s steeple again, not in the novel anyway; and the main reason is the background machinations of this "benevolent enchanter" who is now wishing her godspeed. 

Perhaps we should admit that this disappointment (that Jeanie never returns to Edinburgh), and some of the others I've mentioned, are more the reader's than Jeanie's own -- though we shouldn't forget her protesting, in Ch 40, that "[N]ever hunted deer langed for its resting-place as I do to find myself at Saint Leonard’s".

In fact what the duke organizes for Jeanie at Roseneath is a very reasonable simulacrum of Jeanie's own pastoral dream, except for the absence of the one person that he gives no thought to. (Effie, we understand, is pardoned, not forgiven.)

But leaving aside that yawning absence (even Jeanie couldn't control Effie's destiny, and the duke certainly couldn't) it's still an imperfect simulacrum. Saddletree and Dumbiedikes are exchanged for Knockdunder and Mrs Dolly Dutton; well, perhaps that's not the worst of bargains, but it's no idyll either. Jeanie is quite aware, though her father apparently isn't, that all of this fortune comes by grace and favour, not desert. And Butler's appointment is far from the harmonious call of serious Presbyterians that Jeanie had, for fear of her father's reaction, hopefully envisaged; it's Davie Deans himself who (not for the first time, it seems) must bend those so unbending principles to match what's on offer. 

Jeanie doesn't complain. She and her husband attain their quiet happiness because they carry it within themselves, not because the world around them is perfect. She's the mother of three children (there are hints that they'll have their own complications). She isn't now the person she became in that strange freedom of catastrophe, though there's a flash of recurrence at the very end when she kind-of-rescues the Whistler from execution; it's just what she does. She can't give any of her own happiness to Effie (or the Whistler). It's a sobering end to what once seemed a fairy tale.

The Old Tolbooth, Edinburgh. Engraving based on a painting by Alexander Naysmith (1758 - 1840).

[Image source: Wikimedia .]


Placing all this emphasis on Jeanie and her sister, I'm aware that I've said very little, or even nothing, about large parts of The Heart of Midlothian. The Porteous riots, for instance. The comedy, of which there's plenty. Douce Davie, Sharpitlaw and Ratcliffe, Reuben Butler, Madge Wildfire and her mother, Bartoline Saddletree... it's a shame to neglect them.

In small compensation, here's a few discussion questions that you can have fun thinking about. 

If Jeanie had been able to consult Butler (conveniently under house arrest), what would he have advised her to say in court?

The real Geordie Robertson wasn't from the owning class. Does Scott's novel gain or lose by making him into George Staunton?

Who actually was the father of Madge's baby? Does Staunton rule himself out, and are we supposed to believe him? Are we perfectly certain the baby even existed?

"And then what is the poor lassie to do in a foreign land? — Why, wae’s me, it’s just sending her to play the same pranks ower again, out of sight or guidance of her friends." Mrs Glass has a point, doesn't she? (In Scott's own time infanticide was no longer punished by execution, but it was typically punished by exile.)

Jeanie keeps a lot of secrets, by the end of the book. Does no-one ever talk about Effie, are the rest all happy just to assume she's disappeared over the horizon and never been heard of again?

Jeanie refuses to give false testimony. From the 1914 movie The Heart of Midlothian, directed by Frank Wilson and starring Violet Hopson as Jeanie Deans. 

[Image source: .]


The Heart of Midlothian, online text on Project Gutenberg:

Another post, a deep dive into narrative inconsistencies in Scott's complex narrative:

Time trouble in The Heart of Midlothian 

Sir Walter Scott's novels, a brief guide


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