May 27, 2008

The many deaths of Martha Ray

'Now madam can you beleive such a tale? How could poor Miss Wray have offended a divine? She was no enemy to the Church militant or naval, to the Church of England or the Church of Paphos. I do not doubt that the assasin is a dissenter and instigated by the Americans to give such a blow to the state' Horace Walpole to the Countess of Ossory (8 April 1779)

Horace Walpole was an inveterate gossip. But what he was gossiping about when he wrote to the Countess of Ossory was the subject of London gossip throughout the ensuing months: on 7 April 1779, Martha Ray, the mistress to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Sandwich, got into a carriage after the performance of a play. A former soldier and present clergyman, James Hackman stepped out of the crowd and shot into her face, killing her instantly, he then attempted to kill himself but failed. He was hung ten days later after a brief trial before Sir John Fielding. The trial left much unresolved: why afterall did Hackman murder Ray, what were Ray's relations with her keeper, Sandwich, and how did the murder reflect the way that men and women related in the eighteenth century. Unsurprisingly these were issues that immediatly contemporaries began to speculate about as have biographers until this day. We may not be able to say much about the murder itself- we know little of Hackman before 1779 (save that he had probably met Ray in 1776 and that he professed to be in love with her- we have no definite account of them meeting between 1776 and 1779 at all)- but we can definitely as John Brewer has describe the reactions to the murder and demonstrate through them how a private tragedy became an indicator for centuries to follow of truths about the public realm.

Brewer wants to take us into the mindset of those that covered the events, not those that participate in them. He wants you to see how an event was understood at a particular time. This event for example became part of a cult of sensibility in 18th Century London. All the protagonists were seen as sensitive human beings. Ray was seen as a gracious mistress, Sandwich's grief for his mistress's death was observed and Hackman was understood as a fervant lover. Where Hackman failed though was in his strength of feeling- feelings overwhelmed him in the moment and confronted by his lover being handed into a carriage by another man, he unloaded lead into her face and killed her. Of course though that was not the only route that one might take to understand the case. Partisans of Sandwich were able to influence the newspapers- the eighteenth century journals relied on voluntary correspondents, many of whom were in the employ of those participating in the stories that they covered- and Sandwich had a network of journalists out to disseminate a truth about the events of April 1779. But that was not the only version and soon competing ones arose.

One competing version was that Ray was a conniving woman- a woman of easy pleasure who had manipulated both men to her evil ends and caused her own downfall. Sandwich himself was a well known libertine. Politically he had offended John Wilkes, the radical, and consequently was attacked almost constantly. But it was Ray and Hackman who attracted particular attention with different publications taking opposite sides- arguing the case either for Ray as the leader on, the false woman or for Hackman as the vile seducer. Some saw Ray's death as punishment justified for her sins: others saw Hackman as the true protagonist and suggested that he must have suffered from some kind of madness. In the midst of all this a forgery was published- one of the most impressive forgeries of the eighteenth century by Herbert Croft. Croft presented to the public the letters between Hackman and Ray- actually he himself wrote those letters. What he presented though was the idea of madness- that Hackman had murdered Ray in a spasm of madness, a creative kind of instability- for Croft bought the idea of artistic instability and indeed compared Hackman to Thomas Chatterton explicitly. The point of Croft's work was not lost on contemporaries- Erasmus Darwin for example used Hackman as an example of erotomania- though it fitted oddly with their perceived ideas about the world, erotomania was supposed to the be a disease of women and not men.

From Croft the nineteenth century largely derived its view of the incident- from Croft and one other source. The other source was Martha Ray's son, Basil Montague. His son also named Basil ended up being babysat by William and Dorothory Wordsworth and indeed in a poem, written at about the time that Basil jr. was with them, William Wordsworth refers to Martha Ray. The Thorn refers to Martha Ray less as a historical person than as an exempla of human suffering. For Wordsworth her name was a word which denoted an association in the readers' mind of suffering but did not refer to a particular historical case. By the time that lyrical ballads came out at the turn of the century, the world had largely moved on from the days of Martha Ray and what we find is that increasingly her life is used as an illustration- as in Wordsworth's poem. In other places it becomes an illustration of the corruption of the 18th Century compared to the virtuous 19th Century. The point is the same though, Ray's tale gradually faded.

It was revived when Croft's letters, reedited and ammended, were republished at the turn of the twentieth century. Most people, including scholars, presumed that there was a kernel of truth to what Croft had prepared. This is despite the fact that Croft himself told the world that the letters were entirely fictional- but the convention that in the eighteenth century meant that a fiction and fact were closer together- that Daniel Defoe for example might draw out the truths in Alexander Selkirk's life and present them as Robinson Crusoe- had died by the late 19th. The new edition inspired a great amount of thought surrounding Ray in particular: some authors took the line that Ray was caught herself tremulously between two masterful men (the account of Constance Hagberg Wright is almost schoolgirlish in turning every man into Mr Darcy). Here the murder is less important than the situation. That is the same as Elizabeth Jenkins's approach who likewise views the murder as revealing of a situation- in this case the social one- how should Ray leave her 'keeper' without risking the collapse of her fortunes.

We do not know much about Ray and Hackman- were they lovers or was the love a dream of Hackman's imagining? What was Ray's real attitude to Sandwich? We will probably never know- but the way that the story has changed in its telling demonstrates a lot about the way in which the centuries have affected the way that stories are presented and thought about. Brewer's telling of this is interesting- and there is more than I can hope to capture here- but particularly in the way he presents attitudes to news changing across the generations he has captured something really interesting. There is something fascinating about the way that a story first came to pass in the newspapers of the 18th Century, with anonymous letter writers providing unchecked copy and the fantasies of Herbert Croft and then the way that those fantasies and letters became the source material for supposedly 'scholarly' editions in the 19th Century and then for fictionalised treatments in the 20th Century. Such are the vagueries of fashion- not merely in what each generation writes as history, but in how each generation views the history that it writes.

Jack the Ripper Exhibition

Jack the Ripper is a name that comes with associations- dark East End alleys filled with the lonely cries of drunks stumbling through the night air, the bodies of murdered prostitutes, the glimmers of street lamps above torn carcasses, the silent murderer like a ghost walking the ways around Whitechapel. There is at the moment a fantastic exhibition about the Ripper and his times over at the Docklands museum in London: I went there last week. The pictures of East enders bring home the poverty of the time: women and men without shoes, families living in single rooms if they were lucky, dirt and grime covering the streets and glum faces looking out of them. There are some wonderful pictures here: of match girls working from home, with the matches covering the desks or of cases that came into the London Hospital: prostitutes with their faces marked hideously by siphillis, terrible injuries from manual hard labour and there are maps of London made at the time showing the poorest areas- many of which surround the narrow streets in which the Ripper preyed.

Perhaps though the most powerful moment for me was coming round a corner in the museum and hearing people, interviewed much later, discussing how they had lived when kids in the time that the Ripper was alive and hunting. The interviews must have been done in the sixties or the fifties, but there are the peculiar flat London Eastend voices, the dropped vowels and you get that sense of intimacy with the past that is so important if you are to understand it. The thing about the Victorian era is that it is so easy for us to assume that they were like us- afterall this is the generation of our great grandparents- but it is very false. The poverty was what struck me throughout the exhibition: the prostitutes that the Ripper preyed on were known as four penny touches- four pence was the price of a room in the East End for the night and they would take that for sex and spend it on the bed where they completed the purchase. Photos of the suspects- particularly the Eastern Europeans who inhabited the East end bring home the nature of the area- it was a squabbling hive of poverty and immigration. An area not unlike the favellas of Brazil or the slums of Mumbai today- an area where visitors feared to tread.

All this makes the expert witnesses, whose videoed interviews disrupt the last hall, so disappointing. One even asserts that life as a prostitute in Whitechapel today is similar in some ways to life then: whereas one would think that though no prostitute deserves our envy, few are sleeping with men just for the cost of a bed and fewer are taking such a lottery with primitive methods of contraception. Equally facile are the observations of a criminal profiler that Jack was probably a bit weird- as though most men think 'ah today I'll go out and dismember a prostitute', it would have been more interesting to see some historians discuss the eras or even better see more interviews about the time with those who had lived in the East End in similar days. Attempting to suggest that the Ripper's society is like today's society is facile: horrible crimes happen today (of course) but the Ripper's case gives us the opportunity because of the contemporary public fascination to understand a type of life that isn't often exposed to us, to get into the slums of Victorian London- breaking that for the facile assumption that it ressembles our own lives seems to lose the point of the exhibition.

Overall though this is fascinating, criminal cases often are. They are fascinating because the criminal like a knife cuts not merely at the victim, but into his society. What you have exposed by that flesh wound is often the things that otherwise would be silent, would be kept under lock and key in some safe and never heard of again. Because of the media interest and the police files, we get to see the life of a prostitute in late Victorian London, something that we would not otherwise ever hear about. In that sense the morbid fascination contributes to our understanding of the way that the world was then: and it cannot be anything but a good thing that this exhibition has chosen to try and make this a display of the Ripper and also his times. The closer we get to understanding the differences between our times and theirs, the closer we get to understanding what Victorian London was like through Victorian eyes, the closer we get to discovering something of value.

It is, despite some annoying commentary, a good exhibition to see- the photos and reminscences in particular are worth hearing and it reveals once again how historical crime and scandal can reveal to us the patterns of the past.

May 26, 2008

Cronaca di un amore

When it was first made, Cronaca di un amore was criticised by the neo-realist critics of the day. They thought it an exaltation of the frivolous lives of the aristocracy and the bourgeoise, a cinematic surrender to the delights of the flesh promised by Capitalism to the Italian middle class. Worse still they read it correctly as a homage to Hollywood, a homage to film noir in all its facets and a homage therefore to American film making. How wrong they were in their assessment. For Cronaca is really a cutting attack: it is an icy stare upon western society and in particular upon western wealth and the marinettes dancing upon the top of the wedding cake of capitalism. The film is about a girl- played by the impossibly beautiful Lucia Bose- who is caught between her husband and her lover. Years ago she turned away from her lover because his girlfriend and her friend died when they were both standing by subliminally wishing her out of the way. Her husband's investigation of this accident brings together Guido and Paola again after seven years and leads onto a similar terrible event.

Antonioni wants us though to reflect a little deeper here than we might about the meanings of things. The love that Paola and Guido enjoy is a little thing which inspires terrible consequences: it stops them acting to save the lives of others around them. They could have saved the life of their mutual friend by telling her there was no lift in the shaft, but they didn't out of love. Their love is never shown as something that satisfies either of them though. It is no grand passion. Increasingly throughout the film Paola acts the part of the femme fatale. Increasingly both of them seem utterly bored, consumed by their lustrous surroundings and drained by them. Paola in particular seems to pass through the film listlessly, she wears stunning clothes, drives amazing cars and is amazingly beautiful (such that her husband jokes he could sell her for hundreds of thousands of lire) but she doesn't really appreciate any of it: it doesn't make her happy. That isn't to say she could ever leave it: she tells Guido quite emphatically that she cannot leave her husband because she cannot leave his wealth: but it does mean that she derives almost no pleasure from life.

He is equally aimless. He doesn't appear to have a job. He expresses no enjoyment in anything during the film bar her. All the other characters are similar. The detective who trails the lovers is also a man without much in the way of pleasure- save for seeing Milan play. The husband is not a particularly violent man. All the characters seem insipid. Rendered as such by their lives which are devoid of any real meaning. I don't beleive that Antonioni thinks that there is any meaning- just that in this incredibly bleak film he finds nothing of meaning. He finds that the world for these characters is boundless and bare: this is the truly antisceptic modern world, clean and brilliant, yet utterly pointless. It is a Chronicle of Love but a chronicle of modern love: a love in a world that is merely boring. Despite the gowns and the glory that is the message of this film- and its a deeply pessimistic one- go home, don't bother, give up, there is nothing to see, all the stories we tell about ourselves are lies, all the loves we have do not last and we are as guilty of crimes we fail to prevent as of those we commit. Ultimately love and crime are similar so long as we part, we can forget, the problems come when we remember- when we seek to reawake the past, to find our stories. All we do then is send ourselves strolling round to repeat old mistakes with old lovers, reawakening passions that don't exist. All we do is stay within our Chronicles of Love- our Cronaca di un amore- without any possibility of escape.

May 25, 2008

The Lady of Musashino


The history of the twentieth century is the history of the impact of the two World Wars. Wherever you are in the world, your family was directly impacted by those wars and their massive consequences- revolution, depression, decolonisation, post war prosperity, casualties and social change. Social change followed on from war inexorably. In the UK for example, the real decade of sexual liberation was the forties not the sixties, the fifties were an attempt to repress the anarchy of the war years. If in the allied countries life was smashed and changed forever by the experience of war, then in the defeated nations, in Japan and Germany and Italy, that was even more true. Luckily for us as historians, we have copious amounts of evidence with which to understand that process. Amongst that evidence is the reaction of film makers: the Italian neo-realist tradition for example stemmed from the condition of Italian society after the war and sought to analyse and explain what had happened. If that was true of European filmmakers then it was also true of Japanese filmmakers, who sought to explain their defeat and the reconstruction of the post war era with all the tools they could lay their hands on.

Of all the explanations of the social change happening in Japan from 1945 onwards, the Lady from Musashino, a film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, has a unique vantage point. Mizoguchi was an accomplished director by the point he made this film and you can see it in the way that he forms his frames and directs his actors. You can also observe it in the economy with which he conveys the story- he uses only 88 minutes to tell a story whose characters are complete and which spans several years. He uses voice over occasionally but more often relies upon subtle visual techniques to supplement an excellent, if minamalist, script. The story is easily told: it is a story of an unhappy marriage, between Michiko and her husband Akiyama. Michiko falls in love with her cousin returning from the war, Tsutsomo and Akiyama is secretly in love with Michiko's other cousin Ono's wife Tomiko. The love pentagon is at the beggining of the film presided over by Michiko's father and mother, but they die as Japan falls to the allies and thus the stage is set for the tragedy to come.

I do not wish to get any further into the story, but rather to explore some thematic points. Because this is a film that makes you think. Michiko's father begins the film by berrating the Meijj Restoration, and restating his own martial samurai ethic. Akiyama does not come from that background and is a university Professor from a peasant family. He is totally contaminated by Western influence- in particular by Stendhal. Michiko and him live very different kinds of lives. Michiko's love affair with Tsutsomo reminds me of nothing more than the relationship in Brief Encounter, its got the same muted restraint. Michiko though explores the reasons for staying respectable in a different way than either character manages to in Brief Encounter: she argues that there is a moral code and that we have to stick by it whether it is evil or good. Our moral code is what we will, it is created out of our volition (God is scarcely mentioned in this) but once uttered it must be performed. In that sense Michiko sees the real value in life being in oaths- she takes two oaths during the film, one to her father on his death and the second to her lover and she believes in her own terms that she has kept those oaths and consequently throughout the movie is convinced of her own rectitude.

The world of the movie is more complicated than this: for whereas Michiko represents absolute conservatism, there is a sense in which she also acknowledges the need for change. She tells Tsutsomo that believing in the persistance of the Samurai ideal (symbolised by the estate of Musashino) is believing in an illusion- the future is the industrial and Americanised city of Tokyo. She has sworn her oath of fidelity to the old tradition: but she has no problem in seeing that that tradition must change. (Interestingly it is technical and economic change that forces moral change here, not the redundancy of the ethic that had led to the Nanking massacre and other like horrors.) The artificial moral code she lives by is a constricting one which restricts her own happiness and propels her to damage others. But she holds to her oaths, because they give her life a moral framework which the lives of Akiyama and Tomiko lack. Deprived of any moral framework those two are blown hither and thither by their lusts: Michiko says at one point that morality not love is the only power, and by that she means that morality can give a life structure and meaning, whereas love can only give it excitement and content. In that sense, Tsutsomo is perhaps the most interesting character- because within him we can perceive the conflict between the two principles. Tsutsomo lives a life of abandon in Tokyo but swiftly realises that it does not satisfy him, he then comes to the countryside and finds that a woman whom he can at last love, but she denies him because of her morality which is in part what he loves, because she is embedded in marriage with a husband who hates and abuses her.

The obvious conclusion is the promotion of a new standard of morality and a new kind of Japan: the age of the samurai is over and the age of the automobile has begun. Samurai morality propelled Japan into a bloody war, there is no question that flowing through this is the resentment of the soldiers that went against those that stayed behind to sleep with girls and party all day. The resentment though is something that is a double edged sword because of course traditional Japan went to war in the first place. Michiko advises Tsutsomo that ultimately the traditional way of doing things must die and industrial Japan replace it: but her example informs him of the fact that with that new industrial Japan the norms, the principles of morality must be adopted. Morality is a matter of volition and though the content of the oaths must change, the fact of the oath must not change. Morality will still exist because without it life becomes meaningless- it becomes the life that Tomiko lives- but morality has to change with the new times. Tsutsomo walks out of the film without giving us a clue as to whether Michiko's dream of a new modern yet still moral Japan has become a success: like the impact of the French Revolution, it may be too early to discuss that question, all we can do is wait and see.