Remember Cawnpore, a Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter IX (A Tragic History)

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On our way to the library, I passed beside a weathered portrait of my father. I recognized the painting from my childhood, though I remembered it being more colorful than it actually was. I resembled him closely right down to our upswept auburn hair, though he was, admittedly, quite pale.

I suppose that I should say a bit more about his exploits and the circumstances of my childhood, although I honestly despise the kind of books that spill ink over long tangential asides as if their authors were paid by the letter. Ultimately, however, I consider it better to include a few pages of exposition than to potentially confuse my readers by restricting myself to hints and innuendo about the past, as I’ve done until now.

When I first began to consider the prospect of writing this book, I thought that I would make it a lengthy third-person epic beginning with my father’s birth in Scotland. But two considerations ultimately dissuaded me from this course of action. The first was that I would have been compelled to write at length about people and places unfamiliar to me personally, which would have ruined the honesty of this account. How, for example, would I have portrayed my mother, a woman whom I’d never met nor even seen in a daguerreotype? My second concern was that I didn’t wish to seem to be casting judgment on the India of my father’s youth, a civilization I never knew beyond stories of cock-fights, native mistresses, and drunken brawls, a broken but rambunctious dreamscape that saw the British hungrily engorging themselves on the carcass of a dying aboriginal culture. I was born just as that old India was being torched and a new, gentrified colonial holding was taking its place on the funeral pyre.

My father John Maxwell first came to India in 1806 when he was only 16 years old. He was ostensibly seeking adventure and fortune, but I think it was more likely that he was escaping the influence of his father, a Presbyterian minister from Aberdeen who, I was told by my aunts, used to beat all of his children regularly to the point of bleeding. He began his career in Calcutta working as a Europe-shopkeeper on Court House Street. Europe-shops sold all sorts of goods in those days from carriages to coffins and could turn a great deal of profit if properly managed. My father’s store was evidently one of the finest in the city, celebrated for its Portuguese wines.

Independently of his partners in the shop, he soon made a small fortune for himself supplying goods to what were then the remote settlements of Cawnpore and Fatehgurh. In those days, budgerows would only make the trip upcountry a few times per month and there was great profit to be made servicing the more inaccessible stations of the Doab. His work made him the acquaintance of Captain Nathan Blenkinsopp, an elderly English commander of one of the several native infantry divisions at Cawnpore. Appreciative of both my father’s wit and talent for consuming copious amounts of liquor without collapsing, Captain Blenkinsopp eventually arranged for him to become Agent to the Army and Military Store Contractor. Needless to say, these proved to be most lucrative commissions.

Rupee Pandit, my grandmother, was a Nagar Brahmin and an ayah in Captain Blenkinsopp’s household. Her given-name at birth was of course not Rupee, but this is what Captain Blenkinsopp always called her, and the moniker stuck. It was remarkable to me that she was able to transform that sardonic name into an endearing one. In fact, I don’t know her original name even now, though I always knew the family to be called Pandit. She told me many times that our ancestors were descended from officers in the army of Alexander the Great who’d come to India two millennia ago to fight the elephants of King Porus. The blue eyes of several members of the Pandit clan were considered proof of this theory. Although I would have loved to have believed this tale, in my heart, I knew that the aforementioned color more likely came by way of Liverpool than Pella.

Rupee’s daughter, my mother Elizabeth, had such a fair complexion that most people assumed that she was the product of an affair with Captain Blenkinsopp, whose English wife was long since dead and whose son by his first marriage, Daniel, was then away at school in England. This rumor about Elizabeth’s parentage was only fortified by her being raised as the Captain’s ward, to say nothing of the open prominence which my grandmother enjoyed in that household. It was never made clear to me whether or not my mother formally married my father, though the silence on this subject leads me to assume that there was in fact no ceremony. Still, they certainly lived together as husband and wife until her death in childbirth in 1830. Afterward, Rupee left Captain Blenkinsopp’s villa and came to live with my father, eventually becoming something like his personal secretary, an extraordinary role for a native woman. Captain Blenkinsopp evidently cared enough about her interests to ensure that she was well-educated despite her station and well compensated upon his death. He even found sporadic employment for her brother Pulkit as a drummer in the 56th Native Infantry. The poor man was not of sound mind, but he was well meaning and incapable of malice.

I do not know if my father loved my mother. By the same token, I don’t have any especial recollection of much warmth between him and Molly either. This is not to say that my stepmother was a frigid or unkind woman. She invariably did her best to behave with as much compassion and consideration toward me as toward Vivian when I was a child, and she allowed Rupee to continue living with us at the Highlands as buriah ayah along with Pulkit. Still, it was always somewhat of a stuffy household that my father and stepmother kept, even after the birth of Peter in 1832. I remember wondering if they ever visited each other’s bedrooms.

In those days, there was still an old law in force in India forbidding Europeans from owning substantial amounts of land in their own right. Since I was native-born, my enterprising father was able to use my name to accumulate a great deal of property. After he died suddenly from an apoplectic fit after a tiger hunt in 1836—just one year before the law was changed, incidentally—I   inherited controlling interest in five indigo factories in addition to outright ownership of 36 villages, several cotton presses, indigo vats, and even a rum distillery at Jajmau and an opium clipper called the Nereid docked at Calcutta. Altogether, the property was valued at 13 lakhs.

Since I was only six years old when I came into this inheritance, my father’s will stipulated that my property be put under the management of Daniel, the son of Captain Blenkinsopp. He had recently returned from England after his father suffered a sudden bout of paralysis. Daniel’s display of filial piety as he cared for his dying parent evidently made a strong impression on my own father, who promised to look after Daniel following Captain Blenkinsopp’s death. It took place but one year before his own. His final testament actualized his promise.

Daniel, whom everyone assumed to be my mother Elizabeth’s half-brother, promptly formed a company called Blenkinsopp and Co. and managed my inheritance during my upbringing in Scotland. Vivian and I lived with my father’s spinster sisters, their father, the brutal minister, having long since died, choked to death on haggis. By the time that we sailed back to India in 1847, Daniel was a regular nabob. The family’s wealth seemed unlimited. Returning as I was to the District after so long an absence in an abstemious Scottish household, needless to say, I began to positively hemorrhage money.

What followed were the happiest two years of my life, at least before a sudden fit of coldness descended upon Vivian that all the intensity of my love for her could not thaw. Christopher, Daniel, and I spent a fortune together gambling, buying carriages, and throwing enormous burra khanas on my estates. I remember how often Peter would beg to accompany us on our nightly adventures. We treated him like a child, though, and often took malicious pleasure in holding out hope and then ignoring him. The conviction with which I felt him to be my junior is somewhat ludicrous in retrospect. After all, he was only two years younger than I was. Daniel was much older than anyone else in my circle of friends, already in his late forties. Perhaps it made him feel young again to spend time with Christopher and me. It was our private joke that we never smoked ganja with him.

My readers will wonder about the ramifications of this wasteful state of affairs. Vivian, who had evidently taken a childhood fancy to Daniel before we left for Scotland and allowed the wound to suppurate, of course said nothing to criticize us. Molly, a woman of the old order, similarly did not ask any questions, particularly because she favored Daniel very highly. Besides, Peter had inherited a great deal of money from my father which she herself was responsible for managing, so she likely had troubles of her own to occupy her attentions. For all of these reasons, no one supervised Daniel or inquired after his motives too closely. He had by then effectively managed my estates for nearly two decades in my absence. Besides, reckless spending was commonplace among young aristocrats in the District. We all competed with each other in heedlessness, and I had more to prove than anyone because I was self-conscious about my parentage.

After Vivian announced that she was going to marry Daniel, life suddenly became altogether grimmer for me at the Highlands. I spent most of my time smoking ganja and charas with Christopher. I abandoned India for Scotland soon after Julia was born in 1849 and lived the life of a hermit among my old haunts.  Only two years later, though, I was compelled to return to the Highlands again when news of a disaster broke.

What happened, in brief, was this. In March of 1850, Daniel vanished. He claimed to have gone off to Singapore to visit his uncle, Admiral Brandon Blenkinsopp. He never reached his destination, however, and it was presumed that he was robbed on the open road and killed. Then, only weeks after his disappearance, out of the blue, news broke that Blenkinsopp and Co. had failed for 15 lakhs. Native and European creditors alike began to swarm around the carcass of my holdings like eye flies, all demanding their share of the decaying rot. I soon learned that most of my land had been heavily mortgaged by Daniel, but thankfully, property technically in my name could not be auctioned off to rectify the debts of Blenkinsopp and Co. For this reason, I believed that I still had a chance to salvage my inheritance.

By the time that I returned in 1851, the sircars and shroffs and virtually the entire native staff of Blenkinsopp and Co. had vanished. The Sub-Deputy Collector of Revenue (E. A. Reade-I’ll never forget his name) wished to make a severe example out of me and threatened to seize the entirety of my property unless I could immediately pay what was owed to the Government in back taxes. This man was an ancient enemy of my father’s, and since I was my mother’s son, he saw me as less than his equal, to say the least. I wrote to the Commissioner of Revenue at Allahabad begging for more time, but my pleas fell on deaf ears. When I urged my native collectors to demand rent more scrupulously from our ryots than they had in the past, Reade accused me of bullying and terrorizing them simply because we’d seized some cattle from a raving old man and sold it outright for profit. The farmer in question had paid irregular taxes for years and dared to be surly to my men when they reached his farm. He certainly would have gotten much worse treatment under a native Indian zamindar. But I cannot dwell on this topic at length. It pains me to remember how corrupt and confused the state of my estates had become.

Completely unable to pay back what was owed, I was forced to watch in silence as the bulk of my property was put up for auction. Most of my farms and villages were bought up by one Kullulooddeen Khan, who agreed to provide me the insulting allowance of 29 pounds a month. I passed Reade on the road soon after this, and he made a sarcastic remark under his breath loudly enough for me to hear it. When I told him to go to hell, I caught the attention of several native passersby who began to whisper to each other. So he noisily called me a “bankrupt nigger” to show them he meant business and continued on his way. It was soon after this that I left India again. I thought that I would never return.

The Maxwells lost everything but the Highlands. Peter, recently married and a father for the first time, was put in charge of the estate by Cruttenden and Co. of Cawnpore, to whom the property had been mortgaged. Molly personally appealed to the director of the company and his wife for mercy and sacrificed a great deal of the family’s remaining money as collateral (effectively impoverishing me completely, incidentally). Compared to me, I suppose Cruttenden and Co. saw Peter as the true heir to what was left of the magic of the Maxwell name in the District. As a matter of fact, over the period of the next few years, he managed to pay off everything that was owed on the estate, using the remainder of his inheritance and increasingly meager profits from the yearly indigo harvests to do so. He was even eventually named Deputy Opium Agent in charge of all the East India Company’s poppy fields in the vicinity of Cawnpore, a singular honor.  The family was still far from prosperous, however. Clans like the Churchers and Joneses had long since eclipsed our own in the District.

Here, then, as I wrote at the beginning of this account, were the leavings of my father’s kingdom: a run-down mansion with a red tiled roof and a fanciful name, two stories high on a lonely plain. There was also a factory with some vats that was close by, a drying house, and the assistant’s bungalow where Christopher lived. The rest was only a fading memory. I was fortunate to still own the opium clipper Nereid, which was beyond Molly’s grasp when she liquidated the family’s holdings.

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Remember Cawnpore, a Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter VIII (Parlor Songs)

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Julia and Thomas sang for the assembled family in the parlor before supper. My stepmother Molly accompanied them ploddingly on the piano-forte.

Ho-ro, my nut brown maiden.

Hee-ree, my nut brown maiden.

Ho-ro-ro, maiden.

For she’s the maid for me.

Her eye so mildly beaming

Her look so frank and free

In waking and in dreaming

Is evermore with me.

We broke into applause at the conclusion of the second verse to avoid an interminable punishment. Thomas bowed, and Julia curtsied repeatedly, cradling her gray kitten, Ms. Google, too tightly for comfort in her arms. The poor creature bore this indignity with patience, however. She was evidently good natured for a cat.

“That was just enchanting,” said Vivian, ethereal in yards of turquoise muslin, her hair unbound. “But skip the verses about mild-eyed Mary, please.”

“But why?” cried Julia. “That’s my favorite part of the song. It’s so emotional.”

“You’re liable to move us to tears,” said Christopher.

“Shall we eat our dinners out on the chabutra?” said Vivian. “It’s scalding in here!” Then she turned to me and dexterously avoiding even a moment’s pause in the conversation, said, “We’re all thrilled to have you home again, Maximilian. I only wish that Andrea could be moved downstairs to see you.”

“I wouldn’t want to trouble her,” I stammered.

“I’m sure that she would be very pleased to visit with you if it were possible,” said Molly, joining us. “You know that you’ll always be a welcome guest here at the Highlands, Maxim. One can always add more water to the soup.”

My eyes happened to be on Christopher as she spoke. He squinted. I wondered what sort of face I was making.

“Maxim knows that he will always be more than a guest here, mother,” ventured Peter, his breath reeking of brandy. He loathed polite conversation and very rarely shared his thoughts, so whenever he chose to say anything, he commanded great attention.

“Of course, my dear,” said Molly, adjusting the sleeves of her funereal ebony bombazine. “I misspoke.”

“Have you any interest in Company paintings, Maximilian?” improvised Vivian in a rapid voice. “I’ve been obsessed with them recently. They show such a fascinating mix…a wonderful mélange of styles.”

“Darling,” said Molly, “Maxim must be exhausted. Let him save his voice for later, when he tells your brother about his adventures in the jungle.”

“Oh nonsense, mother!” she answered, taking my arm. “Tell me, what do you think of the Daniells?”

“The Daniells?”

“Thomas Daniell and his nephew, William. They paint the most beautiful landscapes. They’re my second favorite painters.”

“They count collectively, do they?”

“Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret. I can hardly distinguish between their styles, to be honest! Can you guess who my very favorite artist is?”

“Michelangelo?”

“No, no—we were discussing Indian art!”

I chuckled and shrugged and must have seemed like a perfect fool. In fact, I had just downed a great quantity of bhang with Christopher on the sly and I couldn’t have cared less about Indian art. As my father’s eldest son and head of the household, I was eager to discuss several important matters with Peter such as evacuation plans for the family and the great secret I’d discovered on my travels which had inspired my return, to say nothing of my need for money. Since my arrival, though, no one had breathed a word about the mutiny to me. They all seemed more concerned about Andrea’s health than anything else. But they were all denying the plain truth. The family couldn’t remain at the Highlands for much longer or everyone there was likely to be unceremoniously slaughtered should the mutiny spread to the District.

The company moved outside onto the raised chabutra where a long table draped with a peach colored cloth had been set up. A native girl with an aquiline nose and a paunch who’d brought me a change of clothing when I first arrived had been doubling as a punkah wallah inside the house. She was presently transformed into a server. Peter’s khitmatgar was also on hand. He was a scrawny, acne-scarred fellow who looked no older than sixteen. His jacket, I observed, was at least two sizes too large for him about the sleeves. He probably inherited it from someone dead, I thought.

“We’re having pish pash and chupatties for dinner, among other things” said Peter quietly. “Jesminder tried her hand at Ayah Rupee’s old recipe—your favorite, I remember. Ever since Daniel’s death, things have been somber here at the Highlands. It’s refreshing to have an excuse to be happy again, brother.”

These were the first words that Peter had directly addressed to me since I met him on the porch earlier that evening and he’d enigmatically whispered, “Say nothing now. We’ll discuss everything later.” I’d noticed that his breath smelled faintly of spirits even then.

At first, I appreciated the illusion of domesticity so busily manufactured for me that night. Here, with the exception of my deceased father and my aunts in Scotland, was the only family that I’d ever known. My mother, Elizabeth, died in childbirth, and my father married my stepmother, an Irish cabinet-maker’s daughter, when I was only five years old. I never ventured to call her daughter Vivian my sister, though my father and stepmother had originally encouraged me to do so; for whatever reason, these exhortations ended with the birth of Peter.

Vivian was so incandescent that I knew from the moment we met that I wanted to marry her. My affection for my stepsister was fortified by the long years we spent together as Anglo-Indian expatriates in Scotland. I’ve mentioned already that we were sent to my father’s ancestral home near Inverness to receive a proper education under the supervision of his sisters. I was seven at the time, and Vivian was ten. I recalled the heartbreak of saying goodbye to Peter, who was only four and remained in India with his mother. He was always Molly’s pet and was never sent to Europe, a great rarity in those days. India was all he ever knew.

We reached the table and all joined hands, Vivian on my left and Christopher on my right.

“Maximilian should do the honors,” said Vivian, squeezing my palm. “Make it the Selkirk Grace, in honor of your father.”

Some hae meat and canna eat,” I intoned awkwardly, thinking of nothing but the moisture of my hand in Vivian’s tight grip. “And some wad eat that want it…” My pulse quickened and its rhythm throbbed in my temples. “But we hae meat and we can eat…so sae…so sae…”

So sae the Lord be thank-ed,” concluded Christopher, releasing my hand and making an exaggerated show of wiping off his own. “Sorry Maxim, but it felt like I was shaking hands with the Little Mermaid there for a minute.”

We began to eat, and for some time there was no sound but the unpleasant scratching of metal on glass. The promised pish-pash and chupatties were on the menu, along with Julienne soup, yellow rice, a curry made with some sort of meat, and bottled peas—always bottled peas. Half of us were seated before decorated porcelain, and the rest ate from plain white ceramic plates. My plate happened to have been ceramic, but so was Peter’s, so I wasn’t jealous. Our wine glasses too were mismatched. My awareness of the gauche assembly of tableware cast a pathetic air over the entire meal, an ambiance only enhanced by the fact that half of our seats lacked antimacassars. Ayah Rupee ran a tighter ship once upon a time.

To make matters worse, the wine was too dry. Just as I was secretly considering the prospect of stealing some sips from Thomas’s lassi, Vivian revived the conversation. I considered that while her mother’s serene demeanor could almost be mistaken for coldness, her daughter’s character was forged of altogether different stuff, traces of her dead father’s nature, perhaps. She was the belle of every burra khana and the most popular woman in the District, forever the volatile center of attention.

“Shaykh Muhammad Amir of Karraya is my favorite Indian artist,” she said quickly and loudly, ignoring the fifteen minute interval separating this revelation from our previous conversation.

“I would never have guessed,” I said. “You were right.”

“In fact, I quite prefer him to Michelangelo.”

“Land sakes,” said Christopher. “That’s sacrilege. Now I’ll take everything you say about art with an ocean’s worth of salt, Vivian.”

“I’m sorry to shock you, Christopher. Michelangelo was a fine sculptor and painter so long as he was capturing the male figure. But he had no range. His women all look like muscular men! And his themes were completely monotonous, never touching on everyday life.”

“Then why is he universally considered a genius?”

“Commercial concerns.”

“Oh?”

“Ever since the invention of the aquatint, there’s existed this gauche trend of celebrating geniuses like the old Italian masters and fainting over Michelangelo. But it’s only a commercial strategy to sell prints—a way to highlight individual dead artists in a marketplace oversaturated with them. What’s genius, anyway? An excuse to be temperamental, and to take full credit for lazy work! Give me elegance and truth over genius any day.”

“Well, if you ask me, nothing is more inane than the genre scenes that you idealize so much. There isn’t anything profound or uplifting about them.”

“You’re so wrong. There’s great beauty to everyday life if you know how to see it. But some haven’t the sensitivity.”

“This is all nonsense,” slurred Peter, providing yet another rare contribution to the conversation, “The idea that you would even compare Sheik What’s His Name and Michelangelo is ludicrous. Michelangelo was a white man.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, brother. Race has nothing at all to do with matters of art.”

Molly arched her right eyebrow. I knew by the way Christopher was grinding his teeth that he’d thought of some witticism and was aching to reveal it, but he held his tongue. In his defense, he usually did his best to behave as politely as possible to everyone in my family, whose formality likely stood in stark contrast to the liveliness of his American household. The only exception was when political debates were on the docket. Then he would not only invariably venture strong opinions, whatever his audience, but even serve as a provocateur.

“Amir deserves every bit of praise that I can heap on him,” continued Vivian determinedly. “He captures the smallest details of everyday life in his paintings with amazing precision, just as Jane Austen did in her novels. I just adore his sketches of residences, carriages, hunting parties…all sorts of elegant scenes in the countryside. There’s so much truth to his style…”

“He certainly sounds talented,” I offered stupidly.

“Well, I suppose I have to admit that he’s something of a rarity. Art schools these days force native artists overwhelmingly toward portraiture, and everyone is taught the same tedious, formal style. It’s a shame, really. There was a certain beauty to that old, courtly Mogul look. Primitive but expressive.”

The room fell silent again. Evidently no one had anything else to add to the conversation about Company paintings. I reflected that even after Vivian announced that she was going to marry Daniel, I’d never stooped to treating her with anything less than the greatest warmth. But it was an enervating charade, and I’d long since succumbed to an obsession with attempting to make her feel guilty for choosing him over me. I thought that my only hope was to shame her into loving me again, so that her pity for me would overpower any lingering loyalty to her illusion of Daniel. I knew she had loved me in more uncomplicated days in Scotland when we’d shared enough kisses to lose count of them all. But after our return to India, the only time she ever touched her lips to mine again—once, softly and briefly—was on her wedding day, when I burst into tears at the sight of her in her mother’s ivory gown.

We’d all finished eating by now and the atmosphere had become positively eerie. Insects roared in the background. We all plastered lying smiles onto our faces. Only the children seemed to take their elders’ calmness at face value. They argued playfully among themselves throughout the meal.

“Shall we have a party for your birthday tomorrow, father?” asked Thomas as the plates were being cleared away by the maid and the khitmatgar.

“Of course we shall,” said Julia. “After all, it’s the Queen’s birthday as well.”

Peter, Christopher, and I stole grave glances at each other. Molly kept her eyes on her plate.

Orchid presently appeared in the doorway with Rob hiding behind her. Once again, I hadn’t heard her approach, and once again she startled me. I noticed that Molly didn’t even lift her eyes to meet her. Vivian nodded graciously at her, though. Peter’s face turned even brighter than his hair, which was auburn as my own.

She was wearing a Regency-style, close-fitting gown that flattered her form splendidly. Though the dress would have been some forty years out of fashion in London, necessity has always compelled families in the District to be open-minded on the subject of popular attire. Given what was likely a limited wardrobe, I considered that she’d made a wise selection. And the rouge that she was wearing had a similarly impressive transformative effect. I wondered why she’d gone through the trouble of adorning herself so meticulously that night.

The children would have scrambled directly off to their rooms, but she caught them and whispered something to them in a huddle. Julia objected at first, but I saw Orchid stroke her hair and coax her into acquiescence. Orchid then whispered to Thomas for a second time and then disappeared into the parlor along with Rob. The long-suffering Ms. Google took the opportunity to scurry out of the room.

We presently all focused our attention on Thomas and soon heard the sound of a violin coming from within. The boy stepped forward with what seemed like genuine reluctance and sang:

O where and o where is my Highland laddie gone?

O where and o where is my Highland laddie gone?

He’s gone to fight the French for King George upon the throne,

And it’s oh in my heart that I wish him safe at home.

 

Oh where and o where did your Highland laddie dwell?

O where and o where did your Highland laddie dwell?

He dwelt in merry Scotland at the sign of the blue bell

And it’s oh in my heart that I love my laddie well.

 

Suppose and suppose that your Highland lad should die.

Suppose and suppose that your Highland lad should die.

The bagpipes should play o’er him, and I’d sit me down to cry.

And it’s oh in my heart that I wish he may not die.

Though I was initially planning to tease my nephew for singing a woman’s song, I restrained myself, for his voice was almost as pure and melodious as Christopher’s. I realized that the child had been something of a little gentleman to have deliberately lowered the quality of his song to match Julia’s faint attempts at music earlier in the night. His true voice was as tremulous and delicate as a nightingale’s. It would be a sin, I thought, when Nature re-christened him a baritone.

I wondered how it was that Orchid played the violin so well. Unless the untalented Molly had instructed her, which I most gravely doubted, I guessed that she must have been self-taught. I later discovered that I was in fact correct in this assumption. She’d even arranged the abridged version of The Bluebells of Scotland that Thomas sang for us without the use of a published broadside.

We applauded Thomas heartily. He didn’t bow this time, but blushed and retreated behind his grandmother’s chair. Orchid, Julia, and Robert emerged from the parlor and we all clapped again. Julia embraced her cousin. It was to her credit that she behaved with nothing but friendliness toward him in the aftermath of his song, though the thought of her being upstaged had, I’d seen, originally broken her heart for a moment or two. Still, whatever this redeeming characteristic, the child had yet to speak to me, though I caught her staring mutely at me with a searching expression on her face more than once during the meal.

The children were now sent to bed and the women excused themselves from the table to tend to Andrea. Orchid did not reappear. Molly made me promise to detail my experiences to her in the morning. I convinced myself that her interests were sincere and that Vivian was similarly honest in her more verbose professions of sorrow for taking her leave from me so early in the night. At length, Christopher, my brother, and I entered the house to share a hookah and candid conversation in the library. It was the moment for which I’d been waiting.

On Netanyahu’s Speech to Congress

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Check out my editorial on Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, which was picked up by the Congressional Blog at The Hill.

http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/foreign-policy/234641-the-key-figure-in-the-middle-east-is-abbas

***

As a doctoral student of history at Yale, the coach of the debate team, and a citizen of both the United States and Israel, I felt that Netanyahu’s speech on Tuesday hit close to both homes. And all of this in the shadow of the genocidal ISIS on the borders of the Galilee, talk of a regional nuclear arms race, Iran’s promotion of terrorist groups and usual hyperbolic rhetoric about Zionism in all its forms, and the perennial misery of the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza.

It’s like some horrible movie in which I and everyone I love are anonymous extras with no power to make a difference to the plot, and our lives are hanging in the balance.

I saw the speech with a close friend of mine of Iranian ancestry (only in America, right?). My friend and I agreed that Netanyahu spoke very powerfully, though the conclusion of the speech in which he seemed to suggest that Israel would attack Iran unilaterally made me laugh—its jets couldn’t even fly over Iraqi airspace without American support. But then I stopped laughing. Who knows what could happen over the course of the next decade depending on who is elected in both countries.

I have four observations about the issues at play here.

1. Israel is right to be concerned about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Iran’s leadership has appropriated tropes unheard of since the days of the Nazis, and the Jews of the twentieth century learned all too well that supposedly empty threats might not remain empty for long. Iran is a volatile nation that could readily fall prey to a radical revolution such as the others sweeping the Middle East, and who knows whose finger could end up on the little red button. Iran’s leaders require a deal with the United States more than the reverse. Ideally, restrictions on the expansion of the nuclear program should be stringent, with a high price to pay for non-compliance. But Netanyahu didn’t help the issue, because Obama will be unlikely to seriously consider his voice at the table after this speech for fear of appearing to have kowtowed to a reprimand, and Congress is powerless to alter an agreement that hasn’t even been reached yet. The speech was nothing but electioneering that made real compromise less likely, particularly in light of Tehran’s rejection last night of Obama’s “generous” ten year plan even as it currently stands.

2. Ultimately, there must be a compromise of some sort with Iran, because ISIS must be stopped, and this can only happen with Iranian cooperation. Iran and America working together and increasing trade would create new wealth, potentially leading to political liberalization and stabilization. In the long term, Israel cannot expect to remain the only serious military power in the region indefinitely.

3. The Palestinian issue is behind all the trouble between Israel and Iran. In an ideal world, Israel, the Gulf Arab States, and Iran would be close trading partners, leading to regional prosperity and the eradication of the poverty that helps to breed political extremism. The stalling of the peace process is partly Netanyahu’s fault, because his regime has expanded Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and has frustrated the Palestinian government’s attempts to build coalitions. In the long run, if Israel wants to preserve its identity as a Jewish state without recourse to apartheid in the face of falling Jewish birth rates, there needs to be a Palestinian alternative for those people in the country who choose not to live under laws that privilege the Jewish people before others.

4. Mahmoud Abbas—not Netanyahu or Obama or Khamenei—is the person best poised to solve the problems of the Middle East, but not by trying to alienate Israel internationally at the UN and the International Criminal Court while Hamas continues to attack Israeli civilians with weapons funded by Iran. If Abbas would only appropriate the language of passive resistance and adopt the mantle of a modern King or Gandhi, the liberal media’s sympathies would be on his side, and he’d be empowered to have a strong hand at the negotiating table. Even a dozen hunger strikers at the Temple Mount could rejuvenate the peace process if the protestors would only renounce the targeting of innocent civilians as a crime in any time or place.

Netanyahu mentioned the story of Purim in his speech, using it as a reference point for the ambitions of a megalomaniacal Persian politician out to destroy the Jews. But when I think of the relationship between Israel and Persia, I’m reminded of Cyrus the Great, who restored the Jews to Israel after the Babylonian Captivity. Iran and Israel needn’t be enemies, and historically, they have not always been so. But of all people, it is up to Abbas to make the first move, or else Israel will exploit the uncertainty in the region to engage in land grabs, and the country’s enemies will only become more desperate and more militant.

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Kimel is a doctoral student of history at Yale.

Fuck You, Scarlett O’Hara: Gone With the Wind’s “Prissy” Revisited

Just over three quarters of a century ago, Gone With the Wind had its premiere in Atlanta. Most industry experts were confident that the movie would flop. After all, it was a four hour long color film in an era of black and white flicks that were usually less than half its length; it was a narrative about the journey of a flawed female protagonist in a medium usually privileging the stories of heroic men; it was a war film without a single battle scene; it was hampered by the firing of the original director and cameraman and incessant conflicts between producer David O Selznick and his crew; it was one of the most expensive movies ever made; and it had spiraled dramatically over-budget. “I’m just glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling on his face and not Gary Cooper,” said Gary Cooper with a singular lack of prescience. Of course, Gone With the Wind proved to be the most successful film of all time in the United States despite the relatively low cost of tickets when it was first released and its incredible running length (“hard on one’s ass,” quipped Vivien Leigh). In fact, it became perhaps the most widely seen film around the entire world over the course of the twentieth century. Rhett and Scarlett have been immortalized in global discourse as archetypical tragic lovers no less iconic or recognizable than many of their Shakespearean antecedents. “Selznick’s Folly” proved to be a canonical text in the history of world film, and the story of its making emblematic of the entire history of Golden-Age Hollywood.

While academic and critical circles tend to regard Gone With the Wind as a great achievement in spectacular entertainment rather than exceptional film art per se, I think a strong argument can be made that in the eyes of history, it should be seen as one of the most important aesthetics achievements of the twentieth century: a film that literally invented the role of production designer, pioneered the finest color cinematography of the first half of the twentieth century, challenged the boundaries of censorship, set the upper time limit and two act structure for a host of subsequent epics, and included some of the finest music and costumes ever featured on screen, all the while faithfully interpreting a Pulitzer Prize winning story grounded in strong undercurrents of feminism, to say nothing of touching the lives of untold millions of people with its message of survival in the face of adversity. Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett is, in my book, the most impressive performance I have ever seen by an actor, male or female; the entire success of the film rests on her shoulders, since she is in 95% of the scenes for the entire four hour duration (why Cameron Crowe thinks that Gable is the one who does the “heavy lifting” acting-wise in the picture is beyond me.) Gone With the Wind’s perennial appeal and craftsmanship are so powerful that today, it is virtually the only popularly respected monument to the ghosts of a dead civilization, men and women who deserve to be mourned even if their culture does not. In short, it’s a true American epic set against the backdrop of the most dramatic moment in our national history.

But these days, the movie is in need of some rehabilitation. Its very popularity and political incorrectness have blinded mainstream critics to its artistry (though there are exceptions to the rule, like Molly Haskell, who takes the film seriously). Paul Thomas Anderson even recently boasted about never having seen it, nor having any interest in doing so. Spike Lee criticized George Clooney for celebrating Hattie McDaniel’s achievement when he won his Oscar (luckily, no one criticized Mo’Nique for doing so when she also gave McDaniel a shout-out.) The Oscars are beginning to highlight The Wizard of Oz every year instead of acknowledging the true winner of 1939’s race, the most competitive in the history of the awards. Too long and “popular” for inclusion on academic curricula and tainted with a legacy of alleged racism to boot, the film’s continuing popularity belies the fact that it is becoming somewhat taboo among the self-appointed judges and preservers of art history, and fading from the forefront of the popular consciousness as a living document. This is a great shame, however. An American masterpiece is being unduly neglected.

This will be the first in a series of articles reexamining the film. We’ll begin with its most controversial aspect: the performance of Butterfly McQueen.

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Malcolm X was not a fan of Prissy in Gone With the Wind. “When Butterfly McQueen went into her act,” he wrote, “I felt like crawling under the rug.” He wasn’t alone in his disapproval of the ditsy slave girl who sweeps through the climax of the first act of the film with no less force than the whirlwind evoked in the stanza of Ernest Dowson’s poetry appropriated by Margaret Mitchell for the title of her book. In an article written in celebration of Gone With the Wind’s 75th anniversary, for example, a first-time viewer recently described the role as “horrifying,” suggesting that McQueen is nothing but a “dim-witted girl who exemplifies every negative racial stereotype.”[1] But is the role really so horrendous? Roger Ebert, for example, called her “subversive.” I concur that there’s much more going on with Prissy than meets the eye. On close inspection, the character isn’t just subversive, but openly rebellious. However, as a slave at the mercy of others, she masks her aggression behind a false veneer of passivity and helplessness impenetrable enough to escape the notice of her oppressors, but also movie-goers too horrified by appearances to take a closer look at her. Yet if my reading of one pivotal scene in the film is correct, Butterfly McQueen may have even one-upped and preempted Clark Gable’s infamous “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” by mouthing “fuck you” to Scarlett O’Hara before explicitly singing about her hope for liberation from slavery.

Gone With the Wind’s racial politics are dizzyingly dated, no doubt. The opening intertitles literally dub the days of slavery “a dream remembered,” the florid prose inducing Margaret Mitchell herself to roll her eyes during the premiere.  Films like 12 Years a Slave remind us of the horrors of the so-called peculiar institution, whose existence was a disgrace to the ideals of American history. And yet, Gone With the Wind endures as a cultural phenomenon because the problematic racial issues, while present, do not form the underpinning of the narrative as, for example, in The Birth of a Nation, whose plot gets completely derailed in the second half of the drama by an obsessive promulgation of a message of hatred. For all of its political incorrectness, Gone With the Wind remains relatively popular in modern America while older plantation-bound favorites like Song of the South have fallen to the wayside. The latest anniversary of the movie was met by the creation of a new sequel, an umpteenth box set, theatrical revivals, and several articles online and in magazines. Of course, in most cases, critics are careful to qualify their praise of the dinosaur with trigger warnings about its naïve depictions of race relations. To his credit, Selznick eliminated references to the KKK and excised the n-word from the script (he’d entertained having the black characters say it to each other for “historical accuracy” and comedic value.) Nevertheless, slavery is portrayed as largely benign; the Yankees bring hardship rather than liberation; the former slaves are manipulated by the carpetbaggers during Reconstruction; Mammy doesn’t even have a first name. And worst of all, purportedly, is Prissy, described by Rhett as a “simple minded darky.”

Gone With the Wind is a film of the 1930s, and to a large extent it deals in a naive racist shorthand when presenting its black characters. As a white commentator, I don’t want to underrate the importance of the visceral negative reactions of many viewers of color to aspects of McQueen’s performance that they see as demeaning. I don’t know what it means to watch Gone With the Wind grounded in the lived experience of an African American still suffering from the repercussions of the era romanticized in the film. Gone With the Wind is not a masterpiece due to its insights into the nature of the experience of slavery by a long shot, any more than The Merchant of Venice is a great play thanks to its understanding of Judaism. But in this article, I do want to suggest that the filmmakers portray race relationships in a way that is more nuanced than it may first appear, and that the contributions of the African American actors to the richness and complexity of the final narrative should not be underestimated. Working from a script written at the height of the Jim Crow era just 75 years after the abolition of slavery itself, they nonetheless crafted three dimensional characters that were actually quite pioneering in their complexity by the standards of 1939. This idea is usually grudgingly acknowledged in the case of Hattie McDaniel’s Academy Award winning turn as Mammy, though a writer at Time recently called her work “infantilized” and worthy of inspiring “cringing.”[2] McDaniel’s character displays a remarkable combination of wisdom, understanding, compassion, shrewdness, and even, sometimes, repressed rage; she speaks bitterly and angrily more than once, and there is an undeniable aggressiveness brewing just below the surface at many times during the movie. Her performance weeping her way up the stairs after the death of Bonnie probably clinched the Oscar for her; it’s one of the most extraordinary long takes I’ve ever seen. Her love for the child and pain at her death are excruciatingly palpable. Bodily fluids ooze from her face. It is a totally uninhibited, raw moment.

But what about Butterfly McQueen as Prissy? Is she really such a disgraceful character? To many, she seems a mere stereotype employed for comic relief. But I think that to insist upon this reading of the character is to underestimate McQueen’s talents as an actress. To begin with, believe it or not, McQueen used her real voice in the film. She wasn’t affecting that unforgettably weird tone halfway between Walt Disney’s Snow White and Minnie Mouse. Of course, one could argue that she was cast because her ultra-high pitched voice inherently spoke to offensive stereotypes, but did it really? I’ve heard of stereotypes about slaves speaking in an exaggerated dialect before, but never stereotypes of slaves speaking as if they’d just inhaled helium.She was chosen because her voice was extremely unique and in fact the very opposite of stereotypical. No one in the world sounded like her, and Selznick believed that her voice and comedic talent would make the role memorable. It wasn’t easy to get a part in a movie in 1939 as a black woman in Hollywood, let alone one who sounded like Butterfly McQueen. But she took her opportunity and rolled with it. Perhaps she thought of Hattie McDaniel’s rejoinder to her critics that she’d rather play a maid than be one. At any rate, while McQueen’s voice is distracting and strange for many viewers, to assume that it in itself denotes stupidity in the character is to make a mistake.  Referencing her choices as an actress, McQueen later said, “I didn’t mind being funny, but I didn’t like being stupid.” In fact, Prissy is far from a simpleton. She is actually very sly.

I interpret Prissy as a a rebellious character. She dislikes working as a slave, and so she puts on an act that empowers her to abrogate responsibility whenever she can. She lies to Scarlett and Doctor Meade about knowing how to deliver babies, nonchalantly endangering the life of her former owner’s wife for the mere reason that she feels like boasting. As Melanie struggles in childbirth in a life-or-death battle, Prissy shuffles about Atlanta “as slow as molasses in January,” taking her sweet time finding the doctor. She whines and cowers  when Scarlett upbraids her, but becomes calm quickly enough as soon as her mistress’ back is turned.  In fact, the more that Scarlett screams at her and threatens her, the more she whimpers and whines, but the slower she works. The character is almost lethally passive aggressive during a time of great crisis, speaking to a form of rebelliousness less satisfying to a modern perspective than the cathartic overt vengeance of Django Unchained, perhaps, but representing something altogether more realistic. As the future emperor Claudius discovered, playing the fool could sometimes have its benefits.

Consider the scene in the clip at the top of this article. As Scarlett fans the dying Melanie while they both wait for the doctor, she hears Prissy’s voice outside the window. The slave is moving as slowly as possible, and she is singing—not just any song, but “A Few More Days to Tote the Weary Load.” Could she possibly be referencing the impending ending of slavery, or is she too stupid to know the symbolic implications of the lyrics? When she encounters Scarlett, she begins her interaction in a surly manner, casually explaining that she couldn’t find the doctor and was too afraid to look for him. When Scarlett presses her, she begins to weep and whine. Scarlett leaves to find the doctor herself. She threatens “Don’t you be upsetting (Melanie), or I’ll whip the hide off you.” And then, there is this magical moment where Butterfly McQueen ad-libs a line that shows she knew exactly what she was doing with the character. Prissy straightens her back, stops sniffling so promptly it is clear that it was all an act, and proceeds to linger so long on the F of “a few more days for to tote the weary load” that it actually looks very much like she is saying “Fuck you” to Scarlett O’Hara. Unfortunately, the pivotal moment takes place just after the ending of the clip, above. But revisit the film for yourself and look for it. It’s there. Audiences often even gasp at it. In that elongated “F” is an entire history of pent up rage behind a passive aggressive veneer in which incompetence and “stupidity” can be used as weapons to avoid hard labor. I don’t think that this was the director’s contribution. I have a feeling that it was all Butterfly.

In his otherwise very cogent and engaging essay “On Plantation Politics” in Gone With the Wind, Wesley Morris suggests that “as Prissy, Butterfly McQueen is giving the same high-strung performance as Vivien Leigh. To see McQueen falling down and squawking is to think there really isn’t a huge difference between her dithering emotionalism and Scarlett’s, except that Prissy is written as a fool and Scarlett as a superhero.” There is so much wrong here that I don’t know where to begin. Prissy is clearly faking most of her theatricality; Scarlett is always completely serious, and much less over-the-top. Behind her melodramatic veneer, though, Prissy is actually a different person behind closed doors. Selznick evidently understood this about the character in a way that the original director George Cukor did not. According to McQueen, Selznick visited the set one day while Cukor was shooting a scene with Melanie in childbirth. Prissy is supposed to say, “Ma says that if you put a knife under the bed, it cuts the pain in two.” Cukor wanted her to say it hysterically. Selznick told her to cool it down and say it more calmly, perhaps to draw more of a contrast between Prissy as she normally is and Prissy when she is being passive aggressive. Cukor was furious. A few days later, he was fired. In the movie, McQueen says the line calmly. Selznick always got his way in the end. He admired McQueen, and gave her work in his subsequent epic Duel in the Sun. She plays the servant girl Vashti, a much kinder and sweeter character than Prissy, and altogether less interesting. Prissy is more diabolical and hilarious. Really, for all of the problematic baggage surrounding the performance, Butterfly McQueen steals the show in the most pivotal part of the biggest and most famous movie of all time. For better or worse, “I don’t know nothing about birthing babies” is one of the most famous lines in film history. It is usually associated in the popular imagination with incompetence. It should perhaps be associated with masked rebellion.

No discussion of Butterfly McQueen’s role in Gone With the Wind would be complete without a discussion of Scarlett’s slapping her in the face after her admission about lying. It’s a jarring moment—the heroine of the film is actually beating her slave. Gone With the Wind is often criticized for glossing over the horrors of servitude, but here, at least, is an indication that the threat of physical force is always just below the surface. Of course, Scarlett has been called “an equal opportunity slapper” who beats a whole host of other people over the course of the film, and McQueen joked that she herself would love to have slapped Prissy. But the moment is absolutely shocking to  modern audiences. I’m glad it was included. I think the audience is meant to feel a sense of callousness on the part of Scarlett that is in part reprehensible—she is not portrayed as a “superhero” in this instance.

There is a distinct disconnect between the world of the black characters and the white characters’ understanding of that world. Earlier in the film, Scarlett meets her former slaves conscripted by the Confederate army and greets them enthusiastically, but does not seem to notice that they are singing the hymn “Let My People Go.” Later, her father chastises her for behaving too brutally to Prissy and Mammy, urging her to be more gentle with “inferiors.” In the final act, while Mammy is hunched over in misery complaining about her aching back, Scarlett breaks into song, completely (and glaringly) heedless of her surrogate mother’s plight. And when Rhett leaves Georgia for England, he walks gruffly into Pork as he passes him in the hallway, aggressively bumping into him without apologizing. These microaggressions against the black characters are deliberate inclusions by the filmmakers suggestive of the dehumanizing nature of servitude in the South, or at least the obliviousness of white characters to the inner emotional landscape of their house workers. The experience of slavery is not explored very deeply in Gone With the Wind, but the thematic gulf between the complete self-involvedness of the white characters and the hurt silences and passive aggressive tactics of their black servants is certainly highlighted. All of the slaves run away from Tara except two. When Ashley complains that he “will not make money from the enforced labor and misery of others,” even Scarlett has to laugh at him. He assures her that they didn’t treat their slaves like that, and that he would have freed them all after his father died. Scarlett tactfully changes the subject.

For all of the discourse about the simpering stupidity of her character, Butterfly  McQueen was actually the most rebellious member of the cast. She refused to be literally slapped by Vivien Leigh during her climactic scene, even against the violent protests of Cukor; she said that she would scream loudly if the slap was simulated, but would take it completely silently if her face was touched. Her insistence was honored. Later, she also refused to eat watermelon on the porch of Tara. The filmmakers compromised, and she carves it in the background in the final cut of the scene (she later jokingly admitted that she regretted her obstinacy in this case; it might have been funny to spit out the seeds nonchalantly, she said, while the other characters were engaged in their melodramatics all around her). When Hattie McDaniel first auditioned for the role of Mammy, she actually visited Selznick’s office dressed like a slave, showing him that she was willing to embrace the part in all its facets, and was not ashamed of it in any way. Hattie McDaniel told Butterfly McQueen during the shooting of Gone With the Wind that she would never work in Hollywood again. “You complain too much,” she said.

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[1]http://popwatch.ew.com/2014/12/18/gone-with-the-wind-75th-anniversary/

[2] http://time.com/10650/dont-applaud-jared-letos-transgender-mammy/

(One wonders if the author of the second article didn’t accidentally mistake the characters of Prissy and Mammy. Indeed, this confusion is all but confirmed by the correction at the bottom of the article which retracted the idea that Mammy was the one who delivered the famous line about birthing babies. The adjective “infantilized” is totally wrong to describe the part of Mammy; the idea that McDaniel’s no-nonsense and aged character is in any way immature seems bizarre.)