Joan Fontaine – missionary of gothic

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Followers of WhistlesintheWind will know that Jane Eyre and Rebecca have come up a few times in posts, usually exploring the gothic allure of rambling houses – the kind that are as much a character as the inhabitants themselves. They are both fascinating, now intertwined novels, and one actress lived both in the 1940s.

Rebecca 1940 a2

Joan Fontaine with Laurence Olivier in Rebecca (1940), directed by Alfred Hitchcock from Daphne du Maurier’s novel

As a child in the 1970s and into the 1980s, sunday afternoons in winter often found one of the great ‘old’ black and white movies on our TV screens. It was here that a big part of my imagination was forged, leading me to later spend hours immersed in epic Victorian novels and their later successors, joining the characters as candles flickered in stone-built hallways, along oak bannisters, or where lanterns gleamed in winter light over mist-hung moors or ragged coasts.

Jane Eyre (1944)

Joan Fontaine, who died this week, played both Jane Eyre alongside Orson Welles and the second Mrs de Winter with Laurence Olivier. Both films remain classics today; Hitchcock’s Rebecca will never be matched, and the 1944 version of Charlotte Bronte’s novel still has great power (and is also faithful to its setting – I can’t ever forget the Yorkshire scolding from Grace Poole as Jane explores the attics: ‘What art tha doin’ up ‘ere – get thee dahn!’).

Fontaine’s performances are restrained, nuanced, yet charismatic, and have carried the films along through the decades. So WhistlesintheWind here salutes her, missionary of gothic, 1917-2013.

The fascination of ruins

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Some of the most arresting images of recent years are those of ruined Detroit, Michigan by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.

They include the United Artists Theatre, ready to give us vertigo with its height and expanse. But it is monotone, silver-grey – a Narnian witch has withered the unfurling decoration. It’s Miss Havisham’s wedding cake: celebratory splendour gnawed and eaten, enough beauty left to mock us, but fragile as ash.

United Artists Theater, Detroit (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre)

United Artists Theater, Detroit (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre)

There are images of hotels, apartments, railway stations – windows like gouged eyeholes of 20th century excess, flaking like the make-up of septuagenarian starlets.

Michigan Central Station (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre)

Michigan Central Station (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre)

This is ruin on the grand scale. The artists record it on camera and talk of the fall of empires. It’s the sinking of the Titanic, the Statue of Zeus or the Sphinx. It is part of something mighty fallen, and reminds us that humans are here and then were here.

Do we think of ourselves when we see these images? Or are we thinking grandly, of the human race?

Place an upturned plastic chair in the centre of the ruined dancehall and we might respond differently. This is something from within our lifetime, not a distant heritage. It’s the chair we sat on at school, the chair we sat on at interview, the one we stacked at the end of countless work presentations. The chair belongs to now. Yet it’s in a dead ballroom because it has had its time and belongs to the dark (or in the photo, the light…).

Ballroom, American Hotel (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre)

Ballroom, American Hotel (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre)

Stop, we think – that shouldn’t be there like that. We can hear the scrape of its metal legs and feel the warm grainy plastic and our living, and it hurts, because we know that’s where we’re going too, sometime.

But we are intrigued, like the Romantics who saw ruins lit by moonlight. They saw dark things and spectres that rose to give Byronic shivers of pleasure. This was fear to sip from books and shut away afterwards. Buildings also shut things away, and are well-worn metaphors for the mind, with dark attics and cellars rarely visited.

Moorland ruin

Moorland ruin (Whistlesinthewind)

They also witness our lives – this is where we are born, learn, work, love and die. Is our energy so powerful that it is absorbed by plaster, brick, stone and wood? Do we think houses become human?

Old houses and empty houses turn quickly into gothic, romantic heroines. Daphne du Maurier writes here of the first sight of her home Menabilly, which partly inspired Manderley in the novel Rebecca, where the house is as much a character as the protagonists:

Grey, still, silent. The windows were shuttered fast, white and barred. Ivy covered the grey walls and threw tendrils round the windows. It was early still,  and the house was sleeping. But later, when the sun was high, there would come no wreath of smoke from the chimneys. The shutters would not be thrown back, nor the doors unfastened. No voices would sound within those darkened rooms. Menabilly would sleep on, like the sleeping beauty of the fairy tale, until someone should come to wake her.

Houses are not meant to be empty. This scares us. They can decline and rot, and remind us of our own bodies. Throw the windows wide, they say. Let some air in.

An empty house beckons us to look into the unknown, an after life: anything could be lurking in the cellar or the attic. We have always known that. So we paper and paint and polish, and keep the structure from returning to the earth. Renew and replenish. Keep the soil from quietly forming in the gutters, moss from lining the path, trees from tapping at the window.

All those Miss Havishams alone, cobwebbed, time-stilled. A house might change hands, and belong to a family. ‘The house lives again,’ people say, because there is energy and love and conflict.

But ruined buildings remind us of the end. And we are fascinated.

Moorland ruin 2

Moorland ruin 2 (Whistlesinthewind)

The Ruins of Detroit exhibition is showing at the Fontana Fortuna Gallery in Amsterdam from May 12th to June 30th 2012.

Rex Whistler and the Smoking Urn

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 Above the drawing room fireplace rises a giant, gothic urn, wraiths of slow-motion smoke drifting toward the ceiling…

This made the greatest impression on me as a child, surely everything the artist intended.

None of it was real but in those few seconds of understanding I experienced pure awe. More magic followed. The artist had included a small pot of paint and a brush on one of the ledges, as if left behind. I seem to remember a packet of cigarettes in there too. Then there was the harsh fact that he would die in the war that began in the year the trompe l’oeil was finished, still in his thirties, and that this was his last work of this kind.

The mural was commissioned for Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire by Maud Russell, whose connections to Evelyn Waugh’s set of ‘bright young things’ led to her meeting Rex Whistler (1905-1944). I’ve since learned that Whistler was an inspiration for Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, which makes it all the more poignant.

Self-portrait by Rex Whistler

On my childhood visit I remember having only 10p in my pocket and being unable to decide whether to buy the pamphlet to learn more or the postcard – well, here’s the latter. It was an empty National Trust kiosk and I remember baking afternoon sun and the uncommunicative and unrelentingly sour woman inside as I explained why I was taking a little while, while that awful hand of death that you sometimes found with the National Trust shadowed the vitality I’d just experienced…

Spectral evenings at Berry Pomeroy Castle, Devon

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One of the more unsettling tales surrounding this ruined castle tells of a Lady Margaret, who was imprisoned by her jealous sister Eleanor on account of her beauty. Margaret was imprisoned for two decades before being allowed to die of starvation, and her ghost, known as the White Lady, is said to rise to the ramparts and impart dread and malaise. Late 20th century excavations shed doubt on the existence of a castle during the crusades, but the legend remains…

The disturbing world of Jane Eyre in paperback

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I felt it a misfortune that I was so little, so pale, and had features so irregular and so marked.

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre

I’ve never come across any really good paperback designs for the Bronte books – they must exist somewhere, but not here, not today. A key fact about Jane Eyre is that Jane is, in that word all the more crushing because it usually applies to scones, plain – and all the better for it. It’s also a story about misfits and mental illness.

Not all these things get considered when it comes to Jane Eyre in paperback (click to enlarge image). It starts to go wrong in the forties (top left): a waxenly sophisticated blue-eyed Jane is pursued by what seems to be a friendly-looking science teacher. But by the early sixties (top, second left) she has morphed into a voluptuous Hammer Horror beauty pursued by a lecherous werewolf.

By the eighties (bottom left) we’re back on plainer ground – Jane has turned into an enormous carpet bag, and Jenny Agutter from The Railway Children has wandered in, attracted by the gothic railway station posing as Thornfield.

Another sixties version (bottom, second left) is trying harder, with an effective Bertha Mason gazing wanly out at us. But while the Jane in the background looks suitably thwarted, judging by her gaze and expression it’s all due to an unsuitable green glove.

Moving into the seventies (bottom, second right) and at last someone has the sense to really get to the theme at the heart of the novel – the gigantic moth of doom which follows any plain governesses intent on wedlock. Rochester knows what’s going on and assumes a look of resignation.

We’re back to vampires for the Pan version (top right), or indeed something more sinister; while the Everyman Library artiness (bottom right) is pretty good, though I’m assuming this is Grace Poole – the only possible candidate for an octagenarian in the novel, but I could be wrong.

The Signet version is the one I like, and that’s because even though Jane appears more like a Russian countess, she’s looking miserably enigmatic, and so is Rochester. It’s also dark, fluid and stylised in a particular type of illustration that’s perfectly of its era.