Wonder Woman, screenplay by John Buchan

WW 1I saw Wonder Woman last night, and have things on my mind (there will be SPOILERS if you read on). There were only seven people in the cinema (Tuesday night, 17.40 showing, my own private cinema), but by god the Dolby surround was loud, we needed more bodies to absorb the boom.

The Themiscyra parts were epic and idyllic, but the Amazon civilisation seemed only to consist of a warrior elite and ruling class: where were the farmers? stonemasons? armourers? weavers?  bakers? brewers? (Though, no-one is actually seen eating or drinking: did they not need sustenance?) They may have been self-sufficient for most things (silk-worms?) but where did they get the twelve books that told Diana all she wanted to know about sex? Written on the island? There was a suggestion that some applicants for the soldiery might be rejected if not good enough, but we weren’t seeing much more than a Bronze Age hierarchy. Fantastic workmanship from their leather-working tradition, by the way.

The Amazons fighting, training, performing their military exercises were epic. I read a snatch of an Entertainment Weekly article about how the Amazons were played by real-life police officers, soldiers, stuntwomen, athletes and so on, and how much fun they had training to be an elite fighting force. It shows: those women were magnificent, and totally believable.

Then Steve Trevor crashes into the sea, followed quickly by the Germans in hot pursuit. What sea, exactly, is Themiscyra in? I’m happy to accept that it’s protected by a gods-given dome of opacity that lets the sunlight in to create a Mediterranean climate, so if Steve stole the notebook from a location in the Ottoman Empire (I will come back to geography), and then flew away with it in a stolen plane (with a fuel range of what?), it’s the Adriatic. (Updated after correction in the comments, below.)

At this point Reason raises her head and says ‘It’s a story. Diana is a god. She’s fighting Ares. Does it matter where the bloody plane crashed?’. Yes. Yes, it does. The film is set in an alternative history of the world, so gods and mortals can walk the earth together. But if the First World War is part of that alternative history, with all its domestic detail and the social codes of the period (there will be much more on this), then that’s a part of alt hist that needs grounding, to be attached to the mythic elements. And it’s fuzzed over.

Diana and Steve leave Themiscyra (can she ever go back? options for sequels abound) and next morning are sailing up the Thames underneath London Bridge, because they ‘caught a ride’. If the Adriatic is where they started sailing, it would take DAYS to get to the Thames. It’s also not explained from whom they ‘caught’ (horrible anachronistic vocab) a ride: or whether the fishermen boggled at seeing an American in German uniform and a black-cloaked woman in leather armour on a Greek ship in their waters.

WONDER WOMANDiana is met by a helpful woman (the very funny and tonally perfect Lucy Davis) who shows her how to buy suitable clothes for 1918 England. Very good scene, but why did no-one in the shop notice, laugh, object, or gather in crowds to see this strange woman with a sword? Also, women of the class that Diana is placed in did not try on clothes openly in public view. Her eventual outfit is pretty good, on the whole, as an approximation of what might be worn at the time, though the collar would not have been open, but buttoned high. Her glasses are wrong (‘you’re … too distracting’), but they’re soon to be crushed in a fight.

Diana arrives at a high-level military meeting, and goes into the room as if by right, which is fine characterisation, but astonishing: soldiers would have been on duty, far more people would have prevented her getting in. I don’t know what rank Steve was (Captain?) but he is too low on the military ranking to have attended meetings with generals, let alone be allowed to walk about the room berating them. I did like the repeated line ‘There’s a WOMAN in the room’, but this was one of the few historically plausible details.

At this point I was powerfully reminded of John Buchan’s novel The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), in which the lone hero addresses the military bigwigs about his secret mission. Bells began to ring. When Steve and Diana gather a group of trusted colleagues to go on a secret mission behind the Front, I was reminded of John Buchan’s novel Greenmantle (1916), in which exactly this happens, German disguises and all, AND Buchan’s heroes foregather in Constantinople and have much to do with the forces of the Ottoman Empire. Their mission is to find the secret German laboratory that is creating a deadly poison gas: see John Buchan’s novel Mr Standfast (1919), in which EXACTLY the same plot point, deployed on the eve of the Armistice, creates the thrilling end to that excellent novel of British and American espionage. Wonder Woman‘s script-writers clearly knew their Buchan, usefully long out of copyright, but it’s quite astonishing that no-one else has noticed. Perhaps I can help writing the next First World War action thriller.

Geography and linguistics time. Diana is taken to a Flemish part of the Western Front, and speaks perfect Flemish to a distressed civilian in the trenches (no civilians would have been allowed anywhere near the trenches, or would have been blown up trying to get there). She has already shown off her language skills, but this was very pleasing: a war film that acknowledges geographic reality, that the Western Front was not all francophone. The photographer in the village has a French accent: again, perfectly plausible, the Belgian professional and upper classes used French habitually. But the Germans have thick German accents when they’re speaking to themselves, whereas the Flemish speak Flemish when they’re in their own village. Where’s the consistency there?

WW3By this time, as Steve and Diana and friends weave their way through the trenches, I’m beginning to wonder whether, as a god, Diana simply isn’t noticeable by mortals, whether she assumes invisibility. Otherwise why is no-one groping or whistling at her, why aren’t officers and sentries forcing her back to the supply lines, and how did they get to the trenches in the first place? One does not simply walk into Passchendaele. And then she magically appears in full leather short-skirted kit (where did the nice grey clothes go?) and climbs the ladder over the top into No-Man’s Land (good reasoning, Eowyn). It’s magnificent, the most splendidly heroic part of the film, but really? She isn’t ripped apart by massed machine-gun fire and mortars because she’s got a shield? Reason throws up her hands and stalks away.

The summit, the pre-Armistice gala thing that gets Diana into a blue evening dress with the sword shoved down the back of the dress like an ornate jewel: where did that come from? And why were women allowed so near the Front? German women in stealable frocks too? What part of Belgium are we now in, close enough to allow German civilians to arrive in evening clothes, all the way from, ooh, let’s say Aachen to Antwerp, to attend a party, in a war zone?

Other historical niggles: I was dubious about the four-engined bomber that Steve flies at the end, because I thought they only came in during the Second World War, but I’ve been corrected in the comments, below. Diana is given an ice-cream on the station, in a cone, from a station vendor. The ice-cream cone was in existence at the time, but ices were generally taken in glasses and eaten with spoons, ladies didn’t eat food in public while walking along, and women always wore hats in public too. When Diana loses hers she doesn’t bother with a replacement, and consequently breaks a major sartorial rule in society for that time. Even girls wore hats in public, if they had them.

However, Diana is a god, she’s fighting a god (David Thewlis’ ‘tache is perfect for the period, a superb Adolfian nod to the further future, but looks totally stupid on a Transformer-like Greek god), and none of this matters. It’s a film, it’s a fabulous fantastical creation, Patty Jenkins deserves many more film projects, and I’m almost tempted to see that Superman Batman film that everyone hated so I can see more of Gal Gadot, who is the best thing in Wonder Woman by light years. She is the most well-rounded authentic superhero character in cinema for years, certainly the best female hero since Imperator Furiosa. Go see it.

The Early Life of James McBey: An Autobiography

self-portrait, copyright The Mitchell Library, University of Glasgow

When I had a paper-round in Aberdeen at the age of 13, I regularly delivered the local free sheet to an ordinary Victorian terraced house in the west end that was then called James McBey House. I had no idea why the house had been called that, and I still don’t, since McBey, the First World War artist and renowned etcher, had lived in a completely different part of Aberdeen. McBey is the most famous artist of his period associated with Aberdeen, and the Art Gallery’s drawings room is named after him, holding as it does a lot of his work. This summer in Edinburgh (not a city where Aberdeen is much regarded), looking in vain for a book that wasn’t about Sir Walter Scott, I found McBey’s Autobiography, and was transported back to dark winter mornings and a heavy bag of newsprint across my back. Naturally, I bought it for holiday reading.

mcbey-3Nineteenth-century Aberdeenshire life and rural society is a niche interest, I know, but McBey’s writing is vivid, succinct, unmoralising, and very immediate. His pared-down style is astonishingly modern, and its spareness fits his tough childhood and early adult occupation as a bank clerk when modern boys of his age would barely be thinking about their first exams. He was the illegitimate son of a Newmachar blacksmith’s daughter, and he saw his father perhaps three times in his life. He was acknowledged, but more or less ignored until the elder McBey’s death, when McBey found himself a legatee and executor of a sheep farming estate in Surrey, of all places. McBey grew up in Newmachar with his silently raging mother, whom he always called Annie, and who never referred to the fact that she was his mother, and his loving grandmother Mary Gillespie. The three moved to Aberdeen in 1899 when McBey became their breadwinner at the age of fourteen, as an apprentice clerk in the Aberdeen branch of the North of Scotland bank. He stayed with the bank for eleven years, rising in its complicated hierarchies due to his hard work, reliability, and conscientiousness. His descriptions of Victorian banking practice as he was moved around Scotland and the UK as a reliable trouble-shooter, the close-mouthed taciturnity of Aberdonians, the strange psychological sufferings of his mother as she became blind, and the kindness of individuals – such as the police inspector who managed the case to keep the press at bay in a case of suicide –make marvellous reading. McBey’s writing voice brings the past to life, straightforward and thoughtful: an ordinary man recalling a life long gone by.

McBey wrote this autobiography when he had become an established painter, with fame and a distinguished war record. He wrote the account in 1947, when he was living in Morocco, and deliberately ended the story at the point he began his career, since the later part of his life was then much more widely known. But no publisher wanted his early life, and the manuscript stayed unnoticed and forgotten in the drawer in which McBey kept his working collection of soft white paper. After his death the Houghton Library at Harvard University was offered the paper, and the manuscript of the autobiography was rediscovered. It was first published in 1977.

McBey's portrait of T E Lawrence, 1918
McBey’s portrait of T E Lawrence, 1918

It’s hard to pull out one particular instance that epitomises the style and warmth of the writing that bring to life this eager, dutiful, diligent boy and man. He seemed to have nothing else in mind but drawing, or doing his homework and bank duties properly. His early drawing attracted attention very early on, because he was so young to demonstrate such innate skill, with no art education whatsoever. His later painting and etching attracted aggressive indifference, since how could a bank clerk presume to be an artist? He learned not to draw attention to himself, and learned his art where and when he could, from other artists (even if he did not care for what they produced), and the books in Aberdeen’s Public Library. He began to exhibit, eventually in Edinburgh, and to sell etchings. He became a stand-in bank manager in Fife solely so he could catch the Saturday lunchtime train to Edinburgh every week to visit the Whistler exhibition. He was deputed as the escort to the bank’s biannual gold consignment to the Bank of England, and had a week free in which he rushed to Paris to see as much art as he could manage, barely eating or sleeping in order to cram it all in.

Mary Gillespie, 1902
McBey’s portrait of his grandmother, Mary Gillespie, 1901

The most heartening image in the book is McBey’s first oil painting, done of his grandmother in 1901. It was returned to him in the 1950s, due to a note he had carefully inserted between the canvas and the frame, authenticating his work, and asking for its return. The old woman’s eager expression and hopeful countenance tells you everything that you need to know about how she felt about her grandson, such a dutiful and reliable boy, who supported her for the rest of her life. You can’t help but feel warmly towards him, seeing the image he made of the most important person in his life.

The Early Life of James McBey: An Autobiography, edited and introduced by Nicolas Barker (1977, Canongate 1993), ISBN 0 86241 445 8

Hilda Vaughan’s The Soldier and the Gentlewoman

Vaughan 2

The Soldier and the Gentlewoman, originally published in 1932, puts a pitchfork in the romantic notion that soldiers returning from war would find a willing wife and a grateful village waiting for them. Hilda Vaughan writes a disturbing defence of the woman’s right to inherit the family estate, and disrupts the social niceties by showing what could happen when such a woman – in this case the vengeful, obsessive, angry and ignored daughter of the house – organises her own fate, like a man-eating spider. Nothing and no-one will take from her the estate and the valley for which she has laboured all her youth.

Gwenllian Einon-Thomas is nearing forty when the war ends and the death of her brother hands the Plâs Einon estate – her home, her heritage –  to an unknown cousin who doesn’t even live in Wales. Captain Dick Einon-Thomas has survived the war, and is a decent sort of chap, but he is not the hero we might expect. He comes from Streatham (not a very nice suburb of south London), because his father married down, to the Einon-Thomas family’s fury. Class is a problem for Dick, since he knows he ought to belong where his father came from, but his mother’s background makes him all too vulnerable to bullying, even if he does appreciate fine china (aesthetic tendencies are a code for innate upper-classness). His first appearance shows him resentful and ruffled by the knowing attitudes of the village men in the Green Dragon pub, the night before he visits his inheritance. He’s desperate to not feel in the wrong place, which has been his experience as a young officer from not quite the top drawer throughout the war. He is not local, doesn’t know the names or the pronunciations they bandy about when they bother to speak English, and he is angrily aware that he is being flattered for somebody else’s benefit. The hero of a novel should never feel unsure or uncertain, so that’s the first rule in romantic fiction broken.

Hilda Vaughan
Hilda Vaughan

What about the women? Captain Einon-Thomas meets the three Einon-Thomas ladies for luncheon at the big house. The widow of the dead Squire is uninterested though pleasant, clearly already living her new life on the Riviera. The married sister has the friendliest smile and the warmest handshake, but she doesn’t live there, she follows her husband who’s about to stand as a Labour candidate in the 1919 elections. The third sister, Gwenllian, offers her hand: ‘it was cold and glossy, and narrow, like a serpent’. Brrr.

But Gwenllian warms up when Dick blusters in protest at the very idea of a Labour candidate, and actually invites him back for lunch so she can give him a private tour of his property before the lawyer arrives. He’s pleased but surprised, though doesn’t fool himself that she’s suddenly fallen in love with him. It’s probably their shared Unionist politics: ‘She was, after all, so much older than himself’. Dick is the fly, and Gwenllian is the spider, and the estate and its people are the web. He does not escape, because she will do anything to keep her hold on her land. She was once in love with a man who waited for her for a year, but he sailed for India when she would not leave the estate while her uncaring father was dying, and then all she had was her younger brother’s charity.

the original cover
the original cover

Vaughan’s skill in allowing us to feel sympathy and horror for both Gwenllian and for her doomed husband Dick – yes, her age somehow did not matter – makes this novel uneasy and compelling. Gwenllian is not an out-and-out monster, since we can empathise so much with her thwarted yearnings, but can we condone everything she does? This is a beautifully written novel, truly a Welsh Women’s Classic, and uncomfortably clear-eyed about people’s motivations. We never lose our first impression of Gwenllian as a snake.

Hilda Vaughan, The Soldier and the Gentlewoman (1932) (Honno Press, 2014), ISBN 978 1 909983 11 3