Category Archives: Guest posts

The Entail that Drives a Novel

Note: This is a guest posting from Maren Robinson, production dramaturg for our spring/summer MainStage production of Pride and Prejudice.

“I do think it is the hardest thing in the world, that your estate should be entailed away from your own children, I am sure, if I had been you, I should have tried long ago to do something or other about it.”
-Mrs. Bennet, Pride and Prejudice

The entail provides the source of drama in a number of British novels. For fans of the British television series Downton Abbey it is still providing drama.

A modern and American sensibility may find the concept of an entail outrageous; both the favoring of an oldest child and the exclusion of daughters is offensive to any democratic notions. Mrs. Bennet’s lines above while a joke to Austen’s readers may actually sound like a good question to modern readers.

The entail or fee tail is a legal contract which settles the succession of an estate and its farmlands on the next male heir. It prevents the current holder of the estate from selling it or determining an alternate heir. The estate was entailed by one generation to the male heir of the next generation. In essence, Mr. Bennet has only a life interest in his estate. If Mr. Bennet owned the estate outright, as Mr. Darcy owns his estate, it would be a fee simple. Since Mr. and Mrs. Bennet did not plan for this contingency and did not live frugally they are in a situation where it is imperative that their daughters marry well or they will be destitute. This is only one of the consequences of a fee tail. Often owners of landed estates saw increasing debt but could not sell any of the lands to settle those debts. This led to the popularity of marrying American heiresses, such as Cora in Downton Abbey or as depicted in the Edith Wharton novel The Buccaneers.

What is particularly remarkable about most entails is that they legally had to be renewed each generation, but the younger generation would agree to the entail or be disinherited. However, Mr. Bennet would never have imagined he might not have a son.

The Bennet daughters would have always known and understood about the entail. In fact they try, in vain, to explain it to their mother.

“Jane and Elizabeth tried to explain to her the nature of an entail. They had often attempted to do it before, but it was a subject on which Mrs. Bennet was beyond reach of reason, and she continued to rail bitterly against the cruelty of settling an estate away from a family of five daughters, in favor of a man whom nobody cared anything about.”
Pride and Prejudice

In a book in which both the entail and the financial circumstances of the characters are featured so prominently it is important to understand how income and the circumstances in which wealth was earned were matters of common knowledge in Regency England. The novel tells us that the Bennets have an income of 2,000 pounds a year, Bingley 5,000 and Darcy 10,000. To put this in perspective, an American visiting Regency England suggested 3,000 pounds a year would be necessary to entertain in style and 6,000 pounds a year would be preferable. The average farm laborer in 1810 received £15-20 per year.

The wealth of most families was in land and property. Annual income for wealthy families would primarily be in rents from tenant farmers so owning a lot of farmable land is desirable for any wealthy family. These property owners are referred to as the landed gentry. Lizzy is a gentleman’s daughter because Mr. Bennet has never had to work for his income. Being “in trade” means doing some form of work to make money. While “being in trade” becomes a point used against Lizzy Bennets Aunts and Uncles it is important to note that the Bingleys’ fortune was acquired through trade. It is a large fortune and they are of the next generation that has not had to work. Austen describes Bingley’s sisters as follows:

“They were of a respectable family in the North of England; a circumstance more deeply impressed on their memories than that that their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade.”

Scholar Sandra Macpherson persuasively argues in her article on the entail that Austen was well-aware of these legal nuances and that the novel makes use of these legal short term and long term obligations.

While Lizzy Bennet jokes with her sister Jane that her affection for Mr. Darcy started after seeing his beautiful estate at Pemberley, the underpinnings of this romantic novel and its marriage plot are decidedly tied to the stability or instability of an estate.

Sources: Our Tempestuous Day, Carolly Erickson; What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, Daniel Pool; “Rent to Own; or What’s Entailed in Pride and Prejudice?”
Sandra Macpherson, Representations, Vol. 82, No. 1 (Spring 2003), pp. 1-23.

The Regency you might not know might seem strangely familiar

Note: This is a guest posting from Maren Robinson, production dramaturg for our spring/summer MainStage production of Pride and Prejudice.

The clothing, the customs and the class system of the Regency may seem distant from our own time, but ongoing foreign wars, a fragile economy, criticism of the wealthy and an active Evangelical movement could be taken from our own headlines.

Jane Austen’s novels were published during the Regency. King George III had been declared unfit to rule because of his famous “madness” the symptoms of Porphyria, which made his behavior erratic. His son was named by Parliament to rule in his place as Prince Regent. The Regency of the prince lasted from 1811 until his father’s death in 1820 when the Prince Regent became George IV. The Prince Regent was known for his decadence: a series of mistresses, a love of food and drink, extravagant spending on clothing, art furniture and renovating his Royal Pavilion at Brighton. He became physically enormous and suffered from gout and heart palpitations. He was estranged from his wife Caroline who matched him both in girth and extramarital affairs.

Jane Austen supported Princess Caroline and felt her husband treated her shabbily. She wrote that she would support Caroline, “as long as I can because she is a woman.”

George Cruickshank satirical engraving of the Prince Regent, May 1, 1812

The era, if viewed solely from the perspective of the drawing room of an English country house, might seem quiet. It is important to recall that England was in a state of political and civil unrest within the country as well as fighting various foreign wars. The French Revolution had lead many in the upper classes to fear a similar revolution in England. England had been intermittently at war with France for almost a century. Taxes were needed to pay for the wars. Indeed, these same idyllic country houses were subject to a tax based the number of windows the house possessed. The militia and navy, which feature so prominently in Austen novels, were either fighting wars against the French or guarding the homeland from French invasion and political unrest.
(At right: the Music room in the Royal Pavilion at Brighton)

Economic difficulties in England contributed to the Luddite Rebellion in which looms were broken and houses burned by secret groups who claimed to be acting on behalf of “General Ludd.” In fact, these attacks were mostly led by the knitters themselves, who were being pushed to make cheaper products and found it increasing difficult to making a living. Their attacks compounded fears of the Gentry in the British countryside.

The same era gives us George Gordon Lord Byron and his infamous decadent lifestyle and liaisons including an affair with his half sister. At the same time, the evangelical movement, as epitomized by the prolific writer Hannah More was growing in England as a counterpoint to the excesses of Byron and other fashionable members of society. Jane Austen was critical of the Evangelicals. She was quite critical of one of More’s popular novels, Coelebs in Search of a Wife which disrupted the plot with helpful moral extracts.

Above: Two Regency extremes, the scandalous Lord Byron and the religious reformer Hannah More

“I am by no means convinced that we ought not all be Evangelical and am at least persuaded that they who are so far from reason and feeling must be happiest and safest.”
– Jane Austen, commenting on the Evangelical movement of the Regency era

Underneath the layers of empire dresses, bonnets, and Beau Brummell cravats, the issues facing the Regency were not unlike our own which is perhaps why the very real financial and emotional concerns of Austen’s characters seem familiar too.

Sources: Our Tempestuous Day, Carolly Erickson; An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England, Venetia Murray

The Enigmatic Jane

Note: This is a guest posting from Maren Robinson, production dramaturg for our spring/summer MainStage production of Pride and Prejudice.

There is something enigmatic about Jane Austen that makes it difficult for readers to have a sense of her beyond her novel and a few meager biographical details and this sense of her as a canny observer of human nature in her. Her family burned many of her letters and her brother and literary executor was careful about her image. Often she has been portrayed as the retiring daughter of a country clergyman, when in fact she wrote lively letters, travelled and had a network of friends and correspondents.

“Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony”
– Jane Austen in a letter to her niece Fanny Knight, March 13, 1817

Jane Austen was born in 1775 to George and Cassandra Austen. She was raised in the village of Steventon. Her father was a clergyman who had been educated at Oxford who supplemented his income with proceeds from farming. The Austen children in order of birth are: James, Edward, Henry, Cassandra, Francis, George, Jane and Charles. Jane would be closest with her sister Cassandra and brother Henry, who also served as her literary agent.

At the age of 8 Jane was sent, with her sister Cassandra to boarding school where she would have learned language, music and dancing. Reverend Austen had a significant library, which was open to all the members of his family including Cassandra and Jane who both read widely. The family also enjoyed amateur theatricals of their own creation. By 1787 Jane was keeping notebooks of her writings and she completed her first novel by age 15. Austen’s stories were read aloud to her family and they encourage her work. She had created drafts of the books that would become Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice by the age of 23.

In 1795, Jane began spending time with the nephew of their neighbors, a law student named Tom Lefroy. Both families noticed the pair spending time together and felt an engagement would be impractical since Tom was being supported by his family while training to be a barrister and Jane and her family could not offer financial settlement to make the match. Lefroy’s family sent him away and the families made efforts to make sure the pair did not see each other again.

“I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend (Lefroy) and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself, however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday.”
-Jane Austen in a letter to her sister Cassandra Austen, January 9, 1796

Her father retied in 1800 and the family moved from Steventon to Bath. In 1802, Austen accepted a proposal from Harris Big-Wither, the wealthy brother of her friend, only to retract the next day because she did not care for him, but knew that a marriage meant social mobility and stability, the subject of many of her novels.

Her father died in 1805 and Austen, her Mother and her elder sister Cassandra lived in a small house in Chawton, which was provided by her brother. Her own personal stability fluctuated as her brother’s fortunes changed leaving her and her mother in a precarious situation. She seems aware of both the benefits and dangers of a single life. In letters to her niece, Fanny Knight, she playfully refers to the poverty being a reason in favor of matrimony, yet in another letter she urges Fanny not to commit her self if she doesn’t really care for the man.

“Anything is to preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection.”
-Jane Austen in a letter to her niece Fanny Knight, November 18, 1814

Her books were published anonymously because writing novels would still not have been an acceptable occupation for a woman of her class and background. She did get to enjoy a sense of success for her writing. She died on July 18, 1817 at age 41 after a protracted illness.

“I must make use of this opportunity to thank you dear Sir, for the very high praise you bestow on my other novels. I am too vain to wish to convince you that you have praised them beyond their merit.”
-Jane Austen in a letter to James Stanier Clarke, Librarian and chaplain to the Prince Regent, December 11, 1815

It is somehow irresistible not to find in her biography something of the concerns of her novels, the financial precariousness of being a middle class woman, attempts to balance love and security, interfering and embarrassing relations. In both her letters and her books she is keenly observes the foibles of those around her and herself. Yet for all that readers feel such a kinship with Austen, much like one of the portraits painted by her sister Cassandra, in which her face is obscured by her bonnet, there is something in the humor of her letters and lightness of her tone that seems to keep Austen’s deepest emotions out of reach. We have to be content with the play of emotions of her beloved characters.

Above: An enigmatic portrait of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra
Sources: The Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen, Penelope Hughes-Hallett; A Memoir of Jane Austen, J.E. Austen-Leigh; Jane Austen: The World of her Novel, Deirdre Le Faye

What is this connection we have to Pride and Prejudice?

Note: This is a guest posting from Maren Robinson, production dramaturg for our spring/summer MainStage production of Pride and Prejudice.

Dear Reader, “What is this connection we have to Pride and Prejudice?”

(This being a blog post in which neuroscientists and I will state the obvious about reading and still fail to capture the ineffable quality of a novel beloved by generations.)

I have been struggling to write a blog post that does justice to the complex relationship many readers have with Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice in particular. Time studying literature through undergraduate and graduate degrees has changed how I read literature. I can read Pride and Prejudice and see rich material about class structure, the role of women, inheritance and the legal system. However, the ability to analyze the features of a book does not diminish the strong emotional response that I still have to reading the book.

Almost all fans of the book seem to recall the year of their first reading and maybe even have a dog-eared original copy. (I read it the summer after 8th grade; my copy is a now yellowing Signet Classic edition. The green cover features a painting of two women in dresses that I now know are not quite the right time period). Fans have their favorite lines, their favorite film adaptations (there are many to choose from). There are blogs and websites devoted to Austen and there are endless books by other authors that promote themselves as sequels, insert zombies, or murders at Pemberly. Where does this favored status spring from? What is it about the books and their author that inspires such love and such a sense of intimacy with these characters?

A March 18, 2012 Sunday Times article on neuroscience confirms what many inveterate readers already know, in short, that books offer, “the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.” However, the article goes beyond this easy reduction. Scientists have discovered that parts of our brain beyond those associated with reading words are activated when we feel a connection to what we read.

This makes perfect sense to me, and, I suspect, many readers. I am among those readers who keenly felt an empathetic shame on Lizzy’s behalf when her family behaves badly at a ball, to the point of feeling anxious and a little upset every time I read that passage.

The same article cites a Canadian analysis of MRIs which,

“concluded that there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions ‘theory of mind.’ Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers.”

That could be a description of almost any Austen novel with “characters trying to guess hidden motives” and “navigate interactions with other individuals.” So in spite of the changes in social codes, class and conduct there is still something about trying to understand and connect with others that resonates for contemporary readers.

Most of us did not need neurologist to tell us that we identify with characters in books and empathize with them. It is more a testament to Austen’s skill at capturing the range of human emotion that we continue to have such strong responses to these characters. If Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet learn to understand their own failings, their own minds and their own hearts, science suggests through them we learn sympathetically something about our own hearts and minds.

In bringing Pride and Prejudice to the stage, there is something that is familiar about these neurological impulses that will be familiar to all actors. Readers become audiences but actors work to understand and recreate the longings and frustrations of the characters. True, readers can share individual experiences of a novel through comparison and reminiscence, but the stage offers a very immediate way to share the story and participate in the lives of characters we come to feel we know as if they were real.

I was struck by hearing the cast read the play in one of the early rehearsals at how strange it felt to laugh out loud at Mrs. Bennet or Mr. Collins because so often that laughter has been in my head as I read and not shared with others.

I also laughed out loud when I got to the last line of the Times article,

“These findings will affirm the experience of readers who have felt illuminated and instructed by a novel, who have found themselves comparing a plucky young woman to Elizabeth Bennet or a tiresome pedant to Edward Casaubon. Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.”

Lizzy Bennet was the first literary example in the article showing just how large her character looms both in the literary world and the world at large. Mr. Darcy might agree since in his definition of an accomplished woman he said, “to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”

Anatomy of the Hunger Lobby Display

Note: This is a guest posting from Maren Robinson, production dramaturg for our winter MainStage production of Hunger.

Now that I am working on my third production at Lifeline I thought it would be fun to go through the anatomy of the dramaturgical materials in the lobby that are among the production photos of the cast.

During the rehearsal process Rob created a large timeline in the rehearsal room and I supplemented this with information on historic events, quotes from journals kept by survivors of the siege of Leningrad, maps and images. What you get to see in the lobby is a modified version of those same materials and some additional items that were not in the rehearsal room.

I thought of the display as a messy sort of desk of scientist who had lived through the siege with a variety of images and stories building up.

I have taken photographs of the display and will note certain items that might be interesting for you to look for when you come to the theater.

In the photo at left you can see the prison photos of Vavilov, his sentencing documents and a very sad letter in Russian in which he asked to be put to work on one of the farms rather than stay in prison.

The Institute of Plant Industry not only collected seed samples but also kept cards of pressed plants for identification purposes. To recreate the feel of some of those plant identification cards I pressed some plants and created made the kind of cards that would have so been familiar to any scientist at working at the institute.

I also included a variety of botanical illustrations from books. The scientists in Leningrad would have needed to know other languages to communicate with scientific colleagues around the world, this fact was good for scientific communication but led to many of the scientists being suspected of spying because they could read other languages and had contacts around the world.

On the right side of the board is a timeline of the Siege of Leningrad, since this is an aspect of World War II that is often not as thoroughly covered in U.S. history classes. You will also see a facsimile of a ration card and photos of the wrapped bodies of the dead in the streets of Leningrad during the siege. Layered underneath is the cover of one of the Russian journals of genetics in which Nikolai Vavilov published.

There were two amazing books of journals and letters written by people who survived the siege. With the help of one of the intrepid Lifeline interns, Julie, we wrote out parts of the journals that offer impressions of life during the siege. References to eating cat, thinking compulsively about food, and seeing others who were not starving because of their theft are particularly haunting. You can also see a map of Leningrad, some of the defenses and survivors leaving the bombed shell of a building.

Also on the board are soviet propaganda posters from the war. Like many governments in time of war, Stalin’s government created patriotic posters which were pasted up around Leningrad and other cities. Several of these feature Mother Russia, the one that particularly struck me is close to the bottom of the board and shows her with a gun in one arm and grain in the other.

In this same part of the board you will see a photo of Vavilov on one of his exotic seed gathering trips and sleds traveling the ice road out of Leningrad.

If the play sparks your interest in the siege or the scientists you should certainly read Elise Blackwell’s novel Hunger, on which the play is based. It is haunting and lovely.

If you want to read more about Siege of Leningrad I highly recommend the following books.

The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad – Harrison Evan Salisbury
Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944 – Anna Reid
Writing the Siege of Leningrad: Women’s Diaries, Memoirs and Documentary Prose – Cynthia Simon and Nina Perlina
Leningrad Under Siege: first-hand accounts of the ordeal – Daniil Alexandrovich
The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov – Peter Pringle
The Vavilov Affair – Mark Aleksandrovich Popovsky

Seed Hunters: Old World and Brave New World

Note: This is a guest posting from Maren Robinson, production dramaturg for our winter MainStage production of Hunger.

The work that the scientists in Hunger are conducting is scientific work that continues today. Portions of the story are flashbacks to the seed gathering trips conducted by Nikolai Vavilov and his students. In many ways Vavilov was wildly ahead of his time in seeking to gather and to preserve seeds both for research purposes and to maintain crop diversity.


Nikolai Vavilov on a 1927 seed-collecting trip.

Gathering seeds in dangerous and exotic countries can make science seem a bit more like an Indiana Jones movie. Vavilov did survive plane crashes, visit exotic locations, and have to make camp near lions. However, these trips to collect seeds are not just an excuse for dramatic tourism. Understanding biodiversity and the spread of crop plants and plant domestication around the world helps scientists understand our current crop plants and could be key in helping develop new crops and preventing world hunger. As climates change, it is useful for scientists and plant breeders to have access to seed stock of plants that grown in dry climates or wet climates to create new hybrids which may be more successful in certain climates or more resistant to certain pests.


Seed drawers at the Vavilov Institute in Leningrad.

Seed gathering is still a scientific pursuit. There is a new documentary, Seed Hunter, which focuses on current efforts to collect seeds around the world.

In Leningrad, in what is now named the N.I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Research there are still stores of seeds. However, in August 2010, the Pavlovsk Experimental Station, growing fields near Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) were under threat as the Russian government considered selling the fields to real estate developers suggesting that the delicate plants could be moved. After global outcry Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said the issue would be reviewed but the fate of the fields has yet to be resolved. According to a recent article in Guardian, the station’s collection includes such biodiversity as 600 types of apples collected from 35 countries.

On February 26, 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened. Also known as the “doomsday” vault, it is contains more than 500,000 varieties of seeds and is the most diverse collection of crop seeds in the world. Located on the artic ocean in a Norway it is meant to protect and preserved crops seed from pests, disease, natural disasters and climate change.


The “Doomsday” seed vault in Svalbard

In addition to these places to try and save seeds. Modern science and agribusiness has complicate the issue of seeds further. As companies have worked to genetically modify crops some companies have included a controversial “terminator gene.” This gene means that seeds saved from the plant will not germinate. New seed stock must be purchased from the company who created the modified seed. Companies view this as a way to protect intellectual property but has been criticized who worry genes that impede the procreation of plants could make their way into other plant populations and could be detrimental to subsistence farmers, creating a whole new range of concerns about the future of crop seeds. (It is important to clarify here that hybridization by cross breeding compatible crops is not the same as genetic modification of plants done in a lab.)

For those interested in biodiversity and gardeners interested in preserving heirloom varieties the Seed Savers Exchange is a non-governmental seedbank in the United States which collects and exchanges seeds among farmers and gardeners.

Hunger and the Siege of Leningrad

Note: This is a guest posting from Maren Robinson, production dramaturg for our winter MainStage production of Hunger.

Rehearsals for Hunger started after Thanksgiving and going into other holidays there was plenty of food in the rehearsal room. The abundance of food at our American holidays reminds me how far removed we are from real hunger. Most of us don’t even go a day without food; much less endure a prolonged famine during an unrelenting winter. (At left: residents of Leningrad with a still smoking bombed building behind them)

On July 8, 1941, Hitler wrote in his journal that he wanted to raze Leningrad. On September 4, 1942 the Germans began to bomb the city.

The Siege of Leningrad was the only time a major city in an industrialized, western, nation underwent this level of starvation and death from famine. Though estimates of the number of deaths vary, and Soviet reporting may be have been optimistically low, most believe between six hundred thousand and one million people died during the siege.

The city was blockaded by the German army for almost 900 days. The city was regularly bombed and the occasional evacuation routes, such as the ice road or “road of life” over the frozen Lake Lagoda was often bombed by the Germans as well. The winter of 1941-1942 was particularly harsh winters and the residents of Leningrad were without power only increased the suffering and death from the ongoing famine. On January 27, 1944 the liberation of Leningrad was complete. (Right: trucks on the ice road over Lake Lagoda)

The physical symptoms of starvation can take many forms, often related to the lack of nutrients and vitamins available in the meager food supply. The body will attempt to fend off starvation by consuming the body itself. An adult can lose up to half his or her weight. Symptoms of starvation include, shrinking of organs such as the lungs, heart and testes or ovaries, chronic diarrhea, anemia, loss of muscle mass and muscle weakness, sensitivity to cold, irritability and difficulty concentrating, decreased ability to digest food, swelling from fluid under the skin, and immunodeficiency.That was about one third of the population of Leningrad.

Symptoms at the final stages of starvation include: hallucinations, convulsions, severe muscle pain and changes in heart rhythm. Additionally, those who are starving are susceptible to other illnesses such as scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency, and succumb more easily to colds and other diseases. (At left, Sophia Petrova before the war and after the siege)

When I am falling asleep I always see bread, butter, pies and potatoes in my dreams. . . These days my whole nature seems somehow to have changed abruptly. I have become sluggish, feeble, my hand trembles when I write and when I walk my knees are so week that it seems to me that if I took another step it would be the last and I would fall down.
Yura, a Leningrad schoolboy, November 9-10, 1941

It is hard to imagine what the minimal rations the people of Leningrad were living on during the siege. The table below shows the bread rations. It is important to know that the bread was heavily mixed with saw dust and had a gray color and little nutritional value.

Rations of Bread During the Siege (in grams)

Date

Workers &
Engineers

Workers in
workshops

Office Workers

Dependents

Children
under 12

July 18, 1941

800

1000

600

400

400

Sept. 2, 1941

600

800

400

300

300

Sept. 12, 1941

500

700

300

250

250

Oct. 1, 1941

400

600

200

200

200

Nov. 13, 1941

300

450

150

150

150

Nov. 20, 1941

250

375

125

125

125

Dec. 25, 1941

350

500

200

200

200

Jan. 24, 1942

400

575

300

250

250

Feb. 11, 1942

500

700

400

300

300

Mar. 22, 1942

600

700

500

400

400

800 grams is about 28 ounces 200 is about 7 ounces

Sources and for Further reading:

“Leningrad Under Siege,” and “The 900 Days”

Science and Politics

Note: This is a guest posting from Maren Robinson, production dramaturg for our winter MainStage production of Hunger.

As we are in rehearsal for the upcoming production of Chris Hainsworth’s adaptation of Elise Blackwell’s novel Hunger one of the fascinating aspects of the play are the real people who worked at the Institute of Plant Industry in Leningrad (now the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry) particularly two scientists and soviet politics.

Nikolai Vavilov was a world-renowned biologist and geneticist; he was also the son of a millionaire. He formulated the Law of Homologous Series.  He was eager to prove his loyalty after the revolution through his hard work. He was interested in the origin and spread of grains and collected seeds to study plant diversity and plant breeding based in evolutionary genetics.

While foreign travel was still quite limited in the Soviet Union, Vavilov was trusted to lead expeditions to collect seeds and plants in more than fifty countries earning him fame in the Soviet Union and internationally.  Soviet newspapers ran headlined articles on his travels such as “Vavilov crosses the Andes” which appeared in Izvestia or “Vavilov visits with Japanese Scientists” in Pravda. He published The Geographic Origins of Plant Cultivation in 1926. The same year he was awarded the Lenin Prize, the highest Soviet distinction for science.  He set up the Academy of Agricultural Science and was in charge of the Institute of plant breeding. At age 36, he was elected to the Soviet Academy of Science. However, Vavilov’s devotion to science would prove his undoing.

“Unfortunately the qualities of goodness and almost childlike naiveté, which it was so wonderful to find in so great a man, sometimes prevented him from understanding clearly enough the true character of other people. I would not wish to give the impression that Nikolai Ivanovich could not distinguish between one person and another. He saw the shortcomings in certain colleagues, but reckoned that devotion to science would re-educate them.” Colleague professor Lidia Breslavets on Nikolai Vavilov

Vavilov was far more focused on being a good scientist than a good politician. In the 1920s-1930s the mood was changing in the Soviet Union and the “intellectual” was becoming mistrusted for not being involved in manual labor and from a fear intellectuals might have sympathy with the decadent West.  “The worker” was idealized in films, books, and music. Vavilov’s elite background and his lack of interest in politics were both against him in the changing political landscape.

In Spring1933, he was called before the Central Committee. They were displeased with his trips abroad and claimed they were expensive and produced nothing of use. Vavilov insisted that the committee would see the scientific reasons behind his trip.  He did not recount the meeting, but he was never able to leave the Soviet Union again.  The NKVD (the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs – or secret police) had already started a file on him and was collection and coercing denunciations from fellow scientists.

If Vavilov and his work were in decline, Trofim Lysenko, a young man of peasant origins who had been trained on the experimental stations was rising politically.

Vavilov was initially supportive of the younger Lysenko. Lysenko was a believer in Vernalization, which as he applied the theory, relied on the idea that the manipulation of seeds (by keeping them moist, or changing the temperature) could produce higher yielding crops.  Vavilov was interested to see if his theories worked and wanted them to be tested scientifically process. He was unaware of Lysenko’s open contempt for his own genetic research.

Lysenko fit the new model of a soviet worker given the opportunity to rise through hard work. He could not read other languages and so did not keep up on the scientific discoveries in other countries.  He was especially contemptuous of geneticists. Friends joked of him, “Lysenko is sure that it is possible to produce a camel from a cotton seed and a baobab tree from a hen’s egg.” Lysenko would, in fact, claim that he had obtained wheat from wheat, barley and rye plants, which are different genera.

In August 7, 1927, an article in Pravda published a glowing article on the 29-year-old Lysenko and the success of his techniques in growing a successful pea crop after the winter. The article also suited the political trends of the moment. Lysenko had not attended a university he was described as a “barefoot scientist” who was a worker close to the land and had practical ideas rather than being a lab studying “the hairy legs of flies.”

Lysenko’s theories and biography dovetailed with a moment in 1931 when the Soviet government was placing emphasis on the practical application of science and forcing the collectivization of farms. Lysenko’s theories were accepted as proof of practical results without having been thoroughly tested or verified. When Lysenko’s experiments were not successful he blamed other scientist for sabotaging his work.

In Moscow, in February 1935, Lysenko addressed a group of government workers, including Stalin. Lysenko chose to portray the legitimate scientific debate surrounding vernalization as class warfare.  He said,

“It is not only on your collective farms that you can come across rich farmers who wreck our system . . . they are no less dangerous and no less active in the scientific world. I have had to put up with a good deal in all kinds of disputes with so-called scientists concerning vernalization, in my efforts to develop this method, and I have had to withstand quite a few hard blows in my practical work. Comrades, it cannot be said that class struggle has not been going on, and is not still going on, on the vernalization front.  . . the class enemy always remains an enemy, whether he’s a scientist or not.”

Stalin interrupted the speech with “Bravo, Comrade Lysenko, bravo!” and the room erupted in applause.  Three months later Lysenko was made an academician and in three years he would become the president of the All-Union Academy of Agricultural Science.

It was a watershed moment in the scientific and political direction of the country. Vavilov and his fellow geneticists were deprived of funding and resources to conduct their research. Ultimately, like earlier purges, scientists who openly criticized Lysenko and his method were arrested and imprisoned.

“I have never been a spy or a member of any anti-Soviet organizations. I have always worked for the good of the Soviet state. – Vavilov’s answer to an NKVD interrogator’s question

In a dramatic fashion in July 1940, while Vavilov and some of his scientists were on their way to a meeting a black car of men pulled up and said he was needed in Moscow. Vavilov believed he was being called into a meeting and went with them. Later a second black car filled with men was sent to collect all his papers and belongings. The NKVD had arrested him.  They planned his arrest this way so that few people would realize he had been arrested. When his arrest became known his old mentor Pyranishnikov started agitating for his release at great risk to himself. He nominated Vavilov and his efforts at seed collection for a Stalin prize and ultimately succeeded in getting his sentence commuted to 20 years in a labor camp. Vavilov died at the age of 55 in a prison hospital on January 26, 1943 from malnutrition.

It was not until the mid 1950s that Vavilov’s reputation and scientific work would be rehabilitated.

Sources and for Further reading:

Amasino, “Vernalization, Competence, and the Epigenetic Memory of Winter,” The Plant Cell, American Society of Plant Biologists, Oct., 2004, pp. 2553-2559

Joravsky, “Soviet Marxism and Biology before Lysenko,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Jan., 1959), pp. 85-104

Lukashev, “Soviet War Science,” The Science News-Letter, Vol. 42, No. 16 (Oct. 17, 1942), pp. 250-252

Popovsky, The Vavilov Affair

Pringle, The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov

Roll-Hansen, “Wishful Science: The Persistence of T.D. Lysenko’s Agrobiology in the Politics of Science,” Osiris, Vol. 23, Intelligentsia Science: The Russian Century, 1860–1960(2008), pp. 166-188

Opium Eating and The Moonstone

Note: This is a cross-posting from Paul Holmquist’s “Bringing The Moonstone To The Stage” blog, chronicling research and process for our winter MainStage production of The Moonstone. This post is by Maren Robinson, our production dramaturg.

Opium Eating and The Moonstone

The use of opium is featured in several of novels by Wilkie Collins including The Moonstone. Collins was also a user of opium both in laudanum and injections. It is important however to understand that opium was widely used in England at this time as a medicinal remedy. Although Doctors and chemists widely disagreed about both its uses and it the physiological response to the drug it was accepted for use in the home and was not considered a source of shame or moral failing or addiction as an illness in the same way as modern drug use.

Opium is used in a variety of forms all of which are derived from the sticky white juice taken from the opium poppy. It can be prepared in a variety of forms. During the time period it was smoked in pipes, and injected as morphine but most often it was prepared in a brownish/red liquid tincture in alcohol known as laudanum.

Laudanum was widely available and inexpensive in chemist shops in even the smallest English villages. It was commonly given to sooth fussy children and infants. It was sold under a wide variety of names including: Batley’s Sedative Solution, Dalby’s Carminative, Godfrey’s Cordial, McMunn’s Elixir, and Mother Bailey’s Quieting Syrup for which an advertisement is pictured at left. It was given as a tonic or cure a wide range of illnesses including colds, cholera, hay fever, insomnia, tuberculosis, nervousness, headaches, gout and rheumatism.

In Opium and the Romantic Imagination, Alethea Hayter says that,”Laudanum was cheaper than beer or gin, cheap enough for even the lowest-paid worker.” Further in the same work, a chemist in a small Lancashire parish is cited as selling 200 pound of opium per year and a chemist in Thorpe is described as telling Coleride he sold two to three pounds of opium and a gallon of laudanum every market day.

Wilkie Collins saw his father taking “Bately’s Drops” to ease the pain of heart disease before his death. When Collins began to suffer symptoms of rheumatism and gout as well as eye pain he began taking laudanum to ease the pain. He would be a lifelong user of laudanum. As his tolerance for the opiate increased so did his dosages. Late in life Collins was taking doses that would have killed a normal person. At a dinner party, he apparently asked the surgeon Sir William Fergusson to verify his claim and Fergusson told the dinner party that the amount of laudanum Collins took nightly was sufficient to kill every man at the dinner table. Collins also received occasional injections of morphine for pain.

Collins seems to have both resented and romanticized his need for laudanum. He claimed he took laudanum “To stimulate the brain and steady the nerves,” but he advised his friend Hall Caine against taking it himself. He felt he needed it to bear the pain he suffered but he was also aware of the associations laudanum had with numerous writers. Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater was published in 1821. The use of opium by authors such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Baudelaire was also well-known.

Walter Scott claimed to have written part of The Bride of Lammermoor (a novel particularly admired by Collins) while he was under the influence so that when he read it he did not recognize the story as his own. Collins may have remembered this story when he told a similar story about writing The Moonstone. Collins claimed that his pain was so great that he had to dictate the story and that he went through several secretaries before he found one who would ignore his cries of pain. It is clear from the manuscript that some of the pages are written in a different hand. Collins also claimed that he was “pleased and astonished” by the end of The Moonstone but did not recognize it as his own work.

“If I had only myself to think of, I should prefer the sharp pain to the frightful dreams.” – Ezra Jennings, The Moonstone

The character of Doctor Candy’s assistant, Ezra Jennings, in The Moonstone is also an opium user many critics have seen him as the voice of Collins speaking when he describes the effects of the opium that keeps him from pain but gives him terrible nightmares. Collins did not describe nightmares as part of the effects of his laudanum use but he did describe waking hallucinations including the feeling that someone was standing behind him, ghosts on the staircase who wanted to push him down and a green woman with tusks who said goodnight by biting his shoulder.

Collins personal experience with laudanum is also represented in his descriptions of the experience of being under its influence which is key in both The Moonstone and his other novels including No Name and Armadale.

Sources: Opium and the Romantic Imagination, Alethea Hayter and Wilkie Collins, An Illustrated Guide, Andrew Gasson

Wilkie Collins: Beyond the Veil of Domesticity

Note: This is a cross-posting from Paul Holmquist’s “Bringing The Moonstone To The Stage” blog, chronicling research and process for our winter MainStage production of The Moonstone. This post is by Maren Robinson, our production dramaturg.

Wilkie Collins: Beyond the Veil of Domesticity

In thinking about the complex web of interpersonal relationships in The Moonstone it is inevitable that one should look at the complicated mysteries of Collins’ personal life.

William Wilkie Collins was the son of Harriet and William Collins. His father was a successful landscape painter and member of the Royal Academy. Initially, making a living as an artist was difficult and the Collinses financial circumstances were precarious for a time before successful commissions and patronage assured the Collins family of a respectable living. Collins was named after his godfather. His father was conservative and very religious, traits Collins would seem to rebel against in his own more Bohemian adulthood. (A young Collins in a portrait by Millais at right.)

Collins had a bulge on one side of his forehead and was nearsighted from childhood, wearing glasses most of his life.

His education was patchy with time at Maida Hill Academy and travels in France and Italy with his family when he was twelve and thirteen years old. He considered his time in Europe the best part of his education. He finished his education at a London boarding school where he began telling stories to please a school bully.

He worked at Antrobus & Co., a tea merchant. Collins hated the work and used much of his time to write stories. Much of his experiences here would reappear fictionalized in his novel, Hide and Seek. He read law at Lincoln’s Inn in May 1846.

Collins maintained two households with women to whom he was not married, Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd. In 1858, Collins was living with widow Caroline Graves and her seven year old daughter from her first marriage, Harriet (but called Carrie). Collins paid for Carrie’s education and when she was older she would often serve as his secretary. She made Collins life comfortable, though Dickens apparently referred to her as “the female skeleton” in the house. Some accounts describe his meeting with Caroline Graves as the inspiration for the opening of his novel, The Woman in White, but the stories are not confirmed. Collins and Graves would live together unmarried except for a brief two years when Graves married Joseph Clow. The marriage was likely in response to Collins new relationship with Martha Rudd or because he still did not want to marry Graves after his mother’s death removed the excuse of her potential objection to the marriage. After two years Caroline abandoned her marriage to Clow and she and Collins lived as before. (Caroline Graves at right)

Collins was forty when he likely met nineteen year old Martha Rudd who was working as a servant in an inn where Collins vacationed. He brought her to London where she lived as Mrs. William Dawson and bore Collins two daughters Marian and Harriet and a son, William. (Martha Rudd at left)

The Martha Rudd and her children lived as Mrs. Dawson and the children used the name Dawson. They always lived within walking distance of Collins and Graves and the women knew of each other and the Dawson children were welcome in both homes.

Collins provided for both his families in his will. However, Carrie had married Henry Powell Bartley who served as Collins solicitor for the estate. His extravagant lifestyle decimated the inheritance that Collins had intended to secure his two families. It is notable that Collins, whose novels focus on revealing the uncomfortable realities underneath the familial structures should refrain from any traditional family structure himself.

Sources: Wilkie Collins An Illustrated Guide, Andrew Gasson; Wilkie Collins: Women Property and Propriety, Philip O’Neill; Introduction Oxford World’s Classics Edition of The Moonstone and Introduction Penguin Classics Edition of The Moonstone