Category Archives: films

ST. ELMO: Book Review

cropped-stelmophotos.jpg

ST. ELMO, by Augusta Jane Evans, was written in 1866. ST. ELMO was the third bestselling novel (after BEN HUR and UNCLE TOM’S CABIN) in the 19th century, equivalent in popularity to the 20th century novel GONE WITH THE WIND. In fact, according to Margaret Mitchell’s biography, Rhett Butler was modeled after St. Elmo Murray. The book inspired plays and was adapted to film in 1923. The ST. ELMO silent film, starring John Gilbert and Bessie Love, is sadly a lost film.

JohnGilbertSE

John Gilbert in ST. ELMO (Fox, 1923)

SAMSUNG

The story begins at the foot of Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee. (Today that part of Chattanooga is named after the book.) “Edna Earl” is an orphan of humble means living with her grandfather. Early one morning, Edna stumbles upon a duel in which a man is killed near her home. Having witnessed the duel from beginning to end, she is permanently traumatized by the incident. The victim’s body is laid out in her house. When the victim’s wife comes to see the body, she dies from the shock.

Edna Earl is horrified by the damage that the senseless duel has caused. Meanwhile, Edna adores her grandfather, who is a blacksmith. One day on the way to her grandfather’s shop, she encounters a gruff, arrogant man who is in need of a blacksmith to replace a horse shoe. Edna directs him to her granphotoMA31468942-0002dfather’s shop. The man is impatient, swearing as he waits for her grandfather to finish the job. As the man rides away, Edna’s grandfather says to her: “He is a rude, blasphemous man.” Edna notices that “the rude blasphemous man” drops a book as he rides away in haste. The book is a leather-bound copy of DANTE with the initials SEM inside the flap. Edna learns to treasure the book for its text and illustrations.

When her grandfather dies unexpectedly, Edna tries to make it on her own. Just 13-years-old, she boards a train bound for Georgia. The train wrecks. Many die but Edna survives and is rescued by one of the locals, “Ellen Murray,” a wealthy widow. Edna begins to recover under the widow’s care. The two bond and Mrs. Murray decides to raise the orphan, as if she were her own child. Then, something happens that shatters Edna’s contentment. Mrs. Murray’s son arrives home.

Edna hears his harsh voice in the next room and realizes that he is “the rude blasphemous man” who disrespected her beloved grandfather. She returns his copy of DANTE at the first opportunity, realizing that the initials SEM stand for “St. Elmo Murray.”

Throughout the rest of the novel, Edna Earl is torn between loathing and loving St. Elmo. He’s the Byronic type that women love to loath and loath to love. “He’s like a rattlesnake that crawls in his own track, and bites everything that meddles or crosses his trail.”  But in time, Edna is “disquieted and pained to discover” in “his bronzed face . . . an attraction–an indescribable fascination–which she had found nowhere else.”

The conflict in their relationship stems from the issue of dueling, a common practice in Augusta Evans day. But the sub-theme–feminism vs. anti-feminism–is the theme that catches the modern reader’s attention. When I say “feminism,” I don’t feminism as we define it today. The book was written long before women had the right to vote. So while “Edna Earl” disapproves of women in politics, she believes that men and women are intellectual equals and applauds women with literary careers.

The book is filled with explosive, romantic tension that just won’t quit. The characters are not particularly realistic; instead, they are larger than life, and that’s what makes the book fun to read.  However, ST. ELMO is not easy to read. You will find allusions to mythology mind-boggling at times, but if you like character-driven novels, you won’t be able to put it down. You have to read it more than once to truly appreciate this book. Parts of the book are hilarious, but you might miss the humor the first time around. Much of it is tongue in cheek.

ST. ELMO is enjoying a resurgence of popularity today. Deadra Lore of St. Augustine, Florida, is writing a ST. ELMO study guide that explains the foreign expressions, mythical references, and difficult words peppered throughout the story. Several years ago, filmmaker Robert Clem created a docudrama called “The Passion of Miss Augusta,” which highlights scenes from ST. ELMO and compares the fictional “Edna Earl” with her creator, Augusta Evans. He explores the feminist side of Augusta Evans with riveting drama and insight.

 

photoMA31468940-0001

ST. ELMO inspired THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER

 

 

 

“Oxalis” as a Literary Motif

photoMA31386001-0001

One of my favorite flowers is oxalis.  I never knew the flower existed until I read about it  in ST. ELMO by Augusta Jane Evans.  In the following paragraph, “Edna Earl” sees the flower and associates it with “St. Elmo Murray,” the man she is trying to resist.

Edna bent over her flowers, and recognizing many favorites that recalled the hothouse at Le Bocage, her eyes filled with tears, and she hastily put her lips to the snowy cups of an oxalis.  How often she had seen just such fragile petals nestling in the buttonhole of Mr. Murray’s coat.  (Page 290, ST. ELMO).

I was thinking about that and other passages in ST. ELMO  when i wrote the following scene between “Effie Beller” and “Gideon Baldwin” on page 69 and 70 of THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER.

“When are you fixing to come home?”

“In a few days.”

“Oh.”  Effie tried to hide her disappointment.  “I hope you’ll have plenty of sunshine at the beach.”

“And delay my return?”

They were standing in the sun room, and he was preparing to leave through the back door.  Impulsively she snatched a spray of oxalis from a ceramic pot and held it up to his lapel.

“What are you doing?”

“I’d like to put some flowers in your buttonhole if you don’t mind.”

“Why?”

“Because you remind me of someone.”

“Who?”

“St. Elmo.”

“I’m not a saint.”

“Neither was he.”  With trembling fingers, she slipped the posy into his buttonhole and started to walk away, but he seized her arm and turned her around.

I brought oxalis into the story again when “Effie’s” antipathy for “Rev. Baldwin” was near its peak:

He crossed the room to his mother’s dresser and returned with a handful of tissues.

As she dried her eyes, she heard him say in a voice unaccountably sweet, “I often forget  how sensitive you are.  You remind me of that dainty flower you gave me when I was leaving for Conference.  What was it?”

“Oxalis.”

“So incredibly small, so easily crushed.  Sometimes you wilt before my eyes and make me wonder what I have said or done to cause it.”  He paused for a moment, waiting for her to compose herself, and added, “Effie Belle.  Despite your belief to the contrary, I am not entirely the ogre conceived in your imagination, and If I can help you in any way–“

Every flower has a special meaning–or so I thought.  I based this belief on a book called “The Poetry of Flowers.” i was sure I could look up oxalis and find a romantic meaning.   However, the flower is not even mentioned in the book.

Some refer to oxalis simply as “clover” or “a creeping weed,” hardly a romantic description of my hallowed plant. Finally, I learned that oxalis is a member of the wood sorrel family.  Wood Sorrel means “Joy” and “maternal tenderness,” and that is an accurate description of the role that oxalis plays in THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER..

Often referred to as “shamrock,” oxalis is easy to find this time of year.  I found two different types of oxalis in a St. Patrick’s Day display at the grocery store.  My favorite is “snowy” oxalis, but you can also find oxalis with purple leaves and lavender flowers or with green leaves and pink flowers.

photoMA31386004-0002

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding Inspiration in “The Merry Widow Waltz”

MW

THE MERRY WIDOW (MGM, 1925), starring John Gilbert and Mae Murray, inspired the following scene between “Effie Butler” and her guardian, “Reverend Gideon Baldwin,” in Chapter 17 of THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER.

“So tell me about the Confederate ball.”

“Well . . . from what I understand, most of the men are re-enactors, so they’ll be wearing Confederate uniforms, and most of the ladies will be dressed like me.  A band will play period pieces that we can dance to.”

“Can you waltz?”

“No, but I wish I could.”

“What time is your date?”

“Seven-thirty.”

“Good.  I’ll teach you.”

He directed her to the center of the room and rearranged the furniture, clearing space beneath the chandelier.  Then he turned the CD player on and as “The Merry Widow Waltz” began to play, bowed before her.  “May I have this waltz?”

His kingly manner surprised her as she drifted into his arms and waited for him to begin.  Effie tried to concentrate on the steps he was teaching her, but the scent of his aftershave and the touch of his hands were distracting.  In attempting to follow his lead, she tripped over his foot. He laughed, so did she, and they resumed waltzing.

“Where did you learn to waltz, Mr. Baldwin?”

“In high school and my name is Gideon.”  He smiled, revealing a perfect set of teeth, and Effie felt the full force of his magnetism.

SHADOW OF A DOUBT

025_01

When I had this photo developed, I thought it would make a great cover for a mystery novel.  I even thought of a title: SHADOW OF A DOUBT.   Then I remembered that SHADOW OF A DOUBT is the name of one of my favorite films.

http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi148441369/

 

Finding Inspiration in Quotes

saintelmobookcoverStElmotheBook

My favorite novel is ST. Elmo, by Augusta Evans Wilson (1835-1909). The book inspired me to write THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER.  Although my book is not a ST. ELMO remake, the similarities are not coincidental.

To pay homage to Augusta Evans Wilson and her best-selling novel, I introduced ten of my thirty-four chapters with a quote from ST. ELMO.  They are as follows:

“He is a rude, blasphemous, wicked man,” said Mr. Hunt as Edna reentered the shop.

“That passage leads to my son’s apartments, and he dislikes noise or intrusion.”

The expression with which Mr. Murray regarded Estelle reminded Edna of the account given by a traveler of the playful mood of a lion, who, having devoured one gazelle, kept his paw on another, and, amid occasional growls, teased and toyed with his victim.

She picked up from the spot where he had thrown his shawl a handsome morocco-bound pocket copy of Dante, and opening it to discover the name of the owner, she saw written on the fly-leaf in a bold and beautiful hand, “S.E.M.”

God help me to resist that man’s wicked magnetism!

“I go like Ruth, gleaning in the great fields of literature.”

“Mrs. Powell received a letter from a wealthy friend in New York who desires to secure a governess for her young children.”

“If she ever marries, it will not be from gratitude or devotion, but because she learned to love, almost against her will, some strong, vigorous thinker, some man whose will and intellect master hers, who compels her heart’s homage, and without whose society she cannot persuade herself to live.”

He strained her to him and pressed his lips twice to hers, then the carriage stopped at the railroad station.

“Edna, my shadow has fallen across your heart, and I am not afraid that you will forget me.”

HelpMetoResistStElmo

 

Romance and the Language of Flowers

poetryofFlowers

 

I found this copy of the POETRY OF FLOWERS (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co.) in an antique flea market.  The inscription on the flyleaf reads in part, “Miss Carrie Lawrence, May 18th 1891.”

People who lived in the nineteenth century assigned meaning to each flower.  Choosing flowers for a bouquet was a delicate matter because you wanted to send the right message.

For example, if you wanted to say “Let the bonds of marriage unite us,” you would choose the following flowers for your bouquet: blue convolvulus (bonds), ivy (marriage), and a few whole straws (unite us).

FlowerDialogues

posey

If you saw the movie KATE AND LEOPOLD, starring Hugh Jackman and Meg Ryan, you might recall the scene in which “Leopold” shows “Kate’s” brother how to choose a bouquet for his girlfriend.  Sad to say, the language of flowers has faded with time.  I would like to see the POETRY OF FLOWERS in print again as a runaway best seller. 

Many Versions of WUTHERING HEIGHTS but Only One HEATHCLIFF

Which one of these three versions of WUTHERING HEIGHTS resembles the book by Emily Bronte most?

Wuthering Heights (1939 film)

Wuthering Heights (1939 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cover of "Wuthering Heights (1970)"

Cover of Wuthering Heights (1970)

Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (Photo credit: wikipedia)

Did you know that “Heathcliff” in WUTHERING HEIGHTS is a despicable character–I mean REALLY despicable?  If you saw the 1939 version of WUTHERING HEIGHTS, starring Lawrence Olivier and Merle Oberon. or the 1970 version, starring Timothy Dalton and Anna Calder-Marshall, you might have found Heathcliff engaging.  But in 1992, Ralph Fiennes portrayed him as a handsome brute, with the emphasis on brute.

The first time I watched Ralph Fiennes in that role, I was horrified.  Heathcliff was nothing less than obsessively passionate–and obsessively cruel.  For some reason, I sat through the film a second time, but this time found the mean-spirited Heathcliff oddly appealing.  If I could define his performance in one word, it would be “intense.”  In fact, Ralph Fiennes gives the most intense performance I’ve ever witnessed in this or any film.

I had read the book as a teenager but forgotten most of the story.  So I read it again.   Was I surprised!  The film follows the book almost to the letter.  Ralph Fiennes’ “Heathcliff” is nearly identical to Emily Bronte’s description.

Here is an excerpt from the book of Heathcliff describing his wife, Isabella:

“She [is] under a delusion,” he answered, “picturing in me a hero of romance, and expecting unlimited indulgences from my chivalrous devotion.  I can hardly regard her in the light of a rational creature, so obstinately has she persisted in forming a fabulous notion of my character and acting on the false impressions she cherished.  But, at last, I think she begins to know me: I don’t perceive the silly smiles and grimaces that provoked me at first; and the senseless incapability of discerning that I was in earnest when I  gave her my opinion of her infatuation and herself.  It was a marvelous effort of perspicacity to discover that I did not love her.  I believed, at one time, no lessons could teach her that!  And yet it is poorly learnt, for this morning she announced, as a piece of appalling intelligence, that I had actually succeeded in making her hate me!  A positive labour of Hercules, I assure you!”

I urge women who haven’t seen this film to watch it.  You’ll love hating Heathcliff and hate loving him.