Last night, I went out in my backyard just after midnight and sat watching the Perseids meteor shower. I always do this in August when possible; for the last few years, it's been raining or too cloudy on the nights of the shower to watch. But on a clear night- like last night- it's an impressive show. Fortunately, I live on the outskirts of the city so it's not too bright to see the shower, but it was always a lot easier to view the meteors down home at my parents' place where, being more rural, the sky is a lot darker. I can remember one year, I and some of my brothers and sisters lay on the roof of our shed, watching a shower which was the brightest I've ever seen, complete with a large number of fireballs streaking across the sky. It was breathtaking.
The Perseids meteors are particles which come from the Swift-Tuttle comet and burn up in the earth's atmosphere. Their name comes from the constellation of Perseus, which is the point in the sky from where the meteors seem to originate. Perseus is, of course, the mythological Greek hero Perseus who killed Medusa and rescued Andromeda from the monstrous Cetus. Her constellation is pretty close to his, as is the one named after her mum, Cassiopeia.
The Perseids are sometimes referred to as "the tears of St. Lawrence", a Catholic saint who was martyred on August 10, 258 AD. The Perseid meteor shower occurs around the date of his execution (mid-August) and were said to be his tears which fall every year to mark his death. Incidentally, John Denver was inspired to write the song "Rocky Mountain High" while camping with friends in Colorado one August and watching the Perseids, particularly the lyrics: But the Colorado rocky mountain high I've seen it rainin' fire in the sky The shadow from the starlight is softer than a lullabye Rocky mountain high (Colorado) . He wrote in his autobiography Take Me Home:
"I remember, almost to the moment, when that song started to take shape in my head. We were working on the next album and it was to be called Mother Nature's Son, after the the Beatles song, which I'd included. It was set for release in September. In mid August, Annie and I and some friends went up to Williams Lake to watch the first Perseid meteor showers. Imagine a moonless night in the Rockies in the dead of summer and you have it. I had insisted to everybody that it was going to be a glorious display. Spectacular, in fact.
The air was kind of hazy when we started out, but by 10 p.m. it had grown clear. I had my guitar with me and a fishing rod. At some point, I went off in a raft to the middle of the lake, singing my heart out. It wasn't so much that I was singing to entertain anyone back on shore, but rather I was singing for the mountains and for the sky. Either my voice gave out or I got cold, but at any rate, I came in and found that everybody had kind of drifted off to their individual campsites to catnap. We were right below the tree line, just about ten thousand feet, and we hadn't seen too much activity in the sky yet. There was a stand of trees over by the lake, and about a dozen aspens scattered around. Around midnight, I had to get up to pee and stepped out into this open spot. It was dark over by those trees, darker than in the clearing. I looked over there and could see the shadow from the starlight. There was so much light from the stars in the sky that there was a noticeable difference between the clearing and everywhere else. The shadow of the starlight blew me away. Maybe it was the state I was in. I went back and lay down next to Annie in front of our tent, thinking everybody had gone to sleep, and thinking about how in nature all things, large and small, were interwoven, when swoosh, a meteor went smoking by. And from all over the campground came the awed responses "Do you see that?" It got bigger and bigger until the tail stretched out all the way across the sky and burned itself out. Everybody was awake, and it was raining fire in the sky.
I worked on the song - and the song worked on me - for a good couple of weeks. I was working one day with Mike Taylor, an acoustic guitarist who had performed with me at the Cellar Door and had moved out to Aspen. Mike sat down and showed me this guitar lick and suddenly the whole thing came together. It was just what the piece needed. When I realized what I had - another anthem, maybe; a true expression of one's self, maybe - we changed the sequencing of the album we'd just completed, and then we changed the album title."
Having explored the motives and means of the Gosford Park guests, it's time to move downstairs, to the servants. Mr. Jennings (Alan Bates) is the butler, who is in charge of directing the rest of the servants and making sure that everything in the house runs smoothly. He's extremely good at his job, and at least as concerned with maintaining a distinction and hierarchy among the servants as the aristocrats are above stairs. But, as we learn over the course of the film, there are chinks even in Mr. Jennings' seemingly impervious armor. He is a secret drinker which appears to be linked to the fact that he's hiding a secret which, if generally known, would probably cost him his position.
Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) is the housekeeper, a position just slightly below Mr. Jennings in power. She is in charge of all the maids and is the perfect servant: efficient and practical, anticipating what the guests need and seeing that they get it. Like Mr. Jennings she knows practically everything that goes on in the house, upstairs and down. She and the head cook, Mrs. Croft, don't get along and at first we are led to believe that this is because Mrs. Croft resents Mrs. Wilson attempting to exert any authority in the kitchen, which she regards as her domain. As it turns out, there is another older, more festering reason why the two women dislike each other.
Elsie is the head housemaid who takes the out-of-her-depth Mary under her wing, teaching her what she needs to know to get by at Gosford Park. She's acerbic and cynical but kind, and she provides Mary- and us- with a lot of information about the various denizens of the Park, both servants and guests. But Elsie isn't free from secrets either and is sleeping with Sir William. In an unfortunate turn of events, this becomes very public knowledge and Elsie is fired, though she can't actually leave until after the shooting party is over. Until then, she is relieved of her duties and is supposed to remain in her room.
Other Gosford Park servants include George, the knowing and sarcastic head footman, who stumbles on a compromising scene between Isobel and Freddie Nesbitt. There's also Probert, Sir William's valet who knows the man better than he knows himself. Dorothy, one of the maids, is quite obviously in love with Mr. Jennings though she says and does nothing about it. She would do anything, however, to protect him, even from himself.
There are also a lot of visiting servants who have come with their employers. One of these is Robert Parks, Lord Stockbridge's valet. A reserved individual, he takes a liking to shy Mary and befriends her. He seems to have no liking for any of the upstairs residents, including his own employer. We find out during the film that he grew up in an orphanage before entering service.
Morris Weissman- the movie director- has brought his valet, Henry Denton, with him. The other servants immediately know that there's something "off" about him. He doesn't act like a servant, and his Scottish accent is obviously fake and keeps slipping. It turns out that he's an actor who is trying to get experience as a servant for a part in Weissman's film. He's also, it's implied, sleeping with Weissman to get the part. While at the Park, he and Lady Sylvia sleep together, which makes it awkward when the truth comes out... she thought she was fooling around with the help, and suddenly Denton is sitting across from her at the breakfast table.
Mary, Lady Constance's maid, is very young and inexperienced. She got her job because the Countess can't afford a more experienced servant. She is our eyes in the house: we are learning about what's going on at Gosford Park as Mary does. Though struggling to find her footing, Mary is obviously intelligent and, as an outsider observing what is going on, is able to eventually piece together what happened and who is responsible for Sir William's murder. In my next post, I'll discuss the themes of Gosford Park and what makes it a great "whodunnit" film.
This image is from the 1949 movie Kind Hearts And Coronets. And okay, it technically isn't a mystery because we know from the start who has committed all of the murders. It's more of a black comedy in which Alec Guinness stars as Louis D'Ascoyne Mazzini, ninth in line of succession to the dukedom of Chalfont, who sets about to murder the eight relatives who stand between him and the title. Amazingly- and amusingly- Guinness plays nine different characters in the film: various members of the D'Ascoyne family. In the pictured scene, Lady Agatha D'Ascoyne- who is a suffragette- takes to the sky in a hot air balloon in order to drop 'votes for women' leaflets on the city of London. Louis eliminates Lady Agatha by causing the balloon to crash.
In honour of the day, I thought that I'd post a few pictures of my copy of Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, which belonged to my maternal grandmother's family. It was my first really "old" book, and it started my fascination with collecting vintage books. There's no copyright date in it, so I don't know the exact age of my Ivanhoe, but Collins Illustrated Pocket Classics began being printed in 1903 and switched from a cloth-bound cover to leather in 1911, so I assume that my copy (cloth bound) is from sometime in that period. The story is, of course, amazing and the illustrations are lovely.
"Detective stories keep alive a view of the world which ought to be true. Of course people read them for fun ... But underneath they feed a hunger for justice ... you offer to divert them, and you show them by stealth the orderly world in which we should all try to be living." -Dorothy L. Sayers
As I mentioned in my summary of The Purloined Letter, this was Edgar Allan Poe's third story featuring amateur detective, C. Auguste Dupin. The other two were The Murders In The Rue Morgue (1841) and The Mystery of Marie Roget (1842).They are some of the earliest examples of detective fiction so are important though, in my opinion, Dupin is no Sherlock Holmes. The Purloined Letter does, however, remind me somewhat of the Holmes' mystery A Scandal In Bohemia. The Purloined Letter is also an example of the trope of hiding something in plain sight. It is assumed that something as valued and sought after as the stolen letter will be well hidden. Dupin deduces however that Minister D. has fooled the police by placing the letter in the open, carelessly and obviously stuck in a card holder. This makes the searchers automatically assume that the letter is of no importance.
Dupin comes across as clever but rather mercenary; though having the letter in his possession for some time, he does not bestir himself to turn it over to the Prefect of police until the man cuts him a sizable cheque. And we know from the previous Dupin tales that he can certainly use the money. But at the end of The Purloined Letter, we find out that Dupin had other, personal reasons for taking down the Minister: revenge for an evil done him by D. at sometime in the past. He makes sure that the minister knows exactly who is responsible for his downfall by leaving a rather cryptic note in place of the letter he re-stole: Un dessein si funeste, S'il n'est digne d'Atrée, est digne de Thyeste (If such a sinister design isn't worthy of Atreus, it is worthy of Thyestes). The line is a quote from a 1707 French play by Prosper Jolyot, called Atree et Thyeste which is a tale of a vengeful feud between two brothers named Atreus and Thyestes. This has led to speculation- never confirmed by Poe- that Dupin and Minister D. are actually brothers. The minister has the same initial (we are never told his full name) and is so well known by Dupin that he knows how he thinks, so this theory certainly seems possible.