Monday, December 8, 2014
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
TRUTH IS BEAUTY
In 1995, when I was still a film-reviewer, there was released an historical romance which met with a mixed critical reception and did only average business at the box office. The film was Michael Caton-Jones’ Rob Roy with the tall Irishman Liam Neeson playing the Highland hero and the American Jessica Lange playing his wife. Personally, I enjoyed the film – not only because of its authentically Scottish settings but also because, however unhistorical the specific details of its story, it did capture accurately the early 18th century class distinctions between grand aristocracy and absentee landlord and lesser laird and peasant. Even as it romanticised the sturdy peasant outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor, its view of a past age was a nuanced one. I strongly suspect that many of the snarky, negative reviews the film received (notably from the Guardian in England and from one – now deceased – radio reviewer in New Zealand) were because the film was un-PC enough to feature a campy villain, played by Tim Roth.
The film Rob Roy included a number of violent scenes, but there was one in particular that made audiences gasp. The corrupt and villainous factor has been sent by a great lord to capture Rob Roy and seize his goods. Finding Rob Roy absent from his humble home, the factor and his men seize Rob Roy’s wife, pin her down to a table and violently rape her from behind. Such a scene would never have been part of the kiddie-oriented versions of the story of Rob Roy that had appeared in previous decades (such as the sanitised Disney Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue, starring Richard Todd, in 1953). It could be written off as a piece of sheer sensationalism, exploiting the freedom from most censorship that cinema now has.
And yet, when I compare this violent and upsetting scene with another account of the same event, it seems a model of honesty.
In 1817, Sir Walter Scott wrote his novel Rob Roy, only very loosely based on the historical character of that name and (as every study-guide will tell you) mainly set in England with its main (English) character reaching the Highlands and meeting Rob Roy only about halfway through. It is indeed one of Sir Walter’s more tedious productions, which is saying a lot given that Tedium was his middle name [look up my comments on The Bride of Lammermoor via the index at right]. It is indicative of its stodginess that this novel by Scotland’s best-known novelist, featuring one of Scotland’s best-known folk heroes, has never been the basis for any of the films or other dramatisations of the Rob Roy story.
Scott’s plot is purely fictitious, as are most of his characters. But in 1829, for a new edition of the novel, Scott added a long, rambling introduction explaining the historical circumstances of the real Rob Roy, as he understood them.
And it is here that we come to a less honest version of the violent scene in Michael Caton-Jones’ movie.
Scott is explaining how Rob Roy’s aristocratic creditors sent their men to recover goods and money from him. This is what he writes:
“It is said that the diligence of the law, as it is called in Scotland, which the English more bluntly call distress, was used in this case with uncommon severity, and that the legal satellites, not usually the gentlest persons in the world, had insulted MacGregor’s wife, in a manner which would have aroused a milder man than he to thoughts of unbounded vengeance. She was a woman of fierce and haughty temper, and is not unlikely to have disturbed the officers in the execution of their duty, and thus to have incurred ill treatment, though, for the sake of humanity, it is to be hoped that the story sometimes told is a popular exaggeration.”
Clearly, this euphemistic paragraph, which is as specific as Scott ever gets, is referring to the same incident that was dramatized in Caton-Jones’ film. But note how Scott gamely tries to pretend that something dreadful did not really happen. He is, after all, writing for a largely English readership, and is playing his usual games of prettifying events to suit their delicate sensibilities and turning the Scottish past into a romanticised diversion.
Let’s unpack this paragraph and see what lies under it.
Scott: “…the diligence of the law … was used in this case with uncommon severity…. the legal satellites, not usually the gentlest persons in the world.”
Translation: Hired thugs and repo men were sent to beat the crap out of Rob Roy and his family and take their worldly possessions.
Scott: They “insulted MacGregor’s wife, in a manner which would have aroused a milder man than he to thoughts of unbounded vengeance.”
Translation: “Insulted”? What, you mean they said “Poo” to her and other rude words? Obviously the “insult” was some form of sexual violation – probably rape.
Scott: “She was a woman of fierce and haughty temper, and is not unlikely to have disturbed the officers in the execution of their duty…”
Translation: She screamed bloody murder as the hired thugs tore her house apart, and probably threw in some choice cuss words too.
Scott: She “incurred ill treatment, though, for the sake of humanity, it is to be hoped that the story sometimes told is a popular exaggeration.”
Translation: Actually, I’m pretty sure she really was raped, as the common people said, but I’m going to pretend it didn’t happen because I don’t want to upset my readers and I can suggest to them that the story of rape was a peasant “exaggeration”. This will help my readers to feel culturally superior to those uncouth Highland peasants.
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I admit that the game I am playing here is a fairly easy one. It’s the simplest thing in the world to take a very old text, like Scott’s introduction to his novel, and put it into more vulgar, if honest, language. I am aware that polite, restrained and euphemistic language was the norm when Scott was writing. Even so, I feel mildly scandalised that Scott chooses to gloss over the event in this way. Usually I am on the side of those who say that films could do with more restraint in their depictions of violence. I’ve often enough written articles on the benefits of implying things rather than showing them in all their gory detail, and you can find me any day of the week discoursing on the greater subtlety of films in the days when director and producers had to suggest things and challenge the audience to join the dots.
But in this case, I’m on the side of blunt honesty.
When nasty things are wished away like this, a particular sort of ugliness is created – a complicity between author, reader and the evil that has been done. I take the second part of Keats’ proposition – “truth is beauty” – and say the honest depiction of rape as rape is, aesthetically, more beautiful than the euphemism, because it is true.