[Even though I said in the previous TV show blog I was giving up on trying to avoid spoilers as best I can, I’m still going to remind you that spoilers follow.]
For me, Episode 3 was the best so far: highlighting the character development of both Matthew and Diana, raising the stakes, and showing us more of what it is like to live with vampires, namely their amazing collections of artwork. As I’ve noted elsewhere on this blog, the portrayal of art and material culture in the books is one of the reasons I was drawn to them, so to see such care in depicting aspects of that was like my own special present.
Luring Diana away from the Bodleian probably was not the most difficult task that Matthew has faced in his life – especially given he mentions the overcrowding of The Bod because creatures are waiting on Diana to recall Ashmole 782.
The Old Lodge (based on Speke Hall outside of Liverpool in the books), is a twisting house with a fantastic collection. One of the first things that we see – and that Diana comments on – is the portrait of Matthew’s sister, Louisa. Book fans have long known that this is based on Peter Lely’s Portrait of a Lady. The portrait, now on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, shows a woman in yellow silk, looking out at the viewer. She is striking for her gaze and Lely’s execution. I have considered the portrait more in-depth here in terms of the book portrayal and its actual art history. It’s worth noting, though, that the selection of something that book readers know and love is amazing – not all productions are this sensitive, regardless of the author’s involvement in the adaptation process.
The other striking thing in terms of Matthew’s collection at the Old Lodge is, of course, his manuscripts. This is the first time we have seen Diana handle a manuscript that isn’t in The Bod. And this time, it’s more in line with what we’d expect – minus the books as book stands. And I do not really expect Matthew to have cradles for his book, because they’re just books to him. I mean, in A Discovery of Witches, he offers Diana – to her dismay/amusement/horror a copy of the Gutenberg Bible to use for reference. Matthew, book or TV, just doesn’t see the Big. Deal. About. Old. Books. in quite the same way as Diana. Anyway, part of me thinks that this is actually more protective of the manuscript bindings than the plastic cradles since the book stand of books allows you to adjust how open – and thus how much pressure is put on the bindings – the manuscript is. Also, when can I visit this library? Because WHAT TREASURES MUST IT CONTAIN?!
In forcing Diana to acknowledge that her magic is born of need and not her losing control over part of herself, Matthew attempts to pour wine on the one Diana is looking at. Diana, understandably and rightfully, questions just what he thinks he is doing. I’m not sure whether this moment is worse or better than her handling in the Bodleian. Probably worse because wine stains! Though, given we have water stains, ink stains, stains of indeterminate origin, manuscripts are no strangers to stains… But there’s a wonderful part of this that highlights how attached to these objects Diana is. Her academic interests have garnered more attention than her inherent talents for magic. And it’s only because the two have collided that she is even considering that maybe magic isn’t all that bad and creatures aren’t something to be shunned. Matthew seems to understand this as it bewilders him. She’s a witch and powerful, why deny that? Matthew, even when he is conflicted over his vampire-ness does not really deny that part of him to the degrees that Diana has done. I think there’s something to be said here about denying parts of our identity to fit into stereotypes and expectations: it doesn’t end well. If we – creatures – are meant to accept that others are not so bad after all, and we have a lot more in common than thought, then it follows that maybe accepting parts of ourselves – whether our sexuality, likes and dislikes, or our talents – is part of that. Again, one of the great things about this narrative is that it is more than your vampire romance story: it speaks to lived realities of our oh-so-human world.
Oh, and denying part of yourself might end in a manuscript getting covered in wine, which is obviously not good…
The other thing this scene does is introduce a vampirely disregard for objects in the way humans regard them: old does not necessarily mean immediately and insanely precious. Vampires are used to old, important things. Their homes are full of them. (Flashforward to Book of LIfe and Phoebe coming to terms with this – Holbein! In the toilet!) This is Diana’s introduction to that as it can relate to her own work in alchemical symbolism: she has access to mostly untouched (and unpublished!! *cues epic scholarly excitement*) sources. It isn’t just that Ashmole 782 is alchemical and that is one of the reasons she found it and thus started the chain of events. Alchemy and magic are related – just like old things and vampires. Furthermore, alchemy, and magic, Diana and Matthew both note, are so intertwined it can be difficult to tell them apart. It is a bigger question than she as just a scholar can answer; she needs to access her powers as a witch to fully understand Ashmole 782 and alchemy, including what they represent for all creatures.
As book readers will know, this is a bit of a departure from the book. In it, Diana is lured to Sept Tours on the promise of seeing an unpublished version of the Aurora Consurgens, illustrated by Bourgot le Noir, Jean le Noir’s oft-forgotten daughter. The manuscript she is looking at in Matthew’s library at the Old Lodge does not appear to be an Aurora Consurgens, but it is a lovely specimen of some sort of alchemical manuscript. (The images below are from a copy of the Aurora Consurgens at the University of Glasgow; the manuscript is referenced below. In this manuscript, only the images have been completed.)
When I first saw the quick shot of Diana looking at the alchemical manuscript Matthew set up for her in his library, I immediately thought of images from one of the Ferguson manuscripts in the University of Glasgow Special Collections. The Ferguson collection includes numerous alchemical manuscripts, including your ordinary text-only ones and elaborately illustrated compendiums. The one that came to mind – MS Ferguson 6 – did so because of its black and white images of alchemical processes found towards the centre of the manuscript, as well as its wonderful variety in alchemical trees. It’s a bit smaller than the one Diana is looking at, and it is on paper. At least, Godfrey’s/Matthew’s/Diana’s looks like it’s on paper and not vellum/parchment. Keeping in mind that Ashmole 782 is unusual – not just for its creature skin – but because by this point quite a few alchemical manuscripts are on paper, which is easier and cheaper to produce than vellum. Alchemical art reaches its high point right as manuscripts are being eclipsed by printed books, adding to their allure as rare objects filled with a mystical knowledge that only select scholars can interpret. It is also why we get both printed and hand-written/illustrated texts and image cycles.
While not the same as those found in MS Ferguson 6, the monochrome drawing is an alchemical tree, which we see in several forms throughout alchemical imagery. The tree, like the alchemical process, yields fruit – apples, the Philospher’s Stone. Symbols for Sol and Luna are evident, as are two men, possibly philosophers. (This recalls elements of the Splendor Solis imagery.)
I am unabashedly a daemon. I claim this title and until someone tells me (with good reason) why I’m a different creature, then I’m going to own it. (Sorry, not sorry.) Anyway, as a daemon fangirl, I loved seeing Nathaniel, Sophie, and Agatha. Here, again, we have a daemon talking about how daemons are misunderstood and mistreated in the world of creatures. Nathaniel, like Hamish, is urging someone in power to do something – while also doing something. Agatha, his mum and a daemon representative on the Congregation (that wonderful – sarcasm – body that is meant to uphold the Covenant), protects him and understands why he’s build a chat room for daemons, even as she’s encouraging him to play by the rules. Don’t get me wrong, I love Agatha and think she is a fantastic character. And a total badass. She moves between parroting the Congregation and doing what she thinks is best all too well. But, and this is true in the books, too, I always want her to just jump completely in. But she understands that you need people on the inside, too. (We’re meeting another Congregation insider in episode 4 that is like this, but worse, and I cannot wait.) And the Congregation, by actively keeping daemons apart, acknowledges that there is power in that group of creatures that frightens them because they do not understand it. In the ‘real’ world, what is different is often scary and thus ostracised and intentionally misunderstood. Daemons, once again, are the representative minority figure. As we bemoan their mistreatment, we are reminded that there are institutional structures in our own world that treat people this way. Nathaniel, like Matthew and Diana will ultimately do, tries to fix the wrongs he sees in order to help those he identifies as his people. (Oh man can I not wait until we get him and Marcus together later. Sorry to whoever gets the responsibility of talking this through with me and getting my live reactions…)
And then there is Sophie, who is wonderfully whimsical. Our first introduction to her is her sketching the alchemical child from Ashmole 782. WAIT WHAT?! I know!! Delightful. She. Knows. About. The. Ashmole 782. Imagery. Somehow. Because daemons get visions, too. (She’s also a descendant of witches according to the books, which surely plays into this.) She’s researching it because it’s in her dreams and she is curious. And in that research, she discovers an image of the white queen of alchemy that reminds her of a small statue her father passed to her to give to someone who needs it – she’ll know who and when at the right moment. A small silver statue of a woman with a deer and a bow. (If it follows the books, then this is actually a chess piece – the queen in a literal sense.) And Agatha, bless her confused and indulgent expressions when Sophie starts going on, tells her, no, it’s not just that, it’s Diana the goddess. Diana. The White Queen. Alchemy. [Major spoilers for what is coming so skip from here to below the next set of images if you want to avoid this.] Diana is the white queen. The alchemical child is hers. A witch finds Ashmole 782 aka The Book of Life. A daemon is dreaming about it. And a vampire? Well, he’s friends with daemons and is falling for a witch. And the Shadow Man Em mentions to Diana from her childhood stories. And. The. Red. King. Aka the white queen’s partner who is equally necessary in producing the alchemical child. What the alchemical child represents for the world of All Souls, like the alchemical Philosopher’s Stone, is a perfect union of creatures: daemons, witches, and vampires. Only when the three come together can they thrive.
The way this is woven together in the show creates visual puzzles that hold all the answers the viewers – and the characters – need. And it is not just through the subtly of framing and colour. It is through the use of art and material culture. This statue/chess piece is a queen/Diana. Diana finds a manuscript that she has some connection to: it imprints her. The blending of creatures, objects, and alchemical symbolism moves beyond just set decor or design. It is part of the story – a part that you cannot ignore. Each object we’ve seen – from Ashmole 782 to Darwin’s letter to Matthew to the portrait of Louisa to Sophie’s statue – is deployed in specific ways. (Trust me on the portrait non-readers, Louisa is important though you may not realise how much for a while yet.) Art and history is all around us – and it is definitely around the creatures. And the more we learn about this art and history, the more it becomes obvious that creatures need to work together to solve their puzzles. As an art historian, seeing these objects as more than set fillers is refreshing. Art is important, and it can be difficult to explain just why that it is to people beyond the well so-and-so owned this and it is worth a buttload of money and it just makes me happy. While we don’t usually expect a manuscript to burn someone or set off an epic chain of events like this, art can reveal not just the past to us, but it reveals ourselves to us, and A Discovery of Witches and the All Souls universe more broadly shows us that. Oh, and it’s a good excuse to talk about some really cool art in ways we would not normally do. It’s a type of experimental archaeology that lets scholars play with objects, and it encourages us to ask new questions about function and reception. How were these manusrcipts used across time? Who saw them? How can things be interepreted differently? Is it really what we think we see?
Finally, and moving from art, I’ve noted previously ways that moments are united across the episodes to hint at wider story developments, and this continues to be the case. This is evident in the last shot of Matthew in each of the first three episodes. The first, we have Diana looking back at him as he clutches her jacket and inhales her scent. Right, it’s a bit of a creepy moment, but it’s also hinting at what is to come: Matthew is dangerous but for some reason he is attracted to Diana. Her scent overwhelms him. In the second, we have him kissing the underside of her wrist – where the blood is close to the surface of the skin. For book readers, we know that this is a marking. In Shadow of Night, Matthew yells at Diana for allowing another vampire to get close enough to her to grab her wrist, thereby sending a message to Matthew that they were close enough to her to do this. (It, just as Matthew’s warning to Diana in Episode 3, communicates the power of vampires to the viewer/reader – and reminds them – and Diana – of Diana’s lack of understanding of vampires. It is not that she does not know, but that she does not act like she knows: she is comfortable around Matthew and his family (mostly) but often forgets that they and other vampires are threats.) First, we have Diana walking away from Matthew, then Matthew walking away from Diana after marking her. In Episode 3, they are united. Initially, the shot is of them waking side-by-side, and then Matthew reaches out his hand to Diana, who takes it. This, like her seeking him out at his rooms, shows her connection to him, and her willingness to embrace him, vampire, over the witches who have appeared in Oxford. They are officially united in this moment against what’s happening in their world: against some strange force and against the witches who are threats to Diana. And next we go to France and Diana gets to meet Ysabeau, Matthew’s mother. (Who has some amazing collections herself.)