The Catherine Cookson Experience: “The Glass Virgin”

We begin The Catherine Cookson Experience with “The Glass Virgin.” This miniseries was the one that started it all – and stopped it all, since I didn’t go back to another one for over a decade. By the end of my re-watch, I knew why.

The Glass Virgin is about a young girl, raised as gentility, who finds out she’s actually the daughter of a whore and therefore socially untenable. Distraught, she leaves the house with estate groom (and total hottie) Manuel in tow. Will she make it in a cruel working world? Will he make it into a life as his own man? Will they, you know, Make It?

NOTE: These screencaps are awful. I can’t do better. Think of it as part of the joy, like that soundstage echo in the 1970s Masterpiece Theatres.

Era: 1870s
Heroine: Annabella LeGrange, gentlewoman, seventeen, dumb as a sack of hair
Siblings that require looking-after: None, unless you count Annabella.
Illegitimate (Self or sibling): Self.
Asshole Father?: Check!
Romantic interest(s): Manual Mendoza, the groom at her estate
Bairnsketballs: None
Fistfights: Four

“MANUEEEEEL!”

So, it’s 1870mumble, somewhere in the north of England. Annabella LeGrange is the sort of girl who thinks she’s doing the right thing all the time, but instead, all who encounter her are totally screwed. She’s sort of a monster, I’ll be honest with you, and one of the least sympathetic Cookson heroines there is. The first hour is like this:

Annabella: Mama, the cook makes orphans pay for scraps/someone called me a bastard, what does that mean?/the nurse blindfolds me during my bath and I hate it.
Mama: YOU ARE ALL FIRED.

They send away the cook, the housekeeper, and Annabella’s maid Betty in the first ten minutes of the movie.

P.S. She is blindfolded in the bath so she doesn’t see her own body and get curious and sinful feelings about anything. Sure, it starts with an elbow, but the next thing you know? Orgy. I would be kidding, but her Asshole Dad keeps a room in the house to sex up his whores in, so you never know.

It’s a good thing everyone got fired, though, because then there’s room in the house for Manuel Mendoza!

He likes horses. And they like him, probably because they find his early-90s feathered haircut inexplicably soothing.

Manuel meets the LeGranges when he saves little Annabella from a runaway carriage:

…no comment.

Anyway, he becomes her only friend, he teaches her to ride horses, introduces her to Crazy Amy the crotchety lady who lives in the woods, etc. I feel sorry for Brendan Coyle having to drag horses around and act with a child at the same time, but he pulls it off, except for moments where he seems just a little too fond of little Annabella. Oh, Brendan. That’s later! You know, when she’s grown up!

…into a pickleface.

During that inexplicable cut, Papa has lost all his money in the family glassworks and Mama wants to leave him and take Annabella with her, but little Annabella isn’t welcome at Grandmama’s because, as Papa lovingly explains, she’s the bastard daughter of a whore. His barren, frigid, delicate, glass-like (wait for it) wife was ordered to raise Annabella as her own, a pair of Glass Virgins. Get it? Because they’re both delicate and col – oh, never mind.

Annabella flips her shit and makes a run for it.

I’m screencapping this just because it shows how, even though it looks like the stupidest thing in the world, the hoopskirt was considered a marvel of engineering because it allowed for a wide skirt without thirteen petticoats under it, which meant women could wear eight pounds of clothes instead of thirty pounds, so when they had to run away from bad news, they could do it at speed.

Annabella trips as fast as she can into town, instantly finds the whore in question, finds out her real father is the bouncer, faints, then gets up and runs around on the moors in the rain for a while until she has Ye Olde Bronchitis. I will complain about her later, but in all fairness, she tries as hard as she can to remove herself from the gene pool; Cookson just won’t let her die. It’s not her fault, poor thing.

Manuel finds her and agrees reluctantly to skip town with her. Before they can make a break for it, though, Asshole Dad finds them and attacks! Manuel hits him, and he falls down dead – not from the blow, but because his head struck a rock on the ground.

PLEASE NOTE: I have yet to see anyone in a Catherine Cookson movie ever kill someone else. Usually someone hits them, then they hit their head on a rock, then a cartful of coal sacks is dumped on them, then a horse walks over them, then the cliff gives way, and then they’re dead.

Now Manuel’s super-motivated to skip town, and they haul ass through the countryside like a whinier Sam and Frodo.

Visit beautiful Overcast! (Dear director: you couldn’t have waited five minutes for that cloud to pass? For real?)

They decide to pose as cousins and not to involve themselves in the man-and-wife way, since they both know it’s a little skeevy when a dude’s love declarations always end in, “…when you were nine.”

Eventually, they manage to find work at a scrabbly farm meant to represent the slightly-higher-than-servant class, who apparently never wash their faces.

As you can see, it’s thrilling.

Though their nasty hovel does come with river-bathing rights, where Annabella happily scrubs up:

And Brendan Coyle rubs the downstream bubbles over his neck like a perfume commercial:

Look, I just report the news, okay?

Time goes on; the dad is thought to have gotten wasted and drowned, Manuel wants to learn to read, and Annabella gets half-heartedly molested by the hilariously disgusting farm owner. It’s supposed to be terrifying, but it’s so badly blocked it’s like a middle-school play or a crime recreation on Rescue 911 or something; there are no lights, I’m pretty sure a cow wanders by in the foreground, etc.

After that it’s pretty much back to the drawing board for old Manuel and Annabella! Luckily, Dickens discarded this decent farming family, and Cookson picks them right up again, so Annabella and Manuel can go live with the family and their other maid, Betty-who-got-fired-in-the-beginning. Dun dun duuuuun!

Manuel decides to combat Betty’s blackmaily intentions by flirting with her so she’ll be too busy swooning over him to blackmail anyone. Meanwhile, he buys Annabella a new suit of clothes, then tells her he’ll have to get married soon. Then he gets wasted at the Christmas party and wanders away with Betty all night. Then he hands Annabella a piece of paper that reads, “Do you like me? Check yes or no.”

Annabella, meanwhile, tries to drown herself because she can’t live without Manuel and feels like this is the best way to tell him. Or something. Maybe she just went for a walk and didn’t know what water meant. She’s not too bright.

The good news is he loves her anyway, and they exchange sweet nothings (“Oh Manuel, I’ve loved you from the first moment I saw you!” …WHEN I WAS NINE).

They embrace passionately!

No, seriously, all the embraces are like this. The chemistry here is really wonky. He tries, and she just stands around trembling like a bobblehead. Emily Mortimer isn’t a bad actress, so I don’t know what happened here. He had more chemistry with the horse, poor dude.

Anyway, they hit the road again (this is starting to feel like pinball, jeez), hit up a glassworks, and decide to get married and live there forever!

Right until the wedding reception, when a drunk captain molests Annabella. Manuel punches the guy, who falls down, hits his head on a log, and is buried in a cartful of heavy sacks. (Then someone lights him on fire. Then a river washes him away.)

Manuel goes to prison, and Annabella goes home to wait out his sentence. She’s upset, because they didn’t even have the chance to do the nasty before he got carted off, but Manuel – the only quick thinker in all of Cookson’s heroes – explains that if he gets her pregnant (which he will, since this is Cookson), she’ll be stuck all alone with a bairnsketball.

So she waits it out at home, and stands by her man despite her mother’s well-meaning attempts to drive him away, which culminate in a five-minute sequence of her running around at night screaming “Manuel!” until she finds his wagon. They meet up again, pledge their undying love to each other (“…when you were nine”), and decide to go live in the manor house with Annbella’s lonely mom.

The End, after three hours that feels like FIFTEEN HOURS oh why couldn’t she have died on the moor like a normal person?

Bizarre Filmmaking: EPIC. Some of these miniseries were directed by competent professionals, and some of them were directed by people with concussions. This is one of the latter. There’s a lot of moments like this:

[Manuel has just found Annabella taking refuge in Crazy Amy’s hovel after being lost for two days. She’s ill and upset.]

Manuel: YOUR MOTHER’S SICK WITH WORRY!
Annabella: DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND? I CAN NEVER GO BACK THERE!
Manuel: YOU’LL HAVE TO!

[Cut to a fireplace. Annabella’s asleep, and Manuel and Amy are chatting quietly.]

Viewer: …wait, what?

[Later, Annabella has just escaped the filthy farmer’s molesty.]

Manuel: We’ll have to get out of here, before there’s real trouble.

[Cut to them wandering around in a village.]

Viewer: …wait, what?

No, Viewer, you did not fall into a time portal or fall asleep during important and dramatic transition scenes. That’s just how The Glass Virgin rolls.

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2014 Appearances

Often updated. Please check back!

March 19-23: ICFA (Orlando, FL)

May 23-26: WisCon (Madison, WI)

July 11-14: Readercon (Boston, MA)

August 4: Books Beneath the Bridge, Brooklyn

October 10-12: CapClave (Washington, DC) [GOH]