Archive for May, 2010

Dear friends and readers,

You may recall that in my blog of May 24th, 3 days ago I told of a DC-JASNA picnic Izzy and I attended and how in the raffle she won Sethe Graham-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies.  She wrote about the picnic too (see her blog for May 23rd).  I didn’t say she was philosophic about this win as she had said she might like to see the movie, Jane Austen and the Sea Creatures, and took it home thinking she might try to read it.

Well, she has, and for tonight I present a more detailed critical assessment than you will hear anywhere else — and more open-minded too because Izzy goes to movies and knows something of the genre Graham-Smith has mixed into Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: Kung Fo movies.  Her verdict is JA and the Zombies is an amusing but not intelligent book.  I put on this blog what I got down in Pittman sten in the back pages of my book from what she said.

One of the book’s several illustrations

She read Graham-Smith’s website and found there that he claims the idea for the book came from his agent: the agent called Graham-Smith up one day and suggested he write a book with the title, P&P and the Zombies.  Seth-Graham started with a vision of zombies running about and causing mayhem and acting violently.  But it’s more than that: he’s mixing kung fo kind of movie stuff into what he conceives to be Austenland.  Izzy said if you have seen Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, you have seen a remarkably intelligent and arty version of one of these formulaic films. They glorify martial arts and violence.  So the reader reads sudden violence repeatedly placed in familiar scenes.  The opening sentence will give a first idea:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want or more brains.  Never was thsi truth more plain than during the recent attacks at Netherfield Park, in which a household of eighteen were slaughtered and consumed by a horde of living dead.
    ‘My dear Mr Bennet,’ said his lady to him one day, ‘have you heard that Netherfield Park is occupied at last …’"

Other instances from famous scenes: after reading Darcy’s letter Elizabeth attempts to kill Darcy for taking Bingley from Jane. During the set-up between Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Lady Catherine attempts to murder Jane. The way in which such scenes are described are in the mechanically sudden wild way of these kung fo films.  If you have a copy of the book, and go to  p. 299 you will see this.  These scenes are often written as gags — even though some transparent excuse is made for explaining how say Lady Catherine knows to use a sword (she was trained in Japan I think Izzy said).  Marriage to Mr Collins turns Charlotte Lucas into a zombie is one typical joke.

Now here it might seem that Graham-Smith entered into the mind-set of Austen’s book.  What else could marriage to Mr Collins turn anyone into?  But, Izzy noticed that there is no real understanding of Austen’s book.  Graham-Smith’s perspective or understanding of Austen seems to stem from the kind of idea that led to the 1940 Pride and Prejudice: this is cozy silly women’s romance where no harm comes to anyone for real.  Any notion that it has serious themes like women’s condition is not apparent at all.  Indeed Graham-Smith robs Mrs Bennet of any redeeming qualities by denying the girls had to get married.  Nonsense.  Graham-Smith appears to have read no mature literary criticism of Austen. 

A silly pop view infects his book throughout and since the philosophy he says (on his website) that he followed (he uses the word philosophy) was to change something on every single page of Austen’s book, one can see the dumbing down that could occur.  I looked at this book and saw he copies out whole swatches of Austen but also (as in popular abridgement) simplifies the language as he goes now and again. Many of the changes were just this sort of crude thing.

The questions at the back of the book (set up just like publishers’ books where what is implied is this will be read in a book club) give away his attitudes when you compare them to what you find in the book. I said the violence is gags — well, some of it reminded me of the kind of grotesquerie I noticed in gay texts — sudden huge monsters of the kind you find in Angela Carter’s burlesques, are used in the similarly jerky and awkward figures in the film adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando by Sally Potter. 

out of disguise, or period costume, from Sally Potter’s Orlando

Izzy and I wondered if there was a gay subtext going on here.  Well some of the questions reinforce my wonder. For example, question 5:  we are asked if Austen intended Elizabeth Bennet to be "gay?"  Her independence, her reluctance to marry just anyone, and her strong aggression (as Graham-Smith sees this), her distrust of men (as he sees it) seems to suggest to him that Austen’s Elizabeth is gay.  "And if so, hw would this Sapphic twist serve to explain her relationships with Darcy, Jane, Lady Catherine and Wickham?" Question 6 asks about symbols in the book which distrust marriage and so it goes.

Needless to say when Lydia runs off with WIckham in this book there is no sense she will be ruined.  Again there is a duel. pp. 219-20. If Mr Darcy had not rescued Lydia, she would have ended up beheaded.  At the end of the novel Wickham goes off to a seminary, badly crippled, and Lydia takes care of him. Very strange unless you begint to add to the Kung Fo nonsense a sort of anti-marriage, anti-heterosexual subtext going on here.

Jill H-S’s Unbccoming Conjunctions did not go this far in her queering of Austen — or quite this far.

Izzy says Graham-Smith (like many) does like Elizabeth, sympathizes with her, she is superpowerful and her sudden grotesqueries of violence are presented as making us fond of her.

To Izzy’s report I’ll add this perspective:  One might ask (remembering Johnson irritated with what he called the imbecility of Cymbeline) why waste time on such a mish-mash. Well it’s well to know what is being read by many people as a legitimate rewrite of Austen — complete with funny illustrations.  It is troubling to see a book whic erases so readily what is worth while and serious in Austen because there are so many other texts more respected which do this too — like for example Galperin’s chapter on Persuasion. If you read Persuasion as slapstick as he claims to do, why not this?

I have had many students by now who will say they know and love Austen and when I examine what this knowing and loving consists of, it’s watching the 1995 P&P which switches the perspective of the book so it becomes Darcy-centered and an Oepidal kind of ordeal, heavy on the urge of girls to marry (heterosexuality is assumed).  Then they might come to this. 

It really hurts to see a book which made women’s traditions of books deeply rich and is a core of women’s books still today (Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Falling ends on comparing our heroine to Jane Bennet) treated this way. It’s another form of erasure of women’s traditions and books.


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Dear friends and readers,

Another in this series of ongoing musings on film adaptations (costume dramas) made from 18th versus 19th century sources (see One Duchess and One Cornwall Landowner and Two Tesses and One Jude):  this one on Young Victoria, an unexpected (probably) box office hit, not credited to any book, just listed as directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, written by Julian Fellowes, with Emily Blunt as Victoria, Rupert Friend as Prince Albert, Paul Betthany as Lord Melbourne, and a host of other British fine actors from quality TV and cinema movies.  It won the Oscar for best costumes.

Emily Blunt (she played the Fanny character in Jane Austen Book Club, and he was the beautiful young man in Cheri and Mrs Palfrey at the Clairemont, both of which I’ve written about)

I’m moved to write about this movie because I came across the book it’s based on, one not mentioned on the commercial sites:  so first a prologue; then a few posting essays critiquing the film:

Yesterday Izzy and I managed to get ourselves deep into Maryland (you must realize that I’m not a person who drives distances) with me driving and Izzy navigating.  Why?  We went to a JASNA "box hill picnic" — held in a lovely Maryland park. We had a very good time: we trimmed a hat for which Izzy won the "prize" (the hat itself), participated in a quiz on Emma (where Izzy was able to decipher anagrams very ably) and ate and talked under the shade of a wooden pavilion in a pretty setting (but no box trees). 

There was a raffle for books and for once I won one — and Izzy too. (Truth to tell, the turn-out was low so there were more books to go round than usual — perhaps the distance to the park deterred others).  I missed out on one I want to tell of briefly: a book on governesses that might not be as good as Hughes, but is certainly filled with information: Ruth Brandon, The Governess: The Lives and Times of Real Jane Eyres. It’s organized by women and she basically retells lives and circumstances from their memoirs, a sort of group biography (like Blood Sisters, or The Passionate Sisterhood).

Izzy won Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies — it was the only one left as she got the last book.  And we perused one Ophelia Joined the Group Maidens Who Don’t Float: Author: Schmelling, Sarah. It’s a witty imitation of a facebook where the author imagines Austen, her characters and other related women authors interacting and writing.

But I brought home the book from which Young Victoria was adapted!  We Two:  Victoria and Albert: Ruler, Partners, Rivals.  I began it a little and it appears to be a serious work of scholarship where the author goes into the young girlhood and wifehood of Victoria and also Alfred’s background and "their" first years on the throne. As I wrote, he did work with her. I’m going to try to fit it in (as my book for Trollope19thCStudies this month) recommend it as a book which reveals the more private life and characters of these two people, as well as the Victorian era from the kind of political standpoint (men or women, not measures) Trollope would understand immediately.


What follows is a dialogue on Young Victoria that we had on WWTTA:

From Diane Reynolds:

I have been watching films with an eye to what I call "the ritual humiliation of the ‘strong’ female." This started a few years ago when my daughter, then in high school, got interested in "chick flicks," and to have a connection with her, I began watching them with her. After a few films, it started jumping out at me in an uncomfortable way that the "strong" female lead–who usually owns her own business, is beautiful, wears sexy clothes, is financially quite comfortable and has a sassy  mouth — has to undergo a ritual of humiliation that subordinates her to her ma le opposite in order to truly "get" him as her "man". Most of these films are so forgettable that I can’t remember specifics, and it can be something as simple as not being able to maneuver a jet ski (and often it includes incidents that remote from ordinary life: how many of us are running around with jet
skis?) but nevertheless a very real moment of subordination. It hit me most forcibly in watching remakes, such as "You’ve Got Mail," a remake of the 1930s "Shop around the corner" ??? if I have the name right. (I’m not a "player" in the film world, so please bear with me). In any case, I remember being utterly shocked at the way the "strong" woman lead in "You’ve Got Mail" is reduced to silly subordination to the mail lead–eg, she asks him what to do about problems in a helpless way, and he never asks her. What most shocked me is that, to my memory, the element of female subordination was either missing or
much more muted in the 1930s film.

With that as background, I was saddened to see The Young Victoria follow the same pattern of ritual humiliation. There were indicators that it might happen — Albert is portrayed as a saint, truly a saint, more or less Jesus Christ incarnate, whereas Victoria is (gently) flawed, and we are constantly reminded of her "inexperience" and naivete. The film somewhat undermines this theme by largely putting criticism into the mouths of the "bad guys" and by portraying Victoria as a strong person, but it’s still there. But despite these hints, I chose to keep an open mind. And then it happened: Victoria, rightfully, I thought, becomes angry at Albert for talking over her head to the designated next prime minister (Pitt possibly) about how Victoria will support him–without talking this over with Victoria ahead of time.

A moment where the struggle becomes public

Rather than take her seriously, he treats he like a child throwing an irrational tantrum and walks from the room as she screams after him, suddenly enacting a two-year-old’s tantrum–"I’m the queen, you can’t walk away from me!" as he continues to walk. As he goes out the door, he tells her will allow her to calm herself because of her "condition." (She is pregnant.) We are left with the calm, assured, unflappable man who "wins" and the humiliated, powerless, emotional, tantruming "queen," whose suddenly infantilized behavior is explicitly linked to her pregnancy. I was appalled. It gets worse, because, in the next scene, in a change of history, the movie has Albert flinging himself in front of a would-be assassin’s
bullet to save her. His bloody body is carried dramatically into the palace. He survives easily, and Victoria’s humiliation is completed — wearing "Melanie Wilkes" clothing, she flings in tears across his breast, telling him she’s sorry for how she’s acted. Now that he’s proven his masculine superiority and literally brought her to her knees (we also see her praying in church), she has earned, finally, the right to hear that he loves her and does everything for her.

Leaning on his strength

Oh yuk. I thought, I will bet any amount of money this movie is a male enterprise. And indeed, the director was a male and the screenwriter was a male. Why must it be so completely predictable? Are men completely unconscious of how openly threatened they are of powerful women? Why was a man even directing this movie? A movie like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was so much much better on this front (speaking of male directors.)

I was also disturbed at how uncritically Victoria and Albert were portrayed. Such saints and such advocates for the poor! If only the people in Dicken’s London knew! I have an idea that Sarah Ferguson was behind this project and maybe other royals or former royals as well, so perhaps the film could only be produced as hagiography (at least as far as Albert). I also thought the director could have done better than a film that felt to me like a longer version of the history films you see at visitor centers to historic sites. I know I am being critical, and perhaps the budget for the movie was limited, but the budget certainly didn’t necessitate the ritual humiliation. Have others seen this movie? Are there ways in which it is better than I am understanding it to be?

Catherine Delors responded:

Dear Diane,
I saw the film, or rather the beginning and end. I slept through the middle (this was on a plane, and before I had watched the dreadful Sherlock Holmes with Downey).

I thought the costumes were very pretty, but indeed Victoria was not acting in a mature or likable way. The incident with Albert throwing himself in front of a bullet to protect her, which is the turning point of the film, is not historical. The Prime Minister is, I believe, Lord Melbourne.

Paul Bettany, the patient wiser advisor, Melbourne

Another film I saw about young Victoria is the old one with Romy Schneider, along the lines of the Sissi series. Might become a favorite with your daughter. 🙂 This one made me want to watch again "Mrs. Brown" which I enjoyed at the time.

I am sure you discussed these issues with your daughter afterwards. I have this problem with my 10-year old niece: she seems to have absorbed those hyper-feminine images of women (pink everything, meringue-type wedding dresses,
unicorns, Disney princesses, tiaras, etc.) I have trouble relating: when I was a child, I played cowboys and Indians, or reenacted the adventures of Zorro with my cousins. This was the opposite: little girls playing all-male roles.


To which Aneilka:

Oh my word, Diane! You are so right. Do you know what is most shocking? that I hadn’t noticed myself despite having watched the film. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

I had a very uncomfortable feeling as I read your mail as I waited for an Austen-subgroup comment…."any-minute-now-she’s-going-to-mention-Elizabeth-and-Darcy or Emma-and-Knightley" I thought.

I hate to say it of my favourite author, but Austen does seem to have minted the prototype of this particular storyline doesn’t she? Whereas Fanny Price, Elinor and Anne escape that fate by repressing their feelings. Worse, Marianne who is not "strong" so much as "expressive" gets the same dose of "ritual humiliation" for being too candid in her affections. Her reward? Someone old she didn’t really fancy. Ouch! Not very feminist.

Lydia, however, seems fabulously oblivious to the humiliation which everyone felt on her behalf, though whether she qualifies as a "strong" character or not I don’t know.

Very astute comment about strong women being ritually humiliated. I can’t think of a storyline where a man, other than an anti-hero, suffers the same ignominy with the exception of Darcy, who, being fabulously wealthy, escapes any ensuing


I replied with Young Victoria: the ritual humiliation and schmaltzy idealism

I really did enjoy reading Diane Reynolds’s initiating posting and Catherine and Aneilka’s rejoinders.  I too saw the movie — it lasted for weeks and weeks at our local art and popular theaters; I too was bemused by how adults sat there and watched what is nonsense.  We were in an audience filled with people who sat there silently and no laughter at all.  Izzy was with me and opined it was actually the best movie in the theater that day, and superior to the one we saw for Xmas, billed an art movie by this famous (male) director (with Penelope Cruz as the body the male star feasted upon).

Now I know it’s part of the offering of film adaptations of older history periods or high status novels that they idealise characters as well as offer sumptuous settings for the audience to take pleasure in.  This level of escape is in them all: the nostalgia, the emotional bath, the elegiac. But decent and grown-up ones (so to speak) deal with issues directly and have a good deal of hard realities to them and characters who are pernicious and dangerous in adult and complicated ways.  The depiction of Victoria’s father was straight out of melodrama.

The simplication of politics at the time was laughable. This was actually a bad film adaptation of history. I’m persuaded serious Victorian movies — film adaptations which are costume dramas either about history or from novels expose the pathologies of family and social and political life then and now.  Young Victoria attempts this a tiny bit, but it’s so exaggerated and melodramatic, it’s useless.

Victoria still having to obey the bad older man, lover of her mother; the mother presented as bad, weak, giving the worst advice (Mark Strong often plays torturers: he was a fierce Mr Knightley in the 1996 Emma which played on the disquieting eroticism of the book)

Which justifies asking what is in it that appeals — what beyond the soporific (makes you sleepy). It will be said by those who talk of all they learn from Heyer and other like romances, the strong woman in power, and we do have a queen everyone pays attention to, she is important. In this again this film is like the 1990s film adaptations — the more recent ones show us abject women (Sandy Welch’s say, her Turn of the Screw, the 2007 Persuasion and Mansfield Park).  But as Diane points out here we have centrally this humiliation whose reward is the "good husband."

I am glad Aneilka is posting again, for we can here have a dialogue which would be a bomb on Janeites and probably austen-l too:  Austen humiliates the two heroines many audiences of Austen seem to favor most:  Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse.  Elinor Dashwood represses herself in the first place, the strongly transgressive Marianne (a thread has been on Austen-l about this) almost dies, and it’s arguable that in Fanny and Anne Eliot we have abjection, in Catherine a character who is part satiric device, a naif.  Now Elizabeth does stand up to another woman, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but we are to feel she has learned her lesson _vis-a-vis_ Darcy and (since the book is lopped and chopped) we don’t know if originally we were to see that after all Wickham’s depiction of their boyhood was not altogether wrong.  Emma’s scolding by Mr Knightley is a hinge-point no one can leave out, and in Whit Stillman’s recreation in Last Days of Disco she does humble herself (beautifully) and try to make herself a more decent person before the relatively powerless and vulernable (stop insulting the Miss Bates). For me the worst scene in Austen’s Emma is the one where Jane gushes her gratitude to Miss Woodhouse, apologizes just about and Emma thinks well, now she won’t be reserved any more. 


There are real problems with Austen’s fiction for women readers today. Some of the film adaptations attempt to "correct" them but then again to my mind some of the correction may be worse than the original "flaws," e.g., Rozema’s substitution of a superficially powerful (the word "feisty" is a sign of this) narrator from the Juvenilia for Austen’s Fanny who is also a genuinely subversive element in the fiction for she shows us how as a woman one cannot even begin to have it all :).

It’s good to be able to speak of this clearly sometimes.  By the way our heroine in Falling does not learn her lesson in the sense of blaming her berating herself; she falls prey to this man but escapes just in time and moves on. Not her fault, understandable. He is the problem so-to-speak and the society that made and tolerates him.

I wonder if the costumes were really what people liked — I see no landscapes on the Net and few tributes to their exquisite accuracy:

This was not easy to find.  Images of the handsome Friend with Blunt in bed together (a la Cherie) are not.


Diana Birchall defended the film as reflecting realities of the era and argued on the basis it has to be somewhat true because supported by the Duchess of Windsor (Sarah Fergusson),

To which Diane Reynolds:

Your comments bring up the interesting point of how filmmakers might or ought deal with social/historical realities of the past. I imagine this comes up more in interpreting fiction: how do we present Shylock, etc. … but in terms of history, do we present it as the people in question saw it or as we see it or both? As the film points out at the end, Victoria did have Albert’s clothes laid out every day after his death until her own death: devoted behavior that did make of him a saint–or more precisely, showed her power. Of course, you haven’t seen the movie (lucky you), but during much of it the two are separate, Albert in Germany, waiting for summons to the British Royal Court and Victoria, in England. Thus, we are not seeing Albert through Victoria’s eyes through much of the movie–and yet he is still portrayed as a saint by the omniscient narrative voice. A more skillful movie would have shown Victoria seeing Albert as a saint while "offstage" we would see him as a sympathetic but very imperfect human.

Probably like many who saw the film, my knowledge of V and A was sketchy–I read a bio of V in high school, and, of course, have picked up bits and pieces of their story over time but a m not intimately aware of their history. I strongly suspected Albert had not been shot by a would-be assassin–but I didn’t know for sure until I looked it up. So I think I replicated the experience of many viewers. I did have a vague idea that Albert was not altogether happy at being second to his wife, but I didn’t know if I had him confused with the current Prince Philip. I looked on Wikipedia, that source of all knowledge, and discovered that Albert was initially distressed at being the husband but not the "master" of his household and that he was restive until he was given a bigger "role." This accords with the film–in fact, in the movie, all is happy and in order when the male assumes his rightful place at the head of the table and Victoria has essentially apologized for being alive–but I do fault the film for not critiquing this Victorian and patriarchal view of the relationship,. It instead falls into the predictable paradigm of ritual female humiliation. Perhaps I unfairly criticize the film for not being a great movie. A better film, imho, would have used the power of the camera to make a clear distinction between how V and A perceived their situation and how we do. I think it is correct to be
appalled and call the movie on its uncritical portrayals, just as we might be appalled at a film that uncritically portrayed a "happy plantation" through the eyes of the slaveholders–even if that was how the slaveholders saw it. Of course, I admit that the effete world of royalty, where the players have an exaggerated sense of their own importance, is another story.

I did have an idea that Sarah Ferguson was behind this film, and I did mention, I think, in my post, that the royal or ex-royal influence may have limited the extent to which the film could be critical of V and A. 🙂 I did learn that V and A were first cousins, which I had not known, and married when they were both 20, quite young by our standards. It was not far from an arranged marriage, although Victoria did apparently have a "choice" between several eligible suitors, according to Wikipedia.

I intervened again:

I too think there’s a tension between the way some histories reveal earlier people’s inner lives and characters and the way this information can be used in movies.  Most of the people in the theater know very little I suppose of the minute ins and outs of Victoria’s court — as 17th century readers knew little of what was said of Alexandrian courts and the private lives of classic heroes and heroines.

Talking with my husband about the movie, he suggested that Victoria was not intelligent and Albert was, and that’s central to understanding how and why the monarchy ceded its power to the prime minister — as well as the reality she was a woman and no warrior type.  Victoria was also badly educated; had read very little at all.  Again this comes of the dismissal of women in education in the era, in high and powerful families as much as lower ones.  In the movie we do see the two desks of Albert and Victoria; what my husband suggested is that Albert acted as a strong modifying force on Victoria until his death when she retreated from public life.

The film may be said to be a bildingsroman where the daughter learns not to imitate her mother – this falls into a pattern of 20th century women’s novels where women are encouraged to blame the mother:  Diane Phillips discussed this in her Women’s Fiction, 1945-2000.

The mother subject

So the film speaks to audience of women Resentful daughters: post-feminist books. Books where the writer is angry at the mother very intensely; filled with bad mothers, women who didn’t stay in the home and devote themselves to the child, living an utterly conventional life. Some of this is archetypal hostility, some an inability to tell an appearance in social communities from realities at home and in the mind and real daily life. Daughters see their mothers as childlike and not grown up. Novels described include Martha McPhee’s Bright Angel Time, Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, Rebecca Wells’s Divine Secrets of Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Kathleen Tessaro’s Elegance (2003). A life-poisoning kind of relationship is described, with the daughter having no forgiveness for the mother who is ambitious. A Booker Prize short-listed one belongs here too: Astonishing Splashes of Color by Claire Morrall (2003, epigraph from J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan).

I’d say the way to view and understand the movie is a film version of the kind of romances Scudery and her peers wrote in the later 17th century — glorified super sexually repressed women  (except the evil ones) at the center, emasculated men who nonetheless exert strong power and control over these women.  An exception is Lady Mary Worth’s romance of Urania where she has transgressive heroines: this was a shocking book, withdrawn and only republished today; then it was seen as a "scandal" chronicle where she revealed her own life and those of women and men at the court.  So she was damned for trying to tell some truths — she herself had endured an arranged marriage, and then fell in love with and had child ren by her cousin, William Pembroke and was tabooed for the rest of her life. Why she found time to write is before us.

As to Sarah Fergusson, she might like to glorify her royal family in a mindless way — shore up the Tories some more. I’ve never seen anything in print that would make me think anything else.

Now we learn the source of the book is a serious historical study by a woman.


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Dear Friends and readers,

Here is part two of my musings on the differences between the way film-makers adopt/adapt 18th versus 19th century sources. I wrote in Part 1 about two successful Tess of the D’Urberville (1979 by Polanski, 2008 BBC, with Gemma Arterton and Hans Mathesen) and one masterpiece Jude the Obscure film (1999 BBC, by Michael Winterbottom, with Kate Winslet and Christoper Eccleston) a couple of days ago.  Today my subject is The Duchess, a film adaptation of Amanda Foreman’s enormously successful biography of Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire.  Next up will be the marvelous 1997 BBC production of Tom Jones (director Metin Huseyin, screenplay Simon Burke  with John Sessions as Fielding himself, Benjamin Whitlow, Samantha Morton).

It’ll differ from Part one because I find I’ve written about this book, the film, and Georgiana Spencer as a letter-writer, poet and politician before: in the first blog I kept up, Jim and Ellen have a blog, Too, one attacked by a malicious virus-monger, where I retrieved those blogs I valued among which was The duchess was a writing and reading girl too.  If you go over there, you’ll find a life, an account of her writings and quite a debate on the book versus the film.

Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire by Joshua Reynolds (1774)

Here I’m not looking at the relationship of the film to Georgiana’s real life, but its relationship to other films and to paradigms which underlie films based on 18th century sources.  My "control" or other film I bring in to show the masculine version of the kind of uses I’m talking about is the strongly popular mini-series from 1975-77, Poldark , a young Cornwall landowner, who returns from the American wars, having been reported dead and has to build a life for himself against the interests of others who his presence deprives of what his land would have given them (screenplays Jack Pullman, Alexander Baron [among others], directed by Paul Arnett [among others], based on a mid-20th century historical novel cycle by Winston Graham, Cornwall later 17th century .  

Robin Ellis as Poldark (still from series)

Jeffrey Patcher and Saul Dibbs’s film adaptation of Amanda Foreman’s The Duchess (based on a woman’s real life in the 18th century however with access to wealth and some power), is a coming of age film, the equivalent of "a young lady’s entrance into the world" as the 18th century novels have it.  In the 19th century these were labelled bildingsromans.  In women’s case these are quite different from men’s:  the coming of age comprises different experiences in life, the cruxes or crises are often different and what is presented is often shaped differently — especially before the 20th century. The term is originally a Victorian one and was applied first to Goethe’s William Meister.

The original texts of the eighteenth century (Georgiana’s letters and life), the biography which grew out of these (Foreman’s) are differently shaped than those of 19th century sources, and the movies both reflect and reinforce the original shaping so 18th century films repeatedly delve into sexuality for its own sake and to present the issues as we are troubled by them through this mirror or disguise of costume, while 19th century films turn to social and familial pathologies and attempt large historical critiques — again as relevant to our own time and even about our own time in disguise. If we look at La Nuit de Varennes, which purports to be about history, we see that it takes a very much marginalized and fantastic playful perspective; by contrast, say Davies Middlemarch or films based on Hardy do what they can to be "true" to larger patterns of history.

The Duchess in line with this has a paradigm that recalls say Austen’s S&S where our heroine is taught a cruel enforced lesson in sexual renunciation.  Under threat of ostracism, poverty, loss of children, Georgiana is forced to give up her lover and a child by him (revealingly played by Dominic Cooper who was Willoughby in the 2008 S&S); the directives are given by a husband whose male sexuality (pride, ego, control, appetite) are threatened even ever so little. He will not compromise a jot.  The ending is of her running about as a child, like a child with her children.

A typical moment from such films: the used and abused (in one scene the Duke, played by Ralph Fiennes, rapes Georgiana, forces himself brutally on her, and there is no recognition in him that he has done anything out of the way). She is vexed, anxious, on her way to meet Charles Grey in a hidden pavilion (as she might do in one of the era’s novels)

Cooper as Grey looking out at the crowd before he begins a political speech supported by Georgiana — about half-way through the film.

The biography does not emphasize Georgiana’s relationship with her children at all. They take a second or third place (or more) in her decisions and choices which still left her profoundly maimed and discontented: she died young, and the woman she had taken in as a companion, Bess Foster, who had begun to dominate her (probably through a lesbian relationship) married the Duke herself.  But our society cares or insists that women care deeply about their children, about abortion, adoption and sustainning nuclear groups. So the movie speaks to these paradigms in movies.

I was much moved by the ending where the Duchess gets as a reward this playful existence and to get to socialize, drink, and gamble (though now within limits) and Grey ends a prime minister.  We see a scene closely analogous to that of Willoughby versus Marianne in Austen’s books.  Grey must separate himself from Georgiana; he does what he can in the moment to assure her their child is being taken care of and she acknowledges as kindness his even telling her this.  He is the decent man deprived of a genuine personal life he might have wanted:

Even their postures in this closing scene recall analogous scenes in the Austen films. Insofar as the S&S films enact this, they are simply 18th century films.

I was gratified to see this giving up as part of coming of age for both,, and Grey and Georgiana — though the cruxes here are those a woman experiences, from a film about Grey and book we’d get very different choices as central to what made his career. 

Poldark too is coming of age.  A hero more different from Tom Jones cannot be imagined — somber, serious, a man whose troubles are those that might appeal to people today:  home from the war after having been declared dead, he finds his relatives and friends may welcome him, but the woman he was engaged to marries his cousin (for her family wants his family’s money), his uncle calls in a debt from money he has worked hard to loan, he is driven by a man (monopolizer in the making) who wants his mine.  He is presented as a strong courageous type but with depth of feeling and intelligence.  Excellent husband material: faithful to the girl he marries because she’s pregnant and intuitively he knows how good and kind she is:

Robin Ellis as Ross and Angharad Rees as Demelza Poldark

But again sex is central, the inner person. It’s more marginal for the women who are presented stereotypically that the kind of delving one sees in The Duchess is not wanted when it comes to a male hero, and his cruxes are not hers. Women are presented stereotypically.

Among the delights are fine acting, actors I’ve seen in other series, and now I know why Clive Francis was both Willoughby and Sloan from Joe Orton’s play, with Robin Ellis as Edward Ferrars in the 1971 S&S too.  Also 1970s dramaturgy here includes filming on location and the use of location symbolically — as waves crashing on rocks (anticipating the 2008 S&S?, not really, both are archetypal).

Lizzard Light, a cove and cliff in Cornwall, where scenes of erotic romance and smuggling are shot.

The same paradigm is even four times over the mini-series, The Aristocrats (Stella Tillyard’s book on the Lennox sisters turned into a costume paradigmatic romance by Harriet O’Carroll), Catherine Breillat’s Une Vieille Maistresse, the thematized lives of all the characters in the various Les Liasions Dangereuses,, just about everything in the hard La Religieuse,


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Still (life?) of Jane’s manuscript of Emma, Volume I, packed in the suitcase for a trip to Ken, from Miss Austen Regrets (2009, Gwyneth Hughes, Anne Pivcevic)

Dear Readers,


Just now my heart is easy.
I sit and work on my book.
It is not a book of verse,
it is a book whose sober title is
"The Austen Films" — though maybe 
it ought to be "Austen on DVD" (!). 

It’s good, I know it is. 
I’m happy while I’m doing it.
I hope to publish it someday
in paper with covers, hard back,
you know the sort of thing I mean.
But if I do not, what then?

I have these hours.

For another set of sudden verses, "She longs for home …"

Journalizing, 5/20/10: well, maybe I’m like Samantha Morton playing Sophia Western in the 1997 BBC Tom Jones who protests loudly her heart is easy when it is in great distress. I was yesterday when I thought I had lost two days of revision through incompetent use of my computer.

But this from Wompo:  by William Yeats:

The friends that have it I do wrong
Whenever I remake a song
Should know what issue is at stake,
It is myself that I remake.


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Dear Friends and readers,

Among my endeavours this summer is to differentiate the group of films I call Austen films as a subgenre crossing other typologies; I’m also (as part of it) differentiating films from 18thC from films from 19thc Sources.  I must do this first and then see where the Austen ones fit in.

So, over the past couple of weeks, I’ve returned to watching costume dramas set the era (historical) of adapted from novels of the 18th and 19th century.  Partly I’ve been testing my theory, and have found that at least so far 18th century films repeatedly delve into sexuality for its own sake and present the issues of each in such a way that we delve deeply into the nature of people’s psychologies interacting with the mores and issues of their particular social groups.  This lends itself to abstract social issues like say slavery (as in Amazing Grace where the accent is on the individual’s inner world).  The 19th century films turn to social and familial pathologies, attempt a larger picture of society in which these pathologies are formed, and we see how the social roles imposed on people conflict with and/or sustain their deepest needs and desires.

This use of two kinds of period drama may be found in the 1979 Roman Polanski and Gerard Brach‘s Columbia and French-company produced Tess; David Blair and David Nicol’s 2008 BBC Tess of the D"Urbervilles, and the 1997 BBC Jude directed by Michael Winterbottom, written by Hossein Amini.  So much for the 19th century. For the 18th I rewatched Jeffrey Hatcher and Saul Dibbs’s The Duchess out of Amandra Foreman’s books — and compared it as I went along with movies like Ettore Scola’s 1982 La Nuit de Varennes (novel by Catherine Rihoit, screenplay reversing perspective to masculinist, Sergio Amidi), the BBC mini-series 1999 Aristocrats, written by Harriet O’Carroll, based on Stella Tillyard’s marvelous group biography, directed by David Caffery.

This blog (1) will compare the first three (two Tesses and one Jude) and tomorrow (or 2, the next one) by contrast will center on The Duchess, whose themes of sexual renunciation and arranged marriages coheres with what we find in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (though not so much the Austen films — which as I say differe); the third will be on the 1997 Tom Jones (which I love and will show has quite a woman-centered point of view now and again and a continuum of female types):


1979 Tess

Angel Clare (Peter Finch) watching Tess (Nastassia Kinski) from afar, a typical long shot, framed, picturesque

Polanski’s Tess was released to commercial theatres but is as long as any mini-series and could easily have been shown in three parts over three successive weeks the way many mini-series are aired. It’s 190 minutes.

I found myself getting engaged in it slowly and it was interesting as a film too.  First, it is very like other film adaptations of the 1970s; the themes and stance is that of D. H. Lawrence, and it closely resembled a movie made a couple of years before it, e..g, the 1977 Love for Lydia (source text H. E. Bates;s novel).  A great deal of fuss was made at the  time because it was Polanski’s but in fact he imitates many of the genre’s features at the time, including the nostalgic love for a beautiful unspoiled countryside, the wrong-headed worship of rank for itself, visits to the grand houses (decayed or in use) that upheld and symbolized this order; the critique of marrying for money, presentability, family aggrandizement &c&c.

Sadoff (in her mistitled Victorian Vogue — it’s actually based on Austen, Merchant-Ivory and horror movies) accuses this movie of being pretty. Yes and so are many of these film adaptations.  It did differ from others and perhaps one could see Polanski’s hand in the lack of slickness that characterizes sequences in say Charles Sturridge’s famed 1981 Brideshead Revisited out of Evelyn Waugh (and other admired ones, Jewel in the Crown by Christopher Morahan and Giles Foster out of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet) . There’s a quiet plainness to many of the scenes; no meretricious worship of the props outfits and glitter.  It’s understated as a film.  The recreation of farm life was effective and seemed accurate (especially the hard work, and diary farm as such), but Stonehenge was too clearly a rebuilt fake.  They couldn’t skip it (a hingepoint in the novel, remembered when nothing else is) they must have felt and couldn’t get permission to film there I suppose.

I also liked that Polanski did not make Alec D’Urberville (Leigh Lawson in the film) into a monster or mustache-twirling villain (as Hardy does), but an ordinary amoral man who nonetheless is willing or would have been to be decent (take care of her physically and provide money and place and clothes) to Tess and her family.  He also did not present Angel Clare as justified considering his background the way Hardy does:   unless we are to blame Tess for her adherence to this passionate attachment to Clare and dislike of sex outside marriage.  That was there.

By contrast, Hardy’s treatment of Angel Clare alerts every woman to what destroys her. It’s fine for Clare to have had sex with someone it seems, but she is a polluted thing, not to be touched by him if she has. I loathed Hardy for his Clare, though I know Hardy also saw all that Clare stood for (religious hypocrisy) was also hated by Hardy (and was glad to see J. L. Carr did in his Month in the Country where he alludes to and imitates Hardy does not exonerate Clare).  Peter Firth was given the role and it was written sympathetically (he later took Henry Tilney in the 1986 Maggie Wadey Northanger Abbey). 

Now Polanski is not interested in these big social issues and that’s his film’s weakness, why he makes it pretty. It’s a celebration and remembering of his wife, Sharon (horribly murdered). In this film we are to feel it’s chance and nobody’s fault or the complete irrationality of human arrangemetns that leads to society murdering Tess for murdering Alec. Perhaps this is how Polanski lives with what he has seen in the 20th century world.  Need I add the rape is presented as forcible seduction?

The movie does alter the case by having Clare the kind of person who abjures ambition, see the hollowness of much social life, values kindness, the natural world, courtesy, and makes him deeply congenial with Tess. This is a strong underlying theme for all film adaptations of classic novels of this romantic type.  On this basis while Alec is presented as shallow, a man alive to presentability, wanting to make Tess a sex object toy, a cynic (a no no on this film — which is again odd as all I’ve read about Polanski suggests he is — in fact closer to Alec than Clare). 

I have not read Hardy’s book in years and remember not liking it that much: yes the poetry of the landscape is great, but the refusal to allow Tess openly to have sexual desires, the melodrama and false presentation of Alec as stage villain marred the book for me. So this updating was an improvement, if not a very original one. A flaw was the actress who played Tess.  She was Polanski’s lover at the time (this seems a frequent relationship between film-maker and his central leading lady) and her acting is not that bad, but not up to the others who (several of them) are regularly BBC quality drama people, and one wondered what this most unEnglish woman — this exotic Slavish beauty in her velvets when she had the chance at any — was doing wandering about the southwestern English countryside, and thus taken up by the white English sensitive hero gentleman hero type:

Polanski’s Tess and Angel Clare


2008 Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Alec (Hans Mathessen) reasoning withTess (Gemma Arterton)

Directed by David Blair, written by David Nicholls (probably related to Kate, Phoebe and Anthony, a BBC denizens and found in these dramas in different roles), produced by David Snodin (he did the brilliant 2007 traumatized Persuasion), this holds its own against Polanski’s even if Polanski’s is the more unified work of art.  Polanski’s seems (even at first viewing) more all of a piece, held together.  It profits enormously from all the changes in computer technology, what can be shown on TV and films sexually and as to nitty gritty reality, and a post-20th century sensibility which swerves to give the characters a real alienation from wholesomeness as rank and power and social abilities.

The 2008 is also a transposition; thus far all the hinge points are followed:  pastor who tells imbecilic father they are noble; imbecilic father tells desperate mother, Tess coerced into visiting her so-called relatives; also the circle dance early on where unknown to her she meets Clare and dances with him.has the advantage of greater frankness, more time (240 as opposed to 180 minutes — Polanski’s is the length of a 3 part mini-series), more capable minor actors all around (as did the 2004 Dr Zhivago by Davies over Lean’s 1966 one).  Anna Massey is just poignant yet obtuse and hopeless as someone to turn to as Alec D’Urbverville’s mother for example. 

But there is something more: it’s less wistful, harder.  It’s not just that Tess is clearly raped — for this film also misrepresents what sexual experience can be.  Once Tess is raped in this film, she refuses to have anything to do with Alec; in the book that’s not so at all, and in life that’s often not so.  A woman rarely gets pregnant after one tryst, especially if it’s a rape, and that’s what this film is reduced to showing: this old trope which is put before us on the expectation it exonerates the woman because forsooth she held out ever after; that’s not real.  Neither film shows what Hardy does then.

Alec is again softened. Played by Hans Matheson (Dr Zhivago himself and Marius in Les Miserables) he is played as really doing worse than he means; he’d like to do better but you see he has this mother who despises him and he can’t help himself. I’m making fun and it comes out better than this, but Polanski’s much less sentimentalized Alec is truer.  No need to drag in family background to explain the shallowness of Polanski’s Alec.  Blair’s Alec is not so much cynical as sceptical and disillusioned.

(digression: I see nothing wrong in being cynical.  It’s a reasonable respose to our world. My husband Jim is cynical; if I’m not, it’s just I’m not hard enough and often, like Jane Bennet, can’t get rid of hope enough or live without some aspirations.)

On Part 1:

What’s hard about it is the representation of social life, mean, cruel, indifferent.  When Tess goes to the dance that first night, it’s like someone at a modern teenager or 20s club today: abrasive, obtuse, and hard experiences on offer, mostly people deriding or guarded, and Tess rightly leaves the room for fresh air. She is mocked on the way home as a prig. Right. (Alec comes along to rescue her and this enables him to rape her as he gets her alone). 

What is hard is her having no one anywhere to turn to as a matter of course. The part ends on her breast-feeding this baby she has, looking about her with no where to turn.  Really exhausted, really filthy from her hard work, really excluded and exploited.  She sits there looking out.

It put me in mind of Gogol’s Overcoat.  Yes. Gogol goes out one nigth with his beautiful overcoat, has a miserable time at the phony party, and on the way home his coat is stolen.  He tries to get it back and everyone takes revenge on him.  One scene has him sitting on the street having lost his job.

I’m not sure this insight is in Hardy; indeed I doubt it.  The film-makers have also taken over something from Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. In Jude Jude wants to teach himself, but has no money for any books. This is shown to be the real case of working people at the time. Jude hasn’t the looks to use the public library. William St Clairs’ book shows how few books got into the hands of laborers.  Well Tess wants to learn to read and she too can’t afford any books. We see her in a classroom trying to learn, but then when her idiot father gets so drunk to lose his horse she is coerced by the mother to go to the D’Urbervilles as one of them for a job.  The rest follows (see above).  When she comes home pregnant, there is a moment when her well-meaning woman teacher seeks her out; the mother protects Tess from seeing the teacher lest the teacher see her pregnant.

Shades of one of this year’s finest movies, An Education — where the girl however does retrieve the siutation and the teacher is able to get together with her and she makes Oxford (no less) after all.

Not here. And we have a scene in the D’Urberville library where Tess is looking so longingly at the books. Alec comes in and says his father brought them in job lots and never read any. Yes, she can read them anytime she wants. No one else does. So she takes two back to her hut.  This is a take-over of some scenes from Jude transposed to a girl’s story.

I am liking it very much and will continue. It’s a film adaptation of 19th century mattter as the concern is with family life and status centrally far more than delving sex. Sex is just another exploitation; Tess had no much hope anyway given the ways of the world and human nature as seen in this film adaptation.

Oh the role of Tess is done by Gemma Atherton, who played Elizabeth Bennet in the recent Lost in Austen; her typology is then one which includes considerable strength of character. 

Blair, Nicholls and Snodin have considerable technological advances over Polanski, in particular a digital revolution in the camera in the middle 1990s that enabled many movies to become mesmerizing dream-machines much more easily, and makes filming out-of-doors hardly different from filming in-doors.  And we have made "progess" of sorts in our willingness or ability to go back in time in popular medium.  I"ve begun a short moving autobiography from the era, by Mary Smith, who was brought up in just the milieu Thomas Hardy describes, and by intense effort, stubbornness, luck and strong intelligence – as well as refusing to marry or get sexually involved with anyone — rose to become an effective governess and move out from that misery (which it was) to running a successful school.

Part 2:

What is really striking is how this Part 2 of Tess captures some of the atmosphere of the countryside at the time, and what I now remember is Hardy’s remarkable strength is the level of critique he presents — that he gets inside the mind and hearts of religious hypocrisies to show them up. And this film can take the time to show Tess’s father refusing to allow her to go out with her baby lest she be ostracized and shamed, so she can’t get the baby baptized, and then the pastor refusing to bury it in a Christian burial, not because he doesn’t think her baptism was real, but because he "dare not." Why not?  you coerced people into coming into church by refusing to marry or bury them officially by the church if they didn’t obey you.  We are made to see how this coercion works.

We see the class prejudice fuelling Clare’s parents precisely because they are so close in money circumstances to those below the gentry.

This kind of thing, the feel of it is gotten into this film.  My feeling is Polanksi was not interested in England in this way; he was writing a parable out of his own life.

There is a falling off when we get to Crick’s diary farm. The jollity and how comfy and kind all are doesn’t come off.  And the depiction of four women running after Clare seems overdone (to say the least).  A wet dream by Hardy repeated by these film-makers. On the other hand, this quartet of women is dwelt on so we get this sort of cloying women-together interlude that has sweetness in the friendship the girls show one another. This is probably an attempt to appeal to women viewers, but I guess that Blair, Nicolls and Snodin have never watched real women’s films during the day for the hard internecine qualities of such experiences; they are ambiguous.

 a strong idea in Part 1 is Tess should never have gone out into the public world, never tried for ambition as this is what it leads to for a young woman of her class (I called this the strong impulse to retreat in these film adaptations everywhere, the world is well lost, not worth it as filled with fools, knaves, all ashes); but Part 2, we see inside the house it’s misery too as father is absurd and there is no help indoors for dying baby.

By the end of Part 2 Tess is about to marry Clare and has not yet told him, has tried to and failed, and we are headed for the crash.

Parts 3 and 4:

I watched parts 3 and 4 of this effective mini-series on Saturday night and recommend it as a reading of the novel that makes sense of it in modern Freudian or psychological-social terms. I had put off watching Part 3 because I find the scene where Angel Clare rejects Tess on their wedding so painful, it’s hard to go through even though I know it’s coming and have gone through it before.  This version was not as painful as Polanski’s — partly because everything was done that could be done to make Clare’s response acceptable on the level of human frailty: the movie took seriously the notion that once a woman gives up her virginity to one man she’s stuck with him for life.  (In my recent paper on Richardson’s Clarissa, I argued what makes her such a heroine, is she says, no such thing and absurd, as do a few other characters in the book.)  Also his religious background and just the whole way the character was acted as emotional, himself hurt, oh how it pained him too to do this. How ill he was and distressed and how his family felt for him.  Polanski was truer to Hardy’s character in making him stern and unforgiving with no qualifications.

Similarly, the movie made Tess’s murder of Alec more understandable.  She has learnt to loathe him for himself, never mind her desire to run away with this beloved Angel of hers. We see that his religious conversio quickly falls from him, and as soon as he begins to get close to Tess, that he will treat her with casual derision.  We are given the scene where she kills Alec from the other side of the door, as heard by the landlady. He taunts her when she comes with her reproaches that now, see, Clare has come and Alec had said he would never.

Even better — or equally true to human nature — was the sense in the film that she killed Alec because all the morality she had been taught by her society had been shown up to be cant, hypocrisy, useless.  Since she has lived this wretched hard life scrabbling on dirt farms, treated like an animal despite all she did to obey work ethic, respect parents and whatever other morality she had been taught, what did murder matter?  It’s all lies anyway.  The movie conveyed something of this sense of senselessness of human society, its lies, and how someone on the other side of respectability will feel about it.  She and Alec were continually moving we were told. What Alec didn’t realize is how this affected Tess and made her dangerous.

Jemma Atherton as Tess plays her as a very strong young woman who had a genuine ethical sense and when anyone gives her a chance, they start to respect her. When she flees with Clare at the close, we get the feeling she’s much stronger than him. She was much stronger than Alec — perhaps the equivalent of her mother with brains.  Alec is a thankless part but Hans Mathiessen managed to bring him alive.  He is contemptible in comparison with her, and she knows it. She scotches him a with a knife.

The sequences of hard work with the manager gradually beginning to respect Tess who he despised as a "loose" woman were effective, also her friendships with her three women friends, one of whom commits suicide.

I don’t remember the book well enough to say if any of the hinge-points were changed.  I didn’t remember that Clare marries Tess’s younger sister as earnest he will now take care of these Durberfields.

They did keep the atheist talk of Clare now and again (doubts at any rate) and also Alec, but it was not thematized in any thing in the film so that level of meaning was lost.

Both films make for intelligent absorbiing readings and experiences.  I don’t know quite how they fit into 19th century films any more than I’ve suggested before. I would need to watch more of these films.

How late these films are sometime put on PBS; I know they are broadcast in truncated form.  Some conversatiosn and reading I’ve done attributes the US lack of quality tilms on TV to something beyond the unqualified capitalist setup of the TV stations and lack of a tradition of genuine informing of people through documentaries:  the reality is very many fewer Americans are interested in watching such mini-series of serious high quality books. They just don’t.  Whether this is a facet of the intense anti-intellectualism of US life as outlined so long agao by Hoffstadter I don’t know.

Tess: how she began life, full of hope

Walking away from her dead baby’s grave — which the community would not (she was told) give a decent burial to.

I concentrate on figures for in this and the 1999 Jude just below — unlike Polanski, the emphasis is the close-up, the dramatic moment within a sequence of shots; for Polanksi it remains the long shot, the framed picture, a mark of its arthouse nexus.

1997 Jude

The hopeful believing Jude (Christopher Eccleston) studying Latin

They too end with dead babies (portrait shot of Kate Winslet as Sue Brideshead at film’s end)

I was reminded of Stonehenge when I watched the 2008 Tess; last night I saw a yet more powerful film adaptation of a Hardy novel, Jude, the 1996 film by Michael Winterbottom and Hossein Amini, starring Kate Winslet (Sue), Christopher Eccleston (Jude), Liam Cunningham (Phillotson), Rachel Griffiths (Arabella) and June Whitfield (Jude’s aunt).

It’s another in the nitty gritty mode — begun in the later 1990s.  The film makers keep a great deal of the original hingepoints: how Jude wants to learn Latin and better himself, goes to Christminster, studies hard and is excluded even from the test. Had he taken it, we know no one would have hired him anyway because of his origins and class appearance, manners, lack of any connections.  This is newly relevant material today (it seems there was a brief middle period in teh 20th century where exclusionary practices were modified in many areas of school and life; mostly gone or going now). They keep the appalling sequence where Arabella kills that poor pig and we watch it slowly die.  Her flight to Australia and return and remarriage (bigamous).  At the same time as much is cored away so the center is the relationship and characters of Sue and Jude.  We miss the relationship with Phillotson so that all we get is his being shoved aside and misery and not how he treated her. 

Diane Sadoff’s half a page on this movie is comically inadequate. She goes on about how the sex is open and not romanticized or hidden as if that were what’s important.  It’s just part of the whole mise-en-scene far more raw than the 2008 Tess (by the way).  It seems to me a mise-en-scene for a rural Victorian novel is often Edwardian kind of costumes even if in mid-century — you see this early on in Love for Lydia.

Since I assume many may have seen the film (it was much admired at the time), I’ll zero in on three elements for now.  (I wish I had the time to reread the book but I will at least resee the film and read more about the book.)  Sue is presented far more sympathetically than Hardy does:  I’ve been put off by the book by the way he seems to blame her for frigidity without looking into why she reacts to sexual advances the way she does.  Kate Winslet is just brilliant in conveying a complex woman’s presence. Arabella too is added to so she is not just this siren tramp who captured (ensnared?) Jude; later we see her care about her son.  Like Hardy, though her pragamticism is meant to contrast with Sue’s intransigent non-conformity as one of the causes of the final plunge into despair.

The film (like Hardy) skirts over the older boy, Jude’s son suicide and murder of his half-brother and sister.  It’s such taboo material to show a 12 year old doing this, to go beyond and try to suggest some of his less sympathetic motives (getting back as well as hysteria) is probably too much to ask, but the movie does (unlike Hardy) make it plain that Sue is not to blame but reacting like all to the exclusion, ostacizing, abysms of poverty she and Jude end up in.  The film does not show us Jude’s death, only the scene where she refuses to go back and he is left screaming by the children’s graves in the snow.  I felt this was too abrupt.

As with the 2008 Tess, this film does justice to the anti-religion themes of Hardy’s book. When Kate has her final self-hatred conversion experience and goes back to Philotson she does this through religious rationale and Jude protests long and hard.  They are in fact married more than anyone he has known ever he says.

The two against the world is felt so strongly and their early joy so beautifully done.  The film thus marginalizes the social community who seem to be to the side most of the time, simply completely without understanding and only occasionally does a kind person help out — this is I think unlike many Victorian films.

Again at the start:

And mid-point:

Rewatching and studying bits, I’ve become convinced it’s one of the best Victorian adaptations I’ve seen this round — different from Andrew Davies and Sandy Welch’s best ones, and in the way it’s different getting at deep problems in human existence today as well as presenting the Victorian era seriously from the standpoint of exposing social and familial pathologies.

It’s the rawness of the film, the complete refusal to pretty up most of the time, the genuineness of the feeling between the central couple in all its array that is gotten at as well as complexity of character. It’s not true a movie is ncessarily simpler than a book. This film is another that shows that (Bergman is the standard here for me.)

Sue is finally or fundamentally seen as a social problem, and her problems as social troubles rather than delving deeply within her and Jude and others to discover how they perceive and enact their sexuality as would have been done in the great 18th century novels like say Clarissa or Diderot’s La Religieuse or LaClos or a host of such like writers. Sp next up:  how films based on 18th century texts differ.

For Part 2, click here.


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Dear readers and friends,

I’m now thinking that the 2008 S&S is the product of an intersection (blending) of the art or presence of Andrew Davies and Anne Pivcevic as the 1995 S&S is a blending of the art of Ang Lee and Emma Thompson.  In a previous blog I listed those films by Davies and those by Pivcevic I’ve seen and which they did together.  As one must not forget James Schamus too in the 95 S&S, so John Alexander, Scots director is a presence in the 08 S&S.

Anne Pivcevic and Andrew Davies talking during interview on DVD of S&S (they also talk but separately in interviews on DVD of Dr Zhivago)

A few notes:  what distinguishes 2008 S&S:  Davies and Pivcevic get so much in each segment (ditto perhaps Dr Zhivago and Little Dorrit).  Uses of montage (from John Alexander?), sense of naturalness and reality nuanced in continually.  The dreaming-grief over objects sequences, Elinor in iibrary (in Miss Austen Regrets too?).  Close-ups as opening of scenes central to transitions; and close-ups within scenes too.  Some quiet focus on objects (the pictures Elinor draws and replaces) which are interwoven with narrartive.  Framing (in MAR too?)  Set in history, custom (like Davies’s Middlemarch, and Pivcevic as script editor in Tenant of Wildfell Hall), this time while 95 S&S a fairy tale.  This is the only one which allows Marianne to come near full sexual congress, only one to bring Eliza Williams before us.

Another element is brought out by the commentary:  this film has scenes intended to give us "window into sort of their life at home," the "stuff which you don’t always get in this type of perid drama, the stuff that happens after hours or before the main scenes, a sort of stolen moment from the night."  This is part of what makes for the sense of life and reality one feels in Davies’ films (even NA and certainly his Room with a View even though they are so short) and I saw in Miss Austen Regrets. Done though montage in the 95 P&P.

To match other chapters, the longer part on Brandon, and the shorter on the poetry of the montages.  Three montages:  tjhe two in Part 1:  Elinor and Edward interspersed with Marianne playing piano, Margaret dolls; Marianne and Brandon interspersed with Middleton and guns and sheet music, and windows.  Third montage is the close of the film Elinor after she is told Edward married:  drawing, buying fish, sitting interspersed with mother, goes slow. 

Objects fixed on as in 71, melodrama as in 81; they take from previous JA films.  I just love Davie’s substitute dialogues for what is in the original novel (as in the one the night i S&S where Edward comes to stay) the way I do the substitutes in NA (vampiric General say Davies’s Henry Tilney) and find those in TWWLN a propos (Paul to Roger on who is Roger to talk when Paul sees how Roger hungers after young women).

To look at at film made in 21st century first decade: abjection.  Did I discuss abjection yet? If not, it’s here in the frail hands and scooping Marianne up after wild run in the rain.

2008 also influenced strongly by 95 Persuasion (see comment by Penny Gay in referenced blog), for example, scenes imitated: 

95 Persuasion, they are discussing how to retrench while in the grand rooms of Kellynch; natural light and wide angles

08 S&S, letter arrives from Fanny Dashwood to say they are coming; "it’s their home now" says Elinor

That time I went to the Princeton Conference with Jim (on copyright) where I heard film-makers discuss how producers continually interact with directors and people share tasks, influence, so is this Pivcevic?: so too there’s an obsessiveness in Miss Austen Regrets, extraordinary prettiness of landscape as in 08 S&S. Must see one of Gwyneth Hughes’s films (said to be drenched in melancholy, I sent for Five Days from Netflix)

Commentary by Alexander, Pivcevic throughout, with Steevens and Morahan for Part 1, Cooper and Wakefield for Parrt 2:   we can see the film moving so slowly and I can see so many more of the stills, so many more moments I hadn’t noticed.  How worth while it is listening to the commentaries over-voice while the film runs much more slowly. I’m doing this for the 2008 S&S and if there is a commentary will do it for the 2008 Miss Austen Regrets.  I see how much I miss by the rapid pace, and how nuanced the performances.  The speakers reveal a lot of how they see a film as they work.

The commentaries on the 21st century film brings home too how filming today is so much richer or more complicated in every way so that we can understand why the earlier films seem dull in comparison. Each shot just does not have as much in any way; cannot hope to get near reality for in some sense they are filming realities.  Description of filming on the landscape of Devon, one day for one side of the hill, and one day for the other. Putting together of shots from different weeks and moments and places.  They couldn’t do that before or didn’t. 

They also film dances differently: the beautifully choreographed dance is shot so we see the designs in older films; in these new ones it’s chopped up so we are in the midst of it as an experience.  Pivcevic says:  "it’s just faces, isn’t it" [showing the centrality of this motif].

I’ve also discovered that Anne Pivcevic was a moving force behind the six part Costume Drama documentary screened on BBC last year or the one before. It’s a bit too pop, but she meant to convey the history and important aspects of costume drama as well as to rise its status.

On Miss Austen Regrets: of importance: 

Olivia Williams as Jane Austen writing

I returned to David Nokes, this time as a biographer of Jane Austen at the same time as I’ve been watching Gwyneth Hughes, Anne Pivcevic and Jeremy Lovering’s Miss Austen Regrets.  My question about the relationship of Nokes’s book to this film was a serious one, which I have now answered myself:  yes.  Hughes has been strongly influenced by the close reading and (in some cases) probable interpretations of what we find in Austen’s letters.  I am persuaded by some of it.

This leads me to look at the criticism of this movie, and while I agree with the general tendency to object to the presentation of Jane Austen as obsessively concerned with love and marriage and sex in her life, I suggest the way the real source of the movie has been overlooked is part of the strong tendency not to take movies seriously.  No one has bothered to look at Nokes, to ask where this particular set of readings of the letters came from. Nokes’s book incurred the displeasure of the conservative readers of Austen, the Deirdre LeFaye school I’ll call it; but it has been reprinted in paperback, sold widely (it’s very readable and interesting in just the way of his biography of Johnson), even exists in a audiotape unabridged version.  One of the two I own — the other is a reading of the complete text of Claire Tomalin’s book.

The strong urge to dismiss and deride movies — an easy target, not prestigious as yet, with a long tradition of being regarded as trash or "simply entertainment," a stance encouraged by the industry to widen audiences — also leads to ignoring something I find in the movie:  it’s not reading against the grain to see the movie as also questioning this obsession with love and marriage.  Olivia Williams plays Austen as not such a nice person, someone who can and does needle people, who rightly resents her lack of power and the way she is bombarded by blame for not having married.  I think Andrew Higson’s recent book on the ambivalence of costume dramas and how they play off different attitudes towards what is presented (dialogics) is central to understanding what this movie is doing.  Watching too two other movies by Anne Pivcevic and Gwyneth Hughes I see a repeat of this questioning of the demand women marry and relationships that ensue in film adaptations of modern texts. Pivcevic’s corpus is especially interesting here, because she is a main producer of the deeply melancholy 2008 S&S.

Going slowly over it, capturing stills, taking notes, transcribing the screenplay into stenography (Pittman), it is very curious. For my interests, the cinematography and moods are close to the 2008 S&S (same producer, script editor), also attitudes towards women which I think now we were wrong to present as simply pro-marriage and punitive, but it does take some odd stances.  Why this emphasis on Fanny?  When Jane dies, the last scene is Fanny looking out over her grave, having herself married strongly anti-romantically.  Jane Austen in this movie continually presents herself as having decided not to marry and preferring not to despite all around her nagging otherwise. Madame Bigeon is given a speech late in the movie which validates this against everyone else.  It’s very odd siblings chosen for emphasis: why do we have nothing of James. The two sailor brothers are away, but why not James?  Anna is there as the married cousin and when at the close of the film she gives birth Jane utters this:  "Poor Animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty.—I am very sorry for her."  A revealing choice from all the quotations Hughes could have chosen (Anna has not a chance of escape; her husband called here the other day, & said she was pretty well but not equal to "so long a walk; she must come in her "Donkey Carriage."–Poor Animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty.—I am very sorry for her.–Mrs Clement too is in that way again. I am quite tired of so many Children.–Mrs Benn has a 13th… (Jane Austen’s Letters, ed. Le Faye 336, Letter dated Sunday 23- Tuesday 25 March 1817)

I’m persuaded that this movie has been misread because not close read enough by studying filmic features: still, juxtapositions, facial expressions and precisely words attributed to Austen (which she said). For examle, look at this still from: early in the film when Jane, Cassandra and mother attend Anna’s marriage.  Thus that enigmatic and somewhat grim look on Olivia Williams’s face as she watches her niece marry is the central motif of the wedding ceremony in this movie.

Phyllida Law, Gretta Scacchi and Olivia Williams as Mrs [Cassandra], Miss [Cassandra] Austen and Miss Jane Austen

And after that her (it seems) unkind but also vexed teasing of the Reverend Papillon who in her letters people wanted to marry the real Austen off to and her comic rejoinder, of course, what less could she do for such good wishes?

This is not a usual presentation or framing of weddings for the Austen movies or even women’s films.  Again, the movie is far more ambivalent about marriage than has been realized; what’s needed is close reading of the visuals and dialogues.

At the same time the American DVD package includes a reading of selections from JEAL’s memoir together with connective statements and pieces from Austen’s letters, which is called Remembering Austen, a radio play; the text I could see also mentions James as JEAL’s father.  Joanna David does the voice of Austen — so beautifully.

All this packaged with that S&S and the interview which sees the novel autobiographically. A quiet project is brought before us I think; that is to say, the story which reflects the forced moves of the Austen women, their final entry into Chawton Cottage, their lack of power by not having men, is reinforced or paralleled in Miss Austen Regrets, and what’s left out underlined by the "radio play" feature of the DVD.

Here she is ever so uncomfortable as she listens to her brother, Henry, Mr Haden and Madame Bigeon talking about her in the shrubbery


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Dear friends and readers,

Two nights ago now I saw an extraordinary film, Andrew Davies and Tristram Powell’s Falling.  My first experience of what I can get from Netflix has certainly made me an instant strong advocate (and how easy that site is to use, even I can make my way).

And what did I chose first? an unnerving realistic slice-of-life story from from that chameleon master screenplay film-maker, Andrew Davies with a familiar crew; Penelope Wilton, Michael Kitchener, Sylvestre Le Touzel, Joanna David.  His major source was a modern novel by a woman, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s unnerving Falling

It’s better than most films I’ve seen in theaters for a long time.  It connects to women’s novels and memoirs since the time of Austen and today still meditating the role of marriage, sex, career, children in particular women’s lives.  In this story we focus on Daisy Langrish (Penelope Wilton), successful romance writer, financially and apparently emotionally independent: Daisy Langrish played by Penelope Wilton.  What happens is she is slowly brought to allow Henry Kent (Michael Kitchen) at first to help her as a gardener and handyman, then a nursing aid, then boarder, and at last lover-friend and companion who succeeds in changing her life to serve him, be with him, putting her writing aside.  He is a man who has no income and no job but we see can get himself nonetheless accepted (he lives in a leaky broken down boat when we first see him, hardly habitable for a dog), but to her (and others) seems enormously presentable.

At the height of their romance.

The brilliance of the chilling and unnerving experience of this film comes from his plausibility, the stories he tells of his past which make him into the victimized, his apparently harmlessness, civility, kindness, and humility, and most of all that he is our basic narrator and it takes us a while to realize what’s happening — though we are given a fearful sign early on when the two are driving and Daisy by mistake hits a dog.  She stops her car in distress and wants to go over to the animal.  She has hurt her leg in an accident (genuine) so he goes over to the hurt animal and we see (she doesn’t) that he fiercely quickly breaks its neck.  This unhesitating ferocity and the lie he tells her (that she killed it with the car, but assuring her it wasn’t her fault) alerts us something is not just wrong but scary here.

Her close friend and literary agent, Anna Blackstone (Sylvestre Le Touzel) instinctively feels there is something suspicious in Mr Kent’s encroaching ways, and their gay male friend, Antony (Michael Sinclair) is put off by and puts Henry off.   Henry manages to make Daisy dismiss them as class snobs or unfair and unjust.  But it’s not the class angle that he plays upon so much as her loneliness.  He can prey upon her because she has had two failed marriages (the last ended with the husband’s flagrant promiscuity), apparently no children, is alone. 

We slowly learn through a series of flashbacks which counter the stories he tells Daisy of his past.  In them he is the beaten, the ostracized, the exiled, the endlessly patient man, all the while sudden gleaming flashbacks presumably from his mind show us how he manages to lure the daughter of an upper class family where his father was gardener to run away with him, a second girl to marry him — who we gather through quick flashbacks he ends up beating, turning into an abject thing and probably killing (by throwing her out the window and claiming it as an accident or suicide), and finally a middle-class woman who he tries to kill with a car.  She is badly crippled for the reset of her life, refusing to divorce him on his terms which include the demand she sell her house and give him half the money which would beggar her.  We see he is an effective physical lover of these women — as he is of Daisy.

So it’s more than Daisy’s age, loneliness, disappointment, vulnerability from these things.  I don’t want to give away the precise ending as the visits Daisy is led to make of two of Henry’s victim-women and the mother of one (Joanna David) need to unroll before you to get the full feel of what is to be learned:  suffice to say it’s because the thing does not end in totally bloody disaster that I was left shaking.  The viewer feels this is something that could and does happen.  at one point I got up and asked myself if I wanted to carry on with this. I was in a state of quiet anxiety and terribly worried. Would I be able to take it if she (my heroine) went down to utter disaster. I felt the movie was of the realistic type which would not deliberately terrify and leave the viewer scared, with no compensations in view (this is how I see Flannery O’Connor, as a mean writer, getting a kick out of making her reader more frightened than ever, playing on fears and knowledge of evil people).

So I came back and finished the movie.   What I can say is it has this moralizing talk ending — which is not uncommon for movies today.  Julie Delpy’s Two Days in Paris (Woody Allen style) is just a long version of it; yesterday Izzy and I saw a movie, City Lights, which had a providential closing utterance (!)   At the close Daisy is driving away from a train station, and suddenly turns to suggest in a meditative voice-ovice that after all what is love? and what she had known with Henry until he suddenly turned savage and violent when she would not marry him, nor even countenance an engagement was an experience of love like what she had had before, only at times sweeter. At its open, we see him on the train and he is telling us he loved this woman and still loves her, needs her. This is troubling: in Davies’s Sleep with Me there is an analogously justfication of the ruthless cruelty of someone mentally ill.

Kitchener’s performance is inimitable: what the man is is a sexual predator; I’ve read there are such men who prey on women and live by becoming their lovers and move from woman to woman.  What is different here is he is a psycho or sociopath, filled with hatred for all those around him who own things and have class status where he was genuinely the son of a poor gardener who hated books and beat him mercilessly.

Among the elements I most liked was the way Daisy coped with the truth once she learned she had been duped.  She calls the police to be at the ready, and then she tells the guy to get his things, she’s driving him to the train. I was a little nervous about that drive lest he suddenly become violent. But this was not in character. The man would not have survived quite had he not kept to the edge of decency each time so that he has broken no law. Indeed the law is on his side over his ongoing attempt to fleece his now crippled wife, and the young girl whose spirit he broke is herself psychologically shattered with the mother unable to help her as what she did once (stole a baby) landed her in prison.  All the mother can do is protect the girl with their (lucky there) estate.  Daisy does not learn her lesson in the sense of blaming her berating herself; she falls prey to this man but escapes just in time and moves on. Not her fault, understandable. He is the problem so-to-speak and the society that made and tolerates him.

I have read that Andrew Davies likes to have evil characters at the center of his films, but since I’ve only watched two adaptations of modern novels (The Line of Beauty and Tipping the Velvet) and one of his original mini-series, A Very Peculiar Practice, comical and humane, a critique of the university educational mores and system, with Peter Davison as our central good bumbling hero, this is the first time I’ve experienced this in his film.  I have now put into my queue from Netflix his To Serve Them all My Days, said to be similar to A Very Peculiar Practice, and just as good; but I’ve also put down House of Cards, which features Ian Richardson as a powerful amoral Prime Minister.  The evil here though is of a type I’ve not seen at all in Davies’s other films, most of which present sexual experience as strongly postive, not coming near to anything maiming, harmful, shattering.

So this I attribute to Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novel, and since watching intently, alertly absorbed, I bought an inexpensive copy from Amazon marketplace so I can compare book to film, and understand the film better.

In the meantime it’s not easy to find serious analytical commentary about her work.  Howard is not respected the way say Isabel Colegate is and doesn’t turn up in academic essays.  She is regarded as "middlebrow," even if the word isn’t used, a kiss of half-derision and dismissal.  Her books are described with praise, and one series was also made into a mini-series of films.  As far as I can see with all her upper class privileges and opportunities and varied rich life, it’s been hard too, with broken marriages, one child. It’s said her later books profited from her experience with Kingsley Amis. This film takes from an eerie feeling often promoted in ghost stories.

For me the book and film matter right now as more of Davies’s work and as modern heroine’s texts. So I’ll conclude with observing the camera work was far quieter than most adaptations Davies has been involved in of late.  Northern England was shown to have rural loveliness and quiet — sombre auburns and yellows and browns; we saw more of the highways than usual; the desolation here and there of the countryside was not made melodramatic. The most melodramatic scene was that of Henry Kent’s boat by the river: the river is a bit fearful at night, it pours rain, and when he wants to live as permanently as he can with Daisy he takes an axe to it and we watch it go under slowly. The angles and shots of the people were not super-close ups; love-making was discreet, tasteful.  Sound: we were made to feel the sound of the train strongly: it opened and closed on one — the train is a central element in modernity, anonymous meetings — at the close Henry is again trying to pick up a woman, this time on the train — the hollow roar and countryside outside the windows are done with persuasive naturalness.


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Dear all,

I’ve returned to my movie project and over the last week or so have been rewatching the 5 Sense and Sensibility that are my terrain for one of my chapters of a book on Austen films — or a narrower subset of Austen films.

I’m aware my 69 page typescript might seem obsessively going over the same ground, and have been thinking I need a thesis — yes, a thesis, or some perspective beyond what I have.

The admiral suggested one:  have as the central motivation of the book a movie which gave birth to others from the same source or author, and made us ever after see the book differently:  this is true of the 1995 Miramax S&S by Ang Lee and Emma Thompson. It is probably true of the 1995 A&E/WBGH P&P by Andrew Davies, Simon Langton and Sue Birtwisle and Conklin. Jim seemed taken by the idea of moving into a study of a film-maker like Davies. I”m not sure; it would mean tearing what I have apart, and I’m not sure if all his Austen films have this effect.  He works with consistently superb producers (often women, like Anne Pivcevic) and his directors count too.

List of films where Davies wrote the screenplay:

Signalman 1976
To Serve Them All My Days, 1980
A Very Peculiar Practice 1986
Middlemarch 1994
Pride and Prejudice 1995
Moll Flanders 1996
Emma 1996
Vanity Fair 1998
Wives and Daughters 1999
Bridget Jones’s Diary 2001
The Way We Live Now 2001
Tipping the Velvet 2002
D Zhivago 2002
Daniel Deronda 2002
He Knew He Was Right 2004
Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason 2004
Bleak House 2005
Falling 2005
The Line of Beauty 2006
Northanger Abbey 2007
A room with a View 2007
Fanny Hill 2007
Sense and Sensibility 2008
Little Dorrit 2008

Anne Pivcevic list:

Script editor for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, 3 episodes:  1996
Script editor for one (of four?) parts of Tom Jones 1997

Produced (all but one with Davies)

Othello 2001
Dr Zhivago 2002
Sense and Sensibility 2008
Little Dorrit 2008
Miss Austen Regrets 2008

Against this one finds from the very beginning irrespective of the book and the "great movie" a motif which turns up in a movie and is not in the book and simply repeated over and over — this would seem to stem from the idea that these forms are based on archetypal folklore or fairy tale archetypes.  So in each of the S&S movies, Brandon is at the crisis of the ball Except the 1995 movie where however he is made such a central figure that he ends the movie.



1995 – phase 1

1995 – phase 2


I was trying for an arch on themes as well as specific movies. Rather like his idea that we misunderstand great literature when we seek to fetishicize great authors; rather we should look to see what is a great text irrespective of all around it. Hard to do especially given the propensity of most people to care more about other people and authors than their texts.  I still have this idea of Chapter 1 (or the last) arguing for Austen movies as a subspecies and maybe I can achieve that by finding some movie theme which unites them. Then I could use a few other films from each book and that could lead to a rewriting of my 69 pages in way that might be of interest to other readers and movie-goers.

I’ve been playing with ideas about the Palliser films too, and Trollope, especially the notion that films made from Victorian texts are also a distinct subspecies from films made from 18th century texts: the former (Victorian) about the pathologies of family and social life; the latter (18th century) about sexuality and some radical breaking away of cant notions of life’s ultimate meanings — which I see across the few 18th century films of greatness I watched for my Rape of Clarissa paper and have now been looking at while listening to Tom Jones read by David Case and reading Isak Dinesen’s Ayn Rand fantasies.


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Dear friends and readers,

This posting probably belongs more on Jim and Ellen have a blog, two, where I’ve been writing about the operas transmitted by HD to our local movie theater live from the Met.  But I have no photos or stills from the opera beyond conventional promotional stills — and on that blog I try for significant pictures.  It is also a woman-centered, tragedy-she-queen story (in 18th century terms), swirling around a sorceress so it may fit in amid blogs on women artists (with Austen and Dickinson my muses) and female mythic types. I have written here about Britten’s sympathetic take on the governess in James’s Turn of the Screw and Britten’s (astonishingly) feminist Rape of Lucretia.

So, on Saturday afternoon, the admiral, I, and Izzy went to see Rossini’s Armida live at the Met through the magic of HD transmission into movie houses around the US (and globe too). I enjoyed it very much, especially the second and third acts. While it’s not the greatest opera ever written and not all that moving when it’s supposed to be, it is so well-done that it’s almost great, reaches nearly magnificence at key points of the soprano (Renee Fleming) as a powerful sorceress, has stunning ballets, and much of interest to anyone interested in the 18th century especially.

Renee as sorceress amid snake men

This might seem paradoxical. After all Rossini? 1816. But the opera did seem the last gasp of 18th century motifs, of a Handelian opera. First of all the source story: Armida from Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, a very popular story throughout the Renaissance and into the later 18th century. Armida as an opera was done over and over again in the 1770s. It appears to have died a sudden death in 1816 and was not re-staged until our own time.

As performed in the Met version, the paradigm is a classical one: Rinaldo in type is a kind of Aeneas who has to abjure love and sex with his beloved Dido; and the closing scene of the opera at moments reminded me of the situation at the close of Purcell’s and the poignant aria, "Remember me". The difference is striking too: Rinaldo is not stiff, and does not just walk off like some prig (as Aeneas does in Purcell’s opera — granted it’s a thankless role "the hero" does this and that), but succumbs, falls to pieces, looks distressed and wants to stay with his beloved; feels hurt and distressed, indeed is presented as having impulses which are "unmanly" (maybe why this paradigm died once this was seen). 

Armida (Renee Fleming) and Rinaldo (Laurence Brownlow): he cannot act and she can, but then again it’s mythic

He is also the person between Vice and Virtue, with Armida playing Vice and two soldiers who come to urge Rinaldo out of the bower playing Virtue. The production also used the allegorical figures of the text so we had a ballerina who danced and stood for erotic enthrallment within Armida and a fierce male dancer who stood for Hatred and Revenge within Rinaldo and also Armida. (In the first act one of the Frankish soldiers is jealous of Rinaldo and Hatred appears; then there is a duel and Hatred stands for Rinaldo’s inner self.)

Armida is presented very sympathetically too — like Gluck’s Armida (about which see in the comments). The arias Fleming sang were just gorgeous, beautiful, lilting, and playful, and her duets with Laurence Brownlee (tenor, and he’s now lost weight so he can look the part better) were entrancing. She really loves the hero and uses her magic to hold onto to him.  This is Renee Fleming’s project and she matters, Ellen (Renee Fleming fan, I own CDS of her singing Strauss’s last songs and other Strauss too and next year she’ll be in Strauss’s Capriccio)

The production was simple and let the story speak for itself. Some of the psychology in the words (surtitles are important here) revealed a way of articualting the conflicts very like Restoration dramas. Duty and Honor versus love. In a way this did at moments make for tedium, especially at the opening of the opera which was also confusing. The librettist omitted a segment from Tasso which shoudl have been part of Act 1. Armida wants Frankish soldiers to help her fight Muslims; in the poem she is a Muslim princess and when she gets them, she captures them. In the opera, she wants Frankish soldiers, but then when Rinaldo appears, she seems to forget all about this aim and just want to take Rinaldo away to her bower after Rinaldo kills his rival. This is done for concision but it’s a little confusing why we have this Act I about Frankish soldiers and the fuss and then it’s all dropped.

But once we get to the love affair and the coyness and paraade some of the ceremonial gestures which just don’t go over any more, the opera becomes alive. At the close of Act 1 Fleming as Armida is all powerful in a magnicent gesture in her wonderful white outfit; at the close of Act III (end of opera) she stops wailing (like Jacques Brel in his famous "ne me quitte pas") and turns into a sorceress vowing revenge, all in black. The final tableau is fierce.

Also very good were the ballets. We had male ballerinas in women’s dress up on toes, and they were very athletic. Lots of subtle depictions of sexually transgressive tastes in the ballets at the bower, plus you ee men overcome by women in the chorus. It’s a scary place for men, Armida’s bower. There were two long dances, with the outfits of the men and women remarkably animal like. The Met this season has tried hard to appeal to modern tastess using Broadway and other pop theatre primitivism. One deep voiced man (Bass?) had to dance as well as sing and he was interviewed on the difficulty of this.

I like the interviews each time because in the midst of all the coos and laddled on flattery, you learn something about the attitudes of the singers and other people on the stage. I enjoy specially the cameras behind the curtain, on the stage, showing the scenery changing and the people movning.  We got to see close up (due to the fantastic equipment controolled from some caravan in a back street) all the sculptured insects, birds, and animals made for the bower. One mechanical insect walked along and the audience did see that for
they tittered.

It was playful and self-conscious too.  A not-so-small pleasure is observing the distance between this opera and say Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered.  This is an adaptation — or maybe we should call it an appropriation. The changes between the source text and this build-up of fragments from it are fascinating. I mentioned that Rinaldo and Armida are a kind of Dido and Aeneas; she is also a tragedy-she-queen, and all very different from the presentation of the enchantress-type in her bower that you find in the early modern period (Shakespeare’s Titania, in Spenser’s poem). And then to see how it’s done for an audience in 2010 is another angle or facet — the ballet for example, the mechanical stuff for birds and insects and flowers in the bower and so on.

I recommend going to see it; it’s not going away, money was spent  and it has garnered good reviews, so it will be around for some time.  For women viewers the interest is in its woman-centered version of Tasso’s huge epic, the presentation of this sorceress as a Dido figure or she-tragedy queen (18th century style), and the transgressively sexual ballets.


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