Dear friends and readers,
I know I’ve written far too often about epistolarity in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: first showing that the original or UR-P&P (First Impressions) was probably epistolary, then outlining in a blog how some transitional chapters show the remains of Jane and Mrs Gardiner and Elizabeth’s correspondences, and finally, counting letters or sets of letters as found in the present P&P, all the while pointing to the curious pattern of important Tuesdays I’ve found in five of the six famous novels (the novel without this pattern is Northanger Abbey). I did the same for S&S and Mansfield Park: calendars and blogs.
Before I can try to publish my findings in an academic peer-edited journal I have to re-do my calendars for Emma, NA, and Persuasion and at least go over The Watsons and Lady Susan. I’m returning briefly to the topic tonight because on Thursday Isobel and I are driving off to the Jane Austen Summer Program at the University of North Carolina, and unless we get lost on the way there, I should be part of a panel on film adaptations while there on Saturday morning: Plenary Roundtable Panel on Jane Austen and Film Adaptation with Inger Brodey, Suzanne Pucci, and Ted Scheinman. Since the topic of the conference is Pride and Prejudice (as it’s supposed the 200th anniversary of its publication this year’s JASNA is also on P&P), I understand the film adaptations we’ll be discussing are those of P&P. I have wondered if that means all 10!. I doubt it (see list). The only one scheduled to be screened is Joe Wright’s 2005 Lawrentian piece.
Well to get into the spirit of the coming time, and — because I’ve thought I might submit a proposal for the Montreal JASNA about Mansfield Park on filmic epistolarity in the 1983 and 1999 heritage films, because I’ve just begun my pre-study for my Andrew Davies’s Televisual Trollope, and because I now think P&P was originally epistolary –, I reread the novel once again and watched Andrew Davies’ 1995 extravaganza looking at the film’s use of letters.
What fun the film is — how gay, how filled with a joie de vivre, vivid, emphasizing the aspects of the novel that have filled the hearts of those who love the book with delight: above all the dancing, the witty conversations, the strong eroticism. In the later parts (3-6) I love the use of resonant music (the horns especially) and figures seen in a landscape to suggest time passing. Davies chooses to emphasize female companionship, friendship and loss (as Charlotte and Elizabeth of one another) throughout his film:
Since I’ve been studying Julian Fellowes’s Downton Abbey, I recognize in both a visceral aggressiveness in the depiction of emotionalism. All out of a book hard in its frame of reference (money) and basic conditions for the foolish and disillusioned characters and their frequently desperate relationships. I find I can still read it in a lesson-teaching spirit even now — I read it for the first time at age 12. These are the film’s Elizabeth lessons: have some decent pride in yourself; if you try to come up to false values, you only expose yourself. Do the thing you own way and ignore the bullying of others.
Tonight though I’d like to stress one artful source of the film’s greatness is its filmic epistolarity. The paraphernalia this one comes with includes Sue Birtistle and Susie Conklin’s The Making of Pride and Prejudice, which shows how aware of this were the film-makers. Their book has a longish section on how the film presented Darcy’s letter, stressing the two voice-overs (the two women and Davies apologizing and defending this, revealingly) and justifying the reverse order (to placate the literal minded who remember that Darcy first discusses Jane and then Wickham; the film reverses this order). There was a fashion for several decades to avoid as intellectual and effeminate voice-over (Joe Wright still thinks so), likely to put off a mass audience, so a no no. These ideas are increasingly dismissed, and voice-over and flashbacks used a lot.
But Darcy’s letter and Elizabeth’s reading of it is not the only letter to be presented with a real sophistication and use of filmic techniques which recreate the epistolary situation of the novel and make the film an exciting and interesting experience. One example: when at Lambton Elizabeth receives Jane’s letters about Lydia’s elopement, we get not only voice-over by Jane (Susanna Harker), but a series of interwoven flashbacks which include Elizabeth’s memories, with voice-over by Wickham (Adrian Lukis), and voices from the flashbacks which are allowed to linger as we look at Elizabeth’s face close up:
We also have also Elizabeth’s memories of previous letters, so suddenly interwoven is also a voice-over from Colin Firth, a split second if I remember correctly of voice-over by Miss Bingley (Anna Chancellor) so as to allow a flashback that occurred in a letter. Then Elizabeth sometimes speaks aloud in a half soliloquy briefly and then we get Jane’s voice-over again (as Elizabeth falls to remembering Jane’s letter right in front of her. The whole experience of the film just then is complicated and if you look at the textual source, you will find but two paragraphs by Austen which contain excerpts from the imagined letter by Jane and not much dramatization at all.
He has tried to imitate the underlying epistolary nature of the book to bring out its inwardness while keeping the surface of his film intensely active with dream-dramas. The very chapter that struck me at any rate (Vol 2, Chapter 3) where we have the remnants of Elizabeth and Jane’s letters passing between London and Longbourne, and Elizabeth and Mrs Gardiner’s letters (a long excerpt) are turned into a letter Elizabeth reads at a wintry window (from which nearby we hear the conversation of Mrs Bennet and Lydia informing us of Wickham’s desertion to Miss King), accompanied by a voice-over from Jane and dream-dramatized scenes of Miss Bingley’s strained visit, with stills which include Mrs Gardiner’s strained face too once Miss Bingley is inside.
At Longbourne and again in London Joanna David as Mrs Gardiner is the watchful intelligent face, listening to her sisters-in-law, taking everything in at the Christmas party, including Elizabeth’s infatuation — I am persuaded one of the correspondences that made up the original First Impressions was between Mrs Gardiner and Elizabeth:
All this contrasts sharply with how Davies continually makes very short scenes from dramatic conversational moments — except the most famous ones of the proposals, and the trip to Pemberley and even that keeps dialogue to a minimum so it goes much swifter than the Fay Weldon’s comparable 1979 P&P version. Yet he repeatedly takes a paragraph or so from Austen which is in letter form and elaborates enormously.
As I was watching this film tonight (“reading” it) I recalled Samuel Richardson writing about his different use of different voices and subjectivities in his Clarissa (and Nokes made wonderful use of filmic epistolarity in the 1991 mini-series): his technique permits a wonderful variety of sounds (voice, presences) which constitute the harmony of a Handel. When Darcy’s voice is heard after Jane and Elizabeth alternating with the occasional present tense of a voice in the flashbacks, Davies’s film has achieved the a Handelian disharmony.
There is a strong intelligent use of epistolarity in Weldon’s 1979 film: voice-over is used, and strongly for the famous Darcy letter, but there is little flashback; it occurs in some short sequences; for example while Elizabeth (Elizabeth Garvie) “reads” aloud Mr Collins’s letter to Mr Bennet while Mr Bennet is from home, we hear the actor’s voice over, and the camera moves back and forth on the faces of Mrs Philips and Mrs Bennet as they listen irritatedly; we are seeing three way experience, with Mr Collins’s consciousness entering the minds of the listeners.
But such moments are far part, so there is no continuity of memory, reading, vivid dream-drama. Before Davies’s 1995 P&P, the only film to attempt filmic epistolarity this way was the 1983 Mansfield Park (much under-rated because the actor and actress who play the key roles of Fanny and Edmund were chosen for their ability to act not their beauty or stardom), and Ken Taylor who scripted it also kept the sequences strictly to the early time past of childhood in the movie and at Portsmouth where letters become so frequent as to make the book semi-epistolary.
There is so much to be said of female narrators in the Austen films too, an area of filmic art related to filmic epistolarity, a kind of looser version unless it’s used to make a narrator within the film (as in the 1960s original Alfie film with Michael Caine), which remark shows how far I am straying from just Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and its filmic manifestations. For many of them, especially the appropriation rather than heritage kind, epistolarity is dropped. It is useless to talk of the sentimentalized screwball 1940 film which is so far from the original in mood and message, or the Punjabi Indian B&P (song and dance festival) similarly very distant. Much as I love it, Lost in Austen uses voice-over for present time ruminations and flashbacks are used to time-travel.
The two Bridget Jones films include diary-keeping but the over-voice is used for continuity, while (suprisingly for those who don’t take into account how films meant to be widely popular eschew too much depth), You’ve Got Mail, with its conceit of emails, still uses the writing of emails as icing on the cake, piquant moments, not intrinsically and at length.
No the P&P film which picks up on this rich element in Austen’s books and turned it to filmic use is Andrew Davies’s P&P. My study now (for the Trollope film paper) of Andrew Davies’s filmic art is showing me the source of this artful focus is the vulnerable male, here Darcy, whose original manifestations are found in Davies’s novel, Getting Hurt, and his first film without a source, A Very Peculiar Practice (Stephen Dakar). It’s not a coincidence that the longest agon of letter writing is Darcy’s and it’s his handwriting we see:
And it’s not an oddity that we have an added scene of Wickham expressing genuine regret to Elizabeth before she goes to Bath at choosing Miss King: Davies puts it he feels for the villains too, it’s rather he identifies with the desperate male who makes mistakes (as Wickham will with Lydia).