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Archive for October 24th, 2017


From Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship aka Lady Susan (Chloe Sevigny as Lady Alicia, Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan)

Dear Friends and readers,

Friday was a long day. The morning was filled with yet more “pre-conference” activities,” and from these, Izzy and I went to a dance workshop. We both enjoy 18th century dancing, and for this day she wore an 18th century day dress, a lovely shawl and a hat I bought for her at the “Emporium.”


A photograph I took of her on our balcony

It was great fun, the dancing, but I was tired afterward and went back to the room, and so forgot that I had intended to go to a special “event,” a lecture on the churches Jane Austen attended. Probably this was the first disappointment of the conference and it was my own fault. A number of the other special events (like the dance workshop) one needed a ticket for, but not this. So I surmise the organizers didn’t think too many people would go. A friend told me it was many slides, pictures of the basic churches Austen attended in Hampshire, Kent, Bath, and London, and had a contemporary twist. What these churches do today. As I don’t know their names, I can supply no more than that.


Gillian Dow

Then the first event of the conference proper: Gillian Dow’s keynote speech called “The Immortal Jane Austen and Her Best-Loved Heroine, 1817-2017,” it was not about Elizabeth Bennet (as I expected), nor Isabelle de Montolieu, which the blurb led me to expect (a French writer was to be compared); she rather spoke at length about Germaine de Stael’s Corinne, or Italy and compared Stael’s heroine to Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet. Gillian began by offering the usual connections: while in London in 1815, Austen had a chance to go to a party where Stael was and declined (or so Henry implied), in her letters she tells Cassandra that she recommended a man at an assembly (who may have been deaf and thus not connected to what was happening) to read Corinne, presumably as a very good novel (December 27,1808); Stael read Austen and is said to have pronounced Austen’s books to be vulgar (commonplace, banal). Corinne was of course one of many contemporary novels by women Austen read and described. Then she quoted Virginia Woolf on how hard it is to catch Austen in the act of greatness.


The most felicitious translation into English available today: Sylvia Raphael’s Corinne, or Italy

Well, using the Victorian English translator of Corinne, Isabel Hill’s comments on Corinne, and conceding there was a lot more commentary in the 19th century by other women writers on Corinne than Austen’s books (George Eliot in Mill on the Floss, George Sand, Louisa May Alcott), and comparing scenes in Emma to Corinne as well as other novels to Corinne, Gillian critiqued Corinne to show that Corinne is unacceptably sentimental, Austen’s heroines are more interesting and believable characters than Stael’s heroine, so Austen has a staying power with contemporary readers and writers that Stael nowadays lacks. The larger context showed the “aftermath” or afterlife of Austen’s books. She recited an appalling poem to Austen by Kipling, talked of the publishing history of these and the illustrations that accompanied them (Corinne is part travelogue).

Gillian wanted to argue for the value of studying other women authors contemporary with Austen, as a way of understanding her context and achievement. It was a strong speech, but by emphasizing how superior Austen is, and Stael’s flaws she may have reinforced what she set out to discourage: the dismissal of other novels of Austen’s era — at any rate to the popular readership listening, not the academics so much who might read for historical reasons. The same holds true for some of the treatment by Ellen Moers who was the first in the 20th century feminist movement in literature to treat Corinne for its serious treatment of how women’s lives are shattered by society if they disobey the restrictive conventions. For my part despite its flaws, I love the book: its meditations on history, on culture, on travel and Italy, on Scotland are deeply stirring. And here we see where Stael has qualities and an experience on offer Austen doesn’t begin to think of.

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Chawton House

It was then time to go to the break-out sessions of which there were three that afternoon. Suffice to say that the paper I had wanted to go to for the first session (A), Jeffrey Nigro’s on illustrating Austen was cancelled; he had become ill and couldn’t attend, and didn’t have a good back-up. One of the problems at this conference for me was the target content was not Austen, but her aftermath, her reputation, what people did with her (as in writing sequels, making films), her fan groups. Peter Sabor’s talk on “the Digital Godmersham,” was on his work on a digital recreation of the library Austen used at Godmersham Park for Chawton House; he knows some of the books, and is researching to find more. Had I understood this was the content of his talk, I would have gone.

For the second session (B) I listened to Ruth Williamson give a crowded room a sensible history of what happened to Austen’s letters after she died. James Edward Austen-Leigh’s (JEAL) daughter, Mary wrote that a majority of Austen’s letters were destroyed by Casssandra; that Francis’s letters to Austen (three packets he saved all his life) were destroyed almost immediately after he died by an irate daughter (Fanny Sophia); JEAL used what was left for his biography of his aunt. Fanny Knight Austen’s son, Lord Brabourne published a semi-censored edition of Austen’s letters, with Chapman the first scholarly attempt to publish all we have edited impartially. She told of individual responses, and attitudes towards letters we find in Austen’s novels. In the discussion afterward she was a bit more interesting, saying for example, that readers read Austen’s letters as by a woman. Austen’s letters are crucially important for understanding her and her fiction, and I would have preferred a close reading approach towards the letters themselves.

There was one at that time (B) on using Pride and Prejudice as therapy (“I want my Mr Darcy”), had “Deciphering Mr Darcy” by Monica Alvarez on how other characters beyond Darcy were the center of attention for 19th century readers been on at that time I would have gone: another later talk (Saturday) by Sayre Greenfield and Linda Troost seems to have been on how Darcy was seen as a satiric figure before the 20th century; as described in the catalogue it looked like it was about which characters were most written about in the 19th century. Neither was (like Dow’s talk) engineered so as to try to give us insight into Austen’s text itself.

The last paper I heard, the early evening (C) session was Alice Villasenor’s “evidence from the archives.” She had diligently read contemporary local chronicles, especially about local elections (as these were reported on), but she had wanted to prove connections between specific big-wig individuals and Jane Austen, and there is no evidence, so it (seemed to me) was a matter of unsubstantiated nuances. She wanted to ferret out attitudes towards slavery of those few who got to vote and came up with the idea only “a small minority” (of a small minority of people) “wanted to keep the slave trade,” yet again the evidence was slim (in an election only 16 people voted against abolition of the slave trade). Again I might have done better to listen to Jane Darcy talking of “periods of anxiety and cheerlessness” in Jane Austen. I spoke with someone who had gone to that, and she said Ms Darcy talked about the underlying conditions of Austen’s characters, threat of genteel poverty, Emma’s father so frail and dying (perhaps). I think Austen’s texts are far more melancholy than many readers seem willing or able to understand.


Whit Stillman

Later evening there was a great treat: in one of the large rooms JASNA screened Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship, a film adaptation of Lady Susan. (Despite his using a title of one of Austen’s juvenilia, this film had nothing to do with that.) I’ve written about the film in a blog so will not write about the film here. I had noticed (too late) that there were two talks in the conference on this film. One for the B session, by two people, Pauline Beard and Jennifer Snoek-Brown, where they proposed to briefy “overview” the novel, show clips from the film and then thrown the discussion to the audience on the topic of “moving from letters to narrative.” I’m not sure that Stillman’s film is a narrative. Another by Margaret Case proposed to compare clips from Stillman’s film with clips from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to see what they “illustrate” about “the ‘mix’ of violence” and “romance” in Austen’s novels. she labeled her talk half-comically, “seriously” perhaps because some fans refuse to take this Zombie movie seriously, but it can be treated seriously as another example of the ratcheting up of violence everywhere in US films (“The Violent Turn”).


From Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Lily James as Elizabeth Bennet (2009, Sethe Graham-Smith)

Stillman’s talk was done as an interview by an Austen scholar, Peter Graham, who brought along carefully devised questions. Stillman mostly ignored these or turned them around to talk interestingly about his film and a novel he has written out of the film since, Love & Friendship (In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated). He did the same after Last Days of Disco: wrote a good novel taking off from the matter of his movie. Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards is a sophisticated commentary on young adult life in the middle and upper middle class in the US in cities (which he had been part of), as well as books like Austen’s in genre (melancholy-satiric comedies of manners, a favorite kind with him). He was there partly to sell his second movie book. He told us about how he had been very depressed as a young man, and tried Northanger Abbey which he thought an essay on books in the form of a novel. Much later he went on to read Mansfield Park, and realized how Lionel Trilling had misread it. Stillman made Metropolitan to refute Trilling and turned Fanny Price into his heroine, Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina played the part). He so loved Kate Beckinsale in his Last Days of Disco, saw her as perfect as a heroine in a Cold Comfort Farm kind of book (by Stella Gibbons, and in his mind the same kind of satire as Northanger Abbey), so he wanted her for Austen’s satirically derived Lady Susan. He insisted Lady Susan is not an early book; if the manuscript comes from 1905 that’s a suggestion the book was written after 1805 not before.


From Stillman’s Metropolitan: Audrey Rouget aka Fanny and Edward Clements as Tom Townsend aka Edmund discussing Trilling on Mansfield Park (1990)

To him it’s a serious challenge to make a film from an Austen novel because these books are masterpieces; he didn’t feel confident that he could imitate an 18th century voice; turning to contemporary comic actresses and actors helps. He had wanted to write novels, but found this was not his metier, and turned to film as a substitute, trusting to a belief there were enough intelligent film-goers to react to his work as an attempt at realization. He then went into particulars of his film this time; he was trying to take the characters further, extrapolating out of what Austen had written. He likened Lady Susan to her as a (hidden, self-obscuring) social climber. He talked about how Austen never went as far as moral nihilism in her work, and instead as she grew older became more moral (his movie injects Christian themes into the text explicitly). He did not think Austen meant to repudiate her. He said how hard it was to make a period movie; you need and he had “very good people,” but he was limited by costs.

His talk on the whole had been about his own response to Austen, how she fitted into his life, and when I got back to the room I noticed there had been a talk that day (by Lisa Tyler) on “how Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Mansfield, Kate Boyle [an artist who painted], Virginia Woolf, Thornton Wilder and Ezra Pound perceived and acknowledged Austen’s influence.” All of these people were artists of the 1920s, pre- and just post-WW1. Austen is not usually thought of as important to this “Modernist” generation, though she was to Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster (who hated the Austen who emerges he felt from the letters). Those comments on Austen by these people I’ve read suggest they see the aesthetic value of her novelistic art (anticipating Mary Lascelles’s early book on Austen’s art), assume she was the spinster JEAL projected (and thus made her disliked by someone like DHLawrence). Wharton is more than an admirer; she imitates at a distance some of them. Austen is clearly important personally to Stillman, and that’s why he has made three genuine movies (Last Days of Disco has scenes imitative of Emma, and the two heroines are like Elinor and Marianne, a doppelganger).

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Isobel Bishop (1902-88), An Image of Austen or woman writer of the 18th century

I thought I’d end this second blog not with a poem but a brief commentary from Devoney Looser’s The Making of Jane Austen on post-Austen matters connected to the above talks: plays and films made after, about, in imitation of Austen. She was the keynote speaker the next day. In Looser’s chapter on early dramatizations of Austen (among others by Rosina Filippi), Looser argues they show the heroines in the novels as strong, assertive women, and argues they were popular because of this. They present Austen’s novels as centering on the interactions between women, she goes on to analyze several plays written in the 1930s derived from Pride and Prejudice.

What is interesting, Looser says, is how these scenes and playlets anticipate critical and popular outlooks on Austen since then. Among other things, what she shows is that a play by Mary Keith Medbery (Mrs Steele) Mackay began an emphasis on Darcy and changing of his character from the one we find in Austen which has taken over since then. MacKay’s Darcy is a kind of Heathcliffian or Bronte-like realization of Darcy. The best known of these is by Helen Jerome, partly because it was popular and then influential on the 1940 movie by Stromberg, featuring Laurence Olivier as Darcy, Greer Garson as Elizabeth: this movie aslo altered Austen’s emphasis on the book as Elizabeth’s story so that it begins to become Darcy’s story, says Looser. I own a copy of this play and read it in the light of what Looser writes. Yes, scenes are invented to make Darcy’s distant and arrogant character more likeable, and like Davies, Jerome fills in the absent time in the novel when we are to assume he changed his mind about Elizabeth with scenes of him working on behalf of Lydia.


Colin Firth as Darcy writing his letter of explanation to Elizabeth (1995 P&P, scripted Andrew Davies)

Several other aspects of Jerome are worth noting. In P&P there is hardly a scene between Jane and Bingley: Jerome writes several (Davies does his best to present pantomime scenes between Jane and Bingley) “to fill out this gap.” Looser suggests that Jerome identified with Lydia and Lydia becomes a more central character, not the fool she is in Austen, and Wickham a sexualized false cheating hypocrite who allures her by how he apes romantic males of the era in books and movie (Jerome endured a parallel relationship in her life). Jerome sentimentalizes Elizabeth (and she cries more than once), and most striking of all, Elizabeth apologizes to Darcy and he has the last word in the play. ritual apologies and humiliations are common for women in many many movies.

In a play called Dear Jane,written by Eleanor Holmes Hinkley, and directed and produced by Eva LeGallienne and her lover-companion or partner, Josephine Hutchinson, we are returned to woman-centered book, and lesbian reading of Jane and Cassandra’s relationship (I add it anticipates part of Miss Austen Regrets with Olivia Williams and Greta Scacchi in the roles). It does much more than this but this is the main thrust. It apparently failed very badly in the theaters, was understood by some critics and mocked. Looser says both this and the previous accompany new attitudes towards Austen which seek to end the view of her as a asexual (or frigid) spinster, give her a sexual life and independent character fit for a career characteristic of mid-20th century women.


From Miss Austen Regrets Olivia Williams as Jane and Greta Scacchi as Cassandra in one of their many intense scenes together (2009, scripted Gweneth Hughes)

All these plays increasingly present Mr and Mrs Bennet as happily married by the end – I was struck how in the 2005 Wright Pride and Prejudice, Wright made them into a sexually satisfied couple. Looser is much taken with knock-about comedy and face and she discusses a script that was never produced but intended for an Austen movie after the Stromberg film that turned P&P into farce, but wanted to include Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier to play Mr and Mrs Bennet in happy old age together.

Looser has a very long chapter on the production of the 1940s film. Many scripts, many endless changes, most of which show that until Huxley and Jane Murfin (the final screenplay writers) came on board, the last thing that interested MGM was to be faithful to Austen. They were very dubious about any popularity such books could have –- over in the UK there was more sense that these books did have a following (maybe since Speaking of Austen by Kaye-Smith and Stern a book discussed in the conference in the last Saturday afternoon session). The movie was in fact not the popular hit that was longed for (in the way of Wuthering Heights, Rebecca and Mrs Miniver at the time) and there was no commercial movie of Austen in the cinemas until the 1990s.

As I wrote last time, Looser refuses to evaluate this material and clearly from the quotations some of it is drek. We do see what stage play and movie makers assumed were popular responses to the Austen, and how they turned her round to reflect their own lives (like Stillman). Even more telling to me is how Looser is showing the slow growth of popular celebrity for Austen and how this celebrity has nothing to do with the actual content, tone or nature of her books (often acid, anti-society, showing family life as internecine, unsentimental, not heterosexual), which seems in fact to be anathema to any wide readership.

On Janeites the other day Nancy Mayer wrote of how the sequels often have little feel for Austen’s texts. At the JASNA dinner I sat at a table where three of the people has read no Austen; two had seen a lot of the movies. At the front of the room was the familiar silhouette that has become a tiny symbol for Austen –yet there is no evidence for thinking it’s a portrait of Austen. It was found in a book connected to her. To my eyes the outline of the face does not look like Austen particularly. The emptiness of a celebrity image was my thought as I sat there.

Now, writing this blog, I remember how Gillian Dow mourned Austen’s early death, asking all to recall that she was cut off from she might have written had she lived. Q.D.Leavis was accurate in pointing to the similarities and repetitive patterns in the six published novels. They were after all in their final state written within 7 years. Would she have developed in a new direction?

Ellen

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