Archive for the ‘Austen film’ Category

Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth Bennet seeking relief by washing her face in a basin (2013 Death comes to Pemberley, scripted Juliette Towhidi)

Dear friends and readers,

It will come as no surprise that the most common or repeated topic at the ASECS in Los Angeles (not far from Hollywood) were film or media studies, or (perhaps) those were the ones I noticed and was told about. It might surprise to discover that a number of those papers (including mine) used as their texts Jane Austen films. It was the zeitgeist topic. A young male Austen scholar told me he went to a panel expecting to hear a paper on Jane Austen’s novels and discovered it focused on a couple of Jane Austen films. Gothic too, Jane Austen as gothic was an element in this.

I confess I did not go to all of these. To my regret I was not able to attend “Appropriating the Restoration and Eighteenth Century: Fictionalized Place and Time on Film and Television,” which hosted papers on “Blackadder: Satirizing the Century of Satire” (by Sarah Stein), “Filming ‘The Fanny Wars:’ Mansfield Park, Literary Fandom and Contemporary Critical Practice (by Fiona Brideoake),” and (especially hard to miss), “Crossbones, Piracy, and the British Empire” (by Sirvidihya Swaminathan). It was on against another on film I felt I had to go to, as some people there would be attending the panel my paper on film was to be given. I regretted missing “Jane Austen and Multimedia” on Saturday morning, which included a paper that includes The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (it had been heavily advertised & I thought it might be over-crowded). My friend told me a panel on teaching Jane Austen was often about films. I especially wanted to hear Andrew McInnes, “‘It wants shade:” Pride and Prejudice and the Gothic” but had to leave the conference early to spend time with friends.

The gravatar for this blog: Jennifer Ehle as a deeply meditative Elizabeth Bennet (1995 P&P, scripted Andrew Davies)

Plus my stenography is not what it once was. So this does not begin to cover even part of what was said on film or Jane Austen films. I offer the gist of a few papers and some of the conversation about them afterwards.


Caroline Lennox (Serena Gordon) meeting Henry Fox (Alun Armstrong) in secret (1999 Aristocrats, scripted Harriet O’Carroll)

I began with a double panel, “The Eighteenth Century in Hollywood:” two sessions in a row. Thursday 9:45 am to 1 pm. Paula Byrne had been expected to talk on Belle, but couldn’t make it. Stella Tillyard, author of many books, historian, the source of a number of films, spoke first on “Aristocrats, Tides of War, and A Royal Affair.” She began by asking, What makes for a successful historical drama? Outside the university there has been an immense growth of interest in history, to see a non-fiction past depicted. There is also a desire to get at the interiority of the experience. To adapt these for the screen (as in the John Adams mini-series) one must have strong plot-design, tension, and to exploit the medium of film. These films are based on some sort of vision, tell about the future; the books are disguised autobiographies often. Her book, Aristocrats was written with a general audience in mind as a 5 act play, with entre-acts; it was history as an argument about this group of women in their context and novelized. The mini-series was framed by a narrator (the voice of Emily when older, Sian Phillips) to convey information; all kinds of compromises continually, including spun out at length pageantry and love and dressing scenes. There is an urgent commercial desire in films women go to for heroines: few 18th century women had any agency for real; the much-touted Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire is a tragic figure. People want to see sites of power, courts, theatrical moments. O’Carroll and her film-crew kept in mind the Reithian imperatives of inform, educate, entertain. They filmed in Ireland for the tax breaks, and part of the story takes place there. The mini-series is marvelous at bringing to us the materiality of the past. She went over some scenes (the fireworks) to show what effects were sought and how. There was a kind of thrill to filming in the real Carlton House where the Duchess of Leinster lived, with an original picture really there. (Today it is a tasteless hotel.) So film records the time at which it’s filmed too.

The doctor, the king and his wife (from A Royal Affair)

The shorter format film has advantages; it usually has a stronger sense of tension, sense of mystery as we chose epitomizing moments. Tillyard was especially proud of the 2006 Danish film, A Royal Affair; not a commercial success, an art film. It is a family romance seen through a historical lens, a poignant story about friendship, sexuality, Caroline Matilda’s affair with the German doctor, Johann Frederick Struensee;the king is presented as melancholic rather than mad, and finds in the doctor someone he can tell about his condition to. In 2012 Denmark was willing to tell more truths about the lack of egalitarianism in earlier Denmark. It is one of the recent Scandanavian noir films. Tillyard showed a few clips where we saw a quiet austerity of approach and intelligent use of sound and image.

Marital sex scene between the Duke (Ralph Fiennes) and Duchess (Keira Knightley) (from The Duchess, scripted Jeffrey Hatcher. directed by Saul Dibb)

Jeffrey Hatcher, author of many screenplays, told of how he got into 18th century films. He said as a screenplay writer you are fictionalizing with all the realities of a film in mind; you want enough information to fill out concrete circumstances. For Stage Beauty, he had just the right amount. He kept in mind what he read about Edward Kynaston, the last male actor to portray women on the 17th century stage. For The Duchess, he had the problem of a book (Amanda Foreman’s) which took the character from cradle to grave. You want to tell the story from the character’s crucial and best moments; so he was a bit at odds with the producer. He tried to focus in on particular political moments: she was good at campaigning, became a symbol of radical chic, understood the ways of her world and sold an image. In her private life she knew much trouble, with Elizabeth Foster a kind of succubus, the Duke’s mistress, perhaps Georgiana’s dominating lover too. Georgiana had a long-time affair with Charles Grey, later prime minister, so he took the giving up of this affair for the sake of his career as a turning point in all their intertwined lives. Ralph Fiennes was able to make the Duke far more appealing than he is written up for in the script or was in real life — for example in the scene where he is seen teaching Bess Foster’s sons to use a gun. Hatcher sees Fiennes as a kind of Jean Gabin. Amanda Foreman felt some of the depiction of Georgiana was unsympathetic towards her, and Hatcher conceded she was not a heroine for him. Like Tillyard, he felt the Duchess a tragic woman who lived a terrible life however glamorized. He ended on the intransigence of what happens to story matter in popular film genres, maintaining you cannot make an anti-war war film.

In the talk afterward it was said that adaptation to film must be an act of betrayal in which you try to hold onto some essential truth of the life or time or the book. How central film-editing is when it comes to the final product. The writer of a book has to accept that someone else (a team) has taken possession of your idea.

Johnny Depp as Rochester (The Libertine, scripted Stephen Jeffreys, produced John Malkovitch)

The second session was made up of the responders. Misty Anderson thinks we are in a post-Johnny Depp era, i.e., The Libertine with Depp as the Earl of Rochester has been highly influential. Her aim as a college teacher using film is to think with students about how what we are seeing is the product of late 20th century capitalism; we have to critique what Chatsworth House was built upon then and is built upon now. Like Rozema’s Mansfield Park, bring out the cost of this world. Belle she saw as a fairy tale about racism. A Royal Affair shows how many people are moving towards atheism, and full modernity (the reaction to this) is not turning out to be a success. Devoney Looser said she tries to bring out the relationship of these films to original and present texts, emphasize the importance of educational influences in shaping identities. She would use how Lady Emily Lennox’s life was radically altered by her relationship with the Rousseauistic tutor, Ogilby and that of her children. The film Aristocrats kept a sense of the thousands of pages behind the knowledge that made making Tillyard’s book possible. John O’Neill talked about using satirical cartoons of the era to critique the films he studies with his students. Linda Troost told of how she first fell in love with the 18th century by watching costume dramas set in the era. She often needs to rely on films to convey a sense of period to students as they take her courses to fulfill a requirement and have had little history. The problem is to to teach them to look for signs of where we are in history and where we are fictionalizing. She has used 18th century historical dramas like Rowe’s Jane Shore to show how earlier history was portrayed analogously in the 18th century. Steven Thomas focused on Belle as a film that meant a lot to him personally. It is rare to see black faces on admirable characters; we do see the costume drama world from Belle’s eyes, feel her hurt about how this world regards the color of her skin. He teaches the film as a political fable for today. he emphasized how scant the evidence for what we see and how much change from the historical record is done.


The talk afterward was lively, varied, and included someone who suggested the influence of film on literary studies today is pernicious. Tillyard had emphasized how important is literal historical accuracy for sets and how that is a driving force for how a film looks. This insistence prompted me to offer the idea that filmic realism changes from era to era, so that the realism of a films of the 1970s (say Oneddin Line and the 1970a Poldark) looks quite different from the realism of the new Poldark and Belle today. The length of scenes, the way they are filmed, has changed utterly, so technology drives the look of films just as much. Someone argued landscape is much more central because of filming on location. People countered Misty Anderson’s thesis, offering a real demonstration for the influence of Tony Richardson’s 1963 Tom Jones and again Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 Barry Lyndon. It was suggested that plays were influential on how people saw themselves in life and how they wrote their novels and that has influenced how we portray characters in films until today.


Norma Shearer as a bejeweled doll of a Marie Antoinette (1938, scripted Claudine West, directed W. S. Dyke, costumes Adrian)

There were four papers on “The Eighteenth Century on Film,” the panel my paper found a place on. Friday, 11:30 am to 1 pm. Since I was giving a paper my notes are minimal in comparison to some of the thoroughness with which each participant managed to present his or her paper inside 20 minutes. Dorothee Polanz seemed to survey the whole of the Marie Antoinette canon in her “Portrait of the Queen as a Celebrity: Marie Antoinette on Screen, 1934-2012.” Polanz demonstrated that on film Antoinette is an over-dressed doll, recognizable in iconic gorgeously elaborate and exquisite scenes; she is a mythic figure, and the poignancy of aspects of her life lost. Polanz tended to focus on more recent more naturalistic portrayals; she did suggest that the use of the part of a vehicle for stars is part of this and you can undermine this image, try to break it apart by casting somewhat against expectations. In her “‘Too light & bright and sparkling;’ the BBC Pride and Prejudice and the Secret of Style,” Melissa Bissonette’s insightful thesis was that the way the camera was used in Davies’s famous film continually kept Darcy’s eyes averted from us, showed him from the back, thwarted the viewer’s desire to see him up-close; he is carefully kept from Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth too, so that in the latter part of the film when they finally make long and full eye contact over a piano scene, we feel intense satisfaction. It’s a kind of game where a desire for erotic satisfaction is kept up for 6 hours. I have put the version of my paper I gave at the conference on Academia.edu, “Screenplays and Shooting Scripts into Films.” I’ve written about the process I went through coming up with my choice of films, my argument that we need to study and publish film scripts as central to understanding a film, and that screenplays and shooting scripts can be valued as a new experimental genre in itself elsewhere on this blog and Ellen and Jim have a blog, Two. Steven Thomas in “The Assurance of Belle, the insurance of the Zong, and the Speculation of Cinema,” talked at length about Belle. He offered a detailed history of the real political case used at the center of the film, talked about the history and conventions of costume drama, and while he said the discrepancies between historical accuracy and the fable before us were not important, he did show how speculative financial capitalism (how insurance policies lead to inhuman human acts) and the horrible treatment of people who were enslaved was beautifully hitched onto this finally melancholy romance film with many ghosts from today’s hurts (like the politics of African hair).

There was little time for talk afterward. I was asked what kinds of films or which films have had film scripts published and I answered from the notes on my paper (see academia.edu). People talked about Marie Antoinette’s agon during the revolution, her trial, and if modern attitudes towards her as a celebrity have changed the fundamental hostilities towards her; if she is a compensatory victim.  Polanza spoke of Chantal’s Les adieux a la reine and Sofia Coppola’s sweet film. Of course Colin Firth’s performance was brought up.  There was not time to do justice to Thomas’s complex paper.

Over the course of the sessions I attended people probably did not begin to talk about the financing of films, roles of producers, uses of close-ups (so important in film) and modern montage anywhere near enough. .


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Jane Bingley Collins in Lost in Austen — there is no intermediary text, this is rather a time-traveling mash-up

Dear friends and readers,

If you read this blog regularly, you know I am embarked on writing a paper on the importance of screenplays or shooting scripts in film study. I reiterate and demonstrate what has been shown before: that the persistence of so-called studies of an eponymous (intermediary post-text) or Jane Austen novel as underlying all Austen films ignores how a film is made and from what concrete sources (fully edited on-going film script and scenarios).

One problem I’ve been having is I no longer can link in a list of Austen films onto my website since my husband died without risks of all sorts and those I’ve been working on are precisely this new batch. So, as I’ve been using the latest appropriation films — films with screenplays or shooting scripts and without intermediary texts where the Austen novel lies at quite a distance from the film — I thought it would be useful to me to have one place to refer to, and perhaps others who might value my writing on Austen or other women-centered, woman-authored films. So here they are:

Longbourn: said to have a novel film in progress

Death Comes to Pemberley 1: A spoilt mini-series
Death Comes to Pemberley 2: Interwoven Threads
Death Comes to Pemberley 3: A story of self-recognition
(The Bletchley circle is connected to but not at all limited by this Austen mystery brutal-murder matter.)

Austenland: a film still in the draft stage?
The Jane Austen Book Club: Conversations about the novels
The Jane Austen Book Club: as free adaptation of all six novels

Other films with intermediary or post-texts a few of which I’ve briefer blogs, and the texts for, include Bridget Jones’s Diary (see Nurse Betsy) and The Edge of Reason, Stillman’s Last Days of Disco (scroll down, no published screenplay but a brilliant novelization worth while). E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View (novel still not fully recognized as post-text to Northanger Abbey. Lakehouse (out of Persuasion) has an intermediary text in a Korean film.

See also (no intermediary text):

Lost in Austen 1: Pride and Prejudice: Dreaming the Austen Movies.
Lost in Austen 2: The harrowing of Amanda.
Lost in Austen 3: We must not reproach ourselves for unlived lives.
Lost in Austen 4: “You don’t do guilt, do you?”
Ruby in Paradise: To ache is human (Emily Dickinson poetry)
Ruby in Paradise: Young Lady’s Entrance into the World
It is telling that in some readings of the Austen film canon that the intermediary text even is not insisted upon, but subjective reactions of the film critic about the underlying Austen novel.
From Prada to Nada: Sense and Sensibility
Aisha: Emma

Elaine Cassidy, as Lucy Honeycomb, recommended by a holiday friend — she learns to look into others around her and into her self …

For more on the above and other kinds of older film adaptations of Austen’s, post-text or related (friends and relatives) texts about Austen and her contemporary challenge, go to The Austen Film Miscellany on my website. The above links represent only those I’ve written about since 2009. The miscellany goes back to the 1990s.


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Ruby: What would you teach?
Rochelle: You mean children?
Ruby: Yeah
Rochelle: How to survive … with your soul intact …

Mike: it saved me from evil. Restored my soul (lifting her hand with his) bought peace to my troubled mind (he is pulling her arm around his neck to embrace her) and joy to my broken heart …. [He says this in a slightly mock preacher’s voice] … [a little later while preparing pasta] Isn’t it wonderful the way Austen seems to dwell on the superficial and comic and yet all the while (he is pouring out vegetables into collander) revealing the contradictions and value systems of an entire society. (now the spagheti using a wooden fork) I don’t think there’s been anyone so subtle and allusive. What do you think?
Ruby: It was a neat story.(1993 Victor Nunez, Ruby in Paradise)

Dear friends and readers,

Over the past two weeks I’ve been studying five screenplays for my paper for ASECS against four movies: Scripts into Movies (aka The importance of the screenplay; or what functions do screenplays (what work) perform? Juliette Towhidi’s Death Comes to Pemberley and her (with Tim Firth) Calendar Girls; Robin Swicord’s Jane Austen Book Club, Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan and now Victor Nunez’s Ruby in Paradise. The first Towhidi’s, shows large radical departures from the intermediary text, James’s Death Comes from Pemberley, and goes back to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for other material; the second and third, Jane Austen Book Club and and Metropolitan have no single originating source text and may be read as works of literary merit in themselves, as interpretations of Austen, conversations on her, and distinctive Austen prescripts, blueprints for modern reenactments; the last. Ruby in Paradise is a poetic gem. Towhidi’s Calendar Girls confirms my suggestion that reading someone’s screenplays turns up the same group of characteristic indicative of the author’s work even if the script was edited and changed in the filming (rather like Sarah Cardwell’s argument about the corpus of Andrew Davies’s film work, especially the screenplays into films).

The three central girlfriends of Metropolitan, Sally, Jane and Audrey, talking about the photos taken of the Christmas holiday thus far …

On the way I’ve discovered a few more characteristics Jane Austen films share (whether heritage or appropriate, whether directly from one of her books or a post-text out of them) beyond the many I’ve discussed in this blog generally and in blogs and review of individual movies: many are highly literary; if the characters don’t discuss Austen’s books, they discuss other books (e.g., Emily Dickinson poem in Ruby); many are conversational. They follow a trajectory for typical girlhood development as outlined by Carol Gilligan and Lyn Mikel Brown (In a Different Voice, Meeting at the Crossroads); the stories are embedded in narratives of women’s (or sister’s) friendships; there is often a good female mentor (aunt, sometimes employer, occasionally mother; the centrality of the kind of sexual awakening a girl experiences. Coming of age, maturation stories for girls; a number have been nominated for or won a best screenplay award; through the palimpsest of whatever are the intermediary texts, we can see Austen on specific important issues (first impressions, for women dangerous delusions and developing good judgement; sibling love — that includes brothers). Women’s worlds, life from a woman’s point of view is delineated. Older women abound too, and occasionally their trajectories. Mrs Sophia Crofts’s memories of living in lodgings one winter and determination to go to sea with him ever after. Calendar Girls pivots on a widow’s real grief at her husband’s death, her losses (Marie: “I know how difficult it must be for you at this moment.” “Do you, oh dear … no, I don’t think you know how I feel”).

auidence (2)

auidence (1)
Marie (Geraldine James) introducing a talk on not just rugs but all kinds of carpets to the Women’s Institute of Yorkshire (we see in the back, our six heroines, Chris, Annie, Cora, Jessie, Celia, Ruth)

One of the more intriguing repetitions among the Jane Austen films is how many treat of Christmas. Many, from Metropolitan to Bridget Jones’ Diary, whether in a summery climate (Ruby in Paradise (Henry Tilney as Mike and Ruby as Catherine have their first serious dispute over a Christmas sermon on TV), Bride and Prejudice) or wintry ones (Emma itself). Lots of snow:

Establishment view

Bridget Jones and parents: caught in final snowstorm, heading for Darcy home

Johnny Lee Miller (now brilliant in Elementary) as Mr Knightley building snow men (2009 Emma by Sandy Welch)

But what if we went outside the famous six? Lady Susan includes sexual promiscuity, adultery, exploitative single motherhood, most important the heroine is older than the as yet marriageable single girl: 35. Whit Stillman is apparently writing another composite film adaptation. Arguably Metropolitan has as much source material in Persuasion and Emma as Mansfield Park; Last Days of Disco combines a Sense and Sensibility story with Emma.

lastdaysAliceCharlotte (Medium)
Alice (Chloe Sevigny) as Marianne and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) as Emma in Last Days of Disco

The return to the two actress of Last Disco reinforces my argument (laughed at by a couple of people) that Last Days of Disco was a composite appropriation out of Austen: now Kate Beckinsale played Emma in Andrew Davies’s 1996 heritage Emma (taking an ironic stance towards the heroine) and she and Choe Sevigny played a kind of Emma-Harriet as well as Elinor or maybe Lucy Steele and Marianne pair. So the projected title, Love and Freindship suggest those of Austen’s Juvenilia, which have doppelganger heroines, e.g., the epistolary Lesley Castle and the hard caricature of Love and Freindship with blend of Lady Susan, which I hope is not mistaken by Stillman for an early text; it rather takes off from a highly sceptical Maria Edgeworth epistolary novel with an adulterous heroine (Leonora) as well as Germaine de Stael’s Delphine whose vicious mother figure is also named Madame Susan Vernon.

Beyond Lady Bertram (Angela Pleasence in the 1983 MP, with pug): complacent trophy wife?

I rejoice to see this new material come into the more widely known Jane Austen canon. It will help bridge the gap between contemporary attitudes I outlined in “Bored with Jane Austen?”; but instead of dealing with these older or mature women’s issues from a different ethical standpoint we may hope Stillman will again configure his themes to present Austen’s perspectives as he did most notably in Metropolitan and to bring out what mainstream perceptions today still keep hidden as Fowler in her novel and Swicord in the screenplay, Jane Austen Bookclub did.

Audrey: “Has it ever occurred to you that today, looked at from Jane Austen’s perspective, would look much worse than ridiculous?”

Allegra: So, um… I actually thought that Charlotte Lucas was gay.
Sylvia: looks exasperated, Bernie looks down, Prudie a bit stunned?
Allegra: Really, I think that when she tells Lizzie she’s not as romantic as she is, I think that’s what she means.
Prudie: Charlotte Lucas is not gay. She’s not. She just … She just has no options.
Sylvia (pointed): Wait. Austen meant Charlotte to be gay or Charlotte is gay and Austen is not aware of it?
Allegra eating strawberry looks delighted.
Further shot includes Bernie.
Bernie: I just love the idea of a character having a secret life that the author doesn’t even know about.
Sylvia: You know, frankly, I kind of admire Charlotte for looking at her situation and deciding to marry Mr. Collins. (from Swicordd’s Jane Austen Book Club discussing Pride and Prejudice where they note the large number of bizarre marriages in Austen)

We may yet hope for another of Austen’s thoroughly radical texts to be filmed: The Watsons. What other novel in the era came down to presenting the lifestyle of the larger majority of women readers, most of them just inching into the genteel class, or just below, and without sentimentality and false glamor (unfortunately common in the Austen films).

Jane Bingley comforts Elizabeth Darcy at the nadir point of Death Comes to Pemberley (it is strongly reminiscent of a trope pose found among Victorian illustrations), e.g.,

Mary, Lady Mason, and her best friend, Mrs Peregrine parting at the close of Orley Farm (John Everett Millais)


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Doran Goodwin as Emma just back from Miss Taylor’s wedding: a tough moment of aloneness (1972 Emma, scripted by Denis Constanduros)

Dear gentle friends and readers,

And you thought I was forgetting Austen’s birthday. Even if, like Samuel Johnson, at least on the day she wrote a poem in honor of her natal day, Jane Austen did not anticipate the day or experience it in a celebratory spirit (one of her close older friends, Anne Lefroy died on Jane’s birthday on 1804, To the Memory of Mrs. Lefroy who died Dec:r 16 — my Birthday), I’ve tried to remember her gaiety when dancing, as well as other of her poems capturing her sincere moods for her birthdays.


Andrew Davies’s film begins with a comical foreshadowing of the film’s end on desperate stealing of chickens at Harfield, but after a touching tight moment in the carriage of kissing between Kate Beckinsale as Emma and Samantha Bond as Miss Taylor we do get quickly to Emma alone — with Mr Woodhouse to cheer up (1996)

This year I can report that a small group of us on WomenWritersthroughtheAges @ Yahoo, together with joiners-in on Austen-l and Janeites have embarked on yet another reading of Austen’s Emma! Can there be anything left to discuss? We have already found there is, and I have been forced to make a schedule as there are too many people to leave this to be casual: I put this on the blog for the people on these listservs joining in:

Beginning Sunday, December 13th to 20th: Chapters 1-5
From Dec 20th to 27th: Chapters 6-10
Dec 27th to Jan 3rd: 11-15
Jan 3rd to 10th: 16-20
Jan 10th to 17th: 21-25
Jan 17th to 24th: 26-30
Jan 24th to 31st: 31-35
From Jan 31st to Feb 7th: 36-40
Feb 7th to 14th: 41-45
Feb 14th to 21st: 46-50
Feb 21st to 28th: 51-55

This past spring in our small WWTTA and EighteenthCenturyWorlds @ yahoo we read Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire’s The Sylph as a novel exploring rape; that morphed into just a few of us on WTTTA (as I recall the first for short), partly prompted by an essay by Isobel Grundy on Richardsonian novels by women (in a volume of essays on Richardson), going on in the summer to the anonymous Emma; or The Unfortunate Attachment, as a Richardsonian epistolary novel, clearly by a woman, but not by the Duchess; and this fall, wondering about the woman The Sylph has been wrongly attributed to, the Scots sentimental novelist, Sophia Briscoe, we read her 2 volume epistolary The History of Miss Melmoth, where issues beyond the Richardsonian heterosexual ones include a sympathetic account of womens’ need for a friend; a hostile depiction of a woman whose elopement with a rake turns out so badly that she is driven to become a lady’s maid who then betrays her young mistress by marrying her domineering shallow father; a deeply empathetic depiction of a stranded widow; the tenuous security of all women.

So this was we felt a sort of continuation of Emmas and novels by women dialoguing. It seems fitting then that our first debate (as we included more readers) was over on Alison Sulloway’s Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhood, and her provocative and (to some of us) refreshing and relevant point of view highly critical of Mr Knightley’s patriarchal stances.

Fast forward to the Hindi appropriation of Emma: Aisha-Emma’s humiliation is made excruciating because it occurs before an audience — Harriet-Shefali is the real heroine of this fashion-mad yet punitive film (2011 Aisha)

Why is Emma’s intelligence as such (what is she to do with it?) a central issue?

Romola Garai as Emma leading a reluctant Louisa Dylan as Harriet to refuse Mr Martin’s offer of marriage

Johnny Lee Miller as Mr Knightley, shocked upon being told of this refusal — for the first time I realize Sandy Welch made him narrator because the book puts Mr Knightley in charge (2009 Emma)

So what can one do more for a woman who died nearly 200 years ago then close read one of her masterpieces.

By way of contrast, the British Library has chosen Northanger Abbey (that “horrid” novel) as the focus of its commemoration.



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Flirting amid piles of plays (Maria and Henry with Tom and Yates in the background, the 1983 MP by Ken Taylor)

Dear friends and readers,

Herewith my second blog report on the gist of the individual papers delivered on Saturday, October 10th, at the JASNA AGM in Montreal. Looking over the 7 to 8 break-out sessions on against the one I chose, I again regret that so many papers were on against one another.


I went to hear Br. Paul Byrd’s paper comparing Mansfield Park with Margaret Oliphant’s Perpetual Curate because I’m a reader of Oliphant’s fiction, and know she was influenced by and wrote a perceptive essay on Austen’s fiction and Austen’s nephew’s memoir of his aunt. He brought the two novels together as by two Anglican women who saw the need for reform in the church with clerical heroes who suffer repeated attacks. Mansfield Park: Edmund is distracted by his personal involvement from his vocation; his religion though more often discussed than portrayed; pluralism and absenteeism condemned. He is contrasted to Dr Grant. Mary argues priests have little influence on people, represents a segment of society that no longer believes thoroughly in the Christian religion; mercenary considerations strongly influence her judgement; Henry Crawford is sensual, self-indulgent. Edmund’s relationship to Fanny shows him thoughtful, meaning to be reflective though he fails to be an accurate observer. The Perpetual Curate: Frank Wentworth presents a Victorian ideal and knows what a clergyman ought to be; but is his own worst enemy, not politic, handles a scandal foolishly, yet remains true to himself; Br Byrd brought in each author’s male relatives who were clergymen, and seemed to believe that Austen assumed her readers believed that Anglicanism could be an effective force in the world while Oliphant delivers a blistering critique of Anglican church of her day: Br Bryd thought Oliphant was showing a cultural shift from a gentleman who is a clergyman to clergyman who have a calling; he also read Mansfield Park as seriously about religion and religious failings in Austen’s characters and the cultural world they belonged to.


I went to hear Kathryn Davis’s “Charles Pasley’s Essay and the ‘Governing Winds of Mansfield Park,” because during the long course of reading and analyzing Austen’s letters (see my blog analysis of Letter 78) I became aware of how she admired the ruthless imperialism of Pasley through what she said in a letter and Southam’s analysis of Pasley’s career and writing (in his book on Austen’s brothers) and how narrowly partisan Austen could be when it came to what she thought were her brothers’ interests. Ms Davis talked of Austen’s admiration for this man, and of his life as retold in the ODNB, and then presented Pasley’s writing in terms of his patriotic ideals and worry about the navy weakening; how he reminds his audience of the commercial good (profit, well ordered places) the military could lay the grounds for in conquest and expansion; she quoted eloquent passages (duty is service); he recognizes there is a loss of social and economic liberty but such bonds as are formed are a deterrent to war. I had not realized Pasley wrote specifically about the West Indies (e.g., Antigua must be held onto). I was much relieved when Robert Clark who had given a paper in the previous break-out session on the British empire at the time of and as reflected in MP (I heard a version of his excellent papers at the ASECS in Williamsburg last spring), when Mr Clark brought out the murder and destruction of societies found in these colonial places, the suffering inflicted on these native peoples; that Pasley’s is a ruthless militarist deeply anti-liberal argument, where the East India Company’s doings are an exemplary norm. Southam shows how he disobeyed orders to aggrandize himself. Mr Clark remarked that it’s telling that Pasley was republished around the time of WW1.

Fanny Price and Henry Crawford dancing foreground, Mary and Edmund just behind them, at the Mansfield ball (1999 MP by Rozema)

I went to hear Nora Stovel Forster’s paper because it was about film, specifically “dancing as a blueprint for marriage in Rozema’s MP.” Ms Forster argued that Rozema modernized MP by politicizing its themes to push her own agenda. Austen’s MP is relentlessly about money as intertwined with love (Mary sees everything in terms of money; Maria marries to gain the use of a great deal of money). Ms Stovel spent a lot of time on the Portsmouth episode in the movie where (Ms Stovel felt) the poverty of the Prices is exaggerated, and drives Fanny to accept Henry Crawford’s proposal momentarily. Slavery is brought in as Fanny journeys around England; through the horrors illustrated in Tom’s sketches of his father’s plantation in Antigua; the sexuality made explicit for us to see the corruption of the hollow characters. Fanny’s character is much changed and she is (in effect) made the author of the movie. I liked how Ms Stovel showed us some of her stills in slow motion. It was hard to tell but I thought the audience this time was more pleased by Ms Stovel’s talk about Rozema’s movie than they had by Sorbo’s presentation because it could be taken as implicitly criticizing the movie for not being faithful (but that is not why they dislike it so as other movies as unfaithful, say Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s S&S is very popular among such people).

The Harp arrives (1999 MP)

I did not know that the session where Jeanice Brooks and Gillian Dow were listed was actually an attempt to present two papers in the 60 minutes. Ms Brooks’s paper was on French culture and music in Paris and as sold and mirrored in London and the provinces of England around the time of MP. I hope hers is one of those papers published in Persuasions for she presented much valuable information in a perceptive way applicable to Austen’s novel and life too (Austen played the pianoforte; Eliza, her cousin, the harp). She told of the invention and history of the harp in the 18th century, the music books in Austen’s household, and went over two volumes of selections from 18th century periodicals which only Eliza de Feuillide could have supplied. She gave a brief resume of Eliza’s movements in France and England from 1780 to 1813 when she died (1780 in Paris with harp; 1781 married, lived in Paris; 178-86 lives on husband’s estates; 1786-87 visits Steventon; Sept 1788 returns to Paris, back in 1789; death of Feuillide, of her mother, her marriage to Henry, the musical party Austen records in April 1811; Fanny Knight’s note on Eliza’s cancer); she then played a lovely piece of music to which one of the songs in the book was set at the time. I regret not having a copy of the text to share with others. I was unable to take it down in sten quickly enough.

Edmund reading to Fanny as children (he made her books meaningful to her, 1983 MP)

I was not able to stay for much of Gillian Dow’s paper which had to be fitted in to the tail end of the session. Ms. Dow attempted a speculative answer to the question, from what books did Fanny Price learn French? She talked of what we know of Austen’s interactions with Grandison (reading, alluding, the playlet) and how she uses Lovers’ Vows in MP, to show Austen’s interest in plays, and she suggested Austen may have meant us to think the Fanny learned French by reading the plays Madame de Genlis wrote for children. While I agree that Adele et Theodore is an important source in two of Austen’s novels (Emma and NA) and Austen seems to have been an avid reader of Genlis’s fiction (which we can see from her reading with her sister in her letters), but at the time I left the session I had heard no evidence Austen read these plays or meant us to feel Miss Lee would be a person who would teach from them. Sir Thomas seems to have instructed his sons through having them declaim plays but there is no sign his daughters or niece were encouraged in such self-displays (even if the texts were impeccably moral).

My daughter, Izzy, may have chosen more wisely than me.

Everyone reading and rehearsing playscript (2007 MP by Maggie Wadey)

On Saturday she listened to Nancy Yee outline how Shakespeare’s Henry VIII relates to MP (she had a sheet of passages from Henry VIII); she was amused by Arnie Perlstein’s paper on subtexts in the allusions to plays in Mansfield Park; she said she understood Susan Allen Ford’s paper on Hester Chapone’s Letters and their relationship to Mansfield Park (was persuaded there really was one), and she positively enjoyed Sara Bowen’s “Fanny’s future, Mary’s Nightmare, on Jane Austen’s understanding of a clergyman’s wife’s life in the context of all the clergyman’s wives that she knew, from her mother, to her sisters-in-law, her niece, Anna Austen Lefroy and many other kin, friends and acquaintances.

From 1982 Barchester Chronicles, scripted Alan Plater (the clerical families dining, Mr Harding and his daughter, Archdeacon and Mrs Grantley and Mr Arabin, adapted from Trollope’s Barchester Towers)

Izzy talked of (I imagine from this paper) Trollope’s presentation of the life of Archdeacon Grantly’s wife in Barchester Towers, Mrs Proudie across the Barsetshire series, and what we see of clergymen’s wives in his mid- to later 19th century books, and said Ms Bowen argued that the demands on a woman’s life as a clergyman’s wife were changing and are reflected in Austen’s books: we see little expectation of religious doings or doctrine in Elinor Dashwood; we seem never to see Henry Tilney do or think about religion or doctrine (even if he does not neglect his parish and preaches there of a Sunday); in Mansfield Park things are changing, expectations growing. Izzy was amused to try to count up all the female characters in Austen’s fiction who either might have or do become clergyman’s wives.

Mrs Norris humiliating Fanny over her refusal to play (1983 MP)

The most fun she and I had together while at the JASNA conference was when she downloaded all of MP onto my ipad (there is a library APP which permits this, offering free books out of copyright and books you must buy) and we read together parts of MP found suggestive hints in the first three chapters of the book tending to prove McMaster’s thesis that Mrs Norris loathed Fanny because she had wanted to have her as a vicarious child through Sir Thomas and found her personality one a vindictive, selfish, aggressive, competitive and greedy personality would bitterly resent.

I know I reported that my proposal to present a paper on the relationship of the four Mansfield Park films with the novel was rejected, though happily I wrote a brief elaboration of what I would have said and it was published on-line by BSECS, but I believe I never wrote about how I had had an idea to compare Smith’s Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake with Mansfield Park. A well-meaning friend suggested to me my idea was too dry or scholarly or narrow (who reads Ethelinde?) and the MP proposal was more likely to find acceptance. I’ll end on this proposal I never sent: “Empire, Marriage, and Epistolarity in Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.”

I propose to give a talk on revealing parallels between Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde; or the Recluse of the Lake, and Austen’s Mansfield Park. First, the novels both use visual space, be it a country, rural, town or city, a prison or a great house, to project the inner psychic and moral state of a character in the context of a larger exploration of empire. Characters in both value male work which is part of a professional career to gain money and rank; whether they travel widely or spend their days in a local parish, the two novelists justify and/or critique the means by which the characters succeed or fail. Second, the novels contain slowly evolving love stories which end in an unexpectedly welcome misalliance for one couple and adultery for another, destroying the destined hopes of some of the characters, all seen in the context of arranged, mercenary, and far-flung marriage, further career moves. Last, the development of the novels’ plot-design relies on epistolary situations, characters who reach others only through letters, and reading with all the tension, misunderstanding and critique from afar distance creates and facilitates.
In other words, I’ll be discussing these novels from a post-colonial standpoint. Smith’s central characters are openly driven by economic need, caught up in wars, bad marriages and illegitimate yet loving liaisons, exile and painful and distant correspondences; while most of Austen’s characters’ circumstances are economically comfortable, and adultery is only adumbrated; nonetheless, her characters go through the same paradigms of need, war, mismatch and have to force themselves to write and read their letters Whether it’s a question of intertextuality or influence, a comparison of the way Smith’s and Austen’s characters discuss, dramatize and solve their career, marital and social or moral needs, will shed light on these novels and contemporary attitudes towards the demands of the local mercenary and rank-based and global commercial worlds as these intersect with the people’s private needs and desires.

After Harvest Storm, Richard Westnall by R.M. Meadows (early 19th century)


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Fanny’s first sight of Mansfield Park (1983 BBC MP)

Scenes must be beautiful which daily viewed
Please daily, and whose novelty survives
Long knowledge and the scrutiny of years:
Praise justly due to those that I describe.
— Wm Cowper as quoted in the 1983 MP

Dear friends and readers,

It’s been more than a month since I attended the yearly JASNA AGM at Montreal, which this year focused on Mansfield Park as 200 years ago it was first published. I’ve blogged on my and Yvette’s experience of the conference itself, and the Burney conference and its papers; I’ve yet to offer some summaries and comments on the lectures and papers I heard on Austen and MP. As with my reports on the Burney papers, I will be in most cases offering the gist of what was said.

Rozema substitutes the narrator of the Juvenilia as Fanny (Francis O’Connor dreaming over satiric writing in 1990 Rozema MP)

For Yvette and I this part of the conference began on Thursday at 9 pm when Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield offered some thoughts on the “Fanny Wars:” this phrase is understood to refer to an assumed hostility to Fanny Price which flared up on the Internet when Austen-l was founded after the airing of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice which exponentially expanded the membership of this, other listservs and eventually blog-rings as well as JASNA itself. They and all others from here on in are hampered because the archives from Austen-l from the years 1994-1998 have vanished due to technological obsolence. I once told the history of those years (on a Burney page where I tell of how a group of us fared trying to read and discuss Cecilia), but of course what one wants is to read the actual postings. Surprisingly (to me they found a dislike of Fanny Price as a character, type, or personality (hard to say which) goes back to the earliest comments on the novel (gathered by Austen herself) at the same time as voiced admiration for the character (Whateley, 1821). Basically they offered a brief survey of criticism of Mansfield Park. I was disappointed because they did not bring out how Speaking About Jane Austen was the first published criticism to bring out into the discussably open how the average non-professional and woman fan reacted to Austen’s books: it’s here you find the first vehement rhetoric rejecting any identification with Fanny Price. Unsurprisingly (but registering this discomfort with this character and also book) they found radio and film productions have been influenced by the perceived popular dislike of this heroine.

At 1:30 pm on Friday the AGM proper began with the opening plenary lecture: Robert Miles, “Mansfield Park and the News.” Prof Miles is known for his admirable and ground-breaking work on Ann Radcliffe and the gothic. Prof Miles began by defining news as including gossip, particularly of the type found in lurid newspaper stories of the era. His talk consisted of regaling the assembly with stories of violence (executions and deaths from all sorts of causes), hanging of women for infanticide and men for sodomy, melodramatic elopements, heroic and disruptive incidents at sea and during wear and other catastrophes, gambling, executions for and the murdering of slaves (this enabled him to include stories of Antigua), local squalid internecine family preying on one another. His point seemed to be that this is the background crowding into Mansfield Park.

Gillray’s typical caricature propaganda: Slippy Weather outside a print shop

I did get up and objected. First, I praised his book on Ann Radcliffe, but then suggested there were two problems in his talk: the first, he took the stories he told at face value: told them as if this reporting was of what really occurred when quite a number seemed to be exaggerated re-tellings of what was supposed to be the truth (it’s been shown that the accusation of infanticide was often deeply unjust); second, if this is the feel of much of this material, we cannot know how Austen felt about what she read in such newspapers, which in any case are kept at the margins of the novel, whether it be vague references on the part of Tom Bertram asking Grant what he thinks about the trouble in the US, or Fanny asking a question we never hear nor its answer, or Mr Price reading about the Rushworth-Crawford scandal at Portsmouth. It is true that some of this material seeps into Austen’s letters where she is gleeful about scandals she occasionally glimpses in the appearance of people at assemblies, but Prof Miles made no reference to those places in Austen’s writing where we can try to glean what was her attitude through the jeering satire. In fact he turned away and didn’t answer my objections. Arnie Perlstein also spoke: it was to support Prof Miles and say all this material was deeply relevant to the subtext of Mansfield Park. I can’t remember a third person talking.

There were then two break-out sessions. Maria Sorbo’s talk on the Mansfield Park heritage films (she excluded any consideration of Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan) was of real interest to me as I have been working on a book and written extensively on the Jane Austen film canon. She approached the 3 films from the point of view of how the film-makers “read” Austen’s novel which she regards as a “rich, intricate and provocative” book treating courtship and love ironically. She argued that the 1983 BBC MP often described as “faithful” is deeply unfaithful (because of the serious earnestness with which the film invests the book’s themes); the 2007 MP has a miscast central star (Billie Piper whom she described as “sullen”), which while it shows how Fanny is marginalized and makes Mary Crawford a witty heroine remains inert. Her talk was designed to show that Rozema’s 1999 MP came closest to replicating Austen’s distruptive (of sentimentality), playful and quizzical tones; the lens is that of the confident and assertive Juvenilia. Prof Sorbo’s analysis of the ironic and sceptical outlook of the book brought out why it is so relevant today.


Rozema’s comical close of self-absorbed characters who by chance end up the way they do, with the happy rewarded couple walking off to their parsonage (1990 MP)

While I felt she made a strong case for the brilliance and subtlety of the use of film by Rozema, as in the incident of the release of the doves, the unadmitted to (by her) departures from Austen in the whole of the Portsmouth sequence, nevertheless she was unfair to the 1983 film when she suggested that its Fanny was silent. I spoke and protested that the over-voice throughout was Sylvestre le Tousel’s, that it made a genuine attempt to capture the epistolary and subjective consciousness of the novel, and that filmically the 2007 MP became a work of art (however truncated) in its own right against artifice. (She didn’t appreciate this at all, and snubbed me in the elevator; she wanted no criticism but vague praise and didn’t mind stupidity as when one person pointed out that Sylvestre Le Tousel is so pretty.)

What was most ironic telling in the experience, and happened in a number of the break-out sessions I attended was the audience reaction to all she said and her clips. These were mainly from the 1999 Rozema film, including the sequence showing Maria and Crawford caught in bed by Edmund, and the painfully vile sexual exploitation of women slaves in the drawings by Tom of what he saw in Antigua. It was as if she had not spoken at all. She might as well not have stood there. I saw this in other sessions where the presenter really did talk of MP (many people did not) in insightful and unconventional ways. The majority of Sorbo’s audience (no more scholars of film than literary texts) remained adamant in their dislike of Rozema’s film. There was an utter disjunction between this scholar’s approach to Austen and film and the fan understanding (I sensed they hated especially those she chose, the sexualized clips from Rozema’s MP). Sorbo’s published book, Irony and Idyll: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park on screen uses the same criteria as her talk offers an informed history of a selection of the film adaptations of these films (for P&P she does only the 1940, 1980, 1995 and 2005 films) while looking to see how her and other scholar’s reading of Austen’s 2 books is captured in these chosen films. She actually avoids all appropriations and anything not a heritage film.

Kentchurch at Deer Park

For the second break-out session I attended Sarah Parry’s “‘Did you not hear me ask him about the slave trade last night: Looking for Clues in Real Houses Which Point to the Wealth and and Lifestyle of the Pictorial Mansfield Park.” Ms Parry took the audience through a journey of slides showing us a series of great country houses in England whose size, lifestyle, and source of wealth make them good surrogates for the house at the center of Austen’s book. When the owning family’s source of wealth for house after house is examined she found war profiteering, slavery, corrupt politicking, enclosures (whole villages erased or moved), Nabob and Barbados colonialist practices (including the occasional massacre) as what “made it all possible.” I couldn’t begin to take down the caterpillar (her word at one point) details. I assume (hope) the ironical information and pictures she provided will be published in the coming Persuasions on the conference. I find especially entertaining those passages she quoted which showed that what today is seen as “timeless elegance” in a mansion and landscape was in Austen’s time seen as vulgar, pretentious (a family trying to make up for not having a long upper class genealogy). She mentioned how when websites on line about such houses try to tell the truth about their pasts, some tourists protest. This reminded me of what I saw in the self-repression of the MOOC I watched on the Literature of the Country House. Afterward she was at the Chawton Library table (she is a member of their staff) and I congratulated her on the nature of her talk and mentioned how a course on country houses never mentioned the source of these houses’ wealth, their actual economic basis and working. She said such sites when they told such truths got vociferous mail demanding such truths not to be told as it “spoilt” the enjoyment. At Winterthur Museum similarly no one tells important truths or even admits what is the nature of the Downton Abbey exhibit or some of their others.

It was then 5:30 and the sessions for the day were unfortunately over. There had been no less than 8 sessions on at one time during this 2 hours and 15 minute period — an absurdity for those who would have liked to hear more of what was seriously on offer at the conference. (I am far from alone in this frustration.) The morning had been given over to tours, a dance workshop (for those few lucky enough to get in); since I had been at the Burney conference I had had to miss Marcia Folsom’s Teaching Mansfield Park. At around 6 I and Izzy filled with period called ” dinner on your own” with an enjoyable meal with a friend and the people who had judged the essay contest (though the restaurant like so many nowadays was so noisy we could hardly hear ourselves speak). At 8 there was the one-hour play, A Dangerous Intimacy: Behind the Scenes at Mansfield Park, by Diana Birchall and Syrie James and then for a second hour the glee singing (which I have described as lovely in my account of the social activities of the conference).

Saturday though was the one full day of the conference and I include the second plenary talk of the conference which occurred from 9-10:20 am, Lynn Festa’s “The Noise in Mansfield Park” here, so as to keep this report of the conference talks to two blogs (my next will cover 4 break-out sessions plus an account of what Izzy remembered of what she had heard and enjoyed).

Quiet star-gazing by Billie Piper as Fanny and Blake Ritson as Edmund (2007 MP, scripted Maggie Wadey)

Prof Festa’s lecture was a rich and stimulating display of an post-colonial, feminist and subtle psychological reading performed by a an intelligent mind engaging with the text at a close reading level. She began by saying it may seem perverse to discuss MP featuring a quiet unobtrusive heroine in terms of noise: Fanny is a quiet, gentle, timid character whose sharp observant mind throbs with emotion, and Mansfield Park quiet and peaceful [under the governance of Sir Thomas] though Mrs Norris, Lovers’ Vows and Portsmouth provide dissonance. Prof Festa suggested Austen wants us to listen to the kinds of noise we hear: soft fretful tones of Lady Bertram, strident cadences from Mrs Norris; Maria does not want to hear the noise of the cottage or church bells (everyone has her taste in noise); slamming doors and hallooing in Mrs Price’s hallways and stairs shows how power is seen when someone can control noise (Fanny is grateful when Sir Thomas stops Mrs Norris from discussing Henry’s proposal to her) and for those can speak freely (no Austen heroine has the right to speak freely). Mansfield Park lacks a language in which to discuss issues among themselves and listening itself is underrated: Fanny looks upon the voices of the Crawford as what she wants not to hear; her silence ignored by most but to some she speaks volumes with it. the rewards and punishments of the novel measure the characters: Mary is not evil but flawed because she does not control what she says and her understanding of what she is told and her wit superficial (so she ends up frustrated but at peace with her widowed sister); a harsh condemnatory language is used by Fanny of her mother; she speaks out of embittered disappointment and escapes back to Mansfield Park whose oppressions she never acknowledges. That hole in Fanny’s heart was put there when she was brought to MP and brought up displaced and marginalized and abused which Henry Crawford does recognize. Prof Festa seemed to have heard and been using Prof McMaster’s talk when she mentioned that Fanny was a proxy child for Mrs Norris, and suggested the terror Fanny feels at the approach of Sir Thomas’s footsteps an index of the brutality Fanny fears from powerful people.

Aubrey Rouget (Fanny, Carolyn Farina) and Tom Townsend (Edmund, Edward Clemens) discussing Trilling’s dislike of MP (1990 Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan)

The blurb about the conference apologized for Mansfield Park as a book a lot of readers of Austen don’t like. If this is true, all 5 talks thoroughly countered this dislike by demonstrating that the speakers’ at least found it in all the insight, drama, fraught trauma and comedy and satire, and depiction of levels of society and attached exploited worlds found in any great Victorian novel.


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Darcy (Matthew Rhys) apologizing to Georgiana (Eleanor Tomlinson), freeing her from an engagement to Fitzwilliam (Tom Ward) (click on each image to make larger)

Climax (2)
Darcy, having apologized to Elizabeth (Anna Maxwell Martin), admit he’s wronged her

Climax (1)
The core family reconfiguring itself

after which Darcy and Elizabeth make love for the first time in a while, wake and decide they must tell Lydia (Jenna Coleman) about Wickham’s (Matthew Goode) affair with Louisa Bidwell (Nichola Burley)

Dear friends and readers,

As the second part of Death Comes to Pemberley has its pivotal climax (it’s literally half-way through) in Elizabeth’s climb to the temple and Elizabeth’s finding in Jane (Alexandra Moen) a resource for strength because Jane believes Darcy continues to love and respect Elizabeth, so the third and final part has as its pivotal climax (it’s literally half-way through) Darcy’s resolution to give up the idea of a marriage of Georgiana to Colonel Fitzwilliam, his apology to Georgiana and Elizabeth, and his resolution not to look upon everyone but close blood family suspiciously, but to be genuinely generous-spirited to all around him. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice the central recognition is Elizabeth’s of herself, in Towhidi’s movie script, it’s Darcy’s of himself. The only other heritage Austen film (characters in 18th century costume) where the hero instead of the heroine apologizes, is the much-maligned 2007 Mansfield Park (scripted by Maggie Wadey). Most movies on whatever subject humiliate the woman as the maturation event. I was very moved by this scene because it was carefully built up to.

I follow with another outline of the weaving; while I indicate most of the scenes generally I do miss out some sequences of images in the form of brief flashbacks within flashbacks or sudden moments of brooding between characters; these are many and as is common today, brief and swift, but the outward movement holds them within itself. For example, Darcy brooding in the dawn after we have seen shots of a midnight and early dawn sky over the woods:


We open with Wickham in prison, brooding, the camera on his face as he writes an autobiography in the spirit of self-release; we move into his face for a flashback sequence of his remembering his following Louisa into an area of Pemberley wood where they make love.


The film moves away from his mind and the image becomes Louisa trying to jump off a bridge with her baby, to kill them both, and collapses on the bridge unable to jump.


As is common in this and many contemporary movies, an overvoice from the coming scene is heard, Elizabeth’s and we are listening to Sir Selwyn Hardcastle (Trevor Eve) propose to her and Darcy that Louisa Bidwell’s story is centrally connected to the murder of Denny, to Darcy’s denial, Hardcastle’s scepticism (he has seen from Louisa’s behavior that Freddie Delancy is Wickham), and then we are with Darcy in Wickham’s prison cell where Wickham asserts he didn’t murder Denny, and Darcy pretends to believe him. Wickham asks Darcy to care for his son, says he does care (in a limited way) for Louisa, and, as if by association, we are staring at Mrs Reynolds (Joanna Scanlon) worrying over Louisa and the children of such misalliances (she seems to care little for the woman in front of her, Louisa, the mother, only the imagined baby) and then turn to Louisa who Mrs Reynolds and Elizabeth are questioning. They elicit from her her memories of the day she took her baby to a ruined cloister where she met with Denny (Tom Canton), Mrs Young (Mariah Gale) and saw Fitzwilliam, and, where it not for the hesitation of the reluctant Denny, Louisa would have had her baby taken by Mrs Younge.



An intensity of interactive, juxtaposed psychological presences, fills the first ten or so minutes of this hour, and then the camera moves out to film at a greater distance the social scene and landscapes of Louisa and baby hiding behind a tree, and back again inward and suddenly we are in the dark Bidwell cottage with Elizabeth questioning Louisa and Mrs Bidwell (Jennifer Hennessey) there, warily, on guard, all of them interrupted by the sick and dying Will (Lewis Ranier) who comes out for a moment, elusive, as we shall learn the key figure in what happened. There is a distinct fade out, switch and Elizabeth is telling Mrs Reynolds to find a home for Louisa’s baby (and we hear if Janeites delightedly of Mrs Reynold’s widowed sister who runs a boarding school, in Highbury, Mrs Goddard).

None of this is rational; like many melodramatic films today it follows an associative psychological trajectory to tell a story through its past and present simultaneously. The point is to involve us on a deeply emotional level, work up suspense.

There is a relaxation as we find ourselves watching Elizabeth walking and talking with Darcy on the Pemberley grounds: Elizabeth is telling him all she has learned, but they get into a quarrel as soon as she brings up Fitzwilliam’s activity in the story and he refuses to believe her, thinking family honor and safety require that Georgiana marry Fitzwilliam.


The parallel next sequence is of Georgiana and Fitzwilliam walking along the great hall, his proposal of marriage, and her obvious nervous distaste while she accedes that she will marry him.

Tomlinson as Georgiana deeply unhappy as she says yes to Fitzwilliam

A transition of Darcy coming upon Sir Selwyn in the woods examining evidence in the trees, stones, before the trial scenes open.


I won’t go over these in detail as they provide the central mood (they culminate) and are the outward manifestation of what we have seen the inner life of. As Towhidi substituted Mr and Mrs Bennet in the film for Jane and Bingley in the novel, thus gaining poignant and ironic comedy, so she invents a condescending comic scene which exposes the innkeeper’s wife’s nosiness and absurdities: she overheard Denny and Wickham’s quarrel which we now know was about betraying Louisa.

Towhidi then dramatizes what is a letter in the novel from Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Penelope Keith) perhaps to make more stinging the snobbish useless dragon lady and her careless attitudes towards the death of a lower order person (in the novel she did grieve over the death of her daughter, Anne de Bourgh); the purpose of the scene is to show Elizabeth’s invulnerability to this woman even now — with Darcy turning against her she feels.

Keith as Lady Catherine explaining to Elizabeth how she tells sick people to get better or hurry up and die … (this reminds me of James’s long-sick husband and how she must’ve cared for him)

In court all is going badly for the proud Wickham and his helpless attorney, Alveston (James Norton). We have two scenes between Darcy and Mrs Younge prefaced by his memory of her extorting money from him to find Wickham years ago to force Wickham to marry Lydia: Mrs Younge defends herself ably, she behaves ruthlessly because she has nothing and the only person she has known love from and for is Wickham, her brother. What interests me is what this is in service of: on the coach ride home the first day, Darcy finally confronts and demands an explanation from Fitzwilliam and when he sees Fitzwilliam regards Georgiana as nearly spoilt goods, is unrepentant about his deceit, manipulation of Mrs Younge, breaks with him, and then we get the central scene of Darcy’s apology, change of heart, self-recognition and new resolution.

Darcy suddenly seeing Fitzwilliam as they ride home

What is important is Darcy has his change of heart before the trial reaches its climax. Despite Hardcastle not telling all he knows (about Louisa — much to the prosecuting attorney’s disappointment), Wickham is declared guilty and told he will hang the morning after the next day. Upon the verdict, Mrs Younge rushes out, throws herself under a carriage, and dies. (Not quite believably done; the carriage is treated as if it were an automobile, and Mrs Younge does not look that hurt.) Darcy writes a letter telling the verdict to Elizabeth (we have him communicating by voice-over in a beautiful hall with gorgeous window and quill pen). This last phase has Elizabeth trying to tell Lydia that Wickham had an affair with Louisa, and Lydia, movingly for once, refusing to know, telling her sister she lives on different terms with Wickham than Elizabeth with Darcy; they pretend not to have around them the evil they do is the point. This scene between Elizabeth and Lydia is Lydia’s best moment in the movie:

Lydiasbestmoment (2)

Lydiasbestmoment (1)

A matching shows Lydia in prison with Wickham and although he has about told Darcy that he regards her as an irritating foolish nuisance (a parallel with her mother as Mr Bennet sees Mrs Bennet), he is suddenly kind, regretful, expresses the idea he has not given Lydia much of a life; she denies this and says they have had a good time. and he is grateful for her loyalty. This is an instance of getting through life by telling lies of gaiety sufficiently intensely to believe them.

Elizabeth is next seen in church, presumably praying, when the vicar comes upon her to say Will Bidwell is dying but refuses to see him as Will has done since the murder. As they walk on, Elizabeth suddenly sees it: Denny had gone to the cottage to warn Louisa both Darcy and Hardcastle said, and she can add that Will must’ve seen him, and so she breaks through Mrs Bidwell as barrier to Will and rather than see Wickham hang,


Will tells of how he came to the door, hit the man he thought had ruined his sister, with an iron, the man fell back through the wood and fell down a hill, with a huge stone ripping the back of his head. The scene of the crime we have now seen and heard ceaselessly repeated, is gone through once again, only now the missing murderer is there to explain it all.

We move to the area of improbable rescue with Mr Bidwell (Philip Martin Brown) offering to drive Elizabeth to the magistrate through the night with Will’s signed confession. Mr Bidwell blames himself for not staying by Will’s side — he was too faithful a butler, too interested in the upper class family he served than his own. I did very much like how the camera made sure that we noticed that although Wickham was saved in the nick of time, two other helpless poor people are murdered by hanging (as was the boy long ago hung for poaching, whose death has been repeated like a recurring nightmare predicting coming hanging deaths).


The sudden uptick into comedy and daylight (from a kind of film noir that the film is drenched in on and off, all shadows and darkness) comes with the return of gay music, Darcy and Elizabeth in the coach as he tells her there is no reason why Louisa should not keep her child and they act up to their responsibility and provide for them and the boy as an upper servant as he grows older. In a way this retells James’s paragraph where Darcy apologizes for not taking real responsibility for Georgiana when a child. A kind of mocking fast-paced voice-over narrative of Elizabeth’s dismisses Wickham and Lydia back to their insouciant publicly proud ways as they are turned off to make their way in America. Some how good feeling is conveyed by Martin — as she has shown a strong good heart and generosity throughout.

Anna Maxwell Martin near the end of the film

I love her as Elizabeth; perhaps I prefer this conception of Elizabeth to Austen’s own, only I would say it is an outgrowth of Austen’s: this Elizabeth recognized herself in a previous novel and the older soberer woman was inherent in the younger one.

I can’t quite explain why I was so moved by the rush of Georgiana and Alveston into one another’s arms as part of Martin’s narrative telling us how it all ended (the combination brought tears to my eyes). Perhaps because I loved my husband so, married him for love (He had as the world would and a couple of people did then say: nothing, no job, no presentability, no college degree, was just my peace, my stability, the one person I had met who I found trustworthy, tender, loving, with real understanding.)


I did not care so much for the ending which was an amalgam, a layering on of allusions to Austen films (yet it is found in the book which returns to being a sequel): Darcy and Elizabeth stand on the other side of the lake from Pemberley (apparently Howard Castle was filmed from afar); a house as such (whether Chatsworth or another) has become an icon since the ending of Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride and Prejudice with Matthew McFayden as a young Darcy and Keira Knightley as Elizabeth celebrating their marriage and love.

Now Elizabeth lets Darcy know she is again pregnant, and true to a very mild feminism about wanting a girl more than a boy, Darcy hopes for a girl. He picks Elizabeth up, swirls her about: this recalls the 2008 Sense and Sensibility where Dan Steevens as Edward Ferrars swirls an ecstatic Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood about. Our reunited couple are last seen in front of the grand house — as the 2007 Persuasion placed Rupert Penry-Jones as Wentworth and Sally Hawkins Anne before a very grand Kellynch. The difference is the young master (boy) which adds domesticity to this re-establishment of the oligarchic paradigm where the great houses carry on no matter what the individual sacrifice (in this film, Denny, Will Bidwell, Eleanor Younge — none of them important characters it seems by this ending, which feels sort of tacked on, the last two are not Austen).


This hour works because it is the culmination of all that went before carefully woven in. Like other recent costume dramas, it attempts to soften the reactionary material, here of P.D. James’s redaction of Pride and Prejudice as a moralizing hierarchical detective story, by making the central characters appealingly vulnerable, humane, as Elizabeth says at the opening of Part 2, acting responsibly for and with one another through life. The 3 novels by James I’ve read, her non-fiction and autobiography have a deep vein of melancholy awareness of the continual losses and hurts we sustain and try to recuperate ourselves from by art, and that is here too in the surface beauty of the film and as I’ve said the quieter scenes.

It’s a mini-series where important scenes occur in carriages, important decisions taken. I never mentioned Alveston and Georgiana overlooking the book of illustrations of Scottish castles and lakes (Part One) so in Part Three (despite its hectic pace) beyond the moments between Darcy and Elizabeth (their talk in bed), I found the hands of women writers in the returns to the phases of daylight and night, and liked the owning up of having been wrong by Fitzwilliam to Alveston and Sir Selwyn’s rueful quiet asides to Darcy (Trevor Eve is excellent in the role).

Lydia at dawn waiting to be told Wickham’s dead

While at the EC/ASECS conference I heard two each perceptive and informed papers by undergraduates on P.D. James’s book and Jo Baker’s Longbourn: the two undergraduates rightly suggested that James (they did not take into consideration this film comes from Howtidi’s screenplay) was too faithful and worshipful of Austen and invented the Bidwell family in order not to have to use Darcy and/or Elizabeth as guilty parties to a murder. They suggested that James wanted to deflect attention from her unwillingness to move beyond Austen by developing Georgiana and Alveston’s love story as well as the Wickham-Lydia-Louisa triangle. I’ll add the reason the book and film of Death Comes to Pemberley are ultimately unsatisfying is this unwillingness to go deeper into pain and hurt, to subvert and transgress Austen’s conservatism. For example, we are supposed to look upon Louisa as just fine now, having a good life because her son is kept at Pemberley to become servant to the master of the house.


By contrast Baker crosses over, goes beyond Austen in her story of an illegitimate son for Mr Bennet, an exploited servant girl, the Peninsula War.

Still for me the problem with Death Comes to Pemberley is its subgenre formulaic unserious use of mystery thriller material; in Longbourn the problem is the author stays within the historical franchise of Austen’s novel instead moving out also to make an original historical novel set in the later 18th century. Valerie Martin does achieve a historical fiction beyond her RLStevenson franchise in her post-text to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Mary Reilly, by including in her novel’s world her own assessment of the cruel hard later 19th century world and an idiolect, a style of her own fitting for her new heroine.


See also the general analysis of the differences between the 3 part 180 minute British mini-series and PBS’s 2 part 160 minute series: A spoilt film

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