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Archive for the ‘Austen film’ Category

London
London bridge, galloped across by Lydia, then Darcy, then Elizabeth, and all back again (Burr Steers’s P&P and Zombies)

Outsideadance
Fires were started (outside the usual assembly room dance)

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Elizabeth (Lily James) swinging her battleaxe

Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition — Elinor Dashwood, S&S

We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing” — Elizabeth Bennet, P&P

Dear friends and readers,

I’m in the peculiar position of having set out to damn this movie with faint praise, and dutifully reading the major reviews first, finding myself having more to say on behalf of the movie than most, and feeling what was so bad about the movie important enough to warrant explanation. Most reviews were a short paragraph or two at most: Peter Travers of Rolling Stone dismissed it cheerfully (!) as “utter nonsense;”; Manohla Dargis of the New York Times pronounced it “tedious and dull,” was irritated by reiterated motifs and jokes. Christie Lemire, one of those who carry on RogerEbert.com conceded some pictorial value, but it was so poorly done;; I went to Deb Barnum (Jane Austen in Vermont) hoping to fortify myself with praise there, but found that in fact she apologizes for her enjoyment and the movie.

This all agreed, despite the valiant efforts of this or that actor/actress. After an initial promotional showing in Maryland, P&P & Zombies never came near the movie-houses in my area (not DC, not in Northern Virginia, not exactly a backwater), and disappeared from movie-houses in friends’ areas around the country inside a week. Most Jane Austen movies, no matter how jarring the collocations, do very well. What was so bad? What went wrong?

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The Proposal scene, first phase (Sam Riley and Lily James)

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Second, they fight over a gun, before dengenerating into wrestling, hitting, and kicking match

I watched it twice, the first time swiftly through, the second much more slowly, taking a few snaps and paying attention to that or that. I didn’t dislike it the second time as much as I did the first (a common reaction I have to poorer Austen films). It’s memorable, a weird mirror. It shows the same turn for sudden blazing violence as even this summer’s Woody Allen’s Cafe Society includes. I argue despite its egregious flaws, it is not just failed entertainment.

I’m slightly ashamed to say why I disliked it so at first, but as this is why I argue the film is worth thinking about I’ll bring this out. I could not get myself to take it non-seriously. Had I been able to regard it as the smashing together of inane trivia from the conventions of Zombie movies with the plot-outline and most memorable or favored scenes of P&P, which in turn rendered all the Austen parts we have as themselves more inane trivia, then I would not have been disturbed. Damn it, I was.

The given of a zombie movie is there are these zombie creatures inhabiting wherever the movie is taking place, they are utterly distasteful looking — the worst kinds of ugly suppurating wounds, patches on people’s faces or whole parts of their bodies bleeding, filthy (filth is an important part of the visuals), curiously hideous; the face of the person grins at you, and it seems given a chance they would bite or attack you so that you become transformed into something similar. There can be poignant moments as if someone stepping out from a bombed area, some nuclear war:

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A mother and child

Only the zombies are not given the chance. The “good” or unpolluted (good = unpolluted, this is part of the worrying subtext) characters assault the zombies first. We are “treated” to the major principles in the film blasting these zombie creatures with bombs, blasts, fire, guns of all sorts, knives photographed close up, long rifles; the principles kick, smash, jump on, and blast out the zombies. Our five heroines we are told have been training as warrior in China (the usual place is said to be Japan), so too Charlotte (Aisling Loftus, Sonya from the recent W&P), over-the-top hideiously made-up is Lady Catherine de Bourgh who is treated as just delectable (Lena Headley) because of her warrior costume and black patch on one eye.

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Thrones play a big part in the sets

These heroines pass their days hitting one another, slapping, kicking; they walk about with guns. Darcy is a chief hunter-out and destroyer of Zombies, behaving like some doctor in violence.

Considering what goes on in US streets, the killing and violence of fear and hatred also across Europe and the middle east, engendered by this war on (so-called) terror, how can anyone regard this as trivial? it’s a reinforcement. There was Lily James, with a mean expression on her face, hair dyed dark brown (it is just one step too far to make Elizabeth Bennet a blonde), toting and stumbling over huge rifles as she stalked down streets.

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The gallant “Parson” Collins (Matt Smith), the only character in the film who is against guns (will not have them in his house), chivalrously turns to help Elizabeth during the walk to Meryton

I can’t laugh at these versions of slapstick. I never liked laughing at characters made to slip and fall and be humiliated. There is an underlying pattern of humiliation here — voyeuristic laughter at wounded horrors.

My dislike is founded on a deep rejection of senseless violence, of commercial uses of body imagery which debase and degrade the viewer’s sense of what violates whatever fundamental empathy or humanity we have (not a lot). Serious gothic is defensible as expressing deep grief, thoughts about death, the meaning of history in the present, victimization. The second time round I picked up the archetypal plot-design one sees in most spy-thrillers. Early on a bad guy emerges (evil in whatever are the terms of the movie), here Wickham (Jack Huston) and the audience glimpses this while we watch the hero (Colonel yet Darcy) fight this evil person and win and the characters slowly realize it. Like others more recently the hero here is saved by someone else in the nick of time: here Elizabeth, after Darcy has saved her in the nick of time several times — very like the film adaptation of Gabaldon’s Outlander where in the nick of time at the close of the first season Claire (Catriona Balfe) saves Jamie (Sam Heughan); hitherto it had been he who saved her in the nick of time. They too perform riding tricks aside the same horse.

I noticed too that the language used is that our political war filled world. The characters have no choice but to fight and be violent. I thought some of the language used about the zombies was racist (the way black people are talked about by those for allowing police to murder them at will); a friend who studies film as well as literary gothic said the zombies in some zombie movies seem to stand for immigrants. No idea of understanding in the movie anywhere but then the whole lift-off from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is simply exploitative. There was here and there the idea that life and death are connected but that was not structural as in say Branagh’s Frankenstein. So this is a deeply reactionary, fascistic film.

A lot was made of common distaste for bugs.

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In the above typically orange-and-black scene of manners (playing cards), the older man is attacked and destroyed without warning because he is supposed a zombie (it’s the same procedure the US uses for drones)

Human beings find insects horrible because they look so different from us, seem so mindless. So bugs are everywhere and we have to watch Lily James crush them with her hands, then drop a bunch into Darcy’s hands. Well, yes, yuk. But this sort of thing doesn’t do much for those wanting to increase respect for otherness in the kingdom of living things. This was part of a vein of foulness.

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The de rigueur breakfast scene

Aesthetically there was a continual jarring as the film-makers moved back and forth from Austen material taken straight (word-for-word when famous), in more or less quiet usual daylight colors, and zombie scenes. Interwoven absurdly the reading of Forsyte’s sermons. For a moment here and there an actor captured something of the original spirit of Austen’s book (Charles Dance, thrown away here as Mr Bennet — I hope they paid him big, Sally Philips as Mrs Bennet) but mostly the dialogues were made to feel silly and made no sense surrounded by this sudden outbreaks of brutal meanness. (I admit much of it might seem light or harmless if you compare it to what goes on in the popular and fleeting action-adventure, spy-thriller, macho male concoctions as in Games of Thrones, The Infiltrator. It’s more than that Furman’s pacing was inadequate.

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The world as ruin, on fire from bombs

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Elizabeth crawling through to reach an apparently dead Darcy

OTOH, the photography of London and the gothic imagery was effective, haunting, the mise-en-scenes of gothic places apocalyptic – the grey anonymous city. These set pieces reminded me of the sets created for Jim Jarmusch’s brilliant genuinely apocalyptic The Last Lover Left Alive featuring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston: this was an overly political gothic movie: the city the vampires (in this case) try to escape to or from is Detroit which has been deliberately sluiced and destroyed by super-wealthy (reminding me of similar characters in Our Kind of Traitor, the most recent LeCarre). Richard Davenport-Hines in his Gothic: 400 years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin demonstrates that the gothic is as often used for radical and liberal visions as reactionary atavistic cruelty.

The most interesting aspect of the film was its gothicisms. How stable this kind of material is: someone coming to the movie from the 1790s who had been reading gothics could recognize it, only it was more Victorian, drawing more on the kind of detective gothic coming out of later 19th century books. I can see the origin of this in the fable of Frankenstein, Boris Karloff’s first costuming; in the latest version (Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro) finally the monster’s loneliness, the defiance of death, the strong attack on medicine as violating us was brought out; the zombie machinery just throws that all away but for the occasional look of forlonrness on a female zombie which is quickly erased as she snarls. The more general origin is not what’s called “terror” gothic (often female, often about intangibles, inward) but “horror” gothic (often male, misogynist, doing all it can to violate bodies in startling ways).

One movie does not a genre make but from what I observe in this one zombies belong to the male gothic, violate the body side of gothic. The Jane Austen woman’s film has become a male one. One of the famous stills — which is seen for a moment in this film as an unnamed woman zombie wanders through — is a mask of iron with slates over the woman’s face. This silences her– like taking out her tongue. So you can rape her at will. I’ve few pictures of wife abuse before the later 18th century but one shows a woman whom the court punished by putting such a mask on her face: the court was itself abusing her. (This makes me think of the present Republican insane-hate fest where they chanted at Hilary Clinton “lock er up,” the next best thing is lock her face, cut out her tongue, execute her).

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Our principals pass by a place that looks like George Bellows’s under Brooklyn Bridge, where zombies and others come out starving, looking for food, warmth, anything

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Out of a key church in the film, St Lazarus, come the 4 horseman in black, and then zombies and others half-crazed pour out

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Wickham early in the film

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Last seen, a kind of mad-dog terrorist (?) with a many-pronged iron tool

While the two genres utterly clash, beyond Jack Huston a credible, slowly emerging angry, and then enraged Wickham, Aisling Loftus a self-respecting Charlotte, Matt Smith a comically effective Collins, both Lily James and Sam Riley were almost almost moving their last scenes but one (the fatuous wedding, meant to be fatuous, made fun of) — reaching out to one another, the second proposal. When the Jane Austen material was to the fore, however rarely I thought of how Austen’s novels prima facie stand for civilized behavior at a miminum, which is not to be despised in today’s world.

It’s a film you could think about.

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The direct source, the men, & the sisters: side issues?

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Matt Smith marrying everyone else

Since Seth Grahame-Smith’s mash-up novel seems to me a gay send up of the archetypal heterosexual romance, I’ll mention I saw no homosexuality, no jokes I could recognize as gay . There is nothing homoerotic in this film unless you impose on Bingley’s usual dependence on Darcy (Douglas Booth as Bingley is made effeminate) and the enraged hostility of Darcy and Wickham (now developed from previous sequels) as homoerotic. Maybe we were to see the anti-violence Collins as gay. This shows a strong stereotyping, and it’s a stretch.

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Darcy and Bingley — typical moment between them

A friend said of “the men, who in the Austen book we see idling like a bunch of Ken dolls, [are] engaging in activity, even if that activity was killing zombies. As one interested in what Kenneth Johnston calls the white spaces in Austen’s novels, I appreciated at least a depiction, if extremely fanciful, of what the men do when they aren’t hanging around drawing rooms.” Yes but I wished they could find something else beyond killing as a trade. A mirror of our time? the US gov’t makes only military jobs. We have girl-power chicks readying themselves with guns

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A debate broke out on Janeites because one person (Arnie Perlstein?) claimed tha the film developed a subtext in Austen of Elizabeth’s intense jealousy and rivalry with Lydia, here turned into a kind of hatred. Lily James does seethe at first at the usual sullen spiteful version of Lydia (Ellie Bamber)

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A group scene

The film lacks all subtlety except when Austen material comes through. But this idea is such a tiny element — if you blink you’ll miss it. It starts early on, but is no more prominent than the standard bad behavior of Lydia in this film (she tries to humiliate and scorn her sisters); it’s also overturned because of the stupidity of spy-thriller conventions (more just in the nick of time stuff). Our victim-heroine Lydia is lured into St Lazarus castle and without explanation we next see her chained in a dungeon. Darcy knows where she is (so a tiny hint from the original book) and risks all rescuing her; then Elizabeth knowing where he went, rides after them, and of course rescues them both and the two girls hug in a wooded wasteland at some convenient split second.

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JameasRosamundPike (1)

In the Austen domestic comedy and romance sequences, the costume designer costumed Lily James to look like Jennifer Ehle; some of her dresses were exactly those of Jennifer Ehle; Jane’s (Bella Heathcote) costumes were same as Jane’s (Rosamund Pike) in Joe Wright’s films.

Maybe it’s too much to call this gothic Jane a significant mish-mash, but it should not just be dismissed. Compare them in gothic guise:

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The city as ruins

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Elizabeth gone mad and Jane in open distress

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The film’s last still before the credits roll

Ellen

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Emma (Kate Beckinsale) painting Harriet (Samantha Morton) while Mr Elton (Dominic Rowan) looks on (1996 A&E Emma, scripted Andrew Davies)

Ekphrastic: a graphic, often dramatic, verbal description of a visual work of art, either real or imagined. From the Greek, “out” and “speak” respectively.

Friends, I’ve been wanting to connect Jane Austen to my series of women artists, or at least pictures in some way since I began the project. Today Diane Reynolds’s delight in Austen’s use of the literalism of Admiral Crofts’s reaction to a sublime picture of tiny individuals watching a ship flounder at sea in a shop window in Persuasion showed me the way. So, a meditative blog on how Jane Austen treats pictures she creates by words and how she treats visualizations, and how in her texts the two are seen to influence one another:

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Admiral Crofts (John Woodvine) amused at the picture he describes to Anne Elliot (Amanda Root) in the window shop (1995 BBC Persuasion, scripted Nick Dear)

it so happened that one morning, about a week or ten days after the Croft’s arrival [in Bath], it suited her best to leave her friend, or her friend’s carriage, in the lower part of the town, and return alone to Camden Place, and in walking up Milsom Street she had the good fortune to meet with the Admiral. He was standing by himself at a printshop window, with his hands behind him, in earnest contemplation of some print, and she not only might have passed him unseen, but was obliged to touch as well as address him before she could catch his notice. When he did perceive and acknowledge her, however, it was done with all his usual frankness and good humour. “Ha! is it you? Thank you, thank you. This is treating me like a friend. Here I am, you see, staring at a picture. I can never get by this shop without stopping. But what a thing here is, by way of a boat! Do look at it. Did you ever see the like? What queer fellows your fine painters must be, to think that anybody would venture their lives in such a shapeless old cockleshell as that? And yet here are two gentlemen stuck up in it mightily at their ease, and looking about them at the rocks and mountains, as if they were not to be upset the next moment, which they certainly must be. I wonder where that boat was built!” (laughing heartily); “I would not venture over a horsepond in it.” (Persuasion 2:6 or 18)

I’m also fond of the passage in Emma where Mr Woodhouse objects to Emma’s painting Harriet without a shawl out-of-doors as all in the family and friends fall to discussing this “likeness” that Emma has taken of Harriet done the portrait:

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Mrs Western (Samantha Bond) leading the discussion, next to her Mr Elton, to the back Mr Knightley (Mark Strong) and Emma and Mr Woodhouse (Bernard Heptom) (1996 Emma scripted Davies)

“Miss Woodhouse has given her friend the only beauty she wanted,” — observed Mrs. Weston to him–not in the least suspecting that she was addressing a lover. — “The expression of the eye is most correct, but Miss Smith has not those eyebrows and eyelashes. It is the fault of her face that she has them not.” … “You have made her too tall, Emma,” said Mr. Knightley. Emma knew that she had, but would not own it; and Mr. Elton warmly added, “Oh no! certainly not too tall; not in the least too tall. Consider, she is sitting down — which naturally presents a different — which in short gives exactly the idea–and the proportions must be preserved, you know. Proportions, fore-shortening. — Oh no! it gives one exactly the idea of such a height as Miss Smith’s. Exactly so indeed!”
“It is very pretty,” said Mr. Woodhouse. “So prettily done! Just as your drawings always are, my dear. I do not know any body who draws so well as you do. The only thing I do not thoroughly like is, that she seems to be sitting out of doors, with only a little shawl over her shoulders–and it makes one think she must catch cold.”
    “But, my dear papa, it is supposed to be summer; a warm day in summer. Look at the tree.”
    “But it is never safe to sit out of doors, my dear.”
    “You, sir, may say any thing,” cried Mr. Elton, “but I must confess that I regard it as a most happy thought, the placing of Miss Smith out of doors; and the tree is touched with such inimitable spirit! Any other situation would have been much less in character. The naivete of Miss Smith’s manners — and altogether — Oh, it is most admirable! I cannot keep my eyes from it. I never saw such a likeness.” (Emma 2:6)

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Mr Woodhouse continues to be concerned for Harriet’s health

We tend to dismiss these as just literalism made fun of (which they are), or revealing of a particular character’s obsessions (which they do): the criteria an absurd literalism; we see how the Admiral cannot enter into art conventions at all because he has led a life at sea; Mr Woodhouse is this hypochondriac, no flattery of Emma is to egregious for Mr Elton to utter. Their egoistic points of reference our own responses to such conventions in art more self-conscious. We could see them as part of a skein of self-reflexive commentary on art which is consistent across Austen. The drawing of Harriet’s picture is prefaced by a discussion of what makes a good likeness: it appears not to be accuracy per se, as Emma felt she’d gotten down her sister, Isabella’s and John Knightley’s children well enough. What is to be avoided is the insipid, what sought for vivacity, an energy of a particular individual’s felt life.

But we can extrapolate out further: for example, I’d lump with these two, Catherine remembering while on a tour of Northanger Abbey Mrs Allen’s comment that from her reading of gothic descriptions of abbeys and castles, Mrs Allen was often “amazed” to think how the kitchen staff got through all their work with such inadequate equipment. Well, the case is altered in the well-appointed kitchens of the Tilney abbey, which the General is determined Catherine will appreciate:

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Neither NA film shows this in-house tour, and the graphic novel (JA’s NA, Nancy Butler, Janet Lee, Nick Pilardi) pictures non-functioning fantastic rooms, the opposite of what Austen writes and Catherine was awed at

[but] “Catherine could have raved at the hand which had swept away what must have been beyond the value of all the rest, for the purposes of mere domestic economy; and would willingly have been spared the mortification of a walk through scenes so fallen, had the general allowed it; but if he had a vanity, it was in the arrangement of his offices; and as he was convinced that, to a mind like Miss Morland’s, a view of the accommodations and comforts, by which the labours of her inferiors were softened, must always be gratifying, he should make no apology for leading her on. They took a slight survey of all; and Catherine was impressed, beyond her expectation, by their multiplicity and their convenience. The purposes for which a few shapeless pantries and a comfortless scullery were deemed sufficient at Fullerton, were here carried on in appropriate divisions, commodious and roomy. The number of servants continually appearing did not strike her less than the number of their offices. Wherever they went, some pattened girl stopped to curtsy, or some footman in dishabille sneaked off. Yet this was an abbey! How inexpressibly different in these domestic arrangements from such as she had read about — from abbeys and castles, in which, though certainly larger than Northanger, all the dirty work of the house was to be done by two pair of female hands at the utmost. How they could get through it all had often amazed Mrs. Allen; and, when Catherine saw what was necessary here, she began to be amazed herself” (Northanger Abbey 2:6 or 23)

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Davies substitutes a development of a few lines where Eleanor Tilney (Catherine Walker) confides in Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones) in a woodland walk her mother had loved (2007 NA scripted Andrew Davies)

In P&P Elizabeth staring at Darcy’s picture is a trope going back to Greek romance: the lover’s state of mind is what is doing the falling in love. It’s when she is planning, dreaming of her coming tour to the Lake District we see this specificity criteria emerge. Readers seem to remember the first half of Elizabeth’s effusion, it’s the second half that tells us what kind of descriptive travel writing Austen appreciated. Italics Austen’s:

… she had the unexpected happiness of an invitation to accompany her uncle and aunt in a tour of pleasure which they proposed taking in the summer.
    “We have not quite determined how far it shall carry us,” said Mrs. Gardiner, “but perhaps to the Lakes.”
    No scheme could have been more agreeable to Elizabeth, and her acceptance of the invitation was most ready and grateful. “My dear, dear aunt,” she rapturously cried, “what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of any thing. We will know where we have gone — we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers, shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarrelling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers.” (P&P, 2:4 or 27)

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Elizabeth (Jennifer Ehle) is placed in a clearly delineated landscape (1995 A&E P&P scripted Davies) and is reminiscient of

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A Gilpin depiction of Dove Dale, Derbyshire (!)

Northanger Abbey and Persuasion have the most complicated aesthetic discussions of Austen’s books, but when it comes to how to reading any artistic depiction, throughout all the scenes and conversations in Austen’s novels and letters what Austen demands herself is versimilitude, and accuracy. Not just her characters demand literalism as a criteria for judgement. It is she who mocks these pictures, these descriptions as absurd partly because they show the artist has had what she sees as lapse of mind. Nothing is being observed from nature. All vague or inward. She does not respect conventions as such, not consciously.

In S&S upon Edward Ferrars’ expressing his dislike of hypocrisy in pleasure (“affectation”) by refusing to admit he has strong preferences too, Marianne tells her objection to popular art (cant):

“It is very true,” said Marianne, “that admiration of landscape scenery is become a mere jargon. Every body pretends to feel and tries to describe with the taste and elegance of him who first defined what picturesque beauty was. I detest jargon of every kind; and sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in but what was worn and hackneyed out of all sense and meaning.” (S&S, 1:18)

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Unnoticed: a good deal of quiet landscape beauty and talk about art, picturing it together: Elinor (Irene Richards) and Edward Ferrars (Bosco Hogan) (1981 BBC S&S, scripted Alexander Baron)

In Mansfield Park Fanny Price, has to face continual deflations; no illusions let pass; typical the dialogue in the chapel where Mary Crawford objects to her sentimental mush over prayers, Edmund corrects her too on by the sober grounds (an awareness of his own limitation and here in the form of death:

They entered. Fanny’s imagination had prepared her for something grander than a mere spacious, oblong room, fitted up for the purpose of devotion: with nothing more striking or more solemn than the profusion of mahogany, and the crimson velvet cushions appearing over the ledge of the family gallery above. “I am disappointed,” said she, in a low voice, to Edmund. “This is not my idea of a chapel. There is nothing awful here, nothing melancholy, nothing grand. Here are no aisles, no arches, no inscriptions, no banners. No banners, cousin, to be ‘blown by the night wind of heaven.’ No signs that a ‘Scottish monarch sleeps below.’”
    “You forget, Fanny, how lately all this has been built, and for how confined a purpose, compared with the old chapels of castles and monasteries. It was only for the private use of the family. They have been buried, I suppose, in the parish church. There you must look for the banners and the achievements.” MP 1:9)

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Fanny (Sylvestre LeTousel) left alone to dream over her and William’s letters and his exquisitely detailed map of his ship (the map not in Austen. 1983 BBC MP scripted Ken Taylor)

In her letters, where she and Cassandra talk of paintings (the Anglo-cum-Indian painter, Wm Hodges) or pictures in book (mostly landscape and print, as John Glover) her attitudes are shaped by how she feels about the people involved (very ambivalent over William Hastings and his second wife) or the texts illustrated (Glover of a woman’s novel she has mocked). Is the picture in the exhibit like her own characters? Mrs Bingley. Mrs Darcy. Then she enters into what she sees.

Only Gilpin appears to have been exempt from this egoism (see Davies’s Elizabeth above), and there because of the concrete topography, and that she enjoyed traveling through reading travel books, though here too she will poke fun at too strict an adherence to principles in lieu of capturing the reality. See “Enamoured of Picturesque at a Very Early Age”

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I’m drawn to this reproduction of an actual page in a book: writing in the margins here is not defacing

I’ve been reading Anthony Trollope’s Small House of Allington where Trollope makes similar demands upon and fun of a few famous books — so his narrator as Bell Dale (a version of Elinor Dashwood) says of Pilgrim’s Progress the problem is all the characters are mad, they are not a well lot, half distraught all the time, when they are not rejoicing. Trollope sweeps away the genre of exemplary allegory and applies to this work a sophisticated psychological outlook — like his own. As he does mean to point out the absurdity of what presents itself as teaching profound lessons, so Austen at least in the case of the sublime-picturesque in the art of her era deflates as silly or not thought out pomposity.

she confessed and lamented her want of knowledge, declared that she would give anything in the world to be able to draw; and a lecture on the picturesque immediately followed, in which his instructions were so clear that she soon began to see beauty in everything admired by him, and her attention was so earnest that he became perfectly satisfied of her having a great deal of natural taste. He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances — side-screens and perspectives — lights and shades; and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape (NA 1:14)

For readers like me (and I daresay others who laugh with delight too) we find the mocking fun infectious, because it’s a form of liberation. Principles must yield to actuality. We are not required to shut off the critical part of our mind. It can also be a joyous release because the conventions of a solemn or vacuous work of art lose their grip.

It’s where Austen catches at what’s jarring, and sees disjunction that we pick up snatches of her theory of verbal and visualized pictures.

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Catherine, Henry (J.J.Feilds) and Eleanor Tilney climbing Beechen Cliff (2008 NA)

“I never look at it,” said Catherine, as they walked along the side of the river, “without thinking of the south of France.”
    “You have been abroad then?” said Henry, a little surprised.
    “Oh! No, I only mean what I have read about. It always puts me in mind of the country that Emily and her father travelled through, in The Mysteries of Udolpho (NA 1:14)

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Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen on her way down to meet Ann Radcliffe, her subjective life and the surrounding house become pictorially gothic (2008 Becoming Jane Austen, scripted Kevin Hood and Susan Williams)

Ellen

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Hubert Robert, Madame Geoffrin Drawing (for a cover, as it is a work French in feel) — let us say Lady Churchill pouring over her daughter’s letters, writing in reply

Dear friends and readers,

Since Love and Friendship is apparently doing well enough commercially that Whit Stillman’s film has not yet left general run theaters, and more and more people have seen it. Stillman’s re-titling of Austen’s mid-career epistolary novella has come under discussion. I thought I’d add a qualifying note in the form of this blog: Austen did not title her fair copy manuscript, it’s salutary to remember that except for the four novels she shepherded into print, we can’t be sure any of her titles represent her first or last decision or determined preference at all, if she had one.

Two of these four texts supervised by Austen herself, have had other names: Pride and Prejudice was for many years a long sharply satiric novel, possibly heavily epistolary denominated First Impressions. Austen told people in the “know” about her authorship, that Martha has read First Impressions so many times, that she might commit it to memory, in order to write it out and sell it herself. Sense and Sensibility began life as a brief epistolary novel, named after the two correspondents: Elinor and Marianne. By the time it was lengthened into the book Cassandra mentions as written 1797-98, it had become Sense and Sensibility.

Lady Susan (so-called) comes third in the succession of posthumous works after Austen’s early death (1871). Of these three, Northanger Abbey (1817) was titled Susan when it was sold in 1803 to Crosby; when we hear of it again in 1816 it has become Catherine. Family tradition says Persuasion (1817) was first titled The Elliots, whose appropriateness is signaled by its first French translator who called the novel La Famille Elliot [ou l’ancienne inclination]. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion are Henry and Cassandra’s inspired choices; the pairing them as “sister-novels” (two Bath books?) the result of the way Henry and Cassandra printed them together, with the biographical notice by Henry.

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In life Austen paid attention to what was worn (a 1798 ensemble overdress, fischu of European Cotton Silk) — something Lady Susan would certainly sell herself for

James Edward Austen-Leigh tells us that Lady Susan is untitled. We see we have a genuinely fair copy, all gussied up as if Austen was pretending she was publishing her book. This kind of psychological imitation is found in early modern women for texts they cherish and would like others to see in this permanent (more or less) form. So she must’ve cared about the book. Why not name it? Yet, as Austen-Leigh says, it has no name. Austen-Leigh named the book after its chief protagonist, but Austen might have preferred any number of thematic names. In the 18th century novels were named after the chief protagonist; an important theme; or the place the novel importantly occurs in. Following her predilection in her first four, she might have played upon the tradition of widows as hypocritically grieving, while conducting liaisons, so a thematic The Gay Widow (no pun intended) might be appropriate; given the way Austen is regarded the film-makers could scarcely have gone for Adultery Exposed. But maybe, just maybe Austen did have a an ironically amoral/moral title in mind in the manner of LaClos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

Eager to prevent Austen’s texts from being lost or hidden from the public any longer, later that same year (1871) JEAL published the fragment, The Watsons. Family tradition, confirmed by Catherine Anne Hubback (daughter to Jane’s brother Frank) who finished the novel with details which suggest a knowledge of the autobiographical backgrounds of Austen’s texts, is this was originally called (by Austen herself) The Younger Sister. This time JEAL was covering up. Sanditon came out many years later: 1825. This is Chapman’s title, calling attention to the unusual setting. The text is untitled in the manuscript, Frank’s grand-daughter declared it was called The Brothers, so like The Younger Sister an autobiographical allusion or source for the work is obscured. Gilson in his magisterial Bibliography also records “The Last Work,” perhaps as semi-comment on the author’s sad death, her weakness and silencing from her illness.

That leaves us with Mansfield Park, Emma, and what we have of titles for the so-called Juvenilia, among which is Love and Freindship (first published 1922) as Austen’s own.

Does it matter? yes. A rose by any other name smells as sweet; still, framing matters. When Stillman decided to re-name the work with a juvenilia name he could hope more Austen readers have read (and found hilarious) outside the famous six novel canon, he was not distorting Austen’s framing. Stillman has said he found Love and Friendship appropriate to the novella, but film-makers no more than authors are on oath when they discuss their book. No one in the novel confides in a friend, friendship is a function of your acceptability. Love too is meted out contingently. The letters are from Churchill, most to them from rather than to. How about The Churchill Letters? this seething place within.

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William Westall, Rievaulz Abbey from Duncombe Terrace (as Austen’a taste for Gilpin and reading in Radcliffe and Smith when young suggests a liking for picturesque book illustrations) — Churchill from afar

Ellen

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Stephen Frye as Mr Johnson coping with Jenn Murray as Lady Lucy Manwarring and Xavier Samuel as Reginald de Courcy (2016 Love and Friendship, scripted and directed by Whit Stillman)

Dear friends and readers,

I confess to a real let-down and disappointment upon my first viewing of the film. Since Love and Friendship is a Stillman film. Given the high literary quality of his scripts, and depth of emotion he invested Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco with, I assumed he’d do real justice to the sardonic nature of the central hypocrite, Lady Susan (played by an almost unrecognizable Kate Beckinsale — since her face-life her face resembles that of a Barbie doll) and her real potential destructiveness (however thwarted by her lack of money and need of other people’s and their houses) and perniciously cold and egoistic values. I knew it would not be presented as an “inverted protest novel” (the way I had read it recently).

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Beckinsale as Lady Susan – a rare moment in the clear light

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From The Last Days of Disco when Beckinsale had some character in her face and Sevigny was thinner
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Beckinsale as a bright hard mean Emma with Samantha Morton as a comically sensitive Harriet (1996 Emma by Andrew Davies)

I’d just taught Lady Susan, so could not easily forget, how hard, mean, at moments raw (towards her daughter, Frederica) Austen’s Lady Susan reveals herself to be in her letters to her confidante, Alicia Johnson (played by Chloe Sevigny whom I regret to say is as wooden and incapable of conveying a witty line as ever — she twice throws away “what man could deserve you” saying straight). The single moment of steel in the 92 minutes was supplied by Stephen Frye as Alicia’s husband: when Mr Johnson sees his wife still in a close relationship with Lady Susan (which he has strictly forbidden) and is confronted with the helpless and therefore hysterical grief of Lady Lucy Manwaring (Jenn Murray) whose husband is adulterously entangled with Lady Susan, he informs hers that he understands the weather in crossing the Atlantic this year is tough. (She has told Lady Susan Mr Johnson threatens to remove her from Lady Susan by taking her back to Connecticut if she does not stopping seeing this friend.)

Yes, Alicia Johnson is made into an American. Ang Lee and James Schamus are on record since their The Wedding Banquet if you want big funding from an American company, especially in the case of costume drama seen as having a smaller audience, a woman’s film in the first place, you are pressured into having one American character. American producers cannot believe the average American will like a film that has no American in it. Thus recently Julian Fellowes made Miss Dunstable in the self-consciously costum-y Dr Thorne improbably into an American.

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Sevigny as Alicia (the promotional stills photograph her from a distance or angle)

Instead he has opted for slow artifice, insistence on playful theatricality (each character is announced in a still with their name written across their face, and their familial or work relationship with the other characters), a full-scale imitation or throw-back to 1970s BBC mini-series costume dramas. Everyone and everything is dressed or outfitted, decorated super-elegantly, not just Laura Ashley style but the hats are pure Gainsborough films (1940s costume dramas rather like Saul Dobbs’s The Duchess). The non-sourced music is often 18th century and as ironic background to the closing marriages, Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. Sometimes he seemed to be imitating Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s super-successful 1996 bejewelled Sense and Sensibility. Xavier Samuel as Reginald de Courcy’s stiff body gestures, his pained facial expressions, the occasional astonishment reminded me of Hugh Grant’s Edward, only Hugh Grant at the close does suddenly invest his character with a depth of tender affection nowhere felt or seen in this movie.

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Catherine de Courcy (Emma Greenwell) and Reginald Vernon

Stillman imitates the many walking scenes in Sense and Sensibility too. This is what a Jane Austen movie is supposed to be many of its fans feel; this is what they go for: emasculated men, women so gussied up to rape anyone would take excruciating efforts over corsets first. And both times I went I could see the audience was pleased: Beckinsale changed outfits almost every time we saw her, some of them quite lovely, especially her impeccably unruffled hats and curls. It is a relief after the alpha male, action-adventure movies crowding theaters with their 11 second scenes, non-literate scripts, and token women acting as male as their sexual roles permit.

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Those reviews which have been favorable have picked up on this unbroken surface, these masks. For example, Adam Thirkwell’s Unserious Austen. Thirkwell is one of those who believes Lady Susan is a work of a teenager (the hagiography that surrounds Austen makes it possible to attribute this kind of sophisticated understanding of the nuances and circumstances surrounding adultery to an 18 year old) and looking at Stillman’s other films, Thirkwell reads the film as about the seriousness of surface; the insistence that the way to live life is by staying shallow, encasing yourself in the frivolous, to be unserious and insist anyone with an emotional attachment that is unchangeable is deluded: that is to take Lady Susan’s view of the world as accurate, or good enough, a way of getting through the actual coldness, meanness, mercenary motives of everyone else.

Except that Metropolitan, Last Days and Barcelona are rather about happiness coming from the integrity of the heart, from intelligent people seeing the limitatons of say worldly success (a great concern of Metropolitan is where you will be placed by your mid-30s). A few essays in Mark G Henrie’s collection of essays on Stillman’s films, Doomed Bourgeois in Love, argue that Stillman is highly unusual not only for his open identification with and interest in the upper class, but because his films are ironic Christian comedies. He is a thinking Christian and sees Austen as an optimistic ethical writer.

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An unusually emotional scene: Lady de Courcy (Jemma Redgrave) and Catherine Vernon meeting Frederica (Morfyyd Clark) (not in Lady Susan but implied)

Thirkwell omitted a series of scenes not in Lady Susan, and certainly not the lines: except for the local vicar, the unnamed “local curate (played by Conor MacNeill) no one knows which position on the 10 commandments a particular instruction has. This curate is an invented character not in any of Austen’s texts: pious and trying hard to make the Christian message he understands doable. The joke about the 10 commandments is brought back three times. They are also all clueless on the story of Solomon judging which woman is the mother of a baby. Lady Susan alludes to it at least three times too as if it shows just what a good mother she is; she does not seem to know the parable contains two mothers or what happens in it, nor does anyone else. Frederica (Morfyyd Clark) Vernon, Lady Susan’s daughter, presented as unqualifiedly virtuous is so guilty over having finessed her mother’s injunctions not to tell her uncle Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) or his wife, her kind aunt, Lady de Courcy by telling Reginald goes to church to find guidance and solace and comfort. (Something that never occurs in Lady Susan.) The lighting of the film throughout is exquisitely beautiful, like a golden Vermeer painting, and especially of Frederica reading books here and there, but this scene is luminous. Our new local curate looks at her lovingly, and for a moment I thought maybe Stillman would make this a match. As she emerges, she meets Reginald and he is clueless over why anyone would go to church on any day but Sunday. He asks twice about this peculiarity of hers. But by the end of the movie he has apparently “gotten it,” understood why, for at their wedding, he cites a verse written in 18th century style celebrating Frederica’s virtue, where virtue means religious as well as marital constancy. We then see James Fleet as Reginald’s father, Sir Reginald beaming down on Jemma Redgrave, with slight comic over-doneness (James Fleet like Fyre is able to act the part with comic effect).

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James Fleet as Sir Reginald looking on at some ridiculousness

Stillman does have to soften the story somewhat. In general until near the end of the movie he sticks literally to events in the book. Then instead of Reginald finally waking up to what Lady Susan is (Reginald is an anticipation of the denseness and delusions of Edmund Bertram) and throwing her off, Stillman has Lady Susan break the engagement. Reginald’s pride is hurt we are told, and he is still in danger of returning to Lady Susan. If he does not, another change is that Lady Susan is pregnant by Manwaring at the close of the film. This gives her a less mercenary incentive: in the book she wanted to marry Sir James to her daughter so with her ability to bully her daughter, she could have (in effect) enforced regular marital sex and children on her daughter by taking the money herself. Stillman adds a silent scene where we see Sir James giving Lady Susan money. He adds wedding scenes which however ironic underneath are on the surface social happy affairs. So too dancing.

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A particularly gorgeous hat == the cloaks provide further eye-candy (the film recalled McGrath’s 1996 hit Emma with Gweneth Paltrow in this respect)

So I should not have been surprised at the genre Stillman has opted to use for Austen’s story: highly traditional familial costume drama undercut gently by ironic music and for the thoughtful more critically by what is actually happening and the distance between what’s said and what’s done in the case of Lady Susan. Rich costumes bring audiences in; there are people who insist on the meaninglessness of Downton Abbey for them personally: they are watching for the costumes and to look at the lovely rooms and buildings.

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One of the houses glimpsed in the distance (there are few photos of distant shots in promotional images)

Certainly in this film a number of older grand mansions in various states of decline were filmed (like the 2007 Northanger Abbey by Andrew Davies this film was done in Ireland). And it fits into his outlook, the way he professes to understand Austen. He’s not a typical Janeite though as he finds Fanny Price a likeable (appealing) character in Mansfield Park. He has his heroine in Metropolitan defend Fanny against the strictures of Lionel Trilling as well as the story’s taking seriously whether amateurs should do a salacious play in a private house.

Myself I don’t find this kind of tone characteristic of Lady Susan. Since it is all in letters, she can drop the social mask and reveal herself more than once very directly as a bully, mean, aggressive, with an expectation that everyone will be as nasty she is (rather like Fielding’s Bifil). A couple of time Stillman acknowledges the centrality of letters by having one read aloud, and he shows characters communicating through them, but his theme of the effectiveness of social mask and that Lady Susan never drops it is not true of the book. She can be very raw as can her friend Alicia; these lines are divided in the film:

My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying
a man of his age!–just old enough to be formal, ungovernable
and to have the gout–too old to be agreeable, and too young to
die. May the next gouty attack be more favorable

As I read Lady Susan and have listened to it read aloud by Blackstone and other audio-readers, it’s close to Les Liasions Dangereuses, or Stael’s Delphine (1805, with a Madame Susan Vernon as worldly villainess and very bad mother). If you were puzzled why there are so many brief scenes between Alice and Lady Susan — I mean how she does manage to whiz up to London from the country and back again repeatedly: Stillman is presenting the matter of their letters brief scenes. Epistolary narrative can be looked at as inner dramas on a stage with the characters represented by letters in lieu of dialogue.

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The heroines exchange bits from the letters — sometimes they lurk outside amid columns in unspecified areas

But I did find it startling to see the transposition of the original language of the letters into dialogue, often without much change. This is very like some of the 1970s film adaptations and the closest in the Austen canon is the 1979 P&P by Faye Weldon, only Weldon had an omniscient novel with characters talking to one another. The effect is stilted, and I could see from other viewers they were growing restless. Since the 1990s these costume dramas have been trying for some compromise between the language of the originals and intelligent and demotic talk of today. The audience were clearly glad to have the more obvious jokes, or seemingly obviously funny lines which they got and laughed a bit too determinedly I thought — as if to feel they were enjoying themselves. I wondered if some other of the lines given to Lady Susan gave them pause, but after all Stillman’s Lady Susan never for once breaks her surface of sweetness and she never offers more of her real values and norms than she has to even to Alicia. So no one leaving this theater could think from this film Austen seriously questioned our society, except maybe if you were seeking something, you could say see how desperate women were. This jusifies Lady Susan’s behavior in part, and it is the way a couple of favorable reviews took the movie. It’s about how women are oppressed.

To me this kind of review is a caricature of the idea: no woman in the movie is ever pictured as less than well-fed, comfortable, and on the surface complacent. If you can control the surface this way, what can the depths be? The one hard statement in the film comes from Catherine Decourcy Vernon (Emma Greenwall) when at the close of the film she calls Lady Susan a cold snake (to her mother). It’s a good thing this utterance does not need an ability to utter irony for Greenwall is another actor in the film who cannot do it; nor Justin Edwards as Frederica’s lummox of an uncle.

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Moment of obvious astonishment: Catherine de Courcy and Charles Vernon

The overt joke here is that uncle Charles is astonished that any woman of intelligence could marry a fool, by which he means Sir James Martin (Tom Bennet). At the close we learn that Lady Susan has married Sir James, and as Charles drivels on in his usual “candid” way (of seeing all good everywhere) to say Lady Susan has fallen in love with him, Greenwall turns aside to grin. In Austen’s book, Sir James is not a harmless rattle, but a stubborn and dense man who would not (as Sir James does here) not realize that he’s being cuckolded by Manwaring; as Reginald is a permutation of the obtuse Edmund Bertram so Sir James is a version of Rushworth in Mansfield Park. In the book Frederica is right to dread marriage with this man and in the film to assume she will be just fine with Reginald. After all her aunt Catherine is doing just fine; her uncle does whatever the aunt wants. Stillman has picked up that Charles Vernon is a version of Charles Bingley (P&P), easily led, only left out that he could be led by bad people.

Talk I heard from people coming out both times included asssertions “it’s an odd film.” One woman didn’t quite know what to make of it, but then she’d not read Lady Susan. At least most people leaving seemed to realize there is such a novel, and they realized perhaps that there is another juvenilia called Love and Friendship which because he so likes the title and thinks it appropriate Stillman chose to call Lady Susan. Disingenuousness can work but it’s transparent that someone hoped there might be Austen readers who’ve read the wildly hilarious Love and Freindship and be drawn into the theater that way. In my own anecdotal experience really faithful fans do know of Love and Freindship: they learn bout it in an effort to find more Austen to read, and when they start it’s burlesque wild jokes lead them on to the end.

Nonserious Austen indeed. No one will leave this film disquieted or having been brought to think about our society seriously through an Austen text. The Guardian gives the expected comment: this is a racier, naughtier Austen than we have known. But the second time I knew what to expect. I’ve seen many Austen films. It’s intelligent and literate and if you can extrapolate out from Lady Susan’s behavior and how she is thriving at the close, you can say cold performative people utterly without any humane compassion for anyone, in fact despising anyone who has that as weak fits in just fine with our world. Stillman gives Beckinsale a line just before the credits as she looks at her daughter now married, to the effect she is delighted to see Frederica is becoming more manipulative though where I couldn’t see. This is a more usual transposition into modern talk of a passage in a letter where Austen’s Lady Susan indicates an active dislike or distaste for her daughter; she finds Frederica “contemptible” precisely because she has sincere feelings and acts on them. Doubtless had Lady Susan been able to read Mansfield Park she would have despised Fanny Price too:

Frederica

Ellen

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Grace Elliot (Lucy Russell) from Eric Rohmer’s The Lady and the Duke (based on her Ma vie sous la revolution)

‘Real solemn history, I cannot be interested in…The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all.’
Northanger Abbey, Chapter 14

Dear friends and readers,

A couple of weeks ago I was pleased to be asked to contribute to a series of memories for Diane Reynolds’s blog, Jane Austen and Other Writers where people are asked to describe their first encounters with Jane Austen’s novels and why they read her still. As luck would have it, around the same time I had agreed to give a lecture on Lady Susan to a group of students in a BIS program at University of Virginia. I’d told the story of my coming to Austen in bits and pieces before, but now having brought all but the role of specific critical books together, I thought I’d talk on a blog as an addendum to first encounters about my recent re-encounter with Lady Susan.

I was around 50 the first time I read Lady Susan. I am not alone in this belatedness: the text itself was not published until 1870, 53 years after Austen’s death, and (if I am right in saying the book was written between 1804-5), 65 years after she wrote it and copied it out in a beautiful fair copy which is a kind of imitation of the publication denied her. The first recorded Austen film adaptation was in 1940, since then there have been at least 35, so it’s taken 76 (!) years to film it.

If you look at mainstream fan sites, it’s hardly ever mentioned.

What can be so wrong? well it’s lumped together with late “fragments” (unfinished work, nothing more discouraging except to a devoted reader), and it breaks so many taboos that Jane Austen is thought by so many Janeite fans to have upheld, is written in an amoral tone, with an ironic presence at the center that I know (since reading Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones so carefully) the closest character to Fielding’s Lady Bellaston we have, except ever so much meaner, self-conscious and gayly morbid. Marvin Mudrick in his JA: Irony as Defense and Discovery thought in this one text alone Austen shows herself fully and we should use it as the lens by which we understand say Mansfield Park.

I discovered upon this re-reading (and I’ve read it several times since I was in my fifties, especially when I studied it to bring out its underlying calendar), that I did not (as I had expected) approach the book with so many pre-framings. I simply did what I have probably always done since age 12-13: felt an intensely primal response along my pulse as I came into contact this exhilarating woman. It is a truism (“a truth universally acknowledged”) that reading the same book years, decades later can have a very different effect on us.

So for me I remember when I read Lady Susan the first time I was strongly put off. I especially found her mockery of her daughter, and complete antipathy to Frederica’s kind heart, desire to read books for their content alone, lack of an ability to cope with the abrasive world or perform hateful. I laughed at her sending up of Alicia’s husband and marriage, but saw that the world around her of pious feeling was mawkish and somehow false. But she was the blight.

This time through I still saw that she must not be allowed to “mother” Frederica; that she would corrode the girl’s gifts and heart, Lady Susan was exhilarating. Far more so than Thackeray’s Becky Sharp at the opening of his Vanity Fair. I saw the that Frederica was in the narrative from the outset and underlying the book was an ongoing relationship of a mother and daughter who needed to get away from one another, but there was no doing it as the world is not organized that way, but I reveled in Lady Susan. This was release for Austen. I flaws in the others too or far more continually: Reginald, what a self-satisfied, easily deluded non-thinking fool! He’s a weathercock who believes the last person. Mrs Vernon was all suspicion and leading a boring, stultifying life: what she offered Frederica was calm from repression and never trying anything out of a small round of pious acts. She was working to marry her to Reginald because that would keep them close and thus to her “safe.” I could see that Alicia was not so enamored of her friend, and rightly didn’t trust her but where was she to turn for safety? She seemed to be living a life of lies.

The real problem in the novel is there are no good choices. I wished we had had scenes of Lady Susan with Manwaring so I could see if she had any gratification with him: was the sex good? Was he another clinging person? It seems that to survive one must marry a dense idiot (Sir James perhaps a version of Mr Collins). I saw the dark book Murdock in his Irony as Defense and Self-Discovery had, a book in the tradition of Tom Jones as I recently began to see it. Where was Jane Austen in all this? D. W Harding’s finding a release for anger is not enough. She wasn’t sending up the outrageous behavior of the rest of the world (as he rightly says she does in the four books she published before she died). There is a quiet desperation here, a disjunction between the stereotype she found in her culture and what she wanted to say.

I did not say the above directly in presenting the novella to students. One can’t. It’s not allowed. One must present an impersonal reading; the kind of talk that’s respectable is context and tropes, biography, sources. So much of my introduction came from framing (dating specifically) and is found in my remarks next to my timeline for the novel.

Here is what I told them out of that. Linking the class to the coming movie by Whit Stillman, Love and Friendship, I suggested to them if it’s that Stillman presents the novel as witty juvenilia, a moral send up of say self-indulgence, solipsism, egoistic romance like Love and Freindship, that’s a mistake which will trivialize the book. Lady Susan is a mid-career book; not a so much a product of the regency era reacted against (the thesis of their course), but an inverted protest novel by a woman, and coming out of a tradition heavily influenced by French novels and most often taking the form of epistolary narrative. Here is a little of what I told students for nearly 2 hours.

I suggested we couldn’t elucidate the content that mattered in it, close read its details through the regency period except to say the frank amorality of the heroine can be linked to the era. In a letter she wrote she detested the regent and when he prosecuted his wife for adultery, she was on the wife’s side simply on grounds she was a woman.

I suppose all the World is sitting in Judgement upon the Princess of Wales’s Letter,” Poor Woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband — but I can hardly forgive her for calling herself “attached & affectionate” to a Man whom she must detest — & the intimacy said to subsist between her & Lady Oxford is bad. — I do not know what to do about it; — but if I must give up the Princess, I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first. —- 16 February 1813

Lady Susan fits just as strongly with what she wrote in her History of England (a juvenilia) about Tudor queens (among them, Ann Bullen, Katherine Parr).

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Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn in proud procession

She is passionately on the side of several of them. She looks out on the world unashamedly from a woman’s perspective. As Mrs Vernon, Lady de Courcy, Fredericka, Alicia and Lady Susan herself. All of them. She rejects the regency as presented in books as devastatingly, stupidly patriarchal

My suggestion was it’s a radical inverted protest novel. Austen is getting away with protesting her own and other women’s situations through presenting a heroine all will detest. There were ways for women to express themselves “contra mundi”: I saw her as turning to a sub-genre or kind of book that allowed this. Epistolary narrative, and French amoral anti-heroines. She can express herself through such a heroine as a mask. This was an era when spinsters were harshly criticized and mocked in conduct books, sent up cruelly in novels. She was despised for not having sex, but as a woman with little money and no power she’d be worse ostracized and punished for admitting knowing about sex, much less trying to live a pleasurable life of sex on her own without a man controlling her. This is the type of woman we find in these novels, only they are often widows or domineer over husbands and lovers, or simply living independently (if they had wealth somehow).

Think about her life I said. In 1805 Austen was herself 30, in 1809 34. Lady Susan is 35 inflected by her peculiar undercurrent of grave melancholy. She was a poor spinster, dependent on relatives, hamstrung; if hearsay be true, having rejected an offer from a local squire, owner of Manydowne (which would have provided for herself, sister, mother, friend, Martha Lloyd), and, together with her sister, having decided to present herself as a spinster. All her brothers but Henry (who was out on his own, as a fourth son, as yet floating on banking) were provided with careers, niches; her oldest the house she had grown up in, so she and they and her sister had gone to live in Bath (where there was a marriage market, not too kind to women without dowries).

She had begun to write as a young girl, her first texts called juvenilia go back to 1787 when she was 12 or 13. She wrote endlessly and this includes rewriting her texts for years and years, but her first published book sees the light in 1811, 24 years after she started. She did try for publication, once a long version of Pride and Prejudice, probably an epistolary novel, in 1796: the letter by her father to a reputable publisher was returned that day. On her own she tried to publish a version of Northanger Abbey she called Susan in 1803 and had to get the manuscript back in 1815, unpublished to start working on it again. What a release this narrative might have been and like Nabokov she is allowed because the irony protects her from her own self-censor.

Epistolary narrative is a complicated form. Its main attraction is it enables the novelist to delve the human psyche. The 18th century was a revolutionary era, and one of the transformations of values that went on was to look at one values and norms as coming from individual psyches, and understand that truths were relative. Each person’s understanding of what happened would be the result of his outlook. The relativity of norms across cultures and inbetween people was central to the satiric mode of the period.

I quoted the outstanding voice of the first half of the era, Alexander Pope from the first of the four Moral Epistles. Moral Essay I: to Richard Cobham, Of the Characters of Mankind:

Our depths who fathoms, or our shallows finds,
Quick whirls, and shifting eddies, of our minds?
On human Actions reason though you can,
It may be Reason, but it is not Man;
His Principle of action once explore,
That instant ’tis his Principle no more.
Like following life through creatures you dissect,
Ye lose it in the moment you detect.
    Yet more; the diff’rence is as great between
The optics seeing, as the objects seen.
All Manners take a tincture from our own;
Or come discolour’d, through our Passions shown …
    Nor will Life’s stream for Observation stay,
It hurries all too fast to mark the way …
    Oft in the Passions’ wild rotation tost,
Our spring of action to ourselves is lost:
Tir’d, not determin’d to the last we yeild,
And what comes then is master of the field,
As the last image of that troubled heap,
When Sense subsides, and Fancy sports in sleep
(Tho’ past the recollection of the thought)
Becomes the stuff of which our dream is wrought:
Something as dim to our internal view,
Is thus, perhaps the cause of most we do … (1731-35)

Some of the most famous of the epistolary novels were this kind of delving: Richardson’s Clarissa (1748), boy meet, rapes girl, girl dies, boy dies. 2 million words. Samuel Johnson said a reader would hang herself who read it for the plot

But you can do other things with epistolary narratives. You can expose characters satirically; we can see them not meaning to pour their heart out and by seeing the difference between the action of the story and what the characters think of it, witness all sorts of psychological and moral states, from hypocrisy to self-delusion, to someone strategizing to manipulate someone, we can see spite, vanity, performances of all sorts.

Two important features of epistolary narratives: they are free from chronological time because people in their minds can jump back and forth. Therefore you can juxtapose letters very ironically. We watch “innocent characters being duped” because we know the reality of the other characters. We are looking at these minds on a stage; different voices come out interacting. It is also done in the present time so the characters do not know what is going to happen next and are all in the midst of anguish about it. We are dropped down into the midst of a mind in the throes of a present moment worrying what to do, what will be, what will happen, what should I do next. Lady Susan is a slender book and I don’t want to give it more density or value than it has, but Austen uses these techniques if in an epitomizing form.

Which books of the era is it in dialogue with or comes out of memories, an experience of. LaClos’s Dangerous Liaisons (1782) with its central amoral heroine, Madame de Merteuil – if you’ve not read it and want to have a quick acquaintance to start I recommend Stephen Frears’ film with Glenn Close as Madame de Merteuil and John Malkovitz as Valmont, the rake who is done in by the end. There was a full translation immediately and it was read and influential.

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Close playing the innocent

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Alone in thought

Madame de Stael’s Delphine (1804), with its cold mean calculating mercenary mother whose name is Madame Susan Vernon, both epistolary books. We know Austen read and much admired Stael’s Corinne; there’s a passing phrase in one of her letters which can be understood as suggesting she prefers Corinne to Milton’s Paradise Lost. As who wouldn’t? Madame Susan Vernon is especially cruel to her emotional daughter; she hounds her to marry a horror of a man for money. Bad mother type. And Austen’s Lady Susan is not only in herself mean, cold, vicious, cruel, she hates sincere people, wants to stamp out genuine feeling; aspirations for real learning (in her daughter) grate on her; vulnerable people exist to be preyed upon so she despises them. Stael’s anti-heroine’s values are slightly different but the complex of attitudes is analogous.

The frank amorality of Lady Susan can be found in much French literature through out the 18th century – Austen read French and the two countries traded books incessantly. Translations came out immediately, French books were published in London.

But there are English novels where the same pattern may be discerned or is a sub-plot.

There is a strikingly similar central amoral character in Maria Edgeworth’s epistolary Leonora (1809). (For this we must accept Butler’s thesis that the novel we have was written or revised into this text in 1809.) Here the heroine is someone whose husband is deep in debt and the way they mean to pay off the debt is she prostitutes herself. This is a reversal of most novels of the era which use this plot paradigm. In Fielding’s Tom Jones he shows that it was common practice for a high officer to pressure the men beneath them to allow their wives to go to bed with them – if you didn’t you were not promoted. But it’s only Lady Bellaston in Tom Jones and Edgeworth’s heroines who themselves are amusingly pro-active in this way. Lady Bellaston writes letters to Tom too. Or characters imitating her in later books.

Joan Greenwood  Tom Jones (1963)

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Joan Greenwood as the supremely plausible Lady Bellaston (Tony Richardson, John Osborne Tom Jones 1963)

This specific trope is a French pattern too. In Louise d’Epinay’s Montbrillant (a mid-century epistolary book) and the Duchess of Devonshire’s Slyph (1777-78) both epistolary again, the heroine is pressured and driven into going to bed with the husband’s creditor. I suggest the life of Grace Dalrymple Elliot and Rohmer’s film and script offer major insight into the context for Lady Susan and what type she stands for.

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Annette Bening as Madame de Merteuil — she could be Lady Susan persuading Reginald de Courcy to believe her (from Valmont)

If you read Lady Susan as tongue-in-cheek, and someone think that Lady Susan speaks ceaselessly as a conscious hypocrite and never believes a word she says about her emotions, she becomes a wild caricature. It seems improbable to me – you could not find any depth in the novel then. And of the female characters I’ve mentioned, Madame de Merteuil, Madame Susan Vernon are deeply involved emotionally in what she’s doing. If you read Lady Susan’s letters as partly self-righteous, at times fooling herself (as people do), really half-believing herself a misunderstood person trying her best to survive and dealing with a society indifferent to her, and only facing up to her hypocrisy when forced to, Fielding’s Lady Bellaston, the aristocratic amoral mistress of (only she keeps him, not the other way round) is closely similar. (When I taught the book the men in the room really protested against the idea Tom was a male prostitute servicing Lady Bellaston, i.e., the abject characterWe know that Austen read Tom Jones when she was young, and like its opposite number, Clarissa, did not forget it. Her relatives would never mention it, but then they’d never mention any of the others I suggest are where Lady Susan belongs.

To conclude: Austen’s first novels (S&S and P&P) began life as epistolary narratives; MP was in part one in a first draft. Love and Freindship is a crude one (not using all the devices), Lesley Castle an improvement. She wrote an ironic gothic — the gothic was another mode of protest (too long to go into here). She can also write memoirs and, if English, not publish them: we know through Anne Elliot and Austen’s letters to Cassandra Austen read French ones. They were often short as were Austen’s first attempts all. Think of Lady Susan as like Elena Ferrante’s first much briefer deeply frank raw novellas, Days of Abandonment, The Lost Daughter: see my “The Other Side of Silence”.

Eighteenth century women lacked any agency, and any true private space (so letters could function the way the Net can for some women in traditional cultures). That’s why Outlander has been so popular. Diana Gabaldon injected into the 18th century costume drama so frank about sex a woman who all agency, narrator, dreamer, who seeks her own fulfillment, looks at life that way. One thing we see Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser enjoy is sex; she is given liberty to choose as she pleases by her Scots partner, Jamie Fraser over and over again. Saul Dibbs’ and Jeffrey Hatcher’s The Duchess show the Duchess of Devonshire writhing under the controls of this world, punished into becoming a girl child-mother at the close. The movie opened with her running with girlfriends in play on the lawn; we last see her running after her children in play on the lawn. See my The Duchess: A Strong Protest Film. Stella Tillyard’s book Aristocrats based on memoirs of women with money reveals the ways in which actual women of the era tried to manipulate their position and yet stay within the confines of their world. Among these were reading and writing books like the above:

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Serena Gordon as Caroline Fox, at her desk bought for her by her husband, Henry (Aristocrats, 1999 BBC, scripted by Harriet O’Carroll).

In the class towards the end we were finding characters in other of Austen’s novels which corresponded to those in Lady Susan: Charles Vernon is a kind of Bingley. Reginald’s behavior that of Edmund Bertram. And lines the narrator uses, say congratulating Lucy Steele at the close of Sense and Sensibility, that are echoed or anticipated in Lady Susan.

The whole of Lucy’s behaviour in the affair, and the prosperity which crowned it, therefore, may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an unceasing attention to self-interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience (S&S, Chapter 50, the last, towards the end)

Whether Lady Susan was, or was not happy, in her second choice — I do not see how it ever can be ascertained — for who could take her assurance of it on either side of the question? The world must judge from probability. She had nothing against her, but her husband, and her conscience (Lady Susan, Postscript)

They joined in on finding and reciting their favorite lines from Lady Susan and other of Austen’s novels.

Ellen

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‘It is so cold, so very cold — and looks and feels so very much like snow, that if it were to any other place or with any other party, I should really try not to go out to-day … Emma to Mr Elton during the afternoon from the book named after her, Emma, I:13, 110)

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Alexandria, Va, around 8 in the evening, Wednesday, 1/20/16 (from my porch) — the reality

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Edward Gorey — a lurid gleam is seen

Dear friends and readers,

Over on Sarah Emsley’s mostly Austen blog, there has been an on-going series, Emma in the Snow; prompted by this, paradoxically inspired by Diana Birchall’s summery comic Mrs Elton’s Donkey, and compelled by the present dire situation here in the Washington D.C. area I put before you a Sortes Austenianae. Who knows not the entrenched tradition in medieval European times: if in doubt, about what’s to come, if in doubt about what to do in response to what’s to come, pull out your trusty Virgil. We are speaking of The Aeneid here. Open up at random, look down and interpret from what has been vouchsafed. Sortes Vergilianae.

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I put in the second disk of the 2009 Emma (scripted by Sandy Welch) and came upon the Knightleys playing with John and Isabella’s children in snow around Highbury

We are in the Washington DC area in need of some wisdom from Austen’s Emma. You may have heard of our coming Great Snow Storm. Last night there was probably something like 3 inches! perhaps more. I doubt I need to remind my readers of what Mr Woodhouse said when Frank Churchill informed Mr Woodhouse that people catch colds when dancing in over-heated places with the windows open, and replied that that neither Frank’s “‘

‘Dancing with the windows open! — I am sure, neither your father or Mrs Western (poor Miss Taylor that was) would suffer it.’
‘Ah! sir — but a thoughtless young person will sometimes step behind a window curtain, and throw up a sash, without its being suspected. I have often known it done myself.’
‘Have you indeed, sir? — Bless me! I never could have supposed it. But I live out of the world, and am often astonished at what I hear (Emma, II:11, 252)

We have been having a Mr Woodhousian lead-up to this fearful Winter Event in the past 48 hours. I wondered to myself what would my fellow citizens do if they had bombs falling on them daily as the much reviled immigrants and refugees of the Middle East have had to endure for years.

You see we have been told (it’s Thursday) we shall have our first winter storm tomorrow, Friday in the PM, and perhaps it will be a blizzard. 2 feet of snow is promised, but maybe less. Last night we had a light dusting as confirmation. And I have come across many a local blog recounting from previous years their and others’ ghastly adventures in the snow and ice, hours and hours getting home, accidents leading to higher insurance rates.

All day today from early Thursday morning Fairfax county schools were closed, and they are closed all day tomorrow; much in Northern Virginia began to close down this afternoon. I confess I dared to go out and found the air mild, all snow melted off my car; it was well above freezing. I went to the cleaners when I didn’t need to (but I am as reckless as Mr Churchill), then to the supermarket lest Isobel and I run out of bananas, then to a local bread store where all that was left was Challah bread. I had it sliced and came home. Uneventful. Except that the parking garage was a madhouse, far too many cars in tight space so several attendants were directing traffic between pillars. Thus there are others like myself and Frank Churchill.

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Thursday morning daytime — a friend’s backyard (in middle Virginia)

Just about all in DC and Virginia is closing early tomorrow or not opening at all. My daughter, Isobel told me when she got home the Pentagon is thinking of shutting down at noon precisely, only then there will be terrific traffic jam as usually people leave that mammoth building in staggered periods. Virginia Dash buses will stop running at 3 tomorrow. The Metro shuts down promptly at 11 pm. On Saturday the Smithsonian has cancelled all activities and lectures, local community centers are not boarding up their windows and doors, but all classes are cancelled. You are advised to stay within.

A controversy has erupted about the storm’s name in the public media: Jonas. (Not taken from the story about the man who got stuck in a whale.) Since when do we name Snow Storms? What is it with people? If everyone else jumps off the roof, do you jump off the roof? But I am getting ahead of myself.

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Leaving the entrance hall of Highbury (1972 Emma, scripted Denis Constantduros)

In this urgent snowpocalypse, I turned to Sortes Austenianae, but resorted to hurried measures, and instead of opening Emma at random I remembered the hysteria at Randolph when on Christmas eve and John and Isabella Knightley together with Mr Woodhouse and Emma, Miss Bates and Mr Knightley came to Randalls for a dinner party. John Knightley foresaw what was to be early on as they set forth:

Inthecarriage

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Medium range shot of the carriage with Emma and John Knigthley in it; inside shot of him talking (1996 A&E Emma, scripted Andrew Davies)

The cold … was severe; and by the time the second carriage was in motion, a few flakes of snow were finding their way down, and the sky had the appearance of being so overcharged as to want only a milder air to produce a very white world in a very short time. … ‘A man,’ said [John Knightley], ‘must have a very good opinion of himself when he asks people to leave their own fireside, and encounter such a day as this, for the sake of coming to see him. He must think himself a most agreeable fellow; I could not do such a thing. It is the greatest absurdity — Actually snowing at this moment! — The folly of not allowing people to be comfortable at home — and the folly of people’s not staying comfortably at home when they can! If we were obliged to go out such an evening as this, by any call of duty or business, what a hardship we should deem it; – -and here are we, probably with rather thinner clothing than usual, setting forward voluntarily, without excuse, in defiance of the voice of nature, which tells man, in every thing given to his view or his feelings, to stay at home himself, and keep all under shelter that he can; — here are we setting forward to spend five dull hours in another man’s house, with nothing to say or to hear that was not said and heard yesterday, and may not be said and heard again to-morrow. Going in dismal weather, to return probably in worse; — four horses and four servants taken out for nothing but to convey five idle, shivering creatures into colder rooms and worse company than they might have had at home’ (Emma, I:13, 113)

You will instantly recall that with such an anti-social gloomy attitude, it was no surprise to John Knightley when after some small tension-lade conversation both before and after dinner, and Mr Woodhouse began to get restless, a reconnoitre revealed it had been snowing steadily for the past couple of hours!

Mr. John Knightley now came into the room from examining the weather, and opened on them all with the information of the ground being covered with snow, and of its still snowing fast, with a strong drifting wind; concluding with these words to Mr. Woodhouse: ‘This will prove a spirited beginning of your winter engagements, sir. Something new for your coachman and horses to be making their way through a storm of snow’ (Emma I:15, 126)

Reasoning the way the people in Northern Virginia and Washington DC have been he continued with his admiration for Mr Woodhouse’s pluck in coming forth, and cheerily predicts:

‘I dare say we shall get home very well. Another hour or two’s snow can hardly make the road impassable; and we are two carriages; if one is blown over in the bleak part of the common field there will be the other at hand. I dare say we shall be all safe at Hartfield before midnight’ (126)

His intrepid wife whose every thought is for her children’s safety, determines to set out directly

‘if we do come to any thing very bad, I can get out and walk. I am not at all afraid. I should not mind walking half the way. I could change my shoes, you know, the moment I got home; and it is not the sort of thing that gives me cold … ‘ (126)

But instead of admiring her spirited reaction, her husband (reasonably enough) worried about the state of her ‘prettily shod’ feet. She had not brought pattens. But then the fear was not of mud and dirt, but snow. Would she make it home? she might have to stay at Randalls, stranded from her progeny.

Now here we reach our important “sortes.” Our true hero, Mr Knightley’s brother (appropriately named George) rushed out while all this was going on and what did he discover: he

‘came back again, and told them that he had been out of doors to examine, and could answer for there not being the smallest difficulty in their getting home, whenever they liked it, either now or an hour hence. He had gone beyond the sweep — some way along the Highbury road — the snow as no where above half an inch deep — in many places hardly enough to whiten the ground; a very few flakes were falling at present, but the clouds were parting, and there was every appearance of its being soon over. He had seen the coachmen, and they both agreed with him in there being nothing to apprehend’ (128)

But for the mentally distressed Mr Woodhouse this could not be enough reassurance because (Mr G. Knightley says) he will “not be easy:” (as I fear many of my neighbors are not). So, turning to Emma:

Mr K: ‘Why do you not go?
Emma: ‘I am ready, if the others are.’
Mr K: ‘Shall I ring the bell?’
Emma ‘Yes, do.’ (128)

It’s at such moments we glimpse the compatibility of her heroine with our hero and begin to think she might have some common sense after all.

And as fervent devotees of Downton Abbey know, bells fetch capable servants. Coachmen are waiting.

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Emma and Mr Elton are handed in by servants who hold umbrellas over their heads to go home (1996 Miramax Emma, scripted and directed by Douglas McGrath)

So what has Austen’s text taught us tonight? Do not over-react. It may be there will be less snow than is envisaged. It may be you will be able to cope. Take heart. Remain calm.

GoreyChristmasEve
This Gorey family put their Christmas tree outside their house and calmly proceeded to decorate it in the dark — how one family coped

I will be told that in the DC and Virginia area the local government authorities are very lax when it comes to cleaning roads, and are tardy to remove ice. They won’t spend the taxpayers’ money in such ephemeral moments. No, we shall wait for the sun to come out. And everyone have a day off. Well everyone whose boss does not insist they come in if they can. I will be reminded that the statistics for accidents in the snow suggest that mortal and harmful accidents occur at higher frequency than say rain or fog. That the weather bureau is not dependent on a crystal ball and tomorrow a blizzard will come. And also we could lose power as often enough happens in storms. So it’s well to get out and bring back candles, batteries, food supplies.

But none of the above comes from nature. It is man-made. The roads could be cleaned early in the storm and salt put down. None of this is being done. The electricity companies have been improving their service, but much much more could be done (and spent) from tax-payer money and their customers’ monthly payments.

We shall see. But was there really any necessity to start closing down two days ahead? I suspect many people enjoy this excitement as John Knightley did in reaction to finding himself grated upon by life’s demands. Many want the day off pay or no pay. US people get so little holiday time. That’s an actuating motive to why citizens accept this situation where they know they can find themselves stranded, in an accident, or without power. I confess I had rather have gone to the gym these past two mornings, have preferred to have a usual quiet Friday routine, preferred to see the Smithsonian people wait until Friday to cancel the Vermeer Saturday lecture. And strongly would follow John Knightley’s advice to Jane Fairfax about the post office’s potentials: when you pay people, they will do the work if you set them to it.

Turning then again to Austen’s Emma, I find that winter evenings Mr (G) Knightley sits by his twilight fire alone (so he is not all that unlike his brother John), reading Cowper “Myself creating what I saw” (Emma III:5. 344)

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Downwell Abbey in snow (2009 Emma)

Ellen

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From closing frames of S&S (modeled on Andrew Wyeth picture?, Liew, Molinari, Sabino)

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From closing frames of NA (imagery of pastoral intermixed with nightmare, novel as Catherine’s dream, Lee, Pildari, Eckelberry)

Dear friends and readers,

Surely it’s time to write about Austen here again. Long overdue some might say.

Last night I read and perused the latest graphic novel of Northanger Abbey, words chosen and written by Nancy Butler, the artist Janet K Lee; colorist Nick Pilardi, letterer Jeff Eckleberry. It’s a Marvel product and since in just the way the company that produces a film predetermines the shape and much that is indefinably the film so the comic book publisher Marvel predetermines elements of the commodity they sell. Thus it’s no surprise if the other Marvel graphic novel I own, which I also reread and looked at the pictures for far more carefully and deeply than I’ve done before, Sense and Sensibility, also by Nancy Butler, but this time artist Sonny Liew, colorist L. Molinai, Letterer Joe Sabino, showed a strong family resemblance.

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The Dashwood family approaches Barton Cottage (Liew, L. Molinar, Joe Sabino, angle and shot from the 1996 Ang Lee/Emma Thompson S&S)

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Catherine and Isabella exploring Bath (based on general gothic mode, Lee, Pilardi, Eckleberry) Isabella “easy, unreserved conversation” (!), showing Butler can do irony

Both have marvelous large pictures at the close of the most striking of the panels that are smaller inside the story — and here both are highly original or they allude to famous works of art or movie/movie genres.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed them — I have a strong tendency to see these books as comic books but under the influence of Simon Grennan’s Dispossession, which I bought at the Trollope conference meeting, and is a graphic novel adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s John Caldigate, I began to look at the individual panels seriously for the first time, and could see they are genuinely art; in these two cases expressionistic, and project a general outlook and mood, not necessarily Austen’s but a reading of her. It’s obvious that Posy Simmonds and Audrey Niffennegger’s graphic novels are art, Simmonds’s images are so distinctive — and Niffennegger’s spun art in the manner of artistic poem books. These Marvel books are not so; they are deliberately set up in frames and use typologies resembling more comic book images — probably not to put off the comic book buyer. I can’t say that all Marvel comics are genuinely good; and I know some of the recent autobiographical graphic novels rich on text are poor on images (which makes them poor graphic novels), but these are worth perusal.

As with Posy and Niffennegger, one aspect of the enjoyment is the text. In both cases Butler is the writer and she choses wisely to take as much from Austen’s text straight as she can. I once had a publisher tell me when you publish about Austen let your guide by to quote her when you can. You are sure to please that way. So you are reading Austen epitomized, in bits and pieces, sometimes altered and expanded with piquant details, often from the era, but they are well chosen.

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Mr Willoughby and Marianne have their first literary discussion: it’s about Scott

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As Henry and Catherine drive up to the Abbey, it is gothic — purples, greys, angles which are edgy

The pictures matter of course, maybe more than the words. In the case of NA I was surprised to find very dark colors used for Bath itself, Bath made gothic, with overlarge oddly angled depictions of the characters (so we are inside their minds), haunting kinds of shapes for what happens. In the case of the S&S, there are zoom shots, the characters look so overawed and powerless against the screens they are caught in, especially Mrs Dashwood in her widow’s garb, at a kind of great distance angle of shot from on high, very sudden too.

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The page where Catherine receives the invitation to go to the Abbey and discusses it with the Allens

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Fanny Dashwood needling Mrs Dashwood to make her take Elinor away, Mrs Dashwood vowing not to take this punishment

Butler (in a preface) talks of Northanger Abbey as sending up the gothic, but the artist and especially the colorer made Bath into a gothic image, with the characters sometimes looming and scary in context. Everything feels pervasive from colors seeping around to lines — lots of odds oranges, off-color yellows, browns. As if a page is the inner or deeper feeling of Catherine. The lines on the face of John Thorpe make him menacing. Real grit in the S&S: this frame combines the melancholy of the three Brandons: Robert Swann who uses a cane (1983), melancholy Alan Rickman with that brown jacket (1996), David Morrisey brooding most of all:

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(You do have to abandon your critical faculties to the cartoon’s edge into absurdity)

In the S&S panel you see the characters drawn as on a stage from different angles and then squares within squares with faces close up, so tensions from social life come out: in the preface to S&S Butler speaks of the book as about sisters, and outrage over the way the Dashwoods are treated by the laws and when they arrive in Devonshire custom. Butler and Lee’s S&S takes off from the movies.

It’s undeniable that many of the characters are drawn to recall specific actors in either the 1996 Emma Thompson S&S or the 2008 Andrew Davies one; the dresses; the way Colonel Brandon is figured as so strong, manly, and melancholy with a cane. Many of the frames prefer what happened in one or other other of these two S&S than Austen’s more simple lack of particulars. So Barton Park recalls the 2008 S&S grand mansion (even photographed or drawn in the same way) and Barton cottage the 1996 S&S house (as they come up the walk) though the inside is more like the 2008 (as they go through the place, with the same clothes as Charity Wakefield and Hattie Morahan had on). As this is the third time I’ve read this one I started to see new things, and for the first time recognized some memories of the 1983 S&S film too — in the dresses, in some of what’s emphasized in the choices of text, occasionally a frame resembles a shot in the 1983 film — the script writer for the 1983 film was Alexander Baron, a fine novelist in his own right who did quite a number of the Dickens and one notable Bronte adaptation for the BBC in the 1980s. Mrs Jenkins is even modelled on Patricia Routledge from the 1971 S&S (Denis Constanduros the writer), with this wild page showing Ciaran Maddan as Marianne and Joanna David as Elinor:

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The hairstyle suggest Irene Richards is remembered in the grieving Elinor

Yet at the same time similarly there is a particular interpretation which is Butler and Liew’s own and it’s poignant because of the high shots. It’s more daylight mind (Molinari did the colors) here than the Marvel NA, with normal perspectives on the size of the characters (they don’t overwhelm a page) and the background made into light of the day or quiet of an evening so there is a quieter feel to the work.

I have read a previous graphic novel adaptation of Northanger Abbey (words Trina Robbins, illustrator Anne Timmons): a Gothic classics volume which contains 5 novels so each one is shorter (it includes Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, words Antonella Caputo, illustrator Carlo Vergara); I want to say that the pictures are in black-and-white makes them limited only I know that Posy Simmonds makes beauty, gives depth with drawings on white too. I think it’s the wild angles of the frames themselves, sudden thrusting and most of all that the gothic is kept to throughout.

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Swirling

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Also the use of Austen’s words: in the NA and S&S both occasionally Andrew Davies’s superb perceptive scripts.

I probably enjoyed them strongly because I’ve not been reading Austen in a while and when I return (I am grateful this is so) after having been away for a while, I forget all the outside materials I read about Austen: while some adds and enriches, so much is said or has been that to say something new or different (which is required) mars the experience because it’s so intermixed with the critic-writer’s political/social point of view and my feeling of how this book is supposed to operate for them in the Austen world, or just things that are said that are a new extreme and grate, or simply ignore the book altogether or mock it (in effect it’s so over-the-top in its reactive reading) though the person writing does not always know that.

Post-texts. S&S has the occasional wink as featured in the upper frame of its windowed cover:

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while the NA is not above bats, and allusions to vampires, Udolpho and bookishness (the ancient table the two sit on are held up by fat ancient tomes)

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I should not have been surprised as I love studying film (and films are moving pictures), loved art history and see pictures as endlessly meaningful when well done. In this Marvel NA, we have many narrowed eyes, on the male and female faces, suggestive; in this S&S really detailed developments out of Austen via different movies.

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It’s a small vindication of the readings each perform since Austen’s words are used to pull NA into gothic realms, and easily host images from across 4 S&S films

My daughter Izzy bought the Northanger Abbey one on Sunday, November 1st, and we said it was appropriate to the season and All Saint’s Day — which for me would have been very lonely but for her and my two cats – and Austen and memories of the Austen movies.

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Hattie Morahan as Elinor

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Charity Wakefield as Marianne

Ellen

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