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Ensemble scenes predominate

Dear friends and readers,

The play of Sense and Sensibility by Kate Hamil, produced at the Folger under the direction of Eric Tucker is every bit as marvelous as the reviews have been claiming. Jayne Blanchard does justice to how it uses a technique of presentation, symbolic, spare, with actors playing several roles first found in the RSC TV mini-series Nicholas Nickleby. While Blanchard mentions what happens to the characters of Marianne and Elinor on stage has “emotional impact,” like most others, her emphasis is on the comedy, the high-spirited visual high-jinks which are fun to watch and make a live performance so viscerally electric in the way a film cannot be: laugh-aloud, heart-warming, carousing is what the Folger wants us all to remember and say. It’s as if the one thing everyone in the cast dreaded was that the audience should be re-confirmed (if they had though this) in the idea Austen is stilted, or grave, or somehow a tea-cosy experience.

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Perhaps they overdid the swirling about of people on chairs

The one demur I have is that the relentless of the noisy hip-hop and other 21st century pop music before the play began and in the intermission.

The production is often funny in language and visually, but what makes it so good is the play combines strong comedy with strong trauma, precisely the difficult mix that we find in Austen’s novel. Hamil is true to Austen and Tucker too: I was especially impressed by how they made the scene of Lucy informing Elinor that she, Lucy, has been engaged to Willoughby for four years the concluding scene of Act I and give full weight to the nearly silent trauma of Elinor:

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We see the searing deterioration of Marianne after Willoughby’s desertion as the play progresses from Barton to London and finally to Cleveland, with the production (like the 2008 S&S by Andrew Davies) following Emma Thompson’s brilliant insertion of Brandon as a desperate man of disillusioned sensibility when he emerges at Barton, rescuer of the drenched suicidal girl, but at the same time remembering Denis Constanduros’s 1971 adaptation and not bringing Brandon forward early on so that a more delicate nuanced slow courtship over books is provided in the final scenes at Barton. Yet James Patrick Nelson as Brandon could not have been as resonant without memories of Alan Rickman: Nelson’s costume and colors were modelled on Rickman’s:

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Brandon receiving the letter about his ward found at last and interrupting the party

What was to me most surprising is that after (since 1971) seven movies (and probably other plays I’ve never seen) Hamil came up with a new and fresh interpretation of Elinor’s controlled or constrained emotional pain. Maggie McDowell as Elinor reminded me most closely of Joanna David in the 1971 mini-series, but the language used was not praise for self-control and prudence, the emphasis in Alexander Baron’s 1983 mini-series with Irene Richards in the role, whose costumes McDowell’s reminded me of

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In this scene of the two sisters, Erin Weaver as Marianne also has a dress like that of the 1983 sister, Marianne (played by Tracey Childs)

Hamil’s idea was how Elinor cared for her whole family beyond Edward — the group identity so dear to our time as a goal in life. Some may miss the anguish of Thompson and the inward hysteria of Hattie Morahan (Davies’s heroine) but this production was careful not to over Marianne’s illness, and we were made to see at moment how all but Marianne herself at the close of the play (the play was ceaselessly ensemble acting)

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never noticed, much less care for Elinor’s heroic self-sacrifice. The real difficulty of the book itself, responding to it, is to bring forth these contradictory modes: on the one hand, the intensity of inward gravity as caught best in the scenes between Elinor and Brandon:

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and on the other, the wacky satire on utterly disjunctive individuals tied together. They were able to make fun while being serious:

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The opening death scene done seriously could not quite be serious because of the way it resembled a cartoon

The doubling was inspired: Kathryn Tkel was Fanny Dashwood and Lucy Steele who are mirror characters in the novel; Lisa Birnham as the nitwit Nancy Steele turns back and forth into the corrosively nasty Mrs Ferrars (not allowed a voice, just facial and hand gestures) and then again the ineffective Mrs Dashwood. Jacob Fishel was the selfish heartless and ever-so-correctly mannered (with glasses on) John Dashwood and somehow fittingly handsome gallant rakish and equally selfish Willoughby:

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Willoughby as the “preserver” leaving Marianne with her family, all looking at him adoringly

Hamil’s use of Willoughby’s confession differed from all the others I’ve seen in having her Elinor pity him — he is no longer part of the group. This was visualized by Ang Lee and Emma Thompson at the end of their movie, but voiced pity is something new. Davies’s Elinor felt contempt for this petty shallow cad. Jamie Smithson as Edward and Robert Ferrars brought out Edward’s awkwardness and kept him more comic. I did wish that Hamil had not been so reluctant to take over Emma Thompson’s lines — I caught only three very effective take-overs — and had Edward use some of the lines Hugh Grant said so poignantly and gently at the close of Ang Lee’s film.

Not everyone had several named roles: the older African-American comedienne, Caroline Stefan Clary was just Mrs Jennings. Following Emma Thompson, her partner in scenes was Micheal Glenn as Sir John Middleton (though the fun about “F’s” was somehow not as hilarious); he was otherwise ensemble. Margaret was there: Nicole Kang also was many ensemble voices. But Erin Weaver (a brilliant Puck in a recent Midsummer Night’s Dream) was just Marianne, and her breathless intensity reminded me of her earlier performance:

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McDowell was only Elinor, but then in this play she is clearly the central character, what individual POV we get is hers — as she is the key subjective voice of Austen’s book.

I very much look forward to when my copy of Hamil’s play arrives on my stoop. I ordered it from Amazon yesterday after seeing the play (a Sunday matinee performance). Hamil twice has a male lover, first Willoughby, and then Brandon cite lines which were finished or concluded by Marianne from poems different from those used in any of the other productions (1983 had some original lines, Thompson had Spenser and Hartley Coleridge, Davies Byron), which I couldn’t catch and thus can’t identity. Again it was Emma Thompson who added these poetry scenes to the one seen here and several others: Edward trying to please Marianne by emoting in this case some (to me) unfamiliar lines. Cowper was mentioned but not quoted (that I could recognize). The choices of verses were all serious and poignant, not rhyming lines either (so perhaps not Pope). (For those interested in the Christianizing and general softening of Austen’s hard (inverted protest). Hamil’s is an adaptation those seriously interested in Austen’s text and new readings of it should not miss.

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NB: Lady Susan by Whit Stillman, the novelization of his film is now out as Whit Stillman’s Love & friendship, In which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan is Entirely Vindicated.

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It seems to me appropriate that as Stillman has transformed the mood of Austen’s text so he has re-named Austen’s mid-career Bath novel.

Ellen

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Dear Friends and readers,

Valancourt Press has published my edition of Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde; or, The Recluse of the Lake. You can see the book, a description of the story, and places and ways to buy at Valancourt’s on-line site. The artist who painted that alluring suggestive image on the cover is Jean-Baptiste Mallet (1759-1835). This is the first scholarly paperback edition. It took me 5 years (on and off) to type, proof-read, annotate and introduce the novel. 136 notes at the bottom of appropriate pages. A select bibliography, and note on the text.

I would describe the novel’s central story differently. Smith’s Ethelinde is centered on a depiction of adulterous love more sympathetic and true to experience on both the novel’s hero, Sir Edward Newenden and his once loved wife, Maria. It is the story of Newenden’s gradual falling in love with Ethelinde Chesterville, the novel’s primary heroine, his physical as well as emotional need for her in the face of his wife’s increasing distaste for him, for his idealistic and ethical values, and for his children; and in the face of her love for the novel’s secondary younger hero, Charles Montgomery. we trace his efforts to repress his longing for the congenial sensitive readerly Ethelinde; and experience the final thwarting of his intensely compelling and sexual desire for Ethelinde. Delayed until the middle of the first volume of the novel and then told as tales within a tale, we have the stories of Mrs Caroline Montgomery, the widowed recluse of the lake, and mother of Charles Montgomery, whom Ethelinde falls in love with, together with a parallel deep past story of Mrs Montgomery’s unnamed mother, who after she was widowed and impoverished, lived happily with a man she was not married to and had two sons by. There are other inset histories about women driven by economic, social, and legal constraints as well as threatened violence to live with men outside marriage. And in the present tense, the story of Charles Montgomery’s failed attempt to secure patronage for a high-paying position, Ethelinde’s father and brother’s accumulation of debt from gambling and extraordinary socializing; Sir Edward’s sister, Ellen, her horsewomanship and rescue from predatory males seeking marriage to control her estate. Houses are symbolic sites: Ludford House for bitter commercialism; the haunted gothicized Abersley, in Worcestershire; the Montgomery cottage and Grasmere Abbey in Cumbria where the novel begins; before the novel ends numbers of our characters have traveled across the globe.

The Recluse of the Lake is not as dominated by landscapes as people sometimes suggest; but what is there is strong, frequent enough, and unforgettable. It was quickly translated into French and there the landscape passages are particularly felicitious too. Charlotte Smith was a great poet.

You can buy it at Amazon.US too: available at Valancourt as a kindle, ebook, and trade paperback. A friend said a notice on Amazon.UK says it will be available as of November 1st.

I think back to those weeks & weeks in the early 1980s in the Rare Book room and in the microfilm and microfiche reading room of the Library of Congress: was spending time reading Charlotte Smith’s poems, and two of her novels. Realizing how little of Smith was in print then, I could not have daydreamed that someday I could be responsible for bringing one of the few (at this point) of Smith’s fine novels not yet back into print in 2016.

I’ve traveled a long way from my days and nights at the Library of Congress. I go to conferences, live and research a lot on the Net, teach literature in non-traditional programs.

I wish Jim had lived to appreciate all this, to see this book made of Smith’s novel and my apparatus, congratulate and gently tease me, and praise the whole performance that is this edition of Ethelinde.

“Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! She chortled in her joy!”

Ellen

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Claire (Catrionia Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan) amid the ruins of a Benedictine Monastery (Outlander, Season 1, Episode 3, The Way Out)

Friends,

I am returned from Cornwall and have begun watching Outlander, Season 1 for the fourth time. At midnight usually.

Yes. I have snapped stills from all 16 episodes thoroughly. I have read the novel as a script. I have downloaded all 16 scripts from a site which specializes in TV scripts. I have gotten myself Outlandish, a companion. What could possess me? (Stay tuned for tomorrow’s blog.)

Rather than pay money for yet a fourth tier of TV (surely I give Comcast enough money each month), or joining Amazon Prime where it aired on British sites (so I’m excluded anyway), I’ve tried other paths. I asked Daughter No 1 to download the series off Pirate Bay. She doesn’t have the time. Daughter No 2 is very law-abiding. So before I left on my trip, I ordered it on-line and have to wait. But this morning a friend told me she bought a copy of this second season on ebay for $16. I went over to ebay and discovered I must use paypal. Jim told me never to use paypal and I have a vague memory of reading warnings about what can transpire. I have just been fleeced, truly robbed of a lot of money, by Expedia. Beyond that it seems I must participate in bidding. Yuk.

Désolée.

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Mr (Desmond Barrit) and Mrs Allen (Sylvestre Le Tousel) in Andrew Davies’s 2007 Northanger Abbey, come to invite Catherine to at long last try Bath.

Then I remembered Mrs Allen and reread NA, Chapter 6, and found what did more than help; Austen suggestively amused me:

Isabella Thorpe: “It is so odd to me, that you should never have read Udolpho before; but I suppose Mrs. Morland objects to novels.”

Catherine Morland: “No, she does not. She very often reads Sir Charles Grandison herself; but new books do not fall in our way.”

Isabella: “Sir Charles Grandison! That is an amazing horrid book, is it not? I remember Miss Andrews could not get through the first volume.”

Catherine: “It is not like Udolpho at all; but yet I think it is very entertaining.”

Isabella: “Do you indeed! You surprise me; I thought it had not been readable.

I have always remembered this passage as poor Mrs Allen endlessly rereading this unreadable book because not many books come her way.

I no longer feel as alone in my state of deprivation.

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Ellen considering the nature of Austen’s humor and how through her wry irony comfort is on offer, bonding author and reader together.

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

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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 the film’s 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. Poor art. No edgy-ness when sheer edge was called for.

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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: The Last lover Left Alive 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 (alas rarely I thought of how Austen’s novels prima facie stand for civilized behavior at a minimum — 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 in this film.  Erased. There is nothing homoerotic in this film either, 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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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 by 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 by 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:

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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 Hepton) (1996 Emma scripted by 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 of Mr Woodhouse and Admiral Crofts consist of 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. Further that no flattery of Emma is too egregious for Mr Elton to utter.

But their egoistic points of reference make us remember how we respond to the conventions of art and forget what precisely is put in front of us visually. We become more conscious of what we are enjoying, and critique whatever conventions are in play: say that of two men contemplating the sea even if in a tempest (which may have been chosen to allure the unthinking view attracted to the sublime).

I suggest we could see these as part of a skein of self-reflexive commentary on art in Austen, often aimed at exposing the problematic nature of romantic texts and images. We also see more deeply what is wanted that escapes explicit conventions:  the drawing of Harriet’s picture is prefaced by a discussion of what makes attractive visualization: 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.

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 by 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 something more original: it’s a criteria of specificity, the sort of thing that leads to literalism. What is literal is real, and its a core insistence on getting as close to literal probability that is central to Austen’s structuring of her novels as well as her chosen moods, stories and dramatized events. Readers seem to remember the first half of Elizabeth’s effusion, it’s the second half that leads us to this further path.  Elizabeth is telling us what kind of descriptive travel writing Austen thought worth the writing and reading.

 

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 by 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 her qualified acceptance of the picturesque, the sublime, melancholy and romance, and comments on history are factored in, Austen still demands  of herself as the foundation of her story and its actual events verisimilitude, and accuracy (probability). She is on the side of characters who demand we include an appreciation of what is literally there as part of our criteria for judgement.

To return to Mr Woodhouse, Admiral Crofts, Mrs Allen: it is Austen who mocks these pictures, these descriptions as absurd partly because they show the artist has taken advantage of a lapse of mind in the origin text or viewer. Nothing is being observed from nature. Try to scrutinize and you come up against vagueness, nothing there-ness, non-life. 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) (in the 1981 BBC S&S, scripted by Alexander Baron)

In Mansfield Park Fanny Price has to face continual deflation; having no status, her romantic illusions are not let pass; typical is the dialogue in the chapel where Mary Crawford objects to her sentimental mush over prayers, Edmund corrects her too on  soberer grounds (death itself which monasteries are supposed to deal with, graveyards which contain the results from such heroics, the realm prayers attempt to reach and banners glorify):

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) has to have her own nest of comforts 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 by Ken Taylor)

In her letters, where she and Cassandra talk of paintings (the Anglo-cum-Indian painter, Wm Hodges) or pictures in novels (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’s favorite color.  Mrs Darcy whose image Mr Darcy would keep to himself? Then she enters into what she sees.

Only Gilpin appears to have been exempt from sharp criticism (see Davies’s Elizabeth above), perhaps due to the concrete topography, perhaps that she herself traveled through reading books with illustrations, 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 intuited 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, who Austen read intensely, was influenced by in her creation of a subjective prose style and whose pictorialism I assume she admired (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.

DeCourcys
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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