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Archive for the ‘Emma’ Category


Miniatures of Philadelphia and George Austen — Jane Austen’s aunt and father


Five Dancing Positions

Dear Friends,

The second half of the Jane Austen Study DC hosted by JASNA-DC at the American University Library, as “curated” by Mary Mintz. In the morning we listened to excellent papers on some realities and perceptions of religious groups and servants in Austen’s day; the afternoon was taken up with the equivalent of photographs, miniatures, and drawn portraits, and how dance was so enjoyed and a source of female power in the era.

After lunch, Moriah Webster spoke to us about miniatures in the era; her paper’s title “Ivory and Canvas: Naval Miniatures in Portraiture [in the era] and then Austen’s Persuasion.” Moriah began by quoting Austen’s pen portraits in her letters on a visit she paid with Henry Austen to an exhibition in the Spring Gardens in London, where she glimpsed

“a small portrait of Mrs Bingley, excessively like her. I went in hopes of seeing one of her Sister, but there was no Mrs Darcy; — perhaps I may find her in the great exhibition, which we shall go to if we have time. I have no chance of her in the collection of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s paintings, which is now showing in Pall Mall, and which we are also to visit. Mrs. Bingley’s is exactly herself -— size, shaped face, features, and sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite color with her. I dare say Mrs. D. will be in yellow… Letter 85, May 24, 1813, to Cassandra, from Sloane Street, Monday)


Samantha Bond as the faithful Mrs Western, next to her Mr Elton, to the back Mr Knightley (Mark Strong) and Emma and Mr Woodhouse (Bernard Hepton), trying to lead a discussion of picture looking to favor Emma’s depiction of Harriet (1996 BBC Emma)

The detail and visual acuity reminded me of many other verbal portraits in Austen’s letters and novels, which I wrote about in my paper on “ekphrastic patterns in Austen,” where I went over the attitudes of mind seen in the way she explained her own and others picturing process, both analysing and imitating the picturesque seriously, and parodying it. She asks how does the way we think about and describe, the language we use and forms we absorb enable and limit what we can see.

Moriah was not interested in the philosophical and linguistic issues (which were the subject of my paper)

“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 (Northanger Abbey, 1:14)


One of the many effective landscapes from Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility (director and screenplay-writer and Elinor n Miramax 1995 film)

Marianne argues passionately “that admiration of landscape scenery is become a mere jargon. Everybody 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)

but rather the real miniatures and drawings we know about in Austen’s life as well as how the way drawing is approached distinguishes a character’s traits of personality, and the way pictorial objects function in the plot-designs of her novels.

I offer a few examples of what interested her — though these were not delineated in her paper:


Irene Richards as Elinor Dashwood is a fairly serious artist (1981 BBC Sense and Sensibility) who can be hurt by people’s dismissal of her work


Sylvestre Le Tousel as Fanny Price dreams over her brother’s precious drawings of his ships (1983 BBC Mansfield Park)


For Kate Beckinsale as Emma drawing is a way of manipulating situations, defining her relatives, a vanity she does not work hard enough at (again the 1996 BBC Emma, with Susannah Morton as Harriet)

She did dwell on Persuasion. The novel opens with Anne cataloguing the pictures at Kellynch Hall; and has a comic moment of Admiral Croft critiquing a picture of a ship at sea in a shop window in the same literal spirit as Mr Woodhouse objects to Emma’s depiction of Harriet out of doors without a shawl.

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)


John Woodvine as Crofts regaling Amanda Root as Anne and us with his reaction to a picture in a shop window (1995 BBC Persuasion)

More crucially we have a cancelled chapter and one about a miniature of someone who Captain Benwick was engaged to and died (Phoebe Harville), and is now prepared to discard and use the framing for a miniature of her substitute (Louisa Musgrove); this becomes the occasion of a melancholy and passionately argued debate over male versus female constancy and prompts Wentworth (listening) finally to write Anne Elliot a letter revealing the state of his loving mind.

What Moriah concentrated on was who had miniatures made of them, for what reasons and how much individual ones cost; how these were made, and who they functioned as social and cultural capital in these specific people’s lives. All the miniatures we have testify to the status of the person pictured, a status (I remark or add) that Austen (apparently) never achieved in the eyes of those around her.

Although she didn’t say this it’s obvious that Austen’s brothers had miniatures made of them because they rose to important positions in the navy; her father was a clergyman; her aunt became the mistress of Warren Hastings.


Francis who became an admiral and Charles in his captain’s uniform

She did imply the irony today of the plain unvarnished sketch of Austen by her sister, located in the National Gallery like a precious relic in a glass case in the National Gallery while all around her on the expensive walls are the richly and expensively painted literary males of her generation.

I regret that my stenography was not up to getting down the sums she cited accurately enough and the differing kinds of materials she said were used to transcribe them here so I have filled out the summary with lovely stills from the film adaptations — it’s easy to find many of these because pictures, landscapes and discussions of them are more frequent in the novels than readers suppose. Miniatures as a subject or topic are in fact rare.


Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth during her tour of Derbyshire with the Gardiners (1995 BBC P&P) is placed in a clearly delineated landscape (1995 A&E P&P scripted by Davies) and is reminiscent of


A William Gilpin depiction of Dovedale

There was some group discussion after this paper, and (as seems to be inevitable) someone brought up her longing for a picture of Austen. She was reminded that we have two, both by Cassandra. But undeterred she insisted these were somehow not good enough, not acceptable. Of course she wanted a picture that made Austen conventionally appealing. At this point others protested against this demand that Austen be made pretty, but she remained unimpressed by the idea that women should not be required to look attractive to be valuable.

It is such an attitude that lies behind the interest people take in Katherine Byrne’s claim a high-status miniature (the woman is very dressed up) that she found in an auction with the name “Jane Austen” written on the back is of Jane Austen. See my blog report and evaluation, “Is this the face I’ve seen seeking?”

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Dancing in the 2009 BBC Emma: at long last Jonny Lee Miller as Mr Knightley gets to express himself to Emma

The last talk was delightful: Amy Stallings on “Polite Society, Political Society: Dance and Female Power” dwelt on the dances themselves, how accessible they were, the social situations, how they are used in Austen’s books, and finally how in life they were used to project political behavior or views in assemblies and private parties and balls too. Her perspective was the political and social functioning of dancing (reminding me of Lucy Worseley), going well beyond the literary depiction of dance in Austen. She scrutinized ballroom behavior and dance to show that the ballroom floor was a kind of stage on which a woman could find paradoxical freedom to talk with a young man and older women might project political agendas and alliances (especially if she was the hostess).


If we look past the movie and see this scene as filming a group of famous admired actors and actresses we can see the same game of vanity and power played out (everyone will distinguish Colin Firth as Darcy in this still from the 1995 BBC P&P)

Her talk fell into three parts. First, she showed how dance was made accessible to everyone in the class milieu that learned and practiced such social behavior. This part of her talk was about the actual steps you learned, the longways patterning of couples, how it enabled couples to hold hands, made eye contact. Longways dancing is a social leveller, she claimed. I found it very interesting to look at the charts, and see how the couples are configured in the different squares. As today, it was common to see women dancing in the men’s line. People looked at what you were wearing and how well you danced. She quotes Edgeworth in her novel Patronage (which like Austen’s Mansfield Park has both dancing and amateur theatrics). There was pressure to perform in dancing (as well as home theater).


Dancing difficult maneuvers in the 1983 Mansfield Park: Fanny and Edmund

The second part dwelt on dancing in novels of the era. She quoted from Henry Tilney’s wit and power over Catherine in their sequences of dancing:


JJ Feilds as Tilney mesmerizing Felicity Jones as Catherine (2007 ITV Northanger Abbey)

Her partner now drew near, and said, “That gentleman would have put me out of patience, had he stayed with you half a minute longer. He has no business to withdraw the attention of my partner from me. We have entered into a contract of mutual agreeableness for the space of an evening, and all our agreeableness belongs solely to each other for that time. Nobody can fasten themselves on the notice of one, without injuring the rights of the other. I consider a country-dance as an emblem of marriage. Fidelity and complaisance are the principal duties of both; and those men who do not chuse to dance or marry themselves, have no business with the partners or wives of their neighbours.”
“But they are such very different things!–”
” –That you think they cannot be compared together.”
“To be sure not. People that marry can never part, but must go and keep house together. People that dance only stand opposite each other in a long room for half an hour.”
“And such is your definition of matrimony and dancing. Taken in that light certainly, their resemblance is not striking; but I think I could place them in such a view. — You will allow, that in both, man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal; that in both, it is an engagement between man and woman, formed for the advantage of each; and that when once entered into, they belong exclusively to each other till the moment of its dissolution; that it is their duty, each to endeavour to give the other no cause for wishing that he or she had bestowed themselves elsewhere, and their best interest to keep their own imaginations from wandering towards the perfections of their neighbours, or fancying that they should have been better off with any one else. You will allow all this?”
“Yes, to be sure, as you state it, all this sounds very well; but still they are so very different. — I cannot look upon them at all in the same light, nor think the same duties belong to them (Northanger Abbey, I:10.

and alluded to (by contrast) how Darcy will not permit Elizabeth to achieve any power over him through dance or talk; in his downright refusals and more evasive withdrawals he robs her of status and any hold on him. So she becomes grated upon, frustrated. Amy discussed Scott’s Redgauntlet as containing a particularly effective pointed description of a tête-à-tête; the disruption of walking away, walking out and its potential to humiliate is drawn out in this novel.

One of Jane Austen’s most memorable masterly depictions of social humiliation and kindness is in the scene where Mr Elton deliberately sets up Harriet to expect him to ask her to dance, and then when Mrs Weston takes the bait, and asks him to ask Harriet to dance, he can publicly refuse her. I thought of a similarly crestfallen hurt in the dancing scene in the unfinished Watsons where a young boy is carelessly emotionally pained and (as Mr Knightley does here), so Emma Watson there comes in to rescue him at the risk of herself losing social status by dancing in the lead position with a boy.


Mark Strong as Mr Knightley observing what the Eltons are doing


The expression on Samantha Morton’s face as she is drawn up to dance by the most eligible man in the room is invaluably poignant (once again the 1996 BBC Emma)

Amy’s third part was about the politics of the dance floor and particular assemblies in particular localities. First she did insist that Austen’s novels are explicitly political in various places (including Fanny Price’s question on slavery, Eleanor Tilney’s interpretation of Catherine Morland’s description of a gothic novel as about the Gordon riots &c). She then went on to particular periods where politics was especially heated and cared about, often because a war is going on, either nearby or involving the men in the neighborhood. She described assemblies and dances, how people dressed, what songs and dances were chosen, who was invited and who not and how they were alluded to or described in local papers in Scotland and England in the middle 17th century (the civil war, religious conflicts and Jacobitism as subjects), France in the 1790s (the guillotine could be used as an object in a not-so-funny “debate”), and in the American colonies in the 1770s.

Amy went on at length about particular balls given in 1768, December 1769, May 1775, where allusions were made to loyalist or American allegiances, to specific battles and generals. One anecdote was about a refrain “British go home!” While all this might seem petty, in fact loyalists were badly treated after the American colonists won their revolution, and many died or were maimed or lost all in the war. Her argument is that women have involved themselves in higher politics (than personal coterie interactions, which I suppose has been the case since people danced) through dance from the time such social interactions occurred in upper class circles and became formal enough “to be read.” We were way over time by her ending (nearly 4:30 pm) so no questions could be asked, but there was a hearty applause.

Again I wish I could’ve conveyed more particulars here but I don’t want to write down something actually incorrect. I refer the interested reader to Cheryl A Wilson’s Literature and Dance in 19th century Britain: Jane Austen to the New Woman. The early chapters tell of the many dances known at the time, the culture of dance, and what went on as far as we can tell from newspapers and letters at assemblies, with a long chapter on doings at Almack’s, where Jane Austen just about whistles over Henry her brother’s presence. Frances Burney’s Cecilia, George Eliot’s Adam Bede, and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair are among the novels mined for understanding. Wilson goes over the quadrille (squares) and how this configuration changed the experience of hierarchy and then wild pleasures of the waltz. Here Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? and The Way We Live Now are brought in. Lady Glencora Palliser and Burgo Fitzgerald almost use an evening of reckless dancing as a prologue to elopement and adultery. I imagine it was fun to write this book.


At Lady Monk’s ball Susan Hampshire as Lady Glencora and Barry Justice as Burgo Fitzgerald dance their way into semi-escape


He begs her to go off with him as the true husband of her heart and body

It was certainly good fun to go to the Jane Austen Study Day and be entertained with such well thought out, informative and perceptive papers very well delivered. I wish more Austen events were like this one.

Ellen

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Steventon, a modern photo of the pump (inside the enclosing fence)


Ellen Hill’s picturesque illustration of the pump at Steventon, JA: Her home and Her Friends by Constance Hill, illus. Ellen Hill

I think that knowing where Jane lived can tell us who Jane really was — Lucy Worsley, opening to the film

Houses have their own way of dying, falling as variously as the generations of men, some with a tragic roar, some quietly, but to an after-life in the city of ghosts, while from others — …. the spirit slips before the body perishes … E.M.Forster, Howards End (Chapter 31)

Friends and readers,

Lucy Worsley’s Jane Austen: At Home may be regarded replacing the fantasy idyll the Constance and Ellen Hill biography offered the Janeite at the turn of the early 20th century. Worsley’s book is, like the Hills’ book, a biography of Jane Austen seen from the angle of the houses & places she lived in, visited, or just dreamed of ever after. Worsley works hard to recreate Austen’s world by providing a cornucopia of the tiniest concrete details of where and after that (sparser) how they lived nuanced into an almost subjective novelistic discourse. For the Hill combination of nostalgia for what never was, with visits to houses and places Austen lived in, Worsley substitutes hard scholarship, modern photography, and unassailable house and grounds information for what is known about Austen from herself through her letters, her novels, through hearsay, and through James Edward Austen-Leigh’s biography of his aunt.

Worsley is very clever, has read alertly, and has picked up the reality of Austen’s life as opposed to what she herself and her Janeite and other (often commercially minded) optimistic readers have stressed, so that her disillusion frequently jars us out of complacency. I finished the book convinced Worsley could have written much more in the vein of Austen’s justified bitterness, melancholy and hurt, acid jokes and deliberately flat reportage, but that Worsley is determined to maintain a light cheerful upbeat tone. Her book moves hurriedly now and again too. The result is an uneven book, sometimes feelingly so accurate and useful, at others simply repeating parrot-like a going consensus (about the librarian clark, an easy target). I was reminded of the crispness of Claire Tomalin combined with the empathetic tone of Claire Harman. Worsley tries to channel through herself the vivacity of Austen’s texts: he same attempts at suspense, allurement and quiet confiding, like our friend, without quite Harman’s subversive feminist point of view. In a nutshell, an entertaining, frequently absorbing book that feels like light reading, but isn’t quite because when Worsley gets down to the reality of Jane’s life’s circumstances and limitations from these Worsley shows us deprivation, frustration, powerlessness, but also in Austen bright determination to experience what she could of pleasure, fun.


We watch Worsley go through the process of creating ink to write with


Joanna David as the displaced Elinor Dashwood (1971 BBC Sense and Sensibility, scripted Denis Constantduros) — the first BBC film adaptation of an Austen novel, among the first scenes ….

I write this blog to advise seeing Worsley’s TV documentary movie, The Houses of Jane Austen, alongside, before or just after reading the book. At the end of the book’s first chapter, Worsley concludes that Austen’s was a “sad life, and a struggle.” Worsley’s relentlessly cheery tone, the grinning face (sort of half-frozen with too much powder) may get on your nerves, yet the story she plots by moving house to house, and taking us there, show a chart of a few high points (when a girl dancing, when on holiday, when arriving at Chawton and beginning to write), but generally a downward spiral with Trim Street, Bath, and the castle Southampton, Austen’s nadir. She was then rescued (in effect) by the offer of Chawton cottage to live in, their own space, time and just enough money to write in peace with. It turns out once Austen readies a ms for publication, she wants as many people to read it as possible. Crucial help from her brother Henry enables her to publish four of her books and revise two more to the point of near publication (while truncated, Persuasion is enough finished; and Northanger Abbey too). Then the darkness closes in despite all Jane’s best efforts, and we watch her decline into her last days.

What follows is an attempt to convey what makes her book & film interesting and enjoyable beyond the information and occasional new insights she offers: the quality of Worsley’s mixed tones.

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We picture Jane Austen mostly indoors, and writing — here we see her writing desk

Some examples and points made from JA: At Home. Worsley begins with the 1833 publisher Bentley’s assertion that Jane Austen is emphatically the novelist of home. Now while we nowadays imagine her very cosy in Chawton cottage in our imagination, in fact for Austen home was a problem. Not only as an unmarried woman with no livable-upon income of her own or earned, she was always at risk for homelessness, the perpetual visitor who has somehow to keep earning her welcome. At the same time her home for Austen was a problem. She was given no private space of her own. If not for Cassandra, and even with, only a small part of the day she would have preferred to be at home all day writing & reading, had to be given over to socializing, homemaking. Not only finding the time & privacy to write. Where could she keep her ms’s safe. She carried some around in a mahogany writing desk (precursor of the modern laptop; see above, a gift from her father), which on one trip in carriage, became separated from her, headed for an entirely different destination, and there was a frantic search backwards to retrieve it, which luckily succeeded.


How important her father’s library and reading aloud — Worsley quotes Austen’s letters

So, says Worsley, the search for a home is an idea central to Jane Austen’s fiction. A permanent happy home is what a number of her heroines don’t have; they are many of them displaced from family or physical home. It is hard to secure a place of safety, of quiet …  in which one can be understood and loved. S&S death in the family forces heroines out of childhood home; P&P our heroines will be expelled; MP Fanny Price sent away twice, and the moderately wealthy and physical strong Mary Crawford is a female wanderer. Jane Fairfax will have to earn her keep and place as a governess. Anne Elliot packed off to relative or lodgings.


Jane Austen — the Abbey School, Reading, which she attended around age 8

We meet the women of her generation with whom she spoke frankly: Ann Sharp, governess; Martha Lloyd, the nearby beloved neighbor who works as a companion and by Southampton had come to live with the three Austens. Worsley does omit (and this would be part of her theme of housing, houses), that in Southampton Jane formulates a scheme for just herself, Cassandra and Catherine and Althea Bigg to go out on their own. But she needs her brothers’ money for help and the proposal is squashed. We may guess her desire to free herself of her mother’s continual supervision even when older. This is the sort of personal pain Worsley skims over.

As Austen grows older and is forced to move about, sees her family lack funds to obtain the housing they want, and especially when her father died, Worsley suggests Austen saw how women alone were impoverished, how the structures of their society and laws forced women to marry and then submit to men for endless pregnancies — in her family two sisters-in-law died of 11 childbirths. In her ending the only one of all the women Austen knew well or closely beyond Ann Sharp who never married was Cassandra, for Frank married Martha Lloyd — a surrogate for Jane? Worsley feels that absent from Austen’s fiction and letters is the idea that women alone are also held apart from the society — as widows avoided. This comes in the last section where Worsley points out that in her death for all the talk of her family’s kindness and her gratitude, the only people who came to see Austen were women. She catches on to Martha Lloyd as special but no more. None of her family or other friends came to stay during the three months of dying.

Nonetheless, in this book Jane Austen is no lesbian. Worsley like many shows Austen to have become a spinster by choice at the same time as locating no less than six suitors. I disagree with her that Tom Lefroy had not meant a great deal — Worsley believes Austen’s guardedness  as the whole state of the case. Not in the others. We learn of Samuel Backall, William Digweed, Edward Bridges (this was the most serious after Lefroy), Harris Bigg-Wither, the unnamed seaside wooer, William Seymour (her brother Henry’s partner), William Gifford. Charles-Thomas Haden, who looked after Henry Austen in London when Henry became quite ill, and whom Jane teases herself about as an apothecary is however slighted.


Hugh Bonneville as Edward Bridges and Oliva Williams as the older Jane Austen (Miss Austen Regrets, 2008, script Gwyneth Hughes based largely on David Nokes’s biography and Austen’s letters)

Much of this comes from the letters, which Worsley has mined carefully and is inclined to take as serious evidence of Austen’s attitudes and feelings, desires.  She takes my view the letters are a crucial resource. The convention structuring of Austen’s novels prevents her from presenting significant usual outcomes in characters’ lives so we are thrown back upon the letters and we read the novels mining them for Austen’s criticism, letters, poetry.


Austen’s earliest world


Sydney Place, Bath — today a Holiday rental

The book and film move through Austen’s life more or less chronologically, following Austen from her long period growing up in Steventon and then when the house is given over to James, from lodging to lodging, house to house in Bath, the damp Green Park Buildings, and after her father died ever more poorer, darker,


The most dismal of the houses

and then in the later years, seaside resort to seaside resort, at Southampton with Frank, and finally landing at Chawton. I found much new information about Jane Austen’s time in London with her brother, Henry: like EJ Clery (Jane Austen, The Banker’s Sister), Worsley finds Henry to be Jane’s closest brother, and especially important in her first two publications. She is careful to describe all the places Henry lived in, house and gardens. I appreciated how she kept careful track of where Austen visited in a given morning or afternoon and where at the same time another relative or friend (whose movements were important to Austen) was, so we get a sense of simultaneity in Austen’s world; she makes this cohere with what Austen is writing at a given time (starting in Bath especially) or negotiating for, where traveling and what she is reading. What plays are going on, what nights Austen went, and who and what was playing. This was where Worsley was at her best in the book; in the film showing the images of places, well picked angles.


One of the photos from Lyme, by the cobb

Worsley does adhere to the contemporary feminist desire to discover in Austen an entrepreneurial businesswoman but is more honest about this. She sees how Austen herself as well as Henry made the wrong decision in refusing Murray’s offer on reasonable terms to publish her four novels once he had the copyright. Murray’s experience showed him what Austen’s novels would fetch as to readership and money. She had a lot more trouble and make a lot less money by her distrust. Worsley does not see that Austen’s letter to the publisher of Northanger Abbey was naive. Austen needed her brother, Henry, to begin with, and needed Eliza as a knowing person in society; she learned through them and had to followed their advice too. In 1815 She sent her brothers to retrieve Northanger Abbey. All from a intensely careful scrutiny of Austen’s and other contemporary diaries and letters.

I think more than anything Worsley’s held-to thesis about Austen seeking a home for herself a place she controls and how this is reflected in the frustrations of her heroines in the novels is spot on. Read her books from this perspective and remember Fanny Price quoting Cowper: “With what intense desire she wants her home”. Perhaps the book is a bit too bright. Worsley’s mode of discretion is omission. Her worst moments for me were when she made assumptions about all readers. So she suggests we all see Sense and Sensibilityy as crude; Mansfield Park is her least liked book by everyone, and so on.

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By contrast, her hour long TV show, The Houses of Jane Austen opens with driving into the grounds of Stoneleigh Abbey, and thus gives an impression of Austen as an heiress. Perhaps inevitably since the houses still standing are the larger mansions. There is a comfortable friendly tone and appealing music. She can’t provide much detail but the experience is visceral. What the camera sees, Worsley as our surrogate going from house to house, place to place, revealing where Austen lived and her journey across the years: from small (wretched) lodgings on Trim Street, to large comfortable places like Godmersham. We these places, also the countryside, the seashores, the city of Bath, Southampton, the use of the maps including when the buildings are no longer there, the world that was is no longer there. Sometimes she has found a painting (like of the castle in Southampton) that substitutes.

She opens with the statement that where you were born and who born to for most 18th century people delimited where you ended up. Austen’s father was unusual for having the gentlemanly background and education and yet small income; this was matched by his wife, a fringe aristocrat. She goes with an archeaologist to where Steventon was and a dig is going on.


The two women filmed from on high

It was a packed house with 6 boys, 2 girls, boys boarding in a school; servants included dairy maids, footman, and outside ducks, cows, chickens outside. Mr Austens study was in the back but he had three occupations (clergyman, tutor, farmer). Austen walked to and with friends; she played the piano. We see Ashe rectory, Deane House (where she danced), watch Worsley and a professor act out one of Austen’s playlets.

Worsley thinks Godmersham had the greatest influence on Austen’s writing. She didn’t like Bath but Worsley or the camera does or Austen’s behalf. We are shown Lyme Regis and Weymouth by the sea — Austen did like the sea, could envy the itinerant life, loved Wales and landscape poetry. Even when the places are no longer there that she lived, what we see there now is suggestive.


Enjoying the seashore


Contemporary tourist book

Southampton another level down from Trim Street, and cramped — here it was 8 women and Frank Austen. No prospects at all was what Austen must’ve felt, Worsley suggests. Then the wheel turns and Chawton House is on display and Chawton Cottage on offer, and Jane comes into her own, for however short a time. 1809. Worsley reads from the four women’s thrifty cookbook. We move to Austen’s life with Henry and Eliza and just Henry and Madame Bigeon at Hans Place, Knightbridge. The film ends on a visit to Winchester where she died. It’s poignant

If I have repeated the story trajectory, that’s because it controls Worsley’s discourse in both mediums. What she adds to the Austen corpus is this singularly mixed braid, doing justice to the ordeals of Austen’s life as well as the enjoyment and achievements she knew. As I thought it over, I realized a linking sub-thread was Austen contemplative, and writing throughout.

“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.”


Worsley acting out one of Austen’s texts (her presence and “costumes” important to her film’s effect)

Ellen

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Emily Mortimer as Florence Green in the meadow contemplating opening her bookshop (2017, The Bookshop)


Kelly MacDonald her first visit to Robert, sees she can indulge in her secret passion, doing puzzles from among many many that at home she stashes away (2018, Puzzle)

Reading books & doing jigsaws — what’s not to like?

Dear friends and readers,

Among the kinds of blogs I’ve not been getting to recently, which I used to place here regularly — women artists, foremother poets, translation studies — and keep vowing to return to, is the summer woman’s film. I have more excuse for this last than mere lack of time and finding myself holding to a higher standard of sheer information: I’ve not seen any women’s films this summer until very recently, and then suddenly, two: Isabel Coixet’s The Bookshop, adapted from Penelope Fitzgerald’s superb novella of the same name; and Puzzle, directed by Marc Turtletaub, scripted by Oren Moverman and Polly Mann. My jump off point: I take the opposite view expressed by Neil Minow about Bookshop, which he thinks “never comes together,”, and from Christy Lemire about Puzzle, which she finds “a lovely surprize.”

I think differently. These are from the once hallowed Roger Ebert site, which is not what it was when he was alive and its most frequent contributor. In both cases, the writers begin with a set of expectations: The Bookshop is supposed to be about books themselves, and is missing (so Minow thinks) critiques of books: why do we not hear how good Lolita is? or what the young girl clerk who so grates on Minow’s nerves, Christine (Honor Kneafsey) thinks of it or other books:


Florence and Christine reading together

On the other hand, Lemire was not expecting the wife of this utterly conventional family: garage mechanic husband, stay-at-home housewife to leave her husband. She does not even know how to operate a cell phone nor does she understand why one would want such a gadget, and has brought up two sons who expect her to serve them hand-and-foot:


Bubba Weiler as Ziggy, Austin Abrams as Gabe, David Denman as Louie (the sons and father) staring expectant at Agnes

Lemire is therefore just delighted that we are not stuck in this family-centered story, but move out from there to follow the wife’s adventures alone.

Perhaps Neil Minow should have read Fitzgerald’s book, for then he would have understood the source is a story about how power works in a community: it’s about how a woman who has been exercising control over central experiences of people in her town, Mrs Gamart (played by Patricia Clarkson) uses her connections, status, and subtle manipulative techniques fostered by the nature of the usually socially dysfunctional get-togethers (I say dysfunctional if you thought the purpose of getting together was to form friendships) to destroy another woman’s desire to find a function in life by using what money she has to sell books. I wrote an analysis of this book and others by Fitzgerald when Womenwriters@groups.io was having a group reading and discussion of Fitzgerald’s novels and Hermione Lee’s literary biography of her: Penelope Fitzgerald: The Bookshop and Offshore; Charlotte Mew. It’s about how a widow without the least trace of malice (so Florence doesn’t recognize a determined hatred) and kind heart cannot preserve herself against hostile inexorable power. We watch Florence after years of solitude and withdrawal come out of her peaceful shell to invest in, create, and build up a thriving bookshop business, only to have it destroyed insidiously step-by-step by an elite woman who knows how to get a law passed to enable the local gov’t to take over the shop, how to pressure a banker, a solicitor, an unscrupulous BBC layabout to undermine and sabotage the shop to the point where Florence is left without any money or a place even to live.

The only person on Florence’s side is the reclusive Mr Brundish, who, unlike Florence, knows exactly what Mrs Gamart is doing, and attempts to stop her by confronting her:


Bill Nighy (brilliant as the nervous man with unusual tastes) demanding to Mrs Gamart that she leave Florence Green alone

Coixet’s film has flaws or difficulties. Much that happens in Fitzgerald’s book is not visible, and it is only after Florence sees the effect of Mrs Gamart’s undercover and underhanded endeavors in say the form of a letter, or a school inspector taking Christine away from the shop, or a court order about her window (with the offending Lolita in it) that she slowly realizes she is being strangled by an encircling malign octopus. A film cannot go on for hours and must be understandable so Coixet gives us dramatic (sometimes too melodramatic) scenes or visualizations that are not in the book. Nighy and Mortimer manage to keep their scenes to the awkward, piquantly and/or poignantly comic (they are directed to behave in stylized ways)


Far shot


Close up

But all too often the need for pace makes for a seeming “tear-jerker,” which the story isn’t. It’s paradoxically a story about courage; Florence shows remarkable strength, which is part of Fitzgerald’s point. All Florence’s courage avails her nothing. Commercialization also demands a happy ending, uplift, hope, so a scene is tacked on at the end of Christine having grown up and from her experience learnt to love books, to read, and open a successful bookshop. The real world of the novel has Christine pushed into forgetting about the shop and Florence ending quietly but in anguish standing with her one suitcase waiting for a bus to take her to another town. The worst change is Coixet has Christine set fire to the bookshop: Mrs Gamart’s excuse was she was going to open an art center in the old house. I asked a friend I was sitting next to, how that helped? or had any meaning except (exciting to witness?) arson, for Florence would lose all whether the building lasted or not. My friend said to many people this means that at least Mrs Gamart will not be able to get her hands on the building. The central idea is Mrs Gamart wanted control and power; she didn’t care in the least about the building; she wanted to get rid of Florence and  her bookshop.

OTOH, to give the movie its due (and so often when one compares a book to its film adaptation, it’s an undermining process), a reader can come away from the book feeling a horrible witch-like woman malevolently destroyed another, a sort of misogynistic perspective (soap opera like). The movie makes sure we feel that Mrs Gamart could not have done what she did by emphasizing how all the various characters cooperated in the destruction of Florence. We see them at work while in the book we only gradually understand their treachery. The movie also brings back all the faces in juxtaposed stills just before we last see Florence carrying her suitcase to a ferry. Mrs Gamart could not have done it alone. In the movie even Christine’s mother participates in destroying Florence with less reason (the book brings in how Christine fails her 11-plus and how unjust the 11-plus system is).


Florence dreaming in one of the movies’ early cheerful scenes

The powerful fable hits us strongly in the gut because as with the book, Mr Brundish’s attempt to help Florence, the first time he has left his house in years, ends in his having a heart attack. He is that upset by Mrs Gamart’s performance of surprised innocence. And Coixet socks this loss of her one true friend to Florence as she adds Mr Gamart coming to the shop to lie to Florence to tell her that Mr Brundish had visited his wife to give her his support for an art center. Florence has no proof, and she becomes (at last) hysterical and screams “Get out,” and ejects the wicked old man forcibly.

There is a good movie about American black people making the rounds this summer called Get Out (which I advise my reader not to miss); also be sure and see So Sorry to Bother You.

By contrast, Puzzle is puzzling. It may be that I need to see the 2009 Rompecabezas from Argentinean writer/director Natalia Smirnoff (a woman) to grasp why for at least one-half of the film we are in time warp: Agnes is a Donna Reed character, dressing and acting like a woman of the 1950s. Why Lemire is not bothered by this unreality I don’t know.  It is improbable that in 2018 Agnes should be so obedient to her husband; it seems utterly in another era when we find that she and her husband are not determined both their sons should go to college, but that the notion of college is one that needs to be introduced. Agnes is also made into a bingo-playing priest-friendly church-going Catholic:

who hides her least unconventionality in dreamy vulnerable-heroine moods:

Agnes’s one outlet is to do puzzles, of which she has many secreted away for afternoon bouts. Now it is not improbable that she might answer an ad in the newspaper by someone asking for a partner to do puzzles with for a contest, but could this woman suddenly start to deceive her husband, lie all the time in all sorts of ways in order to gain free time to take the train into NYC and begin a partnership with a completely unknown Arab man. Irrfan Khan has been in so many brilliant Eurocentric films (Namesake, The Lunchbox), showing virtuosity (he is usually as in this film kind, attractive, reasoning but can be vicious as in Slumdog Millionaire) that he carries off the character as utterly non-threatening. I find him very attractive and have been told the actor is a type found in Indian films: the intellectual.

The insistence in the film on then bringing out how Agnes immediately resorts to lying rather than saying she is going to NYC to participate in puzzle contests, how her husband is utterly faithful to her and never distrusts her (he feels only she gives of herself to others and not him too much), and then is willing to sell his favorite summer house to please her to get money to do something in the career area for the sons, gives the game away.  Also the intense sympathy given the husband who we see as within all his capabilities as meaning well as possible and even forebearing for not beating her (that’s how it’s presented). He says he can’t do it because he’s just not like his father.

This is a film (like Ladybird [scroll down]) masquerading as a woman’s film or point of view when it is told from the male point of view. The review on IMDB asked if the story is not about selfishness (hers) and deceit. For in the second half, as she begins to enjoy life doing puzzles, enjoys being independent, and especially winning she does start an affair with Robert. It quickly emerges that he is lonely, having been left by his wife. All these hard-hearted wives, you see.


Look at the promotional shot above: is she not coyly flirting?

The looming climax comes when Agnes and Robert have won to the point they must go to Belgium to be part of the final contest. It’s then Agnes must tell her Louie, but we are led to believe that guilt stops her from being willing to go to Europe with Robert. She does not phone him when she is supposed to, she looks very reluctant.  We might think she won’t leave her sons, and is going make sure about half the money will be used to send Ziggy whom her husband had insisted work in his shop to college to become a cook. That is what Ziggy loves to do, and what his father regards as unmanly and therefore unacceptable. Some of the other half (we are to assume) will go to Gabe who wants to travel around the world or the US with a vegetarian girlfriend.

I say some because just as we assume she is going to stay with her long-suffering if dull husband, we see her waiting for a train to go somewhere. We then see an airport and think to ourselves she is after all joining the disappointed Robert. But no, she is going to Montreal. She has to keep aside some of the money for herself, no?

Now, Montreal? There is a dialogue early in the film where she expresses a desire to Ziggy to go to Montreal on her own. Why? we are not told. To do what? we are not told that. I happen to know Montreal is a little north from the borders of Canada and cold. The radical point is that she is not going to escape the husband by running to the arms of a lover. But we are not told what are her ambitions or why? the ending reminded me of Ibsen’s Doll House where it’s enough that Nora goes out of the house, slamming the door behind her. The problem is this is not 1879 and a satisfied sly smile on MacDonald’s face aboard a plane to Montreal is not enough.

I don’t want to condemn the film as it is filled with quiet nuanced scenes, and slowly builds to an interesting ending, but suggest those who are praising it are doing so as a contrast to the perpetual high violence, action-adventure fascistic point of view of so many movies nowadays. It’s a gentle film, intelligently done, slowly unwinding itself.  My favorite line:  when Louie finally asks Agnes, “Are you having an affair,” all she can say is she “thinks” she is (not sure which astounds Louie) because what she has been doing is puzzles with someone and yes they did have sex but she “didn’t like it very much.” Now those are a woman’s lines.

I thought of Margaret Drabble’s The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws. Drabble turns to jigsaws to calm herself.

Are they a game? I think so: Drabble finds the earliest modern style puzzles are found in the Renaissance and first spread as a child’s game (think of the Alphabets in Austen’s Emma). Drabble suggests for the adult that you are working against the puzzle maker. You achieve something when all the pieces are in place.  I like to do puzzles and my method resembles Agnes’s: first she makes the frame and then she works on different portions of the picture. Of course the puzzle maker makes this second step hard and now you must follow the colors. For me since the competition is at a distance (I don’t go in for contests), it’s relaxed and I have aesthetic pleasure putting the puzzle together. It’s a rare game I enjoy.


A rehearsal shot

In Puzzle Robert teaches Agnes to follow the colors first, only when the competition begins she reverts. She trusts to her own instincts and methods — so there is a feminist “feel.” Robert also tells Agnes he does puzzles to give shape and meaning to life but does not elaborate on this idea, and it does not make as much sense as Drabble’s explanation.

Gentle reader, both these movies are worth going to see — as well as Get Out and So Sorry to Bother You. You can escape the Trumpite poisoned environment we live in in the US today to learn about living in normally hard worlds.

Ellen

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Hattie McDaniel, Olivia de Havilland and Vivien Leigh 1939 in Gone with the Wind

Diary

Friends,

Day 5/10 of books that influenced me (growing up lasts a long time), that had a discernible impact.

Again for me this is problematic. Between the ages of 13 and 15 I read and reread four books to the point I knew many scenes by heart and can today still conjure them up vividly in my mind. Undeniably (surely we are to to be truthful, or What are we doing in such an exercise?), the first up in time (I was 12) was Gone with The Wind. It came into our house as a book-of-the-month club special for my mother, and I sat down and began to read. I was so entranced (with a four column page) read it so much and so often that the copy fell into pieces. The cover illustration was a collage of scenes from the GWTW books (hence not like the one I find) but my copy was a reprint of the first edition, the ample book behind this older cover:


Note the confederate flag on the side of the paper cover

The problem is that even then I knew it was a racist book and I am today deeply ashamed of myself that I ignored this. (Note the confederate flag on the side of the paper cover.) It was wrong and racist behavior on my part as the book has functioned perniciously in US culture. Still I am not embarrassed in front of GWTW. I have seen this reaction when I used to assign to students to read a book from childhood and the young adult was embarrassed to realize what the book he or she so loved was. I regretted when that happened. My father tried to read The Secret Garden to me when I was 10 and had to give it up so mortified was he to see the agenda of Burnett’s book. These books answered to what we were then

I was Scarlett in my earliest readings. GWTW led to my reading a helluva of lot of Walter Scott in my earlier teens.  In later years I have decided the heroine of GWTW is Melanie. I shall never forget her standing at the top of the ruined stairs of Tara with a rifle, having killed the marauding soldier, and now determined to lug the corpse to the field to bury it. When Ashley comes home, Scarlett’s wild desire to run to him, and Will saying, “he’s her husband.” I’ve expanded the heroes to include Rhett Butler, Ashley Wilkes and Will Benteen.  I remember so many scenes from GWTW; they formed a backdrop of women’s key emotional moments in my mind. Scarlett in her mother’s green velvet curtains trying to charm money out of the imprisoned Rhett.

It’s women’s historical romance first and foremost.

I’ve never given up this type of book and some are leftist and liberal. My most recent wallowing has been in the distressingly pro-violence Outlander (the first three books) and the brilliant voyeuristic film adaptation: I find irresistible the central love relationship of Jamie and Claire, and I bond with Claire in book and film. I find irresistible still her fierce adherence to Jamie, I bond with her in book and film.


Claire and Jamie starting out together …

People disappear all the time.
Young girls run away from home.
Children stray from their parents and are never seen again.
Housewives take the grocery money, and a taxi to the train station.
Most are found eventually.
Disappearances, after all, have explanations.
Usually.
Strange, the things you remember.
Single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years

I know the Poldark novels by Winston Graham belong to this genre so my study of the Poldark novels began here when I started to read Ross Poldark after watching a few of the episodes of the 1970s serial drama. It’s deeply humane in its politics.


My first copy of Ross Poldark, the 1970s reprint of the 1951 cut version, published in anticipation of the 1975 serial drama starring Robin Ellis

There were three other authors I read & reread around the same time, getting to know by heart key scenes: the second chronologically was Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I recently reread it once again and am convinced it is a poetic masterpiece of l’ecriture-femme, one of the great novels for women and one of the world’s great novels in all languages. Who can forget countless passages like this: “I can live alone, if self-respect and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure, born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld; or offered only at a price I cannot afford to pay.” Contra mundi.


This is the copy of Jane Eyre I now own

At the time I was not alive to the crucial differences in language between Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Daphne DuMaurier’s RebeccaRebecca was another “extra” from my mother’s subscription to the US Book-of-the-Month Club. Like Bronte, like GWTW, DuMaurier’s books satisfied a need in me that recent Booker Prize women’s romance (Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac, A. S. Byatt, Possession) also satisfy. Bronte and DuMaurier explicitly make visible a woman’s vision using techniques found in l’ecriture-femme, but there were only 5 Bronte novels that I could read (JE, Villette, Agnes Grey, Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Wuthering Heights) so DuMaurier functioned as yet more of the same: My Cousin Rachel, Jamaica Inn, Branwell Bronte and above all King’s General. Last summer I reveled with a group of people in a class I taught at OLLI at Mason in reading together King’s General (17th century civil war, crippled heroine) and Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover. However vastly more perceptive about the nature of reality, Volcano Lover is still of this genre. All versions of the same kind of underlying deep gratification of soul.

I had found my copy of Jane Eyre in a local drugstore for 40¢; I went back a few weeks later, and found imprinted in the same cheap way Austen’s Mansfield Park. Another 40¢ and home I went to read and reread MP. My fourth and nowadays favorite book of all these. When I got to the end and heard the moral of struggle and endure, I turned back to the first page and read the novel over again. I’ve never stopped reading it. It has never been far out of my mind, always at the edge of consciousness to be called up. I’ve never forgotten the cover of this MP: white, with 18th century type stage characters, and the blurb telling me this is a “rollicking comedy.” In my naivete I couldn’t understand why this blurb so false was there. But no matter I was Fanny, and this was a somber strong book.


The colors dark and distorted this is nonetheless the second copy of MP I owned

Since then I’ve seen all the film adaptations of Jane Eyre and Mansfield Park available.


Fanny and Edmund growing up at MP (1983 Ken Taylor BBC)

With GWTW, Jane Eyre, and Mansfield Park I began my love affair with women’s great books, historical romance, and historical fiction. I’ve never stopped reading these and nowadays want only to write about them. And for me they include the great classics (in 19th & early 20th century beyond DuMaurier, English Anne Bronte, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Margaret Oliphant, Virginia Woolf, Rosamund Lehmann, Margaret Drabble).


Ruth Wilson as Jane Eyre (Sandy Welch’s JA, 2006)

Ellen

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Chawton House and Church

Friends,

The two week set of videos and podcasts, full length essays (mostly as published in Persuasions Online) and linking prompts, found on the Future Learn site offers some worthwhile material to most people who’ve read Jane Austen’s writing, and want to learn about her, her work, and her era. The central target audience appears to be someone who knows little of Austen, and may not have read even the six famous novels: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1817), but the choice of material provides new information and food for thought for serious readers, devoted fans, and even academic scholars. No small feat.

The first week tells Austen’s life by sheer presentation and description of documents published by her family. Henry’s biographical notice, from what’s left of her letters, uncontroversial timelines for early family members, and much from what is made available from Chawton house and Chawton cottage. We are shown a map of places Austen and her family visited and which towns and seashore meant most to her It can and is meant to function as an advertisement (information about) Chawton house, its programs, library, gardens. So someone knowing nothing is not presented with bogus histories or legends or excessive hype. A plain photo of Chawton cottage is used.

The strongest sections where something beyond these primary basics are presented in the first week are thus understandably about Jane Austen’s reading and 18th century social norms for uses of gardens and house landscapes. Gillian Dow (Director of Research at Chawton House and Associate Professor at the University of Southampton) and Daren Bevin (Chawton House Librarian) discuss what is in Chawton House library (1:9).


From Horden House (another private library)

For Austen’s reading, Gillian showed the family copy of Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, said how Austen’s brother, Henry Austen, said it was Jane’s favorite book, showed the ms of the parodic playlet Grandison in Austen’s own hand, but then said (quietly but repeated it) it’s odd how this copy of Richardson looks like it’s hardly ever been read while Mary Brunton’s Self Control looks very worn. Who is Mary Brunton and what Self-Control? she was a very popular writer of Austen’s era, and someone Austen cites in her letters more than once, and clearly regarded as a peer and rival. The participant is then offered a copy of Self-Control to read online. The book has been reprinted in an inexpensive edition in the 20th century but for those who don’t have a copy, here is a chance to read a contemporary text from the context Austen was part of. The reader given the text of Henry’s hagiographic defensive piece and a couple of comments if listened to suggest how this is shaped to suit Henry’s respectability agenda.

And finally at the bottom of one of the sections, linked in is Dow and Katie Halsey’s essay, “Jane Austen’s Reading: the Chawton Years,” Persuasions Online, 30:2 (spring 2010). It is excellent, much improved on the older one by Margaret Anne Doody in David Gray’s Companion Handbook, or the one in Janet Todd’s JA in context by Alan Richardson (“Reading Practices”). I feel that finally the real particular books Austen knew well and respected are singled out — partly this is the result of their having access to the list of books at Godmersham and the books at Chawton house. It’s the specificity of what is listed and the descriptions of content and book. These are taken from Chawton House and Godmersham libraries, culled from Austen’s letters and novels, and supportive contemporary circulating library lists. What she literally had available during her years living in Chawton cottage, in the Chawton house and Godmersham libraries, what is literally cited in the letters and culled from a close reading of the novels.If you are not “upgrading” (not paying) you can download these immediately, and it’s well to because when the 7 weeks or whatever the time is up, the whole thing will disappear unless you’ve paid them $50 by May 20th.


The Walled in Garden at Chawton

The video of a discussion between Kim Simpson (post-graduate fellow at the University of Southampton) and Stephen Bending (a historian and specialist in landscape gardening) on the gardens and grounds of Chawton offers real insight into the gendered nature of house landscaping. Austen’s representations of gardens and landscapes in her novels replicates what she saw in the cottages, country houses and estates around her. They talked of specific areas in the gardens at Chawton and in Austen’s novels, for example, the wilderness, a place using diagonal paths to suggest something somewhat less formal than a shrubbery near the house. You were supposed to contemplate your relationship with God (said Bending). A ha-ha is a sunken fence, it keeps sheep out of the controlled areas, and gives an impression of far more space than a given owner has when you look from it out to the distance. The garden, walled areas, and wilderness were feminised spaces, outside versions of the domestic spaces inside a house: women walked there and certain kinds of behavior were demanded. Beyond these pleasure grounds, hunting took over and these were considered male spaces. They quoted and explicated texts from Emma.

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19th century French edition of Isabelle de Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield

I enjoyed the first part of this second week especially. Dow travels to France to speak to a French scholar, Isabelle Bour, Prof of English Literature at the Sorbonne, Paris, who has studied Isabelle de Montolieu among many other 18th and 19th century French women authors. They describe Montolieu’s career (she was the famous woman), and how her translations of Austen differ significantly from Austen’s texts. I’ve read Montolieu’s translation of Sense and Sensibility and can vouch that they say is accurate. They talked about translation in general and touched upon Montolieu’s extensive oeuvre in original and translation work. One claim did puzzle me: Dow believes that Austen knew nothing of Montolieu’s translation of S&S. It maybe there is no proof or document showing Austen did know but from my research and (others I’ve read) and a line from an original source we know Austen read Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield, gave a copy to Fanny Knight advising her to read it. I’ve argued (and so have others) that Caroline de Lichtfield is a direct influence on S&S.

I have a whole region of my website dedicated to two French women authors, later 18th into 19th, who influenced Austen and I put a novel each on in the French: Sophie Cottin’s Amelie Mansfield and Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield. I wrote a short biography of Montolieu and my etext edition of Caroline and scholarship there have been commended in a peer-edited French journal. I know it’s been read by the equivalent of two high school classes in France. I reprint Montolieu’s preface to her two translaions: Raison et Sensbilite; or Les Deux Manieres d’Aimer. I discuss the preface to her La Famille Eliot, our l’ancienne inclination where Montolieu shows she has read all Austen’s novels and discerned repeating patterns in them (like the heroine experiencing agony from a tabooed and necessarily secret love for one of the heroes).

Dow and Professour Bour discuss translation in general briefly, and then go on to the idea of adaptation as a form of free translation: arguably Montolieu’s text is an adaptation: she adds passionate and sentimental scenes where Austen has none, and she changes the ending: Willoughby’s wife dies and he marries Eliza Williams.
Prof Bour was indignant at how Montolieu’s text is sold as a straight translation this year still (2018). Dow remarked that Montolieu’s translation of Austen’s title as Raison et Sensibilite takes into account the the two are not opposites in Austen’s book. She and Bour said the recent and the best translation of S&S so far as La Coeur et La Raison makes the opposition emphatic. I agree. I also agree La Coeur and La Raison is the best translation: it’s published by Pleiade; I own and have read it. it’s by a French scholar who understands Austen very well: Pierre Goubert.

Nancy Mayer and I discussed the idea that Austen did not know of Montolieu’s translation of S&S. Unless Gillian Dow has some proof that Austen did not know of the translation of her book I will continue to believe she did. Gillian may feel that’s Austen should have been indignant. But there was no copyright respected across nations. We also are missing many of Austen’s letters; may one did record her discomfort. I’d feel uncomfortable being told someone translated something I wrote until I saw the text or unless I knew the person’s work and could trust the person to translate without violation or false distortion. Part of my disbelief also comes from my sense Austen knew French literature of the period. She will carelessly (effortlessly) refer to French texts in passing. circulating libraries included French texts; as English texts were published in Paris so French texts were published in London. Friends shared books too.


In my judgement the best translation of Austen into French thus far: Felix Feneon’s late 19th century Catherine — see my published essay, “Jane Austen in French,” Ekleksographia Wave Two, October 2009

I’m not saying Austen read her novel in Montolieu’s translation, only that she probably knew of it. She and her family members seem to have been so tight on money when it came to “luxury” expenditures. Nowadays we’d say why does she not obtain a copy and read it. Think about how she did not pay back that 10 pounds that in 1803 the publisher gave her for Northanger Abbey until 1816 when she had had 4 successes and was determined to rewrite and publish the book. I suspect that was she didn’t want to spend the 10£ – nor her family! she clearly had a manuscript of her own as she threatened to publish it unless the publisher sent it back; he responded insultingly he would sue her unless she paid him the money he had bought the copyright with. Imagine such a state of finances. We might conjecture that the French S&S never came to London because why should it? it stayed in France and was sold there.


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)

After the interview with Isabelle Bour on Montolieu’s and other translations of Austen into French, there was an attempt to define a set of qualities or elements in a film that might made it “Austenesque.” You might ask why the speakers did not simply say “like Austen:” they wanted to define characteristics that are not necessarily in or like Austen at all but have come to be thought to be like her: one example I’ll give is romantic. Many Austen fans associate her books with romance and strong sentiment and yet this is not her quality or tone. They had in mind qualities films have made Austen associated with. The speakers in a video were Dr Will May and Dr Stephanie Jones, Dr Shelley Cobb and Kim Simpson

One problem for anyone listening is that they were talking on a level of high abstraction and generality: I felt that was to avoid offending: by not becoming concrete or giving examples, they could be less held to adverse response. They also could extend the idea widely – so widely that they came to the conclusion that Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan is Austenesque and so is Clueless, and it’s arguable that within the Austen film canon two films could not be more unalike. Considered against lots of films that cannot at all be said to have anything to do with Austen (action-adventure) they might be seen as alike : women centered, about falling in love and getting married. They included clips from Clueless and Metropolitan.


Aubrey Rouget aka Fanny (Carolyn Farina) and Tom (Edmund Clements) discuss Lionel Trilling’s essay on MP: Aubrey says she finds Fanny very likeable (1990 Metropolitan, Stillman)

But to me at least terms extended so far become far less useful. Also I thought of P&P and Zombies where a film type — the horror film – and actions so endemic to American films nowadays – grotesque cruelty and violence – are now in the Austen canon. Yet I felt as they talked the term was not invented just to reify their ideas into some academic like category – it had a kind of usefulness to carve out an area of feeling and thought viewers associate with Austen. OTOH, a little while later it had the same feel of emptiness or barrenness or maybe thinnness I felt in other parts of the two weeks’ materials. This time it was not a result of the target someone who knew very little about the topic because clearly the people decided to one-third of only two weeks into movies because they expected the people who registered to know a lot of these Austen movies.

They also asked if Mansfield Park was a radical novel and the consensus seemed to be yes, sort of. No one objected to the idea that Clueless is Austenesque; there was no discussion of Emma in relationship to Clueless. This was just the sort of thing that was disappointing. For myself Clueless is one of my least favorite of the more famous Austen films (there are now more than 35 of these): I feel it’s a descendent of the 1939 MGM Pride and Prejudice, more Hollywoodized and celebrity-worshipping than anything in Austen and those films influenced by it similarly misleading. Yes she can be broadly comic, but in the spirit of burlesque as in her Juvenilia.

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A detail of Cassandra’s drawing of Austen: her face

I didn’t try to engage in any conversation after I realized so many of the “learners” there had not read much beyond Pride and Prejudice and maybe one of two others of the novels — just the six and nothing else seems to me a basic expectation for anyone saying they have an interest in Austen. Also as I skimmed in the first what they said, I realized the talk was often a mirror of popular unexamined attitudes. As such, for example, the interest they displayed in a “Radical” Austen showed why publishers are eager to publish such books. I noticed very quickly the word “austenesque” was objected to as snobbish; why do we need such a term? In the first week the whole idea of examining someone’s reading offended a number of people as elitist. So one couldn’t say anything that was not centrally public media mainstream while they were also aggressive in unexpected (to me) areas. Like their resentment at discussions of what Jane Austen read. I can’t figure out what is the going cant sometimes. And if it’s particularly pious or anti-pious someone will defend it. In the second week there was more content from those commenting, more people contributed who had read Austen and some criticism and history, and I noticed people doing their dissertations. Then there appeared “mentors” replying to them, but I felt who was responded to was carefully chosen and words.

I did tell of my page on Montolieu, where you could find her Caroline de Lichtfield, a short biography, information about her, an essay-review of my etext edition as well as her preface to her translation of Sense and Sensibility. Eventually I had 18 replies, one from one of the mentors and one from Gillan Dow (Herself!), very generous of her to take time. I include her comment and my reply in my comments here over whether Austen may have known of Montolieu’s translation of Sense and Sensibility. It’s not just ego that makes me persist, but that it’s an important question if you are interested in the interaction between French and English literature of the 18th century and would like to make a convincing case for Austen having been immersed in the French memoirs and novels of the period just as much as she was in the English ones. And for the record I did spend the $50 so I could have continual (as long as Future Learn lasts and keeps this feature going) access to the material offered in the course.

Ellen

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Fanny Price (Sylvestre Le Tousel) watching from window


How much better Mary Crawford rides (1983 BBC MP, scripted Ken Tayler)

Friends,

A few weeks ago now a member of Janeites@yahoogroups.com, brought up the subject of giving-giving in Emma. I never read this first email, so am not quite sure what the writer meant to convey, but did read parts of an ensuing interesting conversation on gift-giving in Austen’s novels. What interested me is how people talk about gifts sentimentally in the US and modern culture today (not tribal and traditional which are other worlds), but how we treat them for real. What is the voiced ideal for gift-giving and what is the reciprocal practice in life. And then, how in the later 18th century gifts were regarded (as mirrored in Austen’s novels), and the underlying caustic, hard tone Austen takes towards just about all instances in her fiction.

Today in the US, especially around Christmas-time, there has emerged a quid-pro-quo for gifts. People who work together have “draws” where they are obligated to buy a gift worth so-much and no more; family quarrels erupt because one person has bought a much more expensive gift for another and gotten a cheaper one in exchange. Note that word, exchange. Either the big giver is regarded as showing off, or the small token giver is regarded as doing something in bad taste, inadequately. There is another attitude, older, and about loving relationships, that a gift is something freely given out of generosity at the same time as it has nothing to do with charity. To give in charity is quite a different emotion and relationship. It’s supposed to be unbiased, disinterested, by someone not involved directly. When people give their children gifts, they are not engaging in charity. The myth of Santa Claus might be regarded as a device which hides they are the gift-givers and so their children are absolved of gratitude.


Fanny Price (Sylvestre Le Tousel) bringing home books to share with the unenthusiastic Susan (Eyrl Maynard) (1983 BBC MP, scripted Ken Taylor)

So how do gifts function in Austen’s novels: they show someone’s status; they can confer obligation the other character would rather not have; one character shows their power over another; gratitude is expected. From a gendered perspective, a man puts a sign on a woman, most often a necklace, to show that she has agreed to be his. They also reveal a character’s meanness or true largesse. Elizabeth Elliot’s idea of retrenchment is to give up buying Anne a token present in London each year — a gift which shows that Anne does not come to London with her, shows her higher importance. Mrs Norris cannot get herself to part with even the the most poor conditioned of prayerbooks, she gives William £1 and gives herself airs for having given the gift; when it’s revealed how little she gave by Lady Bertram, her sister (who gave him £15), Mrs Norris turns red because she knows she has been stingy, could have given so much more, so she turns on Lady Bertram as absurdly over-indulging the young man.

As complicated instances of the complexities and difficulties of generosity, Fanny Price out of the £10 allowance Sir Thomas gives her when she goes to live at Portsmouth, buys a subscription at a lending library so she can have the pleasure of reading but also sharing her knowledge with Susan, her sister. She is disappointed because Susan does not appreciate this gift as much as the powerful giver’s presence. She buys a fancy new knife for her spiteful young sister, Betsy, because Betsy has taken a knife a now dead Mary is said to have meant to give Susan but was snatched out of Susan’s hands by the mother who favors Betsy with the excuse Betsy is younger. Once given this knife, Betsy relinquishes Mary’s knife with disdain as old; Susan wanted it as a cherished memory device. In Austen’s books and I’ve seen in life people who judge ill or don’t care will give one child a gift in a family (or money) and not the other. They may claim they don’t want to show favoritism but they do. In the primogeniture culture egalitarian ways of thought were not considered a standard at all. So giving one boy and not others is just fine — but not in human feeling. People accepted it because they were so desperate.

We are supposed to admire Mr Knightley for wanting to give so many of his apples to the Bates’s and Jane Fairfax, he leaves himself (so his housekeeper says) with too few. We are also to see that he does not pay close attention to how much he gives; the point in his mind is not himself but the person he is trying to help

In the threads on this subject, it emerged that Emma shows more open gift-giving than the other novels, with a subtle interplay in Mansfield Park that each time reveals dependency, obligation, at its worst anger over a gift that the other person feels she should have had, at its best distanced practical patronage. In both Mansfield Park and Emma we have rich characters intermingled with impoverished ones. Emma Woodhouse gives as a sign of her upper class status and largesse, not the kindliness of her heart, or she makes a gesture, say to Jane Fairfax of arrowroot. The gifts in Emma are most often food. I would not call what she does charity as she has a real relationship with those who live in her village, on her property (as say tenants); it’s a way of being upper class. She is obliged to give. This is a hard view of giving: you give because if you don’t, you lose your status in the community — your position of power. Think of Emma’s mockery of how Miss Bates would talk if Frank married Jane. How good of him, how grateful we all are. Frank=power and Jane does want and need him for his strength, which depends on his self-sufficiency – as long as the Churchills keep giving him his place in their family as their heir-adopted son. I am not as sure of his self-esteem without that place as Mr Knightley seems to be. Mr Knightley is in no danger of losing his place.  Emma is scorning Miss Bates for being open about how she is supposed to be the grateful recipient as a secondary, very much tertiary dependent.

Fanny’s schoolroom is filled with gifts from her cousins who gave what they didn’t care about; Tom in particular is very generous with netting boxes, what he couldn’t want himself anyway. But Fanny values all these shabby things as a sign they mean well by her. We see they clutter up the attic room she is grudgingly given as a sitting room next to her bedroom by Mrs Norris as the old nursery the other Bertram children have outgrown. Fanny’s position is parallel to Miss Bates, but she knows to be silent and tactful about having to be the recipient of whatever is as a bye-product given to her.


Jane Fairfax (Olivia Williams) and Frank Churchill (Raymound Coulthard) hurriedly getting up from the new mysterious piano as Emma, Harriet and Miss Bates arrive on the stairway landing (1996 ITV Emma, scripted Andrew Davies)

The most spectacular gift in all Austen is the pianoforte Frank gives Jane — only since the giver is secret it’s a terrific embarrassment. From time immemorial in Europe when a man gives a woman a present (a necklace or ring was most common) and she accepts it and wears it, that’s a sign she is his, attached to him. Engagement. In Anthony Trollope’s novels, young women resist taking such gifts with great intensity because that means they can’t back down; they have said “yes” unequivocally by this acceptance. Engagement meant being left alone so to break off would be to sexually compromise yourself. In Trollope’s The Vicar of Bullhampton a young women resists a fierce attempt to place a necklace on her; this way of seducing her is supposed to soften the aggression involved in pressuring the girl to marry the young man — after all once they are married, she will have to have sex with him. The gift is then a form of sexual harassment if the man is forcing himself or being forced on the young woman. Trollope’s Ayala’s Angel also include an imposed necklace (by a man) that is rejected (by the woman). In the Renaissance stories emerge of someone’s mistress demanding her lover give her the necklace he gave his wife and it’s exposed he did that. This happened to Vittoria Colonna (according to one gossip chronicle). When Henry VIII demands of Catherine of Aragon she give back the jewelry he gave her so it could re-carved as Anna Boleyn’s that’s about as cruel and humiliating slap as he can mete out.

It’s a sign of Frank’s power, his wealth, what he can for Jane. He can also force her to sing on even she’s tired: she loves to please him, but is physically weak and if we watched sensitive to slights while she plays. She knows her ability to play is seen as a function of her having to sell herself (as she puts it, into a slavery) as a governess. Frank is asserting ownership over Jane, conferring obligation; we see he cares little for her sensitivities and does not think at all what marriage to him for Jane might be like from her point of view. Mr Knightley is right to feel sorry for Jane’s choice in the end, and say Colonel Campbell is too sensitive a gentleman to have given a gift as a secret in public. Frank is like the person doing wrong who wants to be found out because it titillates him. Oh yes he knows she loves to play and he to listen and they had joy that way, but the joy is now spoilt.

Henry and Mary Crawford attempt to trick Fanny Price into accepting as a gift a lovely necklace from him; they try to persuade her it’s one he gave Mary a long time ago and so it’s now Mary’s and it’s not worth money, no longer attached to him. When she discovers that in fact he wanted to give he a new necklace from himself, she regards the incident as an instance of how Mary is capable of betraying her female friends. When Emma circulates the rumor that Jane and Mr Dixon were in love with one another, though he chose to marry Jane’s rich friend, she is sullying Jane’s reputation very badly: here too we find a woman betraying another.

Lucy Steele shows Elinor Dashwood the ring and miniature that Edward gave her to prove Edward is engaged to her; that he wears a ring (from her) into which a lock of her hair has been twisted is a sign he is hers. She puts a sign on him, showing her power and aggression. In her case, we can see how a grasping personality can make a gift she accepts into a sign of her power.


Lucy Steele ( Anna Madeley) telling Elinor Dashwood (Hattie Morahan) she and Edward have been engaged for 4 years


Lucy confirming this by pressing Edward’s gifts to Lucy into Elinor’s hand (2008 BBC S&S, scripted Andrew Davies)

Lucy presses on Elinor the task of helping her and Edward to marry on the basis of female loyalty! She knows that Elinor has a brother who may have a parish position in his “gift.” No wonder Austen at the end of the novel said she was an instance of all one could gain if one were ruthless in pursuit and didn’t care what it cost you in things outside money or decency. Jane cannot bear to eat Emma’s gift of arrowroot. Emma later understands it would have choked her. Emma continually betrayed and needled Jane all book long. It’s striking how making a character the consciousness of a book pulls readers into favoring that character, for most readers end up liking Emma by the end of her book. It is Emma who notices that Frank’s obsession with Jane’s skin color does not bode well for the coming years of marriage.

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Henry Tilney (J.J.Feilds) explaining to Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones) his father’s exploitative relationships with the world (2007 Granada Northanger Abbey, scripted Andrew Davies)

The subtlety of what gift-giving scenes in Austen dramatize was suggested by Diana Birchall in her contribution to this thread: I had written that Henry and Eleanor Tilney’s mother, a Miss Drummond, had paid a high price for the necklace her bethrothed gave her: her life (as in, according to Andrew Davies in his film of Northanger Abbey, 2007) Henry Tilney’s explanation to Catherine that his father “drained the life out of her”. So was vampirish. And I said it was not generosity because she brought the General, it was said, a large dowry. He wants his sons and daughter to marry in the same mercenary way he did.

Diana:

I’m enjoying this thread too, and am grateful to Ellen for mentioning “Miss Drummond” in Northanger Abbey, because I’m writing something about Gen. Tilney, and in spite of my fairly accurate knowledge of Austens texts, I had absolutely no memory of a Miss Drummond! Of course I delighted in looking up the passage, but must point out that it indicates that Gen. Tilney is not the gift-giver as Ellen remembers it (clearly the passage is not that memorable!). Miss Drummond married Gen. Tilney, but it was her own father who gave her her fortune, money for wedding-clothes, and the set of pearls. The passage reads thus:

‘Mrs. Tilney was a Miss Drummond, and she and Mrs. Hughes were schoolfellows; and Miss Drummond had a very large fortune; and, when she married, her father gave her twenty thousand pounds, and five hundred to buy wedding–clothes. Mrs. Hughes saw all the clothes after they came from the warehouse.’
‘And are Mr. and Mrs. Tilney in Bath?’
‘Yes, I fancy they are, but I am not quite certain. Upon recollection, however, I have a notion they are both dead; at least the mother is; yes, I am sure Mrs. Tilney is dead, because Mrs. Hughes told me there was a very beautiful set of pearls that Mr. Drummond gave his daughter on her wedding–day and that Miss Tilney has got now, for they were put by for her when her mother died.'”

I was wrong about who gave the gift: the general didn’t even have it in him to give his bride a necklace, but not about Austen’s emphasis (picked out by Davies). Similarly Mr Elliot talks of buying his daughter, Mary Musgrove a pelisse in order to get credit for the thought, without giving her anything on the grounds she is looking so red-nosed recently so obviously the warmth of the garment will just make her more unattractive (to him).

Sometimes I find when one is exploring a new topic, or one I hadn’t thought about before, it’s useful to remember cognate uses of a word. So gift is also used of someone who is born with “gifts” for say singing, or writing, or acting. We say of Pavarotti after we have listened to him sing “Nessun dorma” (from Puccini’s Tosca) “it’s a gift.” By that we mean something freely given, something he got from his genes, something he need not have done anything for. He was born that way.

We have a comment by Austen on this kind of thing too and again she is caustic. She says of how Mary Crawford is so admired for her horsemanship, her nerve and boldness on a horse, that she was the admiration of all based on what she inherited in her genetic disposition for fearlessness and her strong body. She did nothing for this — after all Pavarotti trained his voice. The implication in Austen over Mary on a horse or playing cards is the admiration is misplaced because people admire such a character because they think the person is responsible, when it’s their genes. Nothing Mary goes in the book suggests she will work hard at anything — reminding us of Emma who makes up lists of books to improve herself with, and only practices the piano when she feels momentary envy because someone with gifts who has worked hard to perfect her has outdone her in pubilc. Jane Fairfax is gifted and then works hard to be a good pianist – for her efforts, though, Harriet Smith sneers at as someone herself (Harriet) who is not being sent out to work. Yes no one would spend the money to train her as Colonel Campbell has generously done for his friend’s orphan daughter.


Elizabeth Bennet (Jennifer Ehle) trying to persuade her father (Benjamin Whitlow) she is marrying Darcy for love (1995 BBC P&P, scripted Andrew Davies)

Diane Reynolds brought in a larger philosophical perspective.

Ellen’s comments highlight what I have been thinking about, that gifts are a prime example Derrida uses to explain aporia or paradox in language. He argues there is no such thing as a real gift, because a real gift would confer absolutely no obligation on the recipient and the recipient wouldn’t know it was given. Yet, a gift implies a giver and recipient. Gifts by their very nature are not supposed to confer obligation and yet they always do, if only the obligation of a thank you. This is not just in Austen’s time, but across western culture. The word “gift” is a convenient contradiction, a way to try to soften the power. Of course, Austen never misses a beat on how power works.

I think of the gift of £3,500 [sum researched by Diana B] Darcy supplies for Lydia’s dowry and for a commission for Wickham that essentially buys Elizabeth for him. That’s a huge sum in today’s money, so Elizabeth was a costly — and quoting Richardson “an amiable bauble_ -— much more so than Jane Fairfax. Austen is careful to set up that Elizabeth has already softened to Darcy and would be ready to accept a marriage proposal anyway — if only to be mistress of Pemberley! — but Darcy’s “gift” undeniably clinches the deal — and a transaction it is.

Gift gifting is clearly a sign of power — we see all the netting boxes from Tom on Fanny’s table, showing both his power to give gifts and her relative unimportance — netting boxes are not exactly high-powered presents. Fanny’s power in Portsmouth is shown in her ability to bestow presents, thanks to Sir Thomas’s providing her with standing money; her powerlessness is in her inability to leave — and she knows very well she doesn’t want to be obligated to the Crawfords for the gift of transport.

But what of other of Fanny’s room decor? She apparently scavenges the trash — finds what other people have discarded — to furnish her study. Are these discards that Fanny obtains, in part, through metaphoric “dumpster diving,” gifts? Or has she earned them through her own ingenuity in salvaging them? (Some of them were obviously given to her as discards.) Are discards gifts?” Did she compete with the servants for this stuff?

And what of the cream cheese and eggs Mrs. Norris sponges? Do they count as gifts?

I offered the idea that Mrs Norris was based on Jane’s aunt, Jane Pierrot-Leigh, who was a petty thief, and was almost transported for theft of a card of lace when caught — and she counter-accused the shopkeeper of entrapping her in order to blackmail her. It’s obvious from the trial hearing and another time she tried to walk out of a shop, this time with a plant, she persuaded herself, as does Mrs Norris of the housekeeper, she had the right to these small items, they were in fact given to, meant to be hers.

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In Whit Stillman’s 1990 Metropolitan (appropriate of MP) Aubrey-Fanny buys herself a set of Austen’s novels for Christmas

We had by no means exhausted the subject or instances of gifts in Austen however defined. A view of gift-giving which emphasizes an idealizing perspective is found in Lewis Hyde’s famous book, The Gift. He agrees no gift is freely given (he begins with tribes) and yet when it’s a case of sharing one’s creativity (because we want to) in making beautiful meaningful things and experiences, we transform our world and experience (here he has moved on from tribes to a modern urban world). He attacks our commodity and money-driven market world. I’d use as an instance of his theory the architect (probably not that well paid originally) who built Mansfield Park left behind him a locus amoenus for people to find pleasure in. Hyde’s book is well-meant: he wants a return to a true gift-giving exchange to transform people. But as we see in Mary Crawford’s gifts, Jane Fairfax’s, Anne Elliot’s, Marianne’s, Fanny’s, gifts don’t work out in the real world necessarily to spread harmony and transform the world. I don’t say love and friendship cannot be embodied in a gift: it is in fact a natural way of embodying the feeling; we say to someone your life is of value on their birthday by giving them some gift.

Austen begins her texts as a satirist but as she revises and becomes realistic she seems to take in the complexities of whatever she is targeting. By the time of final text she has reversed her more shallow burlesque stance in the context of thick realism, and explores her topic to the point she reaches complex emotional ironies. I’d put the lesson that emerges this way: in her mature novels Austen reveals gift-giving to be part of a relationship where the giver has power over the receiver, the vulnerable person, someone in need or in the subaltern position. Thus you had better understand the nature of that giver before accepting the gift if you are in a position to refuse.

Ellen

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The Door (2016, Istvan Szabo, Helen Mirren as Emerence)

Then she actually tried to leave, throwing herself out of the bed …. if she live to old age, must probably sink more … Emerence, The Door, Miss Bates, Emma

Friends and readers,

I’ve been listening to this translated Hungarian text byMagda Szabo read by Sian Thomas and occasionally reading it myself for the last few weeks, and it is has had mesmerizing effect on me. It helped me to think about it in terms of Austen’s Emma: the narrator is often as clueless and blundering as Emma; much irony directed at both women, and there are intriguing parallels.

The narrative is a book-long monologue by a woman never named, an apparently well-educated so middling to upper class novelist (“lady novelist” others call her) who was prevented from publishing for too many years under the communist regime, but since some unexplained change, can not only publish but has become popular, widely read, wins a (unnamed) prize. It comes across very strongly: it’s one of these semi-autobiographical novels so common in our age; perhaps the most intriguing thing about it is whether we are to read it as a novel or autobiography, probably both. This skein of this story in outline is that of Magda Szabo who hired a local more working class woman, child of a carpenter but with what we might call a peasant’s mentality, to serve her in just the way the second presence in the book does. Her name Emerence. Emerence cleans for a living, perhaps paid by the government for caring for several buildings and the street — she endlessly shovels the continual snow Hungary seems afflicted by — but goes well beyond that, not only hiring herself out to individuals to housekeep, clean, shop, and cook, but acting as an angel of charity with gifts of food in a beautiful crystal bowl to anyone in the neighbor who is ill, depressed, momentarily (I suppose she cannot this up) broke.

The story is that of their shared lives (so Magda would have us believe) their relationship with intense emotional ups and downs, fierce quarrels (at least on Emerence’s side), deep confidences by Emerence in moments of high passion to the narrator over many years. While the narrator complains Emerence is so private, we learn very little about the narrator’s private life. Emerence’s tales of herself are more than a little improbable, like some mad folk tale from the Renaissance: her twin siblings under the care are hit by lightening standing both a tree, both at once turned to ash after a series of deprivations felt as nightmares are inflicted on Emerence. Her mother’s first husband dies, the second is a tyrant; after the death of her twins, she throws herself down a well. I felt very angry with the stance on the side of atavism, an archaic woman, Emerence by name, someone often raging, furious, deeply resentful, who (paradoxically) seems to spend her life serving others almost selflessly.

Yet the narrator never endorsed Emerence’s rage or said it was understandable, what she seemed to admire was Emerence’s intransigence, her refusal to be tolerant of others at least in theory. Magda evinces or tries to a modern enlightened tolerant attitude towards all about her, we could call it religious humanism, for (paradoxically) Magda is religious to the point of unexpected beliefs: she goes to church weekly because she believes she can get into contact with beloved dead relatives and friends, especially her parents while there. Magda does not always believe Emerence’s told autobiography: the catastrophic disasters come too thick, fast, in extremis: for example, deep cruelty her traditional family subjected her to as when they believed she had given birth to an illegitimate child while the truth was she rescued a Jewish baby from probable extermination. Magda has bad troubles: her husband becomes very ill, and has to be taken to hospital to have a many-houred operation and then recuperates very slowly. (Szabo’s husband dies relatively young.). In the modern way.


With Martina Gedeck as Magda

Why do I say the novel seems to side with archaic anti-intellectualism? Emerence’s fits of corrosive scolding are worst when she begins to castigate the novelist for not doing any work in her life. To Emerence, intellectual work is no work at all. Real worthy work is always physical. So my life would by Emerence be called one of indulged luxurious idleness — I also hire people to clean my house but not daily, once very 3 to 4 weeks for an hour and twenty minutes or so. At the same time, the implied author or novel insofar as she/it can vindicates Emerence’s assessment of what is immediately happening at any given time while often it’s ironically clear that Magda is a sort of Emma Woodhouse.

She sees Emerence mistakenly, obtusely. She persists in the idea that Emerence adores her, loves her, cares tenderly for her. Emerence laughs this to scorn, insults, does spiteful things, but all this is dismissed because forsooth, Emerence keeps working so hard. She is paid by more than money: she gets to be important by serving others, in effect seems to control and dominate them. Her circle of friends apart from her employer includes a woman who kills herself, Polette. Emerence does not try to persuade this woman to live but enables her to hang herself, write the letter of explanation for her. Asked why, she says the woman wanted to die but shapes this explanation angrily: how dare Polette be dissatisfied? were not her friends doing all they could by being her friend, helping her, did they have it any better. Well if Polette than wanted to die, let her. The narrator is horrified at what seems Emerence’s heartlessness, except that we can see how upset Emerence is as she speaks, and when accused of helping to kill Polette, Emerence bursts in hysterical grief. She was hiding this.

She is a great one for hiding, is Emerence. As the novels opens the narrator tells us how she is haunted by dreams of a door. The door is Emerence’s: most of her life since Magda has known her, Emerence would not let anyone in her house. The door barricades the world outside. Over the years, Magda learns that Emerence once had a cat with her, but the cat was tortured to death by a neighbor who believed the cat killed his pigeon, and that Emerence helped the cat. When Emerence accosted and blamed him, he killed a cat she had adopted as a substitute. Clearly Emerence has to protect herself. We learn much later that eventually she had nine cats in her house with her. In one of her stories Emerence claims that a powerful (unnamed but probably modeled on a real Hungarian politician who went into exile more than once) took refuge with her since she was so obscure and loved and respected her very much. She’s no proof. The house seems to have beautiful furniture which Emerence took over after the Jewish family (the Grossmans) whose child Emerence took were deported by train to a camp where they were murdered. The narrator is at first indignant at Emerence for profiting from this family’s horrific loss.

Once when the narrator is invited to give a talk at a conference in the village where she was born, she asks Emerence to come with her as Emerence comes from the same village. They will go to the cemetery together. At first Emerence says maybe, then no, then reluctantly (it seems) shows up and goes with the narrator, but somehow stays away from the cemetery. Our narrator finds the gravestones of Emerence’s family and it is after this Emerence tells the narrator the story of the baby she adopted and was ostracized for. But she won’t go and look or wander among the graves as does the narrator.

Time and time again I identified with Emerence — the woman who seemingly has never learned to, does not understand how one performs manipulatively. In my neighborhood I began to give food to what seemed a stray or lost cat, and briefly tried to find out whose the cat was and if someone would help rescue it. The lies one woman told, the pretenses of the others that they knew all about local Humane societies which would of course come out to help take away the cat, would never kill it (“euthanize” was their term), and one woman’s letter in which she tried to embarrass me because she was irritated lest her lawn be urinated or shat upon by this cat riled me up. This level of bonding was never recognized by the narrator, again reminding me of Austen’s Emma’s attitude toward Jane Fairfax. Emerence tells the narrator she is clueless (or some such word) because she has led such a privileged life, even if her work was not published for years. If Emma pays lip-service to Jane’s literal destitution (dead parents, no money of her own, must go out and endure the stifling humiliated life of a governess (read Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey sometime), her behavior is callously cruel: spreading rumors that can only hurt Jane’s reputation (her social capital such as it is), talking about her behind her back half-mockingly, and worst of all, indignant that Jane does not spill her soul. Why should Jane? I cannot say I ever bonded with the narrator, but then I most of the time don’t care for Emma.


Sandy Welch’s 2009 Emma: Emma (Romola Garai) comes upon Jane (Laurie Pyper) fleeing and feels for her

Emerence makes a feast for a friend she doesn’t identify. She goes to enormous trouble for this. She obtains from our narrator permission to do this in the narrator’s house. What happens? the friend doesn’t show. I wanted to feel for Emerence. She was was so irascible and bitter it was hard to. Turns out the friend is this adopted daughter Emerence saved who now lives in the US. She had planned to come to dinner because she had a business trip to Hungary, but the business trip was called off. Who would spend that much money and time just for a dinner. This friend-daughter told this to the narrator when she came to dinner at the narrator’s house. Perfectly reasonable in the contemporary world thinks the narrator. But is it? should not Emerence bes someone special? not be stood up.

Emerence was left with all this food. Gentle reader, I have been stood up this way. The trope is the archetypal broken feast. I would show up. I’ve seen and myself spent large sums just to travel to see someone or attend a party. Not that I was thanked for it: months later the person took against me (as if she resented my kindness) but was not at all angry with another “friend” who would not take 10 minutes of her time in NYC out to meet this woman who would have traveled from a remote outpost in Brooklyn anywhere anytime. But this other woman had prestige (including was standoffish which makes her more valuable). Like Emerence, I have over the years hardly ever (remember Mary Crawford said the synonym for this is “never”) been invited to dinner anywhere individually. Of course the narrator understands. She probably goes out to dinner regularly. Not Emerence. She has lunch in a kitchen by herself. Or eats on her porch with her peers keeping the door on the house firmly shut lest they see it. Who knows what they’d say? I was (rightly) mortified by the outside of my house until I renovated it ($60,000 is what it probably cost me) this year.

Yet at the close of the novel, when the narrator goes on about how she is responsible for Emerence’s death, and if that’s too strong, certainly for her misery and tragic losses leading up to it, I couldn’t quite see it. Emerence (we are told) is about 80 when the novel opens and she has just died, and the narrator is having these bad dreams about doors, especially Emerence’s, which she was not permitted to pass. What happened was she sickened badly from some (unnamed) fatal disease, perhaps heart trouble, and would not see a doctor. It appears that for a few years she had refused to work so constantly for our narrator and now she just retires into her house to die. Neighbors bring food which she takes in on the other side of the door, just sticking out her hand. Somehow the narrator learns Emerence is laying on the floor paralyzed. Terrible smells begin to come from the house. The narrator has just won her prize and is so busy running to do TV shows where (she tells us) she makes a fool of herself by imitating the bland hypocrisies of everyone else when she had planned to tell bald truths. Be herself. (But who is she?)

So after Magda has implied how much she loathes interference by gov’t or impersonal agencies, she obtains a doctor’s services, a lawyer and team to come to Emerence’s house, herself tricks Emerence (this does take effort) to open her door. Emerence has threatened to axe anyone coming in with a hatchet. She has one. Nonetheless, half-paralyzed, old, weak from lack of ood, Emerence is grabbed and hauled away to tests, hospitals, treatment and her life seems saved. But as in a film I saw earlier this year, A Man Called Ove (by Fredrik Bachman), where people from gov’t agencies and making money, burn down houses they say are unfit to live in, take away crippled people they say they have no money to support outside the institution and so devastate the people’s existences, so the people from the agency in The Door couldn’t care less about Emerence’s feelings, what has meaning for her, whom and what she loves: they fumigate or throw out everything that has rotted in the house over the weeks; don’t try to rescue the cats (four of whom end up as corpses). She is mortified by the exposure of her lack of dignity. Her ending is pathetic and while the novel can be read as comic, it is more often (if you think about it, pathetic).


The cats are in the film, seen eating from nine dishes, here on the garbage cans? — is it a comedy, do the cats here represent the two women?

How could Magda have tricked her this way? then run away to her TV show interview? Emerence seems to get better and interacts with everyone but the narrator. When the narrator arrives, Emerence puts a cloth over her face, pretends not to know her. Emerence can no longer work and this narrator has offered to take her in. Emerence is having none of it. Wisely probably as the husband would be rendered miserable by her living there, if only because his wife (our narrator) is obsessed by her. Emerence is all spite, the narrator all quiet sorrow. Again I thought of Emma picking out the best, the very best arrowroot to send to Jane and it was rejected summarily. Emma came by with her carriage to offer Jane a ride. It would have indeed killed Jane to get in as it was Emma who had stirred up the antagonism between Jane and her clandestine lover, Frank, breaking them up — if she had no pride in front of him what would happen if she married him with his insensitive ways? Well Emma meant well, was doing the right thing, no? Emma never meant to break them up. Emma didn’t know they were engaged. She wants to help Jane. And let’s not forget at the end of Emma, Austen so far forgives Emma that she has Jane come out and gush in front of Emma, all apologies for not being open and all gratitude. I so loathe that scene.

It will be seen that this is very much a woman’s novel, a study of a relationship between a privileged upper class employer and a lonely woman utterly dependent on her labor who no one helped much. Emerence hates the church because when she went the other women giving out charity gave her a fancy dress. She took this as their comment on her clothes. Their respect for her to her became hypocrisy. What are they in church for? and anyway how can one believe in a reasonable benevolent or any God or meaning given experience? She makes out a will leaving what she claims is enormous amounts of money to her brother’s son (a nephew she doesn’t get along with) and the narrator and now the narrator has spoilt this bequest. It’s been written more often as about two women friends, peers who are very bad for one another, frenemies: recently Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and three more novels centering around a relationship. Margaret Atwoood’s Cat’s Eye. And of course Harriet and Emma in Austen’s emma. Novels of mothers and daughters. A few women in the book club saw Magda as playing the role of mother to the narrator. Marianne Hirsvh writes a long intelligent about the centrality of the mother-daughter relationship in women’s books (The Mother-Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism). What woman writer worth her salt doesn’t write books about pairs of women at some point?

But it’s made to carry larger meanings.

Including the relationship of fiction to autobiography. After all if this is a fiction, Szabo has made the narrator and Emerence up. The joke is on the reader when the reader is made to feel that the narrator is lying and Emerence could not have acted like that and got away with it. She has to approve her employer. Could anyone endlessly sweep snow the way Emerence is said to? Sometimes the narrative detail is symbolic. At the end of the novel what is left of Emerence’s furniture is said to turn into dust.

The style in Rix’s hands is concise, strong sentences, not meandering at the same time it can be remarkably lyrical. In her introduction to the New York Review of Books edition, Ali Smith thinks it’s a novel about survival tactics, a study of “authenticity versus fakery,” of “old Hungary” versus the “new” (Emerence being the old? this narrator a new kind of person?) In a review in the New York Review of Books (April 2016), Deborah Eisenberg thinks it’s about two people who need one another, need people, the gulf between people and “rationales” we tell one another to excuse ourselves for “failing” to cross the door and “the costs of love.” The anonymous writer of the Gale Scholarly entry writes:

“Ultimately, however, the novel represents more than the struggle of two individuals to understand each other; the conflict veiled by the plot actually amounts to an inner struggle. Emerence is a moral genius–in the Kantian sense–who is part of all. She goes through the hells of human experience, recollects the barbaric and tragic events of fate, is capable of essential movements only, is generous, and in her every relationship seeks to defend and develop her own dignity. The novel is more than the struggle of two types of persons for mutual understanding; it is a duel that is really an inner struggle. Emerence and the fiction writer are then two sides of the same person. A human fragmented into roles searches for the self, for the Emerence that lives in all.”

All very satisfying, wholesome even. A doppelganger as the posters for the film imply.

A Hungarian reader, Clara Gyorgyey (World Literature Today, 69:4, 1995) finds Emerence to be magical, surrounded by mystery, a mythic figure (the narrator does go on about her being a goddess, a Valkyrie at one point), everyone is cured, animals obey her. (She takes over a dog, Viola, whom the narrator and her husband rescued from a cruel death by burying her alive in the streets.) John Cunningham says the film adaptation by Istvad Szabo (no relation, and it’s available at Amazon prime) is disappointing even if it has Helen Mirren as Emerence. I agree there; it’s so bland, he just didn’t know what to do with this troubling book. He made Emerence too soft, too approachable and realistic too. At this book club some of the women (all were women that day and most days most are women I gather) tried to categorize and tuck it away. One person said it didn’t have a “good” message; another (me) that there was precious little joy or satisfaction in the love or relationships people took some considerable risks for. It might be the narrator is made very happy by this husband she is devoted to, but we don’t see this. As far as we can tell, he’s an avoider. There was someone who said it was disquieting. We could take it as life-writing where Szabo tries to tell of the recent and older history of Hungary, the lives of vulnerable woman, of whom she is one, and cannot tell directly — as she could not take down any doors when on TV. Nor does Austen reveal herself directly either. But she is everywhere in Emma.


From Andrew Davies’s 1996 Emma: Harriet (Samantha Morton) shows Emma (Kate Beckinsale) Mr Martin’s letter

Ellen

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