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Ciarhan Hinds as Wentworth lifting Amanda Root as Anne Elliot into the carriage with the Crofts (1995 BBC Persuasion)

Henry: ‘Condemn’d in lonely Woods a banish’d Man to rove’
Emma: ‘That I, of all Mankind, will love but Thee alone’– Prior, Henry and Emma

Friends and readers,

Still on this question of how intertextuality’s layers deepen the meaning of a text (or film).

Last time I wrote of Persuasion, I traced the threads Austen wove therein from Charlotte Smith’s elegiac poems and Austen’s knowledge of Smith’s difficult life (betrayed by a husband, impoverished, crippled) in the context of other intensely romantic poets and texts (Byron, Shelley, Edmund Spenser): the characters from this angle in the novel present themselves as melancholy, plangent, drenched in irretrievable loss, with anecdotal counterparts presenting a prosaic buoyant hope in renewal.


Sally Hawkins as Anne Elliot cracking under the strain of remembering what was (2007 ITV Persuasion)


Helen Schlesinger as the cheerful disabled Mrs Smith (1995 Persuasion)

Tonight I want to write of another briefer skein of allusion in Persuasion, which if examined turns out to reach across the novel, and offer readings about loyalty, male obduracy and suspicion of women, female abjection, constancy in love, sex, men and women’s natures and circumstances from Pride and Prejudice through to this last sixth full novel. This time it is a case of a text redolent with a cynical realistic disillusioned wit, which connects to the most plangent poignant moments of Persuasion and its comic-ironic, and burlesque elements too.


Dancing at Uppercross (1995 Persuasion) — one of the lighter moments in the film

I move to the first half of the 18th century, to Matthew Prior whose forte in lighter verse, tales and narratives, and lyrics was ironical sentiment. Once very well-known, to 18th century audiences and perhaps into the early 19th (I surmise Byron could have enjoyed his poetry, and his more serious philosophical metaphysics continued to be read), technically speaking, Prior is said by some to be the best male poet between Dryden and Pope. His Poems on Several Occasions (1709) appears to have been well-known until late in the century, and printed there are the two poems we will deal with, The Nut-Brown Maid (1503?), followed by Henry and Emma (by Prior), as an imitation (an invitation to the reader to compare), frequently alluded to.


Prior’s Collected Poems (1719), with featured frontispiece an imagined moment from Henry and Emma

There is another edition of Prior that Austen could have read these two poems in. At the close of an honorable career as a diplomat (if competence and producing useful treatises hard to negotiate means anything), in 1719 underpaid, undervalued partly because of his original low rank, Prior found himself near broke. His many influential political and poetic friends, Pope, Swift, Harley, Bathurst, Arbuthnot (see Ripply, Matthew Prior, a Twayne Life, Chapter 1), using Tonson as publisher, helped him produce an immense volume of poetry by subscription (a large handsome folio, 500 pages long, 1,445 people subscribing for 1,786 copies). The sale made Prior independently secure (it’s thought he may have made as much as 4,000 guineas at 2 guineas each volume). Prior’s poems were reprinted in the 18th century and Austen could have read his poem elsewhere (the type of thing is exemplified by Dodsley, A collection of Poems in Six Volumes by Several Hands with notes, 1748, reprinted and enlarged numerous times, which however does not contain these poems). She probably read Prior in the 1709 edition where the medieval poem is included, but the 1719 reprint is as much a possibility.

Austen mentions Prior twice, both times in the posthumous sister volumes of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion published by her brother and sister after her death. In the famous Chapter 5 of NA she inveighs against the over-valuation of male pseudo-scholarly texts over novels:

… while the abilities of the nine–hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens — there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.

If by chance a female reader is found reading a novel, she is shamed into self-deprecation and condescension:

‘It is only a novel!’ replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. ‘It is onlyCecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;’ or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of The Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it (1:5).

Not a very high recommendation. In his “Life of Prior,” Samuel Johnson is not keen on Prior’s comic and witty poetry about sex and love either. By this time in the century what was wanted in a lyric was something emotionally deep, and the libertine and pessimistic are never openly popular. Prior’s verse linsk to the vein of John Gay’s insouciant wit. Austen might have concurred as the poetry of sensibility was apparently her preference too: Cowper, Johnson himself, Crabbe, Charlotte Smith.


Louisa has just fallen and Wentworth and Anne are the first there (1995 Persuasion)

The second reference is in Persuasion. Louisa Musgrove has just fallen on her head and all are gathered around her, at first fearing a death from concussion. When Louisa is seen to be still breathing, everyone around her appears in a state of distress about her mental faculties, motor skills, general health from here on in. Anne has just felt rapture at overhearing Captain Wentworth describe her value as a nurse and organizer over Louisa (“No one so proper, so capable as Anne!”), but when Mary Musgrove, pettily meanly ceaselessly actively jealous insists on taking Anne’s place, and Anne observes Wentworth so crestfallen and indifferent to her, Anne; caring intently about Louisa it seems above all, the “mortifying” conviction arises in Anne’s mind that she was “valued only as she could be useful to Louisa.” Prior again comes to Austen’s mind as partly narrator partly Anne:

She endeavoured to be composed, and to be just. Without emulating the feelings of an Emma towards her Henry, she would have attended on Louisa with a zeal above the common claims of regard, for his sake; and she hoped he would not long be so unjust as to suppose she would shrink unnecessarily from the office of a friend (1:12).

Anne is intensely conflicted but the parallel makes plain that while (as is implied) not quite as fanatically in love as Emma towards “her Henry” (it is clearly a case of love), Anne would have done everything she could for this girl that Wentworth seems to love so — in place of her whom he was once so devoted to.

The matter alluded to is, as I’ve suggested, Matthew Prior’s rewrite or sophisticated ironic imitation of a medieval ballad, The Nut-brown Maid turned into Henry and Emma, one of the more popular poems of the 18th century. Prior rewrites the medieval enigmatic narrative fully, adding all sorts of concrete circumstances in a spirit of part ironic mockery part sweet love tone. Both versions of the poem are stanzaic. In both Henry tests Emma: they have fallen in love and maybe have had sex (unclear in both medieval and Prior’s poem) and in the 18th century poem have hunted, danced, and courted to their heart’s content. It is over-time to marry.

In the medieval and then 18th century poem Henry tells Emma (a lot more is made concrete in the later poem) and the narrator provides believable background that, Emma’s father has rejected him. He is now “Condemn’d in a lonely Woods a banish’d Man to rove.” She will have immediately to elope with him if they are not to be parted and if they are to marry. He tells her they will have nothing if they wed. He outlines a series of terrible deprivations: she will have to live in forests, go hungry, be despised for running away with him. In both poems, Emma says nothing of this matters. She throws all caution to the winds and trusts to him and time. She of “all mankind” will “love him alone.” That’s the dual refrain. He keeps at it and names sacrifice after sacrifice, and at the last says he has another mistress and loves her too. Is that all right? Will she still come? She will have this other woman as rival. Well, she’s up to each turn of the screw: she will herself care for this other woman. At that Henry is satisfied and tells her in fact they will be okay; there has been no such forbidding, he has no other mistress. The reader the first time through is fooled too (rather like Austen’s novels at first often leaving out information). Henry had decided to test Emma’s loyalty to him, her resolve, her faithfulness, chastity, if you will. She has proved herself faithful and worthy of him. In the medieval tale he had pretended to be a peasant and now reveals himself as a prince. Of interest is Prior’s tone. Unlike the melancholy wildness of the ballad, it’s sort of tongue-in-cheek.


Anne musing climbing the stairs (1995 Persuasion)

Is Austen likening Anne Elliot to Prior’s Emma and that original nut-brown maid? If so, because the Prior poem is satiric, is she partly mocking Anne Elliot. One critic, Galperin (The Historical Austen) argues the whole novel is burlesque, and we have been misreading it. The cancelled ending is in fact the true and better one, and there we see how comic it was supposed to be. Galperin insinuates not only did Henry and Cassandra misname the books, but they chose a different text than Austen intended. Persuasion was supposed to be a send-up of the serious issue that Crabbe had a closely analogous poem about in his Tales: in’Procrastination’ (and other tales too) a young couple are made to wait prudently and in this one never get together and live out their lives apart in grief and desolation. I think Persuasion is not burlesque (though there is much comedy and one ribald moment, oddly enough over death), but Austen does make gentle fun of Anne’s high musings of constancy and romance as she walks the streets of Bath. All the while (as in Mansfield Park and Austen’s treatment of Fanny Price) on my pulses I know it’s deeply felt.

Is Austen then at least saying Anne over-does it? Anne Elliot is not quite an Emma but she is coming close because she is so in love, so desperate and so abject. Now Wentworth is not deliberately testing Anne: Persuasion is no literary stereotypical non-serious text. In the 18th century this testing theme is used in mostly misogynistic texts where the assumption is woman are fickle, promiscuous, can be turned like weathercocks. Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte (thus do all females) is only the best known. These are misogynistic texts about women and Austen is concerned to defeat the whole idea of the test.

The misogynistic perspective is one Austen may be eager to counter. This is confirmed in a long dialogue at the close Persuasion that links to the theme of inconstancy, using the 18th century language we find in Persuasion, loyalty to an attachment after the person has died. All will recall how at the White Hart Inn, Anne finds Wentworth’s friend, the disabled Captain Harville grieving openly for the death of his sister, Phoebe, because he is hurt for her: “Poor Fanny! she would not have forgotten him so soon!” Captain Benwick had claimed he would never forget Phoebe, or know another love, but has nonetheless within a very few weeks fallen in love with Louisa Musgrove. Where was his vaunted depth if he could forget so soon? Harville has not forgotten his sister. One could say (were one privy to scenes not dramatized in the book) Benwick took advantage of Louisa, however half-unconsciousy in his own need. Louisa was susceptible because she was emotionally and physically weak and vulnerable after falling from a stone stairway. Harville explains that Wentworth is taking the framed miniature of Benwick that had been meant for Phoebe, and having it re-framed it for Louisa so Harville need not do this (Persuasion, 2:11).


Robert Glenister as Captain Harville and Anne having their talk over the re-framed miniature

The word used is “inconstancy:” Benwick has not remained in grief, and out of this incident Harville and Anne debate over who is the most inconstant: men or women. Paradoxically, in the face of his assertion that Fanny Harville would have been more faithful, Harville insists men are most constant, most in need of their families and emotional support because they must sail far away and spend so much alone (it seems) on a ship. All literature proves this. Anne objects that literature proves nothing of the sort as it is written by men and eloquently protests that precisely because women don’t go out and endure wracking and dangerous adventures in the world, but stay at home, they are “preyed upon” by their feelings. They have no other outlet, cannot forget, as they are given no other object. Still Harville is not convinced and she not contented with defending women based on the idea they have no way to be inconstant, pivots on the idea on the need for an object. She has not read Donald Winnicott but she knows how central to women the need to feel attached and needed:

‘I believe you [men in general] equal to every important exertion, and to every domestic forbearance, so long as — if I may be allowed the expression, so long as you have an object. I mean while the woman you love lives, and lives for you. All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one: you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone! (2:11 or 24).

This extraordinary compelling moment of Anne asserting the privilege of something self-destructive, deeply hurtful to the personality structure shows Austen has moved full circle. Are we to value that which has ravaged Anne? Austen began with alluding to Prior comically over abject love to finding something deeply disquieting in the pains of unreciprocated love which still holds out. Constancy is not a matter for misogynistic testing, and if it truly exists in women (quite contrary to what men claim), it’s because they are given nothing else.


Joseph Mawle as Harville and Rupert Penry-Jones as Wentworth half-discussing Wentworth’s change of heart (2007 Persuasion)

Why Anne does not use the instance before them of an inconstant man (Benwick) and probable constant woman (Fanny) I do not know.

As it turns out, in fact Wentworth by seeing everyone’s response to what happened to Louisa after she falls, and that he is now expected to behave like a bethrothed, realizes he has gone too far. He wakes up to feel he is not in love with a girl who had such a simplistic understanding of what he was getting at in his lectures on not being persuaded away from what you had determined upon. He does not want to spend his life with her, but is now in too deep. When he leaves Anna off at Uppercross and returns to Bath, he wants out. We never see the scenes of his return and realization. Anne finds out only much later that he visited his brother — leaving the field open to Benwick. Anne is not quite an Emma. Anne (and Lady Russell) had been hoping for Benwick to come to her as he seemed about to propose to her. Benwick for reasons that remain unexplained until this later time says he cannot come. Louisa not deeply committed to Wentworth (as her nature is not to be) cannot be accused of inconstancy. The attachment was superficial and she easily moves to Benwick. Wentworth’s removal of himself succeeds.

What is the gain of this layering of meaning interwoven here? The first allusion provides a hard edge to the text: in this November fall Wentworth has been flirting with Louisa and holding dialogues over people who are over-persuaded from seizing their heart’s desires. He has Anne in mind during these. Then when Louisa takes this too seriously and has an accident as she attempts to proving her determination, uses Anne as nurse without truly thinking of her as a person. Anne is overly abject, but pulls up just in time as she feels resentment (however slight) for being valued only for what she can do for Louisa. Anne is also conflicted, wanting to do what Wentworth wants, for him and for Louisa. Again, strikingly the example of constancy for Harville is the dead Fanny (so we cannot know), and we see how Wentworth torments Anne and almost marries Louisa, and yet Harville argues men are the most loyal to an attachment.


A scene from the BBC 1971 Persuasion: Anne not strong almost falls (early in this not-well-known film)

The second makes us look more deeply into this notion of constancy: why is it not true what Harville contends (and the medieval and Prior Henry assumed), i.e., that women are inconstant. Not, according to Austen, because they manipulatively make themselves over to men as possessions for male pride to show off. No. Their circumstances and psychology makes them vulnerable to emotional attachments, however painful and potentially destructive to them. After 8 years of Wentworth’s absence, Anne has aged and became haggard. She has been given no adequate substitute our narrator says. She rightly does not like the superficial Bath, and Charles (offered as an appropriate partner at age 22) is not an adequate partner for her.

The novel does not discount the harm that may be done by marrying someone unfitted to our temperament — without saying there can be only one partner. Charles is much the worse as a character for having married Mary. So constancy as an ideal has also to be questioned. We are given enough to suggest that in future Benwick and Louisa will be another of the many mismatches in Austen. For the moment sex, love, emotionalism takes both over but as time goes on, Wentworth says, Benwick is a thinking man and (it’s implied) will be bored and Louisa will want someone far less sensitive, and show she cares little for books for real. It’s the non-thinking Charles who mistakes his sister to think she’ll change her nature and they’ll be ever so happy. In the assembly rooms in the spring Wentworth of course is also thinking of himself and Anne as he speaks to her, trying to reach her:

‘I confess that I do think there is a disparity, too great a disparity, and in a point no less essential than mind. I regard Louisa Musgrove as a very amiable, sweet-tempered girl, and not deficient in understanding, but Benwick is something more. He is a clever man, a reading man; and I confess that I do consider his attaching himself to her with some surprise. Had it been the effect of gratitude, had he learnt to love her, because he believed her to be preferring him, it would have been another thing.'(2:8 or 20)

Eventually, not so long as a few years from now Louisa and Benwick will be another of Austen’s several mismatched couples who were drawn together originally by sexual attraction and over-emotionalism and youth: from Mr and Mrs Bennet, the Palmers, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, to perhaps Mr and Mrs Woodhouse, Admiral Tilney and poor Miss Drummond that was (Mrs Tilney’s birth or maiden family name), and Sir Walter and Lady Elliot. In the earlier novels the intelligent men mismarry; in the later, the women. We never do see Benwick and Louisa together after we leave them at Lyme.

Not only are there these complications of very different nuances coming out of this intertextual embedding of Prior, but the novel has another whole skein, which I began with, of very different sources and memories. The poems of Charlotte Smith, the story of her life, the poetry of Byron, of Scott, and if we want to extapolate what is not specifically alluded to, but in the 18th century grain: Crabbe’s stories of struggling poorer and middling couple who are deprived of joy altogether out of too much prudence. We all remember the famous marginalia of Cassandra scratched out next to Austen’s line: “She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older — the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning:”

‘Dear, dear Jane! This deserves to be written in letters of gold’ (quoted in Tomalin, JA: A Life, 260)

Not that the intertextualities take precedence over the naturalistic art in the book and how it mirrors Austen’s own self. The book does not stay autumnal, nor is it called Melancholy, Abjection nor Constancy, but Persuasion. Persuasion opens the book up to wider themes than erotic passion: it includes Austen herself as someone over-persuaded. It is limiting to see this as her remembering her youth when she was deprived of Tom Lefroy, or say remembering her own decision not to marry Brook Bridges (if Nokes is right and this romance as played out in Miss Austen Regrets was a second serious possibility), or give herself utterly to some other partner, we don’t know about, man or woman, for example, the mysterious romance by the seacoast Cassandra dreamt of, or Martha Lloyd. The cancelled manuscript reveals that her mother had given her a hard time over how she presented authority in the person of Lady Russell.


Fiona Shaw as Mrs Crofts (1995 Persuasion)

The book’s deepest theme and its grief is over allowing oneself to be thwarted, to be repressed: how bad it has been for Austen to stay at home and have her feelings preyed upon. Austen herself as a writer and woman is involved, how she has allowed herself to be over-persuaded, and now that she is ill (for that is felt in the novel too) longs to have had or have more from life than has been granted her as a woman. She could have written more. She dreams of going to sea in the figure of Mrs Crofts (so beautifully acted by Fiona Shaw in the 1995 film). I find the final moments of the 1995 Persuasion with Amanda Root as Anne in the sun on the bridge of the ship pitch perfect


Amanda Root as Anne looking out to sea aboard a ship with Wentworth (1995 Persuasion)

Ellen

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Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen reading and writing outside a cottage (Becoming Jane, 2007, scripted Kevin Hood, Susan Williams, directed Julian Jarrod)

Dear friends and readers,

I have over the years written several blogs on Christmas, mentions and uses by Austen in her novels (see especially her perception of Christmas in the novels) and the films adapted from them. In brief here is a sample:

Sense and Sensibility: The Miss Steeles “were prevailed on to stay nearly two months at the park, and to assist in the due celebration of that festival which requires a more than ordinary share of private balls and large dinner parties to proclaim its importance.”

Pride and Prejudice: Caroline Bingley’s cruel letter to Jane ends: “I sincerely hope your Christmas in Hertfordshire may abound in the gaieties which that season generally brings.”

Mansfield Park: Mary Crawford : “Is it Christmas gaieties that he is staying for?” (she doesn’t believe that for a minute)

Emma (chosen from the long sequence): Mr. Weston: “At Christmas every body invites their friends about them, and people think little of even the worst weather.” (Mr Weston’s benign unsubtle view is not agreed with …)

Northanger Abbey: ‘Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim. Catherine knew all this very well; her great aunt had read her a lecture on the subject only the Christmas before; and yet she lay awake ten minutes on Wednesday night debating between her spotted and her tamboured muslin, and nothing but the shortness of the time prevented her buying a new one for the evening.’

Persuasion: “Immediately surrounding Mrs. Musgrove were the little Harvilles, whom she was sedulously guarding from the tyranny of the two children from the Cottage, expressly arrived to amuse them. On one side was a table occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper … the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard, in spite of all the noise of the others. Charles and Mary also came in, of course … Mr. Musgrove made a point of paying his respects to Lady Russell, and sat down close to her for ten minutes, talking with a very raised voice, but from the clamour of the children on his knees, generally in vain …”

You may skim the whole lot swiftly here.


Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth supposed reading Jane’s letters the winter after the Christmas visit of the Gardeners (who took Jane off to cheer her up, 1995 P&P, scripted Andrew Davies, directed Simon Langton)

*****************************

Tonight I went through her letters and an overview for the first time in a couple of years brings home to me once again, how much is missing. For some years and phases of the year we see a regular rhythm to the letters, say two or three journal-style over two or three days will repeat itself, and then nothing. Major events not noted because they don’t occur on the days of the letters left to us. As to mentions of Christmas or the weather, one can conjecture that if a group of balls, dances, parties, dinners are all occurring between the last week of December and first of January they might be related to a holiday and there is a feel of regularity of occurrence at this time of year, but I found but no mention of Christmas itself (the word) and it is itself a reference to a general time when someone is expected to return to where the Austens are living (Southampton). It’s almost surprising this lack of reference to Christmas in the letters; yes a majority were destroyed, even so if you read what’s there I could find but two mentions specifically.

This is the slim matter I gleaned; there is much more matter in these letters but I pulled only that which could conceivably relate:


Anna Maxwell Martin as Cassandra reading one of Jane’s letters (2007 Becoming Jane)

No 14, Dec 18-19, 1798, Tues-Wed; Tues, Dec 18, Steventon: “I enjoyed the hard black Frosts of last week very much, & one day while they lasted walked to Deane by myself.” (4th ed, p 27)

No 15, Dec 24-26, 1798, Mon-Wed; Dec 24, Mon, Steventon: Frank is in Gibaltar, she has returned from Manydown, her mother “does not like the cold Weather, but that we cannot help,” there has been a ball, but that it was for Christmas is never said. She does write: “I wish you a merry Christmas but no compliments of the Season.” Cassandra has danced away at Ashford, there was to have been a dinner at Deane the night she is writing this sentence, “but the weather is so cold that I am not sorry to be kept at home by the appearance of Snow.” There is no other mention of the holiday or weather (4th ed, pp 31-32)

No 17, Jan 8-9, Tues-Wed, 1799; Tues, Jan 8, Steventon: “a Ball at Kempshott this evening” … she had told Cassandra that “Monday was to be the Ball Night,” but no such thing.” Elizabeth has been very cruel about my writing Music; — & as a punishment for her, I should insist upon always writing out all hers and for her in future.” “I love Martha better than ever, & I mean to go & see her if I can when she gets home.” How there was a dinner at “Harwoods on Thursday, & the party broke up the next morning,” she shall be “such a proficient in Music by the time I have got rid of my cold, that I shall be perfectly qualified in that science at least to take Mr Roope’s office at Eastwell this summer … of my Talent in Drawing I have given specimens in my letters to you, & I have nothing to do but invent a few hard names for the Stars … ” Of a party at Manydown, “There was the same kind of party as last year, & the same want of chairs. — there were more Dancers than the Room could conveniently hold, which is enough to constitute a good Ball at any time.” She was not “very much in request –. People were rather apt not to ask me till they could not help it” … But no mention any of this specifically for Christmas nor the weather (4th ed, pp 34-36)

No 29, Jan 3-5, Sun-Mon, 1801; Sat, Jan 3, Steventon: What is “uppermost in my mind” is “you often wore a white gown in the morning, at the time of all the gay party’s being with you.” They visited Ash Park last Wednesday, “went off in a come-ca way; we met Mr Lefroy & Tom Chute, played at cards & came home again … ” This is letter is about what is happening at home because they are moving to Bath (providing for servants) and all the plans and doings about where they will live … (4th ed, p 69)

No 61, Nov 20, Sun, 1808; Sun Nov 3, Castle Square (Southampton): Mary Jane Fowle will “return at Christmas” with her brother.” Second and last use of the word in the collection that I found (4th ed, p 161)

No 63, Dec 2-28, Tues-Wed; Tues Dec 27, Castle Square: Eliza “keeping her bed with a cold … Our Evening party on Thursday, produced nothing more remarkable than Miss Murden’s coming too …. ” she “sitting very ungracious and silent with us … The last hour, spent in yawning & shivering in a wide circle round thefirst, was dull enough — but the Tray had admirable success.” She is talking of the food they ate, which by association leads to “Black Butter do not decoy anybody to Southampton.” No mention of any of this having anything to do with Christmas (4th ed, p 166)

A truly sparse amount of references. The novels give a sense of traditional parties, dances, festivities, rituals — as if in writing to the world she had to give such references and notice. Everything we read in other documents shows there were such, and from the early 16th century on we find such descriptions in diaries, journals, verse, documentary records. In the 1790s we begin to find references to Christmas a ritual of family getting together and a feeling of deep missing out if you don’t have such, if you live far from home (see for Southey’s Written on Christmas Day, 1795), from which I quote a passage here

I do remember when I was a child
How my young heart, a stranger then to care,
With transport leap’d upon this holy-day,
As o’er the house, all gay with evergreens,
From friend to friend with joyful speed I ran,
Bidding a merry Christmas to them all.
Those years are past; their pleasures and their pains
Are now like yonder covent-crested hill
That bounds the distant prospect, indistinct,
Yet pictured upon memory’s mystic glass
In faint fair hues. A weary traveller now
I journey o’er the desert mountain tracks
Of Leon, wilds all drear and comfortless,
Where the grey lizards in the noontide sun
Sport on the rocks, and where the goatherd starts,
Roused from his sleep at midnight when he hears
The prowling wolf, and falters as he calls
On Saints to save. Here of the friends I think
Who now, I ween, remember me, and fill
The glass of votive friendship …
Thus I beguile the solitary hours
With many a day-dream, picturing scenes as fair
Of peace, and comfort, and domestic bliss
As ever to the youthful poet’s eye …

And since in her novels, Austen characteristically tells only as much as is needful for her story in her novels, except for the scenes around Christmas in Emma, which themselves occur because the Knightley family gets together at Christmas (the way people do today), what emerges is the satiric nature of her work: most of the references are half-mocking, fatuous hypocritical meretricious behavior at Christmas is what she registered first just the way she registers this for musical concerts (when people pretend to understand and be ravished by music) or romantic poetry, except this time in the few cases of characters who can really feel sincerely: Marianne for music and poetry, Elinor for drawing, Fanny for pictures, Jane Fairfax for music, Mr Knightley for sitting over a fire, Anne Elliot music and poetry, Catherine Morland reading, but nothing for Christmas. Perhaps she did have distaste for what she saw come out of the holiday customs specifically, humanely speaking.

Comparatively, to cite a few other authors, while Trollope also dislikes all the hypocrisy and commercialism arising from Christmas, he has stories where there is quiet thematic use of Christmas attaching to it true charity or kindliness of spirit when rightly observed. Because of the strong distaste for ceremonies of lies here (and elsewhere in his fiction), I have never made a Christmas blog about his work that I can recall, but perhaps this year I’ll break that non-pattern and write about the nature of what Christmas stories he gets himself to write, and the ones that work well. A 20th century novelist who wrote a famous series of novel set in the 18th century uses Christmas regularly: the close of the Poldark books show Christmas as practiced in the 18th century Cornwall had a meaning for him. Tonight I quote Tennyson from In Memoriam where he has grieved so for the loss of a beloved friend expresses feelings somewhat like mine this morning:

Again at Christmas did we weave
The holly round the Christmas hearth;
The silent snow possess’d the earth,
And calmly fell our Christmas-eve:

The yule-log sparkled keen with frost,
No wing of wind the region swept,
But over all things brooding slept
The quiet sense of something lost.

As in the winters left behind,
Again our ancient games had place,
The mimic picture’s breathing grace,
And dance and song and hoodman-blind.

Who show’d a token of distress?
No single tear, no mark of pain:
O sorrow, then can sorrow wane?
O grief, can grief be changed to less?

O last regret, regret can die!
No -– mixt with all this mystic frame,
Her deep relations are the same,
But with long use her tears are dry.

**************************

In going over Austen’s letters and then my blogs on the novels, and in context of the eras nearby, what I am again impressed with, is what is easy to find in the novels registered through many pictures in the films is Austen writing of letters, reading, writing, and dramatic uses of letters (far more than books). As my four stills chosen quickly and somewhat at random revealed — from a supposed biographical movie I have discussed hardly at all here.


Olivia Williams as a mature Austen writing Persuasion (Miss Austen Regrets, 2009, scripted Gweneth Hughes, directed Jeremy Lovering)

Ellen

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Judy Parfitt as Lady Catherine de Bough towering over, attempting to bully Elizabeth Garvie as Elizabeth out of Darcy (Fay Weldon’s 1979 BBC P&P,)

The Birthday. Whose? how can you ask? Jane Austen’s on a cold day, where much snow lay on the ground, December 16, 1775. In previous years I have remembered this day by putting here her poetry written on and about this day, or an essay about an aspect of her work overlooked (say what she said about Elizabethn queens in her History of England) or poems by others about reading her, how she loved to dance. This day I use a comic twitter thread (why not? all the rage, and she wanted ever to be fashionable or seeming so) to introduce two juxtaposed familiar scenes and my contribution to the twitter feed which asked for appropriate images of animals with an quotation from Austen:

For today a little less solemn framing: Izzy showed me a thread on her twitter feed where people were asked to cite a line from Austen and find a matching picture, preferably about non-human animals in the wild and comic. This is what they came up with, which I record under the line (one I like and quoted here):

I am excessively diverted

Alas a few of those who contributed made up lines that they thought sounded like Austen or offered lines they perhaps thought were by her. I did like “This has cheered me up no end.” There is also a gif image of someone laughing hysterically who resembles Meryl Streep (probably not her). I’d transfer that only there is no device to. So instead this quieter one: under the quotation: “On opening the door, she perceived her sister and Bingley standing together over the hearth, as if engaged in earnest conversation; and had this led to no suspicion, the faces of both, as they hastily turned round and moved away from each other, would have told it all” — Elizabeth coming upon Jane and Bingley

I’ve used this one in jest while meaning it too: “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

I end with the scene (alluded to above by the still from the 1979 P&P), a fierce confrontation, from Pride and Prejudice, Vol 3, Chapter 15, which in the book immediately precedes Elizabeth’s scene with her father where he calls her in to his office-lair because he has received a letter from Mr Collins warning him against a possible engagement between Darcy and Elizabeth, and we get this indirect meditative (thinking of our implied author) apparently lightly comic but in its true feel ironic and plangent scene:


Benjamin Whitrow as Mr Bennet regaling Jennifer Ehle as Jane (Andrew Davies’s 1995 P&P)

She followed her father to the fire place, and they both sat down. He then said,

“I have received a letter this morning that has astonished me exceedingly. As it principally concerns yourself, you ought to know its contents. I did not know before, that I had two daughters on the brink of matrimony. Let me congratulate you on a very important conquest.”

The colour now rushed into Elizabeth’s cheeks in the instantaneous conviction of its being a letter from the nephew, instead of the aunt; and she was undetermined whether most to be pleased that he explained himself at all, or offended that his letter was not rather addressed to herself; when her father continued,

“You look conscious. Young ladies have great penetration in such matters as these; but I think I may defy even your sagacity, to discover the name of your admirer. This letter is from Mr. Collins.”

“From Mr. Collins! and what can he have to say?”

“Something very much to the purpose of course. He begins with congratulations on the approaching nuptials of my eldest daughter, of which, it seems, he has been told by some of the good-natured, gossiping Lucases. I shall not sport with your impatience, by reading what he says on that point. What relates to yourself, is as follows.”

“Having thus offered you the sincere congratulations of Mrs. Collins and myself on this happy event, let me now add a short hint on the subject of another; of which we have been advertised by the same authority. Your daughter Elizabeth, it is presumed, will not long bear the name of Bennet, after her elder sister has resigned it, and the chosen partner of her fate may be reasonably looked up to as one of the most illustrious personages in this land.”

“Can you possibly guess, Lizzy, who is meant by this?”

“This young gentleman is blessed, in a peculiar way, with every thing the heart of mortal can most desire, — splendid property, noble kindred, and extensive patronage. Yet in spite of all these temptations, let me warn my cousin Elizabeth, and yourself, of what evils you may incur by a precipitate closure with this gentleman’s proposals, which, of course, you will be inclined to take immediate advantage of.”
“Have you any idea, Lizzy, who this gentleman is? But now it comes out.”

“My motive for cautioning you is as follows. We have reason to imagine that his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, does not look on the match with a friendly eye.”

“Mr. Darcy, you see, is the man! Now, Lizzy, I think I have surprised you. Could he, or the Lucases, have pitched on any man within the circle of our acquaintance, whose name would have given the lie more effectually to what they related? Mr. Darcy, who never looks at any woman but to see a blemish, and who probably never looked at you in his life! It is admirable!”

Elizabeth tried to join in her father’s pleasantry, but could only force one most reluctant smile. Never had his wit been directed in a manner so little agreeable to her.

“Are you not diverted?”

“Oh! yes. Pray read on.”

“After mentioning the likelihood of this marriage to her ladyship last night, she immediately, with her usual condescension, expressed what she felt on the occasion; when it become apparent, that on the score of some family objections on the part of my cousin, she would never give her consent to what she termed so disgraceful a match. I thought it my duty to give the speediest intelligence of this to my cousin, that she and her noble admirer may be aware of what they are about, and not run hastily into a marriage which has not been properly sanctioned.”

“Mr. Collins moreover adds,”

“I am truly rejoiced that my cousin Lydia’s sad business has been so well hushed up, and am only concerned that their living together before the marriage took place should be so generally known. I must not, however, neglect the duties of my station, or refrain from declaring my amazement at hearing that you received the young couple into your house as soon as they were married. It was an encouragement of vice; and had I been the rector of Longbourn, I should very strenuously have opposed it. You ought certainly to forgive them as a Christian, but never to admit them in your sight, or allow their names to be mentioned in your hearing.”
“That is his notion of Christian forgiveness! The rest of his letter is only about his dear Charlotte’s situation, and his expectation of a young olive-branch. But, Lizzy, you look as if you did not enjoy it. You are not going to be Missish, I hope, and pretend to be affronted at an idle report. For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”

“Oh!” cried Elizabeth, “I am excessively diverted ….

And my comic rendition of Lady Catherine versus Elizabeth as well as the contemplative Mr Bennet and Elizabeth overlooking an artifical object:

Not from the wild, as that is not quite appropriate, and from her era, attached to a writer she may well have read: Madame Du Deffand who of course had the fashionable kind of cat just then. Alas, there is but one mention of cats in Jane Austen, when she observes somewhat detachedly a black kitten running up and down the wide stairway in a lodging house in Bath.

I hope someone who comes over here will close read or comment on this scene between Mr Bennet and Elizabeth in context for us by way of commemorating Jane Austen’s birthday. If not, I’ll try tonight by way of filling up my evening with Jane.

Ellen

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Amanda Root as Anne Elliot walking among the autumn leaves (1995 BBC Persuasion, scripted Nick Dear, directed Roger Michell)

Dear friends and readers,

I am chuffed (proud, happy) to say two new essays on Charlotte Smith by me are now available from the power and liberty of the Internet. The first is my essay for Sarah Emsley’s new series of blogs, “Youth and Experience: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion,” due to start December 16th. Mine is one of two previews;

“For there is nothing lost that may be found: Charlotte Smith in Jane Austen’s Persuasion

The other is by William Hutchings, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Manchester, UK, “A Sense of An Ending: Persuasion and Keats’s “Ode to Autumn.”

It will be seen both of us chose to dwell on the autumnal aspects of Austen’s Persuasion and how she uses or provides an analogy for autumnal poetry by two contemporary or near contemporary poets. Thus Sarah put ours on her blog before Austen’s birthday in order to be seasonally on time.

I am writing this separate linked-in blog since I want to make sure there is no misapprehension about the four years worth of blogs on this site about Jane Austen’s letters and the Austen papers. The blogs came out of a group read we did on the two Austen lists (Austen-l and Janeites) several years. It was my idea to do the letters slowly, one a week. However, what insights emerged were a “hive” effect, the result of all of us putting our collective heads together to close read and add our own bits of knowledge and insight—and sometimes clashing on who Austen was as a person. It was a wonderful experience.

The second is on Charlotte Smith in a different or wider vein: I’ve decided to put my paper on “The Global Charlotte Smith: migrancy and women in Ethelinde and The Emigrants on academia.edu where it may be read now. It is also timely in a different way: for its political perspective on women and emigration.


A photograph taken in Oxford, Wytham Woods this November 19, 2017 by a friend

Ellen

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The old pump at Steventon as drawn by Ellen Hill for her and her sister, Constance Hill’s, Jane Austen: Her Home and Her Friends

Friends and readers,

Saturday began with a lavish morning breakfast on a terrace overlooking the beach, after which the second keynote speaker, Devoney Looser delivered a remarkable speech, and there were two breakout sessions, one directly after Devoney’s, and another after an hour and one half break for lunch. At this the conference proper seemed to be over, unless you count the “special events,” and at the last moment I paid for and heard an informative talk by a man running a local museum on printing about printing in the 18th century. Since the third keynote speech on Sunday morning was (like all the other JASNAs I’ve gone to) in mid-morning, and Izzy and I had a plane to catch (and a drive through congested highways to get there), we had to miss this once again. I have yet to hear the third keynote speech. It is not designed for those who are not staying for yet another day, half of which has no scheduled events having to do with Austen (this time it was expensive tours, wineries, beach and cruise excursions, dinners). And of course that means payment for yet another night at the typical expensive JASNA hotel. And very like the other three JASNAs where Izzy and I stayed at the hotel for Wednesday through Sunday morning, many people were leaving Sunday morning — as witnessed by the plethora of cabs, shuttles and other non-pedestrian modes of getting away (as there is no public transportation and few sidewalks in this area of California one cannot walk anywhere).

Devoney’s keynote speech was (in my case) followed by two outstanding presentations in sessions (I chose luckily at last) and a third of suggestive interest about Austen criticism. As I will try (as I have been doing) to tell a little of what I could not hear from what others told me of talks they heard, I will have four blogs after all. Here I discuss just the keynote speech and the papers I heard during Sessions D and E.

Devoney’s title was neutral: “After Jane Austen.” Like Gillian’s and the theme of the conference, her matter was not directly about Austen, but post-Austen matters, with this difference: the unusual areas she had researched, a resolutely neutral stance which allowed for much (I at least assumed) irony towards the absurd, commercial, and bizarre material she uncovered, and for a nervily dry delivery. She offered the kind of apology people do when they are not apologizing but defending a stance: she was not going to assume a “solemn” or “mournful” tone (even though this was 200 years after a relatively early death of a remarkable writer, a death I would add in great pain). No, her stance is that or closer to that of Rebecca Munford on Emma Tennant (the essay is “The Future of Pemberley: Emma Tennant, the ‘Classic Progression’ and ‘Literary Trespassing’ in Dow and Hanson’s collection, The Uses of Austen); she accepts Jane Austen and Zombies even if the argument of whatever text is pro-war is for the common good (arguably the stance of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; see my “The Violent Turn”); her view that the 1960s/70s formed a rallying time for social transformations that included Austen; she is open to ghosts of Austen haunting us, even literally and unscrupulously (if I understood her correctly). Throughout her speech her power-point presentation gave us illustrations of “the bizarre stuff” that’s out there: outrageous headlines about Austen, ludicrously unhistorical pictures, ridiculous contests and assertions, and she told several exemplary stories.


Lily James as Elizabeth and Sam Riley as Darcy fighting over a gun, guns are regarded as good ways of remaining safe in Burt Steer’s film (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies)

Devoney’s first story was about putting a plaque for Austen in Westminster Abbey in 1967; there were large sculptures of writers there, mostly male, and the burden of her theme was that quite a number of people in the Jane Austen society were not exactly for this, nor were the Westminster Abbey individuals. Yet it happened, and she could name only those she assumed had the contacts to do it (one woman who lived in Winchester all her life who “had no profession”). A sermon was given which was an attempt to diminish Austen or put her as a woman in her place Austen with “small things,” like apple pieces; absurd straining to find analogies with Biblical metaphors. The last and fourth story had a similar theme: it included as one of its principals Joan Austen-Leigh, a descendant of Austen, active in the Jane Austen Society in Britain; she wrote sequels as well as plays, and was an entertaining raconteur. The story told highlighted how rigidly prissy one of the elected officials of that society had been in, someone who had never read any Austen (as apparently several of those involved in the politics of the plaque would never have read any Austen). The second story was about the pump that stood on the site of the Steventon vicarage (torn down in the 1830s). In fall of 1793 it was reported stolen by the New York Times, and a melodramatic account was given: it happened in the “dead of night,” a Chief Inspector was involved, and it was concluded (by at least the person who wrote this remark) that it had been spirited away to the United States “by a mad Austenite.” Research on the pump that was reputed to have been there began to question a photograph of the old pump. A third was about the statue of Colin Firth as naked to the waist in the water. It seems this has been destroyed. She regaled us over silly goings-on in these incidents.

The fourth (perhaps the most interesting to follow up on) on a script for a TV movie in 1974 by Stromberg Junior (the son of the man who produced the 1940 P&P featuring Laurence Oliver and Greer Garson). Writers included Christopher Isherwood; perhaps Peter O’Toole would have been in it. Devoney had read the script and found it “a hoot:” she took the view that it mocked Austen’s book by mocking the cult values (sweetened up heterosexual romance ending in conventional marriage and family). This Lizzie can’t see spending one’s life to find a man. Devoney quoted dialogues intended to be funny; it seemed to me (like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) to have a strong gay subtext. Stromberg Jr was not a liked man, and the deal fell through; indeed there was a threat of a lawsuit. Devoney mourned that we had not had this version of P&P after the 1940 one (which she seemed to like); the implication was maybe we would have been able to have a differently framed Austen than the one which did emerge. The 1979 dramatic romance by Fay Weldon, where it should be said Elizabeth was made the center, and other serious familial romance mini-series and cinema movies? Amy Heckerling’s Clueless has been, until recently, an exception to the rule. (I’m not sure about that; it seems to me that movies made for movie-houses have tended to be broadly comic, e.g., Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility has much comedy; the Indian Bride and Prejudice and Aisha [an Emma appropriation]).

She received a standing ovation, after which there were questions and semi-speeches. One elicited from Devoney stories of the 1970s and 80s when the first feminist criticism of Austen emerged (e.g., Alison Sullaway, a friend of hers). Juliet McMaster told of her memories of the 1970s JASNAs.

I thought it a spectacular speech, beautifully delivered, probably appropriately because it was (in effect) a celebration of celebrity culture. She intended to be or presented herself (though ironically) as respectful of popular reactions to Austen’s works (or to the framing of them); and among the books she praised at the outset was Deborah Yaffe’s Among the Janeites: A Journey through the world of Jane Austen Fandom. Jane Smiley remarks (rightly) that this book includes interviews with quite a few men: as someone who has been a long-time inhabitant of the listservs and pays attention to the blogs, I know that this is a distortion: at no time over the years I’ve been on-line have I ever seen more than one or two men active on the listservs, and most of the time they acted as thorns in the bush, aggressively insulting (Arnie Perlstein used to do this) or objecting “robustly” (as some put it) to other views. Scottie Bowman, whose death was responsible for his disappearance used to enjoy himself mocking Austen-l members; with his pretense of urbanity and gift for poisonous banter he was one of the causes of the famous Fanny wars. He was a troll though a published novelist. But men have more prestige than woman, and it’s not that acceptable to admit that still most of the most fervent fans are women. Yaffe’s book is not broadly accurate but spotlights what she thinks will be entertaining and attract readers and sales, and those interviewed are delighted by the attention Other books deliberately turn for their findings not to the unknown ordinary female Janeite (or unnamed except on the Net), but to published books, films, which are usually skilfully manipulated commodities intended to reach far more than Jane Austen fans whose appeal is quite different than Austen’s books. It’s easier to catalogue tourist sites than track down the unpublished (see Kathryn Pratt Russell’s “Everybody’s Jane Austen,” South Atlantic Review, 76:3 (2011):151-57; she reviews Juliette Wells’s Everybody’s Jane and Claudia Johnson’s Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures. Russell finds that Claudia Johnson uses her findings to describe powerful ideas about class, sex, and culture (of the type that feed into populism).

I know I am unusual in critiquing celebrity culture for its falseness and for maintaining that one can evaluate and judge between works. In fact Johnson evaluates and is condescending; how could she not be? But I am not alone. John Sutherland (on Helene Kelly’s Jane Austen: Secret Radical; scroll down “on the anniversary”) and Ruth Bernard Yeasell hestitate and critique too (see Yeazell’s “Which Jane Austen,” NYRB, 64:14 (Fall 2017):63-65.


Charlotte Heywood (Amy Burrows), Felicity Lamb (Bonnie Adair) Clara Brereton (Lucy-Jane Quinlan), Brindle’s Sanditon play

Mary Marshall’s “Sanditon: Inspiring Continuations, Adaptations, and Spin-offs for 200 Years” (Session D) drew me because I’ve gotten to know Chris Brindle’s filmed play, Sanditon and have the edition of Sandition by Prof Marshall which includes Anna Lefroy’s continuation, which Marshall was respectful of. She began with the larger picture: Sanditon is the least adapted of the novels, Pride & Prejudice the most adapted, with Emma at this point coming in second (though S&S is still a strong contender for second place). Sanditon was first known to the public in 1871 when James Edward Austen-Leigh described it, summarizing it in the 2nd edition of the Memoir. It was first published in 1925; 1954 Chapman made a much more accessible edition; it is the largest surviving manuscript we have (longer than The Watsons, though The Watsons is far more polished and finished, with implications much fuller as to how it was to proceed): 24,000 words in 12 chapters. Austen was giving us a much wider world than she had before, her language is more relaxed and at times so fresh the descriptions; the plot is unfolding slowly, with its direction not yet clear. Basically Marshall then described several of the continuations. Anna Lefroy’s, written between 1845-60, was first published in 1983 by Marshall; she had been working as a rare book cataloguer, and came across this working draft. It was Anna who had the cancelled drafts of Persuasion (she reminded us). She carefully developed the Parker family in a direction consonant with what Austen wrote. There is a real aptness and similarity of tone. The POV is Charlotte, Charlotte and Sidney are to marry; Sidney is clearly going to help his brother-in-law; Marshall was reminded by one of the new names of Hasting’s man of business, Woodman; the ambiguous character of Tracy is developed – a business world is being put before us.

A brief list: 1932 Alicia Cobbet (?), whose text is not faithful to the original personalities at all, with its melodramatic plot about kidnapping, smuggling and the like. A best known continuation: by Austen and “another lady (Marie Dobbs): Dobbs extended the story in a direction Dobbs thought Austen’s novel might have moved; Charlotte, for example, thwarts Edward’s seduction of Clara; Sidney proposes to Charlotte. 1981 Rebecca Baldwin who hopes the reader may take what she has written as homage to Austen; Julia Barret 2002 whose book Ms Marshall said is said to be terrible; Regina Hall 2008, where a mere description showed ludicrousness; Helen Marshall 2012 wrote a bizarre short story. Carrie Brebis, The Suspicion at Sanditon; or, The Disappearance of Lady Denham 2015, a “Mr and Mrs Darcy mystery,” was characterized by Marshall as “a well-written mystery.” Then there are several self-published texts: Juliet Shapiro 2003; Helen Barker The Brother 2002; David Williams’s Set in a Silver Sea 2016 with Miss Lamb as the main character. This is not the complete list she went over; I am missing titles; it was clear that Ms Marshall enjoyed some of these.

She then told us about Chris Brindle’s play, the film, the documentary; he owns the Lefroy ms, recruited Amanda Jacobs who sang his music very well (especially the beautiful duet, Blue Briny Sea; you can listen here to his most recent music for Jane Austen). Her last text was the coming (she hoped) new Sanditon commercial film (2018-19), with Charlotte Rampling as Lady Denham, Holliday Grainger as Charlotte, Toby Jones as Tim Parker, John O’Hanlon ,the diretor, Simone Read scripting. After she finished, I asked if she agreed with me that Chris Brindle’s was a fine continuation and Chris was right to take the two texts (Austen’s and Lefoy’s) in a direction exposing corrupt financial dealings, and she said yes. I regretted more than ever not having gone to listen to Sara Dustin on Friday on “Sanditon at 200: Intimations of a Consumer Society. I had chosen the paper on Jane Austen’s letters, wrongly as it turned out, for it was just a basic description and introduction to the problematic nature of the letters, which I’ve known about since blogging about this letters here for over 3 years. Peter Sabor said he had had the privilege of reading the script for the coming film, and it seemed a work of reminiscence. Many questions were asked about the textual sequels. This was perhaps the best session overall that I attended.


Emma Thompson as Elinor writing home to her mother

After lunch, I listened with much profit to Susan Allen Ford’s “The Immortality of Elinor and Marianne: reading Sense and Sensibility” (Session E). She was interested in using the development of the sequels and films (sometimes from one another) as a way of understanding Austen’s novel, both how it has been read and what it is in itself. She covered three sets of texts, the books, the staged plays, and the films. I’ll start with what she said of the films: since Emma Thompson and Ang Lee’s 1995 Sense and Sensibility, the novel has been read through it again and again, and it has influenced all other Austen adaptations (including non-S&S ones), she covered it thoroughly, including its many departures. The treehouse, the use of the handkerchief, and the way Marianne is rescued twice, first by Willoughby and then by Brandon have been especially influential; Rickman’s performance has mesmerized audiences, the gorgeousness of landscapes and houses, the melancholy music. I’ll add the lighting and coloration and that what Thompson “corrects” others have before her too. Rickman is anticipated by Robert Swann in the 1983 mini-series, but it had a somber dark vision (it’s by Alexander Baron) that has not been influential; Susan commended this mini-series for the use of complex contrasting depictions of Elinor and Marianne and its the first to include a loving depiction of landscape. She mentioned the Tamil Kandukondain Kandukondain or I have found it, as effective modernizing (Elinor looking for a job for example) but under the influence when Bala (Brandon) rescues Meenu (Marianne) from a sewer. There is a deep intensity in Davies’s 2008 film, which by the end has lost contact with the original scepticism of Austen’s book in its comic joy; Barton cottage is now by the sea and Brontesque in appearance.

The book sequels exist because of readers’ desire to spend more time with Austen’s characters, to experience the book’s conflicts. Like the films, they often give a bigger role for Margaret, maked the heroes more central, more acceptable, and more (erotic heterosexual) loving. It’s obvious (Susan thinks) that Jane West’s A Gossip’s Story lies behind Austen’s novel. The didactic and verbal parallels are striking. Austen changes a lot, gives psychological complexity, so her book resists easy encapsulating moralizing. Early on Isabelle de Montolieu’s adaptive translation changed the novel in her translation to be much more sentimental. Rosina Filippi wrote dialogues in the early 20th century, including the debate betweeen John and Fanny Dashwood over how much money to give his “half-sisters.” Susan suggested Emma Brown, an Austen great-great niece, wrote a strong sequel. In hers Margaret wants to observe life, to travel and elopes to Scotland. Susan went over Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility: the story is updated; the situations repeated in modern terms. She too has a treehouse.


Irene Richards and Tracy Childs as Elinor and Marianne debating whether Marianne can take Willoughby’s offer of a horse (1983 S&S)

Susan said the two recent staged plays have been a delight, especially Kate Hamil’s which returns us to Elinor as central POV; she breaks with realism for high activity and comic effect. Both repeat elements not found in Austen’s novels but now part of the collective memory of all these post-texts. I saw Hamil’s play and can confirm the script is intelligent, thoughtful, and reflects Austen too. Susan rightly said that Austen was deeply sceptical of the rescue fantasy; of the risks of emotional and erotic openness; aware of the pains of romance, and she summarized a couple of critics recently who took her point of view. During the discussion period afterward people emphasized how important Elinor and Marianne’s relationship to one another is; that the book is not primarily a romance and that is why people keep “correcting” it. There is great pain in Elinor when she discovers Edward’s lies, and shame in Marianne after she realizes she has been deluded. The films have embraced nostalgia; the narrative voice become cosy instead of almost unfriendly.


Kate Winslet as Marianne playing the deeply melancholy music of “The dreame” on the piano, a present from Brandon (borrowed from Austen’s Emma story and transformed).

I cite two post-texts that Susan did not mention: during Emma Brown’s era, E.H.Young wrote a moving rewrite of S&S as Jenny Wren: two sisters, Jenny and Dahlia Rendall with their mother, Louisa, lose their father/husband, are forced to move and try to make a living taking in lodgers; andCathleen Schine’s The Three Weismanns of Westport, which does the same thing as Joanna Trollope with rather more depth, originality, and yes dignity and grave pleasure in the style and stance. They do not fit into Susan’s trajectory as both did not add the typical elements of the above sequels, and both picked up on what Margaret Drabble in her introduction to an older Signet edition of S&S argued: that the economic and social milieu of the novel is its true interest.


The title alludes to Dickens’s disabled seamstress in Our Mutual Friend


Schine writes as a reviewer for the NYRB occasionally

For myself I have enjoyed many of the film adaptations. Recently I just loved Towhedi’s film adaptation of P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley, and feel Jo Baker’s Longbourn is a good novel, not to omit Helen Fielding’s brilliant Bridget Jones books, and The Jane Austen Book Club (both the movie and books by and centered on women). I was interested by Anna Lefroy’s perceptive continuation of her aunt’s story (she did understand her aunt as few can, none of us having known her), and found Young’s book to be a quiet gem; Young is one of the authors covered in “The Virago Jane” by Katie Trumpener (in Deirdre Lynch’s Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees). Miss Mole is a truly effective novel in the tradition Jane Austen started within women’s novels.


Miss Mole would be in my terms a variation

Next up: Annette LeClair’s “In and Out of Foxholes,” what Izzy heard at her choice of sessions, Eighteenth Century Printing and some remarks on widows and widowers in Austen, more on Darcy, and, a conversation on Austenesque Variations, i.e., yet more on sequels from a panel conversation held in another room during the fall, and last thoughts on these American JASNA extravaganzas.

Ellen

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The one image of Jane by Cassandra that we have


From the shop: the theme this year was Austen’s “afterimage” and there were a number of talks on sequels, and many for sale

Dear friends and readers,

As those who go to the annual general meetings of the Jane Austen Society know, the conference “proper” (as I call this time) begins on Friday around 1’o’clock when the first of three “keynote” lectures is given to the whole assembly; depending on your definition, it ends late Saturday afternoon when the last of the sessions of papers is given, or sometime before noon on Sunday, when around 10 or so a sumptuous brunch is served and the last keynote lecture is given, usually home-y, with the accent on Jane Austen’s “countryside,” tales of what happened to the houses she lived in or visited, by those who have themselves lived in or written about the place, often a relation of Austen herself. Quite a number of people seem to come just a slice of time within this Friday and Sunday noon; others last from Monday to Monday.

Those who stay all week (imagine the stamina it must take) go to the increasing spread of “special” lectures or events (amateur plays), concerts, teas (with a lecture), which are increasingly Austen-related, plus several different tours to famous or historical or museum places in the vicinity. These begin on Tuesday morning and end the following Monday evening. Sometimes these “special” lectures or events named after the food or drink served, are as good or far better than the content of papers at the sessions. It used to be that the Fanny Burney society (whose members often belong to JASNA too) met on the Wednesday and into the Thursday and even Friday morning of JASNA’s week because nothing content-rich was going on at the same time — making a hat workshops, silhouette workshops, fun things with ribbons making up many of the “events” on Thursday and Friday morning. But now that the pre-conference time is becoming more serious, the Burney bunch experience serious conflicts. This year they linked themselves to the Aphra Behn Society and are meeting in November.


One of the pool areas

I thought I’d begin this year’s description of the JASNA at the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach hotel with the pre-conference events and non-conference experiences Izzy and I went to or had. We arrived by plane, pacific time near 4:00 pm, on Tuesday night, had an early supper with a friend, and settled into, or got used to the hotel. We quickly saw we didn’t need two rooms and separate beds were available in one, so we cancelled one of our rooms and stayed together for the conference, cutting our cost in half immediately. The hotel was a large (vast) opulent place (we were given two different large maps), comfortable but everything beyond the room separately charged and expensive. Several pools, several eating places, alcoholic drinks flowing. Spas in several places, each one charging hugely for each activity you might want to do. Two very expensive restaurants. Another small place where you could buy small meals to take back to the room (breakfasts, lunches) and an Italian pizzeria where central staples for most people.


At the Bowers Museum

We went on the all-day tour on Wednesday to the Bowers Museum in the morning, and after a group lunch together, to the Heritage Museum where we were taken on a walking tour of a 19th century house built by Hiram Clay Kellogg. The Bowers Museum appeared to pride itself on the couple of rooms of native American art (much cruelty could not be hidden) and early white colonialist painting designed to delude people into coming west to experience a sort of “paradise.” One socialist realist painting of the hard working lives of hispanic people in the 1930s. Then there were modern rooms of eclectic art (from tribal communities around the globe). The most interesting exhibit in the museum was made up of real photographs and films of the (in)famous Shackleton expedition to Antartica where terrific suffering was endured by a group of men, to no purpose, but the satisfaction of grandiosely deluded man. The animals taken along were shot and eaten. We were conducted through the Kellogg house by a witty instructor who succeeded in giving us a feel of what life was like in that house for the very wealthy family and its household of servants who lived there at the turn of the century. Much of the older domestic technology catches one’s attention. I recognized things that were still around in the 1950s. Izzy and I did enjoy the museum and house tours and bought souvenirs to remember the day by, me a book of poems about cats and she a stuffed penguin.


Kellogg House

I might as well tell the other non-conference activities here we fitted in On Friday and Saturday afternoons too, I went swimming in a beautiful warm water pool twice, drank lots of whiskey and ginger ale and had two meals poolside; Izzy came once. There was a lavish breakfast on a terrace on Saturday morning. There was a wedding going on in one part of the hotel on Saturday night, and also a lavish costume dinner with a very loud band playing modern rock to late at night. The staff were so abjectly polite and so eager to serve us I wondered if they were whipped at night. More likely, they are badly underpaid since everywhere were signs reminding you the gratuity was not included in the bill. From the hotel (inside so artificial & ornate) the horizon at a distance was beautiful. Step outside concretely and you found yourself in a non-sidewalk world, malls far away from one another.

Over the evenings I also observed private parties of Janeites going on from the high terraces of some of the rooms. Quietly too other kinds of meetings of sub-groups of people, different hierarchies. I did meet at the sessions some new fellow lovers of Austen and we shared some reading experiences, renewed acquaintances on the Net and with people I hadn’t seen since the AGM at Portland. Myself I think that is central to why people go to conferences: to meet with others of their own “tribe.”


Arnie Perlstein, Diane Birchall and myself

I felt I was seeing a good deal of the Santa Ana while the bus was on the road and also in the one restaurant we went to — the literal landscape seemed to me flat, the houses architecturally dull, high commercialization and ugly. Huge amounts of slow-moving traffic on all the roads; the world a maze or labyrinth of such roads with cheap malls far apart. The place suffers from a lack of public transportation. Izzy and I took a long walk on the beach Thursday morning and looked at the other hotels, at communities of people in trailers and vans, fisherman, people surfing.


Izzy and I at the beach

On Wednesday and Thursday there were also three lectures, and Diana Birchall’s quietly charming two person play, “You are passionate, Jane.” The first potentially valuable lecture was given on Wednesday evening, 7 to 9, by a professor from Cal Tech, James Ashley.

The problem with this one was he was at once too abstract and too eager to be accessible. So if you wanted to learn about how to calculate longitude at sea (his topic) and how finally the problem was solved, you’d have done much better to read Dava Sobel’s little book. Using a power-point presentation, he showed us the oceans and the constellations invented by people using stars and said how we could all go out and determine latitude by using arms, fists, and the pole star. He didn’t connect his discourse to Austen, which was disappointing. I expected he might have said something about her brothers’ lives aboard their ships, the travels using older methods, how they were educated but no. There was no serious research on Austen, no attempt to explain for real what he was talking about. The imagined audience might be high schoolers/undergraduates, suitable for many conferences. The weather was lovely and a few people followed him out the door.


Muslin dress

During or just after a mass tea and cake event in a ballroom, two museum women gave excellent talks on costume and art on Thursday afternoon. clarissa M. Esguerra from the LA County Museum gave a detailed account of the changes in fashion from the 1770s to the 1830s for men and women. She seemed to have dozens of slides, attached each of the fashions to some ideal in the other arts at the time (say what passed for Greek and Roman dress), new political norms (egalitarism, following more natural or body-fitting fashions in lieu of a stiff formality) but showed also that quickly extremes emerged in which individuals were clearly trying to show their wealth, status, sexuality or masculine or feminine attractiveness (as these were seen). She went over the kinds of materials used, all the layers of clothes, undergarments, shoes, hats, hairstyles, bags carried. I had not realized how male styles evolved in a similar trajectory. In each era there were fossilized holdovers. Men’s styles by the 1830s begin to resemble the way men dress today. Bridal outfits hark back to this era for both genders. Towards the end of her lecture she connected what she had described to characters in Austen’s books, how they dress and how Austen expects us to judge and evaluate them. This part was all too brief.


An image by just one of the many artists Zohn described: Ana Teresa Barboza

Kristin Miller Zohn provided a fascinating series of images demonstrating (she felt) that very contemporary art today has its roots in Regency fashion. What was most intriguing were close parallels between pictures and statues, plates, decorative arts, cooking equipment, hunting implements, jewelry, silhouettes, facial masks, china, pottery, of the later 18th century and post-1990 post-modern art. Like just about everyone who publicly speaks at these conferences she made no critical statement whatsoever about the celebrity culture she said began to flourish in the later 18th century, and its analogues in exotic esoteric imagery today. Greed is in, with only the very occasional contemporary artist (Kara Walker) providing some intelligent humane remembering or critique of some of the sources and workers providing allusions (to slavery, to massacres in the highlands and colonies outside England). There were grieving figures, and some moving narrations accompanied some of what she showed us. I took down names of artists and works but as my sten is so weak I will not try to transcribe as I would make errors. She sped through some 30 artists at least inside 45 minutes or so. I was impressed by how many women and non-European, non-white artists she included. She didn’t neglect the development of photography. It connected to Austen’s world because the modern artists sharply exposed the underbelly of her capitalist military establishment but there was little directly connected to her.

You did have to pay extra for the three lectures.


Diana as Charlotte, Syrie as Jane

I’ll conclude on Diana’s play, which I read years ago and probably have a pdf of somewhere in my computer files, but an hour’s search defeated me. Syrie James played Jane Austen already in heaven, and Diana was Charlotte Bronte. The conceit is that a select group of appropriate people, apparently mostly novelists, who have just died, have to answer a series of questions Miss Austen puts to them to her satisfaction before they too can pass by the gate. Syrie must have some acting in her background because she delivered the wry lines very well: Austen came out as very full of herself, set in her ways, and aware of how Bronte had written of her to Southey. Bronte is longing to join her two sisters and is the more emotional role. Allusions to other women authors connected to these two were amusing: Jane has read “Mrs Gaskell’s” Life of Charlotte Bronte, and is in the know in ways Charlotte cannot yet be. There was good feeling towards the end as the two grew together despite their (supposed) characteristic personalities.

I doubt I chose the best papers to listen to in the next day and a half and I know I missed a number I would have liked to hear. I did hear a few very worth while papers, found two of the key lectures fascinating, and will try to give the gist of the lectures in the next two blogs. The thing to keep your eye on will be how little connects us to what Austen was herself. She was lost in the aftermath of her reputation and how it’s used. (Next time, for us Williamsburg, Va., and “Northanger Abbey after 200 years,” I will try to go for more “close reading” lectures if I can be sure they are that.)

For me going to this was accompanying my daughter who loves the Austen books, writes fan-fiction herself. I was glad most people smiled at me, a few talked to me (one interesting one with an author of a sequel I’ll review soon, Kathleen Flynn’s The Jane Austen Project, another with a scholar I’ve long admired), but would have been saddened by the end, but that I love the dancing on the last evening. I was so glad Izzy finally danced for a couple of hours too — this is her third JASNA AGM.

For now I end on a poem, one I’ve never read before or shared on this blog:

Rereading Jane Austen’s Novels

This time round, they didn’t seem so comic.
Mama is foolish, dim or dead. Papa’s
a sort of genial, pampered lunatic.
No one thinks of anything but class.

Talk about rural idiocy! Imagine
a life of teas with Mrs. and Miss Bates,
of fancywork and Mr. Elton’s sermons!
No wonder lively girls get into states —

No school! no friends! A man might dash to town
just to have his hair cut in the fashion,
while she can’t walk five miles on her own.
Past twenty, she conceives a modest crush on

some local stuffed shirt in a riding cloak
who’s twice her age and maybe half as bright.
At least he’s got some land and gets a joke —
but will her jokes survive the wedding night?

The happy end ends all. Beneath the blotter
the author slides her page, and shakes her head,
and goes to supper — Sunday’s joint warmed over,
followed by whist, and family prayers, and bed.

— Katha Pollitt

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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