Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘women’s films’ Category

For those determined to keep up with the slightest touch of Austen,

bridget-jones-banner
Renee Zellweger trudging along as Bridget Jones, heavily pregnant, bringing home laundry, food, her Christmas tree and whatever she needs in the snow

The third installment of Bridget Jones’s story is worth going to — if you can sit through the first 10 or say 15 minutes of excruciatingly stupid, vulgar, noisy montages to promiscuity; if you are someone who enjoys screwball romantic comedy (where there is believable “bonheur” over companionship however bizarrely achieved); and if you saw and enjoyed Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Edge of Reason, and like Helen Fielding’s novels. That’s three “if’s.”

Get past that opening, and you find yourself in a problematic situation that has contemporary resonance. Bridget is pregnant and does not know who the father of the coming child is. The time-frame fits a new passing weekend tryst with Patrick Dempsey as celebrity male of some sort as well as a not-all-that-contrived an encounter with Colin Firth as a Mark Darcy. We are asked to believe both males care, that they want to accept a responsibility as fathers, but screwball comedies often have precisely this kind of woman-centered flattering (or shall I call it hopeful) delusion/illusion.

People (including me) love to imagine continuity and survival, so part of the deep pleasure of this film is to see the same actors turn up as father, mother, and aunt to Bridget. Still alive! This pleasure is like the ending of Voltaire’s Candide (for those of an 18th century disposition). A form of Austen nostalgia. (A fourth necessity is probably a deep love of Austen and interest in and enjoyment of most Austen films.) I don’t know who is the most effective: Jim Broadbent as father, Gemma Jones as mother, Celia Imrie as aunt. I also enjoyed the wry presence of Emma Thompson as Dr Rawlings, gynecologist and obstetrician who tells Bridget, she doesn’t need these men. These fleeting moment between these actresses matter.

thompson

Raw[lings] has herself endured the bringing up of a child without a male it seems. At a crucial moment, she ushers both men out as useless. So stick it out. There are funny moments.

There are those who claim to find Amy Heckerling’s Clueless as one of the most Austen-like of all the nearly 40 Austen films now extant. Not so. It’s too upbeat; its very success shows how deeply it has successfully bought into complacency. Bridget Jones’s Baby may not be even a good movie artistically, but it is not complacent. What is worth seeing in Bridget Jones’s Baby is the aging tired face of Colin Firth, glad at last to resign himself down to caring for this desperately if comically seeking (a different note than Katherine Hepburn used to hit) woman in her early forties, with no job (Bridget does not fit in, and how easy it is to discard her), and despite her “face-lift” (for which she has been, so I understand, excoriated) the wrinkled aging face and body of Zellweger. We are all getting older together and need to tolerate and get along. Stronger together, anyone?

People have apparently accepted the implied idea that Hugh Grant is totally gone from the scene. Not so. The film opens with his funeral. The unlucky man has apparently gone down in some plane hit by these endless wars on terror. But all is not lost: at the close, the viewer is gifted with a small column in a newspaper, that after all this “playboy” survived. Having just watched Grant’s superlative performance in Florence Foster Jenkins and remembering him so long ago as the complicated cuckolded vengeful duke in Middleton’s Changeling (as important in his way as Bob Hoskins as Flores and Elizabeth McGovern as Beatrice), I understand why he can no longer cope with these screwball comedies. His face has too much depth: he appears to have a gravitas beyond Firth’s self-deprecating thinness.

Firth as Mr Darcy’s shyness, awkwardness, unwillingness to reveal himself, snobbery, high integrity, good manners — studio experts seem to assume will again provoke comfortable laughter. These “sites” (and Bridget’s memories) are the reference points (to imply that this new stability and security is fleeting) are some of many moments and touches worth staying on for: as an example of how to think about what you see, for those who are said to have swooned at Firth in the 1995 P&P, here’s Mr Darcy today:

51873706 Stars spotted on the set of the third Bridget Jones film, 'Bridget Jones's Baby' in London, England on October 8, 2015. Stars spotted on the set of the third Bridget Jones film, 'Bridget Jones's Baby' in London, England on October 8, 2015. Pictured: Colin Firth FameFlynet, Inc - Beverly Hills, CA, USA - +1 (818) 307-4813 RESTRICTIONS APPLY: USA ONLY

Come to that, what is sex life like for older women? this film doesn’t tell us but it asks the question. What about a lonely older man not keen to lay his soul bare (and for good reasons). It’s not 45 years but at least such questions are broached. As they are not in Clueless. And the questions do link back through the sequel trail.

It’s worrying to me that P.D. James’s and Juliette Towhidi through the genre of violent murder (Death comes to Pemberley) the diaspora Austen films, and wacky comedies (say Lost in Austen) can make these satiric courtship novels Austen wrote seem more available to thinking people (especially women) than the older romance mini-series or singleton semi-delusional romances.
hattieaselinor
Hattie Morahan as Elinor stoically enduring her life alone (2009, Davies S&S, one of the last of the “heritage” dramatic romance Austen films)

Or maybe for now what is funded is the “appropriation.” Yet this year what had staying power in movie-theaters? Not P&P and Zombies but rather a Christianizing and cream-y version of Lady Susan.

So I’ll end on the question of genre. The first ever Jane Austen movie was made in 1940, an MGM Pride and Prejudice which was described as and is a screwball comedy with romance. Screwball comedy is one that makes no rational sense if you start to look at money, common things of life, probability, actual emotions. Since then there has been two other screwball comedies, with romance beyond the three Bridget Jones’ movies: the 1995 Clueless and the 2004 Bride and Prejudice (also an Indian Bollywood type film).

What genre of movie is the closest in movie terms to Austen’s texts? They are all women’s films; that goes without saying. L’ecriture-femme on film. Many have female narrators; POV a heroine or heroines, over-voice a woman, the woman character as linchpin to the stories. This fits Austen’s books. Now for typology.

Those who want to see Austen as comedy, and like the idea they are somewhat superficial or stay away from traumatic depths of emotion, praise the screwball comedies. More modern appropriations of these include Austenland (2104), P&P and Zombies (2016) and Death Comes to Pemberley (2013-14) have gothicized Austen as did the 1986 Northanger Abbey, the 2004 Lakehouse (out of Persuasion) and to some extent the 2007 Northanger Abbey (but Davies also parodied the form, and had an underlying feel of depth of emotion). There have been attempts at versions of comedies of manner, as in a stage play: 1991 Manhattan by Whit Stillman and Andrew Davies’s 2007 Room with a View (seen as a novel alluding to Northanger Abbey) comes to mind. There are the movies made from post-texts, including time-traveling ones (Lost in Austen), the Jane Austen Book Club.

readingandtalkingtogether
The group reading and talking together — seen through a porch

I suggest the movie genre that comes closest is the dramatic familial romance, lightened by parodic techniques and wit, the first instance of which was Fay Weldon’s 1970 Pride and Prejudice. There have been many of these since as mini-series, as one-off movies in theaters, heritage and appropriation alike; they can be Indian (Aisha) or deeply Anglo and traditional (Sandy Welch’s 2009 Emma), post-colonial humor (the 2012 From Prada to Nada) or bio-pics, as in the melancholy 2009 Miss Austen Regrets.

mar5janelookingoverwater
Olivia Williams as an older Jane Austen

For those interested, have a look at my list of Austen movies. I have not updated it in a while but most of the ones made are there, those not are in a handy list of the latest appropriation films in 2015. For individual items, see my Austen Miscellany.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

OutlanderSeason1Ep3TheWayOut
Claire (Catrionia Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan) amid the ruins of a Benedictine Monastery (Outlander, Season 1, Episode 3, The Way Out)

Friends,

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

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

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

Désolée.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18thcenturyedition

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

Read Full Post »

EnchantedCornwall
From Enchanted Cornwall — Cornish beach — to them this recalls Andrew Davies’s 2009 Sense and Sensibility

Dear friends and readers,

Since tomorrow I’m going to try to travel to Cornwall where I will spend a week with a beloved friend, I thought I’d orient myself by reading an overview of the place, and found myself again reading DuMaurier’s Enchanted Cornwall and Vanishing Cornwall. Though I’ve long loved a number of her books (basically the historical romances with female narrators, Rebecca, her biographies, life-writing, travel writing) my yearning to see Cornwall does not come from them, as what drew me were the atypical romance stories; it comes from the Poldark novels where the life experience, landscape, kinds of employment offered, society of Cornwall is central. Thus (with little trouble) I’ve picked photos from DuMaurier’s book which relate directly to the Poldark world:

cornishBeach

I remember Demelza frolicking on such a beach with her lover, Hugh Armitage (The Four Swans)

season1Part8Episode6
19677-78 Poldark: Part 8, Episode 8: Demelza (Angharad Rees) and Armitage (Brian Stirner) cavorting along the beach —

and DuMaurier tells a tale of haunted vicar living a desolate life after he alienated the few parishioners he had in Warleggan church:

WarlegganChurch — From Vanishing Cornwall — Warleggan church

I’ve read all sorts of books on Cornwall since my love of these Poldark novels began, from mining to Philip Marsden’s archeaological reveries, Rising Ground, Ella Westland: Cornwall: The Cultural Construction of Place, to Wilkie Collin’s ode to solitude and deep past in his Rambles beyond Railways); to smuggling, politics beginning in Elizabethan times, poetry (its authors include Thomas Hardy, John Betjeman’s Summoned by Bells), to women artists (Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes, Dame Laura Knight), corrupt politics in this patronage-run Duchy. If I were to go back to count in the books on Arthur and the legends surrounding his figure, and literature, I have conquered whole shelves. Bryychan Carey’s website will lead you to much from a modern abolitionist left point of view, plainly set out. So much from one corner of a country.

TruroCornwalllookingdownfromcliff
A photograph my friend took today, near Truro

DuMaurier’s lyrical prose carries so much information so lightly, one is in danger of not realizing how much is there. There is a film adaptation of Vanishing Cornwall (half an hour); it accompanies the movie, Daphne with Geraldine Somerville and Janet McTeer as the leading lovers) developed from her letters, memoirs, and Margaret Forster’s biography. Her stance is less subjective than Graham’s, legend, myth, than Graham does in his Poldark’s Cornwall, which dwells on his life, his career, the place of Cornwall in his fiction right now. Appropriate to Graham’s fiction so concerned with law, justice, in his travel book, we have a photo of Launceston jail gate today:

LauncestonGaol

The DuMaurier’s may be regarded as instances of l’ecriture-femme too: in Enchanted whole parts of her novels emerge from this or that landscape memory as well as the sea. I had forgotten how many of her novels are situated there, from the one I think her finest, The King’s General (set in the later 17th century, the heroine in a wheelchair almost from the beginning) to the later one, Outlander takes off from, Hungry Hill. Her historical novels are historical romances: at core they are gothic, erotic fantasies. Vanishing is circular in structure, at the core her retelling of legend is minimized so she can do justice to the geography, archaeaological history, various industry. There is a paragraph on the coming of pilchards every spring which owes a lot to Graham’s lyrical miracle in the third book of Ross Poldark (there used to be a podcast on-line from the BBC, now wiped away, alas). Legend blends into history; history becomes poetical writing. She is not much on politics, dwelling on the upper classes as they’d like to be seen (mostly the later 17th into later 18th century and again the 20th).

For now here a piece from Vanishing Ground read aloud, evocative.

As qualifiers:

A poem by Betjeman: Cornish Cliffs

Those moments, tasted once and never done,
Of long surf breaking in the mid-day sun.
A far-off blow-hole booming like a gun-

The seagulls plane and circle out of sight
Below this thirsty, thrift-encrusted height,
The veined sea-campion buds burst into white

And gorse turns tawny orange, seen beside
Pale drifts of primroses cascading wide
To where the slate falls sheer into the tide.

More than in gardened Surrey, nature spills
A wealth of heather, kidney-vetch and squills
Over these long-defended Cornish hills.

A gun-emplacement of the latest war
Looks older than the hill fort built before
Saxon or Norman headed for the shore.

And in the shadowless, unclouded glare
Deep blue above us fades to whiteness where
A misty sea-line meets the wash of air.

Nut-smell of gorse and honey-smell of ling
Waft out to sea the freshness of the spring
On sunny shallows, green and whispering.

The wideness which the lark-song gives the sky
Shrinks at the clang of sea-birds sailing by
Whose notes are tuned to days when seas are high.

From today’s calm, the lane’s enclosing green
Leads inland to a usual Cornish scene-
Slate cottages with sycamore between,

Small fields and tellymasts and wires and poles
With, as the everlasting ocean rolls,
Two chapels built for half a hundred souls.

Laura Knight paints the contemporary world’s hopes.

LKnightChinaClayPitDetail
Laura Knight’s rendition of a China Clay Pit (a detail, painting from early in the 20th century)

Ellen

Read Full Post »

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

streetprocession
Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn in proud procession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merteuil
Close playing the innocent

Merteuilclose
Alone in thought

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

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

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

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

Joan Greenwood  Tom Jones (1963)

tomjones40Greenwood
Joan Greenwood as the supremely plausible Lady Bellaston (Tony Richardson, John Osborne Tom Jones 1963)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

Read Full Post »

mustangfiveasleep
Five girls imprisoned in family home in rural Turkey: Lale, Nur, Selma, Ece Sonay (2015 Mustang)

Anna has not a chance of escape; her husband called here the other day, & said she was pretty well but not equal to “so long a walk; she must come in her “Donkey Carriage.”–Poor Animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty.—I am very sorry for her.–Mrs Clement too is in that way again. I am quite tired of so many Children.–Mrs Benn has a 13th… (Jane Austen’s Letters, ed. Le Faye 336, Letter dated Sunday 23- Tuesday 25 March 1817)

Friends and readers,

This is to recommend seeing a quietly powerful depiction of what life is often like for girls in Turkey once they reach puberty in a film with the American title, Mustang. I contextualize the film with this year’s Room (Brie Larson won the Oscar for best actress), Deepa Mehta’s Water (which it is very like), two summers ago Philomena (Judi Dench); Orphan Pamuk’s novel, Snow, about all these unsolved murders of Turkish girls. And some women do win: Jenny Beavan after decades of work …

Mustang has two women screenwriters, one of which is the director: Alice Winocour directed it, and Deniz Gamze Ergüven, a Turkish French screenplay writer scripted it to dramatize what life is often like for a majority of Turkish women today. Five girls who are cousins are taken from the schools they are in in more modern places in Turkey and delivered to live with a grandmother and uncle in a more rural area of Turkey.

We first see Lale, the youngest, torn from a teacher who gives Lale her address, hugs Lale and tells her to write each week. Then they are piled into a van and we next see them playing games in the water with boys where they sit on the boys’ shoulders and attempt to pull one another down. The water experience seems to be regarded as fun, but it is not idealized as we find the girls arguing with one another, and the boys over who cheated, who won, who took unfair advantage.

Swimming

Suddenly they are taken from this scene, shoved into a house, the door locked, put into a narrow corridor, and their grandmother beats three of them in a locked room. The girls are accused of playing in the water this way in order to have orgasms. They are hurled back into the ban by an angry uncle who drives them to the hospital to see if they lost their virginity by rubbing their thighs against these boys shoulders and heads. He seethes with shame and screams at them. The grandmother here and throughout the film justifies herself as doing the best for them, and thinks of herself as loving them and devoting her life to them.

mustang-photooutfitted

The family (there are other women in the house, other men at times) proceeds to cut the girls off from all outside influence, locking away phones, computers, books. They are in effect kidnapped and the word appears in the English subtitle translations throughout. They are taught nothing but how to cook and dress to please a man. We see them try to rebel and the hopelessness of it. It’s not a short movie and much daily life happens. They do escape once to go to a football game through a bus which happens by. They make much more of this experience, look hysterically happy on TV sets others see them on while there because they have been allowed no other outlet or excitement. We see these supposedly joyous football audiences are separated by gender. So you wonder what the lives of these other girls are like that they too go into these apparent ecstasies of fan cheering. We see our girls begin to be grateful to those female relatives, their direct keepers who control them for hiding what they do from the uncle and other male relatives. Thus they take on the values of these women too. They are experiencing life as a hostage situation.

MUSTANGescaping

Not surprisingly and ironically (if it was the culture wanted them not to desire sex), the girls actually become far more intense about sex, sex is on their minds all the time, and one has sex with a boy in a car in the only chance she gets to drive out. The result: he comes back with a gang of boys to call her down; he sees her in the most debased and degrading light. Along the way one has a boyfriend who she has sex with through anal intercourse lest she not be a virgin; like Rapunzel she escapes by a pipe and climbs back at night. The men are free to eat and drink, encouraged to be merry, control the TV. The women live subdued downstairs and what they watch is controlled and of course the programs themselves reinforce subjection.

Two are married off unwillingly. The ceremonies of arranged marriage with the girl serving the boys’ famiy are just as Jumpa Lahiri describes them in her idealizing mode in her American-Bengali fiction. I watched the family decorate the girl as one would an object. The rituals are presented as playful when they are competitively hypocritical: the girls’ family is supposed to play “hard to get” when the boys’ family comes to the door.

It slowly emerges that the uncle is a molester of them all, one by one — the very man who controls them so inhumanly. He chooses the oldest before she is married off each time, all the while ever more turning the house into a prison as each escape attempt fails. The third girl shoots herself to death, a suicide hushed up, a quick burial in a sheet in a shallow grave. We also see the grandmother knows her son (the uncle) is sexually molesting these girls; she rushes to “save” the fourth after the suicide of the third by setting up a marriage for her though she is too young for this. When the fourth girl refuses to come out of the house to be married, and this fourth and Lale, the fifth and youngest, stage a protest. We are encouraged to identify with Lale, the youngest who seems most daring and who would have been the only one left in the house.

I was so caught up in the last two girls’s fates as they desperately try to escape I began to grow agitated. Lale had tried to drive from the house time and again, but did not know the step to do after turning the ignition on. A young man who had enabled the group to catch the bus to the football game with his truck is persuaded by her to teach her how to drive. She plans the escape: gathers clothes, money, a phone, figures out how to climb out of the house by a hole from the roof, and get into the car. I wanted her and her older cousin just to run, not to take the time to get these things. They do manage to get into the car and start off, but they drive the car into a marsh and must hide out. If the young man had not come by (he was watching?), taken them to a bus deport, put them on a bus to Istanbul (where they return to the teacher we first met), they would have been at a minimum severely punished. They were in danger of being killed or raped for disobedience and “shaming” of their family. We can say they are momentarily safe. Thus the film ends.

The excuse or palliation is made that this kind of life for girls goes on only in rural areas but the film shows the interconnection of city to country, and how what dominates in the country influences the feel of what happens to women in the city.

brie-larson-and-jacob-tremblay-in-room
Brie Larson and Jacob Temblay

I cannot get myself to sit through Lenny Abrahamson and Emma Donoghue’s film adaptation of Donoghue’s Room for which Brie Larson won the Oscar for best actress. I read the book and am told they changed the latter part of the story by presenting an ending where after a long time of abduction, isolation, rapes and beatings, the girl re-adjusts to life healthily; falsifying, we are told the film is about “the unbreakable bond between mother and child,” but it is rather about another kind of kidnapping. If you cannot endure it, as I could probably could not have, read the novel (which won the Orange Prize the year it was published). I wrote an account and review of the novel four years ago. In all these cases we see men attempting in effect to bury women alive in order to exploit, control, abuse their bodies. Their lives just thrown away, kept in servitude to men, continual pregnancies, when older looking so grim.

Rescuingher
Rescuing the child-widow from debased prostitution through starvation

Mustang also reminded me strongly of Deepa Mehta’s Water where a young girl of 9 is married to a very old man who dies, upon her being widowed she is sent to live in what appears to be a strict convent to live meagerly, all hard work, little food, but is eventually revealed to be a brothel where she is to be sold nightly or permanently to other old men. The pretense that what is happening is not is part of the helpless pity one feels for the girl. I became hysterical when she was turned over to an obscene old man towards the end; she too is saved by a friend who puts her an old train (not a bus) with a man who agrees to take her to a boat and out of India to an address the woman gives him. I was relieved to see her escape to have a life. I wrote a review of Water comparing it to Jamie Babbit’s The Quiet and how both were misrepresented by the reviews. I thought of Orphan Pamuk’s novel, Snow, which I read and is about the large number of murders of girls in Turkey that are said to go “unsolved” — are simply tolerated as long as all conspire to hide what happened. Of Seierstadt’s non-fiction book of the lives of the family under the control of the tyrant Bookseller of Kabul. I wrote about this one too, but the blog was one of those attacked by a virus years ago.

Mustang was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film this year, so there are a few reviews. Like so many reviews of films about the oppression of women, these underplay what is shown, change the subject even: we are told Mustang is a coming of age film, celebrating youth: Metronews. I put the English title in quotation marks because I’ve been told this is not at all what the title was in the original language. It can happen the title has nothing to do with the movie but seems one that might attract an American movie-goer.

A friend suggested “mustang” referred to horses in the wild, so the potential wildness of the girls forcibly tamed. The trouble with that is it suggests the girls need this kind of training, as if they were sheerly animals. The girls have vibrant life when we first see them, but two are re-imprisoned, or tamed for life, a third dead, and the other two by the end shaking with fear and probably ever after unnerved and careful lest they be kidnapped again. As I remarked, the word kidnap is used throughout the film:Kidnapped would have been a much better title.

Izzy told me that during the Oscars TV show, Lady Gaga sang a song about rape and women’s oppression. Gaga said that she was the victim of rape and she had a number of girls come on stage with her who also had been sexually assaulted. Sexual harassment and oppression was one of the themes of several movies winning prizes this year (e.g., Spotlight is about journalism too).

DIRECTINPUT~  This image has been directly inputted by the user. The photo desk has not viewed this image or cleared rights to the image. The image  will be purged from Merlin in 14 days unless it is outputted for production or arrangements are made with the photo desk. Philomena
Judi Dench as Philomena

I know Spotlight had as its topic the sexual molestation of boys — for context here I’ll allude to Philomena two summers ago had as its topic how the Irish church imprisoned girls who got pregnant out of wedlock, took their children from them (most of the time they lost contact with a child for decades, never regained knowledge of what had happened to the child), kept them as slaves in laudromats and other menial kitchen and factory work, and then when they died of the treatment they received buried them in nameless graves.

Jenny Beavan, winner for Best Costume Design for "Mad Max: Fury Road", poses during the 88th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California February 28, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake - RTS8H6D
Jenny Beavan, winner for Best Costume Design.

On a more cheerful note, I was glad to see Jenny Beavan after years of making costumes for countless British TV and now American films won the Oscar for costume design. She did a number of the Austen films, e.g., the 1995 Sense and Sensibility, the 1996 Emma (by Davies), the older Jane Austen in Manhattan. She did Miramax films: Room with a View, Howard’s End, Maurice, Jefferson in Paris. She did Gosford Park. Her name appears towards the end of so many credits I’ve seen scrolling down. She said she didn’t “in the least mind that nobody clapped for her.” I wish she could know I am clapping for her here.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Alicia-VikanderMirandaRichardson
Alice Vikander as Vera Brittain bringing a telegram to Miranda Richardson as Miss Lorimer telling of Miss Lorimer’s brothers’ death (2015 Testament of Youth)

Dear Friends and readers,

Precisely a month ago, I wrote a blog on a fine documentary about the fashion designer and collector, Iris Apfel, promising to write blogs on those women’s films this summer that I managed to see. Defined narrowly as a film made by women, one where a major figure in the film, director, screenplay writer, the majority of the producers are women, I’ve only watched three thus far. Iris Apfe is a documentary by Albert Maysles. Defined broadly as a film deeply empathetic to women’s points of views with an admirable likable heroine at its center I’m into my sixth.

iris
Iris, promotional shot for her outside the movie

On my life-writing political blog, Under the Sign of Sylvia II, I dealt (however briefly) with a superb re-make of Far from the Madding Crowd, with Cary Mulligan in the key role of Bathseeba derives from a novel by Thomas Hardy.

far-from-the-madding-crowd
Carey Mulligan as Bathseeba with Jessica Barden as Liddy, her lady’s-maid, servant, helpmeet (2015 Far from the Madding Crowd)

The screenplay is by David Nicholls and the director Thomas Vinterberg, but what distinguishes the film is its presentation of Bathseeba as a pro-active competent intelligent entrepreneurial farmer-businesswoman; she is not a semi-sullen sex kitten (as was Julie Christie in part). I’ll Dream of You, featuring Blythe Danner, also has a male director and writer, Brett Haley and Mark Brasch, producers Haley and Rebecca Green, but its deep empathy with the lives of older women living alone, comic and realistic makes it a film whose audience is women.

et_blythe_danner
A semi-comic serious scene of Carol with her support-group friends

Izzy and I saw another re-make this time of a 1970s TV BBC mini-series, Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain into a two-hour cinema film, comes closer to a true woman’s film as its scriptwriter is Juliette Towhidi, who was the central force in Calendar Girls and Death comes to Pemberley, not to omit The Jane Austen Book Club, from Karen Joy Fowler’s novel. It was deeply moving and I hope many people will see it and think of (or go see in order to frame the movie accurately) Towdhidi’s previous films.

I am hampered by my lack of memory of the TV mini-series in 1975 and lack of stills: it had 5 parts and was 275 minutes long, and I remember was much admired at the time — as the book is a masterpiece and it was a faithful progressive 1970s good film. This one was a mere 100 minutes. That a film is shorter need not make it inferior. The new Far from the Madding Crowd is much better than the old one; the 2007 Room with a View (by Andrew Davies) only some 95 minutes, a TV adaptation in some ways also better than the much lauded (perhaps overpraised) lush sensual Merchant-Ivory one, despised the especially effective performances of Denholm Elliot, Daniel Day-Lewis and Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Helena Bonham Carter.

testament-of-youth
The young men voluntarily going off to be “heroes” — only one of the young male characters will return

The older mini-series focused on Vera’s career, her trouble getting to Oxford, and while it was filled with grief, much of the hard experience of war was put off-stage; it was decorous, discreet, repressed. The 2014 Testament of Youth, directed by James Kent, produced by Rosie Alison, is too romantic: but I suggest it be seen as expressionistic in the way of Towhidi’s Death Comes to Pemberley, the contrasts of lush green world and romance at the opening are meant symbolically with the wasteland and horror of the later parts, but it does work.

TESTAMENT OF YOUTH - 2015 FILM STILL - Pictures: Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain - Photo Credit: Laurie Sparham   Sony Pictures Classics Release.
There are many portrait shots of all the characters and landscapes of war, trains, devastation and impossibly idyllic green springs which then turn to autumn wastelands

Miranda Richardson as the Headmistress of Somerville is memorable. Anna Chancellor is there as Vera’s financee’s mother; Emily Watson plays Alice’s mother. Cyclical structure, women’s imagery, depth of emotional charge, all are here in all three. The new one is vitriolically anti-war. Indeed I am not sure that if you have recently experienced the death of a beloved person which you feel is the result of social neglect, norms, someone thrown away, this film might not leave you distraught. Both Izzy and I were near that towards the end. But it is also cathartic, as Alice Vikander turns her life around to work as an pacifist. It’s not a great film but made explicitly appropriate to our world of ceaseless imperialistic war today.

Anne Fontaine’s Gemma Bovery has just about vanished after a week in my local moviehouses. It never played in DC itself and turned up in only one art cinema in Northern Virginia. I don’t know how it’s lasted in other areas of the US but if at all like Tamara Drewe, directed by Stephen Frears, screenplay Moira Buffini, produced by Alison Owen (which also played only in one art cinema in Northern Virginia at thee time), Gemma Bovery has hardly been shown and then vanished.

So my recommendation is probably to try it on Netflix, through streaming or a DVD. Like Tamara Drewe which is a re-write or updating of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, Gemma Bovery is a rewrite of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and the result has been that the few American reviewers who noticed it, have disliked it as not sufficiently like Flaubert. Since it’s based on Posy Simmonds’s rewrite, that’s not surprising. What did surprise me when I went back to Simmons’s graphic novel is how little it is like the mood of Simmonds’s book, so perhaps this stubborn mistake is just as well.

GemmaNOrmandyShoppingSensibly
Fontaine did take over plot points (like Gemma gains and loses weight): the house in France and much else tries to realize the cartoons of Simmonds’s graphic novel

In a way as to major story line, it is more like what people remember Flaubert’s novel for: a woman bored by her husband, takes unworthy lovers and ends up dead.

gemma-bovery
Neil Schneider is just one of three drop-dead beautiful males who turn out to be worthless (he plays the Rudolph role from Flaubert’s novel)

Only in the film the framing is a POV from Martin Joubert, a French actor Fabrice Luchini who watches from his shop and himself throws a central wrench in the proceedings out of jealousy and as far as the film allows us to see Gemma has no romantic delusions. Posy Simmons’s book is a deeply melancholy one with (to me) a thoroughly unpleasant heroine surrounded by awful people; Joubert (with a different first name) is deeply remorseful; the only bearable character is Charles, an underdog type. The book is as bitter as Flaubert’s novel ultimately is, only not misogynistic: everyone is an egoistic ultimately mean person, all masquerading as ever so liberal, arty, but above all (what counts) upper class in habitas, objects, taste.

Fontaine’s film is comic, ironic: she omits the first half of the novel which explains why Gemma and Charlie have come to France (so Gemma can escape Charlie’s first wife’s demands and her children and her own memories of a affair with one Larry, a vicious handsome type who is of course successful in the world).

gemma-boveryfabriceLucini
Gemma and Joubert (Gemma Atherton also played Tamara Drewe)

The film might have been much better if it was as bitter as the book but then no one anywhere would have gone to see it. Instead it presents these awful people neutrally, blandly, and makes Gemma still an utterly irresponsible selfish woman artist through the perspective of a now self-deprecating lecherous Joubert who sees the incongruities of what’s happening, is wry about the motives of the English people who live upper class lives in picturesque rural France. Enough of Posy Simmons comes through — but I’m not sure the effect is not both misogynistic (the other women of the film are jealous and spiteful and cold) and far from delighted by super-handsome rakish males or older lecherous ones. It’s almost misanthropic which is what I thought Flaubert’s cool book ulimately was. It could be said Charlie is again the only endurable character except here he is, as in Simmons, useless except for his income and as a person who restores works of art. Why anyone would want to restore them for people who are so worthless inwardly is a question one might ask after watching the film. A number of the characters are involved in kitsche art: Gemma restores old houses to look like 19th century artisans’ huts for huge amounts of money.

It’s a woman’s satire, and (as a couple of feminist critics of Austen argued in the 1970s, e.g. Alison Sulloway of JA and the Province of Womanhood), is not directed at large “universal norms,” but empirical, revealing the hellhole of meaningless at the of core of daily behaviors.

I saw it with my friend Sophie who is Parisian French, and she said it captured some absurd norms of French life and laughed away again and again. The photography was so alluring, shots capturing painting like scenes; it ends on a still on a window looking out, a long-standing woman artist motif.

UpDown2_Hawes_Kingston_baby.jpog
Keeley Hawes as Lady Agnes just brought her baby home, Alex Kingston the new half-sister-in-law (2012 U/D, scripted and created by Heidi Thomas) — babies and children play a large role in both episodes I cover

I am probably cheating to include the second season of Upstairs Downstairs, the 40 year re-boot (to use Anibundel’s contemporary term) of the 1970s once much beloved Upstairs Downstairs, conceived by Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins. We are three years since. But I am experiencing deep pleasure and new insight over the past few weeks by watching this new series and have already praised strongly the new version, and summarized Giselle Bastin’s film study (in Taddeo and Leggott’s anthology of film criticism, Upstairs and Downstairs: British Costume Drama) where Bastin finds series excellent: it deals openly and directly with the Nazi politics of the era. She says it has been much misunderstood because it’s not comic, but serious, realistic melodrama insofar as its genre allows. Tonight I want to endorse Heidi Thomas’s re-make by agreeing with Bastin. As with The Bletchey Circle (Agent Carter, with Hayley Attwell) had a close call for next season), a real disservice to womens’ films was done when the new Upstairs Downstairs was cancelled because the standard for ratings is not just very high, but there is a strong prejudice against women’s aesthetics and norms.

I’ve watched only the first two episodes of the six of the second season but since I’m trying to keep this blog as a concise survey, this helps my purpose as I’ve seen enough to recognize the high quality of the second season. It takes much further the characteristics of the first and moves away from the original 40 year old show altogether. First by unhappy chance Jean Marsh (Rose Buck) had a real heart attack and had to remove herself from the series, and with her removal, Atkins decided to go too. No longer are we remembering 40 years ago.

MrPritchard
Mr Pritchard (Adrian Scarborough) has had another life beyond making sure the dinner proprieties are kept up

In the first episode of the second season the attitude of mind is seriously anti-war at the same time as all justice is done to a critique of why Chamberlain gave in. It’s done through having the central character (Keeley Hawes, very good — she is the core of the two hours), having her baby and having two young children; plus in the house they have a Downs Syndrome young woman brought in as a half-sister. They really did hire a Downs Syndrome girl – the way on Breaking Bad the son was a disabled actor. Alex Kingston joins the cast as a half-sister of Atkins (replacing her as an older woman in the house). The thematic center is a justification of conscientious objection (though the story of the new butler who turns out to have been a conscientious objector in WW10 which offers a juxtaposing perspective on the critique of Chamberlain (against war as war). Tragically the monkey left to the protection of Amanjit Singh (Art Malik) is killed because people have been so frightened by the propaganda about chemical warfare (a footman uses the poor animal as a guinea pig).

blake-ritson-duke-of-kent

The second episode takes us into Hitler Germany’s betrayal of the peace pact, the story of an attempt to rescue German Jewish children, again features the Nazi leanings of the aristocracy and Duke of Kent (Blake Ritson plays the part) and brings back Claire Foy (Lady Percy) as disaffected, rootless, exploitative of servants, who I can see is nonetheless going to be a bitter tragic figure. This time the cook-housekeeper Mrs Thackeray (Anne Reid) attempts to re-join her family and finds as an older woman she is obsolete, not wanted, will be taken advantage of, and returns to her job for independence and appreciation of her art.

bollywood-art-malik-upstairs-downstairs
By contrast as the Indian ex-servant of Maud, Lady Holland, he tries to enact values he associates with her

There is a feast of films made by women, dealing intelligently with women’s issues, endorsing their lives, using a woman’s aesthetic available this summer. Don’t miss them. For myself later tonight I’ll be watching the third episode of the second season of the 2012 Upstairs Downstairs.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Cover

It is however but Justice, and my Duty to declare that this amiable Woman [‘Anne Bullen’] was entirely innocent of the Crimes with which she was accused, of which her Beauty, her Elegance, and her Sprightliness were sufficient proofs, not to mention her solemn protestations of Innocence, the weakness of the charges against her, and the King’s character … The Crimes and Cruelties of this Prince were too numerous to be mentioned … and nothing can be said in his vindication, but that his abolishing Religious Houses and leaving them to the ruinour depredations of time has been of infinite use to the landscape of England in general … (Austen, The History of England, which unfortunately omits Mary Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell, doubtless for reasons of space)

Dear friends and readers,

Though my daily presumed following remains at 83 (a mere drop of electrons in cyberspace), and on average I get about 200 hits a day, I here announce a new matter as if it might be influential.

When I studied medieval literature, I was told that imaginative literature did not value (nor was there money in copyright) literal originality of character and story, but everyone took from basic understood matters: 3 central ones were the matter of Arthur (still with us and producing new fiction and art), the matter of Charlemagne or France (this has gradually ceased, and its texts descend from Roland, as Orlando Furioso, Jerusalem Delivered), and the matter of Troy (Greek and Roman mythology and characters, viable until the mid-20th century and opera). The Renaissance and Shakespeare turned to contemporary short fiction in vast collections, mostly Italian in origin, Greek romance of the 3rd century.

I propose a fifth: the Tudor matter. These are all those familiar stories and characters which begin with Henry VIII, his court, his wives, and conclude with the death of Henry’s daughter by Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth Tudor I. It encompasses the stories of Mary Stuart (a foremother poet).

All these matters are open to endless re-doing and interpretation. Maybe we should credit the re-invention of this history as so much imaginative matter to Sophie Lee in her The Recess (1783, one of the first gothic and historical fictions), the first to tell the later parts of the Tudor matter as about the rivalry of Elizabeth and Mary Stuart through Stuart’s twin daughters; Walter Scott in several of his novels (Kenilworth, The Abbot, The Monastery), and Schiller in Mary Stuart. I’ve been deeply engaged by Renaissance women since I was 13 when I got my first adult library card and took out two fat tomes from the adult library, the lives of Jeanne d’Albret and Marguerite de Navarre (the latter woman as one of the acquaintance-friends of Vittoria Colonna part of a many years study). And this past couple of weeks in what spare time I had I’ve read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies (both, both won the Mann Booker prize), watched and blogged about Robert Straughan’s mini-series (the best PBS has aired in years), and been disappointed by the RSC stage play in NYC.

As everyone paying attention to this cultural phenomena thinks he or she knows, Mantel meant to rewrite Robert Bolt’s untenable idealization of Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons out of a couple of recent decades of scholarship re-formulating our view of Thomas Cromwell as no longer the corrupt complicit thug (as so indelibly played by Leo McKern).

I suggest here she had another source, or at least another kind of inspiration: women’s historical romance and feminist biographies, her stealth heroine out of Eric Ives’s The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, and the idea of re-visioning Philippa Gregory’s bringing out of the shades and into public memory, the almost forgotten Mary Boleyn, not to omit Jane (whom I reserve for anther blog, on Julia Fox’s biography of Lady Rochford). There’s nothing unusual here: women have been crediting as their source prestigious male books from Fanny Burney’s list in her Evelina, to Virginia Woolf who seems never to have read a woman contemporary, to Ann Patchett who attributes her Bel Canto to Mann’s Magic Mountain, when it’s clearly rooted in Francis Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden. Mantel also followed the rule for success for women writers by having a male hero as her surrogate.

Tonight I want briefly to defend the version of The Other Boleyn Girl directed by Justin Chadwyck, screenplay Peter Morgan, lavish production, done in HD (very early for this) with an expensive cast of brilliant actors, seemingly limitless budget for costumes, production design, locations. A commercial success, it was lambasted by the critics — by contrast to Wolf Hall, which has been praised as much as Brideshead Revisited (to be sure the 1981 mini-series) itself. It’s not a profound or great movie, but it is competent and has enriched and changed some of the directions of Tudor matter ever since.

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

The question of course is which Boleyn girl is “the other:” answer, both.

maryboleyn1?
Mary Boleyn (a contemporary Tudor portrait)

The-Other-Boleyn-Girl-scarlett-johansson
Scarlett Johansson turned into luscious yet nun-like Mary Boleyn on her way to Henry’s bed (ever obedient to her family’s aggrandizing will)

I’d like to admit that my first reaction as I began to watch was as adverse as the most sneering of the reviewers at the time. The film presented the woman as at once all powerful (machinating openly, and especially both Katharine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn) pressuring men by telling them home truths that undermined their masculinity:

Anneboleyn
Anne Boleyn (contemporary portrait)

In Columbia PicturesÕ/Focus FeaturesÕ The Other Boleyn Girl, Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman, pictured) schemes not only to take the bed of King Henry VIII, but to become queen as well.  The film is directed by Justin Chadwick from a screenplay by Peter Morgan, based on the novel by Philippa Gregory.  Alison Owen produces.  Executive producers are Scott Rudin and David M. Thompson.
Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn actively manipulative schemer to become Henry’s wife

The romance trope also duly includes the idea they are helpless against demands of men that they have sex with them, follow their ambitions, even though they are stronger and smarter and foresee the destruction of what might make their children have long and valued and contented lives: if you are paying attention, there are more “other” Boleyn women beyond Jane Parkman, married off to George Boleyn, Lord Rochford. Lady Elizabeth Boleyn, the mother, who lost her son, daughter and a third daughter exiled in disgrace from court; Sir Thomas, her husband, died two years after the execution of George and Anne

The-Other-Boleyn-Girl-kristin-scott-thomas

Rylnceothetboleyngirl
Kristin Scott Thomas as Lady Elizabeth Boleyn as the highly intelligent strong faced woman who tells off her feeble corrupt husband, Sir Thomas (played by a weak Mark Rylance) but does not defy him

Gregory and after her, Peter Morgan, turns Katharine from the usual pious resigned stone into a woman who suffers intensely in childbirth and when she sees her Henry take up with Anne Boleyn very seriously asks him forthrightly if he means to break up his kingdom’s order and his marriage because a specific woman has denied him (fucking)

OtherboleyngirlanaTorrent

OtherBoleynGirlAnaTorrent2
Ana Torrent as Katharine eschews cant piety, and

Yes the film also followed the exaggerations of the conventions of historical romance since Madame de Scudery wrote her Clelia, giving sumptuous and expensive visual realization to what has been used to give women’s historical fiction a bad reputation.

But as I carried on watching, by the time I came to the end I saw that it had all the considerable strengths and offering to women of characters surrogates which account for the continued strength and relevance to women readers of this form, and of historical biographies of women. This was clinched for me as I witnessed the closely similar unflinching presentation of the beheading of Anne (which I now think Wolf Hall 5 imitated)

Beheaded

I said to myself, if we (Mantel) can revise Cromwell the ruthless instrument of Henry VIII, turning England into a groups of people seemingly unable to fight back against state terror tactics, into a basically deeply human man, deeply engaged in throwing off the hypocritical cover-up superstitions of a fanatical Catholic regime, why not revise Anne – and Mary, Katharine as a wounded angry woman, bring in the mother of these two sisters, as an intelligent thwarted one who would have done better by her son and daughters — though in this version (as in Wolf Hall) Jane Boleyn is again the spiteful sexually frustrated product of a coerced marriage, and Norfolk a ferocious non-thinking monster (Bolt, I remind my reader, had Norfolk as well-meaning if obtuse, a loyal friend to More, indifferent to religion but not friendship).

Mantel has been doing and taken seriously for what Diana Wallace says most women’s historical fiction does: re-constructing marginal figures, bringing sexuality into play as an unspoken deep motive, extending what affects public life: Anne’s plight in both films, but made more central in The Other Boleyn (as all the births are showns as hardships, dangerous, out of the control of the woman) is she cannot will a healthy boy. The difference is Mantel centered her re-vision on a man who was once in public power and changed the nature of the English state church. Much more important than any woman writhing in childbirth (which we see Anne and Mary do more than once), and weep when either what emerges is stillborn or premature, or for whatever reason is rejected by the father (as when Henry VIII rejects his illegitimate healthy son by Mary Boleyn because he is now intent on gaining Anne).

The depiction of Anne is not one people will admit to finding likable. She is too performative — too amoral. A friend suggested to me she was a kind of Becky Sharp; I thought of Austen’s Lady Susan, Trollope’s Lizzie Eustace.

Another serious flaw derives from the attempt to make the film have wide reach (people who might not know or remember the details of the Tudor debacle). This probably led to the film-makers making the characters far too explicit. It is an exaggeration to present Anne as in councils with men and family members leading some plan — women didn’t do that. Every norm and punishment prohibited it. The explicitness with which sex was discussed was not done, unreal, improbable. What Mantel and Straughan have is literary tact — the difference between Richardson’s Grandison and Austen’s Mr Knightley is literary tact. So in Wolf Hall (the mini-series) Jane Seymour sits in on one council, but it is to ask advice, not to take any lead, and to seem to obey. If she is manipulative and ambitious, we must pick it up from the actress’s face.

vlcsnap-2015-05-07-20h19m02s115
From Wolf Hall, Kate Philips as Jane Seymour appealing to her brother Edward (Ed Speleers) for advice

We might fault Mantel for adhering to the conventions of good woman=docile and loyal (Liz Cromwell), presenting the hardship and pain of parturition discreetly, off-stage.

One might ask (and such romances implicitly do), if Anne is (and in histories seems to have been) ambitious and successfully manipulative (she is implicitly that in Wolf Hall — that’s what Charity Wakefield as Mary Boleyn is there to tell Rylance as Cromwell), so are most of the men — only this film they are mostly depicted as weak, and with misguided hubristic aims (Norfolk too), with Bernard Cumberbatch as the complicit courtier-husband, Carey,

dancer
He can dance but no more …

and Eddie Redmayne as William Stafford, if well-meaning, equally supporting the Henry regime, at least not active on behalf of either Anne or Mary, but waiting in the wings (as it were) to become good husband material for the remmants left of the Boleyn family rescued by the maternal power of Mary

boleynfamily
This film ends with an exulting intertitle that Anne and Mary won after all when Elizabeth took the throne (another part of the Tudor matter is the story of Henry’s last intelligent wife, Katharine Parr who brought her up too)

Henry (played by Eric Bana who admittedly from the feature seems to have known little of the history) is presented as weak before women, duplicitous, stupid, sexually predatory, with some attempts at different kinds of shots.

the_other_boleyn_girl_eric_bana

This is the kind of historical romance where you are shown an evil world careless of women and children, where the only decent safe option is retreat. History tells us Mary did this twice in life, first with Carey (who did die), and then with Stafford for which she was severely castigated by her family, funds cut off from the pair, with the implication they were miserable. Well we don’t know that and they did live a long time and died in their beds.

The 2008 Other Boleyn Girl (there is another, earlier, 2003, which I hope to watch and comment on as an added comment to this blog soon) comes with features almost as long as half the film. These showed the care for and beauty of the cinematography (the many angled intriguing and sumptuous shots), how effective the costumes, and the uses of production design far shots in landscape, and heritage places. The actors in both sets of features talked about their roles. The actresses were made to feel central to their characters was their sisterhood; Jim Sturgess was told that the explanation for George’s behavior to Jane Boleyn (he would not have full sex with her) was he was gay, over-sensitive, and was nearly driven to incest because Anne feared that Henry could not give her the healthy “seed” for a boy.

OtherBoleynJimSturgess

He is shown as shattered by the pressure and terrified and protesting as the axe came down on him. This differs from the written records of the executions, but are they not biased in the direction of decorousness on behalf of the king’s “justice.” Chadwick said was he was aiming for was emotional immersion in family politics and fierce individual psychologies. As with the contrast between say Winston Graham and Daphne DuMaurier’s Cornish histories, Mantel’s book (like Graham) and Straughan’s film insofar as six hours allows roots and embeds her Tudor in the politics and wider social and economic realities of the Tudor era, while Gregory’s book (like DuMaurier’s King’s General, Jamaica Inn, and both the 2003 and 2008 films) keeps central focus on inward subjective private life.

The film begins with a married pair and three children (Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn walking, Anne, Mary and George playing in the grass) and ends symetrically (William and Mary Stafford walking, Mary’s two children by William or Henry and Elizabeth Tudor playing in the grass). Cyclical like woman’s life writing, like their experience of life. It would have been far greater to show the second set of children later on, but the soft-focus trope of refuge is too urgent.

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

theotherboleyngirlsisters
Sisters

I agree with Jerome de Groot (Consuming History), Helene Hughes (Historical romance) and the seminal essay by Miriam Burstein (on the typology of women characters in historical romances and history) that the key to the traditional approach to women figures (pre-feminism let’s call it) is to value the woman who is loyal above all, wary, stays in conventional roles, preferably at home; she is rewarded (as is Mary Boleyn by Gregory and in a way by Morgan) unless she drops dead from disease (Mantel’s Liz Cromwell). But I admit I often identify with these women. So part of the revision of Anne’s character comes from that. But by no means all: Anne argues ferociously with Henry in this film — this is born out as a “tempestuous marriage” by older historians like Scarisbrook on Henry VIII and Eric Ives too. Mary attempted retreat with Carey and then with Stafford in the historical record.

As I recently defended the Hampstead novel: women’s domestic themed fiction, women who write primarily to and for other women so as to forge imaginative connections and support, I have here at least explained and briefly explicated this well done women’s historical romance film.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »