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Archive for the ‘Women’s historical romance’ Category


Mr Elton about to reveal Emma’s masterpiece of a drawing of Harriet overwhelmed by its frame (Emma 2020)


Our three heroines, Marianne, Heloise, Sophie making supper, tasting the wine, sewing garments (Portrait of a Lady On Fire, 2019)

What is curious about Wilde’s hollowing out of Austen’s Emma to surface scenes until near the end is that the language the actors/actresses speak is strikingly a good deal of the time taken directly from the book. I have not seen this kind of thing since the 1970s and 80s in the BBC series of Austen’s film and Andrew Davies’s 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice. This viewer found real pleasure in hearing Austen’s own lines, and that they were chosen regularly over any modernization gave the film what gravitas, intelligence and inner grace it had.

By contrast, The Portrait of a lady on Fire is often a silent film, sparse dialogue, with meaning projected through strong silent acting in emblematic scenes

Friends and readers,

While these two prominent women-centered films made and written by women (Eleanor Catton, a Booker Prize winner wrote the screenplay for this Emma) would seem to have utterly disparate characteristic scenes, as seen in the above high caricature exaggeration of the scene from Austen’s book where Mr Elton displays Emma’s drawing of Harriet brought back from London, framed and the quiet group scene of three characters existing together cooperatively in a daily task, they are at core surprisingly alike. This has not been noticed because with the exception of Anibundel on Sanditon and Emma (whom I know, not from her review, but from personal knowledge, has read both books), every single review I’ve read shows not just no knowledge of the book, but seem to misremember details and distort the book’s overall feel. Mr Martin is not a widowed farmer, Austen’s book is not filled with frenzied activity (Sheila O’Malley); Austen’s book is not generally hilarious, Clueless not in mood at all like Austen’s book (Mark Kermode).

Kermode does begin with a passing comment, that Austen’s Emma is capable of “endlessly reinterpretable gender politics,” and it’s there that the two films criss-cross terrains. Quite the opposite to this new Emma‘s obsessive gaze at all its males’ breeches for signs of phallic strength, Emma is about women’s relationships with one another. The first third of the book has Emma (here Anya Taylor-Joy) obsessed with Harriet (Mia Goth), because she is bereft without Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan) now removed down the street to the house and presumably arms of Mr Weston (Rupert Graves, sadly aged, into the harmless if ever so there male). It’s arguable the book is as lesbian as the screenplay and realization of Sciamma’s two heroines. Consider how in the book Emma has no desire to marry she says until near its end, and then it’s Mr Knightley’s companionship she would feel deprived of. But Miss Taylor is dismissed in the movie, and Emma and Harriet are treated as two women on the hunt for two males, Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn) and Robert Martin (Conor Swindells); only at two moments of intense feeling (from the second half of the film) do we see Emma and Harriet dwelling on one another — when finally Emma understands Harriet is now enamoured of Mr Knightley and Harriet grasps this is not acceptable by the woman who deprived her of Mr Martin. The second traces a slow growth of real relationship:

Both movies and stories have one young woman drawing the other and a great fuss made about the painting, but Emma takes this seriously only at the close of the movie where suddenly Emma appears to value the drawing because it is by her and of Harriet, and thus a commemoration of their friendship.


This is of Emma (Kate Beckinsale) painting Harriet (Samantha Morton) from Andrew Davies’s 1996 Emma; but a real dwelling on this substory is found in all the heritage Emmas

By contrast, all the stills in Emma which capture two characters actually in a relationship with one another capture heterosexual passion, Emma with Mr Knightley or Frank Churchill:


Emma and Frank at Box Hill


Emma and Mr Knightley dancing

The reviews of both movies have been uniformly filled with praise, but when I looked at the Rotten Tomatoes comments and percentages, it seems to me those who went to see Emma were not as ecstatic over the costumes (in both films the characters are just beautifully dressed) as the reviewers, were vaguely disappointed at this Emma, and treated it as ho hum yet another Austen film come down the studio pipes (72% rated it favorably), while the audience who registered their views of Portrait were deeply satisfied, gratified, awakened to something new (92% loved it), unexpectedly, deeply pleasurable.

I suggest that the new Emma fails to capture the book repeatedly; in the first half to two-thirds of the film, everything is acted out through artificial gestures, symmetrical behavior, caricature, exaggerated quirky behavior designed to draw laughter. We are not allowed to take the characters at all seriously until the last third, when at the point of the appearance in the story of Mrs Elton (Tanya Reynolds as effective as caricature here as she was as real living woman in Outlander as Lady Isobel Dunsany — it’s curious how actors/actresses in seemingly minor roles in Outlander are being found in key roles in quality films) there is a turn into gushing romance, when (most unlike the book) Mr Knightley acts out a besotted male and Emma melts into throbbing passion.

A structural sign something is wrong is that Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) while introduced early on by her adoring aunt, Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), is not seen again until well past the mid-point of the film; most of the scenes in the book and previous films between Frank and Jane are cut; they are utterly forgotten its close. Emma’s rivalry with Jane comes out in the scene where Emma plays the piano in such a banal and awkward way, and Jane is the policed classical performer, but nowhere else. The actress’s power is glimpsed now and again but essentially thrown away:

However briefly (and this kind of clarity about him is sort of new) Frank Churchill is presented as a hard cad; but there is no time given for any camaraderie between Jane and Emma to be built as there is in most of the other Emma films.

Autumn de Wilde, fresh from her career as a fashion photographer, music video producer, and generally pop culture pleaser, just did not take Austen’s book seriously at any level, seems not to have thought about it and granted Austen only the desire to tell stories of conventional heterosexual people moving towards marriage. Thus the movie is amusing but ultimately a bore; she missed what was unusual and interesting and moving in the book. She perhaps overdevelops one of the most famous scenes in the book, but Emma insulting Miss Bates is not part of any insight into the vulnerability of all women. The scene between Mr Elton and Emma coming back from the Christmas party where Austen gives license for a #Metoo encounter (taken up by most of the movies) is here turned into a duel of who is the greater snob, Mr Elton when he sneers at Harriet (everyone has their level) or Emma when she puts on a condescending hauteur that prompts Mr Elton to become physically angry, bang hard on the carriage roof and jump out precipitiously. You’d think he was the person sexually assailed instead of vice versa.

What is curious about this hollowing out of Austen’s book to surface scenes until near the end is that the language the actors/actresses speak is strikingly a good deal of the time taken directly from the book. I have not seen this kind of thing since the 1970s and 80s in the BBC series of Austen’s film and Andrew Davies’s 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice. This viewer found real pleasure in hearing Austen’s own lines, and that they were chosen regularly over any modernization gave the film what gravitas, intelligence and inner grace it had.

Turning to Portrait of a Lady On Fire, the incidents told include Heloise’s sister’s suicide rather than be forced to marry and at the film’s end Heloise seen crying silently across a theater by Marianne; Marianne and Heloise helping Sophie to find an abortionist, comparisons with Eurydice (who might have been glad to escape Orpheus as Carol Duffy’s poem, “The Big O,” suggests), discussions of allowing oneself to be painted as draining the life out of the subject. When left alone, the three women move into egalitarian patterns. A truly perceptive review of the film by Muriel Zagha (for Times Literary Supplement, March 6, 2020, p 25, behind a paywall) brings out its allusions to 18th century women artists, its use of female gazes, its cool egalitarian spectatorship.


Marianne listening to Sophie

Marianne and Heloise confiding


Gazing out to the sea together, wrapped up

One of the most remarkable sequences shows the all-female household going to the beach at night at mid-summer to find the beach filled with women dancing, drinking, eating together, exchanging gossip and folk remedies.

Both films rely heavily on a musical score – use explosions of music to convey complex or comical or emotional commentary on what we are seeing. Emma moves from recognizable operatic music, to Christian hymns, to modern rock, with a probably deliberately sought jarring effect; Portrait of a Lady on Fire jumped to the next century with recognizable symphonies, piano music, arresting chanting (the women on the beach) and modern electronic music.


Mr Knightley and Emma fiercely yet comically quarreling when Emma bullyingly persuades Harriet to refuse Mr Martin


The landscape is made up of 18th century material objects

My quarrel with Wilde’s Emma is not to dismiss its laughter, which we are in need of just now. I have compared the unexamined nature of the material in this woman’s movie (as all the Austen movies ultimately are, no matter how a particular director tries to wrestle into male action sequences) with Sciamma’s sincerely-done contemporary re-imagining of the past to point to Wilde’s dismissal of a sisterhood movie whose 18th century setting could have been used as a reinforcement of themes (from or in the book) embodying women seeking liberty.


Here Heloise as daughter cannot free herself of her mother’s (Valeria Golino) command she marry a man she has never met

I can’t help but remember how this year’s Sanditon attempted a resolutely contemporary re-imagining of Austen’s fragment and failed to carry it off fully. Perhaps what is needed is a new sweeping away of (recent) hagiographical Janeite readings of Austen — as was done by D. W Harding and Marvin Mudrick in the 1940s and 60s respectively.

Ellen

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Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife (for the origin and my first adumbration of this perspective: What she said about Tudor queens)

I read history a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not vex or weary me. 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 … Catherine Morland, Northanger Abbey, I:14)

Friends and readers,

After all, for my first 2020 blog I have an innovative perspective on Jane Austen’s Juvenilia to share. For the coming JASNA to be held in St Louis, Missouri, in which the topic is to be Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, I sent in a proposal where I said I would demonstrate that in her The History of England, Jane Austen meant to burlesque the norms shaping the way “history, real solemn history” was written in her era, and to include and to defend not just infamous women, but forgotten and underappreciated ones. Her text goes beyond vindicating Mary Queen of Scots, and the Stuart kings and the English house of York, well beyond parodying Oliver Goldsmith’s popular history. She is a partisan defender of women, and places them in her text at every opportunity given, and ostentatiously refuses to make numinous figures out of powerful men.

This is a development from that proposal.


Mary Queen of Scots, contemporary portrait by Federico Zuccai or Alsonso Sanchez Coello


From 2018 Mary Queen of Scots (directed by Rosie Rourke); we see Ismael Cruz Cordova, Maria Dragus, Izuka Hoyle, and Saoirse Ronan as Mary and her ladies and David Rizzo: the most recent image

The effect of Austen’s attitude, tone, details, parody and insistent bringing in of women is to go beyond Tudor and Stuart history as it is usually found in books published in the 18th century: say Robertson’s and Hume’s histories of the Tudor and Stuart period, and what is found in Catherine Macaulay’s Whiggish history. I was going to quote from these works to show the way they are male-dominated, with a perspective that is top down and (ultimately) Big Man history even if the culture and social and economic life of the country is not ignored. This is a little book which should be included in the history of history writing by women.

The startling thing is how Austen surprises even the alert reader by how much she knows about obscurer women and men, and must herself have read in an alienated way, against the grain of her courses to get beyond common bogus distortions. The only cited date is a letter between Anne Boleyn and King Henry: that’s easy, it comes from Goldsmith. But one concise sentence referring to Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife, is packed with suggestion: “The King’s last wife contrived to survive him, but with difficulty effected it” (Austen, Juvenilia, Cambridge ed P. Sabor, 181-82). Parr did not just passively luckily outlive the king; she had to actively thwart his attempt to arrest her when her intelligent writing and political and religious views threatened (as Anne Boleyn had done) to go beyond what he meant to do by taking over the Church of England. Yet where can she have learned that Parr actively rescued herself — she is not included in Shakespeare or the better known plays about Perkin Warbeck (by John Ford).


Portrait of Anne Boleyn (1507-London, 1536), Queen of England. Painting by unknown artist, oil on panel, ca 1533-1536


From 2003 The Other Boleyn Girl scripted by Philippa Lowthorpe: Jared Harris and Jodha May as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

There is an excellent book on Katherine Parr’s life, reading, writing, intelligence by Linda Porter: Katherine the Queen, which I would have used. Also other good biographies of Renaissance women, of which there are many. Yes it’s true that Austen could not have time-traveled and read this book; rather she has to have read with alertness all the comments, assertions and counter-assertions on Tudor women in the romances and various histories of the era. In her letters in her later years she writes of reading history aloud with Fanny and Cassandra; she would have read the kinds of sources that went into Sophia Lee’s The Recess and later Walter Scott’s The Abbot and Monastery. Austen makes fun of the historical informative impulse in Scott after the publication of Pride and Prejudice, but in this earlier work we see she went for the same kind of material we find referred to offhand by Charlotte Smith and Anne Radcliffe (in her 1794 A Journey Made in the Summer [Germany into Italy was planned). Radcliffe has read astonishingly in the annals of the places she visits. Scott did not write out of a vacuum. It interests me how avid a reader Austen was of Scott, obtaining each volume as it came out (including, she was in time for, The Antiquarian)


Early depiction of Elizabeth Tudor (I) attributed to William Scrots


Glenda Jackson as the young Elizabeth, just come to the throne (1971 BBC serial drama)

A second context for her depiction of women in this young woman’s parodic didactic text will be her letters where she explains why she takes the adamant tone she does when defending a woman. In a letter to Martha Lloyd she remains fiercely on the side of “Poor Woman,” Queen Caroline of Brunswick “because she is a woman & because I hate her husband. She admits Caroline’s flaws but resolves nevertheless “to think that she would have been respectable if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first … “

— 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. —-(Austen’s Letters, ed LeFaye, 4th edition, 16 February 1813, 216-17).

I will argue the attitude of mind here, is one which pays attention to the original perpetrator of abuse, notices how harassment which claims love as its motive is a form of torment that inflicts misery on even unsympathetic women (Elizabeth I, 185-86). I counted no less than 18 women (Catherine, French wife of Henry V; Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI; Joan of Arc; Edward IV’s bethrothed, Bona of Savoy [referred to, not named) and wife, Elizabeth Woodville, his mistress Jane Shore; Richard III’s wife, Anne (whom she denies was murdered by her husband); Henry VII’s wife, Elizabeth of York, his daughter Margaret who married the Scottish James V; five of Henry VIII’s six wives, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Katherine Parr [not named referred to as “the king’s last wife”], Lady Jane Grey, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scot, Anne of Denmark). Some are not named and our narrator frets then that she does not know the woman’s name.

Hers is a history with plenty of women in it. I intended to go over and use the marginalia to Austen’s copy of Goldsmith’s History of England, and the copious notes found in the Cambridge Juvenilia volume edited by Peter Sabor. Austen’s History of England is an exuberant but also richly intertextual work.


From excellent forgotten 1970 Shadow of the Tower (first episode by Rosemary Anne Sisson): James Maxwell as Henry VII and Norma West as Elizabeth of York (also a poet)

I would have used Thomas Penn’s The Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England; here is a YouTube, 15 minutes of an hour long lecture by Penn on the “most notorious invader of England” (he whole available on Amazon Prime) because he had so little right to the throne: Henry Owen Tudor

Finally I proposed to have some fun showing how Austen’s extraordinarily alert iconoclastic stances (as when she treats historical characters in the same way she does fictional ones by showing how she anticipates some of the more interesting film history and adaptations of our own era. I was going to bring in my laptop and show clips from older and recent film history and adaptations of novels set in the Renaissance era.

But my proposal was rejected and so now I’ll not do any of this. What a shame! It is speculation, not evidence. Meant to stir the mind to see Austen in another light as well as her era. Also to be feminist. I could have read part of Elizabeth of York’s (1465-1503) “sestina,” one of the earliest poems in English by a woman (see one of my earliest foremother poet essays):

I pray to Venus

My heart is set upon a lusty pin;
I pray to Venus of good continuance,
For I rejoice the case that I am in,
Deliver’d from sorrow, annex’d to pleasance,
Of all comfort having abundance;
This joy and I, I trust, shall never twin –
My heart is set upon a lusty pin

I pray to Venus of good continuance,
Since she has set me in the way of ease;
My hearty service with my attendance
So to continue it ever I may please;
Thus voiding from all penseful diease,
Now stand I whole far from all grievance –
I pray to Venus of good continuance,

For I rejoice the case that I am in,
My gladness is such that giveth me no pain,
And so to sorrow never shall I blynne,
My heart and I so set ’tis certain
We shall never slake, but ever new begin
For I rejoice the case that I am in,

Deliver’d from sorrow, annex’d to pleasance,
That all my joy I set as aught of right,
To please as after my simple suffisance
To me the goodliest, most beauteous in sight;
A very lantern to all other light,
Most to my comfort on her remembrance–
Deliver’d from sorrow, annex’d to pleasance,

Of all comfort having abundance;
As when I think that goodlihead
Of that most feminine and meek countenance
Very mirror and star of womanhead;
Whose right good fame so large abroad doth spread,
Full glad for me to have recognisance –
Of all comfort having abundance.

This joy and I, I trust, shall never twin –
so that I am so far forth in the trace,
My joys be double where others are but thin,
For I am stably set in such a place
Where beauty ‘creaseth and ever willeth grace,
Which is full famous and born of noble kin–
This joy and I, I trust, shall never twin.

Note the puns.

The JASNA members would have loved this paper. I got the usual hypocrisy over how there were so many applicants and how they had to turn away so many excellent proposals for papers of merit. Papers are also chosen by who is giving the paper and what kinds of people the organizers want, who they are connected to, how they relate to Austen. My hunch is they hardly looked at it. If you tell me it is too learned, I will laugh at you. Much of it a stretch. And meant to be fun. But yes grounded in the era and Austen’s texts and those she liked to read.

Why do I not write it up and send it to Persuasions? the two organizers asked. Ah yes.  Right.  As they well know, because Persuasions prefers papers given at the conference. As my daughter, Izzy, said to me last year when we did not make some final cut to join 800+ at the JASNA in Williamsburg (even though we were quite early in registering online), what do we pay this yearly fee for? She belongs to two organizations, one professional, American Library and another which professes to be a combination of personal interest (fans) and scholars; in both cases your money guarantees you a space at the AGM. I suggested it was the periodical and newsletter.

Ellen

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