Posts Tagged ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’

A more recent photo of her contemplative

At seventy-seven it is time to be in earnest — Samuel Johnson

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been engaged this week in reading a P.D. James’s Death comes to Pemberley, watching the film adaptation closely, and studying Juliette Towhidi’s script once again, and decided to revise a blog I wrote for my Under the Sign of Sylvia II as a record of my reading, into a blog on what James has to tell us about her life, its connection to her mystery-detective stories, and the film adaptations of her work she has overseen over the years.

P.D. James’s A Time to be in Earnest, is a diary-as-autobiography, whose apparently upbeat terrain is belied by its constant theme of death, James is ever gripped by death, Death comes is her phrase again and again. She lived through World War II under the bombs, her husband became mentally ill from his experience in the military (as is not uncommon), and these experiences and her memories of a hard childhood, repeatedly end for her in sentiments whose gravity is underlined by her tendency to utter earnest consolation:

There is no point in regretting any part of the past. The past can’t now be altered, the future has yet to be lived, and consciously to experience every moment of the present is the only way to gain at least the illusion of immortality [though why anyone would want immortality is beyond me just now].

Yet she writes a success story, tells of all the famous people she meets, in one level produces a Horatio Alger story of deprived, poor and unlucky young woman makes good despite horrendous events occurring all around her, like WW2 and giving birth under the raining bombs. Whenever she can, though, she tells of consolation, compensation and occasionally joy: for example, she tells of one of her earliest moments of ‘intense happiness’ when she learned to read.

A butterfly becomes ‘one of those rare moments in which a fugitive beauty, briefly contemplated ,is experienced with a peculiar intensity, the sense of being a privileged spectator of a life, which however, brief is part of a mysterious whole.

Tellingly to me there is nothing like this in the detective fiction by her I’ve read thus far (4 novels, one non-fiction book on an early 19th century murder and police procedural at the time as it were). Detective fiction she seems (only seems) to approach in a business-like fashion though as a stylist she was a poet too:

“For me, setting, character, narrative are always interdependent” she says. “All fiction is artificial, a careful rearrangment by selection of the writer’s internal life in a form desgined to make it accessible and attractive to a reader.”

There is a section where she begins to discuss how mystery and crime fiction emerged from Sherlock Holmes stories, arguing that they are improbable and not scientific at all, nor the 1930s school of women writers; nowadays writers try more. She goes over the oddity that the Sayers school is still liked — she sees them as comfort books, a refuge — rather like Austen. I had found I didn’t like her detective fiction after all — though admitting to its strengths (deft description, able to hold you in the characters sufficiently that I at least wanted to know who did it), but I like this autobiography because it differs so strongly from her detective fiction. She is one of those who presents the horrors of deaths that these stories put before us, and then sweeps all under a rug of re-assertion of order. Everything tidied up at the end even if the murderer is not punished, so then all is well. She suggests that women especially find the conventions and the form of mysteries [focused ‘on murder’, which evokes ‘strong emotions’]) both satisfying and supportive.” She values limited realism above all. Myself I can’t respond to crime fiction this way.

It’s not uncommon with me to prefer someone’s life-writing to their fiction. James who is very much aware of her conservative political stance. I can see why her fiction on the surface seems more modern than say Sayers, is not quintessentially country house fiction: in fact she grew up lower middle class in England. I admire her control; in this book she is moving from the vivid present of 2000 and making comments as she remembers different aspects of her past while the straight narrative moves chronologically. The aspects chosen are for emotional connections and effect. See my review of her Death Comes to Pemberley.

Nonetheless, there is a hard-core sense of truthfulness and integrity that comes across that I am drawn to.

I woke at six with a feeling of vague unease, as if my mind were struggling free from the last clinging threads of a bad dream. It was another hot night and I had slept fitfully. Perhaps there had been a bad dream, but I had no conscious memory of it (p. 36)


It is woman’s memoir, écriture-femme as once would have been said. It is a diary across a year, the entries are organized according to the month she sat down and write each entry, with that entry labelled the day she’s writing. That gives it a cyclical structure as she often does the same thing over and over, or she sees family and experiences anniversaries, goes to all sorts of events to push her books.

Within this there is a chronological story which is (as I say) a more or less a success story. If you read with care, there are stages where she achieves this or that depsite great hardship (typical for men, Horatio Alger stuff) but again these are accompanied by powerful vignettes countering the feel of that: she gives birth to a baby while the bombs are dropping down on the hospital and we get this terrifying scene of how it feels to be under the bombs, the civilians. And the success story is accompanied by sharp critiques or vignettes of social life connecting them to day — a strong detailed frank description of her 5 years as governor at the BBC, She critiques what the institution has become; if it’s not there for excellence, it has lost its mission. Much of her inspiration for this or that story in her Dalgliesh series seems to have come from experiences on her different jobs — which included working for the military and health care. So then just plopped in are little critical essays on books she has read.

She writes of diaries:

The book, carefully hidden, is both friend and and confidant, one from whom neither criticism nor treachery need be feared. The daily words comfort, justify, absolve. Politicians are great keepers of diaries, apparently dictating them daily for eventual use in the inevitable autobiography, laying down ammunition as they might lay down port. But politician’s diaries are invariably dull [The admiral did not find them so – he loved to read politician and earlier courtier-intrigue types, from Crossman back to Greville.] Perhaps some compulsive diaries write to validate this experience. Life for them is experienced with more intensity when recollected in tranquillity than it is at the living moment [1]

Why James writes this diary. She sees autobiography sophisticatedly: it is part fictionalizing, part shoring up, part compensation, wish-fulfillment, inventing a life that was not quite the one you had:

And the past is not static. It can be relived only in memory, and memory is a device for forgetting as well as remembering. It, too, is not immutable. It rediscovers, reinvents, reorganizes. Like a passage of prose it can be revised and repunctuated. To that extent, every autobiography is a work of fiction and every work of fiction an autobiography. So tomorrow, on 3rd August, I shall write the first entry in a record which I propose to keep for one year …

She would never call herself a feminist but in her book as she moves back to the chronologically told past, she is slowly creating a career for herself in life and reliving it through this book — even before her husband became permanently mentally ill. The cyclical nature of women’s life-writing comes by how she weaves a forward-thrust narrative with diaries entries of what happened on the days she’s writing the chronology parts and these other events give her an opportunity to muse on her art, and the arts and topics of those whose speeches she hears or conversation she participates in. She was part of a generation which were rewarded by being sent to fine schools for little money — she does not appear to understand how lucky she was nor that social forces today (which she has a way of deploring) would have deprived her of the education that enabled her to become a writer. I can identify the way I have done with other lower middle class English writers on their childhood.

Thus I enter into the world of this book despite so much against it from her skewed politics to her name-dropping. Beyond the utterances at the close of her stories, every once in a while she launches into talking about writing, books in a highly intelligent insightful way and the occasional deeply melancholy sentiments pulled up by wry scepticism show me where the power of her mystery novels comes from. What grates about James’s conservatism are her hobby-horses and name-dropping, the narrow minded distortions, especially about girls in schools, what is happening in education, that she keeps repeating. On name-dropping: a couple of names is fine, but when she lists them and each time she goes somewhere, who she sat next to — I suppose there are worse faults … In a way some of her favorite bete noirs are revealing of her; in this case, we should remember how she, as intelligent as she was, passing all the elite tests she did, still did not get to go to the best schools because her family did have to pay more for her to go than she could afford. Some of this fuels her books and gives them their power.

What she is remarkably honest and candid about in concise ways are her life and feelings which went into her mysteries. For example her fascination with death and how a murder tries everyone around it and brings out deep aspects of the people left as well as murdered and murderer, the presence of death itself. Her husband is a continual quiet memory throughout the book, his illness, his death. She acknowledges how authors do use real people as partial or even whole sources for their characters — in her case partial. How she uses herself as other authors use themselves. It’s the tone of this one — she does say she was much influenced by Jane Austen – and Anthony Trollope. Like him she has the gift of easy readability — one of the reasons for her commercial success

James with her husband Connor, and their baby Jane (1942)

Towards the end of the book, James is invited to talk at Chawton. She includes a copy of her talk. Her section on Austen shows all her strengths and hobbyhorses too. Basing herself on the letters (and novels and common sense to), she’s simply truthful, candid: she suggests Austen did not marry because she saw endless pregnancies (and deaths in her near family from this); she talks of Austen’s repulsion at these bodies and quotes apt lines. Austen was seriously tempted to marry to be mistress of Manydown; why not? Marriage was a career option and they needed the money, but she declined the next morning. So traumatic for her.

Still Austen is not exactly grieving over Elizabeth, Edward’s wife’s death and she goes further than say he had that cottage well before Elizabeth died: he could have set them up much better. I was reminded of my feeling early in the letters that Edward’s attitude towards money and lack of generosity resembles John Dashwood.

James doesn’t idealize Cassandra Austen; she says it’s understandable given the mores, but Cassandra destroyed a precious large legacy. Beyond that she shows herself to be of the romantic erotic camp; she can’t enter into sympathy with someone who simply became a spinster; the feel is of see she’s weak or see how forbidding she was.

She’s read D. W. Harding and would call part of the feeling in the novels and letters “controlled resentment: ” the brothers are given careers, cared about individually; Jane’s piano is sold and if she made some sums from her novels, her life carried on controlled by the brothers and family. She does not want to impose a 20th century sensibility and (part of her hobbyhorses again) Austen was “hardly deprived by domesticity or a university education.” So much for college.

James says she first read P&P at 8 or 9. That is young. It was to her like Little Women — well I did read Little Women at age 10. She understands now she missed a lot but she loved Pride and Prejudice even from a young adolescent’s perspective.

She’s also frank about the origins of the society, how it grew, the rich American responsible for rescuing Chawton — which she does not idealize (literature of the country house is in danger of this): a 17th century house, it was and is at the time still dark. She attributes the growth of the society to the 1995 movie.


Most interesting are her discussions of detective and mystery and crime fiction as such and the film adaptations of her work.

Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth when first she is told what has happened in the woodland around Pemberley: taking it in

She does not herself discuss her Death Comes to Pemberley but it fits in with all her criteria and stances. What Juliette Howtidi did in the movie was to pull the vein of disquiet, of death’s primal effect on everyone — as well as re-arrange the plot-design to be more effective and herself go back to Austen. Howtidi’s Death of Pemberley makes much of intense sibling relationships … and I think attempts to reconcile the early Darcy of Austen’s P&P with the later one by insisting on the deeper moral man and his aristocratic code of reticence and yes status. Which in this movie being made in a supposed egalitarian era he learns to put away.

In Towhidi’s Death comes to Pemberley, as in Maggie Wadey’s Mansfield Park, it is the man who is ritually self-humiliated and apologizes and learns from the woman — Darcy from Elizabeth (this is not in James’s novel at all). Towhidi’s Elizabeth is herself placed in the abject position by her own fears and how others treat in the mid portion of the movie, but that makes it deeper and more real. James is too reverential and her version of Death Comes to Pemberley neither makes of Elizabeth an active sleuth (like Jane Tennison) nor is she connected directly with the crime or anything about it directly. So James’s book is dull (more on the book itself in my next blog).

James photographed with Roy Marsden as Adam Dalgliesh, and John Rosenberg (producer) and Herbie Wise (director) of the first Anglia series, Death of an Expert Witness (1983).

The crime novelist does not reject romantic fiction or science fiction in favour of murder through conscious choice. He or she needs to deal with the atavistic fear of death, to exorcize the terror of violence and to restore at least fictional peace and tranquillity after the disruptive terror of murder … John LeCarre is as much fascinated by personal treachery and betrayal as he is by the shoddy international bureaucracy of spying and the dangers and excitement of the chase. Espionage is his internal as well as external world.

The book turns very interesting when she reaches the filming of her An Unsuitable Job for a Woman for filming. It has a woman detective heroine, Cordelia Grey is central and is particularly insightful. She made the mistake (as she sees it) of allowing the successful producers to take her character, Cordelia and write another story of their own. This by the way is what Winston Graham refused to allow and what really brought the Poldark mini-series to a halt. He had originally only 4 completed by the early 1970s (used for 1975-76 first mini-series); then he had begun the 5th (with a 20 year gap to get over) and then was furiously writing the 7th just in time for the filming of the second series (1977-87). The producers asked if they could carry on with the characters and milieu themselves, promising utter faithfulness to conceptions &c. He knew they couldn’t; they weren’t him.

James had to learn this. When she was told her heroine’s story including pregnancy outside marriage, she was appalled, worse yet was the way it was done. Without typing out details suffice to say I believe the filmmakers when they rejected her alternative and said there was not much difference in theirs that mattered – to them. The details are important for those who want to see how really conservative socially James is when it comes to sexuality. She then had a helluva time making sure her name was not used, and another title for the series was invented. She writes as a warning. Had to get a very good lawyer to work at this

To add another kind of objection James had to the second mini-series or episode from her character Cordelia Grey. For the pregnancy, although James would never have done it herself, part of her objection was the huge addition of emotionalism such a development would accrue round the central detective figure. She suggests that while the detective figure is a character and needs to have real interest, they should also be kept apart, distanced, cool — Dalgliesh is that and, for example, Helen Mirren’s character in Prime Suspect. It’s not just an old-fashioned attitude towards sex outside marriage though it is that too.

She objected perhaps more fiercely to the story of the pregnancy. This is her woman’s point of view. She protests against how Cordelia is imagined as just letting herself get pregnant “by an old boyfriend” who casually disappears and now “brave little woman” she must bring up the child herself. James wanted to change it so that Cordelia meets someone who is fatally ill with whom she had a deep relationship, and out of real feeling, compassion for past, she has an affair with him. James talks about the irreponsiblity of the first story, but as is common in this book myself I think her moralizations do not voice what are her real objections or thoughts. Both stories have a woman getting pregnant without caring for the future of the child they might have, but the second shows much more bonding between the pair, real feeling (paradoxically – but then she didn’t want the pregnancy in the first place). The former is a male story: the idea of an encounter without ties and get away — one sees this everywhere on the Net for example in thesematch.com groups. And then attaches it to idealizing the single mother as that’s thought popular. James really does write as a woman from a woman’s perspective and is not attracted by the latest fashionable stereotype.

The other one is about detective fiction that’s serious even if it’s entertainment and in the end a (false James admits) imposition of order and rationality and justice on the world (which allows the reader to escape says James). She talks of the poorness of the script: Cordelia never sees the body; the body murder scene must be detailed centrally, crucial to all detective crime stories is this key scene and it’s best that the detective examine it. That makes the story serious. it’s best that the detective examine the corpse. That makes the story serious. In Death Comes to Pemberley the return to the crime scene in the film is obsessive; in the book Sir Selwyn Hardcastle, the magistrate watches Dr McFee thoroughly examine how death occurred and listens to all he says and we really get a sense of the mood the man must’ve had just as he died, of the body as containing this previous person frozen.

James suggests therefore that in the film version of An Unsuitable Job their not bothering to have Cordelia even there shows just how superficial was their interest in the genre and book. All they were interested in doing was making a pop program which took least effort of thought. The answer then is most of what is dramatized in the character of Sir Selwyn Hardcastle is fantasy, a kind of re-insertion into an 18th century sequel novel of what are conventions for modern detective-crime novels’ examination of the body. In Prime Suspect there is always a thorough observation of the corpse and procedures about it. In Breaking Bad I see the same thing done (examination) to anyone who dies or is killed.

Although this is not true of James (as she was of an age when people do learn to drive with more ease when cars were rare and public transportation very good in the UK), her continuing not to drive in later life is a sign of un-ease with the tempo and a number of other things characteristic of modern life and made intense on the road. She is a highly intelligent woman and she does bring out these characteristics as she worries herself and goes about to find ways to get places and get herself back. Occasionally she is stranded and traveling takes much longer. She is active socially, but even more she is continually out there supporting her books, publicizing herself, negotiating deals for films and talks and going to places where important known writers are and getting prizes with them . She does tell us far more about all these trips more than the times home — which must be long as every once in while voila a new book comes from her.

I find her to be someone whose understanding of her own fiction is not fully conscious; when she talks of “serious literature” most of the time she gets irritated by what the author wanted to do. I can tell when she misreads because a favorite is Trollope and she often objects precisely to the very point the author may be making with his or her character, denying its reality and then bad-mouthing the character for. She writes herself:

There is much that I remember but which is painful to dwell upon. I see no need to write about these things. They are over and must be accepted … And there are other matters over which memory has exercised its efl-defensive censorship. Like dangerous and unpredictable beasts they lie curled in the pit of the subconscious


James and Trollope

Johnny Eames and a beloved Aunt Julia (Small House at Allington, itself a rewrite in part of Sense and Sensibility, illustration by John Everett Millais, whom Trollope declares he loved dearly)

James mentions Trollope numerous times and says she often takes one or more Barsetshire novels with her when she travels. Since appears to go out a good deal! I can see how her fiction relates to a vision of his which we find in Downton Abbey (pro-hierarchy, depictions of the world as so many upstairs and downstairs &c), but curiously each time she descends to details she appears to complain. Which makes me suspect that her vision of him which we find in Downton Abbey is actually inaccurate and that her reasons for loving him are not faced up to.

Three passages stuck out. She complains almost bitterly about Lily Dale (from The Small House at Allington). She says she “came” to Trolllope in her 30s and since then he has provided “enormous pleasure.” Then that Lily Dale is a “monster,” she’s glad Crosbie escaped Lily (even if he is “a cad”), pities “poor Mrs Dale” destined to spend her “old age” with the “resolutely single and masochistic Lily Dale.” Just thinking about these words gives me renewed energy: I know Trollope seems to inveigh against Lily in his Autobiography but what he is inveighing against is the readership which sees her choice sentimentally, then he calls her a “prig.” Inside the fiction, the cases are made nuanced and each time she is either badly hurt for real or she sees that marriage would be a bad idea (with Crosbie seeing forever how much more she wanted him), and at the close of the book we are told she is at peace — has a comfortable sum of money and no longer bothered by so many things (pp. 37-38). PD James consciously loathes Lily Dale because she sees her as self-indulgent and has no inclination for retreat herself. And James had a hard younger life — the parents impoverished, the father fighting hard for a gov’t job at last.

But I suggest that she also loved the kind of character Lily Dale represents — of which there are so many in Trollope, from Mr Harding to Lady Mason.

By the time she finished with The Duke’s Children one wonders why anyone reads it, much less wants to produce an unabridged edition. “Only Lady Mabel Grex” “engages her sympathy”, Lady Mary is “obstinate charmless,” the heiress Isabel “irritating” (“it’s obvious [Trollope] was in love with his creation”), then the young men, Lord Silverbridge and brother are “amiable nonentities,” hopeless cyphers, and she says Trollope gives as wives to his men women “who are content to treat them as lord and masters.” She even has to say the Duke who she has liked so much now loses her “sympathy” when he treats Mrs Finn with “ungentlemanly callousness and injustice,” (p. 222-23). ). She doesn’t mention (seem aware) of how Madame Max is re-engineered from an independent European divorcee who married for money the first time and when she made a mistake the second pays him to stay away, to become a chaste widow for Phineas Finn can marry her.

In this case one sees again she has not entered into the value scheme of the novel. It’s true that Lady Mabel is meant as a tragic figure, but she is uninterested in the father-son conflicts, how Lady Mary is standing in for Lady Glen and doing what Lady Glen could not when young (stay firm for the man she wants and against the life she doesn’t), and she ignores the central absent-present figure of Lady Glen as well as the complex semi-corrupt figure of Frank Tregear.

She does praise The Way We Live Now in one of her frequent diatribes against some aspects of modernity: here it’s that literary novels today do not write about large social issues, do not examine “the dilemmas and concerns of our age” the way Dickens did. Where is there a brilliant portrait of a financier like Melmotte? She also likens Trollope’s TWWLN to Tolstoy’s War and peace.” (Tolstoy seems ever a name to conjure with.)

She has not read much of the Booker prize books then and is (as is seen in the rest of her book) out of sympathy with their politics. She feels modern soap operas on British TV are more in sync with popular readerships. Maybe. Hard to say since people are so distinct and large groups really don’t exist the way it’s presented in mass media. she would absolve herself as mystery stories (according to her) are entertainments, meant to reassure (yes that inexplicable idea recurs again and again all the while she will tell of some horrible death in this or that book).

Trollope would not have been surprised, he knew a lot of his readership did miss the point he tried to make in many of his books. Yet she read on and is candid and truthful about her responses so produces a revealing example of typical readers.

It may be that the majority of people in the UK are coming to feel no one represents their interests and a book about politicians or politics turns them off, but politics is just everywhere — all stories are utterly shaped by perspectives ultimately political.

Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison in the final season of Prime Suspect

P.D. James fails to recognize as valid another political vision is part of it too; she speaks on the same platform as Salmon Rushdie for example: he’s a political writer, but his vision is global. He and others see the larger view of how militarism and colonialist exploitation around the world are driving domestic politics in the UK and elsewhere. To pick a popular mystery series, Prime Suspect was continually political, exposing all sorts of wrongs in bureaucracies of powerful agencies especially — and it was popular. True that James identifies with the detached Dalgliesh — and (I am told) perhaps meant him to marry Cordelia eventually. She was herself a woman living on herself — later in life with a beloved cat, Polly-Hodge:


I will probably move on to read her mystery which is said to rehearse the Jane Austen P&P story from afar (The Murder Room), (I’ve now read three, her first, Cover her Face, A Taste of Death and Death Comes to Pemberley, and her Maul and Pear Tree and Talking about Fiction), but her autobiography is to me very interesting, full of life and (like the mysteries) her prose is so readable. She has wonderful sheerly descriptive gifts. I have bought her Maul and Pear Tree and look forward to her take on a specific murder story of the long 18th century era.


Read Full Post »

Luckington Court as Longbourn in the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice (scripted Andrew Davies)

Dear friends and readers,

I’m not quite as behindhand on reporting on those papers and panels I heard and participated at the recent Eastern Region, American Society for 18th Century Studies, at the University of Delaware as I was completing the Burney/JASNA conferences in Montreal. The EC/ASECS panels and papers show the central focus of study today often become once and still disvalued texts, visibilia and people crowding into valued texts. So not Jane Austen but fan fiction became the preoccupation; learning about her, her texts and her era through fan fiction. I include sections on Death comes to Pemberley (film and book), Baker’s Longbourn, and other Jane Austen-derived texts (Cindy Jones’s My Jane Austen Summer; Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones &c&c). This is the first of 2 or 3 reports on the EC/ASECS conference, and topics beyond Austen include other pre- and post-texts in the new historicism; problems using ECCO (too many unevaluated, unedited texts!), innovative periodicals and studies in 18th century pornography and politics and printers/publishers.


I had spent the previous day at the Winterthur Museum, some of it gazing the costumes worn in the mini-series Downton Abbey, which might be called a sequel to the many Edwardian mini-series adapted from 19th century books on British TV, with pointed allusions to Anthony Trollope; on Friday night the whole conference went to a local church used as a theater to see excerpts from 18th century staged adaptations (changed texts) of some of Shakespeare’s plays. So it seemed fitting that among the first panels of the first of two days was “Jane Austen Fan Fiction.”

See my The Way We Watch TV Now

There were 2 papers, and a 3rd panelist brought 4 of her students to report on their findings in their classes studying P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley and Jo Baker’s Longbourn. In “‘If a book is well-written, I always find it too short’: Fan Fiction and Teaching the Novel,” Kathleen Stall said teaching contemporary fan fiction “puts the emphasis on the students’ reaction to the text” instead of the text itself; students have to “read valuable information about the period and they relate to the characters” more readily, so such books are “useful as an instructional tool.” She thought these “escapist” books are part of a “collective narrative” and summarizing Amanda Gilroy’s paper in Persuasions On-Line, “Our Austen: Fan Fiction in the Classroom” by grouping fan fiction together as “post-texts” and going over Henry Jenkins’ work on fan fiction (10 ways of rewriting a text); Ms Stall explained what she saw students learning when she had them write their own fan fiction following a few rules (e.g., it must fit in with the content of the original work, its era, they must dramatize not just recite events). I strongly recommend my reader stop here and read Gilroy’s findings after she read a large body of Austen fan fiction.

The cast of Robin Swicord’s film adaptation of Karen Joyce Fowler’s novel The Jane Austen Book Club (see The Conversations)

Marilyn Francus (“Wanting More: Desire and Fan Fiction”) suggested the urge to read fan fiction derives from Austen readers’ desire to have more texts by Austen herself, faute de mieux (so to speak); the Internet has provided a place to participate in, and reach and belong to this creation of Austen culture; even big sums of money can and have been made. Studying the products of the Derbyshire Writers Guild, Ms Francus came up with a number of assumptions she felt underlie this material: Austen’s texts are universal, can be transposed to any other time, class, genre (though romance is the most common kind of sequel), culture. Some conventions of repetition (things repeated) show readers and writers derive pleasure from the same paradigms and enjoy their kind of analyses of Austen’s texts: they derive a psychic security from repetitions like these. They obey conventions of their communities: codes which bind and regulate the different groups; the people want to interact and each person gains an identity of her own by engaging in this way. Henry Jenkins calls this convergence culture. These works articulate a set of desires: the authors want to be Austen; they use female heterosexual narrators, but they put Darcy and Elizabeth into almost every profession and change Austen’s characters’ status easily. Austen is herself seen as a Guide and use her to resist modern society. A strong dislike of what readers perceive as the modern world is at the center of many Austen fan fiction writers and readers. (I’d say such a dislike actuates many people, scholars and ordinary readers alike, who read Austen over and over.) Elizabeth Bennet (P&P is the central used text) is seen as pretty, but not beautiful, loved for her “strong” character, intellect. Ms Francus concluded on the note that desire is central, giving continuous satisfaction in making works in progress and commenting or just thinking on other people’s writing inside this community.

Matthew Rhys as Darcy and Anna Maxwell Martin do make love as Darcy and Elizabeth in the film adaptation of Death Comes to Pemberley

In “Experiments in Austen” Melissa K. Downes introduced her 4 students by telling of the group project she designed in which her students had participated: the students had 15 fan fictions from which to choose; they collected, researched and discussed them. Unfortunately I was not able to pick up her students’ names, and the congenial conversational manner of delivery allowed me only to record a few points. Of Death Comes to Pemberley the the first 2 students agreed that James had used minor and new characters to avoid involving “our favorite” characters (by which she meant Elizabeth and Darcy) in sordid doings; James didn’t want to offend her readers by changing the main characters too much. They said a number of students in their group did not like Death Comes to Pemberley. It later became clear that both of them would have preferred to have Darcy and/or Elizabeth personally involved in the murder. The students who discussed Jo Baker’s Longbourn were taken by the new perspective which made us see what happened in the original novel differently; for example, that when Elizabeth runs across the fields and gets mud all over her dress, the novel’s central long-suffering lowly status housemaid, Sarah, has hours of hand-hurting work to get the stains out. Suddenly it didn’t seem so glorious for Elizabeth to have defied conventions and run athletically. These students seem to assume most readers must dislike Austen’s Mr Bennet, so when Baker has Mr Bennet have an illegimate son by Mrs Hill and does not take responsibility for him, one student offered the idea Baker’s text thus thickens our knowledge of the original character’s potentials (not allowed in Austen’s more repressed text). They said they became aware of a whole world in the original house they had not taken into account. One of the four students said she would never read P&P in the “innocent” (she did not use that word but it’s what she meant) way she had again.

There was much engaged talk from the audience and with the panelists and students afterwards. Here is just a bit of it: Linda Troost said she had heard James speak about Austen once, and she talked worshipfully; that you need to twist and distort the original novels to make them more available. It was agreed by many Austen’s wit was lost in much of these post-texts. Kathleen Stall felt that fan fiction that departed too radically from Austen’s assumptions and characters should not be seen as fan fiction (she cited as examples modern crude sexual attitudes in some of the sequels). Marie McAllister asked if Austen scholarship was at all affected by fandom and post-texts; it was implied that it was not, and yet an emphasis on Austen on romance has become dominant in recent scholarship. I tried to start a dialogue on how we can distinguish fine post-texts which can be categorized as historical novels in their own right as opposed to fictions which remain fan fictions because they are rooted in the limited terrain of the Austen worlds in her texts, and only in minor ways move outside. So Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly, which retells R.L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a semi-original historical novel in its own right so full and suggestive of the later 19th century world is it, so successful Martin’s creation of an appropriate style, with ramifications well beyond the original texts. Longbourn reaches out to this with its section on the Peninsula war, but does not achieve it by not realizing that war fully enough; James’s novel, Death Comes to Pemberley remains an often inert retelling of the original novel combined with a disorganized meandering mystery thriller; but the film, scripted by Juliette Towhidi, and much rearranged, developed, and made witty and intellectually interesting in its own right (and unusually based on the assumption we are to empathize with Mr Bennet) comes close, but Towhidi’s lack of real examination of the values of either Austen’s original or James’s intermediary text leaves the film without any serious moral critique of life (I do not reject F.R. Leavis’s criteria; it’s such criteria that led to D. W. Harding’s rightly influential, “Well Regulated Hated” essay on Austen’s fiction).

I think it important to distinguish the good and occasionally perhaps great books which are post-texts (before the 19th century use of copyright and theories of originality, such texts themselves are regarded as masterpieces in their own right, like Malory’s Arthurian Tales, a translation, adaptation, redaction of earlier medieval French texts). To see them as just teaching us about Austen, and demand that they stay within Austen’s point of view (let’s admit a limited one in a number of ways) is to dismiss them as non-serious. Alison Light in her Forever England, a book on neglected and good women writers of the 1930s, discusses Mrs Miniver (a pseudonym for Jan Struther) as an important sign or site for a working journalist and poet in her own right; Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones diaries descends from this kind of writing for and about women; and then there are worthwhile sequels, books with a genuine feeling about our contemporary world, something to say about it, which contribute to new subgenres of romance, such as Cindy Jones’s My Jane Austen Summer. It’s one of the jobs of the literary scholar to evaluate the texts we read and write about. See my blog on Cleland and Andrew Davies’s Fanny Hill.


A typical reprint from ECCO (on sale at Amazon)

On Saturday, the 10:30 session, Jim May’s panel on “Research in Progress” offered a series of papers on the kinds of scholarship people are doing today. Tonya Howe discussed “Corpse Humor On and Off the 18th century Stage:” corpses had become a commodity in the era; they were everywhere and farces provide a perspective on wide-spread death practices, beliefs in ghosts, anxieties, confusions and class hierarchy in undertaking/burial practices which included communal “rejoicing” in festivities at death ceremonies. Melissa Wehler has returned to a research project she began many years ago on Charles Macklin, which centered on a tragic play (a flop?) on Henry VII; the context contested by scholarship includes the question of Macklin’s Irishness, his use of a Scots identity (the Scottish Peg Woffington was in a production); the 1745 rebellion. Macklin himself made himself disliked. One has to ask what were the actualities of the time, stage, production, a more sophisticated historicism is needed. Rodney Mahler is another professor who brought a student doing research for and with him to discuss their efforts to decipher the bad handwriting of Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson (the standard biography by Anne Ousterhout and Graeme’s work as an American writer was described); Kasey Stewart, the student, showed how he used computer software to create a code. (It was later remarked if you had never learned cursive writing, you would not be able to begin to make a code.) (See Graeme Park the Encyclopedia Britannica on-line article); Matthew Vickless put before the audience and panelists the problem of having too many texts available to us through ECCO and other on-line sites: working on George Dyer, a scholarly highly learned polemical writer and poet (gently satirized by Charles Lamb; see online Dyer’s Disquisitions on Poetry; enotes); Mr Vickless found himself moving to texts within texts, and asking the question, if he was studying underappreciated important or good texts or “going down rabbit holes” of intertexuality. What does one do about all these available ancillary and auxiliary texts? His conclusion was paradoxically we need scholarly evaluative tools and edited texts more than ever.

The Athenian Mercury, February 28, 193

The perspectives of this session and the Jane Austen fan fiction panel were continued (in effect) using other texts in two papers on Eleanor Shevlin’s “book history” panel after the business lunch and presidential address. Peter Briggs seems to have discovered a version of writers interacting with audiences (analogous to people commenting on texts on websites and then on another another’s comments) in John Dunton’s Athenian Mercury. Dunton’s periodical was radical, an innovative experiment in which questions sent in by readers formed the central focus; he felt Dunton and his associates were surrrendering editorial control at least to some extent (they choose what questions to print). Readers’ questions poured in and Mr Briggs discussed the specifics that one can find in this magazine’s run. Beyond entertainment value, one learns what was on many individual’s minds (bothered by apparitions, dreams); what they had questions about (animal behavior; earthquakes); what they saw as significant (does gunpowder or printing cause greater mischief?); we see real people’s lives in process (conventions of marriage, courtship). Readers were fooled by the pretense of a panel of “12 worthies.” Perhaps Charles Gildon overpraised its value, but it is true you cannot predict what could be the results of these conversations in print. Mr Briggs conceded that the tone of the medium was calm reasoning, and the intent often to reassure and make the readers feel they were co-participants in knowledge. The Athenian Mercury provided a public space for them to experience intelligent conversation.

Mr Brickner mentioned the above text in his talk

The other paper that delved what goes on in readerships and human behavior behind and surrounding texts was Andrew Bricker’s “Title Pages, Imprints and Other Deceptions in the 18th century English book trade.” As today, 18th century gov’ts and their agents employed people to stop and control what was printed; ijn reaction about subversive texts printers published, they would claim I didn’t read or understand the text, just printed it. Libel laws were unclear and hard to use against writers and printers; nonetheless, printers were dragged into trials, pilloried, and the trade self-censored itself a good deal. Pseudonyms and anonymous were ways of protecting authors (Junius an example); certain kinds of buzz phrases would alert readers to subtexts; pornography was mostly disguised as art or comedy, e.g., the “Curious Maid” was a bestseller — she tries to see her gentilia in a mirror and finally succeeds; Mr Bricker discussed a fictionalized author calling himself Roger Fuckwell. (See 18th century pornographic verse; erotic fiction; where wikipedia assumes writings by prostitutes are by prostitutes; a book review of one of Robert Darnton’s books and a NYRB review by Darnton himself). He also discussed sycophantic texts: a fake identities like Roger Moore writing fulsomely about Walpole; and Michael Currey who was blacklisted by fellow stationers for giving information away that it was understood one would not. Woodcuts offers a way to understand what a printer intended. Mr Bricker routinely comes across entries in the ESTC that are wrong, or offer misinformation, so difficult and complex is this area.

In the discussion afterwards Mr Briggs later said of the Athenian Mercury that “social visibility” is what we are talking about here, ordinary people becoming visible. These later panels seemed to me to bring up pre-computer attempts for those left out of hierarchies of access to become socially visible and reach other people as well as the post-texts surrounding valued texts and coming out of unacknowledged disvalued communities.

For myself as a woman scholar I know that women memoirists have been denigrated and dismissed as “whores” and their books misrepresented in slurring ways as erotic, pornographic (or just stupid); and I wonder what is the relationship between older pornographic texts (which I often find distasteful) and 20th and 21st century ones (violent, intensely misogynistic); then as now men are the main readers of such books; what is the difference between salacious kitsch and biting political writing and images (e.g., Nelson’s Naked Truth for the images)? See finally Julie Peakman’s essay in History Today.

A telling cover illustration; see a review of Peakman’s now classic work (deserves to be as widely known as Darnton’s).


Read Full Post »

Death Comes to Pemberley: the coloration of the film

Dear friends and readers,

My proposal has been accepted:

The Eighteenth Century on Film: A proposal for the coming ASECS in March 2015: “What work does a screenplay or shooting script perform?

The argument of my paper will be that using the screenplay or shooting script to close read a film yields far more accurate and instructive information and insight about the film than comparing it directly (as is often done) to its eponymous novel. I will have three examples where the sources (beyond other films and other intertextual references) and types of films are usefully different.

Humming (1)

Humming (2)
Death comes to Pemberley: one of the many scenes in the wood near Pemberley; a group scene (script calls for lines interacting over scenes juxtaposed)

First I’ll present my findings from an analysis of the final shooting script by Juliette Towhidi for P.D. James’s Death comes to Pemberley against the 2013 romantic mystery thriller mini-series. In this first case we have an intermediary novel, P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley, and, as it is close sequel, a specific originating Austen novel (Pride and Prejudice) with its underlying material literally important to the film but strongly changed first by P.D. James and then by Towhidi. We will be able to see three levels of transference: Death Comes to Pemberley, the film from its shooting script; then the shooting script’s transference from Death Comes to Pemberley, the novel, itself a close sequel to Pride and Prejudice in the way the characters are developed from the original novel.


Metropolitan: Individual and group debate over ideas central to this film

The second part of the paper will tell my findings from an analysis of the screenplay for Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan. I choose this film because it’s a realistic novel of manners done within 2 hours and there is no intermediary novel. In this second case also the originating novel (Mansfield Park) however recognizable through analogy is far from the literal movie story line and characters and yet is there transformed. I hope to make visible the direct transference which still makes the novel newly available with the contemporary slant of an appropriation. I will bring up Victor Nunez’s Ruby in Paradise briefly as it too has no intermediary novel and yet a recognizable Austen novel as its underlying material (Northanger Abbey). One sparrow does not a summer make so a few comments on this second poetic shooting script is there to make more convincing the perspective and argument I made about a film made directly from a script.

Jonny Lee Miller as Mr Knightley walking away from Emma after a strong spat

Agasin from Emma (2009): after Box Hill, Romola Garai as Emma to Michael Gambon as Mr Woodhouse: to his query doubting the good time, she says she doesn’t think she’ll do it again soon, as “one can have too much of a good thing …”

If it’s just 15 minutes I keep to a brief coda bring the 2009 heritage mini-series adaptation of Emma by Sandy Welch. (I’ll omit Andrew Davies’s 1995 Emma film; after all it’s been analyzed elsewhere). What I was to show is the shooting script of a mini-series shows how the cyclical nature of such a film changes the novel fundamentally in the way we experience it even if impressionistically viewers and film critics alike talk as if we have a close “faithful” transference.

Ruby in Paradise: New Henry Tilner in Mike McClasin (the 2008 JJFeilds the same type out of Andrew Davies scripts) an environmentalist who has opted out for a time, playing his horn in the wood outside his cabin-house

2008 Northanger Abbey: JJ Fields as Tilney appealing to Catherine Morland his vulnerability

It is still common for film criticism to ignore or not use centrally the screenplay or shooting script for close readings of films. With the popularity of adaptations, increasingly film-makers use sequels of famous books as well as previous film versions as part of their terrain. So, the purpose of my paper is to show how much more effective a study of a film can be if we use the shooting script or screenplay whether there is an intermediary novel, no intermediary novel or just an originating novel. One reason for the use of the novel rather than the screenplay or shooting script is they are often not made available. For Austen films they are more often than many other classic books because she is such a cult figure and attracts respected film-makers. My hope is studies like mine will help lead to more publication of screenplays and shooting scripts which are valuable works of literature in their own right.


Read Full Post »

From the Emma discussion in The Jane Austen Book Club (Robin Swicord, all the principals gathered together over their books)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve decided to blog about my long-term book project, A Place of Refuge: the Jane Austen Film Canon. I started it an embarrassingly long time ago now: 2007. Since this past March or so (when I taught a course on Jane Austen novels at the OLLI at AU) I’ve been keeping it up intermittently, sometimes consistently for a couple and more hours a day for a week or so or more, and then again, less so when I’m writing a review or (as I did last week) helping to referee a paper for a peer-edited journal (on a 17th to 18th century woman writer, Catherine Trotter Cockburn). I’m returning to using this Austen reveries blog for working out thoughts.

Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood when she thinks she will spend her life alone (long a favorite still with me for the strength of endurance she manifests) (2008 JA’s S&S)

I began the study with the goal of enabling myself and other readers of women’s novels and lovers of film to understand Austen’s Sense and Sensibility better, in some circles still underrated and her first published novel. I wanted to raise the status of this book generally too; following Roger Shattuck’s Forbidden Knowledge, its relevant dramatization of male and female sexual awakening and coming of age. My method has been to examine how and what elements in the text were transferred to a group of film adaptations of it and then compare the transference of these elements between these films. It’s been my experience that close comparative film adaptation studies enable the reader to reach deeply into the archetypes and workings of a text more than any other method. I also value the Austen film canon as a subset of two important kinds of movies combined: romantic and costume drama: it’s a rare coherent body of work which uses female narrators, looks at life from a woman’s perspective, and contains a number of film masterpieces and a variety of kinds of films. So I have also studied the six Sense and Sensibility films as works of art in their own right to bring out the peculiar set of cultural meanings conveyed by each film.

Alan Rickman as the enthralled melancholy Brandon (1995 S&S)

Basically I managed to write a Prologue to Part Two showing that one important source for Sense and Sensibility was Isabelle de Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield and that uncannily some of the archetypes underlying S&S as found in Montolieu’s work show up: such as the Brandon figure as someone the Marianne character falls in love with and for whom she is a revenant. I wrote about the 1971, 1983, 1995 Sense and Sensibility Heritage films, and the 2000 I Have Found It. So 5 chapters. I got bogged down when I got to the 2008 Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility because I couldn’t manage to contextualize Davies’s film in a small enough compass (a 6th unfinished chapter), and then I was defeated by a life crisis of overwhelming dimensions during which time another very successful appropriation of S&S was brought to the theaters, From Prada to Nada, about which I did write blogs at least. I hope to finish the 6th chapter and write a 7th on the Hispanic S&S. There has been yet another S&S film, an appropriation which I’ve seen, Scents and Sensibility which moves the material into a fable about the commercialization of romance. I have not begun to watch it often enough to say more.

As I studied the S&S films, I realized in order to make these films and this book significant beyond a still stigmatized and to some extent ghettoized readership, the Janeites, and groups of viewers who like costume drama, soap opera, TV serials based on classic books, I would have to place my study in the context of central issues debated in film studies in a consistent thorough way. The central section of this book rather simply allows Austen’s novel, one of its important literary sources and then the films themselves to set the agenda and structure of what is discussed.

It is my view that the screenplay adapted and worked up into a visual and auditory experience capable of absorbing an audience has been paid insufficient attention to, is wrongly overlooked, its role underrated. Most of the time they are not published anywhere or presented in such a doctored form (as a novelization of the film) as to be unusable as a basis for comparison. The exceptions are individual cases where the film has been such a success or its eponymous novel is so respected or the scriptwriter him or herself gained attention as an artist in his or her own right. yet many of them are literary works of value in their own right, or at least enough of them. We are very lucky when it comes to studying scripts in the Austen canon: she is a cult figure with a world-wide following, a number of the script-writers and directors of her films are respected film auteurs with a recognized body of film work studied in its own right. It is therefore possible to study a number of the scripts in the Austen canon in the context of film work outside Austen, and romantic and serial drama. Some are appropriations drawn from an intermediary analogous novel to the Austen one limned and that may be compared.

Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth and Matthew Rhys as Darcy discussing how they should view Georgiana’s desire to marry a young lawyer, Henry Alveston (Death Comes to Pemberley)

Talking together in bed

So I’ve spent much of my time on this book in the last few months first reading about screenplays, then sampling non-Austen ones, and finally taking down with great delight every word of Death Comes to Pemberley and The Jane Austen Book Club while I watched. I’ve now gone on to read the published screenplays or shooting scripts of Metropolitan, Ruby in Paradise, and Andrew Davies’s Emma.
I’ve asked myself what features these have in common, how are they distinct from non-Austen romance and mini-series or comic movies.

This book could be a triptych, with an opening part having the aim of understanding how the key instrument of the script repeated across the body of film work that makes up the Austen film canon is turned into a movie. I was interested to see what happens when in appropriate films there is no intermediary analogous novel (Lost in Austen and Metropolitan), where there is one (Death Comes to Pemberley and The Jane Austen Book Club), and how these compare to those screenplays-films where the immediate source is an Austen novel (however inflected by film genre and intertextualities of all sorts). What about a film like Davies’s 2007 Room with a View where he has read back into Forster’s novel its source material in Northanger Abbey and allowed the later character relationships to comment on Austen’s own. I would be answering the question, Is there a subgenre, the Austen films and how does its underlying material (the novels, the letters, favored ideas about Austen herself comprise itself.

I hope to post some of the material I gathered about the individual screenplays. I especially enjoyed all the discussions of the Jane Austen novels in Robin Swicord’s The Jane Austen Book Club, the way Juliette Towhidi reworked P.D. James’s maturation and darkening of the characters of Darcy (he is made more understandable, more consistent) and Elizabeth (she hurt and disillusioned by the experience of how she is treated by others) after a few years marriage in Death Comes to Pemberley. I had surmized that direct violence inflicted on women was not seen in Austen films, but attempted rape is central to Ruby in Paradise, and (piquant to me) that Aubrey Rouget in Stillman’s Metropolitan is modeled on Audrey Hepburn (from the 1957 Love in the Afternoon (a weak late romantic screwball comedy). Films alluded to in these films (watched by the characters too) include the 1966 Un Homme et Une Femme, and Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (in two of the films), which I admit I once fell asleep on.

Ashley Judd as Ruby and Todd Field as Mike McCaslin (1993 Ruby)

I discover that some of these screenplays really stand on their own as poetic texts (Nunez’s Ruby in Paradise), that the effect of reading them is different and enrichening in ways that experiencing their realization in film loses (Davies’s Emma is a visionary text, things are constantly dissolving into dreams and we can’t always tell whose the dream is; Stillman’s literary thoughtful Metropolitan). I want to do justice to their peculiar typical cyclical structures. The beauty of the portraits of fleeting moments is unobtrusive in Nunez’s (surprising perhaps in western impoverished Florida, even junkyards) but there, and there in all the best of those on the evocative romantic end of the Austen spectrum.

Olivia Williams as Jane Austen very pleased to see three of her books set up by Clarke in the Prince Regent’s London home (Miss Austen Regrets by Gwyneth Hughes and Anne Pivcevic)

A last problem is the snobbish devaluation of these films, one writ large in Austen film studies: the legitimate question would be, why are a set of books concerning a small sub-set of privileged people who experience hardly any violence, minor losses, and where the author displays an unawareness, even indifference to central issues or norms maiming the larger society upon which the community of characters depend endlessly discussed, rated almost hysterically high, filmed and re-filmed continually? One would have to study frankly the flaws and problems in her books, by studying the struggle film-makers have had turning her last three published full novels into films: Emma goes on to long and too little literally happens for a film theater; two of the books are partly unfinished or truncated books, named by her brother Henry, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. There are fissures in P&P, S&S and MP from all the years of revision. I want to see what are the assumptions film-makers make about the reading experience audiences have had with an Austen novel and expect to have analogously in watching an Austen film.

Amanda Price (Jemima Hooper) reading Pride and Prejudice (Lost in Austen)

The strange film Austenland, a creditable failure, ia intended as a kind of commentary on romance readers of Austen: I’ll make a separate blog on this. film-makers try to counter what they think makes many contemporary readers, especially women uncomfortable when they read Austen (Austen’s Fanny Price, anyone?) and what have the film-makers done to compensate, erase, replace these elements in Austen’s texts. The biopic, Miss Austen Regrets, based on Austen’s letters and Nokes’s biography is important here.

So next up in this series of blogs will be the discussions of Jane Austen’s novels found in The Jane Austen Book Club — whence my opening still. I hope to carry on the Austen Papers though few are now joining in: the book is insufficiently annotated and there are no texts by Jane Austen, and return to blogging about my Valancourt edition of Smith’s Ethelinde which is coming along now: completely typed and annotated up to near the end of the fifth and final volume.

Of course I’m now trying to make the time of my bereft life (without Jim) as endurable I can. I derive some pleasure watching, studying, reading and writing about this ever-increasing subset of movies. They help me to forget where I am, how silent this house, to yes escape.


Read Full Post »