Dear friends and readers,
I like movies and stories where the truth is told about Christmas, how ambiguous it is for most people, grating or desolating for many.
One such movie is Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan: it’s known as a free adaptation of Mansfield Park, but it’s a piece of art in Stillman’s oeuvre and story in its own right. It is also a tribute to the strength of Austen’s texture in her books as like other serious adaptations it seeks an analogies in today’s worlds.
On Christmas eve, one of the heroes, Tom Townsend (Edmund character, played by Edward Clements) has Channel 11 in NYC with its burning log and incessant Christmas carol going. His parents were divorced some years ago, both families keep their distance. His mother spends the night sitting on the couch in the front room trying to watch an absurd noisy TV program. He has recently become aware that his father threw out his childhood toys and has faced the reality he likes to deny: his father neglects him, a phone call or so a year is not a relationship.
The heroine, Aubrey Rouget (Fanny character, played by Carolyn Farina) fares better. She and her mother (apparently a long-time widow) go to St Patrick’s cathedral, a huge church in Manhattan where they join in the service and carols. They stand amid a huge crowd (people like them, some in pairs or groups, but many alone), but Aubrey-Fanny cannot manage to sing as the Tom-Edmund whom Aubrey has fallen in love with in a recent incident during a party stood her up, has shown indifference and preference for a shallow sharp-tongued, but sexy-glamorous “popular” girl (the Mary Crawford character) amongst them. Aubrey begins to cry silently for the beauty of the place and song as well. The mother is another character enduring it as best as she. She has more money than the Edmund character’s mother, is more upper class and thinks to take her daughter out. The distraction, walk in the cold and snow, meeting a friend and acquaintance on the cathedral stairs helps too.
There are a few stories which tell truth. Bobbie Ann Mason’s Drawing Names in her Shiloh and Other Stories: a 20th century middle class Kentucky family get together. They have a method of exchanging gifts by drawing names and making sure this way no one is angry they gave a more expensive gift than they got. During the time there the divorced daughter and the son who has disappointed them have to endure much tension. The Admiral liked Saki’s Christmas stories, and I remember one Christmas eve or day he read aloud to me an opening which was exhilarating in released bitterness, but as the Admiral is now dead he cannot tell which of the Reginald Christmas pieces it is (it’s not “On Christmas Presents” or “Christmas Revels,” which I’ve just looked at, as they don’t open the way I recall). Margaret Oliphant has a ghost story where “Lady Mary” (the ghost) is unable to retrieve the damage she did during life by being unkind and not altering her will in time to leave her money to a niece who endured her petty tyrannies nor can she reach the niece for sure to apologize. (A riposte to Dickens’s Christmas Carol.) Victorian ghost stories are implicitly and most of the time were written for the Christmas market.
Trollope manages not to be too false by various ploys, including telling a real story which happens to occur on the winter solstice. He did leave us his thoughts on such stories in his Autobiography (published after his death):
While I was writing The Way We Live Now, I was called upon by the proprietors of the *Graphic* for a Christmas story. I feel, with regard to literature, somewhat as I suppose an uphosterer and undertaker feels when he is called upon to supply a funeral. He has to supply it, however distasteful it may be. It is his business, and he will starve if he neglect it. So have I felt that, when anything in the shape of a novel was required, I was bound to produce it. Nothing can be more distasteful to me than to have to give a relish of Christmas to what I write. I feel the humbug implied by the nature of the order. A Christmas story, in the proper sense, should be the ebullition of some mind anxious to instil others with a desire for Christmas religious thought or Christmas festivities, — better yet, with Christmas charity. Such was the case with Dickens when he wrote his two first Christmas stories [which were? we cannot be sure which ones Trollope was thinking of]. But since that the things written annually–all of which have been fixed to Christmas like children’s toys to a Christmas tree, have no real savour of Christmas about them. I had done two or three before. Alas! at this very moment I have one to write [said by Julian Thompson to have been “Christmas at Thompson Hall”], which I have promised to supply within three weeks of this time,— the picture-makers always required a long interval,–as to which I have in vain been cudgelling my brain for the last month. I can’t send away the order to another shop, but I do not know how I shall ever get the coffin made.
What Trollope seems to object to is the phoniness of pretending to emotion you do not feel, of enacting a ritual tied to charity when you have or give none: “The Widow’s Mite” is about the unimportance of feeling yourself deprived by having given a present; the important thing is to help, please grace the life of the person you are giving this gift too — he disputes a Biblical parable here. If you really feel an emotion, he will dramatize sympathetically, but like Samuel Johnson (“There is nothing so hopeless as a scheme of merriment” — harsh, brutal, probably out of irritation) and George Sand (in both Lettres d’un Voyageur and Winter in Majorca something about how what happiness we know in life comes unexpectedly, as a surprise), Trollope knows you cannot turn it on like a spiget, especially each year on cue.
Back to Austen, Metropolitan is not the only movie to do justice to a great text when it passes through Christmas. Sandy Welch’s 2009 Emma shows the characters both enjoying themselves as best they can and enduring tension (see stills); Glenister and Constanduros’ 1972 Emma makes centrally climactic Elton’s emphatic proposal about two swelled-up overpreening people, with Emma rightly desolated and appalled afterward. Victor Nunez’s Ruby in Paradise (Northanger Abbey) has an allusion as the year passes. Most of the others join the chorus Trollope and Saki deprecate. Other adaptations of great texts for this season include Tony Huston’s adaptation of Joyce’s “The Dead” which I still can watch because the Admiral downloaded it for me from the Net (he also transferred a video into an MP2 so I have it in two versions) and Caroline rescued it in a transfer to this Macbook Pro. Profound melancholy rooted in Irish landscape and time.
… snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.