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From Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship aka Lady Susan (Chloe Sevigny as Lady Alicia, Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan)

Dear Friends and readers,

Friday was a long day. The morning was filled with yet more “pre-conference” activities,” and from these, Izzy and I went to a dance workshop. We both enjoy 18th century dancing, and for this day she wore an 18th century day dress, a lovely shawl and a hat I bought for her at the “Emporium.”


A photograph I took of her on our balcony

It was great fun, the dancing, but I was tired afterward and went back to the room, and so forgot that I had intended to go to a special “event,” a lecture on the churches Jane Austen attended. Probably this was the first disappointment of the conference and it was my own fault. A number of the other special events (like the dance workshop) one needed a ticket for, but not this. So I surmise the organizers didn’t think too many people would go. A friend told me it was many slides, pictures of the basic churches Austen attended in Hampshire, Kent, Bath, and London, and had a contemporary twist. What these churches do today. As I don’t know their names, I can supply no more than that.


Gillian Dow

Then the first event of the conference proper: Gillian Dow’s keynote speech called “The Immortal Jane Austen and Her Best-Loved Heroine, 1817-2017,” it was not about Elizabeth Bennet (as I expected), nor Isabelle de Montolieu, which the blurb led me to expect (a French writer was to be compared); she rather spoke at length about Germaine de Stael’s Corinne, or Italy and compared Stael’s heroine to Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet. Gillian began by offering the usual connections: while in London in 1815, Austen had a chance to go to a party where Stael was and declined (or so Henry implied), in her letters she tells Cassandra that she recommended a man at an assembly (who may have been deaf and thus not connected to what was happening) to read Corinne, presumably as a very good novel (December 27,1808); Stael read Austen and is said to have pronounced Austen’s books to be vulgar (commonplace, banal). Corinne was of course one of many contemporary novels by women Austen read and described. Then she quoted Virginia Woolf on how hard it is to catch Austen in the act of greatness.


The most felicitious translation into English available today: Sylvia Raphael’s Corinne, or Italy

Well, using the Victorian English translator of Corinne, Isabel Hill’s comments on Corinne, and conceding there was a lot more commentary in the 19th century by other women writers on Corinne than Austen’s books (George Eliot in Mill on the Floss, George Sand, Louisa May Alcott), and comparing scenes in Emma to Corinne as well as other novels to Corinne, Gillian critiqued Corinne to show that Corinne is unacceptably sentimental, Austen’s heroines are more interesting and believable characters than Stael’s heroine, so Austen has a staying power with contemporary readers and writers that Stael nowadays lacks. The larger context showed the “aftermath” or afterlife of Austen’s books. She recited an appalling poem to Austen by Kipling, talked of the publishing history of these and the illustrations that accompanied them (Corinne is part travelogue).

Gillian wanted to argue for the value of studying other women authors contemporary with Austen, as a way of understanding her context and achievement. It was a strong speech, but by emphasizing how superior Austen is, and Stael’s flaws she may have reinforced what she set out to discourage: the dismissal of other novels of Austen’s era — at any rate to the popular readership listening, not the academics so much who might read for historical reasons. The same holds true for some of the treatment by Ellen Moers who was the first in the 20th century feminist movement in literature to treat Corinne for its serious treatment of how women’s lives are shattered by society if they disobey the restrictive conventions. For my part despite its flaws, I love the book: its meditations on history, on culture, on travel and Italy, on Scotland are deeply stirring. And here we see where Stael has qualities and an experience on offer Austen doesn’t begin to think of.

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Chawton House

It was then time to go to the break-out sessions of which there were three that afternoon. Suffice to say that the paper I had wanted to go to for the first session (A), Jeffrey Nigro’s on illustrating Austen was cancelled; he had become ill and couldn’t attend, and didn’t have a good back-up. One of the problems at this conference for me was the target content was not Austen, but her aftermath, her reputation, what people did with her (as in writing sequels, making films), her fan groups. Peter Sabor’s talk on “the Digital Godmersham,” was on his work on a digital recreation of the library Austen used at Godmersham Park for Chawton House; he knows some of the books, and is researching to find more. Had I understood this was the content of his talk, I would have gone.

For the second session (B) I listened to Ruth Williamson give a crowded room a sensible history of what happened to Austen’s letters after she died. James Edward Austen-Leigh’s (JEAL) daughter, Mary wrote that a majority of Austen’s letters were destroyed by Casssandra; that Francis’s letters to Austen (three packets he saved all his life) were destroyed almost immediately after he died by an irate daughter (Fanny Sophia); JEAL used what was left for his biography of his aunt. Fanny Knight Austen’s son, Lord Brabourne published a semi-censored edition of Austen’s letters, with Chapman the first scholarly attempt to publish all we have edited impartially. She told of individual responses, and attitudes towards letters we find in Austen’s novels. In the discussion afterward she was a bit more interesting, saying for example, that readers read Austen’s letters as by a woman. Austen’s letters are crucially important for understanding her and her fiction, and I would have preferred a close reading approach towards the letters themselves.

There was one at that time (B) on using Pride and Prejudice as therapy (“I want my Mr Darcy”), had “Deciphering Mr Darcy” by Monica Alvarez on how other characters beyond Darcy were the center of attention for 19th century readers been on at that time I would have gone: another later talk (Saturday) by Sayre Greenfield and Linda Troost seems to have been on how Darcy was seen as a satiric figure before the 20th century; as described in the catalogue it looked like it was about which characters were most written about in the 19th century. Neither was (like Dow’s talk) engineered so as to try to give us insight into Austen’s text itself.

The last paper I heard, the early evening (C) session was Alice Villasenor’s “evidence from the archives.” She had diligently read contemporary local chronicles, especially about local elections (as these were reported on), but she had wanted to prove connections between specific big-wig individuals and Jane Austen, and there is no evidence, so it (seemed to me) was a matter of unsubstantiated nuances. She wanted to ferret out attitudes towards slavery of those few who got to vote and came up with the idea only “a small minority” (of a small minority of people) “wanted to keep the slave trade,” yet again the evidence was slim (in an election only 16 people voted against abolition of the slave trade). Again I might have done better to listen to Jane Darcy talking of “periods of anxiety and cheerlessness” in Jane Austen. I spoke with someone who had gone to that, and she said Ms Darcy talked about the underlying conditions of Austen’s characters, threat of genteel poverty, Emma’s father so frail and dying (perhaps). I think Austen’s texts are far more melancholy than many readers seem willing or able to understand.


Whit Stillman

Later evening there was a great treat: in one of the large rooms JASNA screened Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship, a film adaptation of Lady Susan. (Despite his using a title of one of Austen’s juvenilia, this film had nothing to do with that.) I’ve written about the film in a blog so will not write about the film here. I had noticed (too late) that there were two talks in the conference on this film. One for the B session, by two people, Pauline Beard and Jennifer Snoek-Brown, where they proposed to briefy “overview” the novel, show clips from the film and then thrown the discussion to the audience on the topic of “moving from letters to narrative.” I’m not sure that Stillman’s film is a narrative. Another by Margaret Case proposed to compare clips from Stillman’s film with clips from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to see what they “illustrate” about “the ‘mix’ of violence” and “romance” in Austen’s novels. she labeled her talk half-comically, “seriously” perhaps because some fans refuse to take this Zombie movie seriously, but it can be treated seriously as another example of the ratcheting up of violence everywhere in US films (“The Violent Turn”).


From Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Lily James as Elizabeth Bennet (2009, Sethe Graham-Smith)

Stillman’s talk was done as an interview by an Austen scholar, Peter Graham, who brought along carefully devised questions. Stillman mostly ignored these or turned them around to talk interestingly about his film and a novel he has written out of the film since, Love & Friendship (In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated). He did the same after Last Days of Disco: wrote a good novel taking off from the matter of his movie. Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards is a sophisticated commentary on young adult life in the middle and upper middle class in the US in cities (which he had been part of), as well as books like Austen’s in genre (melancholy-satiric comedies of manners, a favorite kind with him). He was there partly to sell his second movie book. He told us about how he had been very depressed as a young man, and tried Northanger Abbey which he thought an essay on books in the form of a novel. Much later he went on to read Mansfield Park, and realized how Lionel Trilling had misread it. Stillman made Metropolitan to refute Trilling and turned Fanny Price into his heroine, Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina played the part). He so loved Kate Beckinsale in his Last Days of Disco, saw her as perfect as a heroine in a Cold Comfort Farm kind of book (by Stella Gibbons, and in his mind the same kind of satire as Northanger Abbey), so he wanted her for Austen’s satirically derived Lady Susan. He insisted Lady Susan is not an early book; if the manuscript comes from 1905 that’s a suggestion the book was written after 1805 not before.


From Stillman’s Metropolitan: Audrey Rouget aka Fanny and Edward Clements as Tom Townsend aka Edmund discussing Trilling on Mansfield Park (1990)

To him it’s a serious challenge to make a film from an Austen novel because these books are masterpieces; he didn’t feel confident that he could imitate an 18th century voice; turning to contemporary comic actresses and actors helps. He had wanted to write novels, but found this was not his metier, and turned to film as a substitute, trusting to a belief there were enough intelligent film-goers to react to his work as an attempt at realization. He then went into particulars of his film this time; he was trying to take the characters further, extrapolating out of what Austen had written. He likened Lady Susan to her as a (hidden, self-obscuring) social climber. He talked about how Austen never went as far as moral nihilism in her work, and instead as she grew older became more moral (his movie injects Christian themes into the text explicitly). He did not think Austen meant to repudiate her. He said how hard it was to make a period movie; you need and he had “very good people,” but he was limited by costs.

His talk on the whole had been about his own response to Austen, how she fitted into his life, and when I got back to the room I noticed there had been a talk that day (by Lisa Tyler) on “how Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Mansfield, Kate Boyle [an artist who painted], Virginia Woolf, Thornton Wilder and Ezra Pound perceived and acknowledged Austen’s influence.” All of these people were artists of the 1920s, pre- and just post-WW1. Austen is not usually thought of as important to this “Modernist” generation, though she was to Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster (who hated the Austen who emerges he felt from the letters). Those comments on Austen by these people I’ve read suggest they see the aesthetic value of her novelistic art (anticipating Mary Lascelles’s early book on Austen’s art), assume she was the spinster JEAL projected (and thus made her disliked by someone like DHLawrence). Wharton is more than an admirer; she imitates at a distance some of them. Austen is clearly important personally to Stillman, and that’s why he has made three genuine movies (Last Days of Disco has scenes imitative of Emma, and the two heroines are like Elinor and Marianne, a doppelganger).

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Isobel Bishop (1902-88), An Image of Austen or woman writer of the 18th century

I thought I’d end this second blog not with a poem but a brief commentary from Devoney Looser’s The Making of Jane Austen on post-Austen matters connected to the above talks: plays and films made after, about, in imitation of Austen. She was the keynote speaker the next day. In Looser’s chapter on early dramatizations of Austen (among others by Rosina Filippi), Looser argues they show the heroines in the novels as strong, assertive women, and argues they were popular because of this. They present Austen’s novels as centering on the interactions between women, she goes on to analyze several plays written in the 1930s derived from Pride and Prejudice.

What is interesting, Looser says, is how these scenes and playlets anticipate critical and popular outlooks on Austen since then. Among other things, what she shows is that a play by Mary Keith Medbery (Mrs Steele) Mackay began an emphasis on Darcy and changing of his character from the one we find in Austen which has taken over since then. MacKay’s Darcy is a kind of Heathcliffian or Bronte-like realization of Darcy. The best known of these is by Helen Jerome, partly because it was popular and then influential on the 1940 movie by Stromberg, featuring Laurence Olivier as Darcy, Greer Garson as Elizabeth: this movie aslo altered Austen’s emphasis on the book as Elizabeth’s story so that it begins to become Darcy’s story, says Looser. I own a copy of this play and read it in the light of what Looser writes. Yes, scenes are invented to make Darcy’s distant and arrogant character more likeable, and like Davies, Jerome fills in the absent time in the novel when we are to assume he changed his mind about Elizabeth with scenes of him working on behalf of Lydia.


Colin Firth as Darcy writing his letter of explanation to Elizabeth (1995 P&P, scripted Andrew Davies)

Several other aspects of Jerome are worth noting. In P&P there is hardly a scene between Jane and Bingley: Jerome writes several (Davies does his best to present pantomime scenes between Jane and Bingley) “to fill out this gap.” Looser suggests that Jerome identified with Lydia and Lydia becomes a more central character, not the fool she is in Austen, and Wickham a sexualized false cheating hypocrite who allures her by how he apes romantic males of the era in books and movie (Jerome endured a parallel relationship in her life). Jerome sentimentalizes Elizabeth (and she cries more than once), and most striking of all, Elizabeth apologizes to Darcy and he has the last word in the play. ritual apologies and humiliations are common for women in many many movies.

In a play called Dear Jane,written by Eleanor Holmes Hinkley, and directed and produced by Eva LeGallienne and her lover-companion or partner, Josephine Hutchinson, we are returned to woman-centered book, and lesbian reading of Jane and Cassandra’s relationship (I add it anticipates part of Miss Austen Regrets with Olivia Williams and Greta Scacchi in the roles). It does much more than this but this is the main thrust. It apparently failed very badly in the theaters, was understood by some critics and mocked. Looser says both this and the previous accompany new attitudes towards Austen which seek to end the view of her as a asexual (or frigid) spinster, give her a sexual life and independent character fit for a career characteristic of mid-20th century women.


From Miss Austen Regrets Olivia Williams as Jane and Greta Scacchi as Cassandra in one of their many intense scenes together (2009, scripted Gweneth Hughes)

All these plays increasingly present Mr and Mrs Bennet as happily married by the end – I was struck how in the 2005 Wright Pride and Prejudice, Wright made them into a sexually satisfied couple. Looser is much taken with knock-about comedy and face and she discusses a script that was never produced but intended for an Austen movie after the Stromberg film that turned P&P into farce, but wanted to include Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier to play Mr and Mrs Bennet in happy old age together.

Looser has a very long chapter on the production of the 1940s film. Many scripts, many endless changes, most of which show that until Huxley and Jane Murfin (the final screenplay writers) came on board, the last thing that interested MGM was to be faithful to Austen. They were very dubious about any popularity such books could have –- over in the UK there was more sense that these books did have a following (maybe since Speaking of Austen by Kaye-Smith and Stern a book discussed in the conference in the last Saturday afternoon session). The movie was in fact not the popular hit that was longed for (in the way of Wuthering Heights, Rebecca and Mrs Miniver at the time) and there was no commercial movie of Austen in the cinemas until the 1990s.

As I wrote last time, Looser refuses to evaluate this material and clearly from the quotations some of it is drek. We do see what stage play and movie makers assumed were popular responses to the Austen, and how they turned her round to reflect their own lives (like Stillman). Even more telling to me is how Looser is showing the slow growth of popular celebrity for Austen and how this celebrity has nothing to do with the actual content, tone or nature of her books (often acid, anti-society, showing family life as internecine, unsentimental, not heterosexual), which seems in fact to be anathema to any wide readership.

On Janeites the other day Nancy Mayer wrote of how the sequels often have little feel for Austen’s texts. At the JASNA dinner I sat at a table where three of the people has read no Austen; two had seen a lot of the movies. At the front of the room was the familiar silhouette that has become a tiny symbol for Austen –yet there is no evidence for thinking it’s a portrait of Austen. It was found in a book connected to her. To my eyes the outline of the face does not look like Austen particularly. The emptiness of a celebrity image was my thought as I sat there.

Now, writing this blog, I remember how Gillian Dow mourned Austen’s early death, asking all to recall that she was cut off from she might have written had she lived. Q.D.Leavis was accurate in pointing to the similarities and repetitive patterns in the six published novels. They were after all in their final state written within 7 years. Would she have developed in a new direction?

Ellen

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Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) and Maudie (Sally Hawkins) early on in film

Dear friends and readers,

A few days ago I saw a extraordinary movie which had a moment so uplifting that it caught my breath: Sherry (Kari Matchett) asks Maudie (Sally Hawkins) what has sustained her, enabled her to survive to paint these marvelously colorful expressionistic depictions of gardens, people, landscapes. Maud says with a deep sincerity, she has had windows to sit by and look at the world out of, and these experiences which she paints and from which painting and interaction within herelf give her such fulfilment, it’s enough. What more than this core does anyone have. Words to this effect.


An image of one of the real Maud Lewis’s paintings

She is living with Sherry because Sherry has taken her in after she left her partner-husband, Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) because his latest form of obtuse bullying includes trying to stop her from talking of the baby she gave birth to many years ago, and how it was taken from her immediately by her aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) and brother Charles (Zachary Bennett), how they claimed the baby was born deformed and died, but was in fact (her aunt has now out of guilt and respect for Maud told her) perfectly formed, and lived. Her brother “sold” the baby, says Ida, because the couple was a stable, good pair of people and they thought this was for the best. They cannot have had Maud’s feelings in mind: we now realize she experienced an agon of grief, loss, and despair (she was led to believe she should never have children).

This is just one of an at first ever-growing pile tragic traumatic experience visited upon Maud (that we get to see): when we first meet her, she seems old, wizened, badly disabled by arthritis or some such condition, and despite this painting gay flowers. Flashback (the rest of the movie) to her in say her twenties when she is living a stifled life with this same aunt, no money, no access to any enjoyment, spoken harshly to, ripped out of her mother’s house (which her brother has now sold — he is into selling things) and left to rot with this aunt. Late at night, she quietly leaves the house and haunts a nearby roadhouse, where people are drinking, dancing, talking, and she can cage cigarettes, a glass of beer, and dream amid the noise and stars. She finds (most improbably it might seem) liberty, and then creates her life as a painter and loving companion with a silent seemingly “retarded” (he is autistic) fish-peddler (precarious living) she sees in a general store asking someone to write an advertisement for him for a “housemaid.” His house is a filthy shack. Ignoring the aunt’s protests, sneers, predictions she will be a “love slave” (which she laughs at astonished), she approaches this man and gets permission to become his housemaid.


Everett at work

More oppression is what she finds: giving her hardly any tools, no money, he demands she clean the house, cook for him (he is clearly impoverished from the state of his kitchen pots, utensils, stove), is barely civil. She has nowhere to sleep but next to him in his bed in an attic room. He speaks of an orphanage, and we gather his abominable behavior is what he learned there: he seeks control as a way of stablizing his environment. It gets so bad, he is so distrustful of her encroaching on him, taking power, that when an associate of his (also staking out a precarious living) speaks to her, and she responds, he hits her hard across the face. Her startled scream of anguish made the single slap and its sound means more than 100s killed in other movies. I thought to myself, if this keeps up, I can’t stay, and wondered if my friend (I was with a new friend) would mind if I insisted on leaving. But this is the nadir of the film.


Ride in the Snow (the movie landscape is filled with ice and snow)

Gradually she wins him over, by her patient improvements of this cottage and then her cheerful naive paintings celebratory of all around them, the natural world (we learn eventually we are in Nova Scotia, Canada), everything in the cottage, him, her, invented anecdotes. First the walls, then we see her making her painful way to a shop, grudgingly he buys her paper and paints because she has begun to use one can of paint to paint on discarded boards of wood she found outside the shack. The state of their relationship may be measured by his beginning to follow or go before her with his wagon, and then his putting her in the wagon while he pushes it ahead of him. It is Sherry’s first visit to complain that Everett has not delivered the fish she paid for that effects the first transformative change: Sherry sees the paintings on the wall, and asks Maud to paint postcards for her. She will pay Maud. Out of his first success, and Sherry’s advertising Maud to other people, telling her NYC friends, associates in gallery, Maud’s first enlarged custom comes. By this time Maud is regularly lying with Everett at night and when once he is moved to try to have sex with her, she has told the story she was told of the birth and death of a deformed baby. At that, he moves back, but he is not turned off. She has begun to write down an accounting of his business (money taken in, fish promised), and he has begun to do some and then gradually more and more of the household chores while she paints. He is alive to the money she is bringing in. The film is not sentimental. They form a partnership.


The marriage day — outside the church

But it is touching even if we feel that the roughness from him, and abject acceptance from her never goes. If I were to characterize their developing emotional relationship for the rest of the film I would use the word tender: a vein of tender affection is drawn out of him as he increasingly compensates himself for what she cannot do easily. They do make love in that bed, and (very characteristic throughout) she says gingerly and then repeats the idea they should marry, and eventually we see both of them dressing themselves respectable and carefully and then with the original friend-associate and his girlfriend coming out of a church a married couple. The mood of their life is cheerful, because very unexpectedly as soon as she is treated with minimal decency, a kind of laughter comes out of her eyes, her face shines with eagerness; she is quietly buoyant and I was reminded of the first time I saw Sally Hawkins in Mike Leigh’s Happy-go-Lucky (as long ago as 2008), which was about a stalwart happy community (that I now associate with Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls). Hawkins has the unusual ability convincingly to bring joy out of anguish (that is what she did as Anne Elliot in the 2007 Persuasion). Aisling Walsh, the director gives them plenty of room for inward-outward display; Sherry White’s script is both simple and subtle.


Maud Lewis in front of the small house where she lived with Everett

Not until the end of the film did I realize that Maud Lewis was a real Canadian artist (1903-70), that this was a deeply empathetic biopic of a beloved artist, who had indeed been arthritic, disabled, and rescued by while she rescued, an isolated man, also disabled. Just as the credits are about to roll, photographs of the real Maud and Everett Lewis appear (and we see these actors modeled their bodily appearance on the original people). As Glenn Kerry puts it, “This film fits into a particular kind of sub-genre: the story of two lonely people, societal outcasts, who find comfort and solace with each other.” But it does not treat this theme (or any other) conventionally. It’s not a story about how wonderful is fame — indeed I as a viewer kept worrying that somehow the increasing number of people showing up at the cottage, and eventually the crooked brother, would somehow break this couple up. The suspense of the film comes from our fear they will lose one another because they remain inarticulate: each concession comes unexpectedly, not prepared for. After Maud returns to Everett, and a scene between them where each has trouble acknowledging love (for different reasons):


she listens to him, pays attention

After they come back together, he seemingly suddenly drives her to a respectable looking house outside of which is a young 20 year old woman and her husband. Everett says “there is your daughter.” He has found the girl and Maud begins to cry. They also do not move from this isolated existence, so towards the end when her arthritis is much worse and she falls in the snow while Everett is off selling fish, she is in danger of freezing to death, of badly hurting herself.

What breaks them is aging, her disability gets worse. She cannot walk far, can hardly hold her brushes. She has throughout the movie smoked and now she can’t breathe. A doctor shows up, and declares she has emphysema and must stop smoking. Everett declares (in his usual bullying manner) she already has. But it is too late. One night together in their now electric-lit, heated, comfortable home, she falls over unable to breathe. He rushes her to a hospital, where she gradually dies. Hawkins performs her usual spectacular acting (she was an inimitable Duchess of Gloucester, jealous, foolishly playing with superstition, then blamed and tortured, gone mad in the Hollow Crown), but Ethan Hawke is not far behind. He looks different, thicker than his usual types, gradually utterly convincing. As he walked away from the hospital to loneliness in this cottage filled with her things, her absent present I remembered him when young in Sunrise, and then five years later Sunset with Julie Delpy, then ten years on, Midnight, and somehow this movie seemed another phase, with his beloved partner now deeply aged and quietly much wiser.

I write this detailed review because the blurbs on IMDB are so distorted (this is the story of an arthritic housekeeper who makes good in her community one runs — what community?) and the reviews few and uncomprehending or uncomfortable. It seems disabled people living in poverty need to be prettied up more. Manola Dargis sees the film as “about the fantasies we make of our lives as we spin beauty and hope from despair.” There is a book, Lance Woolaver’s Maud Lewis: The Heart on the Door where he shows a desperate life. Everett Lewis was a far more difficult man to live with than the film makes out. The movie softens, but it’s often through remembering and emphasizing the paintings, the imagery, the artist painting.


Cats

I often despair, I’m alone much of the time, and it was good for me to have validated the kinds of moments (mine literary) I have which make all the hard and tiring parts of life, the awareness of how excluded I am, still worth enduring for me. This has come to be another in my series of women artists. Maybe I will find the spirit to return to these yet.


A slightly sadder picture

Ellen

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charlottefelicityclare
Charlotte Heywood (Amy Burrows), Felicity Lamb (Bonnie Adair) Clara Brereton (Lucy-Jane Quinlan)

Diana’s letter: [Susan] has been suffering from the headache and six leeches a day for ten days together … convinced on examination the evil lay in her gum, I persuaded her to attack the disorder there. She has accordingly had three teeth drawn, and is decidedly better, but her nerves are a good deal deranged … Jane Austen’s Sanditon

Though he had not the character of a gamester, it was known in certain circles that he occasionally played well, & successfully; to others he was better known as an acute & very useful political agent, the probable reason of his living so much abroad — Of Mr Tracy, Anna Lefroy’s continuation

Dear friends and readers,

Today a friend sent me a news item that the first “period costume drama” of Jane Austen’s unfinished Sanditon is slated to be filmed, in an advertisement that says this is the first filmed Sanditon. Well not so. Chris Brindle’s play from Jane Austen and Anna Lefroy’s Sanditon is, and it’s the argument of this blog it’s probably much more in the spirit of Austen than the coming commercial one.

First, the ad suggests a cosy, creamy film (rather like the recent Love and Freindship), with the completion written by Marie Dobbs. Dobbs turned a satirical and highly sceptical story whose focus is a group of people seeking to make money on the false promises of a seaside spa to cure people, into a melodramatic romance, complete with an abduction, an elopement and three marriages, the accent now on love. Yes box office stars, Holliday Grainger for Charlotte and Max Irons for Sidney Parker have been cast. And much better — reasons for thinking this might be another strong Austen film: the screenplay writer is Simone Reade, who has to his writing credit a fine movie from R. C. Sherriff’s powerful WW1 Journey’s End and the 1997 Prince of Hearts. In addition, the director is Jim O’Hanlon who directed the 2009 Emma scripted by Sandy Welch and starring Romolai Garai and Johnny Lee Miller. And Charlotte Rampling is to play Lady Denham!

Nonetheless, I wanted to recommend not waiting and availing yourself of Chris Brindle’s production of Sanditon, available on DVD from http://www.sanditon.info. I’ve watched it three times now, and went back and reread (as I’ve done before) Anna Lefroy’s continuation, which, together with her aunt’s fragment are the basis for Chris Brindle’s script. It has that Jane Austen quality of telling real truths while leaving you somewhat cheered.

sandition
Shots of the English countryside near the seashore occur between scenes

This interlude between the two acts captures the brightness of the production; the singer is Amy Burrows who plays an appealing Charlotte. She also narrates the good 40 minute documentary available from the site about Anna Lefroy’s life and other writing and relationship with Austen as well as the circumstances surrounding Austen’s writing of Sanditon: Austen, as we all know, was fatally ill knew it, often in bad pain; this was her last piece of writing.


Singers: Amy Burrows and Nigel Thomas (click on the YouTube logo to go over to hear the song)

Brindle is an ancestor of the painter of a miniature of Anna Lefroy, and has interested himself in the landscape, houses, and culture of the era.

First some admission or warning-preparation. The people doing the production had a very small (or no) budget and parts of the play are acted in front a black screen; several of the actors are half-reading the scripts. I found this did not get in my way once I became interested in the play and characters and that was quickly. These parts of the performance reminded of good staged readings I’ve attended.

On the many pluses side: like Catherine Hubback’s Younger Sister (Hubback has also until recently not be a favored subject for the Austen family so that it was hard to get hold of her continuation of The Watsons), Lefroy clearly knows more of the direction Austen meant to take the story in than we can see in the extant text. In her Mary Hamilton she captured something of her aunt’s tone in Persuasion: here she continues the peculiar comic feel combining real hypocrisies, delusions, with a comic control from distancing style. Lefroy’s continuation was not widely known until 1977 when it was published in a good edition and is still ignored, partly because Anna’s close relationship is her aunt is downplayed in favor of Austen’s relationship with the richer Fanny Austen Knight.

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His carriage overturned, Mr Parker demands that Mr Heywood (Adam Bone) produce a surgeon ….

In the film, the parts are very well-acted, especially of the key figures, Mr [now given the first name of] Tom Parker (Vincent Webb) and Lady Denham (Barbara Rudall). What Lefroy did was to bring out the implications of her aunt’s story: Parker is fringe gentry desperately trying to make money to support his gentleman’s lifestyle, overspending to make an impression, a physician-chaser (he deliberately allows his carriage to overturn where he thinks he will meet with a physician whom he can bring to Sanditon to allure the sick into believing the spa will cure them. For Mr Parker, there is just enough lightness of humor to make them sympathetic figures, without overlooking his actual predation, which is however registered by Mrs Parker’s querulous fretting (Bonnie Adair). It’s more than hinted in Austen’s fragment that the sanguine Sidney, the younger brother (played by Pete Ashore), is an intelligent decent man (a sort of Mr Knightley figure) who rescues Parker from bankruptcy. Lefroy’s text adds a villain-friend of Sidney’s, a Mr Tracy (Adam Bone) whom she characterizes in a more worldly way than any of Austen’s heroes: Tracy is rather like one of Trollope’s semi-rakes; he lives high off his rank, cheating just enough on cards and here as a speculator in a local bank, to sluice money off other people; his creditors don’t call his debts in because they keep hoping to be paid in full. Brindle adds further that Tracy also takes advantage of the delusionary conceited Lady Denham (a sort of Lady Catherine de Bourgh figure) to bankrupt her account.

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Lady Denham disdaining Clara Brereton in a scene between egregiously rude dowager and put-upon heroine that repeats across Austen’s oeuvre

This open emphasis on money as the girding understructure of the society is matched by a development out of Austen’s text: Clara Brereton (Lucy-Jane Quinlan) is a paid companion to Lady Denham, who exploits and bullies her; she is also being seduced by Sir Edward Denham, Lady Denham’s nephew. They have to hide this from her and Austen’s text ends with Charlotte spying them seated on a bench where Clara looks very distressed. In Austen’s text Denham is an admirer of Richardson’s Lovelace, and Clara may be seen as a short version of the name Clarissa. Brindle adds (somewhat improbably) that Denham is pressuring Clara to put some poisonous or sickening compound into Lady Denham’s medicines to do away with the old woman. Brindle has picked up a view of Austen’s Mr William Elliot I have and think may be seen in the 2007 ITV Persuasion (scripted by Simone Burke). Mr Elliot pretends solvency but is actually near broke; that’s why he is hanging around his uncle, Sir Walter and is willing to have a liasion with Mrs Clay to have evidence he can use against her if she should try to marry Sir Walter. Sir Edward Denham is in type a Mr Elliot: a really bad man, desperate for money. I found it an ambiguous feel was given this simple characterization when the same actor played both the good man (Sidney) and the bad one (Denham): Pete Ashore. The choices for doubling are effective: the simple good Mr Heywood, the smooth calculating crook Tracy: Adam Bone.

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Diana’s anguish (wildly antipathetic comedy found more in Austen’s letters & juvenilia) is counter-checked by the clarity of Alice Osmanski’s delivery

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Arthur (Rickey Kettly-Prentice) nearby reacts

The best scenes though are those which don’t forward the plot directly. One set are those given where we have just Alice Osmanski as Diana Parker talking out Diana’s inimitable letters or place in dialogue with the Parkers, Charlotte and different configurations of the other characters. She was brilliant, vivacious, half-mad and well-meaning all at once. Rickey Kettly-Prentice is too thin for Arthur, but otherwise utterly convincing as this falsely hypochondriacal young man who finds he does not have to work for a living. Working for money in Austen’s novels is presented positively again and again, but Arthur is the first male to himself almost self-consciously enact a drone role.

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Miss Lamb’s hard face while she tells Clara her history

The other are those where the plight or hard circumstances of young women without money or status are made central: the characters who carry this are Charlotte Heywood (not brought out clearly in Austen’s fragment because as yet she is not sought by Sidney Parker), Clara Brereton and Miss Lamb, her given the ironic first name of Felicity. Austen tells us only that she is a “mulatto,” very rich, brought by a governess along with a few other girls in a seminary arrangement to spend time at the seashore. Brindle has her tell a story to Charlotte and Clara that reminds me of the story of in the 1808 anonymous epistolary novel, The Woman of Color. Felicity is the daughter of a slave-mistress of her father, both badly treated by the man, with strong suggestions that she was sexually abused by Lamb at age nine. Fittingly for Austen’s fragment, Brindle has disease (a factor in the West Indies for the English who had not built up immunities) do him in. He loses all his relatives but Felicity, and ends up semi-dependent on her while she is there, and sends her to England in order (in effect) to buy a white husband in order to to produce whiter grandchildren for himself. In her intense conversation with Clara and Charlotte Bonnie Adair as Felicity seethes with anger and hurt and shows no disposition to marry anyone; she wants independence and liberty and the play ends without her having engaged herself to anyone.

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Denham pressuring Clara

Brindle also fills in Clara’s story: Lucy-Jane Quinlan speaks with a cockney accent throughout and is given a sort Dickensian deprived background, which is poignant. As it’s understandable that Miss Lamb should not be keen to marry any man, and want to control her money so it’s understandable the portionless Clara should be willing to submit to Edward Denham’s bullying, insults (there are brief moments of this) in order to marry him. It’s her only way to provide for herself she says to Charlotte.

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Sidney saving the day

Telling it this way brings out the undercurrents of melodrama and harsh realities that actuate the crises and character’s hypocrisies. The appeal of the piece, its piquancy, is like poor Susan’s miserably over-medicated existence (appropriately Susan is played by the same actress who plays the hard-worked maid, Daisy, Ruby O’Mara), kept muted most of the time. Susan and Daisy don’t say much: Susan is continually using a handkerchief, writhing quietly; Daisy is kept busy. Only in the moments of exposure — such as when Sidney saves everyone by exposing Tracy (and declares for more building up Sanditon), or Mr Parker finds he must admit he is nearly without funds, and the hysteria of Lady Denham for whom a proposed income of £100 a month or a year is horrifying. Fatal. Otherwise how have a happy ending for Clara. I’m sure Brindle has also read Emma where Jane Fairfax’s happy fate is the result of Lady Churchill’s sudden death.

This is a play and production which does not turn Austen into complacent romance or uncritical social comedy. Not that Simone Reade’s production necessarily will. Brindle says in the documentary he meant to do justice to Anna Lefroy’s continuation, her writing and life relationship with her aunt. He does so. Perhaps the delight or feeling that this is world where there are good people whose strength has not been undermined or twisted by circumstances inheres most in Amy Burrows’s character and performance. She does not seem at all your moralizing exemplary heroine, just someone (as she says) who has been lucky to have kind (if not very rich) parents. She is given several wry choral asides for turns in the story.

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Delivering an aside

Try it, you’ll like it if you give it a chance.

Ellen

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

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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

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Olive (Frances McDormand), Henry, her husband (Richard Jenkins), and their son, Christopher (at age 13, Devin Druid)

I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like — Austen on Emma

It is not enough for me to know what I have in me … [I want to be part of] Pierre and that young girl [Natasha] who wanted to fly away into the sky … so that my life may not be lived for myself alone while others live apart from it, but so that it may be reflected in them all, and they and I may live in harmony” Tolstoy’s Andrey in War and Peace)

Friends and readers,

Ever belated, I finished watching an unusually realistic and good mini-series, Olive Kitteridge (2014) (scripted Jane Anderson, directed Lisa Cholodenko, produced by among others Frances McDormand). adapted closely from Elizabeth Strout’s novel (2008) of the same name (won the Pultizer but that does not mean it’s necessarily bad, only that it’s deemed quintessentially mainstream American somehow and is good). I see it as a book directly in the tradition of quietly realistic ironically held at a distance novels, mostly by women, brought to its first fruition by Jane Austen. Olive Kitteridge is much more unlikeable than Emma (or Oliphant’s Miss Marjoribanks, and I was led to the book and movie because a friend talked about how all but two women readers in her bookclub hated the book because they hated the heroine.

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Henry offering flowers

What did they hate her for? I had asked. I’ve found out why: Olive keeps saying aloud truths and/or perceptions she has of other people that would hurt those people were they are there, and do hurt those people around her and are involved. Her comments are remorsely critical of others, corrosive. Such behavior or language is not a small thing: people can hate you for this if you keep it up; I’ve seen this and felt myself withered and burning in my mind with my efforts to throw off the mean observation. Olive does this it a lot, and in many situations, and especially when inside her family (husband and son). Strout has loaded the cards by making Henry, her husband, a deeply tolerant, kindly, sweetly romantic (he brings her flowers, candy, gifts), someone unwilling to unable to answer back lest he hurt her or someone else or make things worse; Henry is ever turning what Olive utters back to something kinder by looking at whatever is happening from a charitable point of view. This makes us feel very uncomfortable, hurt for Henry continually, and puzzled at such a heroine.

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Jim O’Casey (Peter Mullan) walking away

Beyond the rarity of making this character a heroine, Strout (and after her) Colondenko and Anderson, see Olive with sympathy, forgive her. At first it is hard to tell whether Olive loves or despises her husband or whether she is trying to lead her son to a finer career or is ashamed of him for not getting the very best grades in the classroom and thus intensely competitive. She is having or almost had an affair with a fellow teacher, in English, Jim O’Casey (Peter Mullan), who picks her and her son up every morning to take the four of them to school. The situation is resolved when Jim commits a suicide that is not admitted to because Jim drives his car into a tree while drunk. It’s hinted this is due to her rejection of him — and when her husband will no longer let him pick her and her son up for school and she accepts that. She is super-hard to the point of harassment over her son’s school-work; she allows no slack for him. When he challenges her with how generous she can be to others, she says I talk this way because you are my son. I say it’s one thing to insist on high expectations for your own, it’s another to denigrate.

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Christopher (John Gallagher Jr) with Suzanne (Libby Winters) at the engagement

Henry’s first marriage to an upwardly mobile, self-centered young woman, Suzanne (Libby Winters), and what happens at his wedding one of these fashionable prestige events can disclose how the son and father respond to her and why some of why she is so rebarbative. Olive cannot stand her prospective daughter-in-law and assumes Suzanne will make Christopher very unhappy with her obsessive (like her mother who is there) concern for admirable appearance and rising in the world.

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Olive, dress-making, POV Henry’s

Olive has made a dress for herself, deeply unfashionable, and somehow (like Widmerpool in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time) all wrong, an embarrassment. She worked hard on it: it’s lovely material, filled with images of flowers. When Henry sees her in it, he tells her she looks lovely. It is not clear that he thinks so, but he is trying to support her as he knows her dress just won’t do. And he knows it. But her behavior at the wedding is openly alienated and alienating, and helps no one, cannot change her son’s new mother-in-law or wife.

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But by the third and fourth episode when her son has married for a second time and lives in NYC, she has shown concern for who he married the first time, seems to pay attention to flaws in the second choice (two children by two previous men? well that’s the way life is now, Mom) and misses him. She is all alone because Henry has had a serious stroke, damaging his ability to respond to anything. She keeps him in the house as long as she can and then when he is put in an “assisted home,” she seemed devoted to him, coming everyday, checking on his condition, clearly bereft without him. Her only companion is her dog and radio. When she visits a friend who sends her condolences, she finds this woman loathes her for slights and punishments she inflicted on this woman’s son years ago and she now says the cruelest things she can think of. Olive is driven into further retreat and turning to Henry, but he cannot respond nor does he seem to know what is happening around him. It is too late to mend her relationship with Christopher (John Gallagher Jr) too. He’s at core deeply embittered; he has spent years at psychiatrists, which when he tells her about, she dismisses curtly. Now though she is alone, and in need of emotional support and company herself.

For myself I would have felt about Olive the way Christopher does at the end. I have a person close to me who similarly has a cruel tongue, partly out of irritation at me, and partly spite and embarrassment, anger at me for what I am. I find I cannot throw off such remarks and they dwell with me, I brood on them.

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Christopher in the morning, Ann (Audrey Marie Anderson) getting children ready for school — Olive is crying hard to the side

Christopher tries and tries to keep up the relationship, to please his mother but every once in a while his hurt and bitterness break out. He ages and is clearly so tired. His new wife is not tidy; cannot keep up with her children. Paradoxically it’s in her later relationship with him we can see an “upside” to her continual corrosions. The father now dead and Christopher divorced and remarried, he invites Olive to come and stay with them for a week, for his new wife is pregnant, and has two children by two previous men. Ann (Audrey Marie Anderson) could use some help. So while with this couple their older boy who is himself “difficult” keeps pulling at her dress and making a nuisance of himself and she cannot resist turning and slapping him. Her response reminded me of how Anne Elliot given such treatment in Persuasion, just takes it — and that’s not good either, for the child then begins to prey on her. For fun. Now her son and daughter-in-law are indignant at her and simply assume she’s wrong, she must apologize to the son and if the son can find it in himself to forgive her he will. This is nonsense. The boy was at fault. He deserved that slap. Olive is old, now alone, gives in, but rightly (I think) under such continual barrages of wrong-headed behavior on the part of the son and daughter-in-law leaves early. This prompts bitter recriminations by the son.

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Denise (Zoe Kazan) and young Henry (Brady Corbell)

The upside of Olive’s remarks is they are often accurate; she cannot bear the cant of the world, cannot bear the pretense of sentimentality. She seems to see too clearly how selfish is most behavior and how people are exploiting one another. Of course we could be charitable and say they are helping one another to sustain life decently. But often she sees the delusion and danger, self-destruction others seem to be headed for — this is not unselfish of her as often her jealousy is actuating her too. Henry becomes husband was attracted to a young girl; Denise (Zoe Kazan) he hired in his pharmacy who manifests a child-like dependence and worship of a young husband, another Henry (Brady Corbel); this Henry is killed in a hunting accident. (There are numerous deaths over the years in this story). The husband and another male friend had agreed to hunt with him, no one at all critiques hunting, though the husband is clearly no expert. It’s no wonder the friend shots the young Henry instead of the deer. Remarkable he did not also shoot the old Henry. Old Henry allows the girl to cling to him, and Olive resents this and sees the girl as a predator, but the way to stop the husband is not these bitter sarcastic ripostes, but to admit he is looking for someone else because she is so rebarbative, refuses to respond with kindness to his efforts to be kind her to her, cannot open up. If she sees this, she never acknowledges it. That would be to admit her vulnerability. Years later Denise who marries the other store clerk; Jerry (Jesse Plemons) whom she and old Henry encouraged to go to college and now has a very good job and is well educated; he now sees Denise as a fool and himself has as little patience with her as Olive. But what Jerry does not do is allow his remarks to become too explicit too painful.

The whole interest of the novel is in the significance of Olive’s tongue, truthfulness if you see it this way, counter-productive tactlessness if you don’t. No one wants to admit she has any truth on her side. It’s so inconvenient. People consult ease and convenience in the here and now first. In the movie there is no explanation for why Olive is like this. We do not see her childhood. There is no over-voice and we have only her behavior to watch and most of it in social situations. In the book the narrator keeps her distance, does not delve. When Olive is alone at story’s end we see her grieving but we also see her stoically just enduring everything as if she was not at fault for what has happened, which in a sense she was not. I want to stress that she’s accurate: her son’s first wife is materialistic cold horror, her son’s first wife’s mother-in-law one of the world’s typical phonies mouthing cant and pretending to have all sorts of happy feelings and all the while endlessly showing off. Denise is a limpet. She did drive her son to go to a better college and become a doctor (podiatrist).

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Olive with Henry when they are aging and with their dog

Her problem is she is unable to express her point of view frankly as that would reveal her vulnerability. She is all guardedness. She pays heavily for her tongue in the end. As long as Henry is alive, she has the comforting pillow companion who smooths all. When the hospital staff pretend to obey her, do not contradict her idea that Henry can still react to her, it’s not out of kindness again, but as the easiest thing to do. When she is out of sight, they will care for Henry as they think appropriate — not much attention paid beyond the physical medicine and care for cleanliness.

Olive is not justified but her response to society is shown as understandable, or it’s forgiven. She weeps real tears; she is hurt herself. She seems not to understand that she has so hurt others.

I was a little grated on by the ending. She says she will stay alive as long as her dog lives. He grows very sick and has to be “put down.” So now she determines to kill herself.

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Olive late in life with Kennison (Bill Murray) walking in a wintry park

In the meantime she has (as if it’s the easiest thing in the world) made an acquaintance with Jack Kennison (Bill Murray) of a man who is a widower; his wife died of cancer. He says life is now hell and she agrees. So he is like her: he can tell the truth. Yet they do not get along because their conversation is continually rebarbative: he is somewhat reactionary and a person who was at an Ivy League colleague (so above her in status) and she cannot bear to listen to Rush Limbaugh talk. yet in her loneliness, she invites him to come to dinner at a restaurant, and they begin to have such a direct spat, she gets up and leaves, takes a cab home. It is after this that we see her trying to kill herself with a gun in the woods.

Jack had condemned her for not trying to phone her son after the husband died when she told him what her son had done to her and complained of when she visited him; she replies he didn’t tell me when he gets married for the second time. Jack says she should have called Christopher nonetheless, but also says he has not spoken to his daughter for two years. As she is sitting with the gun to her head, the phone rings. We have seen scenes where Christopher tries to get Olive to get herself a flip or cell phone and she refuse — she does not want to be at someone’s beck and call. We realize that after for years resisting getting a cell phone she has one. It’s her daughter-in-law, Ann, phoning her to say the baby has been born. The camera only allows us to see her bent over from the back: I thought it was the face of the agon of existence and left to our imagination. What a twisted tortured state of mind the woman must have. She turns and puts the gun away. As she then turns to us her face resumes her usual carefully neutral expression. But the next day she visits this man with flowers and lays next to him on the bed and they begin to talk about, and it seems they will become friends. he puts his arm around her shoulder. I thought this a kind of cop out. I have to believe in a good ending or it makes me feel worse Strout pulled down the curtain at a happier moment to give the story a semi-happy ending, or upbeat. Of course the next moment they could fight.

A friend said of this “What I liked about the ending of Olive Kitteridge was not that Olive found a new lover, but that the Swiss-cheese-like holes in her were finally acknowledged and covered by someone else. That’s sometimes the best we can hope for in love.” I can see the ending by no means negated all that had gone before, and in a sense confirmed it. But experience has taught me as an older widow, men do not go for older widows, people do not open up this way. Making a new relationship is not something easily done after a lifetime of disillusioning experience and becoming a very particular character. The novel and film suddenly dropped the pretenses of realism – which are its strength.

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Alone now

I am alone now too but for the Net and think this is due mostly to my situation — it’s not a punishment. As Graham Swift says in his masterpiece, Last Orders, the important thing is not to take what happens in life as a punishment. I’ve been told Olive Kitteridge is a portrait of Strout’s mother. So maybe like Christopher she is exorcising this ill spirit. One could say that Olive being alone at last is meant to be a kind of punishment for what she is, which I take as problematic, but the fiction and film are truthful enough to hint that whether Olive had had a kinder tongue or not the world would have cast her aside once her husband was gone, because it would have no use for her. Only if she would give in, be like others, smile, let things pass, accept what is, will it smile at her and keep her company.

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Maine snow, part of opening sequence of paratexts

The book performs as an Olive itself and so does the movie giving us the a truthful portrait of all the characters we pass by who are part of this rural Maine community. It is a study of small town life in Maine. Much attention is paid to scenery, to the modes of economic life. We see the sea so often, snow. boats. This means much to Strout (see Craig Morgan Teicher, “Maine Idea,” Publishers Weekly 255.5 [4 Feb. 2008]: 32). It’s an ethnography the way Annie Proulx’s or George Eliot’s novels are. I have bought both Olive Kitteridge and her latest, My Name is Lucy Barton. It belongs to the kind of novel I especially love: out of Austen, out of women writers of the 19th century, and men who write such novels too, often using a female at the center (Trollope sometimes, Henry James a lot, Colm Toibin all the time – I read each of Toibin’s novels as they appear).

I found the mini-series therapeutic. I thought the performances of all the actors superb. The music was slow and touching, full of codas. The filming of Maine caught key aspects of the place. I have tried to get down the experience for others and myself so as to share and try to understand it better. Unlike Olive, I welcome comments.

Ellen

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London bridge, galloped across by Lydia, then Darcy, then Elizabeth, and all back again (Burr Steers’s P&P and Zombies)

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Fires were started (outside the usual assembly room dance)

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Elizabeth (Lily James) swinging her battleaxe

Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition — Elinor Dashwood, S&S

We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing” — Elizabeth Bennet, P&P

Dear friends and readers,

I’m in the peculiar position of having set out to damn this movie with faint praise, and dutifully reading the major reviews first, finding myself having more to say on behalf of the movie than most, and feeling what was so bad about the movie important enough to warrant explanation. Most reviews were a short paragraph or two at most: Peter Travers of Rolling Stone dismissed it cheerfully (!) as “utter nonsense;”; Manohla Dargis of the New York Times pronounced it “tedious and dull,” was irritated by reiterated motifs and jokes. Christie Lemire, one of those who carry on RogerEbert.com conceded some pictorial value, but it was so poorly done;; I went to Deb Barnum (Jane Austen in Vermont) hoping to fortify myself with praise there, but found that in fact she apologizes for her enjoyment and the movie.

This all agreed, despite the valiant efforts of this or that actor/actress. After an initial promotional showing in Maryland, P&P & Zombies never came near the movie-houses in my area (not DC, not in Northern Virginia, not exactly a backwater), and disappeared from movie-houses in friends’ areas around the country inside a week. Most Jane Austen movies, no matter how jarring the collocations, do very well. What was so bad? What went wrong?

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The Proposal scene, first phase (Sam Riley and Lily James)

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Second, they fight over a gun, before dengenerating into wrestling, hitting, and kicking match

I watched it twice, the first time swiftly through, the second much more slowly, taking a few snaps and paying attention to that or that. I didn’t dislike it the second time as much as I did the first (a common reaction I have to poorer Austen films). It’s memorable, a weird mirror. It shows the same turn for sudden blazing violence as even this summer’s Woody Allen’s Cafe Society includes. I argue despite its egregious flaws, it is not just failed entertainment.

I’m slightly ashamed to say why I disliked it so at first, but as this is why I argue the film is worth thinking about I’ll bring this out. I could not get myself to take it non-seriously. Had I been able to regard it as the smashing together of inane trivia from the conventions of Zombie movies with the plot-outline and most memorable or favored scenes of P&P, which in turn rendered all the Austen parts we have as themselves more inane trivia, then I would not have been disturbed. Damn it, I was.

The given of a zombie movie is there are these zombie creatures inhabiting wherever the movie is taking place, they are utterly distasteful looking — the worst kinds of ugly suppurating wounds, patches on people’s faces or whole parts of their bodies bleeding, filthy (filth is an important part of the visuals), curiously hideous; the face of the person grins at you, and it seems given a chance they would bite or attack you so that you become transformed into something similar. There can be poignant moments as if someone stepping out from a bombed area, some nuclear war:

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A mother and child

Only the zombies are not given the chance. The “good” or unpolluted (good = unpolluted, this is part of the worrying subtext) characters assault the zombies first. We are “treated” to the major principles in the film blasting these zombie creatures with bombs, blasts, fire, guns of all sorts, knives photographed close up, long rifles; the principles kick, smash, jump on, and blast out the zombies. Our five heroines we are told have been training as warrior in China (the usual place is said to be Japan), so too Charlotte (Aisling Loftus, Sonya from the recent W&P), over-the-top hideiously made-up is Lady Catherine de Bourgh who is treated as just delectable (Lena Headley) because of her warrior costume and black patch on one eye.

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Thrones play a big part in the sets

These heroines pass their days hitting one another, slapping, kicking; they walk about with guns. Darcy is a chief hunter-out and destroyer of Zombies, behaving like some doctor in violence.

Considering what goes on in US streets, the killing and violence of fear and hatred also across Europe and the middle east, engendered by this war on (so-called) terror, how can anyone regard this as trivial? it’s a reinforcement. There was Lily James, with a mean expression on her face, hair dyed dark brown (it is just one step too far to make Elizabeth Bennet a blonde), toting and stumbling over huge rifles as she stalked down streets.

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The gallant “Parson” Collins (Matt Smith), the only character in the film who is against guns (will not have them in his house), chivalrously turns to help Elizabeth during the walk to Meryton

I can’t laugh at these versions of slapstick. I never liked laughing at characters made to slip and fall and be humiliated. There is an underlying pattern of humiliation here — voyeuristic laughter at wounded horrors.

My dislike is founded on a deep rejection of senseless violence, of commercial uses of body imagery which debase and degrade the viewer’s sense of what violates whatever fundamental empathy or humanity we have (not a lot). Serious gothic is defensible as expressing deep grief, thoughts about death, the meaning of history in the present, victimization. The second time round I picked up the archetypal plot-design one sees in most spy-thrillers. Early on a bad guy emerges (evil in whatever are the terms of the movie), here Wickham (Jack Huston) and the audience glimpses this while we watch the hero (Colonel yet Darcy) fight this evil person and win and the characters slowly realize it. Like others more recently the hero here is saved by someone else in the nick of time: here Elizabeth, after Darcy has saved her in the nick of time several times — very like the film adaptation of Gabaldon’s Outlander where in the nick of time at the close of the first season Claire (Catriona Balfe) saves Jamie (Sam Heughan); hitherto it had been he who saved her in the nick of time. They too perform riding tricks aside the same horse.

I noticed too that the language used is that our political war filled world. The characters have no choice but to fight and be violent. I thought some of the language used about the zombies was racist (the way black people are talked about by those for allowing police to murder them at will); a friend who studies film as well as literary gothic said the zombies in some zombie movies seem to stand for immigrants. No idea of understanding in the movie anywhere but then the whole lift-off from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is simply exploitative. There was here and there the idea that life and death are connected but that was not structural as in say Branagh’s Frankenstein. So this is a deeply reactionary, fascistic film.

A lot was made of common distaste for bugs.

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In the above typically orange-and-black scene of manners (playing cards), the older man is attacked and destroyed without warning because he is supposed a zombie (it’s the same procedure the US uses for drones)

Human beings find insects horrible because they look so different from us, seem so mindless. So bugs are everywhere and we have to watch Lily James crush them with her hands, then drop a bunch into Darcy’s hands. Well, yes, yuk. But this sort of thing doesn’t do much for those wanting to increase respect for otherness in the kingdom of living things. This was part of the film’s vein of foulness.

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The de rigueur breakfast scene

Aesthetically there was a continual jarring as the film-makers moved back and forth from Austen material taken straight (word-for-word when famous), in more or less quiet usual daylight colors, and zombie scenes. Interwoven absurdly the reading of Forsyte’s sermons. For a moment here and there an actor captured something of the original spirit of Austen’s book (Charles Dance, thrown away here as Mr Bennet — I hope they paid him big, Sally Philips as Mrs Bennet) but mostly the dialogues were made to feel silly and made no sense surrounded by this sudden outbreaks of brutal meanness. (I admit much of it might seem light or harmless if you compare it to what goes on in the popular and fleeting action-adventure, spy-thriller, macho male concoctions as in Games of Thrones, The Infiltrator.) It’s more than that:  Furman’s pacing was inadequate. Poor art. No edgy-ness when sheer edge was called for.

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The world as ruin, on fire from bombs

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Elizabeth crawling through to reach an apparently dead Darcy

OTOH, the photography of London and the gothic imagery was effective, haunting, the mise-en-scenes of gothic places apocalyptic – the grey anonymous city. These set pieces reminded me of the sets created for Jim Jarmusch’s brilliant genuinely apocalyptic The Last Lover Left Alive featuring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston: The Last lover Left Alive was an overly political gothic movie: the city the vampires (in this case) try to escape to or from is Detroit which has been deliberately sluiced and destroyed by super-wealthy (reminding me of similar characters in Our Kind of Traitor, the most recent LeCarre). Richard Davenport-Hines in his Gothic: 400 years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin demonstrates that the gothic is as often used for radical and liberal visions as reactionary atavistic cruelty.

The most interesting aspect of the film was its gothicisms. How stable this kind of material is: someone coming to the movie from the 1790s who had been reading gothics could recognize it, only it was more Victorian, drawing more on the kind of detective gothic coming out of later 19th century books. I can see the origin of this in the fable of Frankenstein, Boris Karloff’s first costuming; in the latest version (Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro) finally the monster’s loneliness, the defiance of death, the strong attack on medicine as violating us was brought out; the zombie machinery just throws that all away but for the occasional look of forlonrness on a female zombie which is quickly erased as she snarls. The more general origin is not what’s called “terror” gothic (often female, often about intangibles, inward) but “horror” gothic (often male, misogynist, doing all it can to violate bodies in startling ways).

One movie does not a genre make but from what I observe in this one zombies belong to the male gothic, violate the body side of gothic. The Jane Austen woman’s film has become a male one. One of the famous stills — which is seen for a moment in this film as an unnamed woman zombie wanders through — is a mask of iron with slates over the woman’s face. This silences her– like taking out her tongue. So you can rape her at will. I’ve few pictures of wife abuse before the later 18th century but one shows a woman whom the court punished by putting such a mask on her face: the court was itself abusing her. (This makes me think of the present Republican insane-hate fest where they chanted at Hilary Clinton “lock er up,” the next best thing is lock her face, cut out her tongue, execute her).

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Our principals pass by a place that looks like George Bellows’s under Brooklyn Bridge, where zombies and others come out starving, looking for food, warmth, anything

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Out of a key church in the film, St Lazarus, come the 4 horseman in black, and then zombies and others half-crazed pour out

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Wickham early in the film

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Last seen, a kind of mad-dog terrorist (?) with a many-pronged iron tool

While the two genres utterly clash, beyond Jack Huston a credible, slowly emerging angry, and then enraged Wickham, Aisling Loftus a self-respecting Charlotte, Matt Smith a comically effective Collins. Both Lily James and Sam Riley were almost almost moving their last scenes but one (the fatuous wedding, meant to be fatuous, made fun of) — reaching out to one another, the second proposal. When the Jane Austen material was to the fore (alas rarely I thought of how Austen’s novels prima facie stand for civilized behavior at a minimum — which is not to be despised in today’s world.

It’s a film you could think about.

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The direct source, the men, & the sisters: side issues?

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Matt Smith marrying everyone else

Since Seth Grahame-Smith’s mash-up novel seems to me a gay send up of the archetypal heterosexual romance, I’ll mention I saw no homosexuality, no jokes I could recognize as gay in this film.  Erased. There is nothing homoerotic in this film either, unless you impose on Bingley’s usual dependence on Darcy (Douglas Booth as Bingley is made effeminate) and the enraged hostility of Darcy and Wickham (now developed from previous sequels) as homoerotic. Maybe we were to see the anti-violence Collins as gay. This shows a strong stereotyping, and it’s a stretch.

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Darcy and Bingley — typical moment between them

A friend said of “the men, who in the Austen book we see idling like a bunch of Ken dolls, [are] engaging in activity, even if that activity was killing zombies. As one interested in what Kenneth Johnston calls the white spaces in Austen’s novels, I appreciated at least a depiction, if extremely fanciful, of what the men do when they aren’t hanging around drawing rooms.” Yes but I wished they could find something else beyond killing as a trade. A mirror of our time? the US gov’t makes only military jobs. We have girl-power chicks readying themselves with guns

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A debate broke out on Janeites because one person (Arnie Perlstein?) claimed tha the film developed a subtext in Austen of Elizabeth’s intense jealousy and rivalry with Lydia, here turned into a kind of hatred. Lily James does seethe at first at the usual sullen spiteful version of Lydia (Ellie Bamber)

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A group scene

The film lacks all subtlety except when Austen material comes through. But this idea is such a tiny element — if you blink you’ll miss it. It starts early on, but is no more prominent than the standard bad behavior of Lydia in this film (she tries to humiliate and scorn her sisters); it’s also overturned because of the stupidity of spy-thriller conventions (more just in the nick of time stuff). Our victim-heroine Lydia is lured into St Lazarus castle and without explanation we next see her chained in a dungeon. Darcy knows where she is (so a tiny hint from the original book) and risks all rescuing her; then Elizabeth knowing where he went, rides after them, and of course rescues them both and the two girls hug in a wooded wasteland at some convenient split second.

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JameasRosamundPike (1)

In the Austen domestic comedy and romance sequences, the costume designer costumed Lily James to look like Jennifer Ehle; some of her dresses were exactly those of Jennifer Ehle; Jane’s (Bella Heathcote) costumes were same as Jane’s (Rosamund Pike) in Joe Wright’s films.

Maybe it’s too much to call this gothic Jane a significant mish-mash, but it should not just be dismissed. Compare them in gothic guise:

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The city as ruins

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Elizabeth gone mad and Jane in open distress

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The film’s last still before the credits roll

Ellen

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Stephen Frye as Mr Johnson coping with Jenn Murray as Lady Lucy Manwarring and Xavier Samuel as Reginald de Courcy (2016 Love and Friendship, scripted and directed by Whit Stillman)

Dear friends and readers,

I confess to a real let-down and disappointment upon my first viewing of the film. Since Love and Friendship is a Stillman film. Given the high literary quality of his scripts, and depth of emotion he invested Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco with, I assumed he’d do real justice to the sardonic nature of the central hypocrite, Lady Susan (played by an almost unrecognizable Kate Beckinsale — since her face-life her face resembles that of a Barbie doll) and her real potential destructiveness (however thwarted by her lack of money and need of other people’s and their houses) and perniciously cold and egoistic values. I knew it would not be presented as an “inverted protest novel” (the way I had read it recently).

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Beckinsale as Lady Susan – a rare moment in the clear light

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From The Last Days of Disco when Beckinsale had some character in her face and Sevigny was thinner
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Beckinsale as a bright hard mean Emma with Samantha Morton as a comically sensitive Harriet (1996 Emma by Andrew Davies)

I’d just taught Lady Susan, so could not easily forget, how hard, mean, at moments raw (towards her daughter, Frederica) Austen’s Lady Susan reveals herself to be in her letters to her confidante, Alicia Johnson (played by Chloe Sevigny whom I regret to say is as wooden and incapable of conveying a witty line as ever — she twice throws away “what man could deserve you” saying straight). The single moment of steel in the 92 minutes was supplied by Stephen Frye as Alicia’s husband: when Mr Johnson sees his wife still in a close relationship with Lady Susan (which he has strictly forbidden) and is confronted with the helpless and therefore hysterical grief of Lady Lucy Manwaring (Jenn Murray) whose husband is adulterously entangled with Lady Susan, he informs hers that he understands the weather in crossing the Atlantic this year is tough. (She has told Lady Susan Mr Johnson threatens to remove her from Lady Susan by taking her back to Connecticut if she does not stopping seeing this friend.)

Yes, Alicia Johnson is made into an American. Ang Lee and James Schamus are on record since their The Wedding Banquet if you want big funding from an American company, especially in the case of costume drama seen as having a smaller audience, a woman’s film in the first place, you are pressured into having one American character. American producers cannot believe the average American will like a film that has no American in it. Thus recently Julian Fellowes made Miss Dunstable in the self-consciously costum-y Dr Thorne improbably into an American.

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Sevigny as Alicia (the promotional stills photograph her from a distance or angle)

Instead he has opted for slow artifice, insistence on playful theatricality (each character is announced in a still with their name written across their face, and their familial or work relationship with the other characters), a full-scale imitation or throw-back to 1970s BBC mini-series costume dramas. Everyone and everything is dressed or outfitted, decorated super-elegantly, not just Laura Ashley style but the hats are pure Gainsborough films (1940s costume dramas rather like Saul Dobbs’s The Duchess). The non-sourced music is often 18th century and as ironic background to the closing marriages, Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. Sometimes he seemed to be imitating Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s super-successful 1996 bejewelled Sense and Sensibility. Xavier Samuel as Reginald de Courcy’s stiff body gestures, his pained facial expressions, the occasional astonishment reminded me of Hugh Grant’s Edward, only Hugh Grant at the close does suddenly invest his character with a depth of tender affection nowhere felt or seen in this movie.

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Catherine de Courcy (Emma Greenwell) and Reginald Vernon

Stillman imitates the many walking scenes in Sense and Sensibility too. This is what a Jane Austen movie is supposed to be many of its fans feel; this is what they go for: emasculated men, women so gussied up to rape anyone would take excruciating efforts over corsets first. And both times I went I could see the audience was pleased: Beckinsale changed outfits almost every time we saw her, some of them quite lovely, especially her impeccably unruffled hats and curls. It is a relief after the alpha male, action-adventure movies crowding theaters with their 11 second scenes, non-literate scripts, and token women acting as male as their sexual roles permit.

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Those reviews which have been favorable have picked up on this unbroken surface, these masks. For example, Adam Thirkwell’s Unserious Austen. Thirkwell is one of those who believes Lady Susan is a work of a teenager (the hagiography that surrounds Austen makes it possible to attribute this kind of sophisticated understanding of the nuances and circumstances surrounding adultery to an 18 year old) and looking at Stillman’s other films, Thirkwell reads the film as about the seriousness of surface; the insistence that the way to live life is by staying shallow, encasing yourself in the frivolous, to be unserious and insist anyone with an emotional attachment that is unchangeable is deluded: that is to take Lady Susan’s view of the world as accurate, or good enough, a way of getting through the actual coldness, meanness, mercenary motives of everyone else.

Except that Metropolitan, Last Days and Barcelona are rather about happiness coming from the integrity of the heart, from intelligent people seeing the limitatons of say worldly success (a great concern of Metropolitan is where you will be placed by your mid-30s). A few essays in Mark G Henrie’s collection of essays on Stillman’s films, Doomed Bourgeois in Love, argue that Stillman is highly unusual not only for his open identification with and interest in the upper class, but because his films are ironic Christian comedies. He is a thinking Christian and sees Austen as an optimistic ethical writer.

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An unusually emotional scene: Lady de Courcy (Jemma Redgrave) and Catherine Vernon meeting Frederica (Morfyyd Clark) (not in Lady Susan but implied)

Thirkwell omitted a series of scenes not in Lady Susan, and certainly not the lines: except for the local vicar, the unnamed “local curate (played by Conor MacNeill) no one knows which position on the 10 commandments a particular instruction has. This curate is an invented character not in any of Austen’s texts: pious and trying hard to make the Christian message he understands doable. The joke about the 10 commandments is brought back three times. They are also all clueless on the story of Solomon judging which woman is the mother of a baby. Lady Susan alludes to it at least three times too as if it shows just what a good mother she is; she does not seem to know the parable contains two mothers or what happens in it, nor does anyone else. Frederica (Morfyyd Clark) Vernon, Lady Susan’s daughter, presented as unqualifiedly virtuous is so guilty over having finessed her mother’s injunctions not to tell her uncle Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) or his wife, her kind aunt, Lady de Courcy by telling Reginald goes to church to find guidance and solace and comfort. (Something that never occurs in Lady Susan.) The lighting of the film throughout is exquisitely beautiful, like a golden Vermeer painting, and especially of Frederica reading books here and there, but this scene is luminous. Our new local curate looks at her lovingly, and for a moment I thought maybe Stillman would make this a match. As she emerges, she meets Reginald and he is clueless over why anyone would go to church on any day but Sunday. He asks twice about this peculiarity of hers. But by the end of the movie he has apparently “gotten it,” understood why, for at their wedding, he cites a verse written in 18th century style celebrating Frederica’s virtue, where virtue means religious as well as marital constancy. We then see James Fleet as Reginald’s father, Sir Reginald beaming down on Jemma Redgrave, with slight comic over-doneness (James Fleet like Fyre is able to act the part with comic effect).

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James Fleet as Sir Reginald looking on at some ridiculousness

Stillman does have to soften the story somewhat. In general until near the end of the movie he sticks literally to events in the book. Then instead of Reginald finally waking up to what Lady Susan is (Reginald is an anticipation of the denseness and delusions of Edmund Bertram) and throwing her off, Stillman has Lady Susan break the engagement. Reginald’s pride is hurt we are told, and he is still in danger of returning to Lady Susan. If he does not, another change is that Lady Susan is pregnant by Manwaring at the close of the film. This gives her a less mercenary incentive: in the book she wanted to marry Sir James to her daughter so with her ability to bully her daughter, she could have (in effect) enforced regular marital sex and children on her daughter by taking the money herself. Stillman adds a silent scene where we see Sir James giving Lady Susan money. He adds wedding scenes which however ironic underneath are on the surface social happy affairs. So too dancing.

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A particularly gorgeous hat == the cloaks provide further eye-candy (the film recalled McGrath’s 1996 hit Emma with Gweneth Paltrow in this respect)

So I should not have been surprised at the genre Stillman has opted to use for Austen’s story: highly traditional familial costume drama undercut gently by ironic music and for the thoughtful more critically by what is actually happening and the distance between what’s said and what’s done in the case of Lady Susan. Rich costumes bring audiences in; there are people who insist on the meaninglessness of Downton Abbey for them personally: they are watching for the costumes and to look at the lovely rooms and buildings.

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One of the houses glimpsed in the distance (there are few photos of distant shots in promotional images)

Certainly in this film a number of older grand mansions in various states of decline were filmed (like the 2007 Northanger Abbey by Andrew Davies this film was done in Ireland). And it fits into his outlook, the way he professes to understand Austen. He’s not a typical Janeite though as he finds Fanny Price a likeable (appealing) character in Mansfield Park. He has his heroine in Metropolitan defend Fanny against the strictures of Lionel Trilling as well as the story’s taking seriously whether amateurs should do a salacious play in a private house.

Myself I don’t find this kind of tone characteristic of Lady Susan. Since it is all in letters, she can drop the social mask and reveal herself more than once very directly as a bully, mean, aggressive, with an expectation that everyone will be as nasty she is (rather like Fielding’s Bifil). A couple of time Stillman acknowledges the centrality of letters by having one read aloud, and he shows characters communicating through them, but his theme of the effectiveness of social mask and that Lady Susan never drops it is not true of the book. She can be very raw as can her friend Alicia; these lines are divided in the film:

My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying
a man of his age!–just old enough to be formal, ungovernable
and to have the gout–too old to be agreeable, and too young to
die. May the next gouty attack be more favorable

As I read Lady Susan and have listened to it read aloud by Blackstone and other audio-readers, it’s close to Les Liasions Dangereuses, or Stael’s Delphine (1805, with a Madame Susan Vernon as worldly villainess and very bad mother). If you were puzzled why there are so many brief scenes between Alice and Lady Susan — I mean how she does manage to whiz up to London from the country and back again repeatedly: Stillman is presenting the matter of their letters brief scenes. Epistolary narrative can be looked at as inner dramas on a stage with the characters represented by letters in lieu of dialogue.

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The heroines exchange bits from the letters — sometimes they lurk outside amid columns in unspecified areas

But I did find it startling to see the transposition of the original language of the letters into dialogue, often without much change. This is very like some of the 1970s film adaptations and the closest in the Austen canon is the 1979 P&P by Faye Weldon, only Weldon had an omniscient novel with characters talking to one another. The effect is stilted, and I could see from other viewers they were growing restless. Since the 1990s these costume dramas have been trying for some compromise between the language of the originals and intelligent and demotic talk of today. The audience were clearly glad to have the more obvious jokes, or seemingly obviously funny lines which they got and laughed a bit too determinedly I thought — as if to feel they were enjoying themselves. I wondered if some other of the lines given to Lady Susan gave them pause, but after all Stillman’s Lady Susan never for once breaks her surface of sweetness and she never offers more of her real values and norms than she has to even to Alicia. So no one leaving this theater could think from this film Austen seriously questioned our society, except maybe if you were seeking something, you could say see how desperate women were. This jusifies Lady Susan’s behavior in part, and it is the way a couple of favorable reviews took the movie. It’s about how women are oppressed.

To me this kind of review is a caricature of the idea: no woman in the movie is ever pictured as less than well-fed, comfortable, and on the surface complacent. If you can control the surface this way, what can the depths be? The one hard statement in the film comes from Catherine Decourcy Vernon (Emma Greenwall) when at the close of the film she calls Lady Susan a cold snake (to her mother). It’s a good thing this utterance does not need an ability to utter irony for Greenwall is another actor in the film who cannot do it; nor Justin Edwards as Frederica’s lummox of an uncle.

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Moment of obvious astonishment: Catherine de Courcy and Charles Vernon

The overt joke here is that uncle Charles is astonished that any woman of intelligence could marry a fool, by which he means Sir James Martin (Tom Bennet). At the close we learn that Lady Susan has married Sir James, and as Charles drivels on in his usual “candid” way (of seeing all good everywhere) to say Lady Susan has fallen in love with him, Greenwall turns aside to grin. In Austen’s book, Sir James is not a harmless rattle, but a stubborn and dense man who would not (as Sir James does here) not realize that he’s being cuckolded by Manwaring; as Reginald is a permutation of the obtuse Edmund Bertram so Sir James is a version of Rushworth in Mansfield Park. In the book Frederica is right to dread marriage with this man and in the film to assume she will be just fine with Reginald. After all her aunt Catherine is doing just fine; her uncle does whatever the aunt wants. Stillman has picked up that Charles Vernon is a version of Charles Bingley (P&P), easily led, only left out that he could be led by bad people.

Talk I heard from people coming out both times included asssertions “it’s an odd film.” One woman didn’t quite know what to make of it, but then she’d not read Lady Susan. At least most people leaving seemed to realize there is such a novel, and they realized perhaps that there is another juvenilia called Love and Friendship which because he so likes the title and thinks it appropriate Stillman chose to call Lady Susan. Disingenuousness can work but it’s transparent that someone hoped there might be Austen readers who’ve read the wildly hilarious Love and Freindship and be drawn into the theater that way. In my own anecdotal experience really faithful fans do know of Love and Freindship: they learn bout it in an effort to find more Austen to read, and when they start it’s burlesque wild jokes lead them on to the end.

Nonserious Austen indeed. No one will leave this film disquieted or having been brought to think about our society seriously through an Austen text. The Guardian gives the expected comment: this is a racier, naughtier Austen than we have known. But the second time I knew what to expect. I’ve seen many Austen films. It’s intelligent and literate and if you can extrapolate out from Lady Susan’s behavior and how she is thriving at the close, you can say cold performative people utterly without any humane compassion for anyone, in fact despising anyone who has that as weak fits in just fine with our world. Stillman gives Beckinsale a line just before the credits as she looks at her daughter now married, to the effect she is delighted to see Frederica is becoming more manipulative though where I couldn’t see. This is a more usual transposition into modern talk of a passage in a letter where Austen’s Lady Susan indicates an active dislike or distaste for her daughter; she finds Frederica “contemptible” precisely because she has sincere feelings and acts on them. Doubtless had Lady Susan been able to read Mansfield Park she would have despised Fanny Price too:

Frederica

Ellen

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