Category Archives: literature

Greenbelt and me and that book of mine

Today is the official start of a festival known very much to a those of a certain Christian ilk. It’s been running over 40 years around various parts of England, sometimes in the grounds of stately homes, sometimes on a racecourse.

In the words of something very close to me

“Greenbelt was devoid of the very things that put me off all other forms of Christian holiday. It had a firm focus on music and the experimental, was theologically liberal to the point of sometimes being shocking, and therefore attracted interesting people.”

Born at a similar time to the festival – which also began in the same county – I went to my first Greenbelt in 1990, in Northants, just as I was becoming old enough to be autonomous. It was a rebellious thing to do for someone of my background. My Dad’s response to my wish to go was “pass the vinegar”!

I came back shocked and recall writing to the festival’s chair and receiving a generic reply, including things that I hadn’t. Clearly many others had been unhappy too.

I can’t remember much about why – just that Greenbelt didn’t match my idea of Christianity. One reason that was its focus on social justice, not gospel spreading, and its toleration of issues like homosexuality. Ironies coming up.

Curiously one thing I do recall complaining about (for his a book called “Cleaning the Bog and other spiritual gifts”) was a writer I embraced later on. I was reading the late Mike Yaconelli’s book “Dangerous Wonder” just last night. His talks involved the biggest queues of the festival, yet he was moved every year, and surprised, fearing that next year, they wouldn’t come. Perhaps I find his book a little juvenile now, with its stories of waterbombing and other pranks, but I love his spirit – real, passionate living, and a God who is much more into loving us than berating us and getting it right.

It took me 6 years to try Greenbelt again – now a postgraduate, a little broader of mind and less easily shocked. This time I had a little epiphany – one I couldn’t share with my housemate and I felt that her and her church – who’d tutted at me for going to GB – weren’t right, and I made some large and sudden lifestyle decisions because of that.

As a composing musician, the music at Greenbelt was important; a highlight was seeing Iona at the only full band gig of theirs I ever attended. But the book tent, people, the ideas and new ways to worship were also of interest.

I went back the next year, but felt that the mud and the lank hair and skank feeling of no proper washing outdid the things I enjoyed. I vowed I would not camp again.

Then Greenbelt moved – further from me, but into new student halls of residences for the over 25s – happily an age I’d recently passed – and onto the tarmac of Cheltenham racecourse. I enjoyed discovering Cheltenham – my first spa town – and having a town close enough to take a break from the long weekend of festivalling, which can get quite intense and insular. Spiritually, it still felt appealed.  At last, Greenbelt and I were a best fit, although it was smaller and less atmospheric than its Northants days.

Now that Safe Space for LGB Christians felt different.

I’m not really sure why I didn’t return for a while, but in 2007, I was living close enough to attend Greenbelt for a day. I started calling my spirituality Glastonbury rather than Canterbury. I was going to an offshoot of the latter communion who didn’t approve of the former. I was no longer in the Christian music loop – and by that I mean, contemporary bands – and found most solace in a tent of contemplation, and a spiritual advisor. I listened to Yaconelli’s son and felt that whilst the voice was recognisable, finding the ghost of the father through him wasn’t going to happen. Nor did Mike’s own books work so well for me now.

I now cared very about social justice and I embraced the inclusion that Greenbelt showed, but it strangely felt that it, not I, was more conservative. It had taken steps back to towards it more evangelical roots while I’d pole vaulted from mine. We had passed each other like comets, riding together for a time, and veering into disparate directions.

I wasn’t sorry to leave and to explore Cheltenham. I felt that I’d be unlikely to go gain – especially as Greenbelt left that site and reverted to camping.

So why is Greenbelt something I’m writing about now, except that it’s now happening?

Because those Cheltenham visits inspired scenes in my new novel, all about that Safe Space, those seminars where evangelical and liberal meet, where social justice and faith come together. It’s the final chapter.

I think it may be for me and Greenbelt. I approached them to share the novel – naturally – as I’d not only given them a few thousand words of space in it at the most crucial point, but its being all about the kind of things its attendees care about, such as modern church life and those that are a bit different.

But I found that the social justice they preach wasn’t being practised. The book tent has a contract to exclusively sell books on the site and it wants 50% of the cover price to sell yours – though it excludes self published ones when they’ve little space. I pointed out that most books don’t have that cut to spare and causes the author and publisher – which are both me – who has spend perhaps years at their own expense, to make a loss. I was asked to send, at my expense, a free copy to the team for a possible social media mention. A 40 year old festival commanding £150 a ticket for tens of thousands, asking a new self published author who’s been in financial struggle to send a book for them to consider a tweet? And that they were too busy to talk more.

Hence I’m not at Boughton House near Kettering this weekend and may not be again.

But I do hope some festivallers – past and present – might enjoy relieving those Cheltenham years and joining in my fictional weekend at the pivotal point of other Elspeth’s journey.

You don’t know what I mean, and you’d like to?

Then go to http://www.parallel-spirals.webs.com.

More about the fairness of publishing will be appearing on this site.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why I chose to self publish

I feel a little defensive – or that I at least need to explain. And some of me is cross about that, and that I have spent longer in awards entry covering letters and in interviews on why I’m self published than what the story is about.

But I wanted to tell you all, because it’s not only a choice, it’s a statement, the nearest that a pacifist gets to a battle cry.

Because I want to change things.

I want to bring Fair Trade to the book industry and subvert the current model.

Firstly – I self published because

I WANT TO TAKE PUBLISHING BACK INTO AUTHOR’S HANDS

And secondly, to show

WE DON’T NEED ANYONE’S PERMISSION TO PUBLISH

anymore than other businesses need permission to set up shop and start fulfilling their dreams.

Then there was those stats – two I put together:

8% of submissions to agents and publishers don’t get rejected and if you get through that tiny hole you keep 8% of the profits

So that means that not even JK Rowling is rolling in royalties as much as her gargantuan book success would suggest. (JK Rowling is someone I admire – for her journey and spirit as much as her writing).

And other famous names are needing other supporting work, or struggling.

And the less famous names aren’t doing so well at all. They probably have a day jobs or claim welfare.

And I felt: why is this accepted – that writers are poor?! And that someone else takes over 90% of the earnings for the work that they have by far put the most into?

I will write about shops in another post, but there are issues with the size of their slice – one that may mean I skip trying to sell that way.

But shops and libraries and wholesalers are stuffy about self pubbers.

We’re rejects. We’re not real, serious authors, they say. And even if you’re local, there’s no reason for us to take your book.

I heard an independent shop owner say that publically. Then he told his own story.

Analysis: he gave up on his own writing dream, and wants to squash other people’s.

He wants to pour out the tough love of failure and relinquishment that someone tipped over him. I really hope to see him in print one day. But I hope in the meantime, he stops crushing others who are already.

As I’ll share more later, sending away loyal customers who are also writers and small publishers is not how to continue their custom, and perhaps not their friends’ either. Most of us are in touch with others like us, and we share experiences.

So I’ve not yet allowed any shop or library the pleasure of turning me down. I am wondering if I shall. I’ll speak more about this and whether it’s worth getting an ISBN later.

So if you’re wondering – did I not get my fill of rejections when trying to get published?

Well, I got a few, but I never sent out my work that often. What I learned was that they can take ages, lose your work (Canongate – that was the first place I tried), and not feed back. So you don’t learn, and I also felt it was just a case of taste.

I’ve also had many affirming comments about my work, and I knew I could write, without exterior validation – that’s one of the themes and messages of the novel. So it’s often not a quality issue with agents and publishers, but a “dare I take a risk”. I’m learning that those risks are taken less, that feedback is minimal, and that agents and publishers no longer dig out diamonds. They want cut and sparking and ready to wear jewels – but you still have to fit their ring. After the honing and publishing I’d done, I didn’t want to do any more cutting for anyone’s else’s ring thank you.

Then there is the trust issue with agents and editors. I’d love to think that they all are sagacious and have my best interests at heart. But they don’t always know what’s best and they are often thinking of the market and what they can make money from.

So it means that the perceived market shapes what we can express and read.

And that is capitalism at its worst. And like much of capitalism, it’s based on fear, and conversely, seeing what caused the recessions – it’s risk adverse. It’s taking out all the adventure and putting money first.

It’s not just the publishers and agents – I think it’s ultimately the shops, who have shrunk their range with their bookseller’s duties and increasingly centralised.

So it isn’t just the self published who are having difficulty in being taken by shops (and libraries). It’s small and anything deemed specialist publishers, or even new titles from something established.

It’s also space based – shops and libraries don’t have infinite shelves, but the universe of virtual and home publishing does. Again, brings in capitalism’s old friend, competition, jostling for space and attention…something which self publishing can subvert into sharing space, not squeezing out those around you.

So might I, days on from my book becoming publically available, be enjoying greater sales and a sense of validity if I had found an agent?

For a dark moment, sitting in a conventional bookshop full of conventionally published titles, it was easy to feel “They’ve all got agents” – do I know that? And they’ve all got less than 10% of the cover price, and perhaps not a very big advance.

Perhaps they had to organise a launch themselves too. Marketing departments in publishing houses seem to be proportionally active to how well they predict you’ll do. When I learned that I as a new author was likely to get the marketing equivalent of the theatrical release of a foreign art house film, I felt all the more that I would stop sending out my work to agents. So it would be self fulfilling as to how well I did, and I’d be constricted by someone else’s judgment, and quickly given up on after a few tweets and half hearted leafleting shots at buyers, and then they’d move on.

If I was conventionally published, they’d have all the rights. They could decide when to take the book out of print and when to reduce to clear. They could decide the cover and put pressure on to change aspects which mattered to me, such as title, names, or cut important points. They could sell rights to a film company and I could easily lose my twin dream of writing the script – for my work was conceived for the screen, and is also adapted for the stage. And new authors are unlikely to stipulate that they must be involved in the lucrative movie. I’d be expected to sign away and stand back.

It may be like handing over your kids for someone else to bring up and then seeing them when they’d come of age, with hardly any visiting rights.

But as publisher, I can withhold rights and find someone that I want to work with, not for.

As it is, I feel I can say like a film director who also wrote, produced and perhaps starred:

A novel by Elspeth Rushbrook.

I designed the cover, using my own images. I typeset it all. I edited it. And it’s how I want it.

I find it liberating, not blamemaking that any faults are mine too, for I can change them; they are in my power, not someone else’s who imposed on me.

I don’t even know if I’d want an agent and publisher now. I enjoyed doing all this myself. I know I’ll want to do it for my other work.

It’s like being happy being single. If someone extra special appeared in your life, you may get married, but you’d have to be sure it was an enhancing partnership, and not a pairing for social expectation, or a dependency.

Really, I’m just moving with the wheel that’s already turning – the one that began with self publishing, then went to what we’d now call vanity – the author paid the publisher a fee – and now autonomous publishing is back. And I’m on top of the wheel, hoping that it is a revolution that works for all, wherever on the wheel you choose to ride.

 

 

 

 

 

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The day my life has been leading up to

Sorry, Middlemarch and Robin Hood, you’ve been queue jumped by the most significant day in my life.

Until now, I have hidden my surname from you, but because of what I am about to share with you, I realise I have to come out.

This day, I am a published author.

Last autumn, I asked people around the globe to help me get my wings.

I said it was time to fly.

Now I am flying.

It’s a day I’ve waited 25 years to see.

I feel that literally my life – which is somewhat longer than 25 years – has been leading towards this moment. The things I’ve done, people I’ve met; my journey of faith and personal development.

I’ve likened it to a birth – for it feels like a first born that I want to hold up like the cub in the Lion king, and also a marriage and a business launch all in one.

It is a day I want to bask in – and with the temperature – it’s hard to do little other than bask. So bask I shall.

Here is my book: http://www.parallel-spirals.webs.com

I shall have much more to say about writing – as well as the rest of the world, anon.

 

 

 

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Middlemarch and Sherwood

What links a Lincoln green clad arrow pinger, a mine magnate’s niece who’s chased by horses and her teacher, and a bonnet wearing philanthropic clergyman’s wife?

If you’ve read the blurb to my novel, you’ll know that I like making unlikely comparisons. If you’ve read the rest of this blog, you will see more of them.

The answer to the first question is firstly geography – for they are all located in the East Midlands; secondly, literature and film; – and lastly – well off people fighting to support the cause of the poor.

Thus Sherwood and Eastwood and Middlemarch are not so far apart.

I wrote my thoughts on Eastwood’s famous son – and the escapades of Ursula Brangwen – on Good Reads.

The rest of this concentrates on Sherwood – whose forest’s inhabitants need no introduction – and the fictitious manufacturing town invented by George Eliot, filmed in Stamford.

I like to read and watch and visit in themes, so if you want to know what my days out to Nottinghamshire and Stamford (and elsewhere in the East Midlands) involved – read them here.

Robin Hood and Dorothea Brooke are further linked by the fact that they are in some ways superhuman archetypes. Robin is borderline superhero, and in some versions (such as 1980s TV series Robin of Sherwood) he has a higher calling from a deity, the son of a god, the fulfilment of a long promised title: he is, as the theme song goes, The Hooded Man. (Does anyone else find the otherwise excellent Clannad’s keyboards tinny and dated?). Dorothea – ‘of the gods’ – is likened to not only famous mystic and theologian Theresa of Avila, but saints, angels and the Virgin Mary. (I ruefully acknowledge that Schmoop pointed that out to me).

Robin too has a special Mary in his all male band of called followers, who live rough and itinerant and give, in their way, good news to the poor and freedom for the prisoners and the oppressed… strange how closely Robin’s mission matches Isaiah 61, Jesus’ own self confessed mission statement. Robin descends from the higher echelons to save the people.

Dorothea also cares about the poor, about justice – and mercy – letting sheep stealers off fatal sentences, providing better homes for tenants, doing good with her money, such as supporting overlooked but genuine clergy and would be world changing doctors.

Both though are truly human as well as divine.

There is much in common with 1195 – the years leading to Magna Carter, 1832 – the Reform Bill – and now. All these are the cusp of a sea change  against long oppression and imbalance. Hence these stories keep coming round again. The 2006 BBC Robin Hood (with Jonas Armstrong) made explicit parallels to the middle eastern wars funded at the expense of the poor and where fair justice was dispensed with, and that there was no need to travel to Arab countries to see evil – “the real cancer is right here”.

Hence my satisfaction that seemingly disparate reading and watching material has a common thread.

I’ll talk more about Middlemarch in my next piece, but I wanted to round up by a final parallel which is more than pedantry.

It’s about accents in the TV versions.

In his otherwise excellent site Bold Outlaw, Allen W. Wright says that Kevin Costner’s infamously poor/non English accent in the 1994 Prince of Thieves film doesn’t matter, because we don’t know how people talked in Robin Hood’s day, and some say that the modern American accent is more likely than today’s English one.

As a North American, he would say that.

As an English person, I feel that Americans not adopting the accent of the characters they play is not only cultural laziness but symptomatic of America becoming a synecdoche for all the English speaking western world. If actors of other nationalities play an American part, they change their voice – but not in reverse. Many dramas exported to America are remade, or redubbed.

Only one Robin Hood so far has used the right accent for Robin, going by what we today recognise as Nottinghamshire, and that again is the 2006 BBC series with Richard Armitage.

All the others do what Middlemarch also did – as well as so many films. The rich have a British gittish queen’s English accent, and the serfs and villagers and tradesfolk have the general lazy west country bumpkin voice that I have moaned about so many times. It’s not even true of the West Country! It’s not how people in the Midlands speak. And that accent serves to delineate class via accent and associate the country one with being not only rustic but stupid, poor, ill educated, lower, subordinate.

Thus class – a distinction and divide that Robin and Dorothea are working to erase – is demarcated for yet another era, and that shorthand is perpetuated and spread across not only Britain but all the countries who watch our dramas.

I shall be back with more about Middlemarch (or truly, Lowick and Tipton) shortly.

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Going Off Austen

For quarter of a century, Pride and Prejudice has been my favourite book, and I have loved rewatching the BBC drama series over 15 years. So why am I considering taking it off my shelf?

I had previously believed it a truth universally acknowledged that anyone of literary taste admired Jane Austen. Like Jennifer Ehle, I first read Pride and Prejudice aged c12, and soon counted it my joint favourite work of fiction. So going off her now is like parting with a best friend of 24 years.

I had seen screen adaptations of nearly all Austen’s work. I started the novels of a few, but soon gave up on all but one. I guessed who Emma married on page 1, turned to the end to see if I was right, and decided I couldn’t be bothered with the middle. The one novel I loved is Pride and Prejudice, which I could reread effortlessly, and be made to laugh out loud.

I have just read one of those dreadful spin off sequels after which I decided to read the original book and watch the 1995 TV version. I am shocked and saddened at my own responses.

In this week’s re-reading, I found the writing to often be laborious; and Lizzie’s speeches to be as ponderous as Mary’s. I wonder about Mary being downplayed in the novel and on the screen, for she seems the only character bent on improving her mind and skill, yet she is often given a little role; whatever offering she does have is ridiculed. Lizzie is a snob, saying that pride is allowed where real superiority of mind exists. Yet no-one in Austen’s creation has it; for no-one is intellectual or learned, no-one speaks of anything lofty or world changing. Lizzie refuses to discuss books at a ball. She nor Darcy have any talents, and he can’t even play the piano. They do nothing to improve society; they do not ponder spiritual or philosophical matters. The upper classes are excessively dull and flat; for their conversation is about balls and partners, clothes and weather.

Jane Austen is observing a particularly narrow world and it again surprises me that her novels are so widely loved by those so outside of her class, and in such a different era. I call even her heroines and heroes vapid, shallow, judgmental. I cannot understand how Darcy is such a fantasy. I now think of Darcy as more akin to Rochester (my other favourite book that I left behind ten years ago) – a smouldering, uncontrolled passion; who is arrogant, pompous, and used to being obeyed, and whose supposedly wonderful act (to Wickham and Lydia) is more about throwing money and power and tidying loose ends then any act of benevolence. Matthew MacFadyen in the 2005 film seemed a kinder Darcy than any other.

For some years, my focus has been on Eliza rather than Darcy. As writer Andrew Davies says, we are all in love in Elizabeth, and I think that is true – whether we look at her as a love interest, friend, or role model. Eliza is not impressive on the page to me now, but she does come alive on the screen. Lizzie always is sparkling and never more so than when played by Jennifer Ehle. It is her almost alone that makes that famous adaptation shine.

The 1995 BBC adaptation felt an important one for me, not just for television or the life of the novel. I wonder if it is comparable to the 1967 Forsyte Saga, where roads were hushed as a large part of the nation watched. I recall looking forward to Sunday evenings that autumn, fighting for the TV from housemates, and even – to one of their shock – missing evening church to see it. My love for it united me with several new but quite disparate friends, as other adaptations have, and I have enjoyed seeing it many times since.

I don’t recall thinking that the 6 part television series was perfect, for it has always seemed theatrically camp. I am no longer of the opinion that books should never have changes or cuts when adapted; I am a writer and adapter myself. I had considered P and P to be hard to condense as Austen does not waste, but I found her dialogue often pompous and not all of her scenes are needed. I felt less cross with the atmospheric 2005 version having to cut down to feature length and wondered at how the story could have been padded out in 1995 to nearly six hours.

Andrew Davies says in the BBC companion book that he’s a ‘show don’t tell’ writer – a tired little phrase in the world of screenplays. But he is not, as there are several scenes I felt unnecessary; and he had talking – clunky dialogue he had added – where none was required. The first few minutes are all wasted as they are things we see again. He repeats the relationship between the houses and the sisters. All Darcy and Bingley needed do on that first scene was to arrive at Netherfield and nod. It is spoilt by showing us what they look like before the Meryton Ball.

Davies has an obsession with not only the corporeal qualities of the characters, but in sexual ones. Every vivacity to him comes down to a very physical sexual desire or repression of one, which is tedious. He began a later Austen TV drama with a sex scene which never made sense; and he is recorded as saying that he wanted to do Tipping the Velvet because it’s ‘filthy’ and wanted to put a kinky lesbian scene on the screen. This latter comment caused more rumpus than the five years of build up to the allegedly bodice ripping Pride and Prejudice, making a touching coming of age story into a deviant romp for dirty old men and tabloids. I question whether any of these are men’s stories – especially not Sarah Water’s same sex romance; but Austen too seems to me the province of women.

I had long wondered at how a book could be popular in our time when the most dramatic plot turn involves a morality that is long past. Austen seems to join Lizzie and Darcy in being shocked by Lydia’s elopement and validating the wider strictures and censure that her behaviour brings. I felt the same of Wives and Daughters, when Cynthia and Molly’s character are put in danger by being seen alone with a man. How can Austen be seen as feminist when her females are always getting sick, nervous, and needing smelling salts over the slightest problem, and whose delicate virtue is tacitly assented to, never challenged?

I am now left in a place of dis-ease, with this old friend ebbing. For I know that my disappointment and criticisms of the adaptations now come down to the fact that I no longer believe in their source material. I am particularly critical of the portrayal of Lydia and Wickham. The BBC’s Pride and Prejudice is watchable due to Jennifer Ehle and Julia Sawalha’s being Lydia, though she is too old for the role and too exaggerated to compensate. It is amazing that the woman who plays sensible, principled Dorcas Lane was once also one of literature’s most irresponsible, thoughtful females.

My overall view is that this supposed drama has a silliness attributed to the younger sisters Bennet.

The Austen adaptation I now enjoy most is the most controversial, and allegedly least like the book, where a Canadian lesbian takes on the English subject and shows us poverty as well as aristocracy, that takes on the slave trade, and allows the shock of adultery into a modernised version, entwined with Austen’s biography, shatters the ideas of bland respectability and gives Mansfield Park a power and point that no other has.

 

Published originally on Bookstove and an altered version in Jane Austen’s Regency World Nov/Dec 2010. Some changes have been made – eg I have now familiar with Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility.

 

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Wives and Daughters – Gaskell’s and Austen’s

Cynthia is like Zippy from British children’s cult TV show Rainbow – the naughty one is definitely the most lovable

Wives and Daughters is more akin to being penned by the friend of Jane Austen than Charlotte Bronte. It is without the gothic supernatural brooding harshness of the Bronte’s books. Like Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell has an ironic, satirical, witty eye for her society – largely that of the various ranks gentlefolk and aristocracy. It is surprising that Gaskell wrote Wives and Daughters and North and South which, with its political northern setting and convention defying, makes it clear to see why Gaskell and Charlotte were kindred spirits. Bronte is quoted to have disliked Austen’s work, yet her biographer and friend has written something very much of its ilk.

The plight of the heirless widow – a central theme in Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility – is there in Wives and Daughters, as is that of a gentleman loving a woman of a lesser family. Reputations and honour are key to both Austen and Wives and Daughters; a lady’s public opinion is so easily made into a scandal, and as such forms a major part of the dramatic narrative.

Like Pride and Prejudice, there is a strong father-daughter affection in contrast to a foolish mother and wayward sister (the last is also found in Sense and Sensibility). The heroine of Wives and Daughters, Molly, is a high moraled, near perfect woman who suppresses her own love so not to betray the confidence of another’s long term secret engagement. In that way, she is much like Elinor from Sense and Sensibility. Despite both Molly and Elinor being the heroines, their wayward sisters are more interesting.

Yet in Pride and Prejudice, the placid good sister is not the heroine. The real excesses are given to Lydia, but Elizabeth has the mixture of passion and decorum which makes her so popular with readers. She too falls for the villainous man – Wickham – who is instrumental in the near ruin of her sister; but Austen’s other heroines (and Molly) fall for the good, kind, brotherly character (Mr Knightly in Emma, Edmund in Mansfield Park; Edward in Sense and Sensibility).

Eliza Bennett has not only family connections but a passionate dislike to overcome  in her romance. In Wives and Daughters, the ultimate match between Roger and Molly is merely two boringly good people finding each other at last. Roger and Molly are not the stuff of literary fantasy like Elizabeth and Darcy (or Jane Eyre and Rochester). More flawed than Eliza Bennett, Cynthia Kirkpatrick has our understanding and sympathy.

One of my favourite things about Wives and Daughters is that it’s about dysfunctional families – a diachronic phenomenon – with real, rounded, flawed yet lovable characters. Mrs Gibson continues that pantomime dame-like quality found in adaptations of Austen, but she has more rationale than Austen’s dames. She is a widow whose poverty forces her into work. She struggles with being a single working mother (again, a suitably modern theme) and put respectability before all else. So she hastily marries a handsome widower who is strict on professional secrets but relaxed on how his household should be run, whereas she is the reverse. The new Mrs Gibson finds her daughter being contrasted with her step child – homely, obedient stay-at-home Molly and the beautiful, accomplished, travelled, secretive Cynthia. Mrs Gibson realises her own neglect to her daughter through the close relationship that her new husband enjoys with Molly.

I am not sure how we are meant to view Molly’s father: as she does, almost perfect? My own view is that he is far from it. Dr Gibson’s work comes before family; although this may be his method for compensating for the loss of his first wife, it comes between him and his new wife immediately. He has a tendency to be severe on the women in his life. He is overprotective, surly to his daughter’s suitors, and often chauvinistic and unreasonable – even unkind – and needs to learn to let go. Twice, he reveals a temper problem.

Molly’s misery is brought on herself because her so called virtue of keeping her feelings for Roger secret were her choice to repress. As Cynthia says several times that her love for Molly is superlative, I believe Cynthia would have given Roger up if she had realised the feelings of her friend for him.

Cynthia is as good for Molly as the reverse. Cynthia’s opening speech is that she is not a very good person. But there are several occasions when despite what she believes and others reinforce, she shows that she has many qualities. Molly rushes to meet Cynthia for the fist time, but it is Cynthia who simply hugs her new sister and insists on ceasing the polite civilities to acknowledge the awkwardness of the situation. Unlike her mother, Cynthia comforts Molly at the death of Mrs Hamley, simply holding her friend’s hand. Cynthia speaks her mind to her mother when her mother has behaved dreadfully. She breaks off the engagement to Roger of her own volition when she feels it is no longer fair to him to remain so. She immediately tells Mr Cox that she’s already engaged when he proposes. Dr Gibson calls her callous but it is the men falling for her and proposing on so little an acquaintance or encouragement which led to that pain and embarrassment – as much for Cynthia as for the rejected suitor. As she says, her manner is one which men fall for, whether she intends to encourage them or not. To know Cynthia is to love her. Molly tells father she does, although confesses she doesn’t understand her.

It is Cynthia and Molly’s relationship which is central to the story, not the romances. Cynthia frequently proclaims that she has not the gift of loving as some people, and that she has never fallen head over heels for anyone. But she often states her affection for Molly – although that is not in love feeling, she qualifies, although it is the nearest we see to passion in the story – the physical contact, the murmurings of love, the rush to return to Molly’s sickbed and the love that restores her. Could Cynthia’s lack of enthusiasm for men be because she prefers women? Someone who is independent, strong willed, flirtatious and loves to be adored seems unlikely to be incapable of passion. Can someone who excites such wild admiration in others be incapable of feeling the same for anyone else?

If I had finished off Gaskell’s book, it would have not been hurriedly tied up as in the Andrew Davies 1999 television script; nor letting the important friendship tail off after Cynthia’s hasty marriage to an attorney whom we know nothing about. The Cornhill Editor’s postscript presumes that we know that Roger and Molly will marry, and that this is the reader’s chief interest. This editor did not anticipate me!

I had thought that the novel ends on a cliffhanger, but now I am content without further chapters. Roger is not to allowed to speak to Molly as she is in quarantine; he is about to go to dangerous Africa, and has not yet declared his love for Molly. Roger tells Molly’s father than if he does not come back alive to propose that his ghost will haunt Dr Gibson. The 1999 TV adaptation has Molly chase the coach (Gaskell has her content with her friend’s wave) and Roger disembark it. But what if he wrote to her from Africa, and they exchange their love by letter – but it is the last that Roger sends? What if that ghost has cause to haunt? And what if Molly goes to Cynthia for comfort…? Perhaps this is a tale of how overprotection and high morals and sacrifice lead to misery.

Worse is that the TV series misses out Cynthia’s restoration by rushing home to seriously ill Molly which helps Molly recover, and earning the sparing praise of her stepfather.

Cynthia says: ‘I am not good, but I may be the heroine of this story yet’.

It is my intention to make her so.

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The Bridge

An imagined story behind Philip Wilson Steer’s 1887 painting

 

Having revisited this story for the 3rd time over 20 years, my view oscillates but has ultimately concluded with my last viewing and reading.

 

I recall the film when it was new, interested because of its Suffolk setting and because it was about an impressionist painter. Something made me seek it out, unsuccessfully, a few times, until a print as dappled as Walberswick is pebbly was shown in my local cinema. It was then that I discovered that it was also a book, which despite my disappointment with the film, I sourced from Australia. This time, it was a visit to Walberswick where I walked over the bridge in question that made me pull out the book again.

 

Like Anne of Green Gables, there are times when the description is brilliant and part of the story; there are many more when it is well written trivia. The languid prose is painterly, but of a different style of painter. The tiny and exact details – such as the dolphins on the staircase – are more Constable than Philip Wilson Steer, who uses dashes of his brush more than the meticulous precision of etching to make his paintings. Steer also wouldn’t have painted those dolphins and the contents of drawing rooms which Maggie Hemingway pads out her thin volume with.

 

Yet there is much here that is missing. Emma, the youngest daughter, begins the story – somewhat oddly, I thought. I like the line on p3: “She could not bring herself to arrive”. If it had been my book or adaptation, that would have been my opening line. We share the perspective – often in dashes rather than particularities – of many characters, but we are often seeing the scene from Emma’s canvas, especially those where her mother and Mr Steer seem to be particular friends.  But Emma’s voice ceases at the turning point; the scene is told from the perspective of her aunt, and Emma is delirious, unaware of her words. We do not hear from Emma again.

 

We omit scenes that help with the trajectory, as if the writer has anticipated a film adaptation and wanted to be brief, oblique and come in late to her scenes, to let the dialogue be largely invented by the screenwriter, and for her languid prose to find its ideal translation to a slow, arty, cinematic film. But we never see Reginald meet his wife and family after his long absence, we never know what Walter Sickert advises his friend Philip to do about Isobel, we never know what Philip is doing in France – does he even go there? – and what makes him return to Walberswick. The story ends with the making of the painting, having worked backwards, but to me (perhaps because I use this structure myself) it is a moment to catch up with and then go forward from. What is the outcome of the meeting on the bridge?

 

We are introduced to villagers who play no part except to fill out the background. They are not abetters, accusers, assuagers or in any way really shape the narrative or the characters. In the film, I was infuriated by the rubbish attempt at Suffolk accents, which is like doing a pathetic Irish one for an Scottish film, lazy for its inaccuracy and almost mocking portrayal, and for not understanding that accents are part of a region’s identity. There is a Scot in the film, although in life, Steer was from Birkenhead so would have been perhaps Scouse if he had an accent. So both those jarred.

 

But Maggie Hemingway, born in Orford, clearly knew the Suffolk coast and depicts it in multisensual detail, bringing in the philosophy and quest of painting – the portrayal or beauty and of light (as photography soon would). Yet I didn’t agree about Isobel being so desirable or that you can fall in love with your eyes closed with a vision of a stranger that seeps through your eyelids into your unconscious brain. This is how the schoolboyish obsession of Philip’s begins, with a woman he knows nothing about and has not seen interact. Because have many of their scenes together reported by Emma, we never know what it is that he and Isobel say or truly feel, and there is not the connection I would seek in a believable romance. It seems chemical rather than soul driven; their souls can commune little though words because of the strictures of the day.

 

I often wonder if the Victorian era was so strict. Nonconformists are the stuff of stories, but not often the keepers of history; yet the fictional Philip and Isobel are neither. No one grows, no one is set free, no one challenges the system that keeps them apart, nor demonstrates that they really deserve to be together. We leave Isobel – certainly in the film – as a prisoner; a woman who came to realise her prison  – but that its bars are made more permanent. It is like Awakenings, where they go back to their torpor, but in this case, probably more unhappy. No-one is strong and no-one gets stronger. It is the lack of arc, the lack of stricture smashing, that made me as frustrated as the selfish consummation had when I first saw this. Nothing physical happens in the book, and yet the reaction is the same as if it had.

 

The Philip of the film is more selfish and less sensitive – painting the grief of a bereaved woman (which isn’t in the book) and of telling Isobel to find a way to come to him – in the book she can barely walk 100 yards without her servants wondering about her.

 

On my second reading, I thought it masterly and savoured the writing. But the ending made me revert to my earlier view. I hoped that its pages might contain a new story if I read them again and with more admiration and sympathy, having abandoned the expectation of the physical affair of the film. I hated the once affable Aunt Jude, who goes from favourite aunt to grandchild boaster and society rank booster, who slaps her niece and locks her away.

Reginald’s role in the book is less, but he is never sympathetic. Reginald never comes to value his wife in a non monetary sense. The writer of the Anthony Higgins (who plays him) site is wrong to assert that Reginald loves Isobel. Unlike the End of the Affair, I had no pity for the husband who is compassionate and acts with dignity, never revenge, never trying to control. Henry is a friend to Sarah; but Jude knows that Reggie is not one to Isobel, which Isobel has few of. I wanted a better relationship for Henry and Sarah – it would have been one good outcome for the Heatheringtons, but no-one is set free; only Philip’s career improves because we know the titular painting made him more acclaimed. But we know from reading the introduction that he didn’t marry and we wonder if he or Isobel found any form of satisfactory companionship in their lives.

Hence my own satisfaction was also missing.

 

 

 

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The Children Act – my verdict

Her Honour Lady Justice Elspeth will present her findings on the case in the novel by Ian McEwan

 

No need to rise (thanks for being willing).

 

The son of a Jehovah’s witness couple is deemed a minor by the law and therefore his and his parent’s wishes can be overruled by the court, where the court feels that the welfare of the statutory child is at stake, as per section 1 (a) of The Children Act (1989).

 

Adam is three months off being 18 and has leukaemia. He is advised by Edith Cavell Hospital that he needs an urgent blood transfusion to save his life. Indeed, this court has been called at short notice today because the consultant haematologist states that after tomorrow, Adam’s chances of living are small.

 

A blood transfusion is against the beliefs of the family, including Adam, and is therefore being refused. Adam is well aware that he will likely die, and so his are family and community.

 

We have heard about the deeply held beliefs of the Henry family.

We have heard the consultant’s view of the likely suffering and unpleasant death that will befall Adam if he continues without the transfusion.

 

We have heard the precedents of previous judges who allow for statutory minors to make their own decisions, and we have deliberated whether Adam passes this non statutory test of being capable – ie that of being “Gillick competent”; whether it is better for the court and hospital to intervene, and what is the meaning of ‘welfare’. No-one has framed welfare as a developmental or spiritual path. This is a significant oversight in my view.

 

We have noted that Adam’s church circle is narrow. We have considered whether Adam has been able to make his own commitment and decision; and if he is aware of the kind of death he will suffer. Lady Justice Maye has suggested to intervene would be saving the boy from himself and his religion, though she states that the court must have no view on religions or the afterlife. However, it surely does and that has affected the ruling.

 

It appears that no-one in the court shares a view with the Henrys about God and death; Mr Carter the consultant states his Anglicanism, yet he saw Jehovah Witnesses – a related and derivative faith – as a cult.

 

As judge, I am presented with but two options: either I force Adam to have the transfusion, and he will live; or I let him have his apparent wishes, and he dies horribly.

 

But we have not considered other options, nor taken apart the beliefs on both sides.

 

Mr Carter is used to being consulted with, but not in consulting others. It is his dearly held belief, bolstered by a world he is entrenched in, as are truly many of us in the legal world, living in gated nearby communities, socialising with our own, reinforcing the ideas we have long held and rarely having them challenged. As we rise to the top of our profession, we are in a position to distil these beliefs into others, and have less to influence us from above.

So my first point is that a Jehovah’s Witness is no more in a bubble world than many of us, including those who seek a ruling against the Jehovah’s Witnesses here today.

 

Secondly, those who would have me find against the Henry family are of a rational bent, if not an atheistic one. Mr Berner QC, representative of the hospital, may I ask if you have any form of faith or spirituality? Mr Carter, is your Anglicanism one based on prevalent modern science and rationalism, or do you believe in an intervening God who can heal though means other than hospitals? Do you believe in any other kind of medicine save allopathic – that is, your own medicine? I thought as much.

 

You see, we have an issue, that most people involved in this case do not see the world as Adam’s family do. It is assumed that I too would be on the rational side, as Lady Justice Maye was, whose decision I am reconsidering.

 

Although we say that courts do not comment on faith, they do, for we quote Lord Justice Purchas who claims that religions are allowed as long as they are “legally and socially acceptable” and more colourfully and emotively, Lord Justice Scarman precludes those that are “immoral and socially obnoxious”. Could those quotes not be used to crush dissent? For faith is a powerful impetus for civil disobedience, believing in a higher power and cause than earthly authorities, which of course means secular law. For those invested in status quo and their own hegemony, religions are an anathema at best and a threat at worst. Although of course, religions can be used for hegemony and status quo keeping and we must consider if the beliefs in this case are a case in point.

 

Mr Carter, may I ask, what is at stake for you? What do you gain from carrying out a transfusion – money or a commission for example? We are aware that procedures carry a fee for medical staff, and could the drugs involved also be influenced by the profit seeking companies that made them?

 

Mr Carter, how and why does the death of Adam affect you? Is it something you would be upset by – surely not as much as the parents here, and his other loved ones? Do you really care about the affect it would have on your staff?

Is death a failure for you – personally, professionally, on your statistics?

In your view, is death the worst that can happen?

 

And Mr and Mrs Henry – is death the worst for you? Of course not, you believe you go to paradise, reunited with loved ones and God. But how do you feel about the actual loss?

 

I have another thought on a crucial matter that has been erstwhile omitted: the transfusion is deemed necessary because of the drugs being administered for Adam’s anaemia. So these drugs have such a serious side effect that they require an intrusive, risky and to some, taboo procedure to correct it? And we have heard from the family’s counsel that transfusions are not always successful or safe, something that Mr Carter nor Mr Berner has taken seriously.

 

Whilst we heard about the beliefs of the family, no-one articulated that actually several ancient mandates, including the Bible’s Levitical injunctions, are actually often shown to be wisdom that the modern world might be wise to listen to. Aren’t Jews without many of the illnesses that befall their all meats and all animal parts eating counterparts? Perhaps we don’t think enough about life stuff and its sacredness; and only in a world where blood is no more than the oil of the body could we think of swapping it and other parts with those of others?

And I note how those who refuse or query are seen as outdated, cranky, if not dangerous.

 

Her Ladyship is observing all this.

 

So my first conclusion is – why has no alternative healing been considered, such as faith healing, or non allopathic methods, such as herbal and energy based medicines?

I understand that these can be miraculously effective, even from a scientific view.

What else has the allopathic world got in its medicine chest?

 

Also, I rule that an urgent enquiry and temporary ban be put into place on these anti anaemia drugs which are clearly so harmful. I must say that I am shamed that no other person on this case has flagged up or shown alarm on this matter.

 

My next main area is that of the minor’s choice. We arbitrarily place a legal coming of age, now quite late considering history and culture. Adam would be a man already in many other times and places. We have a set standard threshold that is measurable – that quantitative, rational, empirical based mindset again – and not one that is based upon a person’s maturity and insight. We know that Adam has both of those.

 

We claim to care for the welfare of children, but yet there is a great conundrum:

To force bodily acts and fluids on another is assault; to do so, even consensually under the age of 16 is automatically seen as rape by the law.

 

And yet – up to the age of 18, law can support medicine in doing so, against the wishes of the person concerned and their next of kin.

 

What kind of parent are we, the establishment, on behalf of our nation’s young people?

 

We are giving alarming ‘facts’ – I must empathise the inverted commas around the word – about the urgency of the procedure, the death that will befall Adam without it, the likelihood of success. But have we really had those statements scrutinised? Are we allowing the pressure from the hospital to let us overlook the paucity of strong evidence, the manipulation of the arguments against the Henrys’ view, or attempted to uncover underlying motives and views of those against the family’s wishes?

 

I am of the mind that state nor institution has the power over the body and fate of another, and that this should never be supported in law. The transfusion would be a medical rape with much in common with a sexual one, both physically and psychologically damaging.

 

We must urgently consider what else might help Adam.

 

I also state that death, for many believers, is not the end or the ultimate worst. The ancient Mayans called death “an act of creation”, part of life’s cycle. We assume in science that a long life is our rightful life, and any other is a cheat, a failure, a tragedy; death is a nuisance and an error to bat away for as long as possible. This is an immature view of death, forgetting the spiritual and personal development’s role in life, for those who die and those who witness and grieve.

 

I must here return to a line of enquiry that Lady Justice Maye took, which is if the Henry’s beliefs are helpful or harmful; are they freely held or enforced? Is this truly standing up for one’s beliefs and going home to God, or a more sinister and unnecessary martyring?

Is this God speaking, or your church’s elders? I note that the suggestions about alternative healing have been mine, not the Kingdom Hall’s. They have not spoken of faith or natural healing; it is assumed that death is the outcome of obedience to God’s mandate against blood transfusion. I have not heard anyone suggest that God might save Adam without the transfusion. The Almighty seems to concur with the more science based consultants here. Might that be a fault in the defence’s counsel, or does it belie something significant about the religion – and this branch of it as relating to the Henry family?

 

I do find something concerning and significant here, and as much as my own beliefs may be largely inappropriate to the case (and yet still drive my ruling), I would like to share that I am well aware, both personally and with the knowledge of the faiths of others, that the kind of God being presented is not one that many believers would recognise. To critique the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or even this particular branch and its leaders, is not the remit of this court; but I do note that powerful leaders seem to pressure the Henrys into this view, and I wonder how loving and wise a leaders they can be if they impose an obedience that could be fatal and yet offer no succour save the next world – not much succour for Adam’s parents – and no alternative to the transfusion; not even the laying on of hands or anointing of oil common in other Christian circles.

 

The Henrys are asked to put Adam’s life into someone’s hands – God’s or Mr Carter’s; God may work through the transfusion and the elders may be at work through the supposed will of God. I trust my ruling is aware of both and finds a third way.

 

Thus I summarise my ruling:

 

I require that alternative healing for Adam be urgently sought – tonight – if the Henrys choose it; and that no procedure can be forced on animal or human without their and their next of kin’s consent. I will convene a party to propose changes to the laws.

I would like Mr Carter to be invited to be involved in the alternative healing. I make clear that a rejection of transfusion is not a rejection of him or a sleight on his work.

 

I recommend a greater working between allopathic and so called alternative medicine, particularly regarding non intrusive and less profit driven forms of medicine, including energy and faith healing. This may be an area for the Jehovah’s Witnesses to consider.

 

I also recommend a query into the statutory age limit – for were this case three months later, we would not be here today.

 

As said, I declare the need for the urgent recalling and investigation into the drugs and procedures, and further research into transfusion, not just is efficacy but its safety, and the research into alternatives.

 

It is very much my hope that Adam will live, and that he might enjoy a wider view and circle than he has thus far – and that so might all of us, for a small, self serving view is all too common. I admire the courage of all the Henrys and their steadfastness, but I might suggest that their God is less exacting than their pastors.

 

Case dismissed. You may rise this time.

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Compassion – Hanna(h)s and the Holocaust

I revisited The Reader, the film that finally saw Kate Winslet get her Oscar – as Ricky Gervais predicted, it was about the holocaust. There’s been other such observations (such as in new film The Congress) that this most sensitive subject, often cited as the greatest horror of this or any time, garners recognition.

I shared my initial thoughts on Bernhard Schlink’s tale here – five years on, I stand by them all. I had further thoughts on the writing, which in neither case (book nor script) was perfect, but that’s not the focus of this post. You can see them on my Amazon reviews.

The impression that left me with was the assumption that awfulness and shame is the only response that Germans leave themselves for the events of and around World War II; that it is beyond forgiveness, and to attempt it is offensive to Jews – and I again point out that they were one of at least 4 groups (gay, gypsy, disabled too) who were targeted.

There is nothing to be learned, says the daughter who was in the fire and in concentration camps. In the film, Hanna Schmidt says it after her 20 years in prison, before taking her life. Neither party is allowed to grow; the whole story is about stagnant people, in victimhood and guilt. Although I am aware that what holocaust victims endured is something many of us have no idea of, I think all of us have experienced suffering and therefore am not unqualified to suggest that it is those darkest times especially where we seek growth.

The Reader is about a court case of six SS guards. My response drifted from the legal response to  – what would a counsellor or a minister say to these guards? Their business is not justice in the philosophical sense of logical wranglings, but of the heart.

Hannah Arendt is a film about a very similar subject – the 1960s trial of SS workers. This time, the trial is real and there is only one employee in the dock – an infamous senior one, and whose actions make far more sense to bring to court. (One of my criticisms of The Reader is that the church on fire was a case of manslaughter/Samaritan Law, not a war crime – the things the guards did which might have been weren’t the focus of the trial, thus weakening the premise). In both stories, the defendants are a synecdoche, standing for the vast army of SS workers during Nazi Germany, and the persons are made to represent a historic moment rather than the deeds of the individual.

Hannah Arendt was a German Jew who was captured in the war, and yet her attendance at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem yields more generous results than the immature fictional Michael Berg who was not implicated or involved in the camps – he wasn’t even born.

Both stories involve a defendant who seems to have lost their moral compass, and can only think in terms of their duty and orders. They cannot grasp their part in sending people to their death; it is a conveyor belt, and once they have done their part on the assembly line, they do not think about the next.

Hannah Arendt’s summation was that Eichmann’s lack of thinking was what made the atrocities he masterminded possible. It is true of Hanna Schmidt, the imaginary guard and lover of Michael in The Reader. Hanna doesn’t just not think, she can’t read; in learning, she faces some of her past by reading about the Holocaust, including Hannah Arendt’s. This hugely important point was left out of the film and Hanna is given even less scope for anything positive than in the book.

What most made me angry was that Kate Winslet, who I admire, said that if viewers sympathised with Hanna whom she played, they would (or should) feel morally compromised.

Wrong. You are never morally compromised for feeling compassion.

That means, to feel with: it is not about endorsing, just listening and empathy.

I again bring up my therapist and pastor, whose business it is not to condemn, but to facilitate a way back to wholeness. I again note how The Reader uses theological terms, which are actually from the legal – redeem, atone, justification, propitiation, expiation. They are ugly in pulpit and court; the two shouldn’t be conjoined.

What scares me most, what makes these stories relevant, is not perpetuating the suffering of the groups who were killed and the now remorseful perpetrators of the last world war. It is that the mindset that made that Nazi movement possible is still with us.

It starts with the milder things, with something that seems reasonable.

But I warn against creating enemies and unquestioning allegiances.

You are never just doing your job – you are never excused from thinking, or your conscience. Conscience is knowing with, and that is not a matter for only thought – it is a feeling, and intuition.

If your role takes away liberties, crushes, oppresses; if you are afraid to stand up to your employer – than something is gravely wrong and needs to be stopped. No contract should ever ask personal principles to come second to work.

It can be in smaller ways – random searches, taking or demanding money that causes poverty and fear; refusing an appeal. Many of us have opportunities and powers in this way. Thinking of them as papers or stats to clear, not as real people, is the first step. That’s how the army gets its staff to kill – targets are other, they are not like you. But this can be true of judges, police and enforcement, customs staff, welfare. Belle is the story of a judge who used his power well.

In small ways, we can begin that change: to refuse to act out of suspicion and prejudice, to break the chain of command which puts pressure on the next person, which uses fear to coerce. We can choose not to believe hype that would justify such actions.

If we never lose sight that the other person isn’t other, they’re a person, we could halt the fear and aggression and ensure dictatorships never again rise.

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Bitching about Austen

I might have a season of this, so prepare yourselves.

I’ve already had one – “Death Comes to Pemberley” and links to “Going Off Austen” and I wrote elsewhere “Lydia and Wickham – Pride and Prejudice’s Naughtiest Couple”.

Why am I bitching again? Why didn’t I take Austen off my shelf (lord knows I need the space) 4 years ago and let Janey fans enjoy her?

Having my Kate Winslet season (blog posts on here previously) led me to watch the 1995 Sense and Sensibility, which I was reluctant to do; as I’ve said, I’ve not got on really with Austen’s other 5 novels and I’m fed up with polite period adaptations. But I wanted to see Kate’s performance and her career progression. And for a while, I liked the film; and though it was slower to get into, I read the novel with some pleasure.

It was easy to see why the woman that gave us Ophelia and Rose in Titanic could play Marianne Dashwood – passionate, impetuous, heart broken, (near) dying. I did various “Which Austen character are you” quizzes, and received varying answers, but Marianne appeared more than once. And I wasn’t unhappy with that, because Marianne has spirit, she’s genuine, she doesn’t care for those stupid social rules that beset Austen, she’s not materialistic, she speaks and knows her heart.

As for her supposed faults — it was my irritation with that question that got me the result of Lady Catherine De Burgh in one quiz (I’m sort of amused by that and a bit secretly proud). Emma Thompson in her actor/writer’s commentary of the S&S DVD often points out Marianne’s selfishness and rudeness: she rises unbidden at the table of her hosts and asks to play the piano; she boldly hops into a barouche with her boyfriend in public; she speaks or won’t speak ‘out of turn’ (think how dreadful that phrase is!) and she even complains about her sister’s cold feet in their shared bed. And she writes late night letters to her love who’s just publicly and inexplicable spurned her.

This is really what worries me about Austen. I nearly called this piece

Austen fans keep prudery alive

because I’m more disturbed that modern people are getting this, and sticking up for it! The introduction to the Pitkin guide to Austen, written by a man, says that Austen gives us a moral standard (and lets men understand women!!). An article high on the search engine results I won’t name, but that I did comment on, reviews this film with a paragraph on “Bad Content” which includes low necklines and unmarried mothers. The same magazine issue that my truncated guest essay was published in (Jane Austen’s Regency World, Nov 2010) had an article about sex appeal in Austen. It was illustrated with louche cartoons lampooning contemporary royalty, but the text incongruously is about the fact we don’t understand “seriousness” of the “moral crime” of single motherhood today (GOOD!) and full of words like “condemn” “immoral” “vulgar flirt” and “lower impulses” about anyone whose sexuality is more open.

Do you want us to put the corset back on?!

Many of Kate Winslet’s films have been about women who literally and metaphorically take off the corset, but S&S is about a character who puts it on. In Jude and Hamlet, her ahead of time unconventionality and strength are her undoing, but in Titanic, she is freed. Marianne, understandably as a teenager, would need to mature; she can be thoughtless and unfair, and I most dislike her dismissal of 35 year old Colonel Brandon as aged and infirm (rightly lampooned).

Let me slip aside and say

Jane Austen is ageist

Not only are her heroines ridiculously sensible at 19-21, (even though Jane was double that age when writing – oh we have Anne in Persuasion who’s mid 20s), but she makes the mothers or grandmothers beyond romance and beauty. Lively Mrs Jennings is a widow in the book s0 why not have a romance for her? What about Mrs Dashwood, who is my favourite – only 40, as alive as her middle daughter, and whose wit is removed from the Ang Lee/Thomson version: “men are safe here, let them be ever so rich” and her riposte to Marianne’s inability to imagine that anyone older than her can love. Note how dowdy and pale Gemma Jones is made as Mrs D. What about her and the Colonel?

Austen’s men get wives half their age which by today’s standards would seem dubious.

Back to my corset: I don’t want understanding of those mores revived in our day, thank you. I’m pleased that sex before marriage and children or living together without marriage are not things that most of us bother to judge any more. I don’t want crushing etiquette and class delineation to be revived, or those fragile reputations. And I don’t want to go back to a world of deference and where we never learn to speak what we feel (see my article on Her this Feb).

Let me be clear – I have strong values; just not those constricting, judging ones that Austen lovers seem to see themselves as guardians of.

As for sexuality: everyone who exercises it in Austen is a tart or blaggard. And we’re so upset that anyone might adapt or spoof Austen and go higher than a U certificate. I stick up for Andrew Davies now for putting that (very slight, sensuous) seduction scene at the start of his 2008 Sense and Sensibility. The book’s got a dull opening to adapt and that act, as Jane herself says, is the ‘vice’ that set of all the others. People in Austen who are sexual are gold-diggers and preyers on minors; they shock polite society. Heaven help what Willoughby and Marianne might have done in that barouche the day of the picnic…. well, wouldn’t most of us as a passionate couple? But of course, they can’t have, if Marianne is a heroine.

Early Marianne is the most congruent of Austen heroines that I know, but instead of Elinor and her learning from each other, Marianne becomes her sister. Sense and Sensibility is the story of the taming of Marianne, if not the humbling of her. Marianne is ashamed of her conduct and tells her sister it should have been like hers. By the end, she’s promising to rise by 6 and keep busy all day, improving herself. She never really falls for Brandon, it’s engineered by her social circle (not in the 1995 film), and she becomes “devoted” and mistress of a household, family and most worryingly – patron of a parish…. all before her wisdom teeth have arrived. Yet the former Marianne often acted out of perception and a kind heart: getting up from the table to play the piano to stop a guessing game upsetting to her sister; speaking out against an attempt to defame Elinor. She is right to want to discover what’s happened with Willoughby and tell him how she feels about the ball snub, and so I support the letter than Emma Thompson criticises her for.

Elinor’s embarrassed by Marianne’s public tears on her behalf, and later is glad to note Marianne’s silent discretion the next time she feels like a blub.

Elinor tells Edward – who has stuck up t0 his dreadful mother who cast him off – that he does owe her an apology for he has given offence. I can see none, for his engagement would never need to have been concealed if his mother approved and Mrs Ferrars snr should have allowed her son the autonomy he surely deserves.

Finally, I go back to the lack of corporality allowed, that these characters are all asexual with nothing under their dresses or breeches, and how they are defended if anyone suggests otherwise! We can’t bear to think of them or Jane herself as a living, carnal woman – but Jane had a fanny, she didn’t just write a character with that name.

I know that statement and this whole article (and their sisters) will cause anger, but I note generally how people denigrate what clashes with their own opinion on something they hold precious. Whether it’s Game of Thrones (the antithesis of Jane’s world, where you’ll be criticised for criticising the normalising portrayal of violence) or the genteel drawing rooms of Austen, fans won’t stand for 1 star reviews. But it takes away freedom of speech and forgets that not everyone likes the same. There are many people – intelligent, cultured, well read, tasteful – who don’t like Austen, find her boring, don’t understand the appeal (I’m told Bronte was one). Perhaps because I was one, in my corset, I feel the need to talk about Austen and ensure corsets do not return, for the reanimation of those social objurgations really scares me and rouses me as the former Marianne.

I now feel like watching the zombie version, the Fight Club spoof, or the one Austen I rate – Rozema’s Mansfield Park.

But let’s be honest: Jane wouldn’t do well on one of the writing schools at Chawton — conspicuous exposition in dialogue, telling not showing, heavy backstory at the beginning, baggy endings of endless codas.

Am I going to stop this now? For this article, yes, but the future? I suspect I’ll dust Austen off again for another rant.

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