Tag Archives: Austen

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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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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The shape of things to come

Shortly into the New Year, I’ll be considering the prison drama Bad Girls and how it’s influencing my views on punishment and justice; on Britain’s justice secretary’s comments on the European Court of Human Rights today; and scheming satirical sketches for workfare supporters.

Coming up next is my review of Death Comes to Pemberley – and whether it’s further death to my relationship with Austen…

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Amazon and Austen

I’m building up a profile on Amazon as a reviewer. Links will arrive here so it’s only fair to put one back again.

The Austen article links on this post are no longer live and so have been deleted

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