Tag Archives: Elizabeth Bennet

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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Death Comes to Pemberley… and all of Austen’s houses

PLOT SPOILER ALERTS

Three years ago I wrote an online article which was picked up by the official Jane Austen magazine, who published it as their guest essay. I was delighted but surprised, since the article is called “Going off Austen” and it charts the end of a 24 year love affair, the parting of a joint best friend of much of my life.

It appeared in the Nov 2010 edition of Jane Austen’s Regency World.

Did I take Janey off my shelf? No, because she had been so significant in my life, though I’d not watched or read her since writing that article. It was trying to find something universal to view with my family at Christmas which led me to this adaptation of PD James’ novel, a synthesis between her love of Austen and of crime fiction, aired by the BBC as a new drama this week.

Quickly, I had to release all thoughts of whether the characters were like Austen’s; for though PD Wodehouse James says in the Radio Times interview that the characters are not her own, I did not really recognise them. I felt Anna Maxwell Martin didn’t play the part of Elizabeth Bennet with the required wit and vivacity that particularly Jennifer Ehle did. But I’d already found that the heroine on the page wasn’t much of one, and her sensible mistress-ness in this continuation to P+P made me continue to rail against Lizzie.

My membership in the anti Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy club was renewed, and I found him again – even as he completes his character arc – to be pompous and controlling. And PD James never queries these ridiculous mores that are so central to Pride and Prejudice and other contemporary pieces, namely that around Lydia and Wickham.

I still want to stick up for Lydia – the most interesting face in the show – and found her pre-execution meeting with her husband touching, for she was willing to forgive him his philandering and think the best of him and did not regret their marriage. He asked her to cherish a positive memory of him. And even though both were young and their marriage brief, they could say that their life together had been full. At first, I felt Wickham was being shown as an ever greater blaggard, a serial propositioner of under age women for money, then incestuous, and then a murderer, as well as a debtor and manipulator, whilst the Darcy camp is the side of right. I’m glad that PD made Wickham a good friend and loving husband, and though I disagree about wartime heroes, that she added bravery in battle as another virtue, whilst throwing in a few queries about Darcy’s own perfection.

PD does have Darcy rescind the decision to have single mother Louisa Bidwell and her “bastard” child parted – but his idea of liberalism is to make that baby have a life of servitude under his snooty nose and his son’s. Darcy shuts out Colonel Fitzwilliam (any reason they share a name?) and uses his power as master of the house to have his former friend removed by his staff rather than complete the argument.

I sizzled over the way servants are treated (mostly by each other) and the power that landowners have to make decisions on behalf of others as much as the continued stereotypes shown in short appearances by Mr and Mrs Bennett and Lady Catherine dB – hardly worth getting Penelope Pitstop I mean Keith kitted out in Georgian garb.  I did not like Georgiana’s speech about the Darcy name being bigger than all of them so that even when you are top of that tree, it requires you to cut your own trunk and be held to account by some unseen force. I hated that Will Bidwell attacked Denny because he felt he “couldn’t take care of his women”; but his assuming that he had to make decisions for them, avenge their honour, and keep them chaste in that narrow stricture also made me angry, and more so as the tale was penned by a living writer, not one who died in 1817.

As a piece, there’s a clear learning curve and need for each of the characters, so from a writing plan point of view, PD James’ story is satisfactory. But from a society and justice slant, it is not. And it’s not making me run back to Chawton or Bath either, but I will stick with Rozema’s Mansfield Park as it’s the only Austen about social justice.

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