Tag Archives: Jennifer Ehle

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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Contagion

A film with three of my favourite actors in is a treat that I don’t think I’ve ever had before. However it turned out not to be much of a treat. It was just OK, and I agree with the reviews that say that there’s not enough characterisation and that breadth has precedence over depth – which weakens this story.

I didn’t agree with the billings about the disquieting reality of the film. The only chill I got was from an air vent in the cinema,
and the thought of how much control is exerted by authorities, making the crisis worse. I can see the rationale behind quarantine and isolation, but this soon leads to economic problems, and the lack of what creatures most need –  connection.

I can believe that there would be looting – this is the nation that rioted over stocks of Cabbage Patch kids, so the final food and medicine is hardly a surprise.

The film feels like an authorised version where the officials are the good guys. It’s got some grey areas and tries to show a variety of issues (too many) but feels like the end of Source Code where the immorally resuscitated corpse gladly submits to serving America. (Knowing that story is written by an Englishman whose first film was a conspiracy story, I am now suspicious). This was another America speaks for the world movie, although it contains more than one European actor.

It reminded me of the last world war where peers as well as authorities imposed the desired behaviour on citizens, making them feel they let down their nation by not conforming.

I dislike the idea that the outspoken blogger is the villain, when he could have been the saviour. There’s no government cover up or disturbing bio-warfare after all – the movie feels like it has been an advert for wash your hands. The blogger’s critique is shown to finally be as dangerous and corrupt as anything he posts. But it is true that animals are sacrificed in the name of getting us a cure; and that the production of medicines and rare commodities became very lucrative during the times of disease and disaster. The public are controlled and what we know is controlled.

I am also suspicious of the medical world. I am sure many in it are genuine in the quest to make people well and to help, but it crushes anything that challenges it with the support of the legal profession and the government.

Alterative therapies are gaining recognition but have to defer to conventional western medicine to avoid law suits and being closed down.

The film has characters based on the real life Centers for  Disease, who collaborated with the film. Looking on CDC’s website, I’m appalled by the statement under Global Regional Centers for Disease Detection, end of para 1:

“Most importantly, none of these outbreaks became a health threat to the United  States”

The CDC run round the world, intervening (or is that interfering) in other countries, imposing a beast practice (interesting typo, I left that in), and yet saying that their job is well done because no one at home got hurt – as if Americans are more valuable  than Scots or Mexicans.

The CDC site feels very public relations – ‘we work for you 24/7’,’ read our real life stories about why we do what we do….’ it’s all emotive, sensationalist, reading like a party political broadcast. It’s advertising.

Another disturbing quote is:

“The United States had a choice: gamble H1N1 would not kill in high numbers, or work as fast as possible to develop a vaccine and make it available to as many Americans as possible. In fact, there was no choice—the vaccine had to be made and distributed” (italics mine)

But what of the cynical view that vaccines make money?

My thoughts are – why is vaccine the only way to deal with  illness? The film says that it is slow to make vaccines – it took 6 months to control the disease. Methodologically, growing a disease to play with it and see if you can work out how to reverse or nullify it seems a very limited and quite strange way to tackle a problem, yet it is the prevalent if not only method of science.

I am horrified that viruses are created by government paid scientists – how can that ever be justifiable?

Can’t diseases be more than just hygiene related problems – what about a deeper problem?

What would spiritual alternative healers make of this?

What of ancient and native medical wisdom?

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