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Archive for January, 2008

Though in the course of fifty years I have forgotten much, I have not forgotten that Aunt Jane was the delight of all her nephews and nieces. We did not think of her as being clever, still less as being famous: but we valued her as one always kind, sympathising and amusing. Her talents did not introduce her to the notice of other writers, or connect her with the literary world, or in any degree pierce through the obscurity of her domestic retirement. – James Austen-Leigh


I am having a love/dislike relationship with Miss Austen Regrets, to be aired on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic, February 3 at 9:00 PM EST. On the one hand it is such a relief to see Jane Austen depicted as a strong, intelligent, witty, independent, tough, and mature woman through the person of Olivia Williams. On the other hand, why clothe the film in regret and gloom? On the occasions when Olivia as Jane declares she is happy with the choices she’s made in life and with the men she’s rejected, you don’t believe her for a moment. There is such a somber atmosphere to this film, underscored by the music and the long silent moments when Jane stares into space, or sits by a pond, or looks out of a window, that one is left with a melancholy feeling despite the sparkling words.
These scenes belie Jane’s statements of content. This viewer, instead of watching a movie about a confident and talented woman, was somewhat surprised to watch a film about a middle-aged spinster who, though not necessarily unhappy, seems to constantly ask the question: “What if?’ In addition, although Jane was not known to be a great dresser, there is almost a quakerish feel to the film.
So why does this movie, written by a female, delve so deeply into the ‘what might have beens’? The film opens with Harris Bigg-Wither’s proposal, and Jane’s acceptance, then rejection of it. Her retraction was not only a faux pas as far as Society was concerned, but it was a foolhardy decision for her era. Women were expected to marry, and Jane blew her chance for economic security. Mr. Big-Withers had a comfortable income, and he could have provided for Jane, Cassandra, and Mrs. Austen. In the movie, Cassandra seems to influence Jane for changing her mind, but one gets the sense that Jane would have come to this decision regardless of her sister’s pressure. (As an aside, Greta Scacchi is miscast as Cassandra. She may be the right age to play the role, but she looks much older. Worse, she does not exert the big sister influence that I expect Cassandra to have over Jane, who in real life looked up to her.)
After this dramatic introduction, we meet Jane as an aunt and confidante of Fanny Knight, daughter of her brother, Edward Austen-Knight, a widower with eleven children. These early scenes with Jane and Fanny are lovely, full of fun and mischief, and the dialogue is scintillating. “Want to know the true reason I never found a husband?” says Jane, “I never found one worth giving up flirting for.”

The aunt and niece laugh and dance and snoop on the men after dinner under cover of darkness. Fanny solicits Jane’s opinion about her suitor, Mr. Plumtree.

“Fanny Plumtree,” Jane replies in mock horror, sending Fanny into giggles.

But then Jane gets serious, saying, “I would have you marry because I know you won’t be happy until you are. Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor. And the best recipe for happiness is a large income.”

The dialogue sparkles with Jane’s wit and truisms culled from her writing, and if the film hadn’t taken such a gloom and doom approach to spinstershood, these lines would have sparkled more. Fanny did indeed go on to marry well three years after Jane’s death to Thomas Knatchbull, a widower with five children. As a young girl Fanny helped to raise her ten siblings, and she went on to have five children of her own. She is never portrayed in the film as a deep thinker, for all she can think of is marriage. In real life her journals bear this out. Fanny wrote copiously during her lifetime, but her dairies dealt with daily events, and she seldom wrote down her thoughts or deeper feelings.

Despite her enormous talent, Jane is human. According to the movie (and the letters on which it is based) Jane liked to dance, flirt, and drink wine, Perhaps she indulged in too much of the latter, and this draws the ire of Rev. Bridges (Hugh Bonneville), her former beau.

It seems the reverend proposed to Jane when they were both young. She rejected him, though it is obvious that the vicar, though married, still carries a torch for her. When Jane wonders what would have happened if she accepted his proposal, he casually answers: “You would have wound up as a vicar’s wife in Ramsgate.” Later on he professes to Jane that he would have allowed her to write, and taken care of a mother and sister. Again, the viewer is treated to another refrain of “What might have been.”

“I’d waited for news that you’d married,” he said.

“As every woman knows there’s a scarcity of men in general. And an even greater scarcity for any that are good for much,” was her tart reply.

“You can hide behind your clever words as much as you like,” he answers.

“Good, because my clever words will soon be the only thing that will put a roof over my head. Or over my mother’s. Or over my sister’s. I’m to be my own husband it seems.”

“I’d have put a roof over all your heads, and cherished you, dear Jane, ‘till death us do part.”

Jane’s outburst reveals the constant tension she is under. While her words and actions are those of an independent woman, she is a product of her times. She cannot go out and make a living. Worse, she must depend on the men in her life to act as her agents.
We meet Henry, Jane’s favorite brother, as he and Jane are strolling in London. He frets about Jane’s finances and her ability to support herself through book sales. Jane then explodes, saying, “Sense and Sensibility has brought me a 140 pounds. May I not be proud of that?”

I won’t review the entire film for you. Just suffice it to say that if I had been the director of this tale, I would have emphasized that single women do find fulfillment in pursuing their talents, in nurturing family relationships, and in being true to their vision. I wish the plot had dwelled more on the creative, talented side of Jane, instead of her constant worry for money. Aside from that, I was vastly relieved to hear Jane’s words spoken in such an intelligent manner and with such conviction by Olivia Williams. This movie almost makes up for the fairy tale that was Becoming Jane. Almost, but not quite.

Note: I am off on vacation for a week, and will return to answer any queries you might have.

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I’ve wracked my brains trying to come up with kind things to say about this 2007 production of Mansfield Park. ‘Nice mansion.’ ‘Pretty garden.’ ‘Glad they shot this film in England.’ ‘Where can I get a red Jezebel parasol like Mary Crawford’s?’ ‘Cute pug.’ ‘Great cleavage.’

On a superficial level this is an enjoyable film, but nothing substantive happens. Every element that makes this powerful Jane Austen novel thought provoking and crackle with tension has been squeezed out of this 90-minute adaptation. The viewer is merely left with – pulp.

I watched this movie several times, hoping to get some sense of why director Iain McDonald and writer Maggie Wadey felt they needed to dumb down the plot. Mrs. Norris is now a merely irritating figure; the Bertram sisters are almost non-existent after Maria’s marriage to Mr. Rushworth; there is no return visit to Portsmouth, in fact there is no Portsmouth at all; the Crawford siblings don’t seem to live any where; and Fanny has morphed into a sweet but stubborn, though slovenly chit who likes to play badminton and ride horses with her first cousin. Oh, and she’s wildly in love with him. One wonders why the tug of war between a young heroine who stands up for her values and moral convictions against those who are in control of her life has been reduced to a few verbal skirmishes and some minor mental anguishes.

I admit this is my least favorite Jane Austen novel, though that is by a small degree. Edmund Bertram comes across as a prig; and Fanny is much too staid and timid for my tastes. She is so morally upright that I would feel quite uncomfortable in her presence and not know precisely what to say. Whereas I suspect I could have a delightful and scintillating conversation with Lizzie Bennet, my favorite Austen heroine, or Mary Crawford, who always excited my interest more than Fanny. Not that Lizzie isn’t moral, but she does seem more approachable to me.

But I digress. Billie Piper is as far from my image of Fanny as any actress could get. Looking too modern, with features that are this side of tough, Billie is woefully miscast. I understand she chose to play Fanny, and I can imagine why. Going against type must be an attractive proposition for an actress. If she pulls off such a challenge, awards are in her future. But Billie didn’t pull this role off, and aside from her sweet, insipid version of Fanny (which is so incongruent with her looks), I found her disheveled hairdo and in-your-face cleavage distracting and not at all reminiscent of a proper Regency Miss.
The other actors and actresses were fine, especially Blake Ritson as Edmund Bertram and Haley Atwell as Mary Crawford, and they did what pitifully little they could with the material they were given.

The film’s biggest mistake was to give Mrs. Norris (Maggie O’Neil) so little airtime and to turn her into a vaguely annoying character. Mrs. Norris is verbally abusive and she plays a significant role in Fanny’s psychological development. The fact that Fanny was able to withstand the hateful words and actions of this dark and oppressive character and to stick to the moral high ground despite all the pressures placed on her is a crucial element of Fanny’s make up. Yet this subtext was almost completely swept under the rug. A knowledgeable Jane fan had to search for it in this production, and someone who has never read Mansfield Park would not even be aware of it after viewing the film.

Towards the end of the film, Edmund’s and Fanny’s fun and light proposal scene is sure to win the hearts of many viewers. (Click on video below.) I must admit the scene is cute, but I felt manipulated. I snorted with derision upon seeing Lady Bertram (Jemma Redgrave) sitting at the breakfast table (would she have bothered to get out of bed so early?), aware enough to observe the subtle looks exchanged between Fanny and Edmund, and actively engaged as a matchmaker.

If I were to give my Regency fan rating to this adaptation of Mansfield Park, I’d give it ¼ fan. After all, the pug, who remains uncredited, was adorable and eminently worth watching. For other reviews on Mansfield Park, click on PBS’s Remotely Connected My review of Northanger Abbey sits here; and click here for my review on Persuasion.

For other (older) reviews of the movie, click on the links below:

Read my other post about Mansfield Park here: Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford’s Downfall in Edmund’s Eyes.

Also click here for a short piece on the two actors who played Fanny and Edmund in the 1983 version of Mansfield Park.

Billie Piper

Blake Ritson

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    In romance novels footmen are depicted as tall, dark, and handsome men in fancy livery, preferably matched in height. Surprisingly, this description of these statuesque men, who were as much a status symbol as servant, is true. According to Daniel Pool in What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, footmen wore:

    “livery,” or household uniform of fancy coat, knee breeches, stockings, and powdered hair, a costume that endured to the end of th 1800s. Because of their appearance at dinner and in public with the family, footmen were supposed to be the most “presentable” of the male servants. They were evaluated on the basis of the appearance of their calves in silk stocking, and they often gave their height when advertising for positions in the paper–it was considered absurd to have a pair of footmen who didn’t match in height. (Poole, p. 221)

    In olden days, footmen traditionally ran alongside carriages or to obtain items of importance, or raced other footmen of great houses in order to win bets for their masters. The Chamber Book of Days relates these stories of legend:

    For example: the Earl of Home, residing at Hume Castle in Berwickshire, had occasion to send his foot-man to Edinburgh one evening on important business. Descending to the hall in the morning, he found the man asleep on a bench, and, thinking he had neglected his duty, prepared to chastise him, but found, to his surprise, that the man had been to Edinburgh (thirty-five miles) and back, with his business sped, since the past evening. As another instance: the Duke of Landerdale, in the reign of Charles II, being to give a large dinner-party at his castle of Thirlstane, near Lander, it was discovered, at the laying of the cloth, that songe additional plate would be required from the Duke’s other seat of Lethington, near Haddington, fully fifteen miles distant across the Lammirmuir hills. The running footman instantly darted off, and was back with the required articles in time for dinner!

    Footmen acquired their names from their running duties, accompanying their masters or mistresses alongside carriages or horses. They carried a long cane containing a mixture of eggs and white wine for sustenance, but many accounts talk of thin, gaunt footmen who became too old before their time.

    In the eighteenth century [footmen] were frequently matched to run against horses and carriages One of the last recorded contests was in 1770 between a famous running footman and the Duke of Marlborough, the latter wagering that in his phaeton and four he would beat the footman in a race from Windsor to London. His Grace won by a very small margin. The poor footman worn out by his exertions and much chagrined by his defeat, died, it was said, of over fatigue. In the north of England the running footman was not quite extinct till well into the middle of the nineteenth century. So recently as 1851, on the opening of an assize court, there the sheriff and judges were preceded by two running footmen. About the same date the carriage of the High Sheriff of Northumberland on its way to meet the judges of assize, was attended by two pages on foot holding on to the door handles of the carriage and running beside it. A Handy Book of Curious Information: Comprising Strange Happenings in the … By William Shepard Walsh, 1913

    By the 18th century, footmen began to work under the supervision of a butler, taking on such duties as “carrying coals up to rooms, cleaning boots, trimming lamps, laying the table for meals, answering the front door and, at Erddig, sleeping in the butler’s pantry to ensure nobody stole the family silver” (Willes, page 18). The footman’s life was not an easy one. He arose at the crack of dawn and worked until 11 p.m. at night almost without pause. Frederick John Gorst, a former footman at the turn of the 20th century tells of the day he fainted:

    Dr. Burton asked me how much time I had off for rest and recreation, and I told him that I had not had a day off since I began to work at Ashton-Hayes six months ago. Moreover, I had not had a holiday nor seen my family in more than three years. He shook his head in disbelief, and said:

    “John, this is a very serious matter. How old are you?”

    “I’m almost eighteen, Dr. Burton,” I said.

    “You are very tall for your age, and your pale complexion leads me to believe that you need some sunshine and fresh air.”

    To gain some insights into a footman’s day and duties, click on the following links:

    The Footman: A Servant’s Day in London

    Dear FRIEND,
    Since I am now at leisure,
    And in the Country taking Pleasure,
    If it be worth your while to hear
    A silly Footman’s Business there,
    I’ll try to tell, in easy Rhyme,
    How I in London spend my Time.And first,
    As soon as Laziness will let me,
    To cleaning Glasses, Knives, and Plate,
    And such-like dirty Work as that,
    Which (by the bye) is what I hate.
    This done; with expeditious Care,
    To dress myself I strait prepare;
    I clean my Buckles, black my Shoes;
    Powder my Wig, and brush my Cloaths;
    Take off my Beard, and wash my Face,
    And then I’m ready for the Chace.Down comes my Lady’s Woman strait:
    Where’s Robin? Here. Pray take your Hat,
    And go—and go—and go—and go—;
    And this—and that desire to know.
    The Charge receiv’d, away run I,And here, and there, and yonder fly,
    With Services, and How-d’ye’does,
    Then Home return full fraught with News.Here some short Time does interpose,
    ‘Till warm Efflucia’s greet my Nose,
    Which from the Spits and Kettles fly,
    Declaring Dinner-time is nigh.
    To lay the Cloth I now prepare,
    With Uniformity and Care;
    In Order Knives and Forks are laid,
    With folded Napkins, Salt, and Bread:
    The Side-boards glittering too appear,
    With Plate, and Glass, and China-ware.
    Then Ale, and Beer, and Wine decanted,
    And all Things ready which are wanted,
    The smoaking Dishes enter in
    To Stomachs sharp a grateful Scene;
    Which on the Table being plac’d,
    And some few Ceremonies past,
    They all sit down, and fall to eating,
    Whilst I behind stand silent waiting.

    This is the only pleasant Hour
    Which I have in the Twenty-four;
    For whilst I unregarded stand,
    With ready Salver in my Hand,
    And seem to understand no more
    Than just what’s call’d for, out to pour;
    I hear, and mark the courtly Phrases,
    And all the elegance that passes;
    Disputes maintain’d without Digression,
    With ready Wit, and fine Expression;
    The Laws of true Politeness stated,
    And what Good-breeding is, debated:
    Where all unanimously exclude
    The vain Coquet, the formal Prude,
    The Ceremonious, and the Rude.
    The flattering, fawning, praising Train;
    The fluttering, empty, noisy, vain;
    Detraction, Smut, and what’s prophane.

    This happy Hour elaps’d and gone,
    The Time of drinking Tea comes on.
    The Kettle fill’d, the Water boil’d,
    The Cream provided, Biscuits pil’d,
    And Lamp prepar’d; I strait engage
    The Lilliputian Equipage
    Of Dishes, Saucers, Spoons, and Tongs,
    And all th’ Et cetera which thereto belongs.
    Which rang’d in order and Decorum,
    I carry in, and set before ‘em;
    Then pour or Green, or Bohea out,
    And, as commanded, hand about.

    This Business over, presently
    The Hour of visiting draws nigh;
    The Chairman strait prepare the Chair,
    A lighted Flambeau I prepare;
    And Orders given where to go,
    We march along, and bustle thro’
    The parting Crouds, who all stand off
    To give us Room. O how you’d laugh!
    To see me strut before a Chair,
    And with a stirdy Voice, and Air,
    Crying—By your Leave, Sir! have a Care!
    From Place to Place with speed we fly,
    And Rat-tatat the Knockers cry:
    Pray is your Lady, Sir, within?
    If no, go on; if yes, we enter in.

    Then to the Hall I guide my Steps,
    Amongst a Croud of Brother Skips,
    Drinking Small-beer, and talking Smut,
    And this Fool’s Nonsence puting that Fool’s out.
    Whilst Oaths and Peals of Laughter meet,
    And he who’d loudest, is the greatest Wit.
    But here amongst us the chief Trade is
    To rail against our Lords and Ladies;
    To aggravate their smallest Failings,
    T’expose their Faults with saucy Railings.
    For my Part, as I hate the Practice,
    And see in them how base and black ’tis,
    To some bye Place I therefore creep,
    And sit me down, and feign to sleep;
    And could I with old Morpheus bargain,
    ‘Twou’d save my Ears much Noise and Jargon.
    But down my Lady comes again,
    And I’m released from my Pain.
    To some new Place our Steps we bend,
    The tedious Evening out to spend;
    Sometimes, perhaps, to see the Play,
    Assembly, or the Opera;
    Then home and sup, and thus we end the Day.

    Norton Anthology: Robert Dodsley Poem: The Footman, 18th Century

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    In “To Cut a Regency Coat”, Suzi Clarke, a British costumer, goes into great detail on how to make this man’s Regency garment.

    The basic man’s coat for the first twenty-five years of the 19th century changed very little. It was cut to fit very firmly across the shoulders, with a shoulder seam that sloped into the back armscye. There was a center back seam, and the side seams curved toward the center back from the same armscye, narrowing in towards the waist. The center back continued on into the skirt, although occasionally there was a waist seam. The two front skirts were cut in one piece with the body, usually with a “fish” or dart at waist level early in the century.

    All these coats were beautifully cut and sewn together, the stitching being very neat and small. English tailoring at this time was the envy of the fashionable world, and these coats were of the time of the famous George “Beau” Brummell. The top coat belonged to a banker, Mr. Coutts, and was made by the famous tailor, “Weston” of Savile Row, mentioned in Georgette Heyer, and possibly Jane Austen. It was lodged at Coutts Bank, together with other items of clothing, in 1805, and donated to the Museum of London many years later.

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    Whew. The Complete Jane Austen has been saved by the charming performances of J.J. Feild and Felicity Jones as Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey. Had PBS opted to follow ITV’s tepid Persuasion with the very problematic Mansfield Park, they would likely have lost scores of viewers who might not have returned for a third dose of another truncated adaptation of a Jane Austen novel.

    Not knowing what to expect, I watched my preview DVD with some trepidation, only to lose myself in this sparkling and delightful adaptation. I have no illusions when it comes to comparing a 90-minute video to a complete novel written by a master writer: in my opinion the novel wins hands down every time. No debate. But director Jon Jones made the most of his short video time, combining dialogue with visual clues in such a deft way that one comes away from the movie feeling almost satisfied with this retelling of Jane’s gothic parody. Keep in mind that, as with all these adaptations, the subtleties and complexities of subplots and supporting character were scarcely given the passing time of day.

    Be that as it may, the scene in which Catherine Morland and Mrs. Allen first enter the Lower Assembly Rooms in Bath demonstrates the director’s brilliant visual touches. Romance and regency authors frequently describe the “crush” at an assembly ball. This scene SHOWS it, with Mrs. Allen and Catherine elbowing their way through the crowd in dimly lit rooms and halls and doorways. One can almost smell the candle smoke and feel the heat of bodies pressing against each other, and smell the sweat of the dancers as they move energetically in a confined space. In her novel, Jane Austen took an enormous time describing Northanger Abbey both inside and out. Thankfully, the camera can show these descriptions in minutes, using interior and exterior shots as backdrops. For those of us who live outside of England, the scenery and sets alone make this production worth watching.

    The casting was superb. J.J. Feild was smart, charming, and appropriately “almost handsome” as Jane described Henry Tilney. The adorable Felicity Jones was believable in her role as a naïve and gullible young woman who allowed her imagination to run rampant. In her fantasy scenes, with her thick dark hair flowing freely, Felicity convincingly resembled a lush and delectable maid in distress. Cary Mulligan as the flashy, brassy Isabella Thorpe nearly stole all her scenes. Liam Cunningham as General Tilney hit all the right villain notes, and William Beck was satisfyingly slimy as John Thorpe. My only major quibble with the casting was of Catherine Walker, whose drab Eleanor Tilney seemed to dissolve into the woodwork. Click here to view the characters and read a short bio about them.
    As with recent Jane Austen adaptations, liberties were taken with the plot. Jane never described Isabella naked in bed after making love to Captain Tilney, nor does she have Catherine fantasize herself nude in front of Henry. Those who know me well know that I am no prude, but I attribute such scenes to the influence of Andrew Davies, who seems to think that a sexed up Jane Austen production is appropriate and right. Frankly, that’s a man’s point of view, and in this respect Mr. Jon Jones has sunk to the same level, thinking that sex will sell Jane to a new audience. Those of us who are comfortable using both sides of our brains know that Jane needs no such obvious and infantile interpretations to win fans over. Her words are good enough.


    Speaking of fans, I am convinced this delightful production will influence many a young viewer to head towards their libraries to read a Jane Austen novel for the first time. And that thought gives me great pleasure. If you missed Northanger Abbey because of Iron Chef, check your local listing. Many PBS stations, such as the one in Richmond, have placed it on their schedule for a second night.

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    From: Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England: From 1811-1901, Kristine Hughes, Ohio, 1998, p 122, ISBN 0-89879-812-4

    For more questions and answers about British social classes, click here.

    Please note: If you wish to use this image, please give proper credit. The information came from Kristine Hughes; the image was made by me. Thank you.

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    Have you noticed? Keen observers of Mansfield Park 1983 will have recognized Sylvestra Le Touzel. She played Fanny Price all those years ago, and appeared as Mrs. Allen in the 2007 version of Northanger Abbey.


    And Nicholas Farrell, who played staid and moral Edmund Bertrum in 1983, appeared as the gregarious Mr. Musgrove in last week’s Persuasion.

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