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Archive for May, 2008

It is ironic that a novel filled with clues similar to those found in a good mystery tale can spin off a film whose clues stand out like a red cape in front of a bull. Jane Austen deftly sprinkled hints about Jane Fairfax’s relationship with Frank Churchill throughout Emma. One has to read the novel twice to find her subtle inferences, and even then one might miss a few. The 1996 film version of Emma, written by Andrew Davies, leaves no stone unturned and drops its clues with such a heavy hand that midway through the film you want to shout – “enough!” Jane and Frank exchange frequent glances, are seen at the piano together in Mrs. and Miss Bates’ apartment, and argue on the terrace at Donwell Abbey. We even see Jane crying after their tiff as she walks through a field hatless. Tsk. Tsk. At least Mr. Davies did not sex up this particular film adaptation.

While I like this film overall, and gave it a favorable review when it was shown during PBS’s presentation of The Complete Jane Austen earlier this year, it did have a cringe worthy moment. Mr. Knightley, forcefully played by Mark Strong, proposes to Emma and says afterwards: “I held you in my arms when you were three weeks old”. Kate Beckinsale as Emma replies before they kiss: “Do you like me now as well as you did then?” Eww! The unfortunate image these words evoke are not at all what Jane intended. Here is how her Mr. Knightley proposes, which is just as it ought to be:

“My dearest Emma,” said he, “for dearest you will always be, whatever the event of this hour’s conversation, my dearest, most beloved Emma—tell me at once. Say ‘No,’ if it is to be said.”—She could really say nothing.—”You are silent,” he cried, with great animation; “absolutely silent! at present I ask no more.”

Emma was almost ready to sink under the agitation of this moment. The dread of being awakened from the happiest dream, was perhaps the most prominent feeling.

“I cannot make speeches, Emma:”—he soon resumed; and in a tone of such sincere, decided, intelligible tenderness as was tolerably convincing.—”If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am.—You hear nothing but truth from me.—I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.—Bear with the truths I would tell you now, dearest Emma, as well as you have borne with them. The manner, perhaps, may have as little to recommend them. God knows, I have been a very indifferent lover.—But you understand me.—Yes, you see, you understand my feelings—and will return them if you can. At present, I ask only to hear, once to hear your voice.”

Jane DID bring up the differences in ages, but earlier in her novel, when 21-year-old Emma and 37-year-old Mr. Knightley attended a family gathering soon after Mr. & Mrs. John Knightley arrive for a visit. The conversation occurs some time after Mr. Knightley had chastised Emma for influencing Harriet in declining Mr. Martin’s marriage proposal. In this scene, Emma and Mr. Knightley speak as long-standing friends and as relations through marriage:

Emma: “What a comfort it is, that we think alike about our nephews and nieces. As to men and women, our opinions are sometimes very different; but with regard to these children, I observe we never disagree.”

Mr. Knightley: “If you were as much guided by nature in your estimate of men and women, and as little under the power of fancy and whim in your dealings with them, as you are where these children are concerned, we might always think alike.”

Emma: “To be sure—our discordancies must always arise from my being in the wrong.”

Mr. Knightley: “Yes,” said he, smiling—”and reason good. I was sixteen years old when you were born.”

Emma: “A material difference then,” she replied—”and no doubt you were much my superior in judgment at that period of our lives; but does not the lapse of one-and-twenty years bring our understandings a good deal nearer?”

Mr. Knightley: “Yes—a good deal nearer.”

Emma: “But still, not near enough to give me a chance of being right, if we think differently.”

Mr. Knightley: “I have still the advantage of you by sixteen years’ experience, and by not being a pretty young woman and a spoiled child. Come, my dear Emma, let us be friends and say no more about it. Tell your aunt, little Emma, that she ought to set you a better example than to be renewing old grievances, and that if she were not wrong before, she is now.” – Emma, Chapter 7, Volume One

Since watching this film adaptation, I have often wondered why Mr. Davies inserted those words about Emma as a baby into the script at what should have been a supremely romantic moment. Thankfully the Harvest Ball almost made up for his faux pas, almost, but not quite. Although the scene ends the movie on a perfect note, Jane never wrote it for her novel.
Score: Jane Austen, 100; Andrew Davies, Good try.

For more posts about Emma, 1996, click on the links below:

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What could be more magnificent to a Georgian gentleman than a fine stallion with fiery eyes and beautiful confirmation (musculature), a thoroughbred horse known to have won an important race and who could sire other champions? George Stubbs, a painter who specialized in horse and dog portraiture, painted Whistlejacket on commission for the Marquess of Rockingham in 1762. When it isn’t on loan to another museum (this oil painting is on exhibit in York through August) this arresting, iconic, and almost life-sized image hangs in the National Gallery in London.

Whistlejacket was foaled in 1749, and his most famous victory was in a race over four miles for 2000 guineas at York in August 1759. Stubbs’s huge picture was painted in about 1762 for the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, Whistlejacket’s owner and a great patron of Stubbs. According to some writers of the period the original intention was to commission an equestrian portrait of George III, but it is more likely that Stubbs always intended to show the horse alone rearing up against a neutral background. (Description of the painting on the National Gallery website, image from Wikimedia Commons)

George Stubbs was born in 1724 in Liverpool. Largely a self-taught painter, his fame among aristocratic horseman and sportsmen as a painter of animals was at his height when Jane Austen began to write First Impressions. The artist’s interest in horse and human anatomy equalled his interest in painting, and he studied the subject to such an extent that he was commissioned to illustrate a book on midwifery in 1751 by Dr. John Burton. His ground-breaking book, the Anatomy of a Horse, was published in 1766. Stubbs, whose paintings hung in the private collections of the great houses of his aristocratic patrons, and who was highly regarded in these circles, as well as among the naturalists of his day, did not find general fame until he was rediscovered in the 20th century. To this day, most of Stubbs’s painting remain in private collections.

The origin of the name, Whistlejacket, is interesting. In Yorkshire, the local name for the treacle/gin drink was ‘whistle-jacket’. When made with brandy instead of gin, the color of the drink would have resembled the color of this palomino stallion’s coat.

The painting is more like a candid photograph, capturing the essence of the horse’s beauty and energy in a split-second shot. The horse is sensuous with its chestnut gleam and rounded, muscular form. Whistlejacket’s eye does not meet the viewer’s; instead, it seems to look inward, contemplating. (Art Straight From the Horse’s Mouth)

To read more about George Stubbs (1724-1806), click on the links below:

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This plain dress made in Vermont circa 1825 is a rarity: a homespun dress that survived being cut into pieces for rags. The rough plain weave wool fabric was hand dyed and hand sewn. Most of us save our prettiest gowns for posterity, but we rarely save our every day dresses. Beautiful examples of ball gowns and richly decorated party dresses survive, but this gown, just sold on Vintage Textiles, is worth more than its weight in gold for the mere fact that it survived in such good condition. Hurry over to the site to view the many images of this dress before the link is discontinued. Oh, dear, the link has already been taken down.

Vintage Textiles, as you know, is one of my favorite sites. The visual displays of the clothes for sale are unparalleled, and each item comes with a provenance and rich description. I would suggest that you visit this site often if you are interested in the fashions of the era. Many of the pieces are surprisingly affordable, especially the accessories. I was devastated to read that one bride had purchased a vintage lace gown from Vintage Textiles and had it redesigned into a modern wedding dress. While the dress was pretty, she had ruined a one-of-a-kind, historical gown.

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Inquiring Readers,

When I read Professor Ellen Moody’s comments regarding Jane Austen Regrets 2007, I realized we were in complete agreement about the movie. She includes historical and literary details that set her essays apart from most movie reviews. Ellen has graciously allowed me to publish her thoughts on this blog.

Dear all,

It’s been asked how accurate is this film as a biography. That’s a hard question to answer because it depends on how you read Austen’s letters; and the letters themselves represent a minority of the letters she wrote and they are censored (clipped, abridged, cut — and we all know how one word left out can make a very great change in tone, not to omit literal meaning).

I rewatched it last night (thanks to my good friend, Judy, who sent me a video of the movie as it played on British TV). Alas, it too seems to be 84 minutes. It’s reported on IMDb that the movie is 90 minutes altogether; since scenes are so short (sometimes lasting 11seconds nowadays) and the camera cuts to and fro from scene to scene, 6 minutes is not nothing to lose (if 6 are indeed lost — bringing up the question which 6 and why were these cut?)

I think the real question is how unhappy was Austen’s life. The film presented her as very unhappy basically, even though she had freedom to write. Olivia Williams did the part with great tact and intuition and irony and made the state much more believable than the shallow imbecility (and glamorized victimhood complete with the crew adoring our heroine at the end) of ‘Becoming Jane’. We should recall first that (as Mary Lefkowitz among others in her lives of the classic poets says), it’s common for popular biography to present the life of a genius in any area as miserable; she suggests this comes out of envy, a desire for compensation (that is, most or many people’s lives are thwarted and unhappy and it makes them feel better to see the genius suffer too, a sense of alienation from someone different) and her classic case is the myths surrounding Euripides and she has a number of modern ones too.

A perceptive article on the recent spate of biopic movies shows that to a movie they all attribute the genius’s insight to loss of love. It must be a love affair that motivates the writing; nothing else will do, and in the case of a woman, she must be helped, inspired by the man she loved. Shakespeare in Love. Moliere. Dear Jane led to write by Tom Lefroy.

This one did show these paradigms in spades. Jane is different and thus alone so must be unhappy. Jane must have been in love and lost and thus we see where she got her stories.

Still I think it better than that; smarter. It seemed to suggest she was unhappy beyond this simply because she was dissatisfied with the choices offered her, whatever these were. She urges Fanny to marry, but she herself won’t take what’s on offer because she doesn’t want it.

It would have been more believable as a real depiction of a real life if there had been less physical beauty all around her, but that’s too much to ask in a heritage film I suppose. And we did get the new poverty: Austen used to be presented as richer than she was; the recent spate of films about her characters show them as much poorer than Austen imagined, and now she has come down to live in a farm-like cottage (below) with Cassandra in barely clean clothes too.

But we do see that her relations with her relatives are less than comforting — too bad they had only the mother; what about the aunt? What about the uncle? And we got only two brothers. Was there some salary limit so the pathology of family life had only minimal representation? (The 07 films have all been very minimalist in budget.) It is true there is strain in the letters from the mother, and from the mother’s leftover writing we see that she was very materialistic.

I’ve thought Austen was not happy in the way that’s common in lives. She had to live on a small allowance; she couldn’t travel about without a man or post (beneath her); the little evidence we have about her family, the manuscript of her leftover chapters of Persuasion and her letters show she was under some pressure to write conventionally (she had thought she was safe over the moral about the mother’s advice in Persuasion but not so, her mother resented the book somehow or other). She had to write for 3 decades before she could get anything in print, and then she wasn’t exactly getting huge sums (but then that was rare). The man who wrote back about Northanger Abbey was very nasty over it: she must give him the 10 pounds before he returns the NA manuscript and if she publishes, he’ll sue. I guess he wasn’t impressed by her connections, wasn’t afraid at all of offending her. Her close woman friend may have betrayed her (by sending the young man she was attracted to away) and then she died early (from a carriage accident); another was a governess in her brother’s house; her sister-in-law and cousin, Eliza, died before her. Her father died leaving her mother and sisters and her without an adequate income. Most of all she died young and in great pain and the sickness was a while coming on.

As to the specifics the film made it’s claim for — as I read the letters with common sense — there is no iota of evidence that Austen ever had a deep feeling love affair with any specific man, none whatsoever, and certainly not with Bridges (Hugh Bonneville, left) nor he for her; he did marry and had a passel of children and as far as we know did not go after Austen with his grief from the loss of her. Family members, such as Cassandra, told of a romance around 1802-4 in the west country where the man said he would meet Austen again next year but died. He is strangely omitted from the film — too vague? It does seem Austen had a crush or liking for Tom LeFroy and he for her, but this was easily quashed: he was sent away to make sure he didn’t get any further involved with a girl with no dowry, a fringe person who needed better connections, couldn’t offer them.

James Macavoy as Tom LeFroy and Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen in Becoming Jane

The story of Harris Bigg-Wither was told by someone else, and it does have the ring of truth. None of these three is a deep romance; the two last are anything but. Reading supercarefully I have noticed that in a couple of instances when older Austen was attracted to an amusing or congenial man, like the apothecary. She jokes about the clergyman. But if there was anything serious in it, Cassandra destroyed the evidence, and the tone of the letters is such that lots of people haven’t seen anything in the couple of instances I’ve noticed. One was an apothecary, and to be sure, this writer picked that up.

But to say Austen was deeply regretful at the end of her life that she hadn’t married. Nonsense. Her letters are filled to to the brim with dislike of endless pregnancies. Absolutely typical:

Anna has not a chance of escape; her husband called here the other day, & said she was pretty well but not equal to “so long a walk; she must come in her “Donkey Carriage.”–Poor Animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty.—I am very sorry for her.–Mrs Clement too is in that way again. I am quite tired of so many Children.–Mrs Benn has a 13th… (Jane Austen’s Letters, ed. Le Faye 336, Letter dated Sunday 23- Tuesday 25 March 1817

She preferred to write and to read and had she married it would have been all over for her. She had 3 sisters-in-laws constantly pregnant all of whom died young in childbirth. She writhed under the control of her brothers because she couldn’t travel. The story to be told is of a woman who decided not to marry because in her circumstances, it would have been a slavery forever she couldn’t stand. She regretted not being able to make more money.
She writhed at dying young. She grieved over not being able to finish Persuasion properly.

The movie does include the incident with the Regents’ librarian (Jason Watkins as Rev. Clarke at left). We see from her letters she was “taken” up by the Regents’ librarian and show the library. He was a rare literary person she met (if third rate) and he treated her seriously and it was to him she wrote a letter where she expressed some worry that Emma showed she was running out of material in a more sophisticated way than she usually discusses her work. She also makes a striking comment on how court life is a form of slavery she wouldn’t be able to stand. She did make fun of him, but she makes fun of lots of people and sometimes (frequently if we are candid) maliciously. She hardly ever has a good word for a fellow novelist. She was afraid to meet famous novelists in public arenas; she wasn’t used to it and knew she had little to make them respect her in the ordinary wordly way. So she refused an invitation to a party where she would have met Madame de Stael (Wikipedia image at right) even though (a rare instance) she praised Corinne highly (better than Milton she said).

I did like how her friendship for Madame Bigeon was presented, and there was an allusion to Isabelle de Montolieu — the woman who is said to have written Raison et Sentiments. Since I have Montolieu’s text of Caroline de Lichtfield on my site, a biography and her preface to Persuasion the translation, I liked that. But why not Miss Sharpe? Where was Martha who lived with them and married Frank? Where Frank? Who I think Austen did love very much (if only as a sister probably) — at least deeply enough to make the name Frank a repeating one and have Janes fall in love with Frank clandestinely, and have sailors central to her books. Why did we not get Anna? who wrote too. Nor her nephew?

Again why were so many people left out? Maybe to make the interpretation of love as central stick.

I thought as a movie it held together movingly though and was intelligently done. If you know little about Austen’s life, it at least is not complacent like the old 3 part BBC “life and works” type thing, and may just lead the viewer to go back to her letters or find a decent biography.

Ellen

Click here for Ellen’s other posts on this blog:

Click here for Ellen’s blog, Ellen and Jim Have a Blog Too and her main website.

Click here for my review of Miss Austen Regrets

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Book: Sense and Sensibility. Topic: John Dashwood’s promise to his father on his deathbed.

In this series of posts on ‘Jane’s Own Words’, I will simply let Jane speak for herself. The reasoning Fanny Dashwood uses to justify why John should not support his step mother and half sisters in the first Chapter of Sense and Sensibility, and how he comes to agree with her, is sheer genius, and is as harshly comic a passage as I have ever read. First, the death bed scene…

From Chapter One: Sense and Sensibility:

[Mr. Dashwood’s] son was sent for, as soon as his danger was known, and to him Mr. Dashwood recommended, with all the strength and urgency which illness could command, the interest of his mother-in-law and sisters.

Mr. John Dashwood had not the strong feelings of the rest of the family; but he was affected by a recommendation of such a nature at such a time, and he promised to do everything in his power to make them comfortable. His father was rendered easy by such an assurance, and Mr. John Dashwood had then leisure to consider how much there might prudently be in his power to do for them.

He was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold hearted, and rather selfish, is to be ill-disposed: but he was, in general, well respected; for he conducted himself with propriety in the discharge of his ordinary duties. Had he married a more amiable woman, he might have been made still more respectable than he was; he might even have been made amiable himself; for he was very young when he married, and very fond of his wife. But Mrs. John Dashwood was a strong caricature of himself; more narrow-minded and selfish.

When he gave his promise to his father, he meditated within himself to increase the fortunes of his sisters by the present of a thousand pounds a-piece. He then really thought himself equal to it. The prospect of four thousand a-year, in addition to his present income, besides the remaining half of his own mother’s fortune, warmed his heart and made him feel capable of generosity. “Yes, he would give them three thousand pounds: it would be liberal and handsome! It would be enough to make them completely easy. Three thousand pounds! he could spare so considerable a sum with little inconvenience.” He thought of it all day long, and for many days successively, and he did not repent.

Click here to continue: Read Fanny’s self-serving justifications in convincing her weak-willed husband to relinquish his promise to his dying father to take care of Mrs. Dashwood and his half-sisters. To my way of thinking this is one of the funniest, most biting, and accomplished passages in any literary work.

Click here to read all my posts on Sense and Sensibility

Image created through Big Huge Labs. John Dashwood (James Fleet) and Mr. Dashwood (Tom Wilkisnon) from Sense and Sensibility, 1995.

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Letters, Letter-writing and Other Intimate Discourse by Wendy Russ at Wendy.com includes links to Jane Austen’s letters, Brabourne edition, on the Republic of Pemberley, and Austen on Epistolary letters, also from The Republic of Pemberley. The reason I am pointing you to Wendy’s site is the number of links she provides to letter writing in general.

One of the most moving and memorable letters I have ever read, which she also includes, is by Sullivan Ballou. He is the Civil War soldier who wrote  the memorable letter to his wife before he died. If you have not read it, I recommend that you do, for his words echo what is in a soldier’s heart when he is poised for battle and thinks of his beloved. Here is a portion of that letter, which is so appropriate for Memorial Day:

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and in the darkest night — amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours – always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.”

I cry every time I read this letter, and when I think of a true hero (pardon me, Mr. Darcy), I think of Mr. Ballou. Here is a 3 minute YouTube link if you would like to listen to his beautiful words instead.

Image of Fanny Knight by Cassandra Austen.

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Invariably, when we think of Regency fashion, we think of the empire style and a white muslin gown, such as this lovely, modern example from A Fashionable Past. Please click on the link to learn the details about the creation of this gown and spencer jacket.

Muslin today is a much coarser cloth than it was two hundred years ago. The following quotes are from several sources, some from the web and one from A Frivolous Distinction by Penelope Byrde.

… muslin was a somewhat sheer, very soft, drapey cotton fabric, sometimes with a rather loose weave, and almost invariably white – closer to cambric, or a slightly softer, looser version of what is now sold as voile or fine batiste. Think of a cross between a fine handkerchief and cheesecloth, if you can! (Jessamyn’s Regency Page)

However well muslin might wash it was, nevertheless, not very practical to wear light-coloured gowns, as Mrs. Allen complained in Northanger Abbey: ‘open carriages are nasty things. A clean gown is not five minutes wear in them. You are splashed getting in and getting out.’ White gowns could only really be indulged in by those with means and leisure; they were certainly a mark of gentility but might also be considered unsuitable in certain circumstances. In May 1801 Jane Austen wrote from Bath of a Mrs and Miss Holder: ‘it is the fashion to think them both very detestable, but they are so civil, & their gowns looks so white and so nice (which by the bye my Aunt thinks an absurd pretension in this place) that I cannot utterly abhor them’. In Mansfield Park Mrs Norris commends a housekeeper who ‘turned away two housemaids for wearing white gowns’. (Byrde, p 16-17)

A renewed interest in the styles of classical Greece and Rome began in the last half of the 18th century. This revival of classicism had a tremendous influence, transforming not only fashion but also architecture and the decorative arts in Europe and North America. The simpler clothing of ancient Greece and Rome inspired women’s fashions. For example, a dress called a chemise was adopted to give women a supposedly natural look and to replace the ostentatious and ornate styles that preceded the French Revolution. Fashion, Valerie Steele

The chemise—named after an undergarment it resembled—was made of white muslin, had a high waist just under the bosom, and hung fairly straight to resemble a classical column. No petticoats or hoops were worn underneath it, and many fashionable women stopped wearing corsets as well. Over time, the chemise revealed more and more of a woman’s body. Today this style of dress is commonly known as the Empire style because it was especially popular during the Consulate and empire of Napoleon I of France, which began in 1799.Encarta Encyclopedia

La Belle Assemblee, 1807

Where doubt may be about this or that hue being becoming or genteel (as it is very possible it may neither be the one nor the other), let the puzzled beauty leave both, and securely array herself in simple white. That primeval hue never offends, and frequently is the most graceful robe that youth and loveliness can wear. (The Mirror of Graces, 1811, p22)

Click here for more links about white gowns:

Click here for my other posts on fashion

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