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Archive for January, 2010

The 1935 production of Pride and Prejudice: A Sentimental Comedy Written in Three Acts, written by Helen Jerome and played on Broadway, featured Adrienne Allen, an English actress, as Elizabeth Bennet.

Miss Allen, a slender blonde, had been successful in London and Broadway stage productions, such as Private Lives with Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, when she was signed to a contract by Paramount. She was married to actor Raymond Massey from 1929 to 1939 and is the mother of Daniel and Anna Massey.

Private Lives, 1930, Laurence Olivier, Adrienne Allen, Noel Coward, and Gertrude Lawrence

Best known for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, Canadian-born Massey also portrayed the character of “Jonathan Brewster” in the film version of Arsenic and Old Lace. He played Dr. Leonard Gillespie in Dr. Kildare during the 1960’s.  Raymond Massey Massey died in 1993.

Young Anna Massey’s career might have been decided as early as her christening, for her godfather was the film director John Ford.

Celia Johnson as Elizabeth Bennet in Helen Jerome's Pride and Prejudice

Anna made her stage debut at the age of 17 in the West End hit The Reluctant Debutante with Celia Johnson and Wilfred Hyde-White. Celia, coincidentally, also played Elizabeth Bennet in the Helen Jerome play of Pride and Prejudice (1936).

Janeites know Anna Massey best as Mrs Norris in the 1983 BBC mini-series of Mansfield Park.

Anna Massey as Aunt Norris

In recent years she has played Mrs. d’Urberville in Tess of the d’Urbervilles (left), and as Mrs. Bedwin in Oliver Twist (2008) right.

“If I’d had an education, I’m not sure that I would’ve been an actor,” she once said. “My education ended when I was 15 and it was assumed that I would go into the theatre and I did.” –  Anna Massey The Plain Girl’s Lament

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I await each January with joy, knowing that PBS Masterpiece Classic will return. Two years ago PBS concentrated on Jane Austen; last year, two Jane Austen film adaptations were featured; and this year we get to see not only the new adaptation of Emma, but reruns of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey as well. Viewers are also treated to Return to Cranford, the sequel to Cranford, last year’s runaway BBC and PBS hit. Reprising their recurring roles are the stellar actors who represent Cranford’s spinsters and widows and other denizens of this quaint Victorian town. And then we are treated to new characters, each with stories of their own.

Even as I reveled in watching the first new installment of this sequel, I found some of the new stories a tad too familiar and I could not help but shake off a vague sense of disappointment. This feeling was similar to having visited a new vacation spot for the first time. You and your family love the experience so much, you eagerly plan a return. But during the second trip , you feel a slight let down. The wonder and discovery are gone, replaced with  a sense of déjà vu and sameness. You find yourself going over old ground and repeating excursions that somehow don’t seem quite as satisfying as last time.

And so it is with Return of Cranford. All the elements of the original Cranford are still there – the Victorian town ruled by the rigid principles that are followed by a group of widows and spinsters who are set in their old-fashioned ways. The railroad still threatens the town’s placid existence, and the only person barring the line’s completion is Lady Ludlow, whose stubborn resistance is misplaced.

Francesca Annis, pale, gray and achingly beautiful, makes a short but memorable entrance and exit, as does handsome Greg Wise as Sir Charles Maulver, and Claudie Blakley as Martha, Miss Matty’s maid of all work.

New characters replace the old ones who have (sadly) moved on. The viewer is still treated to a story about star-crossed lovers (Tom Hiddleston as William Buxton and Jody Whittaker as Peggy Bell),  and an implacable father (Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Buxton) who stands in the way of their happiness. They must somehow overcome all obstacles to remain together. Part of the mystery of Return to Cranford is how they will achieve this.

Return to Cranford relies heavily on Judi Dench’s Miss Matty to keep the story threads together. While she was a pivotal character in Cranford, it was her sister Miss Deborah Jenkyns (Eileen Atkins), who was the backbone of Cranford’s widow and spinster society. Miss Deborah inspired steadfast loyalty to her unwavering convictions; Miss Matty, on the other hand, is much softer in character and a person that others want to protect. She has had to grow a strong backbone after her sister’s death, but she is still too easy a touch and has difficulty holding the small band of ‘The Amazons’ together. When hoity toity Mrs. Jamieson’s (Barbara Flynn’s) sister-in-law Lady Glenmire (Celia Imrie) comes to visit, Miss Matty and her cohort are given the sort of social snubbing that Miss Deborah would not have brooked for an instant.

Don’t get me wrong. I am still mad about Miss Matty, who is portrayed by the incomparable Judi Dench. And though her character is too weak to rule the town with the iron fist that her sister Deborah used, she’s become the town’s morally upright compass.

One of the main problems I found with episode one of Return to Cranford is the lack of real tension in the plot. This might be due to the fact that this adaptation was written largely by Heidi Thomas, not by master story teller Elizabeth Gaskell.  A dastardly character is introduced by way of Lady Ludlow’s wastrel son, Septimus (Rory Kinnear), but he is merely an unfeeling cad and shows up only long enough in the film to prove to us that Lady Ludlow had wasted her motherly affection (and money) on an unworthy son. His actions do not produce the tight-as-a-drum-tension that compels a viewer to keep watching a show or a reader to keep turning the pages. The train trip, in which Miss Matty convinces her friends to give the railroad a chance, does not provide much tension either, and the central love story between Peggy Bell and William Buxton seems like something that we have seen before.

Much of the quirky humor I delighted in with the first film is gone, although it was fun to see the ladies get tipsy as they warmed towards Lady Glenmire, and to see Miss Pole get her comeuppance as she makes a bird cage out of a French petticoat hoop frame for her parrot.

Episode Two gets much better. There’s real tension between Mr. Buxton and his son after William declares his love for Peggy Bell. Rather than honor his father’s wishes to find a more suitable wife, William decides to remain true to Peggy, make his own way in the world and work for the railroad until he has enough money to marry her.  The ladies of Cranford provide a funny backdrop to Lady Glenmire’s romance with Captain Brown. And we follow the fortunes of young Harry, who is torn between two worlds. He does not belong at boarding school and has good reasons for running away. A train accident, which kills poor Mrs Forrester’s cow and puts Harry’s life in danger, provides some true heart-wrenching moments. But all’s well that ends well. Miss Matty finds a satisfying way to unify the town, and the magic act of Senor Brunoni (Tim Curry in a funny role) was a fine (and wonderful) way to end the show and tie up loose story ends.

A friend who watched the show with me (and who did not see Cranford last year), found Return to Cranford delightful. So, I shall attribute my churlishness to a jaded palate and concede that Return is a delightful show, one worthy of viewing and certainly better than anything the competition on commercial television and cable tv have to offer. While my ranking of Cranford was five out of five stars, I rate this sequel a tad lower: four out of five stars.

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Ah, our old friends from Cranford have returned, with a few new faces among them. The first episode of Return to Cranford provided some humor, much pathos and sadness, and new beginnings. (My review sits here.) What did you think of this episode? Leave a comment or vote on Jane Austen Today. Missed the episode? Watch the series online at this link.

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Loyal Readers:

How good are you at solving historical puzzles? Mr. Forrest sent me this query and I told him I would write a post about this interesting riddle that he would like to solve. This is what he wrote (Thank you all in advance for helping!):

My uncle has a portrait (attached) which has been passed down the family line. We think it is one of three portraits referred to in a will – the options being

  1. Charles Macintosh (a Scottish inventor of the Macintosh coat)
  2. Dr John Forrest (a Physician who served much of his time in the army) (more details on my website here: http://rootsunearthed.com/index.php5?title=John_FORREST_(1804-1865) ), or
  3. John Graham Rodger (a merchant who later became a magistrate i.e. Justice of the Peace)

I have found on the internet other portraits of Charles Macintosh and am sure the portrait is not of him. This leaves the possibility of either the Physician or a Magistrate.

I wonder if your experience of the 19th century and clothing could identify anything that may point to Physician or Magistrate?

Or possibly you know someone else who could assist?

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Ever wanted to listen to the music Jane Austen liked? Listen to a 30-minute podcast at this link. There are only four days left to listen Michelle Kerns from the Book Examiner writes:

BBC Radio 4, bless their souls, have put the recordings together with a spirited little commentary by David Owen Norris pondering on the music and Ms. Austen’s history along with Deirdre Le Fay (of Jane Austen Cookbook and multiple Austen biography fame; she reminds me irresistibly of Julia Child), pianist Samantha Curasca, and the lucky Austen inheritor himself, Richard Jenkins.

There are seven compositions featured in the broadcast, ranging from a suggestive little ditty about a maiden who sings all day and night to keep her lover playing his pipe (snort) to the toe-tapping “Bluebells of Scotland.” One song, written by Robbie Burns, Jane rewrote at the very end to make herself the song’s heroine: the original words, “the chains of his Jean” she changed to “the charms of his Jane.” Atta girl.

One charming piano piece, “Allegretto andantino,” is thought to be an original composition written by Ms. Austen herself. Others highlight Jane’s interest in show tunes and songs about the French Revolution, while still others — pages of nursery rhymes — demonstrate her devotion to her legion of young nieces and nephews.

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Inquiring reader: Recently I  had the pleasure of viewing Jane Austen’s letters in A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy, an exhibit showing at the Morgan Libraryin New York City until March 14th. My observations are those of a layman and amateur. Nevertheless, I thought I would share my impressions. As Janeites know, several years before Cassandra Austen’s death, she  ruthlessly censored Jane’s  letters. In this image, taken from the Morgan Library website, you can see that an entire portion of the letter  is missing. To the left of  the same letter, Jane drew the pattern of a piece of lace, writing, “My cloak is come home, and here is the pattern of its lace.”

Portion of autograph letter signed, dated Bath, 2 June 1799 to Cassandra Austen

I was struck by how finely some of the portions had been cut out. In one letter that Jane wrote in 1814, Cassandra snipped only a few words and the cut was so unobtrusive that at first I did not spot the missing area. The sentence began with “Edward is quite…” Then nothing. Only a sliver of a line with several additional words cut out. Did the phrase reflect negatively upon Edward or Jane or another member of the family? We shall never know.

Franking letters was expensive for Jane, whose yearly personal budget consisted of £50 or less. She followed the common practice of cross writing. I noted how straight her lines were, and how carefully she placed them between the blank spaces of the lines on the other side. The letter below shows both practices. The Morgan Library website features this letter and allows you to enlarge it. Scroll to the bottom and study it in more detail. Learn more about crossed letters and the paper Jane used in this link.

Letter to Godmersham

Jane’s letters were not always crossed, nor did she always use both sides of the paper. In this delightful example, written to her  niece, Cassandra, in the last year of her life, Jane takes care to keep a large amount of blank space around the lines. She also writes in a much larger script. Written entirely backwards with an unfaltering hand, the letter must have thrilled its young recipient.

It is estimated that Jane Austen wrote 3,000 letters in her lifetime. Of the 160 that remain, the Morgan Library has purchased 51.  Not all of the lettters in this exhibit were written to family members. In the image below, the letter on the left was written by the Prince Regent’s librarian, James Stanier Clarke, to Jane. To the right of it sits one of her letters to him. I was struck by the brown color of the ink, which in some letters was still strong and vigorous, and in others had faded to a pale, watery color. Jane used iron gall ink, an ink common in her era, which is initially blue-black and then fades to brown.

It is composed of tannin (gallic acid), iron sulfate (known as vitriol in the nineteenth-century), gum arabic, and water. Because it is indelible, it was used for official documents from the middle ages onward. The ink is easy to make, inexpensive, and can be transported as a powder and mixed whenever needed. When first applied to paper, the ink appears pale-gray; as it is exposed to air, the ink darkens to a rich blue-black tone. Eventually, most iron gall ink changes to a brown color, as is evident in Austen’s letters and manuscripts – Thaw Conservation Center.

To learn more about Jane’s letters in the exhibit, I urge you to click on the Morgan Library website and study the few images that are shared with the public. Sadly, the Morgan did not publish a catalog, and much of the information in the exhibit is available only to visitors. Click here to view images from the exhibit. Click here to read about the technicalities of letter writing in Jane Austen’s day.

More links about the exhibit:

More links on this blog about letter writing and the royal mail in Jane Austen’s day:

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