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Inquiring readers,

We have reached episode four of Andrew Davies’ eight-episode mini-series on PBS Masterpiece.  Mr. Davies is a master cinematic storyteller.  Austen told her stories through words, while Davies takes advantage of showing dress, customs, manners, and settings visually.

The challenge in adapting the novel for a film is how to stay true to the source as you proceed to bend it into the medium of film. The first thing to consider is adapting prose to dramatic writing and the limitations of the screenplay format.” – Adaptation: From Novel to Film, by Judy Sandra, 27 November, 2017. Downloaded 1-25-20 @ https://www.raindance.org/adaptation-novel-film/

By episode four, Davies’ cinematic adaptation of Sanditon has strayed from Austen land and into Georgette Heyer territory. Not that this is a bad thing and it explains why so many Austen fans love his interpretation of Jane’s incomplete novel.

Image of Some of Vic's Georgette Heyer books in her collection.

Some of Vic’s Georgette Heyer books in her collection.

At 19 years of age, after reading Austen’s six novels, I wanted to read more Regency romance between heroes and heroines sparring verbally with wit and daring. I quenched my thirst by devouring all of Georgette Heyer’s delightful novels, even her mysteries.  Heyer knew the Regency and Georgian eras intimately. She and her husband lived in Mayfair, the London setting of so many of her books. Her details were historically accurate, and, best of all, she was a prolific writer. Heyer’s novels, set mostly in the highest circles of society, were as exciting as they were delightful. They were funny and romantic and brought the Regency era alive through her detailed descriptions and historical content.

Heyer’s best novelsThe Grand Sophy, Frederica, Venetia, Sylvester, Arabella (my first introduction to her work), The Corinthian, The Reluctant Widow described in great detail Regency customs, male and female fashions, social interactions (such as the use of calling cards), descriptions of White’s Club or Almack’s, Bow Street Runners, 19th century inventions, and all the minutia that Austen rarely bothered to mention. Through her sparkling stories, Heyer appeased my youthful cravings to inform me about Jane Austen’s regency world. Her often crazy plots offered pure escapism.

In a review of Heyer’s biography by Jennifer Kloester (which I also own), Rachel Cooke writes:

If you want fun – if you want elopements and quadrilles, velvet britches and sprig muslin gowns – you will have to go back to the novels, still in print, and still the greatest and most surprising of pleasures.

After viewing four episodes of Andrew Davies’ adaptation of Sanditon, I am reminded more of a Georgette Heyer plot (with added sex) than Austen’s unfinished manuscript. Which is OK. The melodrama makes for great television.

It just isn’t Austen.

Do you agree? Or not? Both opinions are welcome on this blog. Please feel free to leave your comments or take the poll:

Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen, Linnet Moss, May 2017. Downloaded: January 25, 2020:
Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen

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Downton Abbey lovers, it is important that you NOT continue to read this post if you have not seen Episode Four of Season 3. PBS is streaming each episode one day after it airs at this link. Do watch it and then come back to share your thoughts.

As many of you know, a major character is killed off during this season (perhaps more). It’s been all over the Internet for months. In fact, some headlines in the U.K. have totally spoiled the surprise for some U.S. viewers. Fear not. For the first time in the 3rd season the writing is up to snuff. While some of us already know who has died, the writers have managed to create scenes that stir us, make us laugh, or promote the plot. More importantly, we are able to react with disbelief, grieve alongside friends and family, and still be stunned by our reactions.

Why did the writers kill off such a popular character? Downton Abbey has made the cast uber famous. Who can fault the younger ones from jumping ship to what seems to be a more promising land for their careers? Us! For we oldsters know this is a big mistake 90% of the time.

Actors are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. Some who stay with a successful series are never able to rise above their stereotypical roles and quietly drop out of sight after their run is over. The same fate happens to most actors who drop out prematurely. Only a lucky few manage to carve a solid career for themselves.

Take Dame Maggie Smith, for example. While hanging onto her meaty role as Violet, she’s performed in the following films during the same time period: Nanny McPhee Returns, Gnomeo & Juliet, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and Quartet. Maggie, who’s no spring chicken, dug deep inside herself, found a few extra hours in the day, and decided to go for the gusto, staying with Downton while accepting other film projects. (Take that, Leonardo Di Caprio. That poor tired old/young soul is takinga break after making 3 films in 2 years.) Dame Maggie could show him a thing or two. She has proven her acting chops, which is where she has a leg up on the young’uns.

It is no secret that offers are raining down upon some of the more popular Downton actors. Godbless’em for being tempted and providing the writers with marvelous ways to “Auf” them, but all I can say is “Sayonara, darlings. You’re not doing yourselves or your careers a favor.” To make my point, visit IMBD to see the projects for which our much lamented expired cast member left Downton.

Now that I’ve had my rant, on with reviewing the show!

The Battle of the Physicians – or a standoff at the Downton corral

It all started normally, with Dr Clarkson assuring the family that Sybil is a healthy young woman going through normal childbirth.

The earl solicits a “society doctor”, Sir Phillip, to oversee the birth of Sybil’s child, explaining to Cora: “We can’t risk her welfare to soothe Clarkson’s feelings. I like the old boy, but he did misdiagnose Matthew and he did miss the warning signs with Lavinia.”

When Dr. Clarkson notices Sybil’s alarmingly thick ankles and muddled mind, Sir Phillip puffs out his substantial chest. “You are upsetting these people for no reason at all!” and warns Clarkson off, telling him not to interfere with doctoring or his much superior social skills in schmoozing with the ladies at the dinner table. We know Sir Phillip is not too swift for 1) He probably received a second-rate education in a first-rate institution simply because he’s upper class, and 2) He disses our pretty Sybil by accusing her of having fat ankles in the first place, which back in those days was considered a major physical defect. Had I been Papa Crawley, I would have decked Sir Phillip.

But Clarkson won’t be put off: “I think she may be toxemic with a danger of eclampsia, in which case we must act FAST!”

Gasps all around. By now the viewers are reaching for their medical dictionaries (click here for explanation of the condition).

Two factions emerge: On one side is the Cora/Clarkson contingent, on the other side the Robert/Phillips naysayers. Clarkson continues his portents of doom, despite Sir Phillip casting dagger eyes at him: “Her baby is small, she’s confused, and there’s far too much albumen in her urine.”

This is TMI for Robert, who reminds Clarkson that the Crawley matriarch is in the room listening.

Violet, godblessher, retorts, “Peace! A woman my age can face reality far better than most men.”

Continuing with his gloom and doom predictions, Clarkson warns that an immediate delivery is Sybil’s only chance. He urges the chauffeur to hie his wife off to a hospital, where they may yet save Sybil and the baby and deliver it by Caesarian.

Sir Phillip puffs up his chest again and declares that a caesarian will be surely kill Sybil and ruin her flat tummy for life. All eyes turn to Clarkson, who reluctantly agrees that as things stand, a caesarian might just do Sybil in.

“Honesty at last,” intones Robert in his best Yul Brynner as Rameses voice. I will NOT put Sybil at risk. I am the master of Downton Abbey and my decision (even though I co-own the place with Matthew) shall stand. So let it be written, so let it be done!

“The decision lies with the chauffeur”, Violet says sensibly, cutting through the bullshit with a rapier voice.

Branson is summoned. Poor man. All he can hear is If… If…If… If… If… If. He looks this-away way, he looks that-away and … stands paralyzed like a pillar of salt.

Meanwhile, what of the lovely Sybil, she of the slim ankles now thickened? We begin to understand why Jessica Brown Findlay’s role was so minor in the first 3 episodes, for the viewer is starting to realize that she is doomed – that it is Sybil, the most popular and most beloved sister, who is about to DIE. But is she?

Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

The next thing we know, Sybil has successfully delivered her baby. She’s radiant! Tom is bursting with pride. They ooh and ah over their little girl.

The servants rejoice. The family is happy.

Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Cora apologizes to Robert for doubting him. Sir Phillip’s chest is now so puffed he looks like a mating pigeon just given a come hither look.

My friend, who watched Episode 4 with me, kept sighing with relief. “Ah, she lives. Good, she lives. I thought they were going to kill her off.” I started braiding my tongue to remain quiet.

Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Back to the cozy little post-labor scene: Jessica Brown Findlay has all of two lines, which was more than she’d been given all season.

She then nuzzles into her sheets, ready for rest, which leaves the viewers sighing with relief and thinking, “All is well. Someone else besides our beloved Sybil is going to die.”

Tick tock tick tock.

The denizens of Downton Abbey are fast asleep when Mary sounds the alarm. Wake up! Wake up. It’s Sybil!

Lady Sybil, we hardly knew ye.

And now it’s time to lay my tongue-in-cheek tone aside, for Sybil’s death bed scene was as splendid a bit of writing and acting as I have seen. Like you, I sat on the edge of my seat and cried. Every one, from a desperate Cora and Tom, to the disbelieving sisters, father and witnesses, to the resigned yet horrified face of Dr. Clarkson, tugged at my heart.

Sybil, convulsing and unable to breathe, dies swiftly, but the reactions of family members take longer to settle in.

The camera lingers on each face, all showing the same horror and disbelief that I felt.

Elizabetth McGovern could not have been more perfect as the grieving mother. Her last talk with Sybil “( my baby, you will always be my baby”), was heart breaking.

Even though I knew that Sybil would die in this episode, this scene with McGovern’s superb, restrained acting was a revelation. I could not watch it without crying a bucket of tears.

Sybil was the glue that held the three sisters together and now she is gone. The reality has set in for the two remaining sisters:

Mary: She was the only person living who thought that you and I were such nice people.

Edith: Oh, Mary. Do you think we might get along better in the future?

Mary: I doubt it. But since this is the last time that we will all be together in this life, let’s love each other now, as sisters should.

Thank you Julian Fellowes, for giving us back the Downton that we have come to love.

We are even given a foreshadowing of events to come when Cora has the earl sleep in his dressing room.

The next day, she can barely contain her civility, saying in a hasty, tight-lipped phrase:

“I must apologize to [Dr. Clarkson]. Because-if-we’d-listened-to-him,-she-might-still-be-alive.-But-Sir-Phillip-and-your-father-knew-better,-and-now-she-is-dead.”A devastated Cora cannot forgive Robert for his part in promoting Sir Phillip over Dr. Clarkson, and who can blame her?

While most of the hour concentrated on Sybil’s tragic end, there were other plot developments, believe it or not.

Lady Edith flexes her career muscles

Edith can’t win for trying. Arising early in the morning to join the men for breakfast, she happily discovers that she has been offered a regular once a week column in The Sketch to discuss problems faced by the modern woman. Wondering if she should use her name, Robert retorts that this is exactly what they want: her name and title. When Matthew rises to her defense, she says with resignation: “Don’t bother, Matthew, I’m always a failure in this family.”

Violet’s response at dinner is hardly better: “When may she expect an offer to appear on the London stage?” This prompts Edith to mouth – “See?” Yet we’re rooting for her. Let’s hope this sister gets her chance to prove herself and find her niche in the world, as middle children are often wont to do.

Ethel Cooks Badly for Isobel

Isobel finally has a meatier role to play, however minor, in which she tries to rehabilitate Ethel into a respectable servant.

Her good Samaritan gesture results in Mrs. Bird walking out the door and Isobel reaching for the pepto bismol any time Ethel serves up one of her culinary disasters.

Downton Servant Merry Go Round

Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Daisy, likes Alfred, who is O’Brien’s nephew. He likes Ivy, the new kitchen maid, which prompts Daisy to behave super bossy towards her, which sinks her in Alfred’s eyes. Ivy likes Jimmy, or James, the wannabee footman, which gives Alfred a hang dog look and prompts him to help Ivy out of kitchen scrapes. Sound complicated? Yeah, well, this story line is like watching puppies tussle. Cute at first and then a little boring.

Thomas is falling into O’Brien’s trap …

O’Brien’s jealousy of Jimmy and hatred of Thomas sets her in motion to do both of them in. When it looks as if Jimmy and Alfred will have to vie for first footman, O’Brien sets a trap for him. “Want to wind the clocks? You’d better ask Mr. Barrow,” she advises the gullible young man. And so he does. Thomas is only too happy to oblige and explicitly sets out to teach James a new skill.

After his lesson, O’Brien attempts to pry some details from a reluctant Jimmy. “What are you implying?” she prompts, “Nothing unseemly I hope?”

“No, nothing like that,” he mutters before scurrying away. Our last glimpse of O’Brien has her wearing a Chesire cat smile and rehearsing the next bad thing for Thomas.

This concludes my review of Episode Four. I am so over Bates’s predicament and Mary’s non-chemistry with Matthew, that I am happily skipping over their story lines.

What did you think of this week’s DA and Sybil’s death? Please, no plot spoilers on future developments.

My other Downton Abbey Season 3 posts: Click here

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Lady Almina

Lady Almina, the Countess of Carnarvon, who lived at Highclere Castle during the turn of the century and through World War 1, had many qualities in common with the fictional Cora, Countes of Grantham in Downton Abbey. Upon Lady Almina’s marriage, her fortune staved off financial ruin for the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and helped to renovate the mansion.

Like Lady Cora, she allowed her house to be turned into a hospital for wounded soldiers, running it at her own expense.

WW1 soldier recuperating at Highclere Castle

On her orders, each wounded officer had the luxury of his own room, with down pillows and linen sheets. She  made beds and dressed wounds” (The Daily Mail).

Lady Almina put together a skilled orthopedic operation at Highclere Castle and she had very good nursing skills, so good that she was often sent some of the hardest cases.

Soldiers were nursed back to health on fresh linen sheets, propped up on fat down pillows so they could gaze out over a beautiful country park. Silver service dinners were followed by a game of cards in the library while sipping a glass of beer, naturally from the house’s very own brewery. A butler was even on hand to pour the convalescents a nip of whisky before dinner. – The Real Downton Abbey: How Highclere Castle Became a World War 1 Hospital (includes a video).

Playing games at Highclere Castle and enjoying home brewed beer

In this matter, Almina showed one of her kinder sides, for she was reportedly a terrible mother and lived largely a selfish and extravagant life until her fortune ran out. The war touched all lives and all class stratas, and not a family was left standing at its end that did not experience a loss:

“All their young men are gone,” lamented the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens of the sons of  Mells Manor, one super-romantic house in Somerset. That was in 1919 when he went to help choose the site of the village war memorial – a figure of St George on a column. The pain of the Horner family at the loss of their son Edward, the last of the male line, can be seen from his monument in the church: a moving statue of the young cavalry officer by Munnings. – The Telegraph, What Next For Downton Abbey?

For several centuries during wars and conflict, great country houses had been conscripted for medical services. One of the earliest country houses to be used as a hospital was Greenwich Palace, which was converted to a navel hospital in 1694.

During World War One:

A genuine sense of wanting to help led to many owners voluntarily turning over their houses as hospitals including the Earl of Harewood offering Harewood House, Lord Howard of Glossop Carlton Towers, Lady Baillie lent Leeds Castle and the 4th Marquess of Salisbury offering Hatfield House as he had done during WWI. – Houses as Hospital: the country house in medical service

The numbers of wounded soldiers who were returned from the battlefields of northern France and Belgium were unprecedented. It was enormously difficulty to remove wounded men from battlefields riddled with shell pocks and guarded by staggered rows of  barbed wire barriers that were miles long. Scores of soldiers who could have survived under immediate medical attention were left to die unattended.  Medics practiced triage, making instant decisions and leaving behind those who stood little chance of surviving or who could not withstand the rigors of being carried to safety. Even when soldiers were successfully brought back to camp, many had to suffer a long wait, for doctors and nurses were overwhelmed, supplies were short, and field hospital conditions were ghastly. A large number died behind the front waiting to be transported.

The soldiers who were brought back to England overwhelmed the hospitals and medical staff that were available. Auxiliary hospitals exploded around England,  many of them the country homes of aristocrats. These houses were not ideally suited for their new positions. During the late 19th century, Florence Nightingale influenced the design of hospitals, noting the importance of separating unsanitary scullery sinks from patient beds, for example, and improving cleanliness and introducing hygiene. While country houses did not provide antiseptic conditions, they became ideal havens for convalescents and for those who suffered from tuberculosis, for these patients required clean country air.

In the second episode of Series 2, the less seriously wounded soldiers or those whose injuries were healing and who needed convalescence were sent to Downton Abbey.  In real life, hospitals and convalescent houses were staffed by a commandant in charge, a quartermaster in charge of provisions, a matron in charge of the nursing staff, and the local voluntary aids, who were trained in first aid and home nursing.

To accommodate the soldiers, family members were confined and restricted to certain rooms in their own home. One would assume this would not be a hardship, since the houses were so large, but the labor shortage and the need for injured soldiers to be housed in large rooms without going up the stairs would most likely necessitate some appropriation of a family’s favorite rooms.  Lord Grantham’s library was divided, so that most of the room became a recreational space and a small section was left to him. Downton Abbey’s central hall became a dining area. Such changes must have grated on the privileged class, who, while wanting to perform their patriotic duty, could not escape encountering the hoi polloi in their daily routine.

With so many men serving as soldiers, servants were stretched thin and forced to perform duties that normally were outside of their scope and that stepped over the boundaries of etiquette. Anna helped to serve at dinner, which would have been totally unacceptable during peace time. Carson, in an effort to maintain the status quo, ruins his health and thus worsens the situation when he is laid low in bed.

Due to the war and its many effects, society was in turmoil. Social change happened on many fronts and class barriers began to blur. As men fought and died in France, women, including those who formerly worked as servants, filled their positions in factories, corporations, and farms. Great houses began to feel the pinch of being short staffed, and genteel ladies who were accustomed to being served had to cook and sew for themselves.

To feed the army, country estates converted their flower gardens to grow fruits and vegetables. At Hatfield House, the Cecil family’s “fields and private golf course were filled with trenches and a man-made swamp to create a maneuvering ground for an experimental weapon under development, the tank.”*

Isobel Crawley, once a working middle class wife – until her son, Matthew, was suddenly propelled into the position of heir to the Earl of Grantham –  finds her true calling in ministering to injured soldiers. She was trained as a nurse and had performed charity work in caring for the sick. The need for her professional services made her feel like a valued woman again. Isobel’s zealousness in converting Downton Abbey into a convalescent home placed her in direct conflict with Cora, Lady Grantham, and continued her battle of wills with Violet, the dowager Countess. Isobel’s situation was not unusual, for during this war many people of the working classes who were professionally trained found themselves in positions of superiority over gently bred women who volunteered as nurses aids.  One Indian soldier remarked with some awe that a noble British lady had ministered to his wounds and treated him as an equal.*

It was only because of the war that a former footman like Thomas would dare enter through the front door or that a doctor could serve as head of the hospital and make decisions that overrode those of the owners of the house. Lady Sybil, whose support of the suffragettes was revealed in the first series, became a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurse), for there simply weren’t enough professional nurses to go around.

VAD Poster

In many cases, women in the neighbourhood volunteered on a part-time basis, although they often needed to supplement voluntary work with paid labour, such as in the case of cooks. Medical attendance was provided locally and voluntarily, despite the extra strain that the medical profession was already under at that time. – History of British Red Cross

VADs were trained for only a few weeks before working under professional nurses.

Only the middle and upper classes could afford to work for free, and to pay for the courses and exams that were required to become a VAD. Growing up with servants, many of these young women had never had to wash a plate or boil an egg. One girl related how amusing it was to serve tea at the hospital and then return home to have her own tea served by the parlour maid. – The Great War As You May Not Know It

VADs changed linens, sterilized equipment, and served meals, but many were also exposed to the rawer side of war and at times, when the influx of casualties overwhelmed the staff, VADs were expected to perform the duties of a professional nurse.

Red Cross VADs

VADs were generally from genteel, sheltered, and chaperoned backgrounds. Some were aristocrats, like Lady Diana Manners – the “Princess Di” of her day – reputedly the most beautiful woman in England and expected to marry the Prince of Wales. Her mother was very much against Diana becoming a VAD, as Diana states in her memoir, The Rainbow Comes and Goes. “She explained in words suitable to my innocent ears that wounded soldiers, so long starved of women, inflamed with wine and battle, ravish and leave half-dead the young nurses who wish only to tend them,” The Duchess gave in, but “… knew, as I did, that my emancipation was at hand,” Diana says, and goes on to admit, “I seemed to have done nothing practical in all my twenty years.” Nursing plunged her and other young women into a life-altering adventure. – The Great War As You May Not Know It

Serving as a VAD changes Lady Sybil, giving her a direction and purpose. Lady Edith, too, finds new meaning in an otherwise predictable life consisting of dinners, parties, and long stretches of boredom. Lady Sybil advised her sister to find her talent and pursue it, which Edith did. One wonders if Lady Mary will  find a similar passion before she throws her life away and marries a man she does not love or (we suspect) respects.

The strength of Downton Abbey’s plot threads this year is how they incorporate the roiling changes in class structure during a complex political time in which the necessities of war, the dissatisfaction of the working classes, and the continued growth of the women’s movement influenced the lives of the series’ characters. More on this topic later.

If you missed Episodes 1 & 2, they can be viewed on PBS’s site through March, 2012 at this link: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/watch/index.html

Please note: You can watch Downton Abbey Season 1 on Netflix as a DVD or streaming.

Other links and references:

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Gentle Readers, Patty of Brandy Parfums frequently contributes articles of interest to this blog. Her latest post is about Anonymous, the film about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, which recently opened in theatres.

Film Poster

Introduction  – Instead of writing a traditional plot-spoiler review of Anonymous, which can be found in many newspapers and magazines, I’ve written what I think will be more useful – a short guide to Shakespeare authorship. Enjoy! – Patricia Saffran

Jamie Campbell Bower as the young earl of Oxford

A Guide to Shakespeare Authorship

Jane Austen knew Shakespeare’s plays well and based a number of her novels on Shakespeare’s characters and plot devices. Stephen Derry writes about these many references in his paper for the Jane Austen Society of North America, ‘Jane Austen’s Use of Measure for Measure in Sense and Sensibility.’ Derry begins his paper by saying -In Mansfield Park, Edmund Bertram declares that one is familiar with Shakespeare in a degree from one’s earliest years. His celebrated passages are quoted by everybody we all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe with his descriptions.

Tudor England

Knowing of Jane Austen’s profound knowledge of Shakespeare should give those who love her works a keen interest in all things Shakespeare – and in this new movie, which brings the Elizabethan period to life. This is the first time a major movie studio has taken a leap, with an elaborate period production, costumes, and star-studded cast, to delve into the question plaguing scholars for centuries, as to who the author of  Shakespeare’s plays really was.

Joely Richardson as a young Elizabeth I and Jamie Campbell Bower as a young Earl of Oxford

The gamble has payed off, as this is a truly sensational
movie. It takes place during the succession of Queen Elizabeth I, and the Essex Rebellion against her – a period of turmoil and political instability. During this period, being the author of a play with politically loaded or satirical material was dangerous. Some authors chose anonymity………

Shakespeare authorship as an area of inquiry is not new. While making a list of the greatest Elizabethan poets, Henry Peacham in The Compleat Gentleman published in 1622, when the First Folio was being created, lists Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, first on his list and does not include Shakespeare at all. Many believe that this was Peacham’s way of hinting that Edward de Vere, not William Shakespeare, wrote the plays and poetry.

Rafe Spall as William Shakespeare

More recently, in the past 150 years, there have been many notable actors, writers, and Supreme Court judges who have questioned William Shakespeare as the author of the plays. Among them are Mark Twain, Leslie Howard, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Sigmund Freud, Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, Henry James, J. Thomas Looney, Michael York, Sandra Day O’Connor, Harry A. Blackmun, and John Paul Stevens. Besides de Vere and William Shakespeare, the other main candidates to have written the plays are Bacon, Marlowe, and Neville.

Rhys Ifans as the mature Earl of Oxford

A fantastic short video by the director of Anonymous, Roland Emmerich, summarizes ten reasons why it is implausible that the Stratford William Shakespeare wrote the plays. For some, the main reason is that unlike all other great authors of the period, no letters exist either to or from Shakespeare.

Preview: Was Shakespeare a Fraud?

A new book coming out November 8th continues to examine the question of Shakespeare authorship – The Shakespeare Guide to Italy by Richard Paul Roe, paints the Stratford man who never left England as an improbable author of the many distinctively Italian plays.

Vanessa Redgrave as the mature Elizabeth I

Current scholars, and by extension many of their now journalist proteges, who defend William Shakespeare as the author of the plays, are extremely defensive and say there is no room for doubt. Time will likely make the world more receptive to exploring Shakespeare authorship, but for now Anonymous will inspire interest in this fascinating field. I highly recommend this film.

For more on Shakespeare and Shakespeare Authorship:

About the film:

Anonymous, the new movie about Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, as the true author of Shakespeare’s plays. With Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, David Thewlis, and along with those who actively support authorship studies, Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance. Directed and produced by Roland Emmerich, released by Columbia.

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Highclere Castle as Downton Abbey was a beautiful setting

Now that the last episode of Downton Abbey has aired, I can reflect back on the series and revisit some of the most surprising scenes. Indeed, the unexpected plot developments, which kept the viewers on their toes,  helped to make this series so unforgettable. Throw luscious costumes into the mix, stunning locations, a wealth of detail about Edwardian life, and great acting and you get one of the best costume dramas in recent years. Oh, the series had its faults with one or two too many stereotypical characters, but overall I give it a grade of A.

Reader alert: Spoilers!!

Surprise #1: Thomas kisses the Duke

Thomas (Rob James-Colier) and the Duke of Crowborough (Charley Cox)

This scene, which upset parents watching with their children, helped to seal the character of Thomas, the first footman, and clued the viewer into the the Duke’s motives for hightailing it to Downton Abbey when he thinks Mary will come into a boatload of money.

The duke learns the true situation of Lady Mary's finances from Lord Grantham.

The Duke finds and burns Thomas’s letters, which were the footman’s only means of blackmailing him, and then he scurries away the moment he discovers that Lord Grantham’s estate is entailed to the closest male heir, making his chance to marry into the Grantham fortune less than zero. Thomas goes on to demonstrate his sleazy character in many more ways, but his move on the Duke packed a real punch.

Surprise #2: Lady Mary is not just another cookie cutter heroine

Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley

From the moment we meet her, Lady Mary comes off as a cold, calculating, and complex woman, whose vulnerability does not come into full view until the third episode. When the viewer meets her, she worries about having to wear black after the death of her fiance on the Titanic and only mourns the fact that she cannot mourn him. Haughty and immodestly aware of her attraction to men, her pursuit of a wealthy and titled husband begins to take on a hint of desperation, which is why her fall from grace with Evelyn Napier’s attractive Turkish friend, Kemal Pamuk (Theo James), is even more shocking.

Surprise #3: Lady Mary, Lady Cora, and Anna share a terrible secret that cannot be contained

Lady Mary is in deep trouble after Pamuk dies in her bed.

The scene in which Pamuk dies in Lady Mary’s bed and the women secretly carry him back to his bedroom could have descended into slapstick comedy, but it did not due to great directing and acting. As I watched, I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or whoop it up. All I knew was that in no way did I anticipate this plot development, which would affect Mary’s story arc and uneasy relationship with her mother for the rest of the mini-series.

Consequences of Lady Mary's fall from grace. Anna and Cora carry Pamuk back to the bedroom.

Handsome Pamuk is reduced to a limp corpse. And Mary? What on earth was she thinking? When Matthew finally proposes, Cora reveals to Violet that Mary wants to confess about the circumstances of Pamuk’s death, prompting the dowager to exclaim:  “She reads too many novels. One way or the other, everyone goes down the aisle with half the story hidden!”

Surprise #4: The Enjoyable Saga of One Upmanship Between Two Well-Matched Battle Axes

Violet, the dowager countess (Maggie Smith) and Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), Matthew's mama

Violet and Isobel: Two strong-willed women, both firm in their belief that they are right, one with modern notions, the other clinging to old-fashioned ways, provide a colorful but minor story line. Isobel Crawley, despite her comparative lack of social status (when matched against the Dowager Countess), manages to make her will known and felt. Violet can only sputter and rage at Isobel’s interference, and she finds scant satisfaction in proving Isobel’s diagnosis and treatment of Molesley’s skin condition wrong. But Isobel was not born yesterday, and at the Flowershow Death Match she shames Violet into giving the trophy for best roses to Molesley’s papa, instead of appropriating it as her own for the umpteenth time.

Violet graciously gives this year's prize to old Mr. Molesley.

In their scenes together,  Penelope Wilton  gave the incomparable Maggie Smith a run for her money. The enjoyable interplay between these two marvelous actresses was as surprising as it was worth watching.

Surprise #5: Cora’s Pregnancy

Lord Grantham's surprise at learning of Cora's pregnancy. (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern)

Did you see this scene coming? I did not, although it made sense, for this unexpected pregnancy explains much about the entail and why Matthew Crawley was only the presumptive heir and therefore essentially helpless in changing his situation. As long as the earl could possibly sire a son, Matthew’s claim to the inheritance would remain tenuous. The entail could not be broken for the Grantham was still  a healthy and virile man, as this scene shows. The pregnancy led us to discover…

Surprise #6:  O’Brien’s True Malevolent Impulses

Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) holds the fatal bar of soap

O'Brien shoves the bar of soap in harm's way.

Cora’s fatal flaw was in thinking that she and O’Brien had developed a mutual friendship and trust. While Cora receives glimpses of O’Brien’s true character, she never fully understood the anger and insecurity that her ladies maid harbored. O’Brien’s pang of conscience about shoving the broken half of the bar of soap from under the bath tub came too late, and Cora slipped and fell, losing the male heir that she and Lord Grantham so desperately wanted.  O’Brien’s dark impulse was for naught. Cora wasn’t actively looking to replace her, but only helping her mother-in-law in hiring a new ladies maid. This surprising news hit the viewer at the same time as it did O’Brien.

O’Brien’s momentary second thought comes too late. (Siobhan Finneran)

Surprise #8: The Spiteful Tug of War Between Two Sisters

Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) realizes that her sister Mary was behind Lord Strallan's cool departure.

At first the viewer felt a great deal of sympathy towards plain Lady Edith, who was only to happy to go after Lady Mary’s leavings. But as the mini-series progressed, the viewer came to understand just how much animosity the two women felt towards one another and how far they would go to extract their revenge, Lady Edith writing the Turkish embassy about Mary’s part in Pamuk’s death, and Lady Mary sabotaging Lady Edith’s happiness with Sir Anthony Strallan, who was about to propose.

Lady Mary salutes her triumph over Lady Edith.

In the end, neither sister came up smelling like a rose. The surprise was that their story line was written so well that many viewers came away feeling sympathy towards both women.

Surprise #9: Lady Sybil’s Firm Stance Behind Women’s Rights

Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) urges Gwen (Rose Leslie) to keep trying to find a job as a secretary

Lady Sybil’s story arc did not truly begin until the second episode and reached its full glory in episode four, when she is struck during an election rally and is carried from the scene bleeding.

Matthew Crawley and Lady Sybil at the election rally

A smart, independent, and kind woman, one can only hope that Lady Sybil’s character gains traction in the second series that is currently being filmed. The surprise here is that quiet, sweet Lady Sybil is truly the most daring and courageous of the three sisters. Jessica Brown-Findlay has true star status, and any time she came on the small screen, she lit it up.

Lady Sybil's daring new harem pants.

 

The family reacts to Lady Sybil's harem pants. Priceless.

Surprise #10: The ending

 

Lord Grantham, "I regret to announce we are at war with Germany."

Obviously a second series is in the works, for the story line is left hanging. World War I has broken out, causing consternation among the group.

Matthew refuses Lady Mary's acceptance of his proposal after her baby brother's death, and vows to leave Downton Abbey to make his own way.

Lady Mary accepts Matthew’s proposal, but he refuses her, unsure of whether the baby’s death had anything to do with her acceptance, and he declares his intention to leave Downton Abbey and make his own way in the world. Lady Mary, in a Scarlet O’Hara moment, realizes too late that she waited too long to accept Matthew.

Lady Mary understands she has made a mistake in waiting so long to accept Matthew's proposal.

Bates,  who cares for Anna as much as she cares for him, refuses to discuss his wife’s whereabouts with her.

Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggat) find themselves in the throes of bittersweet love.

And so, the viewer must wait an entire year to see what will happen to the characters in Downton Abbey, testing our patience sorely.

None too soon, Thomas announces his resignation to Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes

In addition to my ten choices, there were other surprises and great story arcs in Downton Abbey: Cook’s failing eyesight and the operation that saved it, Daisy’s blindness towards Thomas’s true character, which leads her to lie,

Daisy is haunted by what she saw in the corridor and her lies about Bates.

Mrs. Hughes’s longing for her own family, which made her momentarily receptive to an old flame’s advances, and Mr. Carson’s past as a performer, of which he is ashamed.

Mrs. Hughes says no to Joe, an old flame (Bill Fellows).

For those of you who missed certain episodes or who would like to watch the series again, PBS has made it available for online viewing until February 22. DVD’s are also available for sale.

My question to you is this: Of all the characters and story lines, which was your favorite? Please feel free to leave a comment.

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Romola Garai as Emma

Once again PBS will host a Twitter Party during the second installment of Emma 2009. Come join me and Laurel Ann from Austenprose for a chat from 9-11 PM EST. PBS has also arranged for a Twitter Fest for those who live on the west coast. That Twitter Chat will begin at 9 PM PT and last until 11 PM. Click here for the details. Don’t forget to use the hash tag #emma_pbs! See you there.

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Watching Emma 2009 is a visual feast for the eye. I wrote about my visceral reaction to this film for the PBS blog Remotely Connected and discussed the similarities between Jane Austen and Vermeer. This review addresses my other impressions about Emma 2009, first shown by the BBC in Great Britain last fall and airing on PBS Masterpiece Classic over the next three Sundays. Take a poll here and tell us what you think of Episode One.

A young Emma plays with her sister Isabella in Hartfield

I am of two minds about this new version of Emma. The script follows the story linearly, from Emma’s birth to the moment of Miss Taylor’s wedding to Mr. Weston, whereas in the book the story starts with the marriage. Interestingly, the narrator at the start of the film is Jonny Lee Miller (Mr Knightley), and we hear of Emma’s story from his perspective. The film sets up three characters from the start: Emma Woodhouse, Frank Churchill née Weston, and Jane Fairfax. All three children lost their mothers at an early age, but only Emma remained in Highbury. She led a charmed life under the care of her governess, Miss Taylor, a kind and loving mother figure.

Emma walks with Miss Taylor in Highbury

I must admit that I was in “high dudgeon” when I first watched these scenes, unable to connect the script to Jane Austen’s writing. However, I am aware that films are a visual and expensive medium, and they must not only take into account time restrictions, but also the richness of visual language. It might take Jane Austen several pages to describe a scene that the eye can perceive within moments. Mr. Woodhouse’s nervous-Nellie approach to life, always worried about the minutia of the health and the welfare of his family and friends, is woven into the fabric of the script, and is often shown more than told.

Tamsin Greig as Miss Bates

Mrs. and Miss Bates’ downfall is not described per se. We first see them saying goodbye to Jane Fairfax in the hallway of the comfortable vicarage, which was their home when Rev. Bates was still alive. We then see them next in their new lodging, an upstairs apartment in Highbury with crumbling walls and meanly furnished rooms. A single glance from Tamsin Greig (Miss Bates) belies her cheery disposition and tells us all we need to know about their reduced circumstances.

Emma 2010 character costumes compliment the setting and each other

I was also struck by the costumes and how the colors the characters wore complimented the settings as well as each other. In one scene in Hartfield, Mr. Knightley’s vest, Mr. Woodhouse’s scarf, and Emma’s sash picked up the colors in the room and of each other. This scheme is followed repeatedly in many scenes.

Jonny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightley reacts to Harriet Smith's rejection of Mr. Martin

The more I watch this film adaptation (I have seen portions of it four times), the more my impressions of the actors keep changing. In real life, Jonny Lee Miller is 37 years old, exactly Mr. Knightley’s age. Some critics have thought him too young or all wrong for the part, but as the film progressed, especially in the second and third installments, I warmed towards him. I now regard his performance as George Knightley as my favorite of all the actors who have played this gentleman. High praise coming from me, for I admit I was among the naysayers when Jonny’s casting was first announced.

Emma (Romola Garai) talks to Mr. Knightley

Although I changed my mind about Jonny Lee Miller, I have never quite warmed up to Romola Garai as Emma. She is a lovely and talented actress, and I liked her star turn in Daniel Deronda immensely, but I found her facial contortions in this film disconcerting and cannot recall such exaggerated mannerisms in her other films. A friend who watched the film with me liked Romola’s performance, saying that her portrayal of a spoilt, headstrong girl who was raised by a doting father was spot on. However, I thought Romola’s performance was too theatrical, as if she were trying to reach the audience seated in the last row of a large theatre. The camera’s lens magnifies everything facial movement, and she could have (should have) toned down her grimaces, toothy smiles, and wide-eyed looks of wonder or consternation. I did come to appreciate Romola’s chemistry with Jonny Lee Miller, which was palpable. One can see the sparks fly between these two characters, which is the point of a romance after all.

Blake Ritson as Mr. Elton offers to take Emma's drawing to London to be framed. Mr. Knightley watches the scene, aware of Mr. Elton's intentions, but Emma is clueless.

As for the secondary characters, I admired Tamsin Greig’s Miss Bates, which surprised me. While her character is irritating, Tamsin managed to make us feel sorry for her even as we were irritated by her babbling. Her performance is almost as memorable as Sophie Thompson’s, whose 1996 portrayal of Miss Bates remains my favorite. Valerie Lillie’s performance as Mrs. Bates was way past tea, for she looked comatose and unresponsive. Frankly, her part required nothing more than for her to sit in a chair and look dour. Blake Ritson’s turn as Mr. Elton was a bit too mannered for my tastes, but he was perfectly matched with Christina Cole’s vulgar Mrs. Elton. And I quit liked Louise Dylan as Harriet Smith: pretty but not as attractive as beautiful Emma, sweet-natured and malleable, and as dim as a snuffed candle. I’m not sure Michael Gambon was quite right for the part of Mr. Woodhouse. His face and figure are too vigorous for a hypochondriac and worrywart, and his performance did not in any way displace my estimation of Bernard Hepton’s masterful portrayal of Mr.Woodhouse in 1996.

Michael Gambon as Mr. Woodhouse

As far as I am concerned, the Frank Churchill of my imagination has never been captured by any of the Emma adaptations, including this one. I thought that pug-nosed Rupert Evans was all wrong for the part and I did not believe for a moment that anything about his looks or behavior would attract Emma’s interest. As for Laura Pyper as Jane Fairfax, she’s talented, but much too mousy for my tastes. Yes, her situation is untenable, for Frank does not at all act in a gentleman like manner, but I rather liked Olivia Williams’ interpretation of the character, beautiful, demure, and alternately angry and hurt.

Emma finally meets Frank Churchill (Rupert Evans)

This film gets stronger with each episode, and the second and third installments sealed my admiration for this latest version of Emma. The cinematography is beautiful and the actors play their characters in lovely interiors, settings and locations. The film is almost four hours long, which, thankfully, allows for more plot and character development than a 2-hour version.

At the Coles, Emma and Mrs. Weston (Johdi May) listen to Jane Fairfax sing and play

I must add that PBS has gone out of its way to make its Masterpiece Classic site worth visiting. Those who missed the first installment can watch it online starting Monday, January 25th. The site offers a Bachelors of Highbury quiz (such fun), a Romola Garai audio slide show, screenwriter Q&A with Sandy Welch, and other features.

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