Monday, January 31, 2011

The Oresteia by Aeschylus: A Classics Circuit Review

"If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to -- Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. -- Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?" - Mr. Tilney, Northanger Abbey

I begin this review with the above quote because this is an Austen centric blog, and, as such, all things must come back to that lady and her novels - even Greek tragedy. My regular readers might be wondering (very reasonably) where I can possibly find a connection between the great authoress and the only complete trilogy we have from the Golden Age of Athens (roughly 480 to 404 B.C.E.). Quite frankly, the main similarity lies in my own education and interests. I hold two bachelor of arts degrees: the first, not surprisingly, is in English, my focus having been 19th century literature, and the second in Classical Civilization, particularly Greek tragedy. I absolutely adore theater, in all its forms, so it is logical that I would find its origins of particular interest. One of the greatest days of my life was my 23rd birthday, when I finally stood beside the ruins of the Theater of Dionysus, located on the southern slope of the Acropolis, where these plays were originally performed. Studying in Athens was the culmination of a lifelong dream, and this was its highlight. So when The Classics Circuit announced an Ancient Greeks tour, I could not resist signing up to review The Oresteia, one of my most favorite texts in the world.

Orestes killing Clytemnestra
I will come back to Mr. Tilney and other characters familiar to my fellow Janeites, but first let me drift so very far from the world of Miss Austen, into the dark and violent realms of Greek myth. As indicated above, The Oresteia is comprised of three plays, just as all Greek tragedies were: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. Their subject is the very dysfunctional house of Atreus, rulers of Argos. The death and destruction that haunts this family dates back generations to Tantalus, that well-known resident of Hades, doomed for all eternity to stand up to his chin in a pool of water that recedes each time he tries to drink, positioned beneath a tree whose "tantalizing" fruit is forever just out of reach. His crime? Having slaughtered his son, Pelops, and having attempted to serve his flesh to the Gods. Pelops was restored to life and went on to sire the twins Thyestes and Atreus, who continue their family's bloody heritage when the latter kills all but one of his nephews (Aegisthus) and feeds them to their father. Atreus has two exceedingly famous sons - Menelaus and Agamemnon, who marry two notorious sisters, Helen and Clytemnestra. I do hope you are all familiar with the events of the Trojan War, which serves as the corner stone of Greek literature, and so will not bog myself down in recounting all its details, dwelling only on those relevant to our purposes today. Before he is able to set sail for Troy, Agamemnon is called upon to sacrifice his daughter, the virgin Iphigenia, as an offering to Artemis, leaving behind him an extremely irate wife. Through ten years of war, Clytemnestra plots her revenge, in cahoots with her lover, Aegisthus, who is also bent on retribution for the wrongs committed by Atreus upon his line. This is where our story begins.

Actors would all be masked and male
In Agamemnon, that legendary military leader returns home to be greeted with open arms by his seemingly loyal wife, Clytemnestra. In tow he carries Cassandra, the Trojan princess who is doomed to foresee the future without being believed, as a spoil of war. Clytemnestra leads her husband inside the palace and prepares for him a bath. There she traps him in heavy, net-like robes, and kills him with a sword, before meting out the same fate to Cassandra. Aegisthus triumphs, the people mourn, and the murderous couple take their place on the throne. Several years pass before the beginning of The Libation Bearers, when Clytemnestra sends her remaining daughter, Electra, to pour libations on Agememnon's grave, after having a dream about giving birth to a snake which, in turn, kills her. That snake is Orestes, her son who has been living in exile, returned to Argos to revenge his father's death. He meets Electra at Agamemnon's grave and reveals his purpose. Parent slaughter is a sin grave enough to call upon its perpetrator the wrath of the Furies, dark and ancient goddesses who relentlessly pursue their prey and drive them insane, but Apollo has commanded Orestes to proceed anyway, promising assistance when this fate befalls him. He goes to the palace and, with the aid of Electra and her servants, kills first Aesgithus and then his mother, in one of the most dramatic scenes in the history of theater. Quickly the Furies descend and Orestes flees for Delphi. The Eumenides begins with Orestes in the temple of Delphi surrounded by sleeping Furies, who have been lulled by Apollo, giving him time to purify his supplicant of his crime. Orestes then runs to Athens and the temple of Athena, momentarily free of the Furies pursuit, but, driven on by the ghost of Clytemnestra, they soon catch up to him. He calls upon Athena's assistance, and she decides to have a trial by jury to decide whether or not the Furies are entitled to their victim. Apollo acts on Orestes behalf, arguing that the need to avenge his father's death outweighs the ties of blood he has to his mother, the woman being only the vessel in which the man's seed grows, a massive assertion of patriarchal dominance, further reinforced by the verdict. He puts forth as an example Athena herself, born from Zeus' head without a mother. The jury decides for Orestes, reinforcing the dominance of the new, male-lead gods over the more ancient mother goddesses, and the Furies are pacified by being given new rights as protectors of suppliants, remaking them in a more benevolent guise: the Eumenides. This final play establishes a foundation story for the Athenian judicial system, putting an end to barbaric cycles of blood vengeance and establishing law and order.

Libation Bearers
What is it in this horrific tale that so enthralls me? Many things. As a lover of mythologies, I find in Aeschylus a fascinating awareness and attempt to justify the emergence of male dominant theologies over the older, female orders (a trend which crosses most civilizations). There is also the hubris - usually the factor that brings down tragic heroes (like Oedipus) - inherent in the playwright's premise. Aeschylus took part in the Persian Wars that saw Athens established as the great power of the era, and his certainty that this triumph is not only ordained but endless is almost comical when we know how soon Sparta brought down the Athenian Empire, bringing a very quick end to The Golden Age. Now I find myself back in the world of Austen. Let us return to the quote I commenced on. Mr. Tilney's words reveal a similar hubris - an unshakable faith in righteousness of the English. In the face of the French Revolution, English superiority and judiciousness must indeed have seemed superior. It was a land in which order and law remained stable when the rest of Europe was falling apart. But all empires will come to an end, and even in England horrific crimes will be committed against family (the Victorian Era offers us a slew of examples, both of parents killing their children and spouses slaughtering each other). While Catherine Morlands's "Gothic" ideas of murder in the Tilney household may have no place in Austen's reasonable world, they are very much akin to the acts perpetrated in Greek myth. Irrationality may be contained by a system of justice, or even a neighborhood of spies, but it remains part of us, even if buried in our subconscience.

The so-called Mask of Agamemnon
I also think there is something to be said about the role of theater in Austen and its origins as a fertility rite. Formal theater derived from Dionysian festivals, held in the spring, in which a chorus of singers would dance around a large phallus. These became the choruses that form such a central role as narrators in Greek plays. With such beginnings, is it any wonder that, even 2000 years later, theater retained the stigma of unleashed sexuality? This can be seen in not only the sphere which actresses inhabited during the 19th century, often being the mistresses of wealthy gentleman, or in the horror any respectable family felt if one of their members was affiliated with the stage, but also in the result of the theatrics held in Mansfield Park. Modern readers often wonder why the performance of a play was so very controversial, receiving the censure of both our hero and heroine, but when we see the results of this foray into acting, their disapproval makes more sense. It is the rehearsals of Lovers' Vows that bring about three distinct romances: the illicit one between Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram, the doomed one between Edmund Bertram and Mary Crawford, and the one that ends in marriage, if in an exceptional manner, between Julia Bertram and John Yates. In fact, only three members of the cast remain immune to the sexual atmosphere of the theater, one of whom is already married, and another who is engaged.

The Trial of Orestes
I could continue to draw these, admittedly, far fetched connections between Austen's texts and the topic at hand (Athena's speech at the end of The Eumenides, regarding her love of persuasion, sorely tempts me to invoke a certain impervious nut), but I will spare my readers such flights of fancy. I do not know if Austen ever read The Oresteia, but she certainly would have been exposed to Greek texts, through her father's educational pursuits. It is also highly unlikely that, being both the daughter and sister of a Cassandra, she was unfamiliar with the derivation of the name. Whether she ever read translations of these stories is unknown, but she was certainly familiar with their themes, if only through Shakespeare. Most fundamentally, the strife between the generations and between husbands and wives, so often dwelt upon in Greek literature, is central to Austen's novels. Good and bad parents, well-match and ill-suited marriages, form the core of her stories. These are universal concerns, as fundamental to Aeschylus as they were to Austen. I may be reaching, but I do not think my stretch unjustified. But regardless, it was delightful to revisit these wonderful plays, which I once studied so closely but have neglected for a decade. My tastes have certainly changed over time, but The Oresteia still thrills me to the core. I have not yet had the opportunity to visit the other posts in this Classic Circuit tour, but I look forward to doing so and urge others to do the same. Greek literature may not be your favorite topic, but it as it is the premise for Western literature, a knowledge of it is essential to fully appreciating the last 2500 years of writing.


Friday, January 28, 2011

Sense and Sensibility - 2008

The 2008 version of Sense and Sensibility is a beautiful film, written by that giant of Austen adaptations, Andrew Davies, but while I watch and rewatch it (on this occasion, as part of my participation in the Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge, hosted by Austenprose), hoping to enjoy it more each time, there is something about this movie that just does not sit quite right with me. Unlike its predecessor, the 1995 Ang Lee film (read my review here), which blatantly had a large influence on this later production (from Mr. Dashwood's deathbed scene, to the exaggerated depiction of the Dashwood ladies poverty, and including Marianne's ill-conceived tromp through the rain), there is a darkness to this version that fails to celebrate the comic aspects of the original story. It's impossible not to compare the two movies, as they share far more than a storyline, but with three hours in which to do the tale justice, I wish the newer production had better succeeded in staying true to the original ambiance of Sense and Sensibility, rather than over dramatizing (and over romanticizing) the plot.

I could make a list of the incongruities, but that would feel peevish, so I will just name the two that irk me the most. The first, and most troublesome, is the more explicit (and sinister) sexuality displayed, both in Willoughby's relationships with Colonel Brandon's ward, Eliza, and with Marianne. The former is particularly troublesome as the Colonel seems perfectly aware of Willoughby's trespasses from the moment he arrives in Barton, but does not challenge the rogue until he abandons Marianne, in whose name he has no right to fight. My second complaint is more trifling, but it is emblematic of the entire overly sensational nature of this adaptation, and that is the setting. While I have never been to Devonshire, I can read a map, and I have a hard time understanding how the cliff-ridden, ocean views that surround Barton Cottage in this film could possibly be located "four miles northward of Exetor", which should place it decidedly inland. Yes, the ocean scape is breathtaking, but its overall effect is only to add to the too heatedly romantic atmosphere.

That being said, I cannot emphasize enough how gorgeous is the film's cinematography. Just because I don't feel it quite works, does not in any way undermine its beautiful aesthetics. Also, some of the casting is equally magnificent. I adore Dominic Cooper as Willoughby. He looks just right, and his internal struggles are more clearly portrayed than in other interpretations. Similarly, while Dan Stevens initially seems a bit too at ease for Edward (which I admit adds to his charm - I do not have a great fondness for Mr. Ferrars), his performance grows on me as he so clearly fights against his intense feelings for Elinor while despairing over his engaged state. Really all the performances are quite good, it is just that most of them pale besides those of the 1995 version, with two very notable exception, even if they are small roles. The first is Mark Williams as Sir John Middleton. I am predisposed towards Mr. Willaims, as he will always be, in my mind, Mr. Weasley, but the script for this film also develops the kindlier aspects of his personality, which are definitely present in the novel, while most films render him only a buffoon. The second and, frankly, more notable, is Daisy Haggard as the elder Miss Steele. She is the one glimmer of comic relief in the film, and the personification of Austen's original creation.

But it is wrong to not mention how wonderful Hattie Morahan is as Elinor Dashwood, even if I do prefer Emma Thompson in the role. Similarly, Charity Wakefield is a very good Marianne, it's just that Kate Winslet is far better, and the fact that the former resembles the latter makes it very difficult to disregard the comparison. Furthermore, I think I actually prefer Lucy Boynton as Margaret Dashwood to Emilie Francois, but as she is more Emma Thompson's creation than Austen's, it is hard to attribute proper credit to the interpretation. Again, as much as I try to praise, I fall into criticism. It is clear that all my biases lean towards the 1995 version, and no matter in how many ways the 2008 film will triumph, it will never measure up in my mind. I feel particularly guilty about this sad review as it is certainly a far better movie than the previous BBC renditions, made in 1971 and 1981, which, however, I find very easy to praise, as my expectations for them were never so high, and because I am always trying to convince people to give them a try (most Austen fans require no such persuasion to watch the 2008 production). This film should be celebrated and appreciated, and my prejudices are preventing me from doing it proper justice. It is simply that, in this case, Hollywood far outshown the BBC. I suppose it will happen at times, and the mid-90's were a particularly magical time for Austen adaptations - The Golden Age, if you will.

So let me end on a positive note with a quote from Marianne, spoken to her mother and Elinor on their return trip to Barton Cottage, after their stay at Cleveland. The words are all Davies', but the sentiment summarizes, very concisely, what is perhaps the most universal theme in all of Austen's novels, and therefore deserves note:
"It is not what we say or feel that makes us what we are, it is what we do, or fail to do." 
Only a true Janeite could say it so very well!

Sense and Sensibility - 1995

In my humble opinion, the 1995 film, written by Emma Thompson and directed by Ang Lee, is the creme de la creme of Sense and Sensibility adaptations. Not as long, and far more Hollywood, than its competition, it is, nevertheless, the version that stirs me the most. In fact, it is one of my favorite Austen adaptations, period, and when you consider that Sense and Sensibility, for all its charm, is probably my least favorite of Austen's novels (which still places it amongst my very favorite books of all time), that is definitely saying something exceptional. It is magnificently done, and if Emma Thompson was, perhaps, a bit mature to be playing Eleanor, her development of such a fabulous screenplay far overrides this complaint, especially as her performance is an absolutely triumphant.

More than any other cinematic version of this novel, this is the one that best balances the romance of the story with its social commentary, all without sacrificing the humor that Austen incorporates into all her works. The sentiment of all the other Dashwood ladies, when compared with the stolid practicality of Eleanor, is perfectly presented, providing many highly humorous moments. Kate Winslet is perfect as Marianne, and the heroes of the story are just as well captured. Alan Rickman makes the most of Colonel Brandon's tormented, romantic nature, adding to my appreciation of the character's subtleties in the manner that only a truly great actor can. He is by far the best Brandon ever. Hugh Grant, too, does an excellent job of bringing Edward Ferrars to life, beautifully capturing his awkwardness. Even Willoughby, as played by Greg Wise, is a precise version of Austen's original, never a hint of the rogue appearing in his behavior until his abrupt departure from Barton brings his actions into question (followed by one of my favorite scenes, in which Mrs. Dashwood, Marianne, and Margaret all close themselves in their bedrooms to weep inconsolably, leaving Eleanor to calmly sip her tea on the stairs).

The minor characters are very well done too, though Lady Middleton, the elder Mrs. Steele, and Mrs. Ferrars are disposed of, apparently not deemed worthy of being brought to life on the screen (I particularly regret the absence of the last). I adore what Hugh Laurie does with the character of Mr. Palmer, making him far more sympathetic than Austen portrayed him, playing up the similarities in his predicament to Mr. Bennet's, and emphasizing his political interests. I also think Richard Lumsden is fabulous as Robert Ferrars; no one else has captured his foolishness so well. John and Fanny Dashwood, too, as played by James Fleet and Harriet Walker, are perfectly impotent and vile, accordingly. I think it is the minor characters in Austen that add so much texture to her writing, particularly in providing latitude for her wit, and it gives me great joy to see them properly portrayed on screen. 

Of course, there are some glaring discrepancies between this film and Austen's novel, not all of which can be chocked up to time limitations (at 136 minutes, this is the shortest of the adaptations made of this book). Margaret Dashwood (played by Emilie Francois) is an entirely new creature in this version: tomboyish, vibrant, and with a far greater role in the action than Austen allotted her. Furthermore, the financial straits the Dashwood ladies are thrown into are greatly exaggerated, Austen never indicating that they are so very impoverished as to not be able to afford meat and sugar. Lucy Steele goes to London in company with Miss Jennings, Elinor, and Marianne, giving her far more opportunity to torment Elinor than she has in the novel (indeed, I am not fond of Imogen Stubbs in the role of Miss Steele, as her machinations are made far too explicit). And Willoughby's entire confession at Cleveland is eliminated, his regret being only expressed by his forlorn look at the end of the film, as he observes Marianne's wedding from a distance. But these minor issues are easy to overlook in the face of the film's mastery of the book's themes, so truthfully represented. I have seen it countless times, and at every viewing I rejoice in its triumph. Is it sacrilegious to admit that I think I might actually enjoy this movie even more than the book, or at least that I love it equally? I feel very sheepish saying so, but it is the highest compliment I can bestow, and it is fully deserved.    

This review is my second in celebration of the 200th year since Sense and Sensibilities publication, as honored by the Sense and Sensibility Bicentary Challenge, hosted by Austenprose.   

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Profile: Henry Tilney

The master of the ceremonies introduced to her a very gentlemanlike young man as a partner; -- his name was Tilney. He seemed to be about four or five and twenty, was rather tall, had a pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and, if not quite handsome, was very near it. His address was good, and Catherine felt herself in high luck. There was little leisure for speaking while they danced; but when they were seated at tea, she found him as agreeable as she had already given him credit for being. He talked with fluency and spirit -- and there was an archness and pleasantry in his manner which interested, though it was hardly understood by her.

Name: Henry Tilney

Age: "...between four or five and twenty..."

Hobbies: Teasing, reading (both novels and histories), providing companionship to his sister, and linguistic analysis.

Most charming quality: His sense of humor.

Most detrimental tendency: An indifference towards immorality derived of world weariness.

Greatest strength: His uncanny perspicacity.

Truest friend: His sister, Eleanor.

Worst enemy: While it is difficult to term the man who sheltered, reared, and provided for one an enemy, I still think General Tilney the best candidate for this honor, for in putting his own mercenary ambitions above his son's happiness, it is he that provides the biggest impediment to its achievement.

Prospects: He has the living at Woodston, which we are lead to believe is a very good one, or, at least, good enough to allow him to marry a  girl of small fortune without his father's assistance.

Favorite quotations: "The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and most of them with great pleasure."

"My dear Eleanor, the riot is only in your own brain. The confusion there is scandalous."

"Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much that they never find it necessary to use more than half."

"Bath, compared with London, has little variety, and so everybody finds out every year. 'For six weeks, I allow Bath is pleasant enough; but beyond that, it is the most tiresome place in the world.' You would be told so by people of all descriptions, who come regularly every winter, lengthen their six weeks into ten or twelve, and go away at last because they can afford to stay no longer."

"I use the verb 'to torment,' as I observed to be your own method, instead of 'to instruct,' supposing them to be now admitted as synonymous."

"If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to -- Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. -- Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?"

Musings:  Dear Mr. Tilney, my favorite hero (excepting Mr. Darcy, of course). He is witty and charmingly sardonic, yet perhaps what I find most charming in him is the fact that he falls in love with Catherine precisely because of her honestly and guilelessness. Mr. Tilney is very world weary, life with his father and brother, as well as his role as clergyman, leaving him thinking not very highly of humanity. It is for this reason that he refuses to interfere in Captain Tilney's dalliance with Isabella Thorpe: "Persuasion is not at command; but pardon me, if I cannot even endeavour to persuade him. I have myself told him that Miss Thorpe is engaged. He knows what he is about, and must be his own master." Austen only ever hints at the sexual, but I think it safe to assume that, as Captain Tilney abandones his pretensions towards Isabella, he has gotten what he desired from her, leaving her in a rather horrific predicament. Like her or not, Mr. Tilney's seems awfully cold regarding her plight, dismissing Isabella's suffering as well-earned, as demonstrated in this exchange with Catherine:

"But, suppose he had made her very much in love with him?"

"But we must first suppose Isabella to have had a heart to lose - consequently to have been a very different creature; and, in that case, she would have met with very different treatment."

Yet it is the very fact that Catherine displays herself to be just such "a very different creature" that wins his hardened heart. Repeatedly he comments upon Catherine's integrity and goodness. The above statements are followed thusly: "But your mind is warped by an innate principle of general integrity, and therefore not accessible to the cool reasonings of family partiality, or a desire of revenge." Still coined in the sarcastic terms that display Mr. Tilney's general opinion of humanity, this line nevertheless confirms his belief in the unusual superiority of Catherine. A few chapters earlier, he says, "You feel, as you always do, what is most to the credit of human nature. - Such feelings ought to be investigated, that they may know themselves." It is really remarkable that, having lived the life he has at Northanger, Mr. Tilney retains such a strong admiration for Catherine's innocence and honesty. I wonder that he only safeguards himself behind a cynical perspective, having somehow managed not to embrace humanities baser tendencies. Nevertheless, it is somehow the biting wit derived from his depressing knowledge of society that makes him so lovable. Mr. Tilney can utter the most misogynistic statements in all of Austen (playfully, of course), and we love him all the more for it - really a remarkable quality. I think the heart of the matter is that a lady would never be bored in Henry Tilney's company. He is the most obviously intelligent of all Austen's heroes, and as anyone who has read the authoresses letters will know, the character whose sense of humor most resembles her own. I often wonder if Mr. Tilney is not something of a self-portrait: the person Austen would have been if her tongue had been allowed the freedom only men enjoyed in this ear. On the same note, I wonder if Catherine Morland is not the lady should would have liked to be instead of the acute observer she was, suffering, just like Mr. Tilney, with all the trials such knowledge bestows upon its possessor.  


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

There Must Be Murder by Margaret C. Sullivan

Today is lovely novella review day, the second of which was just as delightful as the first (read my review of Young Master Darcy here). There Must Be Murder is a continuation of Northanger Abbey by Margaret C.  Sullivan, better known to the blogosphere as Mags, editrix of the fabulously snarky AustenBlog. There is a shortage of Northanger Abbey fanfiction out there, and if this sadly overlooked novel (one of my very favorites that Austen wrote, right after Persuasion) can be said to be safe in anyone's hands, it is Ms. Sullivan's, long time devotee to both the book and its fabulous hero, Mr. Tilney (again, one of my favorites, right after Mr. Darcy). Our story takes place two months into Henry and Catherine's marriage, when they return to Bath in order to honor the town which brought them together. It is so in keeping with Austen's original tale that it is nearly seamlessly, beautifully capturing her characterizations, tone, and subject matter. Now a wiser woman, Catherine has learned to distinguish fantasy from reality, the probable from the improbable, but not everyone she encounters has similarly learned to check their active imaginations. The book is littered with characters anxious to both view and live their lives as dramatically as those in Mrs. Radcliffe's tales, which Henry reads aloud to Catherine when they retire in the evenings (those who know that my husband and I engage in very similar activities, though usually with Georgette Heyer as our entertainment, will be well able to imagine how touching I found this portrayal of the newlywed's activities). I love their bantering commentary regarding Udolpho, as in this scene:
The first time Catherine read Udolpho, she had wept over this passage; but when Henry read Valancourt's dialogue, he used such a simpering, affected voice that she found herself laughing at the poor Chevalier's distress.

"'Why should we confide the happiness of or whole lives to the will of people, who have no right to interrupt, and, except in giving you to me, have no power to promote it? O Emily! Venture to trust your own heart, venture to be mine forever!' His voice trembled, and he was silent; Emily continued to weep, and was silent also, when Valancourt proceeded to propose an immediate marriage, and that, at an early hour on the following morning, she should quit Madame Montoni's house, and be conducted by him to the church of the Augustines, where a friar should await to unite them."

Henry stopped reading and pondered for a moment. "The banns were not published? No license obtained? A curious business; I dare say that the brave Valancourt might have found the Augustine friar less receptive to his scheme than he anticipated."

"It is only a story, Henry," said Catherine in the patient tone used to educate the slow-witted.

"Forgive me, my sweet. It was a matter of professional interest. To continue: The silence, with which she listened to a proposal, dictated by love and despair, and enforced at a moment, when it seemed scarcely possible for her to oppose it; - when her heart was softened by the sorrows of a separation, that might be eternal, and her reason obscured by the illusions of love and terror, encouraged him to hope, that it would not be rejected. 'Speak, my Emily!' said Valancourt eagerly, 'let me hear your voice, let me hear you confirm my fate.' She spoke not; her cheek was cold, and her senses seemed to fail her, but she did not faint. To Valancourt's terrified imagination she appeared to be dying; he called upon her name, rose to go to the chateau for assistance, and then, recollecting her situation, feared to go, or to leave her for a moment."

Henry paused and glanced down at his wife's rapt face. "I am glad that you are not of a swooning disposition, Cat. It must be terribly uncomfortable to have a girl forever falling insensible at inconvenient times, when she is most in need of all her faculties. It is well that you did not swoon when I offered you marriage. It might have put me off my mission."

Catherine sighed in delight. "I assure you, I felt no inclination to swoon. That was the happiest moment of my life. I should not have liked to miss it because I was insensible."
Now, I admit to finding Mrs. Radcliffe's writing pretty painful (Udolpho is one of three books I have ever, in my life, not finished once I started it), but if I could listen to Mr. Tilney recite her novels, this scene leads me to believe I would find it not only tolerable, but highly amusing. 

The plot of the story surrounds familial acquaintances of the Tilney's: one Lady Beauclerk, recently widowed, and her daughter. Along with her nephew and heir to her late husband's estate, the rakish Sir Philip, the Beauclerks have descended on Bath with General Tilney in tow, as he is paying court to Lady Beauclerk. As Henry and Catherine have not been in contact with the General since their marriage, this state of affairs comes as a surprise, and not necessarily a pleasant one. All the Beauclerks seem to be playing an unknown, but very deep, game, made further mysterious when the manner of the late baronet's death comes into question. On a more agreeable note, also come to Bath are the former Eleanor Tilney and her new husband, Lord Whiting, who, quite naturally, become Catherine and Henry's chosen companions during their sojourn in the spa town (other than their charming Newfoundland, MacGuffin).

In Ms. Sullivan's hands, the Tilney's marriage lives up to all the promise with which Austen infused it. Romantic while not being tawdry, mysterious without relying on needless drama, There Must Be Murder is a beautiful and loving homage to both Jane Austen and her first full-length novel. I highly recommend it to all fans of Northanger Abbey, and if you have never bothered to read this sadly neglected novel, I urge you to make haste in rectifying this grievous oversight. 

Young Master Darcy: A Lesson in Honour by Pamela Aidan

As soon as I learned that Pamela Aidan had written a prequel to Pride and Prejudice, based upon her acclaimed Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman series, I instantly ordered a copy, and it has completely fulfilled my expectations. This novella takes place long before Elizabeth Bennet, the town of Meryton, or even Charles Bingley have entered into Darcy's life, in a time where both his parents are still alive. Young Master Darcy is thirteen years old and home from his first term at Eton for the Christmas holiday. The lessons he has learned at school have already begun to change him, but those bestowed upon him at home will forever change his life, determining the man he will become, for better and for worse.

The first blow to fall upon Darcy upon reaching the family townhouse in London is that his mother is ill and will die. The events that follow are all a result of his attempt to cope with and assimilate this information, as well as the family's struggle, with the assistance of the Fitzwilliams, to insure that Mrs. Darcy will enjoy a happy final Christmas at Pemberley. The story is both touching and funny, making me laugh and cry in turn. In an attempt to escape the oppression of the house, Darcy masquerades as a Lampton lad, joining in a group of young people who are preparing to put on a mummers entertainment for Christmas Eve. He knows his parents would not approve, and it is the fall out of this episode that leads to his "lesson in honour". Simultaneously, Lady Anne Darcy is trying to instill in her young son's head all the wisdom she had hoped to teach him as he grew up. Though she acts with the best of intentions, she achieves results that readers of Pride and Prejudice will instantly recognize as disastrous, especially when reinforced by the mummers episode. Take this scene: 
"Your choice of wife will be the most important decision you ever make, Fitzwilliam,"his mother continued. "It will, in large part, determine your own happiness and the success of Pemberley in the future. It is a decision you must not take lightly. It is a decision you must prepare for even now as a schoolboy at Eton." Lady Anne considered him for a moment before continuing.

"I know that marriage must seem a very dull topic to young man contemplating driving a team of horses, but I fear I may not have another opportunity before you are off again to school. I promise to keep my advice concise so that we may proceed to other subjects. Agreed?"

"Agreed, Mama," Darcy answered.

"Well, now, some requirements for your choice of wife. She must come from a good family, Fitzwilliam, the best family. This you must do for the honour and dignity of Pemberley." Lady Anne took a sip of tea.

"Secondly, she must be your social equal with manners that  reflect well upon you in every situation - in Town or in the country. You must do this for your own sake. Your wife's manners - her speech, deportment, behavior - cannot be an embarrassment to you, Fitzwilliam, or you will never respect her or know peace. Do you understand me?"

"I believe so, Mama. But..." Darcy spread his hands hopelessly. "I know nothing of girls. How am I to choose?"

His mother laughed again. "You mustn't worry about that now. It will happen in good time. You will meet many girls in the years to come, Fitzwilliam. You will learn how they think and act, what attracts you and what does nt. I dare say you will have many admirers since you arerich and grow more handsome by the day." Darcy blushed at his mother's enthusiasm.

"That is the danger, Fitzwilliam, for there will be many young ladies who will wish to become mistress of Pemberley." She leaned towards him and held out her hand. He took it, soft and light, in his. "I know you will be guided by your Father in this when the time is appropriate, but, for your happiness, choose a woman who is your equal in taste and feeling, a woman who respects and honours you and for whom you feel the same. If you remember and act on this advice, Fitzwilliam, you will be well and content."
Perhaps, if his father had lived to advise him, as his mother assumes, Darcy would have had the sanction he required to make an exception to this rule in the case of Elizabeth Bennet, but as that is not the case, we know too well the detrimental affects of such lessons. In Young Master Darcy, we witness a playful, fun loving boy, ready to interact with his social inferiors on a level of equality, being replaced by the aloof and proud man Austen created. It is not until he meets Elizabeth that this long buried aspect of his personality is allowed to reemerge. Ms. Aidan does an excellent job accounting for the defects we find in Darcy upon our first introduction to the man, and for how such a creature can transform into the hero that we so all adore. The novella is excellent. Readers of her trilogy will relish the introduction of original characters such as family retainers and the Matlocks, while those unfamiliar with Ms. Aidan's previous novels will find her portrayals of the young Wickham and Fitzwilliam uncanny. I highly recommend this book to all. 

Monday, January 24, 2011

Sense and Sensibility - 1981

When I received the BBC Jane Austen Collection box set for Christmas, 2009, I announced that I would review all the films during the course of 2010. Attentive readers will know that I failed to fulfill this goal. I watched all the films, repeatedly, but did not always take the time to record my thoughts. So for my first post for the Sense and Sensibility Bicentary Challenge, it seemed reasonable to rewatch (yet again) this film I have delayed blogging about for so long.

The 1981 BBC adaptation of Sense and Sensibility is presented in seven, half hour segments. While like its predecessor, the 1971 version (read my review here), Margaret Dashwood is not included in the script, for the most part it sticks fairly strictly to the novel. It opens once John and Fanny Dashwood have already taken possession of Norland, showing Elinor, Marianne, and their mother in a carriage, returning from viewing a potential new home. Though this scene is not Austen's, I think it very appropriately sets the themes of the film, expeditiously summarizing the novel's introductory chapters, and so will transcribe for you the dialogue:
Elinor: Mama, tis no use considering that house any further. Tis much too large for us.

Mrs. Dashwood: There are no others to let in the neighborhood. We have seen them all.

Marianne: I still cannot believe it. Father is hardly buried, and Norland is not our home anymore. How could he do this to us? 

Elinor: He had no say in the matter. The estate was entailed to John in Grandfather's will. Father only had it for his own lifetime.

Mrs. Dashwood: I must say, John and Fanny showed indescent haste in taking possession.

Marianne: I am sure it was all Fanny's doing.

Mrs. Dashwood: Upon my life I do not know a more unpleasant woman.

Elinor: Norland is John's home now, but I am sure we may rely on him to show a proper feeling for us.

Mrs. Dashwood: I shall write to my relations. Perhaps they can help us.

Marianne: Leave the district!

Elinor: Why not? We have got to find somewhere to live

Marianne: Oh Elinor! Where are your feelings?

Elinor: I govern them.
This scene flows immediately into John and Fanny's classic debate about how much help John should provide his "half-sisters", which, of course, cannot be condensed, abbreviated, or summarized, as it is far too wonderful. Edward Ferrars (played by Bosco Hogan) arrives at its conclusion, thus rapidly setting our story in motion.

Elinor is played by Irene Richards, better know to Janeites as another thoroughly practical lady, Charlotte Collins, whom she portrays in the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice. Tracey Childs portrays a thoroughly adolescent Marianne (as the dialogue above indicates), enraptured with her own mind and ideas, and displaying little sympathy for the rest of humanity. I think both actresses do a fine job, particularly Ms. Richards, who captures Elinor's pragmatism while still displaying appropriate passion when called upon to do so. In another scene crafted by the screenwriters (literary adaptation veterans Alexander Baron and Denis Constanduros, the latter of whom also wrote screenplays for the 1971 version of Sense and Sensibility and the 1972 adaptation of Emma), rather than Austen, Elinor shows her mettle to a particularly money conscious John Dashwood (played by Peter Gale), after he informs both she and Marianne of the outcome of Mrs. Ferrars learning of Edward's engagement to Lucy Steele:
John: Ah, you are here at last.

Marianne: Why was your message to us so urgent?

John: Ladies, you are Dashwoods - you are family! You must know what has been decided concerning Edward.  

Elinor: What has been decided concerning Edward?

John: We sent for him immediately. All that Mrs. Ferrars could say to make him put an end to this engagement - all my arguments, all Fanny's entreaties - were of no avail. We reminded him that Miss Morton is ready and willing! 30,000 pounds! I never thought him so stubborn and unfeeling. What Mrs. Ferrars suffered is mot to be descirbed. He was engaged, he said, he would stand by it, and we could not make him budge!

Elinor: We have no influence if that is in your mind.

John: Hmm. The upshot is that she has cut off Edward completely, without a penny!

Marianne: Gracious heavens! Can this be possible!

John: You may well wonder, Marianne, at the man who still refused to give up his engagement after such a threat. And whta is more, Mrs. Ferrars is to settle her entire estate upon Robert. Her lawyer is with her now.

Elinor: And what has this to do with us?

John: Why Elinor, you are Dashwoods! It is Mrs. Ferrars wish, nay, her command, that henceforth Edward shall be as a stranger to us all. We finish with him; we could him dead! Mrs. Ferrars will not help him whatever his plight and nor must we...

Elinor: John! Edward has been my friend, my mother's friend, and my sister's friend. I pity his situation, but I glory in his integrity.

Marianne: Oh, bravo!

Elionor: And our friend he will remain.

John: Elinor! It is Mrs. Ferrars! It is Fanny! What is a man to do?

Elinor: In two days, thank goodness, Marianne and I end our stay in London. We thank you for your past hospitality, but our departure will no doubt save you any further embarrassment.
I really enjoy this scene, as John's discomfiture is so blatant. It is actually the minor characters in this film that I most prefer, especially the performances of three ladies: Julia Chambers as Lucy Steele, Annie Leon as Mrs. Jennings, and, particularly, Amanda Boxer as Fanny Dashwood. Ms. Chambers captures just the right note of false naivety and malicious manipulation that Lucy requires, Ms. Leon is just as loving and oblivious as Mrs. Jennings should be, and Ms. Boxer is odiously hateful as a thoroughly smug Fanny, until her hysterics upon learning of Edwards engagement (the comic highlight of the film) destroy her calm exterior. I find much in this adaptation to enjoy, but that does not mean that those who have no tolerance for this era of BBC productions will feel similarly. The sound and cinematography suffer from all the limitations of its era, and it furthermore seems rather lower budget than the 1971 version, as the costumes and sets are notably plainer. Also, while most performances are well done, I really have no patience for Robert Swann's emotionless portrayal of Colonel Brandon. Still, I will continue to relish each rewatching of this film, as it is so true to both the sense and sensibilities of Austen's novel. Let me leave you with a link this early scene between the Fanny and the elder Mrs. Dashwood (the embedding feature is, unfortunately, disabled), as Ms. Boxer's sneer is so priceless. I do think she plays the role better than anyone else who has attempted it.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Pemberley Chronicles: The Legacy of Pemberley by Rebecca Ann Collins

And so ends The Pemberley Chronicles. Rebecca Ann Collins has brought at least 50 years beyond the end of Pride and Prejudice, creating three generations of descendants for Austen's characters. Those who have read my previous posts on this epic sequel (an overview of books one through six and reviews of Postscript from Pemberley, Recollections of Rosings, and A Woman of Influence) will know that I have been in some dread of this final installment, The Legacy of Pemberley, for after watching the majority of our original cast die off one by one, I was certain that the series would end with the death of at least one or both of the Darcys. You can imagine my relief in discovering that this fear was unfounded. I have to imagine that Ms. Collins did not have the heart to write of such a terrible event. Instead, she wraps up her account by bringing the tale back to Derbyshire and the affairs of the residents in and around Pemberley, providing a vision of stability and continuance for the future.  

The book is split into three parts, and each could almost stand as a mini versions of Ms. Collins previous novels, as they focus on the development of one or two romances. Part one is entitled Emily's Children (as in Emily Courtney, youngest daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner) and focuses on the marriage of her youngest son, Jude, and the ongoing disharmony between the core family and Robert Gardiner (Emily's brother) and his wife Rose (daughter of James Fitzwilliam, Colonel Fitzwilliam's older brother). Robert has long been something of the black sheep of the Gardiner clan, being by far the least morally grounded. In the hands of his spoiled wife, who bullies him, he has estranged himself quite forcefully from the Darcys, particularly following the blatant resentment the couple displayed when the Gardiners' business was left to his sister Caroline Fitzwilliam's control, rather than his, and the family estate at Oakleigh Manor went to Emily. Ever since, Robert and Rose have connived to get their hands of Oakleigh, and with Emily ailing and poor, having expended the entirety of her inheritance on charitable causes, and Jude engaged to marry the Teresa Mancini, the granddaughter of the flower merchant who leases a section of the land at Oakleigh, they attempt to take advantage of the Courtneys vulnerability. Robert, however, when fully confronted with the duplicity his wife is willing to stoop to, attempts to assert himself for the first time in years, and while it is enough to garner some sympathy for him from the family, it is not sufficient to restore happiness to his troubled marriage, especially when the actions of his spoiled daughter, Miranda, further complicate matters. This section of the book also accounts for the long absent William Courtney, whose musical talent has taken him far from the lives of those at Pemberley, wrapping up his story and accounting for his long absence, while also touching on the fate of Eliza Harwood, Emily's oldest daughter. Her forth child, Jessica, has had a more prominent role than her siblings in recent books, having married Julian Darcy and established herself at Pemberley.

Part two is entitled Solitary Lives, and its topic is the fate of of two ladies who have been intricate to this story - Georgiana Grantley (nee Darcy) and Caroline Fitzwilliam (who married the Colonel) - following the lose of their husbands. Both have one unmarried daughter left on their hands: the spoiled and self-centered Virginia Grantley, and the sacrificing and modest Rachel Fitzwilliam. These ladies are in their late twenties, and while Georgiana evinces great concern over her daughter's single fate, having lived her own  life dependent on first her brother and than her husband, Caroline is happy to still have Rachel's companionship and to let her find her own path. Georgiana's concern is exacerbated by the fact that Virginia's presence at Pemberley, where she and her mother have relocated, has created great disharmony. In an attempt to alleviate the situation, Caroline invites Virginia to stay with her at Matlock. It is there that two new gentleman, fresh from Australia, come into their lives. First there is the arrival of Daniel Faulkner (the son of Maria Faulkner, nee Lucas, and brother of Anna Bingley, who is married to Jane's oldest son) after having been away from England for twenty years. Soon he is followed by his friend, a Mr. Adam Frasier. Both gentleman will have a lasting impact of the young ladies at Matlock and their mothers.

The final part is called The Inheritance. While its title does not fit its subject matter as the precisely as those of the previous parts of the novel, it is apt in that it demonstrates the ability of those who will inherit Pemberley and the surrounding estates to carry on the Darcy's legacy. They are called upon to rise to the occasion after Mr. Bingley is told to travel to the Mediterranean to restore his ailing health, and Mr. and Mrs. Darcy decide to accompany him and Jane. The section focuses on Laura Ann Gardiner, daughter of Robert and Cassandra (the brother of Caroline, Emily, and Robert and the daughter of Darcy and Elizabeth). Her romance begins to bloom when a new family moves into a long vacant farm adjoining Darcy and Kate Gardiner's property (Darcy is Laura Ann's oldest brother and the manager of Pemberley). Newly arrived from Ireland, the O'Conner's are not a well off family, but the widowed mother, her son, Tom, and her two daughters quickly become friends with this branch of the Gardiner family. But when a wealthy industrialist moves into the area and begins trying to buy up properties for development through crooked means, including the O'Conner's farm, the families in and around Pemberley must act fast to preserve the tranquility and prosperity of Derbyshire, and for the first time, Mr. Darcy isn't there to advise them. Now is the time to see how well the succeeding generation has been equipped to step into their elders' august shoes.

Like all of Ms. Collins books, this novel provides a very pleasant sojourn in the world that Austen inspired, but I think I am a bit relieved to know that the series has come to an end. For one thing, it is trying to keep up with the tangle of relationships she has created between the descendants of the Darcys, Bingleys, Fitzwilliams, Gardiners, and Lucases. I have often considered trying to make a family tree, but with so may cousins intermarried, the thing is a complete hodgepodge. Secondly, I often find Ms. Collins' prose boring, as she tends to be very repetitive (I lost count of how many times in this volume she had a character reflect, in a revelatory manner, on Georgiana Grantley's dependent state). However, this series does what no other has in providing a real glimpse into what changes and developments the Victorian Era might bring to Austen's beloved characters. Ms. Collins develops the generations that follow in depth, all without relying on sexual content and overly dramatic happenings to fuel her plot. I might very well reread the series one day, when I am craving the safety and comfort it provides, as it is entirely free of subject matter that would make the original authoress blush. The one area that Ms. Collins strays into that Austen never touches upon are the political and industrial developments of the period, as well as their effects of the poor and wealthy alike, but as this is what I find most interesting in her stories, I have no complaints about it. Would Austen have agreed that her creations would prove to be such reformers? I have no idea, but my modern values approve of the notion. I recommend this series to any who are looking for a long and detailed account of the future of Pemberley without the graphic content that defines so many Pride and Prejudice sequels.           

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

I did read this book long ago, at a time during my teenage years when I was cramming in as much Victorian literature as I could get my hands on, but I never seemed to be able to recall it very well. I avoided watching the acclaimed BBC productions based upon it, as I had every intention of rereading it someday, and I generally prefer to know a book before a film adaptation. So when Gaskell Blog hosted a Cranford group read, I jumped at the chance to participate. I never caught the Gaskell bug and had not thought much about the author since high school. She never came up in college and, until I began blogging about Austen and learned how many Janeite's were huge Gaskell fans, did not spare her much thought, but as it has been forcibly born down upon me how many devotees of the author there are amongst people whose literary tastes concur with my own, this was bound to change. I did not manage to finish Cranford in tandem with the group, the holidays having proved an impediment, but upon announcement of the Gaskell Reading Challenge thought it would be the ideal place to begin. As I try to tie all non-Austen reviews to that lady, as she is the subject of this blog, please bear with me as I make my comparisons.

Cranford thoroughly displays its roots as a serial publication, in a manner far more obvious than most novels I have read that were released in this manner. Each chapter feels more like a vignette than a coherent tale, until the last few suddenly bring the narrative full circle. One of the most striking things that I found in the story is the fact that our heroine, Mary Smith, who narrates the events chronicled in the first person, is never named until the fourteenth chapter, the third to last. How very unusual! It emphasizes her role as observer rather than actor in most of the story, especially as her name, when finally revealed, is at a moment when she is finally asked to be a major player in directing the course of events (prior to this she does, in her quiet way, manage the developments, but not at the behest of others). The originality of the book's structure is almost jarring in its rebellion against the expected, especially when compared with the rather humdrum subject matter: that of ordinary life in a small town.

In Cranford, Gaskell tells the tale of members of a small community, just like Austen does, except that her characters are almost exclusively women, and mainly of the "old maid" variety. The fact that the story begins by making this perfectly clear ("...Cranford is in possession of the Amazons...") establishes the feminine focus of the book as its most important aspect. Therefore, all of their concerns are of a domestic nature: servants, household management, economizing, entertaining, furniture preservation, etc. What makes such subjects interesting is the witty and satiric tilt of Mary Smith's prospective, which highlights the foibles of her companions while never loosing empathy for their motives, and in this I again see great similarity to Austen (although sometimes the anecdotes reach a level of absurdity which Austen never obtains - like the notion of dressing a cow in a gray flannel suit to keep it warm). For example, this scene, in which Miss Smith, her hostess (and main concern) Miss Matty, and their friend Miss Pole dine with a rather rustic bachelor (by the way, the referenced story of Amine is from The Arabian Nights - there are no ghouls disguised as people in peaceful Cranford, although we are told of a ghost story):
When the ducks and the green peas came, we looked at each other in dismay; we had only two-pronged, black-handled forks. It is true, the steel was as bright as silver; but what were we to do? Miss Matty picked up her peas, one by one, on the point of the prongs, much as Amine ate her grains of rice after her previous feast with the Ghoul. Miss Pole sighed over her delicate young peas as she left them on one side of her plate untasted; for they would drop between the prongs. I looked at my host: the peas were going wholesale into his capacious mouth, shovelled up by his large round-ended knife. I saw, I imitated, I survived! My friends, in spite of my precedent, could not muster up courage enough to do an ungenteel thing; and, if Mr. Holbrook had not been so heartily hungry, he would probably have seen that the good peas went away almost untouched.
I laughed heartily as I read this account and developed a lot more respect for Miss Smith than I had previously felt. Generally, she is in lock step with the customs and values of the Cranford ladies. It is when circumstances take them out of routine that the story is most humorous. The following scene focuses on Mrs. Jamieson, the wealthy widow who sets the tone for the town, upon the occasion of being entertained at the home of Miss Betty Barker (the owner of the well-dressed cow, mentioned above), who in former days had worked as her lady's maid:
The tea-tray was abundantly loaded. I was pleased to see it, I was so hungry; but I was afraid the ladies present might think it vulgarly heaped up. I know they would have done at their own houses; but somehow the heaps disappeared here. I saw Mrs. Jamieson eating seed-cake, slowly and considerately, as she did everything; and I was rather surprised, for I knew she had told us, on the occasion of her last party, that she never had it in the house, it reminded her so much of scented soap. She always gave us Savoy biscuits. However, Mrs. Jamieson was kindly indulgent to Miss Barker's want of knowledge of the customs of high life; and, to spare her feelings, ate three large pieces of seed-cake, with a placid, ruminating expression of countenance, not unlike a cow's.
Just like one of Austen's most beloved heroines, it is clear that Gaskell, via Mary Smith, takes great delight in the "follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies" of humanity, of which Cranford offers an ample supply. Yet the predominant attribute of the town is the care and affection that its ladies display for each other. In the absence of family, they cling together in a fiercely clan-like manner. There is as much to admire here as there is to laugh at, a thing which can certainly not always be claimed in regards to Austen's more humorous characters. Although reading Cranford again was much like discovering it for the first time, there was nevertheless a sense of familiarity in its pages: a comforting nostalgic quality that I look forward to revisiting, both in text and film. I do not yet know which Gaskell novel I will read next, but whatever it is I hope it will charm me as this text did, and I will embark upon it with the mindset of a potential convert, just waiting to join the ranks of her ardent fans.   

One last thought - I really loved the new edition I picked up of this book (my old one being of inferior quality). This Broadview publication, edited by Elizabeth Langland, was chock full of useful footnotes and supplementary materials. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

My Jane Austen Book Club's Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Celebration

As you can probably conceive, I was delighted when Maria Grazia of My Jane Austen Book Club asked me to participate in her Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Celebration! Each month of this year, Maria has invited a different Austenesque writer or JA blogger to submit a guest post on a topic related to Sense and Sensibility. I am submitting my thoughts on Sense and Sensibility on film in February, and look forward to revisiting the adaptations I love and discovering some modern adaptations, that may well become new favorites, for the occasion. There will be giveaways as well (what celebration is complete without prizes?), and I am excited to be offering a DVD of my most beloved version of this magnificent story, the 1995 film written by Emma Thompson and directed by Ang Lee. Below is a complete list of participants and post topics by month, all of which sound fascinating. I know the January item up for grabs is a copy of the new book, The Three Weissmans of Westport by Cathleen Schine, a modern take on Austen's first published novel (my copy is already on its way, and I am very much anticipating reading it). I hope you will all take part in this wonderful tribute to the magnificent tale that launch our dear Miss Austen's legendary career.
January - Marriage & Money in Sense & Sensibility by Jennifer Becton

February - Sense and Sensibility on Screen by Alexa Adams

March - Inheritance Laws & Their Consequences in Sense & Sensibility
by C. Allyn Pierson

April - Lost in Sense & Sensibility by Beth Patillo

May - Willoughby: A Rogue on Trial by Jane Odiwe

June - Secrets in Sense & Sensibility by Deb of Jane Austen in Vermont

July - Interview with Lucy Steele by Laurie Viera Rigler 

August - Settling for the Compromise Marriage by Regina Jeffers

September - The Origins of S&S: Richardson, Jane Austen, Elinore & Mariannne  
by Lynn Shepherd
October - Sense & Sensibility Fanfiction by Meredith of Austenesque Reviews 

November - Minor Characters in Sense & Sensibility by Vic of Jane Austen's World

December - Marianne Dashwood: A Passion for Dead Leaves & Other Sensibilities
               by Laurel Ann of Austenprose                 

Darcy and the Duchess by Mary Anne Mushatt

This is my other long overdue review. As I already explained the problems affiliated with delaying blogging about a book after I read it in my last post, I wont bore you all with my lame excuses again. Just be assured that had I read Darcy and the Duchess over the last week, instead of last fall, this review would make for far more worthwhile reading. As this is Mary Anne Mushatt's first book and showed great promise, I feel particularly bad about not doing it more justice.

This is a very different Pride and Prejudice variation, basically reversing the roles Darcy and Elizabeth play in the plot. Though Elizabeth is still of more humble origins, she comes into Darcy's life only after marrying his friend the Duke of Deronshire, Lord Raphael Gainsbridge. What is interesting is how the book still manages to follow the action of the original story, though the plot is entirely different. Due to those feelings of attraction he immediately has for Elizabeth - which are now even more unthinkable, as she is a married woman - Darcy attempts to convince himself of her unworthiness, but finds he cannot deny his love. There is a failed proposal, with Elizabeth still royally telling her arrogant suitor off, followed by Darcy striving to prove he is worthy. I found all of this very intriguing, staying up late to finish the book in a single session.

I think the strength of this novel rests in the inventiveness of the notion, taking our beloved story in a highly different direction than any other variation I have read, except for in one aspect: Ms. Mushatt falls into the "Wickham as kidnapper" scenario, which I have never particularly cared for, in any of its many mutations. So while I was fully engaged throughout the book, there were aspects that sat uncomfortably. For example, Ms. Mushatt seems to have a violent hatred for Miss Bingley, which, though in many ways understandable, I really don't think she deserves the fate that is dealt to her here. Still, I look forward to reading more from this original writer, and I sincerely hope that she is concocting more surprising reimaginings for our amusement. 

Mr. Darcy's Obsession by Abigail Reynolds

I feel terribly negligent regarding this review. I read this book at least two months ago, but with holidays, first trimester lethargy, and a multitude of other excuses, I have never gotten around to reviewing it. Long ago I learned the folly of waiting to write a review, as I inevitably I fail to do justice to the book in question. I end up getting the details confused and can't recall the moments that particularly enthralled, which regular readers of this blog will know that I love to quote. I'm particularly annoyed with myself on this occasion as Mr. Darcy's Obsession is my favorite book, of the many I have adored, that Abigail Reynolds has yet written. Granted, this has something to do with this book's comparative lack of sexual encounters between our hero and heroine (although there is a good deal of sleaziness attributed to Darcy's relatives, delving into the questionable nature of the masculine pastimes of the era), as Ms. Reynolds usually includes many heated scenes, but my enjoyment had far more to do with the joy this particular tale brought me.

Ms. Reynolds is famous for her Pemberley Variations, and I have long thought of her as the grande dame of the "What If?" genre, but I admit to being a bit concerned when I heard the theme of this novel, as it quite reminded me of another such revision by Kara Louise (the other contender for the title I just attributed to Ms. Reynolds), original published under the title Something Like Regret, but soon to be rereleased by Sourcebooks as Only Mr. Darcy Will Do. Both imagine what would happen if, after Darcy's failed proposal at Rosings, Mr. Bennet fell ill and died before Elizabeth could meet our hero again at Pemberley in the summer. I was pleased to learn that, despite the similarity of premise, both books are wildly different (and equally wonderful, I should add). In Ms. Reynolds' version, Darcy learns of the Bennet's reduced circumstances from Bingley, who has discovered, to his great chagrin and mortification,  that Jane married a Meryton shopkeeper as a means to provide for her family, and that Elizabeth is living in Gracechurch Street, acting as governess for the Gardiner's children. Unable to stay away, Darcy begins to seek Elizabeth out in her new surroundings. Several walks in a nearby park allow Elizabeth to alter her former negative opinion of the man, and Darcy finds that, in spite of her fallen status, he still cannot resist his feelings for Miss Bennet. Though more impediments than ever stand in their way, Darcy and Elizabeth become determined to grab that deep and abiding love that defines their romance.

I loved this book, especially as Elizabeth's change in social status awakens in Darcy a new philanthropy that is not usually part of his character, particularly apparent in his actions towards a new and most memorable character: an enterprising street urchin called Charlie. Bingley too is deeply altered by the Bennet's circumstances, and it is fascinating to watch Ms. Reynolds develop the effects that Mr. Bennet's death has upon our two main men. I only wish I could describe in greater detail the moments in this story that so thoroughly enthralled me. However, I have little doubt that this volume will be well loved, and I will find myself rereading it multiple times down the road. When I do revisit it, I shall have to review it again, and in a manner that does greater justice to this lovely tale.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Emma Janeicillin: Part Four

It took all of Emma's notable contrivance to greet her fiance alone that evening, but being determined to share with him the good news herself, it was well worth the exertion. Her father was easily left in his usual chair in the parlor, happily ensconced near a comfortable fire. John and Isabella needed only to be asked and happily joined Mr. Woodhouse there. But as for the many nieces and nephews, whose presence at Hartfield Emma had never before begrudged, it took no little amount of stratagem to ensure they were safely employed in the nursery and not underfoot. For the little ones the feat was not so monumental, a simple game of spillikins, to which she had abandoned them, serving to suffice, but Henry and John proved far more difficult to manage. Emma was ashamed to admit that she had at last resorted to bribery, as no other means at her disposal had been effective, the boys rather desiring to tell Uncle George of the man they had dubbed the “fowl thief” themselves, and she would pay the price on the morrow by spending what Mr. Woodhouse was sure to deem an unconscionable amount of time gallivanting around the park on whatever adventure the boys devised. Yet as that was tomorrow's concern, she relished her ability to usher Mr. Knightley into one of the smaller sitting room as soon as he arrived for dinner, in order to indulge in a few precious moments alone.

“Emma, my dear, what is all this? Not that I am sorry to find you alone, but you look as if you might burst with news. What is it?”

“You have of course heard of the events of last night, have you not Mr. Knightley?”

“I presume you refer to the mysterious disappearance of poultry from the neighborhood?”

“Precisely. You have no notion how advantageous this event has been in our favor.”

In fact, Mr. Knightley had a very good notion indeed. He had met Miss Bates in Highbury following her visit to Hartfield, and that good lady had deprive Emma of her ability to share the exalted news herself, as she quickly spread it throughout the neighborhood. Most of the residents duly rejoiced, except for Mrs. Elton, who had bemoaned Knightley's fate. Mrs. Weston had been quite tempted to disregard both weather and missing turkeys to rush to Hartfield and express her joy. It was only Mr. Knightley's timely arrival at Randalls that prevented this occurrence, as, accurately convinced Emma would be quite anxious to impart the news to him herself, he convinced that good lady that revealing how widespread the knowledge was would ruin some of the excitement for her favorite. However, as he had no intention of betraying his lack of ignorance on the subject, he replied quite convincingly, “Indeed? How could such an unfortunate occurrence possibly bring any one good? It has already been the cause of a great deal of inconvenience to myself, forced to spend the day investigating the circumstance when I had much rather have spent it with you.”

At this Emma laughed. “Oh yes, I am sure, as if William Larkins would not have had something to say about such a notion. He must already deplore our engagement as the downfall of Donwell. You neglect your duties for Hartfield, and marriage will only worsen the matter, when you abandon your ancestral home to come to us.”

“William is not my keeper, despite what you think, Emma, and what duty has gone neglected, may I ask?”

“I am sure Mr. Larkins would be quite happy to furnish a list of offenses if pressed, Mr. Knightley.”

“Well, we had best not importune him in that case, and do call me George, Emma dear.”

“Very well, George, I will try, but the habits of a lifetime cannot be expected to disappear over night. But you have quite distracted me from my purpose. The incident at Randalls quite over set my father's piece of mind, as you can well imagine. Miss Bates broke it upon him most unceremoniously, and I was rather vexed with the creature, as I am sure you may well imagine, until she made everything right, and more so. Never before has she stood so high in my good graces. We are eternally indebted to her.”
“Are we indeed?” he responded with an amused smile. “And how has this miracle occurred?”

“When Miss Bates first arrived and rambled on for several minutes about shocking going-ons, intrusions, and long forgotten mysteries, I felt all my old impatience for her. My father was notably upset, and I was bent on putting an end to conversation posthaste until she burst out with the least silly thing I have ever heard her say, informing Papa what comfort it must be to him to have the Mr. Knightleys in residence for protection. Well, he clung to this notion so fiercely that he practically ordered us to marry at once! Not what have you to say to my fine news?”

Mr. Knightley laughed and embraced Emma, “I have merely to ask what stretch of ocean it most behooves you to visit. My dear Emma, these are superior tidings! And to think we owe it all to Miss Bates! I always knew you would come to appreciate her one day.”

“She has performed for us a most invaluable service. I had already resolved to never say another uncharitable thing about her again, but now that I am quite in her debt, I shall rather sing her praises to the entire neighborhood. I will make a point of visiting her regularly, and on the day she expects her letter from Jane too, so that she may enjoy the felicity of both describing all of its content as well as reciting the note itself, and I will be thankful to have brought her the opportunity of doing so.”

Such altruistic feelings on his intended's part only doubled Mr. Knightley's gratitude that she remained ignorant of the rapidity with which Miss Bates had managed to spread her announcement. “But where shall we go, Emma? You who have traveled so very little must have a particular notion as to our destination.”

“Well, why Papa is now thoroughly reconciled, or should I even say desirous?, of our expeditious union, he is not so enthused about the notion of my traveling. We had best not venture too far, so as to spare his nerves some anxiety, though we are all so well aware of Mr. Perry's predilection for Cromer. Besides, John and Isabella must depart by November, so we haven't much time for a long journey.”

“True. Shall I consult with Perry as to his nearest recommendation?”

“I think I had rather that we should chose a location and then inform Mr. Perry of how salubrious he finds it, before informing my father of our plans.”

“Brilliant notion. What shall it be then? Brighton? Mrs. Elton will be all envy.”

Emma made a face. “I think we can enjoy ourselves quite thoroughly without engaging Mrs. Elton's better instincts. Though Brighton should be growing quieter at this time of year, I think some place rather less showy might better fit our tastes, do you agree?”
“You know I do. Personally, I had much rather go to Worthing. Still very fashionable and elegant, but not the crush it was a few years ago. To travel there would be easy, and as I have a friend residing in the district, we can receive very good guidance as to where to stay. Besides, as I have never been there either, we will be discovering it together, which notion rather pleases me.”

“Then Worthing it shall be. How soon can you speak to Mr. Perry? It is very likely that he shall be here in the morning, and I would not like Papa to consult him before we have our say.”

“I shall send him a note immediately, if you will be so kind as to supply me with writing materials.”

“I am at your beck and call, Mr. Kni – George, I mean to say.”

“Much better, my dear. It shall be rolling off your tongue in no time.”

Emma laughed. “We shall see.”
The dinner that evening at Hartfield found everyone in high spirits, that is excepting Mr. Woodhouse. The fright he had endured that morning left him shaken, but none of his fidgets and worries could dampen the atmosphere. The Knightleys, both present and future, did not openly gloat over the setting of a wedding date, but having the matter resolved, and with such surprising lack of trouble, left them all feeling both satisfied and agreeable. Even Mr. John Knightley showed unusual patience with his father-in-law, going so far as to suggest a game of backgammon to him, an occupation he cheerfully kept up until Mr. Woodhouse had had his fill, and Isabella, catching her husband's good humor, never once showed the slightest concern for the health and well-being of any member of her brood. All this goodwill eventually had its effect on Mr. Woodhouse, and he too began to forget his fears. Those of us who know the players involved cannot expect that such a happy family party would become the norm, but a stranger looking in on that evening would never have guessed that peace and harmony did not always reign amongst those gathered together. 

Be sure to come back next week for another dose!