Tuesday, March 14, 2006


A little bit of Jane Austen effusion

During a visit with my sister over the weekend we watched the new film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. She'd rented a few dvds and we were all tired from the this and that busyness of the day, so we sprawled out on the couch and got lost in the late eighteenth century for two hours. Not the most convincing Elizabeth Bennet I've ever seen, but not bad. A very fine Mr. Darcy, however, and I loved both the scenery (Chatsworth! and Burghley House!) and the natural, unmannered, looser overall feel of the whole film. I read somewhere (and now can't find it so am paraphrasing) that the makers of the film set it in the late 1790s, when Austen actually wrote the novel, so the styles of dress are different than those from the later (and more traditional for Austen adaptations) high regency period of the book's actual publication date of 1813. Verdict on the film: loved it, will watch it again, felt like the filmmakers tinkered with and took some chances with the Austen canon and ultimately pulled it off.

My usual modus operandi after seeing a good period film is this: the film is never long enough, I always want more, so I must go and find more. This is a roundabout way of saying that I re-read Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time yesterday. It had been a few years, and of course I know all the twists and turns of the plot, there are few surprises at this point, but the ending still has to be one of the most satisfying of any novel I know. It was wonderful to drop everything else I knew I should be doing, and just read all day, just lose myself in the world Austen so exquisitely recreated on paper. With this reading I was struck by the quickness of her dialogue and the wittiness of her main characters' conversation. It's still not quite enough, perhaps I'll seek out the BBC Pride and Prejudice this weekend.

I finally got to see the new P&P on DVD last week and it was very well done. Knightley did a good job but Brenda Blethyn's Mrs. Bennett was particularly outstanding. I'm more of a Mr. Bennett fan myself(Sutherland was ok)but Blethyn made Mrs. B more sympathic than I've seen before in any film.

The BBC version is one of my favorites-it has the luxury of being fully able to tell the story without too many shortcuts and the houses where they filmed are so lovely! My Jane Austen group visited the home they used as Longbourn and the village that was Meryton-such a thrill! Every time I watch the BBC version,I get a rush from the memories of that trip.
I love the BBC version. David Rintoul is the quintessential Darcy for me.

P&P can definitely stand multiple readings. The last time I read it what stood out was the way Darcy slowly but surely fell for Elizabeth. The poor guy never had a chance. ;)
Lucky you, Lady T - sounds like a fabulous trip! I wish I had seen this new version on the big screen, a few of the film's dramatic moments would have been much better seen larger-than-life.

Thanks for your comments, Sylvia. I enjoy your blog and am envious of your progress in Latin. I've lost count of how many times I've re-read Jane Austen's novels. I've mentioned before that "Persuasion" is my favorite, but "P&P" is a close second. Can't get enough of 1790-1815.

In a footnote from Rebel Bookseller, I compare Pride & Prejudice to You've Got Mail. (The "power of the weak" idea is well-demonstrated in Austen, I'd say). Here's the footnote. (I was really proud of this analysis, and even tested it by running it past a literature professor whose course I took in the 70s and who I hadn't spoken with since then!)

The Nora Ephron film You’ve Got Mail contains several subversive subtexts, the most significant of which is that the strong-minded children’s bookseller, in marrying the non-literary chain-store owner, effectively obtains power and influence over the superstore (in any sequel: i.e. behind every great man there is a great woman).

While chain-superstore owner Joe Fox (presumably modeled after Barnes & Noble’s Steve Riggio, and played in the movie by actor Tom Hanks) can only draw on his lunk-headed Godfather-movie notions of competition (his oft-repeated phrase “to the mattresses” means “man the barricades and conduct sneak attacks”), the independent book- seller Kathleen Kelly (played by Meg Ryan) deploys her weakness to co-opt her attacker. This power of the weak message echoes a similar theme in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), the novel from which substantial elements in You’ve Got Mail derive, and not incidentally Kathleen Kelly’s favorite book, which she insists Joe Fox read.

Jane Austen promoted the Wollstonecraftian heroine in a softened form: the woman who obtains power via a male intermediary. “[Austen’s] ironic narrative subjects systems of authority to damaging
skepticism; she celebrates intellect, feeling and moral sense in her heroines and ridicules their absence in others. With concerns close to Mary Wollstonecraft’s, she adopts a conservative approach to accommodating women’s aspirations to existing social structures.”—“Jane Austen,” The Feminist Companion to Literature in English: Women Writers from the Middle Ages to the Present, Virginia Blain, Isobel Grundy, Patricia Clements (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990): 40.

Compare, in particular, Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet, fantasizing about becoming the mistress of Mr. Darcy’s estate Pemberley while on a tourist visit, and finding herself unexpectedly face to face with Darcy himself—this during the very period when the two arefeuding—with You’ve Got Mail’s Kathleen Kelly, irrepressibly (if tearfully) hand-selling Noel Streatfeild Shoes books during a foray into Joe Fox’s superstore, at a moment she should be capable only of anger since he’s just put her own store out of business—Joe Fox then unexpectedly appearing to witness her salesmanship among his customers (presumably the character Kathleen Kelly, in visiting Joe Fox’s store, is subconsciously modeling her actions on those of her own fictional
favorite, Elizabeth Bennet). Both characters-Elizabeth Bennet and Kathleen Kelly—will go on to win covert authority over their future husbands’ holdings, post-nuptials.

As a key additional subtext—perhaps unintended by auteur Ephron—consider Virginia Woolf’s analysis, in the feminist classic A Room of One’s Own (London: The Hogarth Press, 1929), of Jane Austen’s artistic situation. Woolf suggests Jane Austen, writing with-
out privacy in the family sitting room—implicitly operating under analogous ideological scrutiny—placed her social commentary between the lines. Similarly, Nora Ephron, a published author with
books for sale at chain superstores, encodesher message about chain stores’ impact on individuality and expression. (If authors’ voices weren’t stifled for fear of being banned from chain bookstore shelves,
they’d come right out and shout—together now—“Screw the chains!”)

As it stands, thanks to Nora Ephron’s clever delivery of sexy sub-text, You’ve Got Mail—a staple of American culture because it promotes America Online, owner of Time-Warner Cable, which there-
fore perennially airs it—has helped maintain the romantic allure of independent bookselling, to the detriment of those big corporations that would prefer the public forget what it is excellent indies offer: outstanding booksellers in residence.
I like your analogy, Andy. Class is an issue here as well. Elizabeth Bennet is of a lower social class than Darcy, and in the Ephron film this equates to money and power - the heroine of the small failing family business vs. the head of the powerful thriving corporation. Class or status, American-style, is all about money - who has it and who doesn't. I like the notion of subversion from within. Thanks for posting - I'm looking forward to reading more in your book!
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