Monday, 18 May 2009

The pride and sensibility of Emma at Mansfield

Alright. If you recognize the title of this entry, probably best to stop reading now. Fair warning.

James gifted me with a beautiful mother's day present earlier this month - the BBC collection of Jane Austen productions. Somewhere I also have her completel literary collection, of which I can only recollect reading one or two novels. And so my opinions come mostly from the films, which, I have heard, are fairly accurate renditions, only lacking insomuch as the art of film lacks in adapting large novels.

It seems to me that there is but one plot: a headstrong girl meets the man she should be with, spends the entire film flitting about, entangled in misunderstandings of niceties and courtesy, matches those around her with their proper mates, and ends up with the man meant for her all along.

I admit I was taken by the first one I watched, "Emma". I was lured by the eloquent language (which, forgive me, is no doubt seeping through into my writing), the elegance of the society, the drollness of the propriety, and the charm of the era. But as I moved onto "Persuasion" and "Sense and Sensibility," especially watching them back to back, the characters and plots seemed to blur into one big 19th Century romance.

I wonder that the allure of Austen isn't akin to the allure of music: that feeling you get that "ah - that's exactly how I feel!" You know, the song that exactly voices the emotions bubbling inside. Perhaps Jane Austen has put her finger on exactly that - each story slightly different so that one might feel a kinship to one character or another, depending on their love story and situation and history. Maybe I have come across her too late, well-settled into a strong relationship of my own with no sense left of love misunderstood. Then again, I have never had high tolerance for stories that rely on "misunderstandings." A girl who watches a man rush off without running after and saying "you idiot! That was Miss Taylor my sister, not me, who was married last week!" Even now so many romantic stories rely on weak points like this. Austen's work is all the more driven by it, because of the caste and era of her stories. I guess there was a sense of proper behaviour and mode of conversation and polite gestures - but let me tell you, I wouldn't let something like that come between me and my love. (If you know mine and James' love story you'll know I speak from experience).

The only thing I hope is that the films have adapted the essence of the love story well enough, but have left something on the cutting room floor in terms of societal themes. Perhaps, like Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo the social commentaries on the time and people are just as important as plot and character. Or, perhaps after all, Jane Austen is a celebrated classic author for her romantic tales, which I simply don't seem to take to.

Before this year, I might have wondered at myself reviewing classic works as such. But in reading the letters of C.S. Lewis, I chuckled at his reviews of several classic works - in fact, there were many he thought were terrible. Just because a book is classic doesn't make it to everyone's liking, I suppose. And to end off, a few quotes on the true nature of classics: (I say in jest - I'm a huge classic devourer, most to my liking, some I have never gotten past the first chapter.)

"A classic is a book which people praise and don't read."
"A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say."
"A classic is something that everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read."
"A classic is a book everyone tells you they have read but never have."


Kevin H. said...

I've had the same problem getting into Austen: her plots just drive me bonkers! But she's a keen observer of human nature -- edited and exaggerated for effect, of course -- and a shrewd social commentator / satirist -- though not nearly as outspoken (or unrestrained) as Hugo. More comparable to Dickens, perhaps, but with an eye more towards the upperclasses.

(Frankly, Hugo's out of place here. He's always pulling the reader aside and filling us in on significant social, historical and philosophical themes -- at length -- before sending us back into the narrative, "refreshed" and informed. Austen's "commentary" tends to follow as a direct result of her scenarios: i.e., it falls naturally out of her scenes as she writes them.)

Where Austen really shines, of course, is in her prose, which is gay, exuberant, and deliciously theatrical (just try reading it aloud). This is likely the missing element from most film adaptations, since they tend to abandon narration in favour of visualization (usually for the best with film), and emphasize plot and action over character and commentary. (But if you're looking for an adaptation that's just as lively and wonderful to look at as Austen is to read, might I suggest the recent Pride & Prejudice by up-and-coming director Joe Wright (starring Keira Knightley). Great stuff, that.)

It remains a fact, however, that she isn't to all tastes. Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) once wrote:

I haven't any right to criticise books, and I don't do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can't conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.And if that wasn't enough, here's his follow up:

It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.Yikes. : )

Terri-Ann said...

Yikes! C.S. Lewis felt the same and yet was never quite as harsh. I guess I would have to give Austen her due in dialogue, which I imagine the BBC productions have tried to adopt. It is even likely noticeable in my writing style for this entry - I have that old upper class English style of speaking singing in my head and so affects the manner in which I write.

Your note on Hugo is well taken - the aside nature (which also drives me a little crazy) is completely different, but it is true that the purpose of Les Miserables seems more thematic than plot or character.

(by the way - I'm using a different computer these days and don't have your email on hand - forward it to me through my email when you get a chance so I can pick it up again in my new address book. I have some idea for an email correspondance. Thanks!)

heather80 said...

As someone with a very expensive English degree, earned by reading (or at least faining to read) many, "Classic" books, I can tell you that that quote is quite true.

2 Exceptions being: Jane Eyre (which was great, though should have been much shorter), and Homer's Odyssey, which was surprisingly, pretty good. Though freakishly long.