Tag Archives: jane austen

The Crimson Petal and the White

7263Before I read this book, I heard rumblings that it was unsatisfactory. This seemed weird, because the front and back cover were filled with critical praise. And it’s a lovely long book, set in the 1870s. My novels are set in the 1870s, so I was excited to read this one.

The book spans, in Dickensian fashion, nearly 900 pages and begins with the lowest dregs of society (whores near St. Giles) before taking the reader through the middling neighborhoods to the upper echelons (ladies enjoying the London season, the newly created ‘suburbs’ of Notting Hill). Though there are many characters, two are the most important.

William Rackham. At university, he was a dandy and an intellectual. As he grows older, he is intensely dissatisfied with his life. His wife is mentally ill and hates him, his father will no longer pay his expenses if William does not begin to be responsible for the family business, Rackham Perfumeries, and he’s had no great success in his attempted literary career. He is mediocre to the nth degree. Until he meets Sugar.

Sugar is a prostitute. Her mother roped her into that life when she was a tween, and it’s all she’s known since. She is unique for a whore of this era, because she is (self-)educated, and she knows how to manipulate men emotionally as well as physically. She is thoroughly unimpressed with William when she first meets him, but he is utterly taken with her. She hates men and is working on a novel about a prostitute (named Sugar) who disembowels the most pathetic of the species.

After their first night together, William decides to turn his life around. To stop dithering and to take over the family business, to make a large fortune, and to spend a good deal of it on Sugar. Within a few weeks, he’s paying for the privilege to be her only client. His fortunes continue to rise with her careful stroking of his ego (and his other parts), and her advice on matters of business and etiquette. A month or so later, he has moved her from her dingy whorehouse to her own private abode.

There’s a lot going on in the book, and a lot to wrap your mind around. William’s wife, Agnes, was raised to be the female ideal. That means she is pretty, naive, and plays the piano. It also means she has no knowledge of sex, and doesn’t understand why she bleeds every month. She thinks it’s a demonic affliction. She has similar feelings toward her baby girl.

Sugar, on the other hand, has grown up with experiences of everything vile (death, disease, poverty) and everything sexual (she’s been a prostitute since she was 13, and has a reputation for never saying no to any sexual act).

In the end, as you might expect, both female characters inspire far more empathy than William. William is a blundering, selfish, disloyal villain of a man. His least likable quality is that he feels he’s accidentally pushed into these situations where he hurts the women in his life.  But he’s not. He chooses to be a complete ass, and attempts to explain it away with any available excuse. Pitiful.

The narrative style is engaging, and the writing is good. Technically good. I wasn’t bored, I wasn’t over or understimulated to the point of distraction. The characters were realistic and relatable, very fully developed. (WordPress, why do you insist that relatable is not a word when it is a completely cromulent one? Why are you now insisting that cromulent is not a word?)

So what is keeping me from writing a glowing review? Two things.

1) The Ending. It was nonexistent.

Agnes departs the story about 70% through, and we’re never entirely certain what happened to her. We get the beginning of a denouement between Sugar and William, but then we’re left to fill in the blanks ourselves. At the end of the book, I couldn’t help wondering what the real point had been.  Why start the story where it started and end it where it ended? What was this story saying?  After 900 pages, you don’t want to feel that way.

2) The strange and constant fixation on bodily fluids.

Here’s the thing about fiction. You’re taking a huge data set (all things you know about the world) and you’re editing. You’re taking out what’s unimportant, and leaving in only what furthers your story. This can mean you take out the guy standing in line at the grocery checkout. Or it can mean you leave in the checkout line, when the guy has a complete meltdown because the lady in front of him has more than 10 items in her basket and how dare she.  It depends on the story. But there are a few almost universally omitted things.  Like trips to the toilet.

How many times do Jane Austen’s characters mention a chamber pot?  Did anyone from the Great Gatsby stop to pee? What about the Hunger Games? How on earth did they go to the bathroom while attempting to not be killed?

Why do writers omit it? Because it detracts from the story. It’s not important, it’s just something that has to be done. It only makes its way into the story if it’s suddenly significant. The shower scene in Psycho, the heinously awful scene in Trainspotting that nearly made me sick, and I can’t even think of a third one.

In addition to detracting from the story, it also conflicts with the purpose of the characters. They are simulacra; they are not human. The purpose of a book’s characters is to help us understand humanity, not to accurately capture humanity. You don’t need to know that the character sneezed (unless the character is sick), or that they have something stuck in their teeth (unless they’re on a first date!). Their humanity is exposed only when it is in service to the story. The rest of the time, it isn’t present.

This author, Michael Faber, does not approach literature this way. He is somewhat obscenely fascinated with body fluids. There were many descriptions of the sound, smell, and sensation of someone (usually women) emptying their bladders or their bowels. There were many mentions of the slippery dribbles of semen down women’s thighs. There was a particularly grotesque scene depicting a woman having a miscarriage on a public toilet.

The worst part, for me, was descriptions of the red inflamed skin of the vulva of a young girl, because she habitually wets the bed.

I’m not a prudish person, in general. I’m not overly fond of raucous humor, but I am not the type of person to pretend I don’t have a human body. And a human body sometimes means unfun things, like bogeys and belches and menstruation. But this was too much for me. It made me uncomfortable, by the end of the book. And it served absolutely no purpose, that I could tell. The miscarriage was obviously a ‘plot point’, but is there some reason I needed to know that the maid scrunched up her nose at the smell of diarrhea on the 3rd day the governess was in the house? No.  Did I need to have my attention directed to the vulva of a young girl? No.

It was creepy. It was unnecessary. I’m not in favor of censorship, I’m not saying this should be taken off the shelves. But…I wouldn’t recommend reading it. It’s more scatological than it is meaningful. Although if you have a fetish for urine or feces, this might be just the book for you.

There is a miniseries. It came out in 2011 and stars Chris O’Dowd plays William Rackham.

the_crimson_petal_and-the_whiteThough I’m sure they’ve removed much of the strangely biological portions, I’m still afraid to watch it. I adore Chris O’Dowd, particularly since Moone Boy, and since I saw him on Broadway in Of Mice and Men. I’m not sure I can handle watching this. I’m working up my courage, but no promises.

 

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The-LuminariesLet me start by remarking on how immensely large this book is. It is 832 pages long. In fact, it’s the longest book to have ever won the Man Booker Prize (it won last year) and Eleanor Catton is the youngest author to win that award (she’s 26). I’ve been working on my own novels for 4-5 years at this point, and if I added everything together, it might be 400 printed pages.  And I’m 33.  So…way to make me feel totally pathetic, Eleanor Catton.

Moving on from my jealousy, let’s talk about the book. It is set during the New Zealand gold rush during the mid-19th century. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book set in New Zealand before. I suppose the Lord of the Rings is the closest, only by its association with the movie locations. The New Zealand gold rush seems to have been very similar to the gold rush here in the US. When you have the chance to make a fortune, you attract all manner of people, and nearly everyone is from a different country. Some are high-born and wealthy, seeking to bring the civility to the frontier, others are rough workmen, bringing a distinctly not-civil attitude to their labors, others poor servants or slaves. And you attract all the things that survive and thrive in the periphery of these male-dominated, mostly lawless, harsh places in the world. Prostitutes, gambling halls, strong drinks, opium, and minority migrants (mostly Chinese and Mexican/Native Americans during the US gold rush, but Catton’s book features a Maori man and two ‘Chinamen’). The most unifying thing about these places, is that all manner of people who would, 50 years earlier, have never met, are occupying the same little patch of land and hoping to radically change their lives.  This is what Hokitika, the town, looked like during the gold rush:

Hokitika_township_2C_ca_1870s_2_m-1

Similar to most mid-19th century tales, The Luminaries features a long cast of characters. There’s a page in the front listing the character, their occupation, etc.  It’s a list of nearly 20 characters. That alone could make it difficult to hang onto all the facts of the story. But (again a common facet of Victorian novels) there are several people who go by false names, change their names, have several naming variations. It can be very complex to remember which descriptions, stories, and actions are attributed to which character. The book features a Maori man, Kiwis, Scots, Irishmen, Englishmen, Chinese men, Australian men & even a few women. Catton is extremely good at bringing each of these characters to life, of offering a perfect snippet of how and what they see in the world, and how those traits will motivate their actions. Trends have changed, throughout the last few hundred years of literature, in how much or how little to reveal about characters, but I think she strikes a perfect balance. Each character is almost immediately distinguishable, recognizable, but not so well known as to prevent a surprising turn of action or character.

The plot of the book revolves around a large fortune (£4000, which would be approximately £325,000 now), and how it passes from one character to the next. I think every character has their hands on it at one point or another.  It turns up as gold as fine as sand (if this statement confuses you, I recommend you watch Treasure of the Sierra Madre), as large nuggets of gold, as bricks pressed and measured. It is stuffed into a dress, in a bag under a bed, buried in the desert, stolen from a safe, hidden piecemeal throughout a dead man’s house.  It turns up everywhere, and it’s hard to keep straight who and where and why and how this gold passes through these states.

To add to the many characters and many incarnations of this fortune, the story is told through a series of parts, spanning forward and backward in time at will. It’s hard to keep track of who, what, when, and why. As The New York Times put it in their review, “it’s a lot of fun, like doing a Charlotte Brontë-themed crossword puzzle while playing chess and Dance Dance Revolution on a Bongo Board. Some readers will delight in the challenge, others may despair”.  Very true.  I found it fun to read, because the storytelling was so good. But it’s a circular and confusing novel, and there were portions that left me confused.

The structure of the novel–as its title suggests–is based on astrological concepts.  I’m not a believer in astrology, so many of the allusions and illustrations of the different signs were probably lost on me. Each part opener identified the date, the astrological signs and their positions, but I can barely remember my own sign, let alone the other 11.

8657216However, I have it on good authority (Wikipedia) that each of the 12 main male characters involved in the ‘mystery’ of the gold corresponds to one of the 12 astrological signs. The other 7 (living) characters correspond to ‘heavenly bodies’, i.e. the planets. Maybe to people more versed in astrology (or astronomy), this conveys some significance. But not to me.  I had a hard time finding my own sign in the little drawings, and I have no idea what the other scratches mean. Might as well be in cuneiform.

But it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know or believe anything about astrology to enjoy the book. You do have to put forth some effort to pay attention to the shifting timelines, the ups and downs of each character’s journey, and everything said about the elusive gold. I really enjoyed reading this book. Most of the time, as Jane Austen said, “if a book is well written, I always find it too short.” This was not the case with The Luminaries. I enjoyed it as I read it, but at the end I felt a bit spent. I exerted a little more energy to get through than I got back in satisfaction, and that is disappointing. I think it could have done with a trim here and there. All of the book is well written, but more words are crammed in than the story needs to tell itself. Catton’s first novel, The Rehearsal, is under 400 pages, so I think that will be do-able.

They are discussing a TV miniseries, which I think could be excellent. This is the sort of sweeping Dickensian story that works fabulously in a 6 or 8 part miniseries, particularly if they actually film it in New Zealand.  If it ever plays in a format to which I have access, I will definitely watch.

 

 

Author Feud: Brontë vs Austen

480If asked to name two 19th century female authors, most people (if they could name 2 at all) would say Jane Austen and at least one Brontë.  Right?  Those really in the know might mention George Eliot, Frances Burney, or Elizabeth Gaskell.  I suppose people who read more American literature than I do would list Alcott or Dickinson, but Jane Austen and the Brontës are the heavyweights in this category.  I suspect this is because of the number of  movie versions of their books. Movies with ladies in bonnets and men with sideburns and waistcoats. The two last names are synonymous with those movies and are inseparably linked in our minds. So it’s strange to think of a feud between them.

I read an article last week discussing the feud between Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë.  I say feud, but it was more unrequited vitriol on the part of Brontë, who loathed Austen for her popularity and for her frivolity. Austen had no opportunity to dislike Brontë, as she was long dead by this point. Here are some of Charlotte’s thoughts on Austen and her writing, that we know from her letters:

‘The passions are perfectly unknown to her’

Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point.  She has no eloquence none of the ravishing enthusiasm of poetry

Brontë, after reading Pride and Prejudice, compared it to a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden, with no open country- no fresh air

I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s books, some multiple times.  I’ve read several of the Brontë’s novels-Jane Eyre and Villette by Charlotte, Wuthering Heights by Emily, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne. I also have a vague recollection of doing a 9th grade report on Anne’s poetry, so I’m practically the world’s most preeminent Brontë scholar.

I have read enough of their writing to compare them from the reader’s perspective, rather than a scholarly (re: pretentious) way.  So, are they so terribly different?

Yes.  Those who don’t read this sort of literature might see them as fancy romantic stories, sort of proto-chick lit, the progenitors to things like Harlequin romance novels, Sophie Kinsella, and Bridge Jones.  Certainly they have similarities.  Female protagonists for whom marriage is of extreme importance.  The time period, though separated by 30+ years, is similar enough that most people wouldn’t really know the difference.  I get very strange looks when I try to explain that Jane Austen was during the Regency period, whereas the Brontë sisters were in the early Victorian period.  No one cares.  There are bonnets, long dresses, a lot of societal rules. Pot-ay-to, po-tah-to.

But anyone who has read them knows that the they are as dissimilar as The Color Purple and the Help.  But I radically reject the idea that this means one of them is ‘good’ and the other ‘bad’.  Just like I reject every preposterous notion that fiction which is more difficult, more realistic, more depressing is always more ‘valuable’ than fiction that is enjoyable or escapist or imaginative.  What more would you expect from a Harry Potter fan?

Jane Austen wrote about the world of a very small subset of humans; this is undeniable.  There is  little acknowledgment of a world outside the upper classes of Regency era England, except for a few vague references to the troublesome French (usually to explain the presence of handsome soldiers in uniforms). In modern equivalents, I suppose an Austen novel would be about the cheerleaders and the football players–people born quite lucky and shining in the lovely light of youth, beauty, and naiveté to the world’s evils.  After I read Charlotte’s criticism that Jane’s writing is like a well-tended garden, I tend to think of it that way myself; she embodies the sophisticated, cultivated farmlands of the South of England.

The Brontë sisters, on the other hand, are like the wild moors so ubiquitous throughout Wuthering Heights.  There is passion in their writing, but also an equal amount of horror, of pessimism and cynicism, and of truth.

Anyone who has seen senseless violence, or tragedy, or loss, cannot continue to believe that life is the cultivated garden presented in Austen’s works.  In short, anyone who has lived long enough, with an IQ over 60, will realize that life doesn’t make as much sense as our parents lead us to believe.  The wildness and randomness and senselessness of the real world are always in the back of our minds, much as we try to focus on weeding the metaphorical weeds from our rosebushes. Are the Brontë works more realistic?  Yes.  Emphatically yes.  They portray not people with minor flaws that are often laughable (as Austen’s books do), but people who are seriously and irrevocably flawed. Is that more realistic?  Sadly, yes.  Is it fun to read? no.

Aristotle wrote in Poetics that he thought characters should always be good and admirable.  He thought people should see heroes in fiction, so that they will act like heroes in real life.  If they saw bad characters, they would emulate bad characters.  I have to disagree with Aristotle there.  If you’re a deeply flawed person, reading about the trials of another flawed person is much more compelling than reading about a paragon. Of course, in what we think of as a ‘novel’, there is rarely a paragon to be found.  All characters are somewhere in the middle of that spectrum from good to bad.  Austen’s tend toward the good side, the Brontë characters are very close to the other end.  So much so that it seems that redemption is impossible for them; they are fated to be miserable and to be bad.  Not all of them, of course, but certainly nearly everyone in Wuthering Heights is wholly irredeemable. When you compare Mr. Darcy to Mr. Rochester, you see the differences pretty clearly.  One has some superficial and fairly-easily overcome problems that don’t make him a bad person.  The other is deeply flawed; bad-tempered, pessimistic, sometimes dishonest, and already married.  If you think he’s a brilliant romantic hero, please read Wide Sargasso Sea and reconsider.

Sometimes we need to read things that are awful and have veracity on their sides.  But if that were the only type of thing we read, it would be horribly depressing.  If you spend all your time reading Proust, Kafka, Camus, and Franzen…you’ll be pretty depressed, I would imagine.  If you spend all of your time reading nothing but Stieg Larsson, Dan Brown, and Stephanie Meyer, you won’t be as inclined to depression–you’ll be entertained.  But you won’t be challenged.  None of those books are going to remain in your thoughts, weeks later, when you think about the nature of love or grief or violence.

Everyone finds their own balance and seeks entertainment somewhere between verisimilitude and escapism.  We’d all do better to have a good mix, and to not judge others for where they find their satisfaction in literature. That includes Charlotte Brontë.

 

Persuasion

PersuasionI caught the 2007 TV movie version of Persuasion on TV last week, and my love of the book came flooding back to me.  Persuasion was actually the first Austen book I ever read, at the tender age of sixteen.  Though I later learned to adore Pride and Prejudice more, Persuasion still ranks very highly on my rainy day reading list.

As with most Austen novels, the story focuses on a motherless, brotherless (and ergo in an insecure financial position) girl with a very silly family.  What sets Persuasion apart is the maturity of the story. It was Austen’s last novel, completed about one year before she died.  Anne Elliot, its main character, was the oldest of Jane’s heroines.  This isn’t a story about first love; it’s a story about a second chance.  As someone who has made tons of mistakes in her life, I can always appreciate a second chance.

Anne Elliot is 27 when the story begins, but much of the plot revolves around the action of 8 years ago.  Her prideful and vain family talked her out of an engagement when she was young. They didn’t consider the gentleman, Frederick Wentworth, worthy of her, because he was a lowly Royal Navy officer.  In this particular TV movie, he is played by Rupert Penry-Jones (Silk, White Chapel), and he looks quite good in the period costume:

rupert_440x293I think that this story has even more romantic tension than Pride and Prejudice. After she is convinced to spurn his proposal, Anne doesn’t see Wentworth for 8 years. He ventures off into his Naval career, and comes back into her life, and oh how the tables have turned. Anne’s extravagant family have run through their yearly allowance and need to rent out their expensive manor home.  It’s rented by Wentworth’s wealthy sister and her husband. Wentworth is a rich captain now, and is considered a very eligible bachelor.

Anne has spent most of the last eight years bitterly regretting her behavior and her decision.  When Wentworth comes back into her life, Anne is overcome with awkwardness and shame.  Wentworth is bitter and resentful.  The tension is hard to deal with, but the more they are thrown together, the more their feelings soften and relax.

For the couple to end up together, the hero and heroine have to do some risky things. Wentworth has to forgive Anne for hurting and humiliating him.  Anne has to win back his trust, but she also has to deliberately contradict her family’s wishes.  It’s just plain harder for Anne and Wentworth than it ever was for Lizzie and Darcy. Interestingly, I found a blog post with 5 reasons why Wentworth is more marriageable than Darcy. I don’t believe with a single one of her reasons, but Wentworth is pretty dreamy.  Darcy’s fault has always been his pride, and Wentworth doesn’t have that problem.

Of course, it’s an Austen romance, so there’s the perfect balance of will-they-won’t-they suspense for what seems like ages.  There are other girls interested in Wentworth, and another eligible match turns up for Anne. Austen strings you along and makes you worry, even though you know it will come through in the end, and that release at the end is a beautiful experience. That’s what makes her an impeccable storyteller.

Though this TV movie is not nearly as thorough (or faithful to the book) as a miniseries would be, it’s well done and Rupert Penry-Jones is very good as Wentworth.  I liked Sallie  Hawkins as Anne,

kinopoisk.ru-Persuasion-1276094but the combination of her reserved demeanor and severe bun make her look a little more matronly than really seems appropriate.  I know 27 was considered a spinster in those days, but she shouldn’t look so much like a sourpuss librarian.

Probably my favorite performance came from Anne’s father. He is an intolerable caricature of a man, constantly complaining about the physical appearance of his friends, when he’s not sniveling at the feet of his social betters.  He disapproves of the navy because the harsh winds and what they do to the faces of the sailors. He’s played impeccably by Anthony Stewart Head, aka Giles.

anthony+headI’ve had some ridiculous family members, and I’ve learned the hard lesson that sometimes they need to be ignored or disobeyed. That’s the central lesson for Anne Elliot, and it’s one that will always resonate with me. It’s a great book, but if you’re a more visual person, the movie is definitely worth a watch.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Mysterious Affair at StylesMy second Agatha Christie.  I had a yen to read her again, because the books are quick and easy, like junk food.  Being written in the ’20s means they have a bit more sophistication than your average Stephen King novel, but in truth they are the same level of book.  Enjoyable, quick, but not life-changing.

This book was no exception.  It was engaging, unpretentious, and a pleasure to read.  That being said, I must start out my review by pointing out that Mr. Hastings, the narrator of this story, is the dumbest character I have ever had to read about.  What a clueless bland bag of flour.  And this guy apparently appears in 8 other Poirot stories?  I could barely deal with him once.  Agatha, I know you’re dead, and have no reason to change your books now, but I need to give you some advice.  You do not need to make a dunce accompany Poirot in order for us to see that he is intelligent. I know Watson isn’t as brilliant as Holmes, but he’s (in the books anyway) of average, if not slightly above average, intelligence).  Hastings, on the other hand, is one step above lake algae.

Hastings is like the fat friend who makes the other girls look thinner and prettier. I am not exaggerating; I think he has an IQ below 80.  Not only is he dumb compared to Poirot, he is dumb compared to every other character in the book. If Hastings is supposed to represent the ‘reader’ as we bumble along through the mystery, then Christie thought her readers were utter imbeciles.  I recently found a website titled ‘Shut the Fuck Up, Hastings!’ so I know I’m not alone in my irritation. But I’ve now said my piece, and can move on.

This book was Christie’s first published novel, and is also the first glance her readers got of Poirot, the odd Belgian detective who would feature in some of her biggest hits, like Murder on the Orient Express.  Hercule Poirot, Arthur Hastings, and DI Japp (apparently) all make many appearances in later novels.  Christie admitted that she based this trio on the Holmes-Watson-Lestrade relationship, and it shows.  Poirot is no Holmes, though.  He’s a short, older foppy gentleman with slight OCD and a paunchy belly. No girl is going to have a crush on Poirot, that’s for sure.

The book opens with the dimwitted Hastings home from WWI and visiting friends at Styles.  There’s his old friend John Cavendish, and his aloof and beautiful wife Mary.  The matriarch, Emily Inglethorp and her (new) second husband, Alfred. The younger brother Lawrence, the ‘ward’ Cynthia, and the secretary Evelyn. The poison expert, Dr. Bauerstein.

Within a few days, the matriarch of the household has been poisoned, and everyone suspects her new second husband.  This being a murder mystery, the action obviously does not end there. Poirot gets involved to help determine who committed the murder and how.  Was she murdered via the coffee? Her nightly cocoa?  The sleeping powders?  Who burned her newly-written will?

I thought it was a good mystery, and though not as smart as Poirot, I’m nowhere near as dumb as Hastings.  So I saw some of the twists coming beforehand, but didn’t anticipate the denouement.  I think that’s about the perfect experience for a murder mystery.  You feel smart enough since you saw some of the clues and drew correct conclusions, but you’re still surprised in the end.

I found this book, despite the lovely mystery, to be lacking in characterization.  I could see glimmerings of the truth about Mary Cavendish (who looked like Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary in my imagination) and Cynthia. I could picture the moody Lawrence or the no-nonsense Evelyn.  I could see a love story brewing here and there, but it was like looking through the haze. Hastings was stupid and dull, but as the narrator we see most of the action through his eyes.  It’s a bit like swimming through jello, trying to glean any information from his incompetent retelling. As such, I felt a bit impatient for the plot to zoom along, since characters alone were not sufficient to make this book worthwhile.

So I didn’t love it–characters are really important.  But I still enjoyed it, because Christie is really good at this murder mystery stuff.  I think next time, I just need to go for one of the stories without Hastings in it.

My previous foray into the works of Christie was soured by a lot of antisemitism.  I’m pleased that this book had…less.  A few unsavory mentions of so and so being ‘a Jew’, as if it were an insult.  A really and truly unfortunate tale of one of the people dressing up in blackface, using burned corks to color her hair dark, in order to put on what must have been an incredibly appalling skit. It’s a thin line when you read old fiction.  Shakespeare has a lot of mentions about jewish people, about black people (more than you would think anyway, given that it was the 16th century in England) and they can make a reasonable 21st century person feel a bit uncomfortable.  On the other hand, Shakespeare wrote Othello and The Merchant of Venice.  Christie’s tidbits of casual and horrifying racism/antisemitism are far more disturbing in their thoughtless inclusion where they are not needed.  They come from a place of undeniable privilege and ignorance, and betray a nonchalance that makes me a little sick.  A Telegraph article about Christie’s antisemitism had this quote: The stereotyping made me squirm. But would I erase it? Never: to see antisemitism so endemic in the works of a highly-respected and best-selling author is to understand a period of history – and its horrific consequences.

Like taking medicine, it’s important to look back and to be horrified. That’s the only way to avoid doing horrifying things again.  And judging by the comments from incensed Christie fans claiming there’s nothing antisemitic about her works, I’m guessing this sentiment is warranted.

But that article also compares Christie’s casual antisemitism to Mark Twain’s very purposeful discussion of the black experience in America during a time of slavery and abject destitution.  They are not the same.  Christie is not interested in examining these prejudices, any more than Jane Austen was interested in the plight of the lady’s maid. Her prejudices are just there, making it obvious that she thought them nothing to be ashamed of.  So my feelings of guilt at reading and enjoying Christie’s books continue.  But she seemed so nice in that Doctor Who episode…and there’s that picture of her surfing!  Disappointing.

agathachristiesurfing

 

The Classics: Pride and Prejudice

Every once in a while, when I am out of money and don’t have any new books to read, I’m going to post about my favorite tidbits of British culture. This is one of those days, and I’m going to do a two-fer today, because I can’t talk about the brilliant Jane Austen work without also talking about the sublime Colin Firth.  I may also talk about why the Keira Knightley version is such crap.

For those who haven’t read it, and don’t get what the fuss is all about, let me explain briefly.

Regarding the book: Jane Austen, admittedly, doesn’t tackle huge world problems, though massive changes were going on during her time and other works of the period (notably Charles Dickens, who came a bit later) show a much dirtier and more decrepit picture of British society. What Jane Austen does tackle is the issues of an average privileged young woman in early 19th century Britain. Though she is not tackling the plight of the young and poor, Austen is incredibly good at what she focuses on. Her writing is sharp, engaging, enchanting, and lively. This story in particular has created a pair of characters so enduring and endearing, that they have been reworked into countless sequels, mashups, and redesigns. There are the sequels, showing a married Darcy and Lizzy, the ones with vampires, and quite a few with zombies, and most recently, a murder mystery. Plus, there are tons of movie and tv adaptations, which include faithful adaptations like the Colin Firth miniseries, but also branch out into the strange and absurd. There was Bride and Prejudice, a Bollywood take on the story, P&P: A Latter Day Comedy, with a Mormon spin, and Lost in Austen, which took a modern day reader and planted her in the middle of the 19th century action. Plus all the movie versions of all the zombie and alien and vampire books. Obviously, also stories loosely based on P&P, like Bridget Jones’ Diary. The point is, only a truly universal concept, like marriage (and your parents embarrassing you in front of a guy) could create so much fodder for so many different interpretations.

Regarding the Colin Firth miniseries: Why is it the best ever?  Well, I’ll preface this by saying I haven’t seen all of the adaptations, specifically the older ones. But I have seen a lot, almost everything in the last twenty years that is related to P&P, I have seen. And this is the most faithful to the book, and when it diverts from the book (lake scene!) it does so for a reason. And Colin Firth is the perfect Mr. Darcy because he can be haughty and rude, but you can at the same time believe he is a good person. He is sexy, but never because he is trying to be, and you truly believe his respect and love is something truly worth earning. Jennifer Ehle is also charming, intelligent, clever without being sarcastic or tiresome, and capable of conveying a million emotions with one glance.

So, why do I love P&P so much? I think that there are a lot of novels with more breadth, meaning they try to capture every type of life at any given time in history (Middlemarch is a good example). But those novels aren’t necessarily better. I think Austen should be praised for maintaining a tight focus on this particular set of people. P&P captures so much about love and about family, and she has created two spectacular characters. Rather than trying to include every walk of life, she takes a specific group of people and represents universal issues, eternal problems. That is the key to longevity in your work.Where works like Jane Eyre (still wonderful, don’t get me wrong) can seem somewhat outdated now, with the discussions about being God-fearing, and all the missionary work that would probably have done more harm than good to some sort of ‘savage’ population in a far off land. Austen never seems outdated, even though the society is of course entirely different. And, Darcy is pretty dreamy, let’s be honest.

It’s also quite funny, something rarely to be found with the Bronte sisters. Lydia is ridiculous, Mr. Collins a fool, and Mr and Mrs. Bennet play off one another like a comedy duo.  A very abstract comedy duo, perhaps, but it is still funny once you are sort of familiar with the time period and the social norms.

That’s why I think the mini-series is so important. There were aspects about the novel that I don’t think I understood the first time, because concepts foreign to me were taken for granted in that time period. The mini-series does a fantastic job of making those things clear, without having to explicitly explain them.  Any high-schooler who blunders through their first Shakespeare play can empathize with that feeling of comprehension when you watch the movie. Pride & Prejudice can be that way sometimes, because it was written about 200 years ago, and not everything is easily understood.

So the two work as a pair, in my opinion. As soon as I read the book, I went out and got the mini-series that day. They are companion pieces that create one great experience.

Which brings me, unfortunately, to the dreadful truth of that damn Keira Knightley version. First, just to get it off my chest, I need to list the many many anachronisms that make me absolutely insane because they present a very different picture of the story than is told in the books:

–Lizzy would not have had bangs/fringe!!!! This is not important, but it drives me nuts. She also wouldn’t have worn her hair down–women over the age of maybe 13 always wore their hair up. If they were married, they always had their hair covered.  To someone without that knowledge, perhaps it makes no difference, but to someone who knows a little about Regency-era England, it makes Lizzy seem either completely inappropriate and ill-bred, or childish.

–Mr. Bennet’s estate is not a mud-infested farmhouse with pigs wandering around inside. He was a wealthy landowner with a large house and lots of land. It is only because he hasn’t had a son to inherit his property that the girls are considered ‘poor’ in terms of what they can bring to a marriage.  For more info on this, watch season 1 of Downton Abbey.  Similarly, though Mr. Bennet is set in his ways and not invested in the society he inhabits, he is not a hoarder, lazy, or some sort of proto-hippie. This makes a big difference in the way the film comes across; this 2005 version makes it seem as if the entire family is dirt-poor, ill-educated, and borderline disgusting and Darcy has every reason to see them as inferior.

–Lizzy is not a tomboy, a radical feminist, or socially graceless. I’m not sure whether I am more irritated at the writers, directors, or Knightley for portraying her that way.  Lizzy is smart, funny, lively, pleasant. She can be cynical, she can be headstrong, she can be rude when left with no other alternative. But she is not full of impropriety, she still respects social norms in a way her youngest sisters do not.  She is just not…that creature that Keira Knightley inhabited. I found another blog that did a review of the movie, and I’m stealing her quote: “Elizabeth in this movie is not Elizabeth. She is Lydia in disguise.”

–Mr. Bingley would never ever come into Jane’s bedroom to see how she is doing when ill.  It is sweet to think that sort of thing happened, but it didn’t. It would have been really improper in every way for anyone to see her in her bedclothes. Consider how Mary reacts when Mr. Pamuk appears in her bedroom.  This was 100 years later!

Having that scene in there, along with all the scenes where two non-related opposite sex characters are thrown into situations on their own and unsupervised, makes me think that the writers had no idea about social mores of the time.  Obviously the costume and hair people didn’t, but the writers should have at least! This scene, and the normalcy with which it is played,  lessens the severity of Lydia’s crime in running off with Wickham without being married.

Ok, now are all these things that important? (YES!) No, perhaps not. If you don’t know anything about Regency norms and mores, and you don’t know anything about the book, then I’m sure it’s a fine movie about a headstrong girl and a guy who learns to love her. But it’s not Pride & Prejudice. It’s something more akin to Pretty Woman. Poor young woman of ill-repute saved by the rich prince charming type. It’s just not the same book that they’re working from to make that movie. So I don’t like to consider it an adaptation.

In summary, Pride & Prejudice is amazing and wonderful, and if you haven’t read it you should, and if you haven’t seen the Colin Firth miniseries, you should. And if you think that the Keira Knightley version is tolerable, please tell me why so I can begin to comprehend why it’s so damn popular.