misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

On Never Tiring of Jane Eyre or Jane Austen -- by way of discussing Victorian Vogue

Dear friends and readers,

Midnight.  I've just finished watching the first half (a couple of hours) of a powerful film adaptation:  Sandy Welch, Susanna White, and Rebecca Eaton's (screenplay writer, director, producer) 2006 Jane Eyre, starring Ruth Wilson, Toby Stephens (son of Maggie Smith, he was Gabriel Markham in a great Tenant of Wildfell Hall).  This after viewing both versions of The Turn of the Screw:  1999 by Nick Dear and 2009 by Sandy Welch.

The first shot of Jane Eyre (Ruth Wilson) grown up: what is she doing?  teaching a group of girls (as in Sabiha Sumar's Silent Waters (see this blog under women's films for a commentary-review), or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

As I sat here under the spell of these two appealing (to me deeply) characters, Jane Eyre, and Mr Rochester,

Rochester confiding in Jane of his past with Adele's mother

I thought to myself, I first read the book at age 15, the same year I first read Mansfield Park.  I bought both inexpensive (45 cents or some such sum) at the same local drugstore (this was before the large chain bookstores came to the boroughs of NYC).  I can still remember the covers of each, the Jane Eyre a dark blue/green, a young woman in a full long dress; MP a white paperback with caricature figures on the front and a promise of "rollicking comedy" on the back.  When I came to the last page of MP, and read that stupid blurb, it startled me.  I assumed the writer of it had not read MP; now I know such lies are commonplace techniques to sell a book. 

How many years ago, and still I'm drawn in, moved deeply.  I've also seen at least 4 other film adaptations, the 1940s with Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles; 1970 with Susanna York and George C. Scott;, 1983 with Zelah Clare and Timothy Dalton,  1997 with Samantha Morton and Ciarhan Hinds in the key roles.  I've also read seen a number of Wuthering Heights films, the best to my mind a 1992 with Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche; and the 1996 Tenant of Wildfell Hall I spoke of above.

And still I was touched again and fully absorbed enough to stay up despite a headache from a long day.

This blog does not just record my watching of Bronte's Jane Eyre through Welch's film as a way of introducing my subject, film adaptations (to which I mean to return now, gentle reader). It also records my buying and now using a calendar called "A Year with Jane Austen." It's the kind one hangs from a nail so I've scotch-taped it to the back of my workroom door.  When I shut the door, I see it.   The pictures for each month are illustrations by Charles Edmund and Henry Brook for an 1898 complete edition of Austen's six famous novels.  These are only slightly better than Hugh Thomson's but they prettily colored and come with the lines in Austen's novels they were intended to illustrate.

So for March our scene is intended to visualize Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland riding in his curricle on the way to the abbey:

For each day of the year (a square space) the calendar makers could manage it, they have an entry from the life or writings of Austen.  Some days tell me when a character did this or that; others what Austen did that day in some year or other (including dying); some quote lines and passages from the letters and novels -- alas on the false principle of superficial cheer, but still they are what Austen wrote.  (I wonder if this calendar coheres with mine; it shows me I'm not the only one to have worked out a detailed one.)  Anyhow, there we are:  all Jane Austen all the time as well as 48 years of Jane Eyre (and last year I added Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to the passionate mix).

It's April now and I'm looking at another illustration.  Outside the trees are in flower, the air warm.  No sun right now (it being midnight) but it'll be back by 7 tomorrow.

Before I begin writing again I thought I'd read a book on film studies for fun and get back into the swing of things, and have begun:  Diane Sadoff's Victorian Vogue: British Novels on Screen -- one of whose topics includes the film adaptations of Jane Eyre.   I discussed why I love these film adaptations before and had some thoughtful good comments from other bloggers.

Sadoff opens with the question someone on Trollope19CStudies asked the other day: whence this desire to return to the Victorians?  In a nutshell, we can work our own anxieties and needs out through this culturally analogous era.  At length:  we are not in a post-historical age; people who turn to these film adaptations and costume dramas as history seek to return to history and not as naively as critics suppose. We are looking at our present as historical and seeking to embed ourselves in a meaningful pattern.  And this is so: when the admiral and I and izzy for a number of years rented Landmark Trust places -- 15th century gatehouses, manors, 18th century duke hunting lodges, the gardener's house at Hampton court palace, an 18th century hotel in Bath -- our vacation seemed to take place on another plane; I felt somehow more special and loved to be in the place, to explore the building, read about it, the furniture, read the books left for us.  Sadoff says Raymond Williams is right to say we now look retrospectively at ourselves and the past.

She shows the disdain and mockery of the way history is presented in these films is snobbery and often inadequate. In fact they do show versions of history, enough to bring the past back to us so we can make what use of it we want.  Then the films project nuanced varied readings, often in conflict within them, and they reflect the source novel, its era, the film's precursors in other films and books, and our own era all at once.  She suggests the eras where costume drama took huge strides forward and were commonly done (1930s, 80s, 90s) are times of strong disquiet politically and socially. She sees neo-liberalism at an impasse.

One of the most favored actors for these costume dramas is Ralph Fiennes (brilliant as Heathcliff), and here he is as Todd Jackson in a Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala adaptation of Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans

The movie takes us back to the opening of the 20th century and the utter chaos of a society falling apart; it's apocalyptic in the way of these 2000 films (often they break all narrative and just immerse us in ultimately distraught spectacle).  Sadoff discussed the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala productions in her book throughout with a long section of one chapter on homoerotic sex in these costume dramas of 19th century through Edwardian (and post-modern historical novels of the Booker Prize type) novels and history.

Several important principles guide her book:  the movie is always literary:  those studies which don't also ground themselves in the source text remain hollow.  We have to look at the other films that influence and shape each one:  costume drama and many other films too are part of a global marketplace and allude to and imitate one another intertextuality. We must look at the film's genre, its categories and audience, and when it was made sociologically.  Each makes a new historical moment. 

I like Sadoff's multiple perspectives, some of the images that repeat so she will delve (the country house beautiful, the male eroticized body, the important continual queer component), the use of horror imagery and gothicisms, how viewers long themselves to be embedded in heritage culture.

Colin Firth as Darcy striding back, the house glimpsed in the sunlight (1995 P&P)

Sandoff's first chapter treats Jane Austen films as an instance of the heritage industry and this turn back to earlier history we can identify with.  Sadoff says that the most common responses when people are asked why they like costume dramas are retrogressive positions in all areas, but she says this is what people are willing to say, and in fact if you look at the movies themselves you discover they critique, reassess, rehistoricize and lampoon notions of tradition, rank, nation, and (she avoid this here; it's another chapter) sexuality.   The idea seems to be that the sore spots these films so soothe are so sore, or the transgressive thoughts (disliking social life) so unacceptable, they are not openly voiced.

She also suggests, interestingly, the films reveal modern liberalism's (leftist as well as neoliberalism) impasse.

If we watch the Austen films with attention, we find they are about socially insecure people, and the characters are continually shadowed by anxiety.  At the same time while they live in high luxury, they are often in an imprisoning situation where they either are or are in danger of being humiliated or thrown out.. A powerful example of the kind of film adaptation costume drama that dramatizes women's problems are both version of The Turn of the Screw:  1999 by Nick Dear and 2009 by Sandy Welch.  Austen's own family were fringe people:  she could have ended a governess had Edward not inherited that property by being adopted; Henry Austen went bankrupts and ended a poor curate.

She then goes through the films showing status anxiety in them -- of all sorts.  They also feed the kind of pleasures the well-educated professional and managerial class enjoys, party out of real taste for it (cultured) and partly because it fits their image of themselves, is something they are comfortable with. She dwells on the sequence in P&P where Elizabeth and the Gardeners tour Pemberly and are welcomed by Darcy and his turn-about to be anxious to be friends with them.  She critiques Bourdieu and says social capital and cultural capital are utterly dependent on capital and class itself.  The Gardners and Elizabeth must pass muster -- as the viewers know they must when they socialize. 

The famous image of Darcy swimming comes in a sequence surrounding the house which is the sheltering beauty and order and peace.

Another specific aspect of Austen's books is how she depicts the nuclear or small families in intimate space. Troost and Greenfield say she also depicts the way people around the globe seem to end up in a small group of family and friends who they spend their existence among and whom they feel they must value and celebrate. 

I would add (as Troost and Greenfield show) the odd thing is Austen is alienated to some extent, Austen jaundiced and this is edited out of many of the films, especially those which are free adaptations and those of the 1990s. My own feeling recently is that In the 1980s and since this aspect of Austen -- her understanding of the torments of social existence -- is there in the film or brought back strongly once again.

The gentry daughter at risk becomes the fulcrum, and we have in the films here losses.   Persuasion is about the loss of the house. (I'll add to Sadoff the depiction of a house swathed in sheets -- ghostly -- is ubiquitous in these films)

Lady Russell and Anne Eliot (Susan Fleetwood, Amanda Root) talking over Anne's deep sense of loss amid the ghost house (1995 Persuasion)

The 2005 Joe Wright P&P exploits anxiety everywhere from the run-down Longbourne home, to a sympathetic Mrs Bennet, to the real pity for Mary shown by Mr Bennet, the haunted Mr Collins (Tom Howard), Charlotte Collins (Claudie Blakeley aggressively saying to Elizabeth: "Don't you dare judge me"), and the notorious ending where Darcy comforts Elizabeth that she is now safe ("Mrs Darcy forever).  They are "incandescently happy" in front of the eroticized dream house:

If you pay attention to Mansfield Park, you see it's about a house and culture under threat -- from loss of money, of slaves or property, from the Crawfords who bring in modern coolness and indifference and lack of depth of feeling as a basis for social life.    This is everywhere in the story of three women on the move in S&S and the women are ejected (the Elizas -- come to think of it Austen's cousin was an Eliza, she could have been ejected as illegimate). 

She moves on to show status anxiety in the 1790s and Austen's world, to show the strong political conflicts there, and where this comes out in Austen from her particular vantage. 

The rest of the chapter goes into further individual movies with different perspectives on the same matter: the 1940 movie reacting to war; Fay Weldon's claustrophobic 1979 P&P, the attempt at consolation (I call it Chekhovian) 1983 MP.   I found the section disappointing because I thought she would go over how the films replay aspects of one another, but maybe I ought to be relieved she stayed with explicating for this view, for then my book would be upstaged. 

In her second chapter she talks about contemporary uses of fidelity which I have found in Welch's Jane Eyre too.  See the comments which explain some of the significance of the many beautiful landscape and family scenes (Rochester, Jane and Adele) in the 2006 Jane Eyre:

Jane returned home, walking with Rochester -- the long time together after the Ingrams leave and he tells her of his love

The three together, she sewing, he reading, Adele talking (2006 Jane Eyre) -- see comments for continuation

I now have read the fiction book swirling around Jane Austen I promised to read, edited and sent it to the author, and have written a final version of The Politics of Gender in Anthony Trollope's novels (which is good and concise) and sent it off my review and it's been accepted by the peer-edited journal, so I can possess my soul in peace, and return to my movie project.  I need not think about the Northanger Abbey paper for JASNA until May, and not need start any work until June. 

So I have two movie projects at least. I must finish summarizing and commenting on the Palliser films, and then I must return to my book and finish the section "Seeking Refuge: Adaptation Austen's Sense and Sensibility. I have a fifth movie to go, Andrew Davies and Anne Pivcevic's 2008 S&S.  Then I'll send it to Continuum to ask what they think of it.  I may then do the same for all 10 P&P movies or turn to Trollope and try to write a paper on the film adaptations of Trollope's novels. I thought of my "On Living in a New Country" -- aborted project on Trollope's travel books while doing the review because it did lead me to books which could give me a thesis; I just couldn't come up with one before.

I'm reading Victorian Vogue because I enjoy reading film studies the way I enjoy reading literary criticism, but and what I need for my book still is some framing and she is (I hope ) giving me ideas beyond a typology which I've finally faced interests so few people.  Viewers seem not to care what type adaptation they are watching, even if it enables them to grasp the finished film's design or aims better.

And that gentle reader is my last for tonight, for Jim is home from watching a marathon 18 hour Wagner Ring cycle (HD movies from Valencia) at the Wagner society in a George Washington University's auditorium.  Sadoff's next chapter is about the uses of fidelity in movies based on 19th century novels, memoirs, history.

I do know how pathetic all this is, by which I mean how much a substitute to fill my loneliness and inability to do anything about some insoluble problems in my and my family's situation that needs fixing.

Tags: 19th century, brontes, costume drama, film adaptation, jane austen films, jane austen novels, women's novels

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