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Dear friends and readers,

Yet another blog on Sandy Welch's Emma.  I've written on how like other recent Austen films, the backstory in Austen becomes the front story and how in this case the narrator is Mr Knightley, a male (those Austen films which have a narrator use a female character, mostly the heroine) and how his dreams are to the fore; as an indwelling Proustian film; and as a psychologized community. I do love this film and now that I'm returning to my Austen movies book, I thought I'd make my second blog another on the revelations about Austen's texts, the enrichening it provides.

This one comes out of the intersection of the Austen I've been observing in her letters and her novels. The strongly alienated attitude towards social experience we find in Austen's letters has made me again remember (as I have done before) Phyllis Bottomer's book, So Odd a Mixture: Along the Autism Spectrum in Pride and Prejudice, where Bottomer claims autism as a central explanation for key behavior in at least several major and 12 (I think that's the number she comes up with) minor characters in Austen.  Bottomer who has written about autism in Austen's fiction is onto something important -- which makes common readers uncomfortable -- varous blogs reviewing Bottomer's book are concerned to defeat the idea altogether. Welch's long psychologized scenes brings out as a problem for her Emma precisely this impulse towards solitude as preferable to what we have to endure in social life. Bottomer elaborates her idea inadequately, even hostilely (she cannot get herself to say Austen herself would be this way); Welch's creative approach gives us genuine insight.


Of course this is a fashionable subject; Bottomer is a speech therapist and if your main instrument is a hammer, many things begin to look like nails. As I've written elsewhere, her perspective is marred by a (alas not surprising) somewhat negative attitude towards Aspergers and autistic people and her definitions so imprecise that we begin to think all are autistic in Austen; fshe eschews, never mentions the obvious that Austen herself could have been Aspergers which would account for so many of her major characters needing to escape to solitude, preferring it (this is part of her conventional coercive attitudes toward social experience). Finally, she doesn't at the opening of her book (which I began to reread last night) sufficiently go over the types of characters in Austen and how they cohere with similar types in other fictions.

Nevertheless, all this said reading Austen's letters and thinking about the parallels between herself and her major characters, even or especially Emma, I think much more adequately and carefully done with a open minded attitude towards types of people, Bottomer is onto something important which D. W. Harding acknowledges in passing (see his Social Psychology and Individual Values)

And yesterday watching/studying the 2009 Emma I believe I found the same insight in Welch's screenplay and the way the film makers elaborated out the play. 

One of the extraordinary valuable features of the 2009 Emma is how many of the scene chosen are drawn out at length. Sophisticated techniques of flashback, juxtaposition, voice-over, jump shots, soliloquys enable them to tell Mrs Elton's story fully and yet briefly. It by the way is the first retelling which attempts to show us Mr Elton has already begun to regret his choice of wife, and it was more than a littleness but weakness of character that drew him to this domineering woman. This perspective is part of the delving in the long scenes of psychology which while not coming up with subtexts or backstories, brings out intelligent perceptions of the book.

One of them is Emma's relative aloneness and her stasis. After all she has no friends outside Miss Taylor; that's why she resorts to Harriet. Her not going to the sea, or traveling out of Highbury at all is attributed by her to her father's needs and nervousness (others call it tyranny); she has not been to Bath, to go to Box Hill is a big deal.

Welch delves this in a remarkable pair of scenes after the Crown Inn ball and a long dialogue in the garden of Randalls where Mrs Weston, Mr Knightley and Emma first talk with, then watch walk away Mrs Elton's domineering intrusions on Jane, her patronizing insistence on her taking a governess job about Mrs Elton's friends.

A cello heard as lingering effect of time in Randalls garden where Mr Knightly badgered if he likes Jane Fairfax, not believed by Mrs Weston when he denies it ...

Part 3, Episode 5, new scene:

Donwell Abbey seen from the outside, daytime, establishment shot

The Interior. Mr Knightley pacing inside thinking. His room with wood -- very like a room Mr Knightley in 1972 film had. Male. He looks troubled, upset in his face. A light horn heard.

We are in his mind as he remembers Emma dancing to cello at the Crown inn, Jane in front, that mesmerizing melody.

His face looks as if he could cry

Switch to a swan swimming in a lovely lake, then Hartfield seen beyond lake: establishment shot

The Interior Emma by window looking out.

She is looking at picture of Box Hill, a book on window sill. Mr Knightley comes quietly in. We see under illustration the words "the finest view in Surrey.

Emma longing to be out in spring.

Mr Knightley walks in, sees her with picture by her side.

His concern for her

Emma (aware of his presence): Isabella has had five children.

Mr K: This is true

Emma: Do you think it strange that I her only sister did not go to London
for any of their births.

Mr K: Do you think it strange? I was there after all.

Emma: That is what I mean. I do love Highbury and I've never felt like leaving and I could never leave father, but the fact that I have no desire to travel might look strange to other people.

Mr K: To Frank Churchill?

Emma: Oh no he doesn't think badly of me.

Mr K: Mr Elton then? (incredulous anyone should care in the least what Mrs E thinks, then shakes his head intensely). You've never bothered about what people thought before ...

Emma: Even Jane Fairfax has friends and the desire to be with them in Ireland and Weymouth

Mr K: (thoughtful, watches, a pause in time and then he smiles). If you were to ask me, I would say that you were in need of a project (head nods towards book).

Emma: (face lights up): "Box Hill!"

He smiles and his face all kindness. We have this sweet music a motif from theme music

Emma: It shall be a very small and intimate party and we'll only invite people we like ..

And of course switch to one of these jump shots with intense soliloquy of brilliant Christina Cole as Mrs Elton beginning to engineer it all.

Welch had no need to read Bottomer is my guess. And unlike Bottomer, Welch does not think it odd. She is in entire sympathy with Mr Knightley, the distressed Jane Fairfax (who retreats to letters at every opportunity except when dancing) and her Emma.

Dancing too makes Bottomer's thesis: for in the line and quadrille and country dances of the time people could interact in graceful configurations at a distance from one another. It fits that Austen should love dance in her letters too.



Jun. 2nd, 2011 02:13 pm (UTC)
Bottomer's book
In response to Aneilka,

First I've been reading a lot about autism and Aspergers
syndrome for about 4 years now, and think I am beginning to understand what's meant by the spectrum (a political construct in part -- to get help and funding from the state for an array of people from Down's syndrome to Aspergers, which often means high cognitive symbolic intelligence, or what we used to call high IQ people) and also how the different conditions are
distinguished in the higher ranges of the spectrum. I agree that many people manifest some of the traits of Aspergers but the clinical term and diagnosis is done carefully and you have to have a number of traits from different groups before you are diagnosed as having this as a disability.

It's not something that can change; it's a neurological and psychological condition -- the way deafness is not something one cures. One learns to adapt, cope, educates oneself and so on.

Bottomer's analysis is so flawed that it's irritating and I think I have indicated how and why.

Do I think Austen had some traits of Aspergers or autism or could have been diagnosed. Obviously I can't know at all but I do see traits of this kind of character/personality in her letters, especially her attitudes towards
social experience, how she describes and interacts with people in the letters and yes how she describes some of her characters.

The problem with Bottomer's thesis is she doesn't distinguish carefully what is a comic trope and what can be seen as cohering. One trait is directness, a lack of manipulating which depends on understanding unwritten codes of behavior
which are often beyond the autistic person's ken. I find Austen wants to be direct and resents having to be performative and insincere before her sister. The character where we see most discussion of social awkwardness is Darcy and he says this is a trait of his character and it's not funny at all.

I like the adducing of Emma as part of this. I thought the 2009 Emma, the most recent of the Emmas, and in some ways the deepest psychologically did broach this interpretation of Emma's character. She is blind to what is happening with Mr Elton is part of her lack of insight into unwritten coded
behavior. Sandy Welch did (as so many of these film makers do) elaborate and interpret and I know I sent a dialogue that is a development out of Austen's text, but still consonant with it, where Emma is questioning herself and then before Mr Knightley about why she doesn't want to go outside her small group, about her behaviors and the film does use Box Hill as a final climax of how social experience can be toxic for those who allow their own weaknesses (in this vanity, egoism, power, self-conceit) to be used by others (in this case Frank Churchill).

This might seem and is far from the themes or topics I have been thinking about for the AGM in 2012 (sex, power, money in the letters) but I do think that the characters in the novels are disempowered by their social inabilities (I won't use disabilities) and if we may interpret Austen's alone, apartness, her guardedness which has for so long and still among readers made her letters distasteful her one on the one hand unusual perceptive insight into the conflict between individual values and social psychology in the novels part of what "goes wrong" in the letters. While I was away by the way a good friend I told about my reading these letters to who likes Austen's books and considers himself an Austen reader confided he dislikes the letters almost as much as E.M. Forster did.


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