Friday 31 January 2020

The House of Mirth: is Lily Bart a reader?

A while back, I wrote a blog post about Gwendolen Harleth, Dorothea Brooke, and Isabel Archer as readers: Gwendolen reads a bit for idle amusement, Dorothea reads for self-improvement, whilst Isabel is a bookworm. 
Emma Bovary reads a range of things, from great literature to sentimental trash, but reads everything badly, identifies with characters, and wants life to be like books. I don’t remember about Anna Karenina—probably similar. 
Among Jane Austen’s characters, Emma Woodhouse is meant to read more, whilst Fanny Price immerses herself in poetry and has good taste. I’ve forgotten about the other heroines.  
What about Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart?
In chapter 1, Lily Bart looks at Selden’s bookshelf and they talk about books: 
“"And Americana—do you collect Americana?"
Selden stared and laughed.
"No, that's rather out of my line. I'm not really a collector, you see; I simply like to have good editions of the books I am fond of."
She made a slight grimace. "And Americana are horribly dull, I suppose?"
"I should fancy so—except to the historian. But your real collector values a thing for its rarity. I don't suppose the buyers of Americana sit up reading them all night—old Jefferson Gryce certainly didn't."
She was listening with keen attention.” 
She asks about Americana so later she can talk to Percy Pryce about his collection, and try to seduce him. 
“"Don't you ever mind," she asked suddenly, "not being rich enough to buy all the books you want?"
He followed her glance about the room, with its worn furniture and shabby walls.
"Don't I just? Do you take me for a saint on a pillar?"
"And having to work—do you mind that?"” 
Again, the question is not about books as much as about having money to buy everything you want. Lily’s standing before a bookshelf, but her interest lies elsewhere. 
Hermione Lee covers the subject in her Obligations (at the end of The House of Mirth): 
“Lily likes to think of herself as a reader, and one of the things that attracts her to Selden is that he makes her into a better one. When she scans her world through his ‘retina’, she finds she can ‘classify’ the people in it more sharply, and ‘review’ them as if they were second-rate literature […]. She envies Selden his library; she prides herself on her ‘broadminded recognition of literature’; and her responses to hearing Theocritus read on the coast of Sicily confirms ‘her belief in her intellectual superiority’. But she has no real literary interests. We see her cutting the pages of a novel on the train going to Bellomont, but she never reads it: she is too busy seducing Percy Pryce. The only book which sticks in her mind is a copy of the Eumenides she once happened to pick up in someone’s house, which teachers her about the implacable, vengeful Furies. Wharton often applied Aeschylus’s Furies to her own life. But, unlike Wharton, when Lily is pursued by the Furies, the idea of solace through reading never occurs to her.” 
It’s interesting that Hermione Lee talks about Lily as a reader of people, because she is a bad one. 
She misreads Rosedale, for example: 
“Though usually adroit enough where her own interests were concerned, she made the mistake, not uncommon to persons in whom the social habits are instinctive, of supposing that the inability to acquire them quickly implies a general dulness. Because a blue-bottle bangs irrationally against a window-pane, the drawing-room naturalist may forget that under less artificial conditions it is capable of measuring distances and drawing conclusions with all the accuracy needful to its welfare; and the fact that Mr. Rosedale's drawing-room manner lacked perspective made Lily class him with Trenor and the other dull men she knew, and assume that a little flattery, and the occasional acceptance of his hospitality, would suffice to render him innocuous…” (B.1, Ch.10) 
This is repeated: 
“[Rosedale] was sensitive to shades of difference which Miss Bart would never have credited him with perceiving, because he had no corresponding variations of manner…” (B.1, Ch.11) 
She is wrong about Grace Stepney: 
“She was quite aware that she was of interest to dingy people, but she assumed that there is only one form of dinginess, and that admiration for brilliancy is the natural expression of its inferior state. She knew that Gerty Farish admired her blindly, and therefore supposed that she inspired the same sentiments in Grace Stepney, whom she classified as a Gerty Farish without the saving traits of youth and enthusiasm.
In reality, the two differed from each other as much as they differed from the object of their mutual contemplation.” (ibid.) 
Lily misjudges Grace and slights her, not realising how petty the woman could be and that something as simple as moving a dinner could make Grace rat on her. 
In both cases, she cannot see the difference beneath the superficial similarities. If she read Jane Austen, I can tell she would think Elizabeth Bennet and Mary Crawford are very much alike.
Lily also makes several blunders throughout the story, such as going to Selden’s flat alone and being seen and making up a bad story to cover it like she has something to hide; or taking tips from her friend’s husband Trenor and being seen as friendly to him, and misjudging people’s reactions.
In short, she doesn’t seem to have much interest in books, and as a reader of people, she’s quite a bad one.

Wednesday 29 January 2020

The House of Mirth: metaphors and similes

If I were like many readers, seeing the main character’s likability as a criterion of literary merit, I would dismiss The House of Mirth as worthless—Lily Bart is an idiot. Luckily, I’m not one of those readers. So I’m currently enjoying the writing, the metaphors and similes. Like this: 
“While her friend reproached her for missing the opportunity to eclipse her rivals, she was once more battling in imagination with the mounting tide of indebtedness from which she had so nearly escaped. What wind of folly had driven her out again on those dark seas?” (B.1, Ch.7) 
That’s good. 
“She glanced at them a moment with the benign but vacant eye of the tired hostess, to whom her guests have become mere whirling spots in a kaleidoscope of fatigue; then her attention became suddenly fixed, and she seized on Miss Bart with a confidential gesture.” (B.1, Ch.8) 
The “kaleidoscope of fatigue” may be a bit showy, but that’s an interesting image nevertheless. 
Now, this is a scene after Lily Bart’s been told that her target Percy Pryce has been engaged to the rich but boring Evie van Osburgh—she is defeated: 
“The first two weeks after her return represented to Mrs. Peniston the domestic equivalent of a religious retreat. She "went through" the linen and blankets in the precise spirit of the penitent exploring the inner folds of conscience; she sought for moths as the stricken soul seeks for lurking infirmities. The topmost shelf of every closet was made to yield up its secret, cellar and coal-bin were probed to their darkest depths and, as a final stage in the lustral rites, the entire house was swathed in penitential white and deluged with expiatory soapsuds.” (B.1, Ch.9) 
Isn’t that so good? Edith Wharton’s metaphors aren’t as showy or self-conscious as Arundhati Roy’s in The God of Small Things
And then: 
“The stairs were still carpetless, and on the way up to her room she was arrested on the landing by an encroaching tide of soapsuds.” (ibid.) 
She seems to like tides, the metaphor is used quite a few times in the novel. Like: 
“… added Mrs. Trenor, whose present misery was being fed by a rapidly rising tide of reminiscence…” (B.1, Ch.4) 
“She was like a water-plant in the flux of the tides, and today the whole current of her mood was carrying her toward Lawrence Selden.” (B.1, Ch.5) 
The tides are an evocative and useful image, because Lily Bart is a practical and calculating woman who has a romantic side and sometimes yields to impulses. 
“Selden had given her his arm without speaking. She took it in silence, and they moved away, not toward the supper-room, but against the tide which was setting thither.” (B.1, Ch.12) 
The word “tide” appears 11 times in the book. 
A quick search on Gutenberg also suggests to me that there’s a bottle motif in The House of Mirth, but at the moment I’m not going to commit myself yet, except to share this passage: 
“Miss Bart was a keen reader of her own heart, and she saw that her sudden preoccupation with Selden was due to the fact that his presence shed a new light on her surroundings. Not that he was notably brilliant or exceptional; in his own profession he was surpassed by more than one man who had bored Lily through many a weary dinner. It was rather that he had preserved a certain social detachment, a happy air of viewing the show objectively, of having points of contact outside the great gilt cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at. How alluring the world outside the cage appeared to Lily, as she heard its door clang on her! In reality, as she knew, the door never clanged: it stood always open; but most of the captives were like flies in a bottle, and having once flown in, could never regain their freedom. It was Selden's distinction that he had never forgotten the way out.” (B.1, Ch.5) 
(my emphasis) 
It’s a good passage—Edith Wharton distils to the image of cage and flies in a bottle everything readers need to know about high society, Lily’s feelings about it, and Lily’s feelings towards Lawrence Selden. 
Lily feels trapped, by society and women’s limited options, by conventions, by double standards and people’s judgment, by her own lack of money and expensive tastes. Her life feels like servitude. 
“Today, however, it renewed the sense of servitude which the previous night's review of her cheque-book had produced. […] 
Mrs. Trenor's summons, however, suddenly recalled her state of dependence, and she rose and dressed in a mood of irritability that she was usually too prudent to indulge.” (B.1, Ch.4) 
“Seated under the cheerless blaze of the drawing-room chandelier—Mrs. Peniston never lit the lamps unless there was "company"—Lily seemed to watch her own figure retreating down vistas of neutral-tinted dulness to a middle age like Grace Stepney's. When she ceased to amuse Judy Trenor and her friends she would have to fall back on amusing Mrs. Peniston; whichever way she looked she saw only a future of servitude to the whims of others, never the possibility of asserting her own eager individuality.” (B.1, Ch.9) 
So far, reading The House of Mirth, I’ve not had a tingle in the spine. But it’s an enjoyable read nevertheless.

Monday 27 January 2020

The House of Mirth: 1st impressions, or Edith Wharton’s characterisation

I intended to read more books by women this year—as I’m quite familiar with the most important British female writers, it’s natural to get acquainted with American ones. 
At the moment I’m reading The House of Mirth. There isn’t much to say yet. So far I’ve been enjoying the prose, and the way Edith Wharton writes about her characters. 
About Percy Pryce:
“It was not, after all, opportunity but imagination that he lacked: he had a mental palate which would never learn to distinguish between railway tea and nectar.” (B.1, Ch.2) 
I must steal that. 
So what’s attractive about him? Money, of course. 
“…young Mr. Gryce's arrival had fluttered the maternal breasts of New York, and when a girl has no mother to palpitate for her she must needs be on the alert for herself. Lily, therefore, had not only contrived to put herself in the young man's way, but had made the acquaintance of Mrs. Gryce…” (ibid.) 
I can’t help looking at that line without thinking about the opening line in Pride and Prejudice
About Bertha Dorset (or Mrs George Dorset): 
“She was smaller and thinner than Lily Bart, with a restless pliability of pose, as if she could have been crumpled up and run through a ring, like the sinuous draperies she affected. Her small pale face seemed the mere setting of a pair of dark exaggerated eyes, of which the visionary gaze contrasted curiously with her self-assertive tone and gestures; so that, as one of her friends observed, she was like a disembodied spirit who took up a great deal of room.” (ibid.) 
An interesting image: “crumpled up and run through a ring”. I wonder what Henry James would have thought about it.  
About Ned Silverstone: 
“Lily could remember when young Silverton had stumbled into their circle, with the air of a strayed Arcadian who has published charming sonnets in his college journal. Since then he had developed a taste for Mrs. Fisher and bridge […] Ned's case was familiar to Lily: she had seen his charming eyes—which had a good deal more poetry in them than the sonnets—change from surprise to amusement, and from amusement to anxiety, as he passed under the spell of the terrible god of chance; and she was afraid of discovering the same symptoms in her own case.” (B.1, Ch.3) 
The sonnets are probably not very good then. 
About Mrs Peniston, who takes on Lily Bart after her parents’ death: 
“It would have been impossible for Mrs. Peniston to be heroic on a desert island, but with the eyes of her little world upon her she took a certain pleasure in her act.” (ibid.) 
Edith Wharton, I think, characterises by using a single image or a single idea to convey everything readers need to know about a character. Percy Pryce, for example, can’t distinguish “between railway tea and nectar”. Lily Bart’s mother detests “living like a pig”: 
“Lily could not recall the time when there had been money enough, and in some vague way her father seemed always to blame for the deficiency. It could certainly not be the fault of Mrs. Bart, who was spoken of by her friends as a "wonderful manager." Mrs. Bart was famous for the unlimited effect she produced on limited means; and to the lady and her acquaintances there was something heroic in living as though one were much richer than one's bank-book denoted.
Lily was naturally proud of her mother's aptitude in this line: she had been brought up in the faith that, whatever it cost, one must have a good cook, and be what Mrs. Bart called "decently dressed." Mrs. Bart's worst reproach to her husband was to ask him if he expected her to "live like a pig"; and his replying in the negative was always regarded as a justification for cabling to Paris for an extra dress or two, and telephoning to the jeweller that he might, after all, send home the turquoise bracelet which Mrs. Bart had looked at that morning.
Lily knew people who "lived like pigs," and their appearance and surroundings justified her mother's repugnance to that form of existence.” (ibid.)  
Then when Mr Bart is ruined: 
“Then a long winter set in. There was a little money left, but to Mrs. Bart it seemed worse than nothing—the mere mockery of what she was entitled to. What was the use of living if one had to live like a pig? She sank into a kind of furious apathy, a state of inert anger against fate. Her faculty for "managing" deserted her, or she no longer took sufficient pride in it to exert it. It was well enough to "manage" when by so doing one could keep one's own carriage; but when one's best contrivance did not conceal the fact that one had to go on foot, the effort was no longer worth making.” (ibid.)  
Wharton uses “live like a pig” over and over again, defining Mrs Bart in that phrase, which captures the whole of her philosophy and Lily Bart’s upbringing. 
In a few lines, Edith Wharton explains the Bart marriage: 
“In the dark hours which followed, that awful fact overshadowed even her father's slow and difficult dying. To his wife he no longer counted: he had become extinct when he ceased to fulfil his purpose, and she sat at his side with the provisional air of a traveller who waits for a belated train to start.” (ibid.) 
These brief passages explain all the forces that make Lily Bart who she is—why she contrives to catch a rich man. 
So far I enjoy Wharton’s means of characterisation. My favourite of all is this paragraph: 
“How dreary and trivial these people were! Lily reviewed them with a scornful impatience: Carry Fisher, with her shoulders, her eyes, her divorces, her general air of embodying a "spicy paragraph"; young Silverton, who had meant to live on proof-reading and write an epic, and who now lived on his friends and had become critical of truffles; Alice Wetherall, an animated visiting-list, whose most fervid convictions turned on the wording of invitations and the engraving of dinner-cards; Wetherall, with his perpetual nervous nod of acquiescence, his air of agreeing with people before he knew what they were saying; Jack Stepney, with his confident smile and anxious eyes, half way between the sheriff and an heiress; Gwen Van Osburgh, with all the guileless confidence of a young girl who has always been told that there is no one richer than her father.” (B.1, Ch.5) 
That bit is particularly good: “her general air of embodying a "spicy paragraph"”.

Saturday 25 January 2020

On revisiting Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma

Preparing for the new adaptation of Emma, I have just watched the Emma TV film with Kate Beckinsale, watched again Clueless, and now revisited the Emma film with Gwyneth Paltrow. 
What can I say? 
I remember thinking, several years ago, that the Paltrow film was all right—not as good as Clueless, and not as good as the Beckinsale one, but now that I’ve seen it again, I’m appalled at how much it strays from the novel and retains barely any of its spirit.   
Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse is good at heart. She goes about doing matchmaking because she has nothing to do, but also wants to bring people happiness. She can be wilful and snobbish, but her main fault is misinterpreting everything and meddling in people’s lives—her mistakes are consequences of misguided kindness, not malice. She might hurt people, Miss Bates for example, but can bear Knightley’s lectures because she has self-reflection and knows that she’s wrong, and she tries to make amends.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma is a bitch. 
This is an essay that voices the same thoughts I have about the adaptation:
“But in Paltrow’s hands, Emma doesn’t seem young or innocent, so much as contemptuous and superior. When she dismisses a well-written offer for Harriet’s hand in marriage (“It is a good letter. One of his sisters must have helped him.”), she sounds as snide and resentful as Austen’s sort-of-villain Mrs. Elton. Mock-praising Mr. Knightley for arranging a ride for Jane Fairfax, who plays the pianoforte better than Emma, Emma sounds downright bitchy. (“How sweet to have lent your carriage to her, so that her fingers would be warm enough for the performance.”) She doesn’t come across as naïve so much as catty, petty, and jealous. When she assumes Frank Churchill is in love with her, she adds smug and insufferable to the mix; when she alternates grousing to Harriet about Mrs. Elton with bright greetings for other people around her, she seems two-faced as well. Austen’s Emma has some growing up to do, but Paltrow’s needs a full personality transplant.”  
This is not really Paltrow’s fault. The fault lies with Douglas McGrath (writer-director)—the problem is in the script and the directing. 
If Jane Austen’s Emma is snobbish and thinks Robert Martin is not a gentleman, Paltrow’s Emma is contemptuous and doesn’t even want to make him her acquaintance because he’s beneath her, and she sounds mean about the letter.  
Whilst Jane Austen’s Emma can’t warm to Jane Fairfax because of Jane’s reserved nature and because of her own envy, Paltrow’s Emma is a bitch, referring to Jane as “that ninny”, and comes across as petty and spiteful. Her manners towards Miss Bates don’t look like a lady’s civility towards an acquaintance she finds slightly annoying (but harmless), but there’s a two-facedness about her manners that makes her look like an insufferable hypocrite. 
Even her friendship with Harriet Smith strays far from the book. Emma may be a bad influence, and almost makes Harriet lose her chance of happiness, but she’s not a false friend. In the novel, she sees Harriet as a friend from beginning to end—the talk about George Knightley only makes her jealous, which makes her realise that she loves him, but it doesn’t impact her friendship with Harriet. 
In the film, upon hearing Harriet’s confession of her feelings, Paltrow’s Emma has a look of shock mixed with contempt like Harriet is so much beneath Knightley and it’s shocking that she dares to have feelings for him. Later, in a soliloquy, she hopes that Knightley thinks it through, and cries that Harriet’s parents “may be pirates!”. Douglas McGrath even adds a scene of Emma taking down her painting of Harriet and replacing it with image of a dog. 
Emma Woodhouse, in the writing and directing of Douglas McGrath, appears disdainful, petty, spiteful, jealous, two-faced, and just insufferable. 
Not only so, he also turns Harriet (Toni Collette) into a clown—the simple, naive, and impressionable Harriet in the book now becomes comic relief, an unfunny kind of comic relief. 
Knightley too is a disappointment. Maybe I have high standards after seeing Mark Strong, but Jeremy Northam’s Knightley, although all right for the large part, a few times gets awkward, in a comic way, and it’s ridiculous. Knightley might struggle to express his feelings (that famous line “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more”), but he’s too old and mature to have that schoolboy’s awkwardness. This adaptation doesn’t have a lot of Knightley though—it mostly focuses on Emma and Harriet. 
In short, this is a bad adaptation that betrays its source.
I’m afraid the new one would be the same.

Friday 24 January 2020

Education and privilege in Mansfield Park

These are 2 important themes in Jane Austen’s novel—they are linked to some extent, so I’ll discuss them in the same post. 
1/ In my earlier post defending Fanny Price, I already wrote about her situation—she’s sent off to live with her rich relatives from a young age. 
This is an important point, and even though Jane Austen’s always painfully aware of class, women’s position in society, and the importance of a good income, I think Mansfield Park is the one most conscious of wealth and privilege. 
When Fanny enters Mansfield, her cousins think that her ignorance of languages and geography and her lack of accomplishments is due to her stupidity, instead of lack of education. 
As she and the Bertrams grow up together, they seem to receive the same education, but she doesn’t play any musical instrument. 

2/ Note this line about Maria and Julia: 
“… it is not very wonderful that, with all their promising talents and early information, they should be entirely deficient in the less common acquirements of self-knowledge, generosity and humility. In everything but disposition they were admirably taught. Sir Thomas did not know what was wanting, because, though a truly anxious father, he was not outwardly affectionate, and the reserve of his manner repressed all the flow of their spirits before him.” (Ch.2) 
Jane Austen says something similar again later: 
“Poor Julia, the only one out of the nine not tolerably satisfied with their lot, was now in a state of complete penance, and as different from the Julia of the barouche-box as could well be imagined. The politeness which she had been brought up to practise as a duty made it impossible for her to escape; while the want of that higher species of self-command, that just consideration of others, that knowledge of her own heart, that principle of right, which had not formed any essential part of her education, made her miserable under it.” (Ch.9) 
As I wrote in the previous blog post, self-knowledge and consideration of others are the qualities most important to Jane Austen, and they’re stressed in these passages. Maria and Julia get a formal education, and have the accomplishments of a lady, but lack a moral education. It is no wonder that Mansfield Park is not very popular—it is a serious work, in which education is a central theme and the author criticises an education that neglects principle and morality. 
The passages above also apply perfectly for Henry and Mary Crawford. 
At the end of the book, Sir Thomas realises and regrets the faults of his parenting: 
“Here had been grievous mismanagement; but, bad as it was, he gradually grew to feel that it had not been the most direful mistake in his plan of education. Something must have been wanting within, or time would have worn away much of its ill effect. He feared that principle, active principle, had been wanting; that they had never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers by that sense of duty which can alone suffice. They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice. To be distinguished for elegance and accomplishments, the authorised object of their youth, could have had no useful influence that way, no moral effect on the mind. He had meant them to be good, but his cares had been directed to the understanding and manners, not the disposition; and of the necessity of self-denial and humility, he feared they had never heard from any lips that could profit them.” (Ch.48) 
In comparison, Fanny lacks some of a lady’s accomplishments, but has good self-awareness and acute perceptiveness of other people’s character and feelings, which all of the Bertram children lack.
Fanny also has strong principles. There are some people who see her refusal to act in the play and refusal to marry Henry as a passivity, but there is nothing passive about holding fast to your principles, believing in yourself, and resisting pressure from everyone else. 

3/ Look at the 3 guardians at Mansfield Park: Sir Thomas, Lady Bertram, and Mrs Norris. 
Lady Bertram is helpless and ineffectual as a mother. It is stated from the start: 
“To the education of her daughters Lady Bertram paid not the smallest attention. She had not time for such cares.” (Ch.2) 
Sir Thomas is severe and distant, so the education mostly falls on Mrs Norris, who is meddlesome, officious, and small-minded, with very little sense. She makes bad judgments, spoils the girls with flattery, and gives them no good model. 
Jane Austen’s heroines often have silly, useless, or neglectful parents, but Sir Thomas is the most interesting of all. He is not a tyrant, but he is severe, and he is the kind of parent who forbids his children from doing wrong, without teaching them to know right from wrong. His children therefore learn to hide things from him, and disobey him in his absence. 
This is something that resonates with me, because my mom has taught me to know right from wrong, and didn’t have to forbid me from doing things. Too often I’ve seen parents control and spy on children, or punish them for doing something they don’t allow and say “Because I said so”, instead of reasoning about why it’s wrong. 

4/ Isn’t it interesting that under such guardians, Edmund turns out all right? He has faults, and isn’t very perceptive (he’s wrong about everything except Fanny’s goodness), but overall is a sensitive, principled, honest, and kind man.   
Does that mean that in this case, nature is more important than nurture? 

5/ Let’s move onto the Price family. 
“Of her two sisters, Mrs. Price very much more resembled Lady Bertram than Mrs. Norris. She was a manager by necessity, without any of Mrs. Norris's inclination for it, or any of her activity. Her disposition was naturally easy and indolent, like Lady Bertram's; and a situation of similar affluence and do-nothingness would have been much more suited to her capacity than the exertions and self-denials of the one which her imprudent marriage had placed her in. She might have made just as good a woman of consequence as Lady Bertram, but Mrs. Norris would have been a more respectable mother of nine children on a small income.” (Ch.39) 
Fanny is disappointed in her parents. The problem with her Portsmouth home is not its poverty, but its chaos, noise, and lack of harmony and respect, and it’s because of her indifferent parents. In different ways, the Bertrams and the Prices both neglect the education of their children. 
Here, Fanny sees that her mother is similar to Lady Bertram, and acknowledges that Mrs Norris has some merit. At the same time, if we take that comparison and turn it around, Lady Bertram is similar to Mrs Price, and can get away with her indolence and irresponsibility only because of her wealth and status. Without them, she wouldn’t be seen as any better. 
At some point, there’s another comparison between the sisters: 
“Her poor mother now did not look so very unworthy of being Lady Bertram's sister as she was but too apt to look. It often grieved her to the heart to think of the contrast between them; to think that where nature had made so little difference, circumstances should have made so much, and that her mother, as handsome as Lady Bertram, and some years her junior, should have an appearance so much more worn and faded, so comfortless, so slatternly, so shabby.” (Ch.42)

6/ In Portsmouth, Fanny’s shocked by the disorder, and shocked by Susan’s manners and language. However, she comes to understand Susan. 
“... it was at least a fortnight before she began to understand a disposition so totally different from her own. Susan saw that much was wrong at home, and wanted to set it right. That a girl of fourteen, acting only on her own unassisted reason, should err in the method of reform, was not wonderful; and Fanny soon became more disposed to admire the natural light of the mind which could so early distinguish justly, than to censure severely the faults of conduct to which it led. Susan was only acting on the same truths, and pursuing the same system, which her own judgment acknowledged, but which her more supine and yielding temper would have shrunk from asserting. Susan tried to be useful, where she could only have gone away and cried; and that Susan was useful she could perceive; that things, bad as they were, would have been worse but for such interposition, and that both her mother and Betsey were restrained from some excesses of very offensive indulgence and vulgarity.” (Ch.40) 
Anyone who sees Fanny as a figure of passivity can just look at her relationship with Susan—that is a good counter-example. 
“Her greatest wonder on the subject soon became—not that Susan should have been provoked into disrespect and impatience against her better knowledge—but that so much better knowledge, so many good notions should have been hers at all; and that, brought up in the midst of negligence and error, she should have formed such proper opinions of what ought to be; she, who had had no cousin Edmund to direct her thoughts or fix her principles.” (ibid.) 
There are many things Susan doesn’t know, not having the education and privilege, and she doesn’t read—she needs to move to Mansfield for a better environment and better opportunities. But at the same time, “brought up in the midst of negligence and error”, she still knows right from wrong, and tries to fix things. 
In the character of Susan, Jane Austen again raises the question of nature vs nurture, and comments on the subject of privilege. 

7/ People usually say that Jane Austen’s heroines usually grow and gain self-knowledge throughout the book, except Fanny, who is right about everything and right the entire time (uhm… what about Anne Elliot?).   
That is not entirely true. Fanny Price does gain self-knowledge at the end of the book—it’s just not the same kind of self-knowledge that Catherine Morland and Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse come to have. 
She gains self-knowledge when she’s at her Portsmouth house. I just had a discussion with Himadri (Argumentative Old Git)—he said, Mansfield Park is about displacement and personal identity. Some critics (including Vladimir Nabokov) complain about Jane Austen staying with Fanny for the entire story and not depicting the “interesting” stuff with Maria and Henry, or Julia and Mr Yates, but the real interesting stuff happens in Portsmouth. It’s at Portsmouth that Fanny discovers who she is, and where she really belongs—that Mansfield is home.  
Perhaps that is why Mansfield Park is so dear, so personal to me. 

If there is any student out there who steals ideas from my blog for an assignment, let me know what you get. 

Mansfield Park: how is Mary Crawford different from Jane Austen’s heroines?

If anyone asks me to compare between Jane Austen and George Eliot, I would say, Middlemarch is a novel of great scope and depth, a good contender for the title of greatest English novel, but Mansfield Park is the reason I place Jane Austen above George Eliot as an artist. She allows 2 characters of whom she disapproves to be immensely attractive and charming, and lays a trap for unsuspecting readers, whereas George Eliot would have made sure, through the moralising narrator, that readers would never side with Henry and Mary Crawford.  
So far I’ve written enough about Henry Crawford. Let’s talk about Mary. 
It’s easy to see why many people like Mary Crawford. She is cheerful, lively, animated, playful, outspoken, and extremely charismatic. Some readers might also see themselves in her because she likes variety and excitement, or when she’s careless and does something deemed inappropriate by the “priggish” Edmund and Fanny. 
Mary Crawford and Fanny Price have 2 things in common. 1, both love Edmund, and are loved by Edmund. 2, both are highly perceptive, and good judges of character. 
Mary notices everything. She sees her uncle, the Admiral, as a man of vices, and knows that her aunt is ill-used. She sees through Dr Grant: 
““…And though Dr. Grant is most kind and obliging to me, and though he is really a gentleman, and, I dare say, a good scholar and clever, and often preaches good sermons, and is very respectable, I see him to be an indolent, selfish bon vivant, who must have his palate consulted in everything; who will not stir a finger for the convenience of any one; and who, moreover, if the cook makes a blunder, is out of humour with his excellent wife. To own the truth, Henry and I were partly driven out this very evening by a disappointment about a green goose, which he could not get the better of. My poor sister was forced to stay and bear it.”” (Ch.11)  
She knows that both Maria and Julia are in love with Henry, which escapes almost everyone else apart from him and Fanny. She understands Henry better than he does himself—knowing his love for Fanny wouldn’t last.  
She personally knows many bad marriages and sees through them all, such as the Frasers and the Stornaways. She clearly understands why Maria marries Mr Rushworth. In her turn, Mary falls in love with a kind, good man—Edmund Bertram. And she recognises Fanny’s qualities. 
(Imagine Mary Crawford and Emma Woodhouse in the same book). 
In short, like Fanny, Mary is a good judge of character, and notices many things that escape everyone else at Mansfield Park (and Sotherton). The difference between the 2 characters is that Fanny feels for others, whereas Mary doesn’t care. 
Mary’s main faults are her selfishness, insincerity, and lack of regard for others.  
Early on, there’s a scene where Mary complains about the inconvenience of not having anything to transport her harp: 
““I am to have it to-morrow; but how do you think it is to be conveyed? Not by a wagon or cart: oh no! nothing of that kind could be hired in the village. I might as well have asked for porters and a handbarrow.”
“You would find it difficult, I dare say, just now, in the middle of a very late hay harvest, to hire a horse and cart?”
“I was astonished to find what a piece of work was made of it! To want a horse and cart in the country seemed impossible, so I told my maid to speak for one directly; and as I cannot look out of my dressing-closet without seeing one farmyard, nor walk in the shrubbery without passing another, I thought it would be only ask and have, and was rather grieved that I could not give the advantage to all. Guess my surprise, when I found that I had been asking the most unreasonable, most impossible thing in the world; had offended all the farmers, all the labourers, all the hay in the parish! As for Dr. Grant's bailiff, I believe I had better keep out of his way; and my brother-in-law himself, who is all kindness in general, looked rather black upon me when he found what I had been at.”” (Ch.6) 
She doesn’t stop there: 
““I shall understand all your ways in time; but, coming down with the true London maxim, that everything is to be got with money, I was a little embarrassed at first by the sturdy independence of your country customs…””(ibid.)   
This says a lot about her. To Mary, her own convenience is more important than the farmers’ need for carts during harvest. 
Other little details reveal Mary’s character. She speaks badly of her uncle in front of strangers, and make sweeping generalisations about the Navy and the clergy. She knows the impropriety of private theatricals, and knows Sir Thomas would disapprove, but doesn’t feel bothered. Later, she speaks disrespectfully of Sir Thomas in front of Fanny. 
She doesn’t care when Henry toys with the feelings of Maria and Julia and succeeds at making them both fall in love with him. She doesn’t stop him from trying to “make a small hole in Fanny’s heart”, and even assists him in lying to her about the necklace. Later on, she encourages Fanny to accept Henry, and alludes to the promotion to put pressure on her, despite knowing her own brother’s character and doubting his constancy.
There are 2 moments that are particularly telling. The 1st time is when Mary acknowledges Henry’s flirtatiousness, but defends him anyway: 
““Ah! I cannot deny it. He has now and then been a sad flirt, and cared very little for the havoc he might be making in young ladies' affections. I have often scolded him for it, but it is his only fault; and there is this to be said, that very few young ladies have any affections worth caring for. And then, Fanny, the glory of fixing one who has been shot at by so many; of having it in one's power to pay off the debts of one's sex! Oh! I am sure it is not in woman's nature to refuse such a triumph.”
Fanny shook her head. “I cannot think well of a man who sports with any woman's feelings; and there may often be a great deal more suffered than a stander-by can judge of.”
“I do not defend him. I leave him entirely to your mercy, and when he has got you at Everingham, I do not care how much you lecture him. But this I will say, that his fault, the liking to make girls a little in love with him, is not half so dangerous to a wife's happiness as a tendency to fall in love himself, which he has never been addicted to. And I do seriously and truly believe that he is attached to you in a way that he never was to any woman before…””(Ch.36)  
Note that Mary thinks Fanny is distrustful of his loyalty, and thinks that as long as Henry doesn’t fall in love himself, that’s enough to assure her, whilst Fanny is saying “there may often be a great deal more suffered than a stander-by can judge of”, which is about other women’s feelings. Mary can’t think in such terms because she only cares about herself (and her brother).  
When the Henry-Maria affair is exposed: 
““Their substance was great anger at the folly of each. She reprobated her brother's folly in being drawn on by a woman whom he had never cared for, to do what must lose him the woman he adored; but still more the folly of poor Maria, in sacrificing such a situation, plunging into such difficulties, under the idea of being really loved by a man who had long ago made his indifference clear.”” (Ch.44) 
(This is Edmund telling Fanny about his talk with Mary). 
Again, Mary tries to downplay the seriousness of the betrayal by saying that Henry doesn’t care for Maria, not realising that that is much worse. 
To Edmund, she even blames Fanny:  
““Why would not she have him? It is all her fault. Simple girl! I shall never forgive her. Had she accepted him as she ought, they might now have been on the point of marriage, and Henry would have been too happy and too busy to want any other object. He would have taken no pains to be on terms with Mrs. Rushworth again. It would have all ended in a regular standing flirtation, in yearly meetings at Sotherton and Everingham.”” (ibid.) 
(my emphasis) 
Look at that. These 2 moments say everything you need to know about Mary Crawford, I don’t even need to mention the fact that she wishes Tom Bertram to die so Edmund can be the new heir. 
I’m puzzled that there are people who call themselves Janeites and prefer Mary to Fanny. Tony Tanner writes in his introduction “More than one critic has suggested that Mary Crawford, with her quick wit, her vitality and resilience, is much more like Jane Austen herself than is the shrinking Fanny” (he doesn’t agree, by the way). What a joke. 
Jane Austen’s trap in Mansfield Park is creating Mary Crawford as superficially very similar to the witty, vivacious Elizabeth Bennet, but the similarity is only on the surface. Many readers don’t seem to realise that Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse and all of Jane Austen heroines, different as they are, all share a capacity for self-reflection, delicacy, and regard for others. 
Elizabeth Bennet may be proud and make hasty judgment, but she has self-reflection and realises her mistakes. Emma Woodhouse may misread everything, commit errors, and hurt people, but she means well and her mistakes are results of misguided helpfulness rather than malice; she has a bad conscience when realising she has harmed Harriet, hurt Miss Bates, and upset Jane Fairfax, and she changes. The ability to reflect on one’s actions and acknowledge one’s mistakes is highly valued in Jane Austen—understanding, self-awareness, and regard for others are a constant subject in the 6 novels. 
(The word “aware” appears 14 times in Pride and Prejudice, 26 times in Emma, and 40 times in Mansfield Park. Also in Mansfield Park, the word “delicacy” appears 26 times). 
Mary Crawford doesn’t have these qualities. She is self-centred, mercenary, insincere, and manipulative. She doesn’t care about anyone but herself, and has no self-reflection. 
To the readers who love Mary for her wit, Jane Austen has this to say: 
“Wisdom is better than Wit, & in the long run will certainly have the laugh on her side.” (letter to her niece Fanny Knight)

Wednesday 22 January 2020

Some wonderful passages in Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park is, to me, Jane Austen’s best written book. In the last 2 blog posts about the book, I was writing about the characters and their relationships. They are probably meaningless to those who haven’t read the novel, and those who don’t find anything good in it. 
Here I’m going to pick out some of my favourite passages from Mansfield Park, the ones that give me a tingle in the spine
1/ Everyone knows the opening line of Pride and Prejudice
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” 
The 1st page of Mansfield Park has a line that is almost as good: 
“But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them.” (Ch.1) 

2/ Fanny gets enraptured: 
“… Fanny agreed to it, and had the pleasure of seeing him continue at the window with her, in spite of the expected glee; and of having his eyes soon turned, like hers, towards the scene without, where all that was solemn, and soothing, and lovely, appeared in the brilliancy of an unclouded night, and the contrast of the deep shade of the woods. Fanny spoke her feelings. “Here's harmony!” said she; “here's repose! Here's what may leave all painting and all music behind, and what poetry only can attempt to describe! Here's what may tranquillise every care, and lift the heart to rapture! When I look out on such a night as this, I feel as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to, and people were carried more out of themselves by contemplating such a scene.”” (Ch.11) 
Hers is a Romantic soul. How some readers may find her boring, I don’t understand. 
Later there’s another description of the sky—except that now it’s day, not night: 
“The day was uncommonly lovely. It was really March; but it was April in its mild air, brisk soft wind, and bright sun, occasionally clouded for a minute; and everything looked so beautiful under the influence of such a sky, the effects of the shadows pursuing each other on the ships at Spithead and the island beyond, with the ever-varying hues of the sea, now at high water, dancing in its glee and dashing against the ramparts with so fine a sound, produced altogether such a combination of charms for Fanny, as made her gradually almost careless of the circumstances under which she felt them.” (Ch.42) 
Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse are mostly interested in people; Fanny Price is interested in nature, and the mind, so we get such wonderful passages. 

3/ Now look at these lines, after the ball: 
“Shortly afterward, Sir Thomas was again interfering a little with her inclination, by advising her to go immediately to bed. “Advise” was his word, but it was the advice of absolute power, and she had only to rise, and, with Mr. Crawford's very cordial adieus, pass quietly away; stopping at the entrance-door, like the Lady of Branxholm Hall, “one moment and no more,” to view the happy scene, and take a last look at the five or six determined couple who were still hard at work; and then, creeping slowly up the principal staircase, pursued by the ceaseless country-dance, feverish with hopes and fears, soup and negus, sore-footed and fatigued, restless and agitated, yet feeling, in spite of everything, that a ball was indeed delightful.” (Ch.28)
That’s just… so good. “Determined”, “hard at work”—Jane Austen’s hilarious. Then she’s serious again, look at the next bit—in just a few words, she describes everything Fanny feels as she leaves her first ball. 

4/ The next day: 
“After seeing William to the last moment, Fanny walked back to the breakfast-room with a very saddened heart to grieve over the melancholy change; and there her uncle kindly left her to cry in peace, conceiving, perhaps, that the deserted chair of each young man might exercise her tender enthusiasm, and that the remaining cold pork bones and mustard in William's plate might but divide her feelings with the broken egg-shells in Mr. Crawford's. She sat and cried con amore as her uncle intended, but it was con amore fraternal and no other.” (Ch.29) 
That is brilliant. By describing the remains on the plates, Jane Austen evokes image of the 2 men, William (Fanny’s brother) and Henry Crawford, and, changing points of view, contrasts Sir Thomas’s assumption with Fanny’s true feeling. 
Tom at Wuthering Expectations wrote about this excerpt a while back. 

5/ The Portsmouth chapters are among the finest in all of Jane Austen. I have always thought that Fanny’s feeling in Portsmouth is like the feeling of an immigrant returning home to a developing country, after years in a rich developed country—she doesn’t feel belong, can’t help seeing its problems, and realises that her home is no longer there. 
“Whatever was wanted was hallooed for, and the servants hallooed out their excuses from the kitchen. The doors were in constant banging, the stairs were never at rest, nothing was done without a clatter, nobody sat still, and nobody could command attention when they spoke.” (Ch.39)  
Noise, chaos, disorder. I love the word “halloo” she uses. 
“Their general fare bore a very different character; and could he have suspected how many privations, besides that of exercise, she endured in her father's house, he would have wondered that her looks were not much more affected than he found them. She was so little equal to Rebecca's puddings and Rebecca's hashes, brought to table, as they all were, with such accompaniments of half-cleaned plates, and not half-cleaned knives and forks, that she was very often constrained to defer her heartiest meal till she could send her brothers in the evening for biscuits and buns.” (Ch.42) 
Rebecca is the servant in the Price family. 
“The sun was yet an hour and half above the horizon. She felt that she had, indeed, been three months there; and the sun's rays falling strongly into the parlour, instead of cheering, made her still more melancholy, for sunshine appeared to her a totally different thing in a town and in the country. Here, its power was only a glare: a stifling, sickly glare, serving but to bring forward stains and dirt that might otherwise have slept. There was neither health nor gaiety in sunshine in a town. She sat in a blaze of oppressive heat, in a cloud of moving dust, and her eyes could only wander from the walls, marked by her father's head, to the table cut and notched by her brothers, where stood the tea-board never thoroughly cleaned, the cups and saucers wiped in streaks, the milk a mixture of motes floating in thin blue, and the bread and butter growing every minute more greasy than even Rebecca's hands had first produced it.” (Ch.46) 
What a painting that is.  
I don’t include the great passages about people and character, because good lines can be found on every page—Jane Austen’s style is polished, precise; she writes enough, and yet says so much in just a few words. Such passages can also be found in the other works. But one such as above, I don’t think you can find in her other novels. 
I do wonder what Nabokov would have thought about Emma, he didn’t like Pride and Prejudice. But I’m glad that Edmund Wilson told him to read Mansfield Park—it is more visual, packed with stuff, and also full of feeling. 
It is boring that people (often self-proclaimed Janeites) keep asking “Which Jane Austen heroine are you/ do you identify with?”. I don’t identify with character; I identify with the author and try to see what they’re doing. The Jane Austen I like the most is the Jane Austen of Mansfield Park—deeper, more serious, more complex, more visual, and full of feeling.  

Tuesday 21 January 2020

Jane Austen’s views on relationships and marriages, according to Mansfield Park

I’m going to start by saying that, because of my upbringing, I have a rather strong dislike of people, especially women, who make stupid decisions in relationships. I’m talking about women who run after men, let men treat them like shit, and throw away self-respect (Emma Bovary), women who marry a bad boy with the naïve belief that they can change him (Helen Lawrence Huntingdon), women who accept a man who treats other women like trash but think that they are special—an exception, women who let a man cheat on them or beat them but still believe in his promises and stay in the relationship, women who know a guy is a douchebag but keep going back to him, and so on and so forth. 
(To the moralists who want to tell me to sympathise and stop victim-blaming: can you honestly say that there’s never a moment that a friend comes to you for relationship advice and you think she’s goddamn stupid and must get out of the relationship?) 
Anyway. I’m not going to reduce Jane Austen’s wonderful works to self-help books, she’s a great, fantastic writer. But at the same time, apart from her genius, Jane Austen is so close to my heart because we share the same ideas about balance, and virtues, and we also share similar views on relationships. 
So what are Jane Austen’s views on relationships and marriages, according to Mansfield Park?  
1/ Compatibility is important.  
This is something that is in every single Jane Austen novel. Compatibility doesn’t mean that your personalities have to be the same, nor that you always have to like the same things. Compatibility means you share the same world view and values. 
Edmund Bertram and Mary Crawford are incompatible because their world view, habits, and values are different: Mary likes London life and excitement, likes wealth and distinction, can’t accept Edmund becoming a clergyman and tries to change his mind, can’t handle quiet and solitude, and gets bored and restless easily, whilst Edmund is the opposite. She also doesn’t have the delicacy that he values—she speaks disrespectfully of her uncles to strangers (before becoming close to Edmund and Fanny), makes sweeping generalisations about the Navy and the clergy, and doesn’t care about anyone. 
A reader may think Mary is more fun than Fanny, but that’s a personal response and beside the point—Fanny and Edmund have a lot more in common. 
Apart from love and compatibility, Jane Austen shows in her 6 novels, over and over again, that respect, honesty, and understanding are also important for a relationship and marriage. 

2/ Disapproving of men who play with women’s feelings. 
Jane Austen always shows a distrust of charming men who lack openness and always know the right thing to say, but it’s in Mansfield Park that her view is the clearest—she disapproves of men who play with women’s feelings. 
““I cannot think well of a man who sports with any woman's feelings; and there may often be a great deal more suffered than a stander-by can judge of.”” (Ch.36) 
That comes from Fanny, but it’s obvious in Mansfield Park that the author thinks the same. 
As written in an earlier blog post, Henry plays with Maria’s and Julia’s feelings, makes them fall in love with him for fun, and goes back and forth between the 2 sisters. During the trip to Sotherton, Henry sits with Julia at the front of the carriage, making Maria jealous, then goes off with Maria, leaving Julia behind and abandoning Mr Rushworth, then sits with Julia again on the way back, ignoring Maria. During the play, he cleverly steers himself and Maria into the right parts, making Julia feel slighted, then he flirts with Maria the entire time, in front of Mr Rushworth, without any intention of making her break off the engagement.  
Some readers innocently think Fanny should end up with Henry, or would, if he perseveres. To think so is to misunderstand Jane Austen. Fanny might, convincingly, find Henry charming, and acknowledge some other good qualities, but she says she would never accept him because she has seen enough, and judged him to be a selfish, thoughtless man who likes playing with women’s feelings. He might love her like he never felt about any other woman before, but she is right to distrust it, and read it as a sign of vanity. 
“A little difficulty to be overcome was no evil to Henry Crawford. He rather derived spirits from it. He had been apt to gain hearts too easily. His situation was new and animating.” (Ch.33) 
Again, I don’t doubt that Henry has feelings for Fanny, but the fact that she doesn’t like him back attracts him even more.  
In the end, Fanny’s right for distrusting and refusing Henry. 
(Now I suppose you can guess my thoughts on Rochester—honestly, Jane Austen’s much wiser than Charlotte Bronte).

3/ Against the idea that a woman can or should try to change a man. 
Through Fanny, Jane Austen expresses her view that a woman shouldn’t accept a bad guy and expect to reform him—that’s a naïve, idealistic thought, it never works (look at Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall). Not only so—let’s look at this conversation between Fanny and Edmund: 
““I am persuaded that he does not think, as he ought, on serious subjects.”
“[…] Crawford's feelings, I am ready to acknowledge, have hitherto been too much his guides. Happily, those feelings have generally been good. You will supply the rest; and a most fortunate man he is to attach himself to such a creature—to a woman who, firm as a rock in her own principles, has a gentleness of character so well adapted to recommend them. He has chosen his partner, indeed, with rare felicity. He will make you happy, Fanny; I know he will make you happy; but you will make him everything.”
“I would not engage in such a charge,” cried Fanny, in a shrinking accent; “in such an office of high responsibility!”” (Ch.35) 
Here, Jane Austen also goes against the 19th century idea that women are morally superior and should try to tame and manage their husbands.  

4/ A woman has the right to say no, and doesn’t have to provide reason. 
When Edmund tells Fanny that Henry’s sisters, Mary and Mrs Grant, are disappointed and not happy that she rejects Henry, this is the response: 
““I should have thought,” said Fanny, after a pause of recollection and exertion, “that every woman must have felt the possibility of a man's not being approved, not being loved by some one of her sex at least, let him be ever so generally agreeable. Let him have all the perfections in the world, I think it ought not to be set down as certain that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself. […] How, then, was I to be—to be in love with him the moment he said he was with me? How was I to have an attachment at his service, as soon as it was asked for? His sisters should consider me as well as him. […] And, and—we think very differently of the nature of women, if they can imagine a woman so very soon capable of returning an affection as this seems to imply.”” (Ch.35) 
That is such an important passage that I’m surprised I’ve read dozens of essays about Mansfield Park and nobody ever talks about it. A woman has the perfect right to say no, and doesn’t have to justify herself for not loving a man who says he loves her.   

5/ Against the idea that if a woman says no, a man should persevere till she says yes. 
Henry declares his feelings to Fanny, she has no interest, but he doesn’t leave her alone. 
“The gentleman was not so easily satisfied. He had all the disposition to persevere that Sir Thomas could wish him. He had vanity, which strongly inclined him in the first place to think she did love him, though she might not know it herself; and which, secondly, when constrained at last to admit that she did know her own present feelings, convinced him that he should be able in time to make those feelings what he wished.
He was in love, very much in love; and it was a love which, operating on an active, sanguine spirit, of more warmth than delicacy, made her affection appear of greater consequence because it was withheld, and determined him to have the glory, as well as the felicity, of forcing her to love him.
[…] Must it not follow of course, that, when he was understood, he should succeed? He believed it fully. Love such as his, in a man like himself, must with perseverance secure a return, and at no great distance; and he had so much delight in the idea of obliging her to love him in a very short time, that her not loving him now was scarcely regretted.” (Ch.33) 
Just like Mr Collins thinks Elizabeth Bennet rejects him because she doesn’t know her own feelings, Henry doesn’t end it after getting rejected, but keeps coming back and trying to persuade her, even speaks to Sir Thomas, and doesn’t leave her alone. It’s not only him but everyone in the book, especially Sir Thomas, thinks that he only has to persevere and she will yield. Different people try to convince and put pressure on Fanny, from Sir Thomas to Mary Crawford. 
It’s the same today—many men can’t accept a no from a woman, and think that if they just keep asking, at some point the woman will say yes.  
Some people may argue that Mr Darcy proposes twice in Pride and Prejudice and Robert Martin does the same in Emma, but in each case, there’s a gap between the 2 proposals, and many things happen in that time. There’s a difference between trying again after some time, not giving up after a rejection, and harassing a woman till she says yes, which is what Henry tries to do. Henry keeps coming back and talking about it, helps William get promoted to keep score and make Fanny accept him, and tries to make everyone else put pressure on her.  
It is clear that Jane Austen strongly objects to the idea that if a woman says no, a man should persevere till she says yes. 
In short, by using the marriage plot over and over again, Jane Austen keeps exploring different kinds of relationships and stressing the important elements for a happy marriage. Mansfield Park is the novel that encapsulates the best her views on relationships and marriages.

Sunday 19 January 2020

On 2 new Jane Austen adaptations [updated]

This blog post was originally published on 23/11/2019. I’m now adding an addendum to argue against myself, and republishing it. 

Original text on 23/11/2019:
1/ Sanditon (2019): 

The trailer for the series doesn’t look too bad, except that the music feels off. However, I have no intention of watching it because of Andrew Davies. I have criticised him several times and will say it again: he adapts classic works with the delusion that he is improving them, and sexes up everything from Jane Austen to George Eliot and even Tolstoy. He is responsible for the misrepresentation (and misunderstanding) of Jane Austen in popular culture, and ruins everything he touches.
A few months ago, whilst reading Little Dorrit, I considered watching his adaptation. But then I came across his crude remarks about Dickens and Amy Dorrit, and thought that someone who had such thoughts wouldn’t have enough understanding and sensitivity to adapt Little Dorrit.
So I’ve never seen it.
To go back to the adaptation of Sanditon, I read the book in 2016. It’s more worrisome that it’s an unfinished novel, which means that Andrew Davies would have had more freedom with characters and storyline. I’ve also seen a few reactions here and there that make me think I wouldn’t like it.

2/ Emma (2020):

Do we need another Emma? Not really. But I’m going to see it anyway.
So far I’ve seen the Kate Beckinsale one, the Gwyneth Paltrow one, and Clueless. Clueless is the best—such a radical adaptation (moving Emma’s story to modern day’s American high school) explains Jane Austen’s universal appeal and adaptability. It also shows that a loose adaptation with changed settings may retain the author’s spirit a lot better than many adaptations that appear faithful on the surface.
Regarding this new adaptation, it looks mad. It makes me think of Love and Friendship (adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan). Maybe I’ll like it. Maybe I’ll hate it. I don’t know. But it’s very different from the 2 adaptations from 1996, in tone—that is, if the film is like the trailer.


Addendum on 19/1/2020: 
Have you ever felt convinced that you’ve watched a film, only to realise later that you haven’t, and there’s no reason for you to have thought so? 
Because that’s me with the Emma adaptation with Kate Beckinsale. Unbelievable. But the wrong has been righted—I saw it yesterday. 
Since I wrote the text above a few months ago, I’ve seen the Kate Beckinsale’s Emma, rewatched Clueless, and seen a longer trailer of the 2020 Emma twice at the cinema, and my thoughts have changed.  
1/ I previously had strong words about Andrew Davies, and my stance remains the same regarding the adaptations where he sexes it up and ruins something, especially Daniel Deronda and Pride and Prejudice. However, he’s the writer for the Kate Beckinsale’s Emma, and I must say it’s a very good adaptation. 
I can’t compare it to the Emma film with Gwyneth Paltrow, which came out the same year (1996), because I don’t remember that one. But I remember not thinking much of Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance as Emma, whereas I think Kate Beckinsale is good and very lovable as Emma. Which leads to: 
2/ Now, having seen the long trailer twice, I’m convinced I’m going to dislike the new Emma.  
Why? Because of the cast.   
Emma Woodhouse, in my opinion, is very difficult to cast, because the audience are meant to like her in spite of her faults. Emma can be thoughtless, snobbish, and meddlesome; she may misinterpret everything, make mistakes, and hurt others; but deep down she is kind, means to do well, tries to help others, and has self-reflection (like other Jane Austen heroines). It is important that Emma is charming and lovable. A miscast Emma may appear haughty, contemptuous, shallow, egoistic, annoying, and so on.  
Kate Beckinsale, to me, is perfect as Emma. Alicia Silverstone also has the qualities to make her likable as the modern-day version. 
I’m not so sure about Anya Taylor-Joy. 
I also don’t like Johnny Flynn as George Knightley (especially after seeing Mark Strong), nor Callum Turner as Frank Churchill—I don’t think Johnny Flynn has the right look for Knightley, and Callum Turner looks too obvious as a scumbag and doesn’t seem to have the charisma of Frank, but maybe it’s hard to tell from the trailer alone. 
A friend of mine who also likes Jane Austen thinks the new Emma seems to have too much comedy. That may or may not work (Love & Friendship is hysterical, and it’s excellent). But the cast? I have my doubts.