Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Amazing Grace of Fanny

This really ought to be a post on lovely Fanny, Jane Austen's most maligned heroine; rather it is a short note about something I thought interesting enough to share, but not meaty enough to warrant a long post.

Jason and I just watched Amazing Grace (2006) last night. Good movie; not great, but good. I learned quite a bit about England's abolitionist movement. Thought a lot about Jane, as this moral and political battle was raging in her formative years. And, while I was watching, who should beam out on my TV screen but Miss Fanny Price! And there was Edmund Bertram, too! They were playing married couple, Marianne and Henry Thornton (two "Austen character" first names, the latter being a favorite . . . Hey! I'm drawing all the Austen tidbits I can out of this to make a longer post!). I love when they use a real-life married couple to play a married couple on stage or screen.

OK, before you think I've gone loopy, I am just teasing. But, Sylvestra Le Touzel and Nicholas Farrell were in the 1983 British mini-series of Mansfield Park (playing Fanny and Edmund respectively), which remains to this day the only screen adaptation of Mansfield Park to watch -- not so much because of its great merit, but because of Patricia Rozema's 1999 atrocity that bears the same name as, but little else of, Miss Austen's masterpiece.*

And, how appropriate is this casting decision, considering that Fanny Price is the only character in any Jane Austen novel (other than an obtuse reference by Jane Fairfax in Emma) to even refer to the slave trade, which was such a hotly debated topic of the era? I am certain that the casting director took that into account.

Anyway, I thought that was a tad interesting. Been reading a lot of J.K. Rowling, not so much Jane Austen, but Persuasion is in queue right after Deathly Hallows. Dear Anne Elliot's birthday is coming up, and I do so want to participate in Lynnae's event. Hi-dee-ho! Off I go!

*It has again come to my attention -- I had blocked it out after a disastrous night of seeing Lizzy exploited on the bookshelves of Barnes & Noble -- that there is also a 2007 British made-for-TV movie of Mansfield Park. I know I ought not to judge a DVD by its cover, but my first thought upon seeing it was, "My, that Fanny looks slutty." Needless to say, I did not rush home and Netflix it.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Anne's Birthday Celebration!

I thought of my dear friend, vermonster, when I saw this wonderful idea on The Little White Attic. I did not realize that Anne Elliot in Persuasion is the only character to whom Jane Austen granted a birthdate -- August 9. To celebrate our patient, overlooked, and disregarded Anne (at least until Capt. Wentworth gets back to his senses), Lynnae is hosting a Birthday Celebration. Please click over to her site and see what you can do to participate.

Let's do!

Monday, July 20, 2009

S&S&SM Trailer

Check out the trailer for Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters:

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters

Got the latest buzz from my Chronicle Books insider (distributor of Quirk Books) that the next entry in the bizarre fusion of Jane Austen and monster lit. will be Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.

Oh, yes they did.

Well, at least a lot of the action of that novel takes place in a cottage by the sea, right? Should be interesting to see how they keep this concept fresh. In my opinion, this is not quite as heretical as Quirk Classic the First, because it is S&S's, not P&P's, being "enhanced."

I will keep abreast of this disturbing and amusing trend.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance -- Now With Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith
Quirk Books; Philadelphia, PA (2009)

The things I do for Austensorium.

I was not going to read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. I just love P&P too much, and I have a real distaste for horror. Mixing the two would be a devil's brew, and I did not want that memory super-imposed the next time I settle down to enjoy the stormy courtship of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. But then I thought of Austensorium and its mission -- to examine and illuminate the continuing legacy of Miss Austen by keeping one finger firmly pressed to the pulse of popular and literary culture -- and I knew that I had to read and review it for the sake of this blog.

So, it is finished. And I cannot truly say that I regret the read. I mean, there is, as advertised, much in the way of "ultraviolent zombie mayhem," but much of it is simply funny, rather than disgusting. And, in all, it is clever the way Mr. Grahame-Smith works in the zombie (referred to, politely, by the assaulted population as 'unmentionables') attacks -- Satan's spawn trudging inexorably on the roads to and from Meryton; brain-seeking monsters crashing the neighborhood balls; the undead waylaying inter-county carriage rides -- with the otherwise calm and ordered existence of English gentry. I think that, had this been the extent of the additions, Mr. Grahame-Smith would have had an unqualified triumph. Unfortunately, he went about the business of altering Elizabeth's character so thoroughly, that our favorite Brit Lit heroine comes across as schizophrenic at best, and almost reprehensible at worst.

My father, who is reading this book in small doses to prolong his enjoyment, argued with me when I pointed out that Elizabeth had been completely changed; and, since her character -- with its playfulness, liveliness, and light-heartedness -- is the very essence of the book, I could not entirely enjoy the novel. "But," my father pointed out, "England has been under threat from these 'unmentionables' for the past 50 years . . . don't you think that that very fact could have legitimately changed Elizabeth from her playful nature into the hardened killer that she has had to become?"

Maybe, but, to paraphrase Mr. Bingley, a Pride and Prejudice without the central Elizabethness at its heart might be an interesting book, but it is not so much like Pride and Prejudice. She is the book -- and, while I think she could have worked as a zombie slayer by accident and necessity, she does not really work as a ruthless, heart-eating, revengeful sort of person. What is even more strange, is that Mr. Grahame-Smith left in enough of Jane Austen's portrayal of Elizabeth to split entirely her personality. So, we still have Austen's Elizabeth blushing and demure and witty and sassy sprinkled throughout, with Grahame-Smith's warrior Elizabeth soaked in both thought and action with bloodlust bookending the former. Like I said, rather schizophrenic.

And, of course, since Mr. Grahame-Smith (who unfortunately, despite having such an Englishly hyphenated last name, does not appear to be British) is a youngish male with, presumably, what are trademarked youngish male inclinations, there are some rather vulgar sexual references thrown into Darcy's and Elizabeth's banter. This is, of course, superfluous, as Miss Austen wrote the sexiest novel that you could read aloud to your maiden aunt. With its fiery undercurrent of sexual tension, it is far more hot and heavy than the sophomoric puns and euphemisms employed by Mr. Grahame-Smith. Of course, I guess men see that sort of thing differently from women.

Perhaps the best part of the book is the "Reader's Discussion Guide" at the end. This priceless scream is a send-up of those ubiquitous book-club-pandering addenda that try to elevate every weeper novel into literature by attaching deep, reflective questions to the text. Hardy-har-har! My other favorite part is the internal musings of Charlotte regarding the potential match of Mr Darcy and Elizabeth during the latter's stay at Hunsford. To write much more would be an unfair spoiler.

All in all, I would say that for any true, diehard Austen fan, this is a must-read -- if only to have it on your bookshelf with its over-the-top cover. Is it silly, strange and mildly offensive? Sure. But, it is also a very intriguing idea, and, if you are anything like me (and I suspect you are), your curiosity will get the better of you in the end. So, give in at the beginning, and come back here to discuss.

One last critical note: My father claims that the zombie scenes are so seamlessly written into the original that he cannot tell where Miss Austen's writing leaves off and Mr. Grahame-Smith's begins. That only proves to me that he has not read nearly as much Jane Austen as he should have. Shame on him. I could always tell -- sometimes it was jarring, at others merely amusing. If you read the book, please let me know whether it is as obvious to you.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Coming Soon: P&P&Z

I'm almost done with the book and a review is already percolating in my cauliflower-like brain. And if you have no idea to what I refer, then journey to this site in a few days and you will be disabused of all your innocence and ignorance and, possibly, your peace of mind.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Sensational Sense and Sensibility

I try to see Jane Austen flicks whenever I can. Sometimes, this is highly rewarding (Pride & Prejudice, 1995). Sometimes it is deeply depressing (Mansfield Park, 1999). But, Janeite that I am, I willingly pop the DVD into the player time and time again to see new interpretations of some of the greatest work in the Brit Lit canon.

Somehow, Andrew Davies's 2008 mini-series of Sense and Sensibility never came to my attention until earlier this year. Upon its doing so, however, I hurriedly Netflixed it for a luxurious revelry of home viewing. My husband said to count him in (he has a fondness for empire-waisted dresses with coyly flaunting d├ęcolletage), and we began.

Enchanting. Entertaining. Endearing. Exquisite.
Sense-ational. (Oh dear, that is just a terrible pun. I beg your forgiveness and Miss Auten's as well.) Warning: Spoilers ahead. Stop if you have not read the book. Go read the book and meet me back here.

It is easier to enjoy a film adaptation of a book you merely like, rather than one you love. I'm far more indulgent and willing to be pleased by an open-handed interpretation of one of my less-favorite Austen offerings. Sense and Sensibility falls into this category, so I was able to relax and take in every detail with a readier spirit than, say, the mediocre 2005 P&P movie or the wretched 1999 Mansfield Park aberration.

The mini-series begins with a most un-Austen-ish sex scene. Yes. Sex scene. It is a relatively mild scenario between an unnamed man and woman, but I could see a gleam in my husband's eye that clearly said, "Maybe I ought to start reading Jane Austen novels." Well, he should; but not for the sex scenes, because they are all off stage in Miss Austen's comedies of manners.

Rather than get all miss-ish and piqued, I went with it. I already trusted Mr. Davies for his unparalleled adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 1995, so I was more than willing to see what he was up to with S&S. And what he did was proceed to offer a beautiful contribution to Austen filmography -- gorgeous cinematography, a fast-paced and well-balanced script, faithful yet flexible interpretation, and superb casting. Casting was the key. The 1995 Ang Lee version of S&S was, unfortunately, unconvincingly cast.

In Sense and Sensibility (1995), Emma Thompson in no way looked a convincing 19-year-old Elinor. Kate Winslet, though appropriately young, was too hard-featured to play soft, yielding Marianne. Hugh Grant was too foppish for Edward -- could he have played Willoughby? -- nah. Alan Rickman was just too old and creepy looking to play Colonel Brandon. You could not blame Marianne one bit for repulsing his courtship, nor help but feel sorry for her when she accepts his hand at the end. Greg Wise, as the wicked Willoughby, was the best cast part, in my opinion.

But, in Andrew Davies's film, the cast looked the part. Elinor (Hattie Morahan) was young and fresh, yet she still came across as steady and reliable. Marianne (Charity Wakefield) looked innocent and girlish and impulsive. Edward (Dan Stevens) was still too good looking, but he looked so virile and tormented, I was appeased. Colonel Brandon (David Morrissey) was perfect -- he looked like a man of the world, but still romantic enough to capture the elusive Marianne at last. And Mrs. Dashwood (Janet McTeer) was so beautiful a widow, it was easy to see where her lovely daughters got their own good looks -- plus, she struck the right balance between pleasingly maternal and frustratingly impractical. Willoughby (Dominic Cooper) was the least satisfying. He never quite captured that glib, high-spirited sexiness that seems so elemental to Marianne's enrapturement. Cooper's Willoughby seemed more brooding and intense -- as maybe, in the role of a Romantic seducer, he was intended to be.

Casting helps greatly. Setting helps, too. The cottage to where the Dashwoods are banished by straitened means looks the part: musty and old and cramped. The family tableaux of both the Ferrars and the Middletons were startling and funny. The costuming was convincing. And every shot of the British landscape was a treat for the eyes. Mr. Davies knew what he was about.

So, here's the thing: As I have been reading others' reviews of this version of S&S, I see many fans of the book outraged or miffed by this or that liberty with dialogue or characterization or plotting. I am wholly in sympathy with those reviewers, because I have been there with my own reviews of interpretations of her other works. As I have only read the book twice, I simply do not know S&S well enough to be so finicky. This version jibes with my own recollection of the characters and the general vision and scope of the novel. And that's enough for me. Here is a note of no little worth as well: My husband, who has never read the book, nor seen the 1995 adaptation, was captivated from beginning to end of the three-part series. I think that says a lot.

I highly recommend this excellent version of Miss Auten's first published work; and, as always, I welcome your comments -- agreeing or disagreeing.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Rambling Fancy and Flirting with Pride & Prejudice

Here is a review that I started right before leaving for Barnabas in July 2007. It was originally going to be a review of two Austen books I had recently read, but for the life of me, I cannot recall what the second book was! That's what almost two years and a fondness for Harp will get you.

I've always wanted a good guide book to "Jane Austen's England," as I cherish the hope of someday paying homage to the ground on which her pattened boots tread in bad weather and the walls within which her genius flowed forth. A Rambling Fancy: In the Footsteps of Jane Austen by Caroline Sanderson is not that guide book, but it is something more and something better. Part travel essay, part biography, part personal speculation, A Rambling Fancy is a jolly good time. Ms. Sanderson knows her stuff and writes well; therefore, she has earned the right to guide us on her personal pilgrimage to all places Austen. Truly, this book reads as though it were written by your best friend -- should you be fortunate enough to possess a friend so learned in Austenalia and so outspoken with her well-informed opinions thereof.

I love the way Caroline Sanderson unhesitatingly challenges some of the conventional wisdom of Jane Austen. Ms. Sanderson is a careful and thoughtful reader of the novels and the letters, and she boldly takes on such Austen lore as Jane's loathing of Bath (Sanderson holds that Austen rather liked the resort town), Jane's matrimonial longings (Sanderson sees a positive decision to remain single and devoted to writing, rather than an unlooked-for spinsterhood), the Tom Lefroy debacle (Sanderson finds it hard to believe that Jane's heart was broken by their interrupted flirtation). More, though, than these contentions, Ms. Sanderson brings her own keen eye and piercing wit to the people and places she encounters on her journey, which makes the book a fun read even, I hazard to say, for those without lifetime memberships in the Austen fan club.

Ms. Sanderson begins A Rambling Fancy (whose name is taken from Fanny Price in Mansfield Park: You will think me rhapsodizing; but when I am out of doors, especially when I am sitting out of doors, I am very apt to get into this sort of wondering strain. One cannot fix one's eyes on the commonest natural production without finding food for a rambling fancy.) in Jane Austen birthplace, Steventon. How disappointing to think that the old rectory where young Jane composed her Juvenalia stories and scraps for the amusement of her family circle is long gone! At least the church where her father officiated still stands. Particularly poignant is Sanderson's recounting of this entry from the guestbook: "I just wanted to see something she saw."

From there, Sanderson wanders to Bath, where the Austens went to live after Jane's father retired from the clergy in 1801. Fortunately, many of the buildings of the Georgian and Regency eras still stand. As she was relating her encounters with "Jane Austen as Big Bucks Tourist Attraction" things in Bath, I couldn't help but think of my father's trip to Bath in 2004. He made a PowerPoint presentation for us afterward and included this picture of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath:

Coming from the mannequin's mouth was a cartoon speaking bubble with the cry, "Help! Help! I'm being exploited!" He thought the Jane Austen Centre in Bath was a rip-off. I thought the souvenirs he brought me were lovely.

I think that Ms. Sanderson was more inclined to agree with my father. The kitschy overdone-ness of some of the Austen memorabilia and the patness of the touring programs seemed to disappoint her; though, her spirited banter with the walking tour guide, Roger, makes for an enjoyable read. I wouldn't want to be an Austen tour guide. I can only imagine the frothing-at-the-mouth fanatics they must encounter -- genteel-looking women of all ages whose sharp-edged tongues belie their modestly feminine appearances as soon as the guide ventures a not quite kosher opinion or propagates a downright myth. At least, that's how I imagine myself on a Jane Austen tour.

From Bath, Ms. Sanderson goes to Lyme Regis, a place more interesting for itself, it would seem, than for its Austen heritage. Apparently the Austens vacationed there several times when Mr. Austen was still alive and there was money available for such seashore jaunts. It's funny to think, isn't it, of 18th Century families going on vacation -- that seems like more of a modern phenomenon. But, Lyme Regis sounds like a fascinating bit of English coastline, and Louisa Musgrove did take her famous plunge off of those (impossibly steep and precarious) steps, so the town deserves the chapter it's given.

Godmersham, the estate that Jane's brother Edward inherited from his adoptive parents, is the star of the next part of the adventure. I found this chapter very exciting, as I had never before really contemplated what having a brother in such a situation might mean for Jane. Not surprisingly, her letters detail cherished moments alone in the cozy, fire lit library of the big house, and, of course, the good wine she could imbibe.

***This is where I was dragged off to family camp. I'm sure I hadn't much more to write. Reading over this review, I cannot help but think that this sounds like a lovely book. I'll have to pull it from my home library and give it a second read.

Since my original intent was to share about two books, I will add a bit about an unfortunate Austen-ish book that I checked out of the public library. It is Flirting With Pride & Prejudice: Fresh Perspectives on the Original Chick-Lit Masterpiece edited by Jennifer Crusie (BenBella, 2005). Many authors from several different genres -- most of whom I had never heard before -- offered essays and short fiction inspired by that most fruitful of Austen works, P&P. I cringed a little at seeing my favorite comedy of manners denigrated as "chick-lit" on the cover (and, I imagine, many proud chick-lit authors would cringe at my calling such a designation a denigration), but I was in a benevolent mood, so I checked it out.

I couldn't make it entirely through Ms Crusie's introduction. So, I skipped ahead to an essay by Laura Caldwell called "High-Class Problems." I couldn't get into that either. The book sat on my nightstand, reproaching my negligence for another three weeks, until I had mercy on myself and returned it to the library. I guess when you love something as much as I love P&P, you cannot stand to see it passed around like a cheap whore.

I realize that this estimation is probably pretty harsh. I admit that I did not give the collection more than the most cursory of glances. I confess that I am an intolerant purist when it comes to Miss Austen. But there are my two cents, for what they are worth. I recently came across this gem of a line in Cold Comfort Farm that reminded me of Flirting with Pride & Prejudice: One of the disadvantages of almost universal education was the fact that all kinds of persons acquired a familiarity with one's favourite writers. It gave one a curious feeling; it was like seeing a drunken stranger wrapped in one's own dressing gown. As always, Flora Poste nailed it.

Appreciating Austen as Austen

To me, one of the most frustrating aspects of the enduring obsession on both sides of the pond with all things Austen is that -- so far as ground-breaking discoveries or observations -- there is so little left to be said. Sometimes, in groping for a new and startling angle, admirers and scholars start proposing things that are simply silly. The worst is when people -- usually womyn in academia -- co-opt Jane to their own political agenda. All of a sudden, Miss Austen loses an "i" and a "s," and it is a bitter Ms indeed who writes subversive proto-feminist manifestos against the patriarchal Western cultural structure of Regency England. Oh please.

My fellow weary Janeites will be happy to hear that there is a recent volume of critical essays that bucks these vicious trends. Richard Jenkyns of Oxford has offered us a rare treat in his A Fine Brush on Ivory: An Appreciation of Jane Austen (Oxford University Press, 2004). Here, at last, is Austen without sensationalism; Austen without revisionism; Austen without an agenda. I nearly missed this slender book when perusing the shelves at my local library branch. Thank heavens that I didn't, for to read this thoughtful thesis is to drink from the refreshing well of elegance and sanity.

The main theme of A Fine Brush on Ivory is found in this declaration a bit of the way into the second chapter, "The Shape of Comedy": There are good, even great, novelists who are not good story-tellers, and there are highly gifted story-tellers who write thoroughly bad books. Jane Austen was a very good story-teller and a very good novelist. How did she do it? Mr Jenkyns then proceeds to show us how. That he is able to dissect and expound upon Miss Austen's craft in a way that, far from detracting from the mystery of her artistry, magically seems to enhance the reader's appreciation of it is a singular accomplishment for which he deserves not only our approbation, but our gratitude.

The book opens, appropriately enough, with a chapter titled, "Beginnings." And it is in this chapter that you discover that you are on excitingly uncommon Austen ground. Mr. Jenkyns uses the famous first lines of Pride and Prejudice as a springboard to examine what makes Miss Austen so very innovative and unique among novelists. I had never stopped to notice how differently P&P opens, not only compared with other writers both before and after her time, but also from Austen's other novels. Mr. Jenkyns points out that she begins with a pair of bold and succinct aphorisms, delves immediately into dialogue, and ends the chapter with a brief character study. Not only does this mark P&P as a comedy from the outset, not only does this structure read more like a play, but the character vignette at the end serves to congratulate the astute reader on what he has already discerned. In other words, by describing and defining Mr. and Mrs. Bennet at the end of a fast-paced and highly comical discourse, the author shares with her reader a sly, knowing wink when she "reveals" that Mr. Bennet is an odd mixture of "quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve and caprice" and his lady possesses "mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper."

That is just a small slice of what awaits the lucky Austen fan who stumbles upon this tender tribute. Mr. Jenkyns not only delights in his subject, he has both the critical chops and the graceful pen to write a substantial contribution to Austen scholarship without sounding as though he were in the throes of a bowel complaint.

Richard Jenkyns touches upon all the novels, but his main concentration is upon Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma. In each, he brings to light different ideas to ponder in subsequent re-readings of Miss Austen's work. Will Mrs. Norris seem any more sympathetic when we realize that she is the only loveless character in Mansfield Park?* Will our view of Emma change when we read Mr. Woodhouse as the villain of the piece? And, will Mr. Jenkyns assertion that Mr. Darcy's first proposal to Elizabeth reveals that "he is so desperate to get her into bed that he will marry her even though it will be a degradation to him" make Darcy even more of a sexy beast the next time we enjoy Pride and Prejudice?

Though, in the end, Richard Jenkyns's fine work may not be at the top of your mind the next time you revel in Austen, you will be infinitely richer for having had the experience of reading his thoughtful observations beforehand. Let them seep into the rivers of your subconscious, and you may just find something newer, deeper, even more fulfilling on Miss Austen's famous "little bit[s] (two inches wide) of ivory." I find it always easy to get more from Austen with every reading -- her bounty seems limitless -- but A Fine Brush on Ivory gives you a headwind on the next journey, and a kindred spirit to sail with as well.

*Having since re-read MP, I can answer that, for me, the answer is, "No."