Tag Archive | Jane Austen

The Young Clementina/Emma – book reviews

Emma

This book was such a joy to read again. It’s been several years since I’ve read it and I understand why some call it Jane Austen’s “masterpiece.” It’s a bit longer than her other works, and is more about growing up than romance. It also has some great lines, like, “men of sense don’t want silly wives.”

Emma Woodhouse is about 21 and lives with her father. They are a family of means and live a life of leisure. Emma has never known hardship and her father has been permanently scarred by it, afraid of anything and everything that might cause harm to a loved one or himself. Emma’s main job is caring for her father, though she doesn’t find it a burden. She also helps the poor and is generally charming. She’s isn’t as likable as some of Austen’s other heroines, however, as she’s very spoiled and meddles where she shouldn’t.

Thinking herself a great matchmaker, as she correctly saw that her sister and the younger Mr. Knightley were falling in love, much of the book’s comedy rests on her various schemes and assumptions about other people. It is only her lifelong friend, the older Mr. Knightley, who checks her behavior. I’m not sure I find Mr. Knightley particularly swoonworthy–he often seems like a school lecturer and is at least as opinionated as Emma, but has sense and logic on his side. Their banter is pretty fun, and it’s easy to forget about the 16 year age gap. By the end of the book, it is clear he is the only one who could marry Emma, having both completely understood her and loved her, and also having understood Emma’s father and her family’s somewhat eccentric ways.

The most hard-hitting scene, most people will recognize, that in which Emma on her worst behavior teases and insults a spinster names Miss Bates. Miss Bates talks too much, and this irritates Emma immensely, and she makes a joke at the older woman’s expense. Mr. Knightley tells her this was, “badly done,” which Emma knows, but still needs to be told, because her redemption in the final chapters of the book only comes with her feelings of remorse and repentance. She realizes what an awful thing it is to meddle with peoples lives–especially not knowing all of the facts–and that although old friends may sometimes be ridiculous, we should still treat them with gentleness and respect. Even being in the right, Mr. Knightley doesn’t think himself immune to criticism as well, even saying of Emma that she’s borne his corrections as no other women would.

Mr. Knightley is just as quick with his praise as his chastisement of her. He tells Emma that she chose better for the vicar Mr. Elton than he ended up choosing for himself. Mr. Knightley learned that although Emma was fanciful, her dreams, too, were based on some truth. And he himself is also susceptible to matchmaking, which I found amusing. Isn’t it true that if we’re not involved in our own love stories, we’re often imagining them for those around us, both the men and the women? This kind of drama in some sense appeals to both sexes, because everyone likes to be in the know and likes to think they are smart enough to observe a love story unfolding in front of them even if the two supposed lovers don’t even know it yet.

I like Emma and Knightley a bit more than I do Elizabeth and especially Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. Despite being rich, they seem to be more in tune with real people, and although they still do judge prematurely, it is more on the positive side of doing it, than the negative. Emma often talks about not being able to associate with people of lower class, but it’s clear from her behavior that it’s not really that big of a deal to her–she’d rather be at the party with her friends than home alone. It’s much hinted in the book that this is a time in England when class distinctions are starting to become hazy around the edges. Mr. Knightley reinforces this attitude, by paying special attentions to Jane Fairfax, who is a poor orphan, sticking up for Miss Bates, who despite her faults is a kind lady and someone who as she ages will sink ever lower into poverty as well, and by taking the time to get to know Harriett Smith, also an orphan and lower in class. Knightley is also a champion for Robert Martin, a farmer who works for him, as being a great match for Harriet to Emma’s higher class minister, Mr. Elton. By the end of the story, we see that Emma and Mr. Knightley are very well matched as they can easily speak plainly to each other and also have the ability to anticipate and care for the needs of their friends and family.

How important a quality is this? Well, many relationships fail because of communication, so I’d say it’s a true blessing to have that in common. They also both generally have sunny outlooks, perhaps due to being wealthy, but also due to a lifelong friendship in which this has constantly been enforced between them. As for their caring natures, they aren’t going to give away their money willy nilly, but generally they pay respect to those around them and care deeply for those in their direct spheres. In marriage, and working together as a team, the good they could do would be doubled, making their marriage a blessing beyond themselves.

It’s funny to me that even though Mr. Knightley knows Emma so well and doesn’t lean as much towards imaginations not based in reality, he’s still not sure of himself in winning her. She, too, is certain he must love someone else, not her. Austen often shows us that both people who have everything to lose and nothing to lose still struggle when it comes to declaring their love and being certain of it being accepted. We, no matter our station, find ourselves unworthy of love to some degree, always “half agony, half hope,” as she says in, I think, Persuasion.

I highly recommend again the Masterpiece Theatre miniseries of Emma starring Romola Garai and Johnny Lee Miller. It is a faithful adaptation of the book and both leads capture their characters perfectly and have genuine chemistry of deep friendship about them. They seem so much already in a relationship that the romantic declarations at the end are rather meh compared to Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam in the Emma movie, but it works well as, like I said, I find the story to be more about growing up than falling in love.

The Young Clementina

This is another novel by D.E. Stevenson of the very funny Miss Buncle’s Book. The Young Clementina is about surviving difficult circumstances, but there are comedic moments within it. It’s perhaps comical just how much liars lie, how they upset everything, throwing it into turmoil just because they can. It’s both sad and funny how much people fall for lies. One would presume any observant, common sense person, can see the truth, but that’s often not the case. We often give liars too much benefit of the doubt, while scorning others in the process. Humans are prone, too prone, to getting things wrong.

I’m not quite finished with the book yet, but it’s a story about a woman whose sister turns her life upside down, how she recovers from that, and how she helps her niece recover from it as well. I think it will have a happy ending, but not an ecstatic one. Compared to Miss Buncle, it’s fairly low-key. I have to admit I struggle with the title name, thinking of it as Clementine in my head, having never heard of the name Clementina before. Also, it took awhile for me to see where the story is going, but now I have an inkling that more lies are to be revealed.

Kdramas

Haven’t finished any new Kdramas as I’m taking a detour and rewatching Goblin or The Guardian starring Gong Yoo (Train to Busan) again. It’s one of the best dramas out there, though at times I’m not sure the fantasy plot makes sense. Goblin is a perfect combination of great acting, direction, soundtrack, and story, and one I will probably rewatch periodically as now that it’s available on viki.com!

Jane Austen fan fiction: Death Comes to Pemberley and Longbourn

Death Comes to PemberleyLately, I’ve been on a Jane Austen fan fiction kick.  Austenland was an entertaining movie and great book, so I decided to check out the BBC version of P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberly.

Death Comes to Pemberley has good and bad about it.  The good:  Matthew Goode is the perfect Wickham and I wish we could go back in time a few years and have him play Wickham in the Keira Knightley version.  I also enjoyed Lydia and Mr. and Mrs. Bennett.  All four of these characters seemed more or less as if they’d walked off of the pages of P&P.  Also good, the mystery itself proved layered and intriguing, and the characters, like Sir Hardcastle (Trevor Eve, who looks eerily like Ben Franklin in this role), lawyer Henry Galveston (James Norton of Happy Valley), and Louisa Bidwell (Nichola Burley) were great additions to the P&P world.  Mr. Darcy, played by Matthew Rhys seemed more or less himself, except perhaps a bit too severe in manner considering he’s been married to the love of his life for a few years now.

The bad: Elizabeth Darcy.  Anna Maxwell Martin (Becoming Jane, North & South, The Bletchley Circle) is a stellar actress, and perfect for most period films and shows.  As Elizabeth Darcy née Bennett, however, she is outright miscast, not only in looks, but also in manner.  Everyone pictures characters differently in their heads, but I never once thought of any of the Bennetts as being especially skinny.  They like good food, parties, balls, and sit for hours on end reading, sewing, etc.  A plump or healthy looking Elizabeth with rosy cheeks, and a face that draws the attention from everyone else in the room would make more sense.  Mr. Bennett married his silly wife because she had great looks, and everything in P&P insinuates that all of the girls, especially Jane, Elizabeth, and Lydia (and perhaps excepting Mary) inherited those same good looks.  Martin is good looking in her own right, but is by no means an Elizabeth Bennet/Darcy.  One cannot imagine her catching Darcy’s eye at all.

Besides that, her Elizabeth looks tired all the time and as if she has lost her enjoyment in life, has almost no wit to speak of, and no sense of style when it comes to dress.  This was such a glaring casting (and costuming) error, I have to wonder what the casting director and producers were thinking.  A better choice, though maybe not as well known, would have been Daniela Denbe-Ashe of the wonderful North & South (book by Elizabeth Gaskell), as suggested by an imdb.com user (I love reading the message boards on that site).  She has the right looks and also the right manner of someone who is unused to hardship, going by her great performance as Margaret Hale in North & South, which holds many similarities to Pride and Prejudice.

Being fan fiction, the Death Comes to Pemberley as a whole is not “Austen.”  Not that murder should ever be taken lightly, but it is possible to tell a light-hearted murder mystery, which would have suited this flattery to the classical author much better.  The whole love of Austen’s books has not much to do with how realistically she described the dirtiness or suffering of the times in which she lived, but her comic wit and spot on characters who are situated specifically in an upper class sort of life that doesn’t dive down into the mud.  Austen specifically chose to write this way, and refers to harsher realities only obliquely.  Making the stories “real” and in general depressing, is the key mistake that most Austen fan fiction writers make.  Jane Austen’s stories, although holding many truths, are light-hearted, generally follow and poke fun at Regency life, and are marked first and foremost by her amazing wit, and beyond that, her brevity.  The characters are never in any real danger, except of being lost to “good” society.  The miniseries was an improvement upon the actual Death Comes to Pemberly book by P.D. James, whose long-windedness and misunderstanding of Austen’s appeal made it impossible for me to get through even a chapter.

LongbournLongbourn by Jo Baker.  Much of the same criticisms I have for P.D. James hold true for this work as well.  The novel started out promising, P&P told from the viewpoint of the servants, but all too quickly the long descriptions begin to wear, as do the unnecessary knife digs at the family whom the servants serve.  In our modern eyes, servanthood appears to be a great evil, and this is continually the thrust of Baker’s tale. Her assumption is that the servants are unhappy with their work and station in life.  Cataloguing the woes and difficulties of being a Regency era servant could be an interesting tale, it’s just something that doesn’t jive with the original P&P story, and has more the effect of a long diatribe trying to make modern readers feel guilty for past so-called sins of their ancestors.

Longbourn revels in dirt, mud, chamber pots, and pages of description that bog the story down and you only remember it’s the story of P&P when Baker remembers to mention the girls’ soiled menstrual cloths.  Where is the delight that Jane Austen took in the world despite the troubles in it?  Where is her wit, her brevity, her wonderfully drawn characters who are happily and comically flawed?  It is as if Baker were plagued with Dorothea Brooke-itis from Middlemarch (by George Eliot), wherein she considers suffering of the lower classes to be the only virtue and the only thing worth remedying, and that enjoying life (like the Bennetts generally do) is somehow a sin, as is poking fun at ridiculous characters, like Mr. Collins, when they are behaving both ridiculously and rudely.

In this sense, Longbourn is no compliment to Austen, but a backhanded slap.  So what if Austen didn’t regale us on the suffering (debatable) servant class or other classes?  It doesn’t follow that she had no sympathy for their various plights, or that her own class was free of worry or trouble in the world.  Everyone suffers in this world, no matter their station.  The character of a person, their outlook on life, their faith, their hope, what they love, all contribute to their happiness in the world.  Some people are never happy no matter their station, and some are ecstatic in whatever sphere they find themselves. We don’t have to, like Dorothea Brooke, feel guilty about enjoying where we are in life, even if we are middle or upper class.  We don’t have to, like Hermione Granger of Harry Potter, interfere on behalf of lower classes that may actually not want our help, classes that may actually enjoy their station in life and resent our good intentions.  This is the “people’s history” of Pride and Prejudice, in which we are scolded for enjoying any frivolous pursuits, especially novels of humor, wit, and a love story where the main characters end up happy and (shock) do not consider daily their dear, saintly suffering servants.

I gave up on this book about halfway through.  Had it been a book apart from P&P, I think I still wouldn’t have finished it, mostly due to the too-long descriptions.  There is a saying that “brevity is the soul of wit,” and this is so true when considering Austen’s works.  Emma is the longest novel, but they all are rather short compared with modern doorstop tomes.  Describing things in detail for pages on end isn’t necessarily good writing, and most certainly not good storytelling.  I, too, am plagued with purple prose from time to time and it is a difficult vice to shake.  One thing I will say for Baker: what a great idea for a fan fic, and refreshing compared to other works that feature the main P&P characters, but botch them abominably.  Her attitude towards the Bennetts in this book is a bit mean spirited, but she managed to portray them more or less accurately.

On another note, I am super excited for the BBC presentation of Pride & Prejudice and Zombies!  It’s fan fiction as well, but the book kept up a spirit of lightheartedness and fun throughout, despite the rotting flesh descriptions and wounds that made me too ill to my stomach to continue beyond Elizabeth’s ninja attack on Mr. Darcy.  Visually, my stomach isn’t quite so queasy and I think this flattery to Austen might be the most complimentary yet.

Austenland: Book vs. Movie

Austenland

If you’re any sort of Jane Austen fan, you likely will have read and/or seen Austenland, the book by Shannon Hale, or the movie starring Keri Russell (Felicity, August Rush).  Are Austen addicts crazy spinster women?  Some, perhaps, and both book and movie are a half-warning against women delving too much into fantasy that they forget the very real men beside them.  The between-the-lines message of the story being that most men don’t care much for romance, daydreaming, or fantasy, and that women have to be more practical in their approach to romantic love.  And then both book and movie turn that idea on its head with a revolutionary thought:  A woman, not only in body, but mind and spirit, can be the answer to a man’s fantasy.  An intriguing thought, and likely a fantasy in itself, but I’ve known many men who are at heart very romantic and prone to daydreaming about the ideal woman, though one would not guess so upon first meeting them.

What is it about the Pride and Prejudice love story that both women and men like so much?  In this day and age, their wordy banter is a novelty to us, a society that leaps into bed with the first person we find attractive.  As much as we may poo-poo the societal physical restrains on romance from back in the day, our love of these kinds of stories show that we sort of miss those restraints, even if it’s just a little bit.  It’s like poetry.  Today, we have free verse, free verse, and only free verse, and although the poetry can be very good, it’s not quite as awesome as mastering the rules of a sonnet.  Rules can be a great way of shaping art, focusing the artist or writer to really hone their work.  Splat painting vs. the Mona Lisa, as one example.  Both can be admired, but only one is truly great art and precisely because it follows certain rules.  Perhaps we, with our very modern ways, secretly feel the same about romance.

Into the fray:  The book vs. the movie.  I enjoyed both, though, the book delved far deeper into this question of fantasy vs. reality.  Taking the movie first, it was cute, full of the appropriate fluff, and had some great performances.  Keri Russell plays a good everywoman, Jennifer Coolidge (Legally Blond) is hilarious as always, and Georgia King (Little Dorrit) was born to play period roles.  And Jane Seymour is still just as stunning as she was on Dr. Quinn.  Does this woman not age? 🙂  The standout character is Bret McKenzie’s (Flight of the Conchords) gardener.  He’s wickedly handsome, funny, charming, and far more appealing than the Mr. Darcy stand in of Mr. Nobley.  That’s not to say that Mr. Nobley played by J.J. Field (Captain America: First Avenger), doesn’t also have his charms, but he’s not given enough screen time to adequately nudge him to the head of the line.  I found myself wishing that, although he’s nothing like a Mr. Darcy, that McKenzie had had the main role (I love funny guys).  But that’s not the point, the point the of whole story is: Don’t give up on Mr. Darcy, he’s real.

Who is a Mr. Darcy, exactly?  Is he merely a hunk in a wet t-shirt?  The movie seems to indicate that for most women that’s all Darcy is, a daydream about a good looking man a la Colin Firth (or Ricky Whittle) in tight pants and a billowy shirt that tends to look best when damp as to outline his manly features.  The 1995 BBC version of Pride & Prejudice was a revelation in its time.  As for me,  when I first read the novel in college, I just didn’t get the appeal, and didn’t even want to finish it.  Neither did my friends.  So we rented this super long miniseries in the hope that we would be sufficiently caught up on all plot points enough to pass the test.  We subsequently ended up falling head over heels for Firth’s standoffish, irritating Mr. Darcy.  Jane Austen was a genius, and the miniseries made that clear, showing her wit and plotting to full effect.

Other standouts in the movie:  The scenery, house, and rooms are gorgeous.  Everything is done with a wink, wink, and we often get to see the male actors of Austenland in their downtime.  The various plots of Austen’s stories are woven well throughout, and the ball at the end is stunning.  This sort of theme park wouldn’t be entirely bad and could be a lot of fun if one went with friends — something similar to a murder mystery weekend at an old Victorian mansion.

To the book: Austenland has so much going for it.  It’s sweet, the main character is appealing, neurotic, and vulnerable, and the story walks the line between reality and fantasy well, yet ends where we all want it to, in the fantasy (or is it the truth?) that there are men out there who like the other parts of romance just as much as they do the physical parts.  That there are men out there who want to be the hero, who want to battle their lady love with witty dialogue, those who sort of wish they could be someone’s Mr Darcy, or at least a Willoughby.  Mr. Nobley is given a bit more time to breathe and to woo Jane, and Martin the gardener is a bit more obvious as to his intentions.

Which brings me to the ending (spoilers, or, er, more spoilers ahead).  I have always liked Mr. Darcy, but I like him for Elizabeth Bennet.  I like him in his place in Pride and Prejudice.  Enter Jane Hayes, or Miss Erstwhile of Austenland.  Should we cheer Jane on for landing her proverbial Mr. Darcy?  Warm fuzzies say yes, but reality…there’s always reality, isn’t there?  Speaking of reality, although many, many woman love Austen’s Mr. Darcy, he’s not necessarily someone they could stand for two minutes in real life.  Mrs. Wattlesbrook’s revelation about Martin the gardener being an actor is kind of a let down. But that’s probably the point.  As a reader or audience member, there are several clues to catch in both the book and film that this guy isn’t exactly on the up and up, yet I found myself cheering Jane on from ridding herself of this Darcy fantasy that no man could measure up to.  It’s a catch 22: Do we wait years on end (getting older, grayer, and more neurotic in the process) to meet that ideal man or woman of our dreams, or do we put those dreams aside and settle for the sweet, kind people beside us who leave the toilet seat up, have morning breath, and fumble when speaking of feelings?  Are there some awesome love stories out there where the guy or girl waits for the person of their dreams and gets them?  Sure, but it’s not common.  True love is the stuff of heaven…and maybe The Princess Bride.  Isn’t it just better to “love the one you’re with?”  In conclusion, I don’t know what to think of the ending.  I’m thrilled by the fantasy of it, but shamed that it is still, a fantasy, a novel, a movie, a dream.  Austenland is a Disneyland, no more, no less.