Friday, June 23, 2017

Book Review - Jane Austen's Emma

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Published by: Max Press
Publication Date: 1815
Format: Hardcover, 240 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Emma Woodhouse is the center of her world. Looked upon by all in her small community as the perfect woman, the doting daughter, the ideal future wife. Yet little do they realize that she is the spider at the center of a web thinking everyone is there for her amusement. They are mere playthings to her and she has just lost her most favorite toy. Her governess Miss Taylor has married and become Mrs. Weston, thus constricting Emma's household to just her and her father and the occasional visits from Mr. Knightly. Therefore, despite Mr. Knightly's stern warnings, Emma finds herself a new favorite to play matchmaker with. Harriet Smith is a nobody, her parents having given her away. Emma has fanciful notions of whom Harriet's parents could be and therefore eschews Harriet marrying the kind farmer Robert Martin and sets Harriet on the path to conjugal bliss with the vicar Mr. Elton. But Mr. Elton is a social climber and fancies that he is worthy of Emma's hand. Once aware of her mistake you'd think that Emma would have taken the hint and stopped her matchmaking, but she soldiers on. Mr. Weston's son, Frank Churchill soon arrives on the scene to pay his respects to his new mother, and while first marked out for Emma, Emma soon thinks that happy is the man who changes Emma for Harriet. In all her ploys Emma never really sees that she is being callous and her jokes are at the expense of others, such as the poor Miss Bates and her niece Jane Fairfax, and have real world consequences. She lives in a bubble that desperately needs to be burst, and no matter how hard Mr. Knightly tries he can't seem to get through to Emma. In fact it's her favorite new toy, Harriet, who wields the needle and pops the bubble, opening Emma's eyes while also taking the shine off herself. Will Emma be able to fix what her childish games have wrought? Or will she lose her happily ever after?

Of all Austen's books Emma was the one I was most worried about rereading. Emma is actually the Austen book I have reread most recently before this year and it was because of that experience I was leery. It was during that February that Emma and I developed a loathing for each other. I'm sure it was mutual. She lumped me in with the Misses Bateses of the world and I thought she was a spoiled brat who needed to be taught a lesson. We parted. Not amicably. Yet here I am daring to reread her adventures in manipulating her small group of "friends." I have decided to refrain from passing judgment on her and she isn't allowed to comment on me. I think it's led to a far more pleasurable experience for us both. Though there are things I can't help but question on every reading of this book... mainly the Mr. Knightly/Emma age gap. I totally agree with Andrew Davies that having a man sixteen years older than you saying he first loved you when you were thirteen is more than a little icky. If Mr. Knightly had just refrained from saying that and a few other lines he wouldn't have come across as the Humbert Humbert of his day. Because really, when you think of it, a sixteen year age difference isn't that creepy. In fact there's far more than sixteen years between Marianne Dashwood and Colonel Brandon, and there's eighteen between me and Colin Firth, not that I've counted that often... But what I found interesting this time is that this creep factor wasn't so much there for me anymore. Perhaps it's because I have found far bigger creeps in this book, I'm sorry Frank Churchill, you're an irredeemable psychopath. Or perhaps it's because I see why Emma falls for Mr. Knightly. It's not his superiority above all others, it's the fact that Emma has Daddy issues. Serious Daddy issues. Issues that lead her to basically marry her "other" father. Are we to blame Mr. Knightly for taking advantage of the situation and forming Emma into the perfect woman? Or should we just say Emma needs therapy? My vote is for therapy.

As to why Emma so desperately needs therapy lets look to her treatment of Harriet. Now I'm not talking about controlling Harriet's expectations and romantic inclinations, which just shows that Emma is a bully, it's how she drops her like a hot potato as soon as Mr. Knightly comes between them. She's all for raising Harriet up and helping her find a better place in the world until Harriet targets that which Emma wants and then she literally can not get rid of Harriet fast enough sending her off to London. While distancing herself from this tangled situation might be expected, her throwing shade on Harriet isn't. All the previous objections as to "playing" with Harriet from Mr. Knightly are instantly seen. Emma raising Harriet above her station is odious. Harriet must remain in the muck where she belongs! Harriet is the lowest of the low. Woe betide anyone who ever liked or respected Harriet. She is now unclean and must away to her farmer never to be seen again. EXCUSE ME!?! This was Emma's protege, her best friend, her favorite toy, and she would destroy her like this? At least Mr. Knightly got Harriet back on track with her farmer, but Emma would have been happy if it had all disappeared. What confuses me most though is what is Austen saying about class in this instance? Time and time again her books have shown the plucky yet poor heroine rise above her station to find true love. Yet here she seems to be saying that love must be found within your station. Or at least if you're Harriet. Harriet seems to be a weird case removed from all that is Austen. Is it because of her unknown parentage? Because to an outsider Jane Fairfax is in much the same situation but somehow because of "old family ties" she's exempt and allowed to rise up. So the point of the book was to teach Emma what? That people have their place and she should grow up and follow the rules of the world around her? That everything is fine now that Harriet is back in her place, luckily with her own happily ever after? It seems antithesis to all Austen that came before or after. Where's the humor?

Because with Northanger Abbey we can clearly see that Austen wasn't one to pass up a good joke or a chance to parody. We see this again in Emma, though not quite so obviously. Literature is rife with orphans. It seems that you literally can't be a hero or heroine without losing one or both of your parents. Dickens would heartily embrace this at the end of the century in the most dramatic ways possible. In fact it's become such a trope that even Disney does it. And who, when a child, didn't daydream that they were off on an adventure and not a thought was given to the idea of parents living or dead? Yet Austen wanted to mess with this a little, just as she messed with the heroine archetype. It really wasn't until Thackeray and Vanity Fair thirty-three years later that we had a novel purposefully written sans heroine, but with Emma Woodhouse Austen came close. To muddy the heroine waters Emma isn't the only orphan, having lost her mother and then having lost Miss Taylor to marriage. In fact Emma, Harriet, Jane, AND Frank are all orphans. Jane and Harriet are in fact far closer to traditional Austen heroines than Emma herself is. It's like Austen wanted to take things to the farthest extreme possible. I mean yes, looking back now at the life expectancy and health care then available it's not surprising that many people were without a parent, but to have four main characters in one small town all deprived of one or both parental units? Austen is taking the piss and enjoying every second of it. What's more it's able to show how the loss of a parents affects one based on wealth and sex. Frank fares the best, being a man, he could have made his fortune, but instead a fortune just lands in his lap from relatives. Emma is also fine, being a woman of independent means. Harriet has a decent allowance, but her unknown parentage is a blight, one that can not be overcome, which a man in a similar situation might succeed in doing. Yet it's Jane who fares the worst. With no money she can't even rely on the love of those who raised her, she must seek her way in the world on her own, like a true Austen heroine.

Yet Jane is of course rescued by a proposal of marriage. In fact the most important event in Austen's novels is the conclusion when everyone gets perfect happiness, a phrase used too many times in Emma, when the marriage bans are read. Though Austen is odd in that for some reason she never fully writes the proposals which seal the end of our heroine's character arc. She might have a line of dialogue, but usually it's just that everything was settled when and how one would expect. There is no detail, no ardent declarations. The actual event is left to our own imaginations, and yet Austen does show proposals to two heroines. Proposals that are to be rejected. In fact, it feels like Austen doesn't feel herself up to writing earnest proposals but is fully willing to embrace writing comedic ones. No one can deny her wit is sharp as a razor. We of course must forget about Mr. Darcy's first attempt at securing Elizabeth's hand and instead focus on Mr. Collins and Mr. Elton, oddly both men of the cloth. Their proposals and the ensuing rejections are hilarious and easily a highlight of their respective stories. Mr. Collins is unwilling to believe that anyone would reject him and thinks it all a ploy, ah poor delusional man. Whereas Mr. Elton? Mr. Elton is drunk as a skunk and just goes for broke. His proposal to Emma is the culmination of the first part of the book where the slate is then wiped clean in anticipation of the arrival of Frank Churchill. Mr. Elton must exit stage left but he must do so in a glorious flame of mortification. Not to muddy the waters too much with bringing in adaptations, but Alan Cumming in the carriage on Christmas Eve throwing himself at Gwyneth Paltrow? That is movie perfection and possible only because of Austen's perfection. Then again, I do love me some Alan Cumming in basically anything. Or nothing, given his tendency to, you know...

Though this reading was more about serendipity than anything else. Yes, sometimes serendipity plays a part in reading a book. It might be the confluence of a TV show you're watching or a song you hear on the radio while also reading a book that makes things clearer, makes you see a connection, makes both better. They elevate each other. This happened to me because of rereading Emma at the same time as Twin Peaks returned to the small screen. I have had a love of Twin Peaks since my parents amazingly let me watch it at the age of eleven. I have gone back to the show again and again over the years, much as I have the works of Austen, and yet I never once thought of connecting the two until now. There is little doubt in my mind that David Lynch is a fan of Austen. Comparing them side by side it's obvious. There's a universal humanity to the way they both approach characters. They set their stories in small contained environments that have their own set of rules. They revel in the absurd. I can easily see Mr. Collins as an inhabitant of Lynch's universe, but more than anyone else, Miss Bates belongs in Twin Peaks. Miss Bates might be the most laughed at or pitied character in Emma with her pages of unbroken rambling dialogue but in her I see the underpinnings of the denizens of Twin Peaks. In Lynch's world characters are strange, they ramble on, they annoy you, you laugh at them, but in the end, you come to pity, and eventually to love them. You can especially see this in the arc of the Log Lady, who was always an odd outsider yet whose brief appearance in the new series prior to her death gave her a poignancy, much as Miss Bates does in Emma. What this revelation does to me is it shows me not just the staying power of Austen but why I have kept going back to Twin Peaks over the years. Lynch tapped into the universal human experience in the same way Austen did over two hundred years earlier. Makes you wonder if Twin Peaks will still be be discussed a couple hundred years from now...

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Not of Facts, Perhaps, But of Feelings

While Edmund implores Fanny to justify her rejection of the suitable offer of marriage from Henry Crawford of which he knows only the facts, the irony is that Edmund is basically asking Fanny to explain love and the workings of the heart, to which he has been a recent victim. Love is never about facts or how someone works on paper, it's all about the irrationality of our feelings. We just know. While Edmund speaks "Not of Facts, Perhaps, But of Feelings" it could just as easily be Fanny's reason as to why she rejected Henry. This scene is perhaps one of the most emotional for Fanny. She has spent days lost in a fug of her own thoughts and when Edmund approaches her it is at once exactly what she needs, yet from exactly the wrong quarter. How can she fully argue her case without showing Edmund that her heart belongs to him and can never belong to Henry. Of all the people she can confide in and they are talking at cross purposes! The irony of this scene is underscored by the irony of this piece ending up my favorite in the entire series. I say ironic because for a short while it actually had a new home in the trash. I was working with bulky oil pastels on a textured sepia paper and it wasn't turning out anything like I imagined. This piece was clumsy and frustrating and therefore I threw it in the trash. But thankfully, a sentiment issued by all in my class including my teacher, I took it out of the trash I just decided to throw everything at it. I used gesso to obscure what I didn't like, then I went in and actually used varnish on the oil pastels, pulling the color away from the forms and bleeding it into the background. After I was done my emotional frustration merged with Fanny's and I think this piece perfectly captures not just the characters frustrations but the fact that their minds are obscured to each other. They might walk side by side but they are so far apart.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Tuesday Tomorrow

Indigo by Charlaine Harris, Christopher Golden, et al.
Published by: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: June 20th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 352 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Investigative reporter Nora Hesper spends her nights cloaked in shadows. As Indigo, she’s become an urban myth, a brutal vigilante who can forge darkness into weapons and travel across the city by slipping from one patch of shadow to another. Her primary focus both as Nora and as Indigo has become a murderous criminal cult called the Children of Phonos. Children are being murdered in New York, and Nora is determined to make it stop, even if that means Indigo must eliminate every member. But in the aftermath of a bloody battle, a dying cultist makes claims that cause Indigo to question her own origin and memories.

Nora’s parents were killed when she was nineteen years old. She took the life insurance money and went off to explore the world, leading to her becoming a student of meditation and strange magic in a mountaintop monastery in Nepal…a history that many would realize sounds suspiciously like the origins of several comic book characters. As Nora starts to pick apart her memory, it begins to unravel. Her parents are dead, but the rest is a series of lies. Where did she get the power inside her?

In a brilliant collaboration by New York Times and critically acclaimed coauthors Charlaine Harris, Christopher Golden, Kelley Armstrong, Jonathan Maberry, Kat Richardson, Seanan McGuire, Tim Lebbon, Cherie Priest, James Moore, and Mark Morris join forces to bring you a crime-solving novel like you’ve never read before."

Seriously, just LOOK at that list of authors! It would be must read if it was a combination of just a few of them, but all!?! Hells yes. 

Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones
Published by:
Publication Date: June 20th, 2017
Format: Paperback, 112 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Blackfeet author Stephen Graham Jones brings readers a spine-tingling Native American horror novella.

Walking through his own house at night, a fifteen-year-old thinks he sees another person stepping through a doorway. Instead of the people who could be there, his mother or his brother, the figure reminds him of his long-gone father, who died mysteriously before his family left the reservation. When he follows it he discovers his house is bigger and deeper than he knew.

The house is the kind of wrong place where you can lose yourself and find things you'd rather not have. Over the course of a few nights, the boy tries to map out his house in an effort that puts his little brother in the worst danger, and puts him in the position to save them . . . at terrible cost."

Seriously, chills running up and down my spine! 

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter by Theodora Goss
Published by: Saga Press
Publication Date: June 20th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 416 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Based on some of literature’s horror and science fiction classics, this is the story of a remarkable group of women who come together to solve the mystery of a series of gruesome murders—and the bigger mystery of their own origins.

Mary Jekyll, alone and penniless following her parents’ death, is curious about the secrets of her father’s mysterious past. One clue in particular hints that Edward Hyde, her father’s former friend and a murderer, may be nearby, and there is a reward for information leading to his capture…a reward that would solve all of her immediate financial woes."

Always willing to take a risk on a Jekyll and Hyde retelling. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Contemplating the Dismal Rain in a Very Desponding State of Mind

I find it fitting that in a piece that has Fanny as the focus the title, "Contemplating the Dismal Rain in a Very Desponding State of Mind," is derived from a thought of Miss Crawford's. Why is it fitting? Because Fanny is forever trying to not attract notice, trying to erase herself, hence even her bonnet is actually blending into the wall, as is her reticule into her dress. It's only natural that if she was forced to be center stage she'd contrive of some way for it to be pushed on others, hence Miss Crawford getting the naming rights. I find that this scene perfectly captures who Fanny is, she is someone who thinks of herself so little that she would go out into the bad weather for her aunt without an umbrella and then, when offered a kindness by Dr. Grant, try her utmost to reject it as an imposition. She is a sad and relatable character to all the introverts who have more kindness than sense. As for the medium for this piece, I wanted to try something radically different and therefore I chose a paper for the ground that felt much more modern to me. All my medium decisions were based from that background which feels like a swirling body of water and emotion. I then did a light gesso wash over the entire image area and did the work of the figures in marker and pen. What's very intriguing to me is that by taking this looser approach I ended up creating a piece that looks like my mom drew it. In particular her book covers for the We Were Children Then book series that she did. I never thought our styles anywhere near similar, but led by different medium choices than I would normally make, genetics won out.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Playing the Tourist: Portsmouth

One of the reasons Mansfield Park might be one of Austen's most maligned or I should say misunderstood books is that it comes closest to actually having political commentary. All her books deal with the minutiae of life and relationships and are practically devoid of timely commentary and many fans believe that this lack of grounding in a specific era has led her books to be timeless. Seriously, just look to Clueless and you'll see what I mean. But Mansfield Park openly references slavery, war, and, in the TV Movie adaptation with Billie Piper, has a logical reference to Admiral Nelson. In fact, when Fanny returns "home" to Portsmouth we are shown a very bleaker world than Austen has ever shown before, especially when contrasted with the life Fanny was living at Mansfield Park. But while Fanny comes to realize that the home she remembered is no longer home Portsmouth is very important and dare I say a must see location for the Janeite because it was home to the navy! Ah, the British Navy. Not only integral to two of Austen's books, but lets face it, the reason why Britain had an Empire. It's from Portsmouth that Admiral Nelson sailed to victory and death at the Battle of Trafalgar. You can actually tour the HMS Victory, seen above leaving Portsmouth, where Nelson's blood still stains the boards. 

This island city was during Austen's life the most fortified city in the world and, much like Bath, has many of the buildings and fortifications that where around when Austen was alive. You can still walk the ramparts, though a dashing Henry Crawford is sadly not supplied. Also the ramparts are more popular now as a resting spot for beach goers than as the last line of defense should the French come calling. A wonderful holiday respite that I have a feeling Austen might not approve of. I mean, look at the indecorous state of those tourists! But getting back to Regency England and the Navy, you really need to revel in the Navy, throw in some Horatio Hornblower DVDs and actually watch the documentaries (yes, there are documentaries, not just Ioan) to get not just the importance of the Navy but to realize that a fair chunk of Portsmouth is a period in English history preserved from when they ruled the waves. You can take in the docks, look at where they built the ships, but more importantly, you must stop at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, which has the National Museum of the Royal Navy, the HMS Victory, and so much more! Austen, who wrote timeless novels might find it odd to see this city almost trapped in aspic, but at least for those wanting to see her world it's perfectly preserved.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Tuesday Tomorrow

Believe Me by Eddie Izzard
Published by: Blue Rider Press
Publication Date: June 13th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 368 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Critically acclaimed, award-winning British comedian and actor Eddie Izzard details his childhood, his first performances on the streets of London, his ascent to worldwide success on stage and screen, and his comedy shows which have won over audiences around the world.

Over the course of a thirty-year career, Eddie Izzard has proved himself to be a creative chameleon, inhabiting the stage and film and television screen with an unbelievable fervor. Born in Yemen and raised in Northern Ireland, Wales, and England, he lost his mother at the age of six—a devastating event that affected the rest of his life. In his teens, he dropped out of university and took to the streets of London as part of a comedy double act. When his partner went on vacation, Izzard kept busy by inventing a one-man escape act, and thus a solo career was ignited. As a stand-up comedian, Izzard has captivated audiences with his surreal, stream-of-consciousness comedy— lines such as “Cake or Death?” “Death Star Canteen,” and “Do You Have a Flag?” have the status of great rock lyrics. As a self-proclaimed “action transvestite,” Izzard broke a mold performing in makeup and heels, and has become as famous for his “total clothing” rights as he has for his art. In Believe Me, he recounts the dizzying rise he made from the streets of London to West End theaters, to Wembley Arena, Madison Square Garden, and the Hollywood Bowl.

Izzard is arguably one of today’s top comedians. At the time of publication, he is still performing his Force Majeure show—so far in more than forty countries worldwide and in four languages: English, French, German, and Spanish. With his brand of keenly intelligent humor that ranges from world history to historical politics, sexual politics, mad ancient kings, and chickens with guns, he has built an extraordinary fan base that transcends age, gender, and race. Writing with the same candor and insight evident in his comedy, he reflects on a childhood marked by the loss of his mother, boarding school, and alternative sexuality, as well as a life in comedy, film, politics, running, and philanthropy. Honest and generous, Izzard’s Believe Me is an inspired account of a very singular life thus far."

Eddie, oh how I love you. No matter how many times I've seen you live it's still never enough! Also "arguably"!?! HE IS!

Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire
Published by:
Publication Date: June 13th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 192 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Seanan McGuire returns to her popular Wayward Children series with Down Among the Sticks and Bones―a truly standalone story suitable for adult and young adult readers of urban fantasy, and the follow-up to the Alex Award-winning, Hugo and Nebula finalist, Tiptree Honor List Every Heart a Doorway.

Twin sisters Jack and Jill were seventeen when they found their way home and were packed off to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.

This is the story of what happened first…

Jacqueline was her mother’s perfect daughter―polite and quiet, always dressed as a princess. If her mother was sometimes a little strict, it’s because crafting the perfect daughter takes discipline.

Jillian was her father’s perfect daughter―adventurous, thrill-seeking, and a bit of a tom-boy. He really would have preferred a son, but you work with what you've got.

They were five when they learned that grown-ups can’t be trusted.

They were twelve when they walked down the impossible staircase and discovered that the pretense of love can never be enough to prepare you a life filled with magic in a land filled with mad scientists and death and choices."

I'm game for this.

Cormorant Run by Lilith Saintcrow
Published by: Orbit
Publication Date: June 13th, 2017
Format: Paperback, 400 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Aliens meets Under the Dome in this new post-apocalyptic novel from New York Times bestseller Lilith Saintcrow.

It could have been aliens, it could have been a trans-dimensional rift, nobody knows for sure. What's known is that there was an Event, the Rifts opened up, and everyone caught inside died.

Since the Event certain people have gone into the drift... and come back, bearing priceless technology that's almost magical in its advancement. When Ashe -- the best Rifter of her generation -- dies, the authorities offer her student, Svinga, a choice: go in and bring out the thing that killed her, or rot in jail.

But Svin, of course, has other plans...

How far would you go and what would you risk to win the ultimate prize?"

I like Aliens and Under the Dome. Sold!

Friday, June 9, 2017

TV Movie Review - Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park
Based on the book by Jane Austen
Release Date: March 18th, 2007
Starring: Douglas Hodge, Jemma Redgrave, Maggie O'Neill, Julia Joyce, Zachary Elliott-Hatton, Greg Sheffield, Tara Berwin, Lucy Hurst, Billie Piper, James D'Arcy, Blake Ritson, Michelle Ryan, Rory Kinnear, Catherine Steadman, Joseph Morgan, Hayley Atwell, Joseph Beattie, and Dexter Fletcher
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Fanny Price has been sent away from home to live with wealthy relatives because her mother can no longer afford to keep her. She is scared and intimidated and only her cousin Edmund takes the time to make her feel safe and loved. As she grows up that love becomes stronger which is fortunate as it's about to be tested. Her uncle leaves to attend business in Antigua and the young people take over the house. Fanny's cousin Tom has had his fun spoiled and decides to mount a play at Mansfield Park. His sisters, Maria and Julia will obviously perform, as will Maria's fiance Mr. Rushworth. The party is greater increased by two new neighbors, the siblings Henry and Mary Crawford. Yet Edmund and Fanny will not perform. It's not seemly for a variety of reasons but especially given that the play is rather risque. Though Edmund's growing attraction for Mary makes him foolish and he eventually agrees to perform under duress. Julia soon bows out on seeing that her engaged sister is flirting with Henry. And Fanny is roped into the production to replace Julia which is brought to a crashing halt by the return of her uncle. With Sir Thomas Bertram returned the hope is life will return to normal at Mansfield Park, but little do they know that isn't the case. The arrival of the Crawfords has changed everything. When Maria still goes through with her marriage to Mr. Rushworth Henry Crawford sets his sights on Fanny. He wants to make a little hole in her heart. Yet her heart is protected at least from Henry because it already belongs to Edmund, but the pain she feels on seeing Edmund fall for Mary is excruciating. Will Fanny lose the love of her life or will tragedy lead to a happy ending?

While this adaptation is a hectic haphazard headlong rush at translating Mansfield Park for the small screen the number one thing in it's favor is that it is nothing like the horror show that was the 1999 Frances O'Connor version. I still shudder thinking of that adaptation. In this version instead of augmenting Fanny with her creator, Jane Austen, the production went in a different direction and decided that instead of letting Fanny stand on her own they'd fix all supposed defects by making her more of a Lizzy Bennet and less of a Fanny Price. But the thing is I love Fanny for being Fanny and I love Lizzy for being Lizzy. They are characters that are both loved for being themselves. The Fanny embodied by Billie Piper feels like she's spent a little too much time around The Doctor. All she does is run. Everywhere. Fanny is playing shuttle cocks with Edmund. Fanny is playing hide and seek at Maria's wedding with some unknown child. Fanny is chasing Pug through the halls of Mansfield Park, which I'm sure her Aunt Bertram wouldn't approve of. All the while she's laughing and giggling. This isn't right. Fanny is a slight sickly girl who is retiring. She can't physically take much exercise except by horse. When I first saw this adaptation I would have said it was because Billie Piper perhaps had a more limited acting range, but seriously, have you seen Penny Dreadful? Because this is all on the writer and director and not on Billie. Plus by having Mary use Fanny's horse it doesn't have the betrayal and weight that it has in the book. Fanny was just put-out, it wasn't like her horse was her only form of exercise and this slight was the first sign of Edmund's infatuation with Mary which would pain Fanny so deeply. 

But enough can not be said for the relief I feel in how this adaptation purposefully stepped away from the 1999 adaptation. This can be clearly seen when Henry and Edmund try to discuss the atrocities happening in Antigua and Edmund's mother just waves away any discussion of slavery with an oblivious line about the heat in the West Indies. To those not familiar with the earlier adaptation, which reveled in horrors and viewers had to endure Harold Pinter as Sir Thomas Betram raping his slaves, this line of Aunt Bertram might be a throwaway, but to those who know, it's a time to take a great sigh of relief. This is going to be Austen, not some social commentary on race, but social commentary on a confined society in a country house. And while I feel that of all Austen's novels Mansfield Park is the most confined to location and characters this adaptation takes it further. This is television, this is low budget, this is a small cast. They really weren't taking any risks with this adaptation. And while yes, I do think things could have been done differently, you can see why they did it this way. Mansfield Park is a tricky book to adapt and going for a smaller more intimate scale, while in keeping with the book, also made for an Austen adaptation that someone who didn't love the book could enjoy. The costumes might have felt a little dated and the fact that they never left the property might be perplexing to those who expect their period dramas to have multiple locations and lush sets, but I say so what? Smaller definitely worked better than bigger. Yes, it wasn't perfect, but Andrew Davies has yet to adapt Mansfield Park...

Yet I can not give this adaptation two thumbs up because of my love of Austen's book. The problem here is that while it still feels like Austen, which the 1999 version didn't achieve, there is still a diminishment of the story. It has been made smaller, lesser than. As I've previously stated, Fanny wasn't Fanny, but the greater truth is that none of the characters feel right. They are all slightly wrong. It's like when I tried to read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the author had the gall to not use Austen's own words, which thankfully the movie adaptation rectified. Therefore having the lines be not quite Austen's here made me feel the same bafflement when I tried to read that atrociously written parody. As Andrew Davies has said, Austen is perfect, just cut and paste. Take liberties when Austen purposefully steps back. She never goes into great details about the proposals or the happily ever afters, so here you can have free reign, and in fact in those moments of this adaptation, that's when I felt it. That deep pain in my veins that this is true love, that these emotions on screen have triggered a physical response in me. Have taken me away to a place where tears of happiness aren't far behind. While in other parts I actually found myself cheering when an actual line from the book remained intact. And let's face it, while all Austen's lines are memorable, Mansfield Park has a large share of them. So why weren't more used? Also why was Fanny in the play? There is NO way she would have been in the play. IF you have to change things to make it work in the time and format allotted why can't you at least keep the little details intact, like the theatre curtains being green not red? Because the more little things you change the more acceptable you think it to change the words of one of the greatest authors who ever lived.    

I'm not naive, I know that a lot of the culling, a lot of the diminishment of character is for the speed of the storytelling because even as a lover of Mansfield Park I can say that it's languid pace is almost stultifying, therefore it makes a good read to calm down before bed. But the downside to this dovetailing is that there is a diminishment of character in an attempt to make them better suited to the allotted time. In particular with regard to Edmund. Blake Ritson's lines have been almost completely excised because no one wants a preachy hero and Edmund really is full of himself. This means that all Blake is left with is languid gazes and pained expressions with a really horrid haircut. Mansfield Park is the first thing I remember seeing Blake in and I instantly formed an entirely erroneous opinion of him as an actor. I basically had him down as a pretty boy with no acting chops. This is so far from the truth that I urge you to seek out his other work to see his range. He's just so amazingly talented and here he's just wasted. I think he excels in bad boy roles personally, but if you're interested in sticking with Austen adaptations watch his Mr. Elton in the 2009 adaptation of Emma, which almost makes you completely forget the genius of Alan Cumming in the 1996 version. Dueling Mr. Es! My personal favorite though is his portrayal of the Duke of Kent in the reboot of Upstairs Downstairs, even if the conflicted baddie Riario in Da Vinci's Demons is melodramatic fun at it's most camp. But Blake isn't alone in this category of wonderful actors underutilized, this could be said for much of this perfectly cast adaptation. This also shows that a perfect cast can not cure defects in directing and adapting. 

But oddly enough the thing that annoyed me the most was Mr. Rushworth. If you don't know I kind of hate Rory Kinnear. This is a problematic hatred because he's literally in everything. Every once in awhile he surprises me into liking him, Penny Dreadful, The Imitation Game were good roles for him, but then along comes Women in Love and Vexed and I hate him all over again. So you'd think my hatred of Rory Kinnear would be why I was annoyed with Mr. Rushworth, yet oddly it's not. What annoys me about Mr. Rushworth is the changing of his timeline with the family. Because the changing of the timeline would have inevitably changed the outcome of events. It's freaking butterfly chaos theory time people and this wasn't taken into consideration at all in this adaptation. In the book Mrs. Norris makes the connection between Mr. Rushworth and Maria while Sir Thomas is in Antigua. It's a feather in her hat and all that. Here when Sir Thomas announces he must leave for Antigua Mr. Rushworth is already of the family party and is instructed to hold the wedding til his return from his amazingly fast and I think actually geographically impossible trip to Antigua in the time allotted. Um no. That's about it. No. Let's look at the reasons for all this "no" coming from me. The whole point of Rushworth is to show the detrimental interference of Mrs. Norris but also to show Sir Thomas's lack of fatherly concern because he quickly realized the defects in Rushworth and KNEW it wasn't going to work for Maria and even implored her to change her mind if she so wanted. But if Sir Thomas had been there since the couple did get coupled he would have stopped it before it had ever started. Then Maria would have met Henry Crawford in time and they could have gotten married and then that would have been the end of that. People sometimes just don't think that what might be one little change for expediency actual has ramifications that destroy the plot going forward. I think Austen knew what she was doing and should never be second guessed.    

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Book Review - Jane Austen's Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Published by: Doubleday
Publication Date: 1814
Format: Hardcover, 496 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Fanny Price is a burden to her poor and ever expanding family. Her two maternal aunts decide to help their disadvantageously married sister by taking Fanny in at Mansfield Park, separating the young girl from the only family she has ever known and her beloved brother William. She is to be raised with her four cousins, Tom, Edmund, Maria, and Julia. Given all the advantages they have but never once allowed by her aunt, Mrs. Norris, to ever think herself their equal. If it wasn't for the kindness of her cousin Edmund to that undersized ten year old Fanny would have despaired. Instead she has grown up knowing her place and hopelessly in love with Edmund. But it is the eldest, Tom, who is causing trouble. He has racked up debts that require his father to sell the living of the local parsonage that was to be Edmund's and the Grants move in. This wouldn't have been a catastrophic event except for what happened next. Fanny's uncle, Sir Thomas Bertam, was called away to Antigua, taking Tom with him. The power vacuum at Mansfield Park was filled by Mrs. Norris. She sees this time as coming into her own, she finds a dunderhead of a fiance for Maria, and encourages an intimacy with the parsonage, an intimacy which is far more interesting to the inhabitants of Mansfield Park when Mrs. Grant's two siblings, Henry and Mary Crawford arrive. Mrs. Norris hopes to marry Henry to Julia and Mary, well Mary initially thinks only of Tom, until she begins to see what Fanny sees in Edmund. But the trouble caused with Henry and his ever roving eye, going from Julia to Maria to Fanny will change Mansfield Park forever.

When I first read Mansfield Park I took a bizarre pride in being one of the few to actually love it more than Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. I thought anyone who didn't view it as Austen's best work was deluded and therefore not worth my time. I have often felt myself against the Austen mainstream. Bucking treads and going my own way and listening to my heart and not to academic discourse. Because if there's one thing I can be certain of it's that Jane Austen herself would despise many of the people who populate the higher ranks of her so-called "societies." So for years I held firmly to my beliefs of the superiority of my tastes without giving thought to how much change is inflicted by time and circumstance. When I first re-read Mansfield Park I felt like I had been slapped. It was a rude awakening to not find the book I loved at eighteen. But since then I've realized that each re-reading of Austen leads to a fluctuation in my rankings and this time wasn't any different. I was again back to embracing Fanny and adoring Mansfield Park. What I realized is that why I connected to Mansfield Park as a teenager and why I reconnected to it now was because both times in my life I was facing similar issues. I was going through a time where I felt slighted, imposed upon, where I was nothing more than a tool to be of use to other people. I was part of their life but I didn't have one of my own. My identity was subsumed into theirs, nothing more than a dogsbody. Just like Mrs. Norris treats poor Fanny. Oh Fanny, how I feel your pain all over again. The rest of your readers labeling you as dull don't get what it's like to live your life. I do and I am united with you, the constant, put-upon servant. I hope I'm just as lucky in my happily ever after.

While I was reconnecting to Fanny and her small world that is perfectly contained and intimate, I, as well as Austen, was ruminating on how the wider world works in general but also the world's influence on small family groupings. In particular the idea of selling off your child and how that child fits into a new family dynamic. While yes, I will grudgingly admit that with Antigua there is an underscoring of slavery, the real slavery Austen was interested in here is adoption. And while she might have been telling the story about Fanny's adoption into her cousins' family, I think it was actually a thinly veiled reference to her own life. Jane's brother Edward was "presented" to his wealthy relatives Thomas and Catherine Knight, the same relatives who gave Jane's father the living at Steventon, when he was twelve and Jane was five. Edward became their legal heir and left Jane's family unit. How might this have effected young Jane? Could she have written Mansfield Park as a way to handle this trauma in her life? I personally think she did. Because while everything turned out alright for Fanny as it did for her brother Edward, one might say that the first half of Mansfield Park is her real feelings and the second half is her hopes and dreams. In the beginning Mansfield Park is really a scathing indictment of what it is to live under the roof of relatives who view you as lesser than. Again and again Fanny is pushed aside and put-upon. And that doesn't even cover the emotional underpinnings of being separated from her beloved brother William. There is alienation and longing just seeping off these pages. Part of me thinks it's a little cruel of Jane to write a book that her family couldn't help but see as reflecting their own lives, but then in the end she flips it. The life Fanny left wasn't worth living. This is where I think Jane goes a little fanciful. She wishes so much for this happily ever after to be the case that the turn around is more a fairy tale than realism. But I hope she realized that her brother, in the end, like Fanny had a good long life.

This then leads into the complication of a nature versus nurture scenario. Fanny comes out the best of all the young females raised in the Bertram household. She is well behaved, loved, and gets the man of her dreams. Whereas Julie elopes and Maria, well Maria leaves he wealthy husband for Henry Crawford who then tires of her so she must leave him and live the rest of her life in seclusion. If we can assume they all had the same base nature we see that the cossetting of Maria by Mrs. Norris and her constant grinding of Fanny under her boot-heel had the exact opposite effect. Tom was likewise going to the bad but his severe illness reformed him. Therefore Mansfield Park is showing us again and again that it's the nurturing that matters. That hardship and strife make for a better person. Look even to Fanny's own siblings, those that are overly loved, like her youngest sister, are beyond hope, but Susan, the sister who is ignored and put-upon, she is worthy and therefore comes and joins the inhabitants of Mansfield Park. But while it is shown in all the cousins it is magnified and expanded upon with the Crawfords. Henry and Mary were raised by an uncle with very lax values. After his wife, their aunt died he brought his mistress under his roof, therefore exposing Henry and Mary to this want of propriety. Again and again they are shown to lack a moral compass. They say things that are painful for Fanny to hear. In fact, their complete want to sympathy even leads Mary to hope that Tom dies so that Edmund, whom she loves as best she can, will be a man worthy of her. What I find interesting is that Austen tries to make you forget for awhile that the Crawfords are undesirables due to their nurturing. They are "reformed" and viewed as eligible spouses. But in the end their character will out. As Edmund laments, if Mary had just been raised differently, her kind nature could have overcome all. Poor Edmund, but lucky Fanny.

That is lucky Fanny if you really like Edmund. In fact while most people refer to this romantic duo as sticks-in-the-mud I think that they are being unfairly lumped together, most likely because mud is sticky. The truth is the problem doesn't lie with Fanny, it lies with Edmund. He's just wallowing in the mud. Oh Edmund, I want to like you, but Fanny formed an early attachment to you from some small kindnesses and now we're stuck with you as our hero. The fact is Edmund is more than a little too preachy for my tastes. In the beginning he's always pointing things out to Fanny about how she should feel, how she should think about a situation. He forms her sense and her sensibility and then what does he do? He throws it all out the window when it comes to himself. He points out all the flaws that Mary's character contains and then promptly falls in love and she's an angel. Hence the drop back to reality at the end really amuses me. But the truth is if he had just practiced what he preached that scenario would never have happened. Fanny is stalwart. She sees the flaws, and, oh dear, the pain she feels as Edmund is always making excuses and backpedaling. Fanny can never fully like Mary, not just because she is her romantic rival, but because she is a flawed individual that isn't worthy of Edmund. What is interesting is that Austen never redeems the Crawfords. She toys with us that she might, but in the end, they are literally the white trash of the time with the loosest morals around. And while, as a writer, it would be fun to play a preacher against a loose woman, as a reader being one with the character who is on the outside looking in, it's just painful. And Edmund causing such pain to Fanny? Makes you dislike him all the more. He's such a hypocrite!

But as much as Edmund annoys me I can overlook many of his flaws when comparing him to Henry Crawford. Because Henry Crawford is a far more troublesome character. It's not that he's basically an idiot, it's that we're expected to believe that he has reformed. That he actually "fell" for Fanny. I don't for a second believe this. I think it was a game to him to start with, which he clearly admits, but I don't think if ever became real. I don't think he ever loved Fanny. I think he loved the idea of falling for Fanny and fooled himself into believing it was the truth. He loved the concept not the actuality. He loved the challenge of capturing the heart of the only woman he'd ever met who didn't fall for him. Austen seems to say that Fanny would have been at risk if her heart hadn't already been taken by another. I call BS! With Fanny's morals she could never have fallen for Henry's insincere flatteries. And the thing is I just don't know how to handle this turn-around. Did Austen actually want us to believe it? Like how she tried in vain to redeem Willoughby at the last minute in Sense and Sensibility? At least with Willoughby it makes a kind of sense, because the connection between him and Marianne was something that was real, was palpable to the reader. Here it's just hollow gestures. And then, when he runs of with Maria at the end? We're supposed to believe that he just couldn't help himself? I'm sorry, but if he actually did love Fanny then he would NEVER have done such a thing. And to have Mary blaming Fanny for Henry's wayward behaviour? Yes, I know it's meant to put the final nail in the coffin of Mary and Edmund, but still... of all that happens in books that I am able to believe as true, from magic to dragons, I can not nor will I ever believe Henry Crawford's turn-around.

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