Archive for the ‘Jane Austen’ Category

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies makes a tremendous first impression. It may actually be impossible to think of two works of imagination with less in common than a Jane Austen novel and a zombie movie. Putting them together is a stroke of comic inspiration.

The cover is a pitch-perfect spoof of paperback editions of literary classics. It features a painting of a pretty young woman in an empire-waist dress who would make a plausible Elizabeth Bennet if the flesh of the lower half of her face wasn’t ripped away and her clothes weren’t splattered with blood.

The idea is spectacular. The execution is flawless. That fact that the novel was actually published makes the whole thing funnier. But the book itself is a bore.

The problem is that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies contains one joke – that Elizabeth Bennet and other members of the English gentry are lethal zombie killers – and it tells this joke the same way each time. Further, Grahame-Smith doesn’t interact with Austen’s text most of the time. He just pastes in references to zombies where it’s convenient. As result, the humor of the book wears out the moment its novelty does.

This makes Pride and Prejudice and Zombies largely a wasted opportunity. So many of Austen’s characters might as well be zombies, as Grahame-Smith himself has noted, that it’s disappointing he didn’t take the final step and turn them into ones.

Lady Catherine de Bourgh would be perfect as the undead queen of England, but she is simply another deadly warrior in the novel. George Wickham would make an excellent vampire. He’s already a heartless, ruthless, selfish blood-sucker. “I should have finished you years ago!” Darcy could have cried, driving a stake into Wickham’s heart and saving Lydia from becoming nosferatu. Instead, we get pretty much the same story we already know.

If you read 20 or 30 pages of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, you’ll get all the fun out of the book there is to be had. I recommend the last 30 pages, starting with the sword fight between Lizzy and Lady Catherine. The writing is less slapdash, which makes it more entertaining. For example, here is the passage in which Lizzy explains to Darcy why he first fell in love with her:

You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking, and looking, and thinking for your approbation alone. I roused, and interested you, because I was so unlike them. I knew the joy of standing over a vanquished foe; of painting my face and arms with their blood, yet warm, and screaming to the heavens—begging, nay, daring, God to send me more enemies to kill. The gentle ladies who so assiduously courted you knew nothing of this joy.

Also, don’t neglect to read the discussion guide. The questions are a hoot.

Although I can’t recommend reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t own it. As an object, it is still extremely funny. Keep it on your book shelf. Show it to friends at parties. Or better yet, place it in the guest bathroom along with a few recent copies of The New Yorker. You’ll look witty and urbane and eclectic (although I suppose, at this juncture, slightly behind the times). Those aren’t such bad things to be.

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I may just be a middle-aged Jane Austen fanboy – but Austen keeps earning my admiration novel after novel, and she’s done it again with Emma.

Since chances are good you already know the book, I’m going to skip the review and serve up random observations. I reveal much of the plot and all of the surprises in Emma, however. So, spoiler alert. Here goes:

Emma is a Comedy

The proper response to this observation is – I realize – “Duh”. But it’s also a remarkable fact because Austen’s other books are romantic dramas (except for Northanger Abbey, which is a parody of Gothic novels).

One of the qualities I admire in Austen is that she rarely writes the same book twice, even though her novels share so many themes and situations.

For example, Elizabeth Bennet and Fanny Price are about as different as two characters can be, and their novels are very different in tone, pacing, and plot. But Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park are both major achievements.

In Emma, Austen gives us a third variation which I think is easily the equal of these novels – and it’s a comedy. How many writers succeed in more than one style?

Emma is a Comedy … with a Conscience

Really, this is just ridiculously difficult to pull off and Austen makes it look easy.

The problem with comedy is that it is almost always based on pain. But you can’t laugh at a character and empathize with her at the same time.

To deal with this problem, writers usually locate their stories in a “comic” world that is largely free of consequences and death OR they reduce, deny, ignore or attack the humanity of their characters.

Austen does neither. Emma Woodhouse is a comic figure, and some of her foolish mistakes are funny, but it is Emma’s good intentions and the deep shame, regret, embarrassment, and pain she feels at her mistakes that make her more than a figure of fun.

And Emma is not alone, of course. Miss Bates is even more of a comic figure. In fact, there may be no greater clown anywhere in Austen’s work, and yet Miss Bates is treated with respect. When Emma insults Miss Bates during the excursion to Box Hill, Mr. Knightley rides to Miss Bates’ defense (“It was badly done indeed!”) and Emma weeps almost all the way home.

This is not comedy that produces belly laughs. It is delicate comedy, designed to make you smile, and possessing a grace and lightness that in its total effect is indistinguishable from wisdom.

Indeed, could we say the definition of wisdom is moral seriousness combined with laughter?

Emma’s only equal in this category I know is Shakespeare’s As You Like It. That’s pretty good company.

Everyone is Mistaken about Love

What a brilliant, delightful, simple conceit around which to construct a novel. Everyone is wrong about everyone else’s feelings, basically all the time. And yet it turns out happy.

Here’s a list of mistakes about love in Emma:

• Emma thinks Mr. Elton loves Harriet Smith

• Mr. Elton thinks Emma loves him

• Emma thinks Mr. Dixon loves Jane Fairfax

• Mrs. Weston thinks Mr. Knightley loves Jane Fairfax

• Emma thinks Frank Churchill loves her

• Mr. Weston, Mrs. Weston, and Mr. Knightley think Emma loves Frank Churchill

• Emma thinks Mr. Knightley loves Harriet Smith

This list doesn’t include Emma’s serial mistakes with Harriet Smith, which are persuading Harriet to fall out of love with Robert Martin; persuading Harriet to fall in love with Mr. Elton; and persuading Harriet to fall in love with Mr. Knightley while thinking she was persuading Harriet to fall in love with Frank Churchill.

It also doesn’t include the biggest mistake of all: no one realizes that Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are in love.

Emma is the Snob on Top

As I said, I admire Austen for rarely writing the same book twice. Emma is unique in Austen’s work as a comedy. It’s also unique because its major characters sit on top of the novel’s social order.

In Sense and SensibilityPride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion, the main characters are all marginalized or dispossessed in their societies or families, and generally opposed by those who rank higher or think more highly of themselves.

In the novel, Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley are the rulers of their set. Emma is aware of her social position, guards it carefully, and is jealous when it is infringed. (For example, part of the offense Emma takes at Mr. Elton’s marriage proposal is his presumption that he was Emma’s social equal … an heiress of 30,000 pounds!)

Mr. Knightley is less particular than Emma about the niceties of his status, but he wields his power with the same sense of entitlement. Mr. Knightley has perfect confidence in his judgment of every situation, and rarely yields to the opinions of other people. He does not give offense wantonly, but he doesn’t worry about offending Mrs. Elton when she presumes to guide his choices or the Westons when he speaks poorly of Frank Churchill.

This is significant because Emma and Knightley would be the villains in other Austen novels. By all rights, Harriet Smith and Robert Martin should resent Emma’s interference in their lives, the way Elizabeth Bennet resents Lady Catherine’s in hers.

But Harriet is very sweet, and not all that bright, and she seems to feel Emma’s hugely mistaken good intentions more than she notices Emma’s mistakes. As for Robert Martin, we don’t know. In the end, he got the woman he loved, and as practical man of good sense, apparently content with his station, perhaps he decided the rest didn’t matter.

From drama to comedy, and from villain to hero, these are two reasons to admire Emma. And now I think I’m done with Jane Austen for a time. On to the next author!

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It’s a mystery to me why there are not more movie versions of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It’s perfectly suited for the big screen. It has superb characters. A dramatic plot. Extraordinary dialogue you can lift right from the page. And a happy ending.

Nevertheless, there have been only two film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice during the same time period in which Hamlet has made it to the big screen five times. It makes you wonder if it is a conspiracy, or obtuseness, that causes producers to bet their money on the sulky Danish prince instead of the sparkling Elizabeth Bennet.

At least when Jane Austen’s great novel has made it to the screen, big or small, the results have been worth watching. Here are my picks for the best Pride and Prejudice movies, in order of personal preference:

Best Pride and Prejudice movie - Keira Knightley1. Pride and Prejudice (2005) starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfayden. The celebrated 1995 A&E mini series features better performances from its two lead actors, but I think this movie directed by Joe Wright is the more satisfying adaptation overall.

One of its strengths is the fresh perspective Keira Knightley brings to the role of Elizabeth Bennet. Her Lizzy is a teenager, not a woman. She is less polished and more vulnerable than other Elizabeth Bennets, while retaining the intelligence and self-possession that make Austen’s most famous character so appealing.

Another strength of the 2005 film is its refusal to deal in caricature. Austen often diminishes the humanity of her secondary characters in the pursuit of comic effects, a tendency the screen can amplify. Not so here. Donald Sutherland locates a dark vein inside Mr. Bennet’s aloof benevolence, while Brenda Blethyn brings a gratifying sympathy and balance to her Mrs. Bennet.

Wright neatly compresses the plot and many of the liberties he takes with the book work quite well. There are some clunkers, however. The second proposal scene is almost entirely replaced with new dialogue, and manages to feel both overheated and undercooked. Austen purists may also find the cooing, post-coital coda a bit hard to take.

As for the acting, Knightley and Macfayden performances are quite good – and more impressively – survive two moments of extreme danger. During both the Netherfield ball and the rejected marriage proposal scenes, Knightley and Macfayden come close to overplaying their parts and throwing the movie off a cliff. That they stumble along the edge, but don’t fall, somehow makes the film more affecting to me.

2. Pride and Prejudice (1995) starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. This television series justly deserves its reputation as the definitive adaptation of Pride and Prejudice based on the strength of its two lead actors. In particular, it is a pleasure to watch Ehle inhabit every corner of Elizabeth Bennet’s character over the six hours of the mini series.

But this length also has disadvantages. The pacing feels dutiful and the camera tends to pick a spot and sit there. This may be true to the book, but books and movies are different mediums, and must play to their different strengths. Movies need motion to be effective.

A more serious issue is the “Mrs. Bennet problem”. She is such a shrill fool in this adaptation that she can make the scenes in which she appears nearly impossible to watch. And she’s not the only one-note character in the series. Mr. Bennet, Caroline Bingley, Mr. Collins, and Lady Catherine all add up to less than the sums of their very few parts. That fully realized human characters are presented side by side with (sometimes grotesque) cartoons is jarringly dissonant at best. At worst, it comes close to a moral failing.

3. Pride and Prejudice (1940) starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. This is a highly entertaining romantic comedy of the period, but it ain’t Austen’s novel.

The film-makers have used almost nothing from the first half of the book, and pretty thoroughly eviscerated the second half. Laurence Olivier’s Mr. Darcy is charming and solicitous, with few marks of the pride which is such a driving force in Austen’s work. Mr. Collins is a librarian. Lady Catherine conspires with Darcy to promote his engagement. In the end, all five Bennet girls have husbands, although Mrs. Bennet seems to have kept Kitty and Mary’s men stuffed in a closet until the last twenty seconds of the film, then yanked them out to make sure everything’s tied up neatly.

And yet the spirit of the two main characters is somehow intact. Greer Garson gives a wonderful performance as Elizabeth Bennet and Olivier is appealing in his role. And much of the re-writing is very good (Aldous Huxley worked on the screenplay). It’s just not as good as the material it replaces.

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Persuasion is half a major Jane Austen novel, spoiled by death. The book starts splendidly, with Austen in full command of her peerless champagne and acid prose style, and serving up reasonably fresh variations on familiar characters and themes, including …

• The oppressive fools preoccupied with social position

• The charming scoundrel who first half-catches the heroines’ fancy

• The problematic suitor eventually revealed as Mr. Right

• The hard reckonings between love and money forced by the entailed estate

Best of all, Persuasion  features an intelligent, interesting heroine in Anne Elliot whose diffidence – like that of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park – creates compositional challenges for Austen by putting at the center of the novel a character who does not naturally command the center of the stage, and drive the plot, the way Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor Dashwood, and Emma Woodhouse all do, in their very different ways.

And yet, Austen handles the first half of Persuasion  beautifully. She keeps the drama low-key and the pacing steady. The story rises naturally from the characters and incidents. And each complication is managed with a light expert hand. As I read, I kept saying, “Wow, Austen is really on her game.”

And then, at what should have been the middle of the novel, Persuasion  slams into two enormous blocks of exposition, comes to a dead stop, and ends.

Exposition is an important tool for novelists and Austen knows how to use it, often at the beginning of a novel, where she is establishing the premise, and at the end, where she is tidying up loose ends and letting us know what happens to the characters after the major action is over.

The problem with the exposition is Persuasion is that it doesn’t supplement the action of the story. Instead, the exposition replaces the action of the story.

In the first instance, Austen dismisses the charming scoundrel through an endless discussion between Anne Elliot and an invalid friend, to whom the scoundrel just happened to have confessed every insulting opinion he ever held toward Anne’s family while he was also busy driving her friend’s husband to bankruptcy and early death.

So informed of the scoundrel’s scoundrelness, Anne Elliot drops him from her thoughts, and his role in the novel is done.

In the second instance, soon after the first, Austen contrives to have Anne Elliot overheard in a conversation about love by the problematic Mr. Right, who immediately sends a letter explaining himself, and re-proposing marriage, which Anne accepts, and which pretty much brings the novel to a close.

It was hard for me to think that a writer with Austen’s talent and experience could suddenly turn into such a duffer halfway through a book. Then my wife reminded me that Persuasion was published after Austen’s death.

Austen began writing Persuasion  in late 1815 and completed it in August 1816. In early 1816, she fell ill with a disease which progressively weakened her until she died in July 1817.

Someone with a better knowledge of Jane Austen’s life than me will have to say whether we can know if Austen felt she was racing death in 1816, although it is a pleasingly theatrical idea.

But we do know she was feeling the effects of poor health, which I think is a good explanation for the problems in Persuasion. I also find it a moving one.

All novels are deeply personal documents, even when the novelist reveals little or nothing about herself in the work, because of the intensity of energy required to write them.

That Persuasion was flawed by the final drama of Austen’s life gives the ending a power the words themselves don’t quite achieve.

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