Category Archives: Jane Austen

Watching Frank Churchill

FrankChurchill (3)I’ve been watching the 1996 Emma again. No, not that one, the other one. The one with Kate Beckinsale. Yes, I like the Gwyneth Paltrow version a lot too, and the 2008 Romola Garai one – in fact, so far the Kate Beckinsale one has been my least favourite of the three; I only own a copy on taped-from-TV VHS (I know, right?). But I pulled it back out lately for reasons of research completely unrelated to Jane Austen.

You see, I’m using the Frank Churchill in that movie as a model for one of the characters I’m writing at the moment. Just physically, mind you – it’s the actor, Raymond Coulthard, his looks and the way he moves and smiles, that I’m using, not Austen’s Frank Churchill. I’m picturing a young Ray Coulthard, ca. 1996, playing the scenes in my story, which helps with writing them. Sort of a writer’s life drawing class, except, uh, with clothes on the model… umm, yeah, never mind.

But in the process of watching Coulthard I couldn’t help but study Frank Churchill. (What was that I was talking about a while back – all research rabbit trails lead back to Austen?) And I’ve come to admire the way Coulthard makes me understand him better.

Austen has, of course, written Frank Churchill as a charming rogue, just shy of one of her bad guys – he’s an ambivalent character, on Austen’s hero-to-villain scale somewhere in the middle, not too many steps removed from Persuasion’s Mr Elliot, who is firmly in the realm of the baddies. Churchill is very charming, good-looking, funny, crush-worthy and all (hence his suitability as a model), and he makes Emma, and everyone else, think that he’s in love with her. But of course, he’s only doing it to cover up his real love, which is for the beautiful, talented and poor Jane Fairfax.

What makes him skirt the edge of caddishness is the fact that he openly flirts with Emma, going so far as to make fun of Jane, all to hide what’s really going on, and his behaviour almost goads Jane into breaking off their engagement and going out to be miserable as a governess; he (and she) is only saved at the last minute by the fortuitous death of his rich cranky aunt which allows him to please himself and marry Jane. Yeah. Not that nice a guy. Which is exactly what Austen wants us to think – we see all this from Emma’s point of view, judge Frank Churchill by her standards.

Except – watching Ray Coulthard play this role – and I mean really watching him, ignoring Emma who is the focal point of every one of their scenes – Frank Churchill comes across as far less of a jerk. Coulthard masterfully brings across in his facial expression, his little smirks, the small pauses before he speaks, the sidelong glances exchanged with Jane (Olivia Williams), what is really going on inside Frank’s head. You can practically see his thoughts on his face. He really does love Jane, and he feels that he’s between a rock and a hard place – he loves her, but doesn’t want to, or feels he can’t, give up the inheritance he stands to get from his aunt (possibly as much for Jane’s sake as for his own).

FrankChurchill (1)

Furthermore, he actually doesn’t think he’s pulling off the deception very well – he thinks that his feelings for Jane are so perfectly obvious that everyone knows what’s going on already. So certain is he of this that he says to Emma, “You must suspect…” (which, of course, she doesn’t, being a little dense on that score). Frank Churchill’s morally dubious behaviour isn’t actually that dubious from his own standpoint, because he doesn’t think he’s successful at it.

Until he is confronted with the fact that he’s nearly managed to push Jane away from himself – and then he’s miserable and cranky himself. He makes matters worse by more or less arguing with Jane in public on Box Hill, the arguments all couched in generalities (which Emma, true to form, manages to thoroughly misinterpret again). Fortunately, there is the “saved by the bell” event of Aunt Churchill dying at the right moment, and all is well for the star-crossed lovers, whose story by this point has become only a backdrop against which to play out the Mr Knightley/Emma tale.

Frank Churchill (as interpreted by Ray Coulthard) is an excellent study in secondary characters and their motivations. Austen writes quite a few flat characters, but Frank is a prime example of one of her many secondary characters with fully rounded personalities and motivations. What you see (the effect of his actions on Emma) is by no means what is actually there (Frank’s motivations, his love for Jane).

FrankChurchill (2)

Besotted gaze at Jane while praising her to Emma

Once you really watch Frank Churchill, it becomes quite easy to understand where he is coming from, and to be in sympathy with him – and with Jane Fairfax for falling in love with him. At first glance, it’s tempting to say “I’m sorry for Jane, getting stuck with a shallow guy like Frank! Whatever did she see in him in the first place?” But at second glance, and third, and a few more start-and-stop-and-fast-forward-and-back viewings of the video (I ended up getting the DVD from the library – the VHS got too tedious) – Frank Churchill really isn’t so bad. His actions make sense, when you take the trouble to try to get into the guy’s head.

In fact, having watched him, and watched him again, I have to admit to having developed a little crush on him myself (his borderline caddishness notwithstanding). Or is it on Ray Coulthard as he was in 1996? Or, really – on the character I’m writing, who has nothing whatever to do with Austen or Churchill or even Coulthard? It’s hard to tease apart. Maybe I’ll have to boot up the other two Emmas I have on the shelf to watch their Frank Churchills, to see how I feel about them. Of course all in the name of research, you understand.

Life, the Universe, and Watching Frank Churchill. The trails that research leads you down…

PS: Just to clarify, the character I’m modelling on Ray Coulthard is not Guy from the Septimus Series. Guy’s got curly hair, too, but he’s a redhead.

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Comfort Tunes

I had the flu last week. After an exceptionally busy weekend, bam, it knocked me out. Nothing dramatic – no more than a cold with benefits – but it just really dragged me down. In old books (Agatha Christie, say), they sometimes talk of people going into a depression “after a bout of influenza”; that’s not something you hear about often today, the concept that an illness can do more to you than give you a few coughs and sniffles.

So, point being, I was better by the beginning of this week, but only in a manner of speaking. I’ve still been dragging my emotional butt all week. The sunshine we had for a few days certainly helped (see Wednesday’s “Wordless” post), but then today, as per the promise of the weather forecast, the clouds fell down on us, and it started snowing again.

img_20170203_111135328So here I am, socked in at my house. I can’t even see the lake from the windows, it’s 9° below freezing, and the fine powder snow is relentlessly drifting down onto the world. And thoughts and feelings snow down onto my mind, piling up, pushing down; the ticking of the clock slicing my thoughts into slivers.

But then I reached for the CD player, and I took out the Sense and Sensibility soundtrack, the one from the 1995 movie, the score by Patrick Doyle. I put the disc into the player, pushed “Start”, and let the sound of the violins wash over me. And almost immediately, I felt better. Calmed, soothed, uplifted. The slivered thoughts reassembled themselves into a jigsaw puzzle – or perhaps they didn’t; perhaps they suddenly just didn’t matter so much. The music flowed around them, washing their jagged edges into rounded softness.

img_20170203_110932259The sounds lifted me out of this snowed-in, cold February day in 2017 North America, and in my mind I was in Austen’s (and Ang Lee’s) England, among green fields and sunshine, ladies in soft pastel gowns and gentle men in boots and greatcoats. Patrick Doyle’s musical genius never fails to move me, the half hour of the soundtrack taking me through a speed version of the film, of the story; and when the final, triumphant track “Throw the Coins” surges into its upswing, I know once again that the world can be all right, that heartbreak and darkness make way to love and sunshine.

Wasn’t it Shakespeare who said that music “soothes the savage breast”? It does. And it brings comfort to a cold, dark day. A day where now the falling snow outside is once again just cosy, the ticking of the clock a calming heartbeat to my life.

Life, the Universe, and Tunes That Comfort. What music do you reach for on those days?

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Lady Susan, or Love and Friendship

We went to see the new Jane Austen movie that just came out. Oh, you hadn’t heard about it? You’re wondering what it is – another Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, maybe Northanger Abbey? Nope, nope and nope. It’s Love and Friendship. What, you don’t know that one? Well, neither does anyone else. That’s because it’s made after an unpublished novella called Lady Susan. Oh, you’ve never read that one either? Yeah, neither had I, until this morning.

Actually, “Love and Friendship” is a legitimate Austen title – it belongs to one of her other pieces of juvenilia, and they cribbed it for this Lady Susan adaptation. Except that Austen spelled it “Love and Freindship” (she seems to have had a bit of a problem with the “i before e except after c” rule). And no, I haven’t read that one yet either; it’s on the TBR pile.

Lady Susan is also a very early work (although not quite “juvenilia”), from ca. 1794 when Austen was 18, before she even wrote the earliest version of S&S and P&P. There’s good reasons it never got published – apart from being short (60 pages in the edition I have), compared to her finished works it’s quite crude and unsophisticated. This being Austen, of course her crude & unsophisticated teenage pieces still beat other writers’ works to flinders, but it’s noticeably simpler and more satirical than anything she wrote later. It’s also an epistolary novel, i.e. it’s told in letters, not narration, a form that Austen abandoned entirely later on.

To give you a brief synopsis (Spoiler Warning!), the novel is about the eponymous Lady Susan Vernon, who is, to put it quite frankly, a bitch of the first water. Lady Susan, a widow, goes to stay with her brother-in-law and his family, where she proceeds to make her sister-in-law’s brother, Reginald De Courcy, fall in love with her against his better judgement, while still keeping the married Mr Mannering on one string and the dimwitted Sir James Martin on another. Actually, the latter she intends to force on her daughter Frederica, a shy girl who is terrified of her and can’t stand Sir James. We learn about all this primarily through Lady Susan’s letters to her friend Alicia, and those of Mrs Vernon (the sister-in-law) to her mother Mrs De Courcy. Lady Susan is a manipulative, immoral deceiver, mean as can be to her poor daughter (who, of course, is also in love with Reginald De Courcy). Fortunately for the upright and honourable folk in the story, Lady Susan is found out, her machinations are stopped, and the tale ends with the promise of a happily-ever-after for all deserving parties.

If the storyline of “Shy girl is bullied by an authority figure, has an unwanted suitor thrust on her, and is in love with an honourable man while having to watch him fall prey to a seductress” sounds familiar, it’s because Austen recycled it later on. In fact, Lady Susan is a Proto-Mansfield Park. But here, the characters are flat as pancakes, and we see the story not through the eyes of the put-upon young girl, but those of the wicked woman who, in this version, is both bully and seductress. There are elements of this story in several of Austen’s later characters and storylines. Lady Susan’s two-faced-ness and lying letters crop back up in Isabella Thorpe of Northanger, her charm and beauty as well as deception of an honest man in Mansfield‘s Mary Crawford, her bullying in Mrs Norris. Frederica Vernon is not unlike Fanny Price; Reginald like Edmond. There’s even a very slight touch of her manipulativeness in Emma.

The latter comparison might not have occurred to me were it not for the fact that Kate Beckinsale played Emma back in 1996 – and now she’s brought Lady Susan to life on the screen. The movie is some lovely eye candy for lovers of period drama. Quite appropriately, it’s set in the late 18th century, with poufed-up hairdos with single curls trailing over white shoulders; tightlaced, busked and panniered silk dresses in all colours of the rainbow; and swirling many-caped greatcoats that accentuate the broad shoulders of the manly and handsome gentlemen (So manly! So swirly! So great-coated!).

The translation from epistolary novel to film is fairly successful. The screen writers introduce a couple of extra characters for Lady Susan to monologue at instead of putting those lines in a letter, or have the characters actually meet and talk to one another instead of communicating the same information in writing. However, in a few spots the attempts to stay as faithful to the text of the novella as possible makes for, quite frankly, somewhat boring viewing. It might be that I’m extra-tired today, but I found myself getting sleepy in places through yet another monologue (which has to be a first – I never fall asleep in the movie theatre, it’s usually far too exciting). But this is a minor complaint.

The changes that the film makers do make to the plot seem reasonable – some events are moved around or arranged differently to make for a better flow on screen; some characters and happenings are added to the story for the sake of exposition. There is one notable instance towards the end of the film where an event is made up of whole cloth that is a little flash of brilliance on the part of the film makers – and I’m not going to tell you what it is, because I enjoyed it so much I don’t want to spoil it for you. It’s a case of “It’s not in the book, but it should be.”

And that’s not sacrilege, presuming to improve on Austen – she obviously felt herself that Lady Susan could be better, because she did. Improve the story, that is, by taking some of its elements and working them into her later, published works, while leaving Lady Susan in the drawer. It was just the warm-up – but it’s an Austen nonetheless.

Life, the Universe, and Lady Susan turned into Love and Friendship. Oh, if you want to know what that little bit at the end is, go read the book, and then watch the movie. It’s worth it.

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Required Reading

3268My friend over on Jangled Nerves just let off a blog post on classics – based on yet another post, here, that details “16 Books Every Teenager Should Read in 2016”. So, I toddled over to that post and checked out this list of required reading. I mean, I’m not a teenager – haven’t been one in quite some time (sorry if that bursts a bubble for you) – but if there’s a list of must-reads, I want to know what it is.

And you know what? Of that list of sixteen books, I’ve read all of five, or maybe six. One (or two?) I read under duress, aka Literature Class in school, the other four I read because I loved them. And I pretty much know the Cliff Notes version of several others, which is enough to tell me that I’m not, in fact, interested in reading the full-length feature.

I actually find myself rather annoyed at the title of that original post. “16 Books EVERY Teenager SHOULD Read”. Why on earth should they? Because these are good books? Good grief, if that’s the reason, picking just sixteen is ridiculous. But what’s more, this list is highly subjective. For one, it’s quite US-centric – Gone With The Wind tops the list, but it’s one of those Cliff Notes books for me. No, I haven’t seen the movie either, because frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn about that story. For another, it’s a girl’s list of books. Sense and Sensibility? Jane Eyre? Fabulous books (they are, of course, on the list of four that I read for sheer pleasure*), but I can just see giving them to 16-year-old boys to read. 19th-century emo chicks mooning over romantic heartbreak – “Oh, Willoughby, Willoughby!” and “Reader, I married him…” – just kill me now. This, coupled with horrifically disturbing weirdness like Kafka’s The Trial (see “reading under duress”, above), is what’s chiefly responsible for turning many, many teenagers off books for life. Thank you, high school English class.

It’s not that I have a problem with this list of books per se – they’re great books, from what I hear. It’s not even that I disapprove of suggesting books for people to read; far from it. No, it’s the dogmatic headline, the “Thou Shalt Read This” that gets my goat. Because like every really voracious reader, I want to make up my own mind on what to read. And I think teenagers should be making up their own minds, too.

I never filled my children’s plates with food and then insisted they finish every last bite. I did (and still do) insist that they eat some vegetables with their dinner – but I don’t cook them spinach, because I know they hate it. I quite like cooked spinach, thank you very much, but if the kids would rather have it raw with salad dressing, so be it. There is no law that says “Thou Shalt Eat Thine Spinach Cooked”, nor is there one that says “Thou Shalt Read Kafka”. There are far too many good books in the world to force people to read according to a predetermined list. The ticket is to offer the veg, to suggest the book titles. I love Jane Austen – but if you don’t, why not read Sir Walter Scott instead? Ivanhoe is a darn good yarn.

Life, the Universe, and Books You Ought To Read. But only if you really want to. When you’re done all those other great books you’re reading at the moment. And the ones your friends suggested. And that one that just jumped at you from the bookstore shelf. And… Ah, never mind – just keep reading. And let me know when you hit on a good one, I’ll add it to my list of books to check out. I might get to it when I’m 80.

*PS: the other book from that list, the one I’m not sure if I’ve read or not, is Death of a Salesman – I remember being forced to read some kind of weird gloomy drama in undergrad English class; it might have been that. You can tell it made a big impression on my life. The other two I loved were, of course, The Horse and His Boy, and The Hobbit.

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Goodbye, Colonel Brandon

You’ve probably heard it by now: Alan Rickman died this morning at age 69. For most people, it’ll probably mean “Goodbye, Severus Snape”, but for me, it’s “Goodbye, Colonel Brandon”. That’s the first role I ever saw him in, and the one I’ve watched most often, over and over – Sense and Sensibility is only one of my top ten favourite films. I love it so much, I’ve written grad school papers on it – including a fairly detailed analysis of Rickman’s Colonel Brandon compared to David Morrisey’s version in 2008.

Rickman was the master of the black flapping cloak – an ability he rocked as Snape, of course, striding through the halls of Hogwarts with his gown swirling out behind him like the wings of an overgrown raven. But Colonel Brandon is no slouch in that department, either. “Give me an occupation, Miss Dashwood, or I shall run mad,” he begs Elinor in a broken voice, convulsively clutching at the wood panelling outside the gravely ill Marianne’s bedroom (the stage directions say “He is dangerously quiet”). Elinor (no doubt thinking that the last thing she needs now is an emo going off his rocker) sends him off to get her mother. He slams out of the house (cloak swirling), flings himself on his horse, and after one last desperate glance up at Marianne’s window from under his wide-brimmed brigand’s hat digs in his spurs and rushes off, ventre à terre, cloak flapping, to find relief for his beloved. We next see him galloping at full speed across the brow of a hill, silhouetted against the evening sky, his cloak – you guessed it – “billowing out behind him” (that’s in the script, verbatim) in the most impressively romantic manner.

Rickman’s interpretation of the character (going off Emma Thompson’s script) imbued Colonel Brandon with a romanticism that simply isn’t there in Austen’s book. Andrew Davies took this interpretation even further with his script for the 2008 miniseries – David Morrisey’s Col. Brandon is not only romantic, he is heart-throbbingly heroic – but he could not have done this had it not been for the Thompson/Rickman version in 1995. Scene after scene of the 2008 version is directly cribbed from the 1995 one: Brandon as music lover struck speechless by Marianne’s piano playing; Brandon as sensitive lover bringing Marianne thoughtful gifts; Brandon, frantic with worry, rushing out into the rain storm to find a wet-through Marianne and carrying her home in his arms… None of those scenes are in the book (Seriously! I know – they’re my favourites, too…). But once Rickman had embodied a Colonel Brandon who did these things, Marianne’s lover had become a romantic hero, and the flapping cloak was de rigeur.

So what could be more fitting as a tribute to the great man than this song, the scene that introduces Colonel Brandon to the film? “Weep you no more, sad fountains / Why must you flow so fast? …  Rest you then, rest, sad eyes, / Melt not in weeping / While [he] lies sleeping / Softly, now softly lies / Sleeping.”

I will miss Alan Rickman – but I’m so glad that we will always have his Colonel Brandon.

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More Rabbit-Trailing, or: White Cliffs and China Clay

I’m still rabbit-trailing, uh, sorry, researching. And for some reason, I always seem to arrive in the early 19th century again – the time of the Regency, Jane Austen, the Brothers Grimm. What’s with that?

This is how the rabbit trail ran today: I was looking at the creation of porcelain or china (because that’s important for Septimus book #3, Checkmate, which I’m editing at the moment). Unlike regular clay, which you can just dig out of the ground and use more-or-less straight up, the clay body that makes up porcelain is a mixture – the recipe varies depending on what kind of china it is. Bone china, the fine English stuff invented by Josiah Spode in the late 18th century, contains a sizable proportion of actual bone (cow, for the most part, apparently), which is burned and ground up before it gets mixed with the other ingredients. Recipes for china clay were a closely guarded trade secret; in fact, when in 1712 a French Jesuit missionary transmitted the secret of how to make porcelain from China, where he was working, to Europe, it was considered one of the first instances of industrial espionage (however, some German scientists had already figured it out for themselves a couple of years earlier, establishing the porcelain manufacture in Meissen. Science beats spy work – so there!).

Now, that key “other ingredient” in porcelain is kaolin, also called, for obvious reasons, china clay. Kaolin, one of my sources informs me, is really white, and is primarily found in Malaysia and in Cornwall, England. And here’s where today’s rabbit trail comes in: my mind goes, “White deposits of mineral? In Southern England? Wait – the White Cliffs of Dover?” Back to Google I go, to find out what you probably already knew and I remembered just before Google brought it up, namely that the White Cliffs of Dover are made of chalk, not kaolin clay.

Caspar_David_Friedrich's_Chalk_Cliffs_on_RügenAnd then Wikipedia told me that the ones in Dover are by no means the only chalk cliffs around Europe, and that another famous instance of white-cliff-ness occurs on the German Island of Rügen. So, of course, I had to look that up, and remembered and found the famous work by Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, “Chalk Cliffs on Rügen”, from 1818.

And there you have it: the research rabbit trail arrived in the second decade of the 19th century. Just look at that dress, and the hairstyle of the lady! In 1818, Persuasion was published – can we picture Anne Elliot in that outfit? If it wasn’t for the two gentleman in the picture obviously being civilians, it might well be showing Captain and Mrs Wentworth on their honeymoon (they took a friend along on the hike to the cliffs, okay? There’s nothing wrong with spending time with friends, even if it is your honeymoon). Or it might be Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, on holiday with their sister Lotte. And when they get back to their Pension (bed-and-breakfast, or inn), they’ll have a lovely Kaffee und Kuchen (afternoon coffee & cake) off a set of Meissen porcelain.

Life, the Universe, and Rabbit Trails from China to Jane Austen. The pleasures of a writer’s life.

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Reckless Rabbit-Trailing

One of the pleasures of writing fantasy fiction is world building. In fantasy, anything goes. You want your characters to have interesting-coloured eyes? Make ’em purple. Or better yet, turquoise. (Just as an aside, the turquoise-coloured eyes of some of the main characters in Seventh Son simply appeared in the course of writing the story. I sat down and started to write,  and when it came to finding a simile for the colour of the pottery bowl – you know, the one that sucks Cat off to Ruph – I wrote “It was a turquoise blue, very much like the eyes of the weird guy that had stared at Cat so disturbingly…” Completely unplanned, but there they were – turquoise eyes. When I wrote that, I had no idea who this person was, or that he was important in any way. Turns out he was; very much so. Good thing he strolled into the pages of the story with his turquoise eyes just when I needed something to compare the glaze colour to.)

Anyway, point being that in fantasy fiction, you can just make things up. But still, they have to be coherent. In the Septimus world, for example, it turns out that turquoise eyes are unusual. Most people have ordinary-coloured eyes – blue or brown or grey; and their skin tones are just normal people-colours, too. In other words, that whole world is pretty much like ours here, with a bit of magic (and turquoise eyes) tossed into the mix. Well, it’s like ours was a long time ago. Being an inveterate history nerd, I made the setting something akin to the European Middle Ages. And within that setting, things have to work together. I’m not dealing with actual history, so I can get away with giving my quasi-medieval characters a closed cook stove with an integrated water heater – something that wasn’t invented in Europe until almost Victorian times. They also have a town clock. But no electricity or steam power, and no magical equivalent thereof, either (at least not yet. I think. Maybe. Who knows, something might stroll into the pages again…).

And so, taking together the requirement for coherence with the freedom to make things up, I have to do research. Yup. Must. It’s one of the hardships of writing fiction that is set anywhere other than the here-and-now. I’m forced to google things, and it is my writerly duty to keep running after the rabbit trails that appears in the process.

So, today’s starting question was: if Ilim is two days’ travel from Ruph (which is a fact that strolled into the pages of Cat and Mouse), and Rhanathon five days (which is something you’ll find out in Checkmate), just exactly how far is that in physical distance? Given that Ruph is in the mountains with a fair amount of forest around it, and that they travel by horse carriage or on foot, well…?

StagecoachSome two-and-a-half hours later, I had more than a dozen windows open in my browser, and had arrived at reading about the average income of a Regency labourer and the cost of taking the stage coach from London to Bath in the time of Jane Austen. (In case you’re wondering, according to this page it was approx. £2. Given that a worker earned no more than £25/year, that’s pretty much the equivalent of the cost of an airplane ticket from Canada to Europe today. Hiring a post-chaise, as the likes of Mr Darcy would have done, meant renting a private jet – it was about £100 for the trip.)

Anyways, see how that happens? You start out researching how long it takes for a horse carriage to travel from one point to another, and end up with Jane Austen. And you find out all kinds of interesting things about the Pony Express on the way – those guys were fast! And really young – just kids, most of them. Oh, sorry, where were we? Travel distances, right.

Life, the Universe, and Writer’s Research Rabbit Trailing. Those are the pleasures of creating.

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