Category Archives: Jane Austen

Jane vs. Jane

I was reading Kara Jorgensen’s blog this morning, and it got me thinking. Today, she posted on “10 Bookish Confessions”, giving a list of ten facts about herself and her relationship with books (reading as well as writing them). Now, I’m not going to follow suit and give you one of those Lists of Ten, fun though they may be – some other time, perhaps. No, what got me thinking was the first item on her list. (The second item, her book-related charm bracelet, didn’t get me thinking, it brought a slightly greenish tinge of envy to my face. It’s just too cool.) Anyway, the point was: “My favorite classic is Jane Eyre.”

CharlotteBrontePortraitAnd that started my train of thought on Jane-Eyre-People vs. Jane-Austen-People. Jane vs. Jane. Just to be clear on that, Jane Eyre was not, repeat NOT, written by Jane Austen. Got that? NOT. I don’t know how often I’ve heard someone say “Jane Austen? Oh yeah, I love her books. Jane Eyre is great.” Uh, no. Yes, they’re both Janes and have something to do with romance stories from the 19th century, but that’s where the commonalities end. Jane Eyre is a fictional character created by Charlotte Brontë in the middle of the 19th century; Jane Austen is a writer who created fictional characters (including a Charlotte or two) at the beginning of said time period. But for some reason ignorant people (i.e. anyone not a rabid fan of either of those Janes) keep muddling the two.

IMG_20150427_123501Which is a travesty, because those two Janes are very different. Actually, Charlotte Brontë, rumour has it, disliked Austen’s writing (I know – how could she?). That should tell you right there.

I don’t mind Jane Eyre. I’ve read it a time or two (or three), and own a couple of the movies – I like the one with Ciarán Hinds and Samantha Morton; I have it on VHS, taped off the TV when you could still do that, and definitely would like to get a DVD of it. But I don’t love it like I love Jane Austen. Now, I know or have heard of several people who are absolutely crazy about Jane Eyre. Mr Rochester is their romantic ideal. Personally, I could take him or leave him – leave him, more likely. I don’t go for all that capital-D Drama, the overwhelming (and capital-P) Passion, the capital-everything-plus-boldface ROMANCE. I’m not sure what it is, but Jane Eyre is just a little too intense for me. I always skip over the first few chapters of the story, because I can’t handle accounts of child abuse, and I get the idea (that Jane’s had a horrible childhood) without reading every detail of it, thank you very much. So I usually start reading or watching at about the point where Jane becomes a governess, and finally has some control over her life. She’s a great character, of course – what a woman of strength! And what an ending! “Reader, I married him” – that line is almost as quotable as “It is a truth universally acknowledged…”

Jane_Austen_coloured_versionAlmost, but not quite. At least for me. Actually, those two lines are quite indicative of the differences between the two Janes. See, one of the things that make me love Jane Austen’s novels so much is her sense of humour. Austen is funny. I mean, the first line of her most famous book is a piece of tongue-in-cheek satire! The Brontës, on the other hand, take themselves and their characters very seriously. Jane Eyre is nothing to laugh or even quietly chuckle at – her story is serious, heart-gripping, adrenalin-pounding, sweeping passion. Evil relatives, pathetic death scenes, hot-tempered despotic men, a catastrophic house fire, physical exhaustion to the point of nearly dying – it’s got it all. In Austen, the worst catastrophes you get are along the lines of a cad running off with a girl, another girl hitting her head when jumping off a rock wall, or a third having to ride the stage coach alone without a servant in attendance. Her death scenes invariably take place off-screen, and the only case of debilitating physical exhaustion is Fanny Price getting a IMG_20150427_123745headache from having to walk through the park in the heat. Austen’s heroes are always gentlemen, calm, rational and self-controlled. None of that Rochesterian “I must have you for my wife or perish!” stuff. Austen’s writing is full of what the Marianne of the 1995 Sense and Sensibility movie would disparagingly call “polite affections” – but Marianne would have found herself completely at home in Brontë’s world.

I can’t really make any definitive statements about the readers who love the Victorian Jane more than the Georgian one; whose imagination prefers crinolines and a bearded, autocratic Edward Rochester to empire waists and a smiling, civil Edward Ferrars, Mr Darcy or Mr Tilney. I only know that for myself, I’ll take Ciarán Hinds’ Captain Wentworth over his Mr Rochester, Jane Austen over Jane Eyre, because that’s the kind of person I am.

But I’m glad that both those Janes exist. Our world is richer for them.

Life, the Universe, and Jane vs. Jane. We each can choose our own.

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Once Upon an Austen Novel

IMG_20150420_090752We watched the new Pride and Prejudice the other day, the one with Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen. And it struck me just how much of a fairy tale that particular interpretation is.

I’d never really noticed that before. I watch Austen films very firmly with the books in the back of my mind, and because I know that Austen’s stories are a form of realism – they were “contemporary fiction” in her day – I expect the movies to be the same, i.e. to portray the Regency period in the most accurate light possible. And that lens of expectation has, so far, coloured every viewing of the story; I thought that what I was watching was a “historic movie”, and I was interpreting everything I was seeing accordingly.

But this time, the lens shifted. Maybe it’s because it was so recently that I watched the new Cinderella movie? You see, the 2005 Pride and Prejudice reminded me of it. A glorious big-screen romantic extravaganza, with poor girls on a farm and a rich man in a palace, emotions running high and gowns swirling wide, and of course the obligatory happily-ever-after.

On Saturday, we watched the movie on Netflix, which has the European version, the one that ends with Mr Bennet’s permission for Elizabeth to marry Mr Darcy – just so you’re forewarned, that variant deprives you of the saccharine candlelight-suffused American ending, in which Elizabeth invites Mr Darcy to call her “Goddess Divine”. Urrh, yeah. But that’s the thing (which had never occurred to me before): for American audiences, they had to tack on that ending to bring it to the proper “Happily Ever After” conclusion, because the story as they tell it here is a fairy tale.

Hey, don’t get me wrong: I’m an absolute sucker for happily-ever-after; I would have been disappointed when I first saw the movie in the theatre if it had ended with Mr Bennet chuckling to himself in his study without my getting to see Elizabeth and Mr Darcy radiating happiness together. I mean, the “Goddess Divine” line makes me gag every time – it’s so completely anachronistic and out of character – but I put up with it to see it stated, in no uncertain terms, that the Darcys are happy, and will remain so, well, for a long time after.

Not ever after, because this is a real story, not a fairy tale, but… Wait. It actually is a fairy tale. In English-speaking culture, and particularly in North America, Pride and Prejudice has taken on folklore status. What was a piece of realistic contemporary writing about the people in Austen’s own social sphere – ladies and gentlemen, the leisured, land-owning classes – doing what they usually did, which was try to find spouses to perpetuate their lines of wealthy landowners, has become a folk tale of a poor beautiful girl marrying the rich handsome prince – landowner-gentleman, whatever.

Every time I’ve watched the 2005 movie, I’ve worked really hard to look past those fairy tale elements and the details that proclaim (quite loudly) that this version is not a “historically accurate rendition”. And I really have had to work on it – apart from the above-mentioned gag-inducing line, there is the anachronistic hair styles (girls with their hair down their back! Agh!), people walking around in their night shirts (that means they were in their underwear, folks!), Darcy and Elizabeth shouting at each other, Mr Bingley visiting Jane in her bedroom… All completely out of line with the early 19th century upper classes. And then the odd gowns, which are kind of a cross between peasant garb, Regency empire waist, and mid-Victorian, to go with the men’s hair, which ranges from Georgian ponytails to Mr Bingley’s, umm, Tintin do. But most puzzling of all are the “dream sequences” – the dance at the Netherfield ball, when Elizabeth and Darcy suddenly revolve around each other in an empty ballroom; the scene in the Hunsford parsonage where Elizabeth watches in a mirror as Darcy walks in (in his nightshirt!), gives her the letter, and then vanishes again as suddenly as he came.

IMG_20150420_090924All of which says quite clearly, if you stop clutching your novel-induced blinkers, that we’re not in Austen’s England ca. 1813, but in that nebulous time and place called Fairy Land, Once Upon a Time. The gowns and flowing hair are not unlike the ones in Cinderella, and even the colours of some of the mise-en-scene are reminiscent of the fairy tale – there is Jane being innocent and ethereal in a pink and blue Little-Bo-Peep outfit; the walls and furniture of Longbourn not unlike those of Cinderella’s home in fairy land… Fine, there’s no fairy godmother waving a wand – but mysterious scenes of people popping in and out of rooms that bring about dramatic changes in characters’ attitudes, stunningly filmed sunrise or sunset scenes, sharp contrasts between messy Longbourn with pigs at its back door and palatial Netherfield and Pemberley – it’s all there. Pride and Prejudice has become a fairy tale for American audiences, and the 2005 movie plays up that aspect of the story to its fullest.

I must say that, having come to this realisation, I have a new appreciation for this film. It’s very different from the definitive 1995 miniseries (which will always remain my favourite), but this very fairy-tale quality it brings to the story has its own charm. My two literary passions meet in the middle – and that’s not only interesting, but kind of a good thing.

Life, the Universe, and a Jane Austen Fairy Tale. And Mr and Mrs Darcy lived happily ever after.

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Prince Charming vs. Edward Ferrars

(We interrupt our current spate of information about the forthcoming release of Cat and Mouse to bring you these rants – uh, sorry, messages. Advertising will resume shortly.)
(SPOILER WARNING: this contains details of Season One of the Once Upon a Time TV series, and of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. But seeing as I’m way behind the times in my viewing of OUAT, it’s all seriously old hat anyway. And if you don’t yet know the plot of S&S, you need to get a life. But don’t say you haven’t been warned!)

fairy talesSo as I mentioned the other day, I finally got around to getting Netflix and watching Once Upon a Time. As of yesterday, we made it up to episode 11, so half-way through the first season. Yes, yes, I know, you’re all way ahead of me and watched this stuff three years ago when it first came out, so you know all about it and have long had these discussions and thoughts. But just bear with me as I give you my reactions to the show as I watch it.

Just upfront, let me say that I do like this show (if I didn’t, I wouldn’t keep watching). It’s a really interesting twist on fairy tales, particularly the modern part of the story; the premise of the series is very innovative and well realised. So take what I’m about to say with a pinch of salt – it might sound like a big rant, as if I despised the show, but if I didn’t actually like it, I wouldn’t bother putting thought into it. But if I think, by definition I think critically, and not infrequently find something to criticise (which are not the same thing by any means).

So here’s one of the things I was thinking: I’m finding myself increasingly annoyed by Mary Margaret and David, aka Snow White and Prince Charming. Oh, they’re cute and all, and of course I want them to be together, and I know that it’ll come about – they are, after all, S.W. and P.C., and even someone who hadn’t written a big fat grad school paper on their story would know how it’s supposed to end. So, yes, of course their love story has to end happily, else what’s the whole point of retelling the fairy tale?

But what’s getting to me is the way they conduct their relationship. Oh, don’t give me the “It’s only a fairy tale; don’t take it so seriously” line. They’ve put these characters in a ‘realistic’ setting (for a given value of the term), made them modern people like you and me; the whole point of this series is for us to identify with them and feel as if we’re them, for the duration of the movie. So let’s just establish right off the bat that for what I’m talking about here, these characters are real. During those fifty minutes I’m watching the episode, they exist, and they need to be taken seriously.

And taking Mary Margaret and David seriously, I’m seriously shaking my head at those two. Okay, so he wakes from his coma, and deeply falls in love with the woman who’s woken him, or rather, rediscovers his love for her from a previous life. But then his wife shows up – that’s right, the woman he is married to. And he goes back to her – in fact, repeatedly chooses to go back to her (it’s one of the plot points I find tedious, his repeated decision to stick with his wife only to promptly go make sheep’s eyes at MM again – once or twice would be fine, but after about the fourth time I’ve had it with that idea). He’s got a commitment to one woman, reaffirms that commitment, has memories of his love for her – and then breaks that commitment over and over by going after the woman he has stronger feelings for. Meeting her at the coffee shop every morning at 7:15. Organizing a romantic picnic with wine and stuff for her by the bridge where they first met. Smooching her right out in the middle of Storybrooke’s Main Street (in full view of the evil eye of the witch, of course. Duh-duh-DUM!).

After watching that particular episode yesterday, I was assailed by a powerful craving for a dose of Sense and Sensibility. If you’ll excuse me, I’d like some Edward Ferrars, please (in print, Hugh Grant, or Dan Stevens, doesn’t really matter). You see, it’s the same story­ – but Edward makes a very different choice. He’s made a commitment to one woman, back in the past before he woke up from his coma (well, not really, but in another part of his life when things were very different). Now circumstances have changed, and he finds himself having powerful feelings for another woman, one who is his match, who is the woman who can make him happy, and who loves him back with the same passion – his ‘true love’, in fact. Edward and Elinor belong together; they are right for one another. But he has made a commitment to Lucy. And even though his love for her is only a memory while his feelings for Elinor are more and more powerful, even though being faithful to Lucy garners him very serious economic and personal disadvantages, he sticks it out. And that is what makes Edward into a hero.

And over here, we have James Charming, Esq. He’s made a stronger, more binding commitment to Kathryn than Edward has to Lucy (although whether Regency engagements and Post-modern marriages are about on par commitment-wise is a point worth considering). But he chucks it all because there’s those FEELINGS he simply cannot RESIST (press back of hand to forehead, strike manly chest with fist).

The Wikipedia page for Season One of the show says that “Unable to deny their love, David and Mary Margaret soon begin a secret relationship…” Unable to deny their love, my foot! Mr Princely Hero Guy, kindly take a page out of the book of a plain country gentleman, who’s so boring that generations of (ignorant) readers have considered him a bit of a wet dishrag. Prince Charming can slay dragons, but obviously he can’t keep himself under control. And Snow White is no better – she can wield a spear and kick butt with the best of them, but can’t hold a candle to a sampler-stitching, water-colour-sketching Regency lady when it comes to keeping herself from acting on her feelings – actions that seriously hurt someone else (Wikipedia again: Mary Margaret and David’s relationship “upsets Kathryn” – no, really? You don’t say).

In fact, Once Upon a Time not only teaches, but incessantly flogs, harps on, and hammers home the Marianne Fallacy: if your feelings are really strong, you cannot resist them. They sweep you away, and there is nothing you can do about it. If you are, in fact, doing something about it, resisting that rush of emotion, then your feelings must not really be strong in the first place. If you can keep yourself from falling into the arms of your girl in the middle of Main Street, then she’s probably not your True Love. That’s where the Marianne Fallacy morphs into the Disney Fairy Tale Fallacy: True Love, we all know, is the highest power there is (cue the dreamy voice of Giselle from Enchanted: “True love’s first kiss – it’s the most powerful thing in the world!!!”). So if you do have strong feelings for someone, if you have found your True Love, it is your moral obligation to pursue that relationship, no matter what the cost to you or, more importantly, anyone else. Who cares if there is a wife waiting in the wings to whom you’ve just promised to try to make this marriage work? She cannot be allowed to stand in the way of True Love.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course I’m rooting for David and Mary Margaret, and want to see them together sooner rather than later – just as I would hate Sense and Sensibility if Edward and Elinor didn’t get their Happily Ever After. And for that to happen, the guy has to get away from the girl who’s wrong for him. But what gets my goat about David and Mary Margaret is that he doesn’t make an effort to get away, but pursues his True Love anyway, and she encourages him in it. Edward is faithful to Lucy while he still has a commitment to her, even though he does everything he can do honourably to get out of the engagement so he can act on his love for Elinor. David keeps telling Kathryn that he’ll try to make the marriage work, that he’s still committed to her – and then does the exact opposite. I’m sorry, I just can’t respect that – that particular hero has failed to establish himself on a proper pedestal for me.

Marianne learns the error of her ways, lets herself be persuaded out of her fallacy, and the end of the book has her patterning her values on those of Elinor and Edward. I’m not sure how much hope I hold out for David and Mary Margaret to do the same, to be honest and make a clean break with Kathryn and apologise for their treatment of her. Oh, of course they’ll wind up together properly. And maybe the next few episodes will even show them having some insight into their behaviour as less than healthy and honourable. Who knows? It’s a fairy tale; strange things are possible.

Life, the Universe, and Two Very Different Heroes. Let’s see what the next few episodes bring.

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Time Travel

Sometimes, there’s this question that goes around on the Internet: if you could time travel to anywhere (anywhen?) in the past or future, where would you go? For me, that statement has to be qualified. First of all, would I go there to stay? That would be a very different deal than just going for a visit and being able to come home whenever I want. If it was to stay, umm, that would rule out anytime pretty much prior to the mid-twentieth century – in fact, I don’t think I’d want to go at all. You see, I think the greatest inventions of recent-ish history is not the Internet, or even plastics – but antibiotics and anaesthesia. I would not want to live in a time or place in the past where those are unavailable. And the future, who knows what it’ll hold, so I’m not going to go there (besides, I’ll get there eventually anyway, so what’s the point of wasting a perfectly good time travel ticket?).

However, if I could go just for a visit – like going camping or something, for a couple of weeks or even months in the summer – there is no doubt where I’d go: the Regency. Hop back exactly two hundred years, to Europe – England first, I think, and then Germany (where it wasn’t called the Regency Period, it was just, well, the beginning of the 1800s).

Jane AustenWhy? Well, obviously: it’s when my most favourite writers were active. It was Jane Austen’s birthday just a couple of days ago (in case you’re wondering, she would have been 239). I kind of missed her birthday, even though the AustenBlog sent me the post about it on Tuesday. Another thing I missed this whole entire year was that it was the bicentennial of the publication of Mansfield Park (ah, the blog entries that could have written on the topic!). Once I got away from studying Austen and into studying fairy tales, I got out of the loop; there’s all kinds of things that whizzed by me.

GrimmsAnd yes, speaking of fairy tales, that’s my other favourite, of course: the teens of the 19th century saw the first edition of the Children’s and Household Tales, aka Grimms’ Fairy Tales. So just think, if I was hanging around Europe two hundred years ago, I could go meet all those awesome writers. However, I think I’d leave the visit to the Grimm family for a decade or so later – in 1814 Germany was still under the occupation of Napoleon’s armies. The 1830s would probably be a better time to go hang out with the German folktale collectors.

I guess that predilection for Austen and fairy tales makes me a Romantic, literarily speaking (is that a word?). I am a romantic in regular life, too – a dyed-in-the-wool lover of weddings and happily-ever-afters – but not quite in the standard mold. A lot of what goes by “romance” in today’s world makes me cringe and/or roll my eyes – pink frilly stuff, ugh. I still haven’t quite figured out the exact connection between “romance” in the weddings-and-happily-ever-after sense and “Romanticism” in the historic-cultural era sense – they’re two different beasts, although one developed from the other, methinks. In fact, there could be a whole other Master’s thesis in the exploration of that particular question, but that’s another topic for another day.

Suffice to say, I’m a romantic and a Romantic – and I’d love to go visit that time and see what it was really like. Dirty and dark for the most part, no doubt, but still, I’d love to check it out. And maybe learn to dance a country dance or two (the waltz was still brand-new and somewhat scandalous, at least in England), drink tea with a raised pinky, and perhaps sit around the Grimms’ parlour and listen to Dortchen Wild tell a fairy tale that Wilhelm Grimm then carefully writes down (between admiring glances cast in her direction – he married her, later on. Now that’s romantic).

Life, the Universe, and Time Travel to the Regency. Where would you go, if you could?

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