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).
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).
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.