Tag Archives: Jane Austen

On Character-Driven Stories, or: It’s About the People

“Don’t tell Angelika,” a friend of ours, an engineer, said to my husband, “but I tried to read her book, and didn’t make it past the first few pages. There are way too many feelings in it!” My husband did tell me, because he knew what my reaction would be: I laughed long and hard.

But also, quite contrary to our friend’s expectations, I took his statement as a compliment. For one, he only tried to read the book because it was mine, i.e. it was an expression of friendship, which I appreciate. But the other thing is that the average engineer is not exactly my target audience. So if I managed to turn one off by dint of having too many feelings in my book, I think I may have succeeded in writing for the other kind of person: the one who wants to hear about emotions, about the inner life of characters, about their relationships to one another.

The point was brought home to me again just the other day in my writers’ group. One of the critiques I got on a piece of mine, the beginning of another novel, was, “Do you really need three different points of view to tell the story?” I was a little taken aback (not to say  hurt, which is, alas, the price of getting all-too-necessary critiques). But once I’d mulled it over for a while, I came to a conclusion: the answer is Yes. Yes, I do need three points of view, because what my stories are about is the characters and their interactions.


One of the Amazon reviews of Seventh Son says: “The character relationships are subtle and involved. In fact, all of the book’s true drama comes from how people relate to each other”. Precisely. I write character-driven stories.

And the reason I write character-driven stories is because that’s what I like to read. Now, I’m fully aware that I’m in somewhat of a minority with that preference. What’s popular, what sells best, are plot-driven stories, stories where things happen, where there is action and external drama. Battles! Kidnappings! Sword-fights! Car chases! Explosions! Murders! Wicked witches poisoning girls with apples and being chased by workaholic dwarves with pickaxes!

Personally, I find action scenes boring. Crash, bang, boom, bash – just tell me who wins already, and get on with the real story, about the people. (Plus, I don’t like the tension and extra adrenaline; I’ve got too much of it coursing through my system already – a side effect of being an HSP; but that’s a post for another day.)

To me, what is interesting in a story is not so much what happens, but what the people make of it, how it affects them. I want to get into their heads. It’s the character of the, well, characters that matters to me, that creates stories. Of course you always need a plot – a beginning, a middle, an end – but to me that plot can be as simple as “girl meets boy, girl has trouble getting together with boy, girl gets boy”.

In fact, the latter is the plot of all six Austen novels; the only thing that changes is the characters. And Austen is still in print after 200 years. It’s also the plot of every romance novel, which are, in fact, as a group the biggest sellers on the fiction market. Character-driven stories roll across the screen in every TV serial like Downton Abbey or Coronation Street which follows a group of people through the years, watching them live their lives and interact with one another; and they shocked movie critics when My Big Fat Greek Wedding and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel became sleeper hits.


Come to think of it, given the popularity of the aforementioned tales, maybe I’m not in such a minority with my preference for character-driven stories, after all. There are a lot of us who prefer people stories, which can be easy to forget when you hear writing gurus go on about “what sells” or castigate the fledgling writer for “not writing tightly enough” or – gasp! – using adverbs, those touchy-feely markers of emotion.

There are a lot of us – but even if there weren’t, I’d still stick with my preference. I like Austen, and L. M. Montgomery, and Georgette Heyer, and even Miss Read. No swords, no car chases, no bad guys and nary a dead body. Just wonderful, fascinating stories about people.

Okay, I’ll grant you that writers of these stories don’t often populate the weekly bestseller lists. But I have a hunch that they are disproportionately represented on the long-sellers list. Which is all to the good, because it means their books are going to be around for a long time for the likes of me to enjoy.

Life, the Universe, and Character-Driven Stories. It’s all about the people.




Filed under books, Seventh Son, Story, writing

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.


Filed under Jane Austen, writing

The Editor Eats Humble Pie, or: It’s Okay To Change Your Mind

I’d been meaning for quite some time to write an “Editor Pontificates” post on a couple of phrases that are bugging me when people use them incorrectly. They’re the kind of thing that make me want to pull out my big rubber stamp and slap on a fat, juicy WRONG! But then, I had to change my mind on both of those matters. Well, okay, maybe didn’t have to, but I did anyway.

The phrases in question are “from whence” and “begging the question”.

“Begging the question” is actually a specific term that comes from formal logical debate. In that context, it means “a circular argument”: if something begs the question, it’s stating as a fact the very question that started the discussion in the first place. The way the phrase is misused is that people use it as a synonym for “bringing up the question”: “My socks got wet wading through the snow, which begs the question why I didn’t wear boots today.” That’s wrong – or is it?


I did wear boots today, and very glad I was for them.

“From whence”, on the other hand, is a case of messed up archaic language. It’s rarely used nowadays in ordinary speech, which is why people (those pesky people) aren’t familiar enough with it to use it properly. “From whence” is a redundancy (as is its partner, “from hence”): “Whence” means “from where” (and hence “from here”). So, “from whence” really means “from from where”. WRONG!

So what made me change my mind on the big fat rubber stamp? It’s two different issues.

In the case of “begging the question”, the point is that language is not static. Yes, the phrase properly has a very specific use and meaning – formal debate, logical fallacy, blah blah. But this isn’t the Middle Ages, and we’re not engaged in university debates where we decimate our opponents by shouting out, preferably in Latin, the labels of the logic mistakes they made – “Ad hominem!”, “Strawman!”, “Begging the question!” No, this is the 21st century. Meanings of words and phrases change; language is democratic. And so, in informal talk today, “it begs the question” means “it brings up the question”. I heard an extremely erudite and eloquent friend of mine use it that way the other day, and as he can talk rings around everyone else where vocabulary and phrasing are concerned, it clinched the matter for me. I still wouldn’t recommend using the new meaning in an academic paper, but my bet is that before long it’ll become an accepted dictionary definition of the phrase.

“From whence” fell on the opposite end of the scale. “Whence” is an old word, and I thought people just didn’t know any more what it meant. But then, I was re-reading Sense and Sensibility. And there it was, jumping out at me: “He earnestly pressed her … to come with her daughters to Barton Park …, from whence she might judge, herself, whether Barton Cottage … could … be made comfortable to her.” Well, stay me with flagons. Austen says “from whence”?!? And she does it not just once, which might be considered a fluke, but five times in S&S alone! Well, then. Who am I to complain? Furthermore, a quick Google search turns up the fact that even Shakespeare used it, in Sonnet 48: “…the gentle closure of my breast / From whence at pleasure thou mayst come and part“. Austen and Shakespeare – all that’s left is for me to be glad I didn’t pontificate about “from whence” before, or I’d be wiping egg off my face now.

So there you have it: Life, the Universe, and an Editor’s Changed Mind. Which begs the question, From whence do people get their language?




Filed under editing, writing

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.



Filed under Jane Austen

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.



Filed under Jane Austen, The Septimus Series, writing

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.



Filed under books, Jane Austen

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.



Filed under fairy tales, Jane Austen