Tag Archives: Sense and Sensibility

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?

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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?

 

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Filed under editing, writing

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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Filed under books, Jane Austen, this and that

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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Filed under books, fairy tales, Jane Austen