Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Mr. Woodhouse’

A guest post by Katherine Cowley

Katherine-Cowley-225x300

The Author

Readers and scholars have generally seen the reaction to snow in Emma as an overreaction, both ridiculous and absurd. Yet a look at the snowfalls in England in January and February of 1814 puts the snow in Emma—which was published in December of 1815—in context. Readers of the time would have seen the fears of snow as justified, or, at the very least, understandable.

A pivotal scene in Emma occurs at a Christmas Eve dinner at the Westons’ home. The dinner brings together a number of important characters—Emma, her father Mr. Woodhouse, the Westons, Mr. Knightley, Mr. Elton (who Emma believes is in love with her friend Harriet), and Isabella and John Knightley (Emma’s sister and brother-in-law). Yet the perfect holiday meal does not occur—the falling snow causes a panic (especially for Mr. Woodhouse), and everyone leaves early, hurrying home before more snow can arrive. This places Emma in the uncomfortable position of being alone in a carriage with Mr. Elton, which leads to one of literature’s most famous drunk proposals.

The General Consensus: Absurd Reactions to Snow

Modern readers and film viewers love to laugh at the absurd reactions to snow in Emma. We know with absolute certainty that it does not snow very much in England and that the reactions of the characters are overblown.

Take, for example, a sampling of quotes on the scene from past issues of Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal. Louise Flavin calls Mr. Woodhouse an “over-cautious valetudinarian worrying over a half-inch snowfall.” Sara Wingard writes of the “false alarms raised.” Juliet McMaster describes how Mr. Woodhouse “becomes almost catatonic.” Jan Fergus features the scene in an article titled “Male Whiners in Austen’s Novels.”

In Nora Bartlett’s book, Jane Austen: Reflections of a Reader, she includes a chapter titled “Emma in the Snow.” She writes:

I have always treasured the snowfall in Chapter 15 of Emma, which endangers no one’s safety, despite Mr. Woodhouse’s fears, but threatens everyone’s equanimity: at the news that snow has fallen while the party from Hartfield is having an unwonted evening out at Randalls, “everybody had something to say”—most of it absurd.

Not Just Mr. Woodhouse

Mr. Woodhouse is often seen as a hypochondriac, and the portrait of him which Austen paints throughout the novel invites us to question his sense and find him amusing. When he learns of the snow, we read that he is “silent from consternation.” When he does speak, he says, “What is to be done, my dear Emma?—what is to be done?” Yet he is not the only character who reacts to the snow as if it is a serious matter.

Many readers have pointed out that the most sensible people during the evening are Emma and Mr. Knightley. Yet earlier in the day, Emma herself anticipates that snow could be a problem:

It is so cold, so very cold—and looks and feels so very much like snow, that if it were to any other place or with any other party, I should really try not to go out to-day—and dissuade my father from venturing; but as he has made up his mind, and does not seem to feel the cold himself, I do not like to interfere, as I know it would be so great a disappointment to Mr. and Mrs. Weston.”

During the snow scene, Mr. Knightley behaves rationally—he steps away from the house and checks on the road, discovering that there is only a half inch of snow. He also converses with the coachmen, who “both agreed with him in there being nothing to apprehend.” Taking this effort indicates his desire to help Mr. Woodhouse feel comfortable—but it also indicates that he considers it worth checking on the quantity of snow.

Mr. Weston, on the other hand, begins joking about wanting everyone to be trapped in his house:

[He] wished the road might be impassable, that he might be able to keep them all at Randalls; and with the utmost good-will was sure that accommodation might be found for every body, calling on his wife to agree with him, that with a little contrivance, every body might be lodged, which she hardly knew how to do, from the consciousness of there being but two spare rooms in the house.

Meanwhile, Mr. John Knightley speaks of what he perceives as the worst harm that could come to them:

I dare say we shall get home very well. Another hour or two’s snow can hardly make the road impassable; and we are two carriages; if one is blown over in the bleak part of the common field there will be the other at hand. I dare say we shall be all safe at Hartfield before midnight.”

It is little wonder that Norah Bartlett concludes that “‘everybody had something to say’—most of it absurd.” There is a beautiful absurdity to the scene, a lovely snapshot of humanity as we see individuals react very differently to a single threat.

Yet while Austen may be intentionally creating a situation meant to be read as absurd, the threat of snow would have felt real to readers of Emma in 1815.

The Snows of Early 1814

The novel Emma was published in December of 1815. Contemporary readers would have recent memories of frightening winters due to the intense snow falls across England during January and February of 1814.

Let’s take, as an example, the reports of snow on January 24th, 1814. In The Times, which was published in London, there was an article titled the “State of the Roads.”

1-Dover Roads

Transcription: State of the Roads. On the Dover road, the snow is 10 and 12 feet deep on the other side of Gravesend, where between 300 and 400 men are employed to clear a passage through it.

Clearly, it is no small matter for the road from London to Dover to be covered with 10 to 12 feet of snow, if more than 300 men were hired to shovel it. Yet it was not just the area southeast of London that was covered by snow. In Exeter—in southwest England—there was 4 to 6 feet of snow. Carriages heading from Bath to Marlborough became stuck in the snow. In Worcester and Gloucester it was reported that “it was as easy to get through a wall as pass the drifts of snow.” Mail coaches from Liverpool and Manchester made it to London, but they “risked their lives” in the process. Huge amounts of snow were also reported in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Scotland. 

The article continues:

4-Never since the establishment

Transcription: Never since the establishment of mail coaches has correspondence met with such general interruption as at present. Internal communication must, of course, remain at a stand till the roads are in some degree cleared; for besides the drifts by which they are rendered impassable, the whole face of the country presenting one uniform sheet of snow, no trace of road is discoverable, and travellers have had to make their path at the risk of being every moment overwhelmed. Waggons, carts, coaches, and vehicles of all descriptions are left in the midst of the storm. The drivers finding they could proceed no further, have taken the horses to the first convenient place, and are waiting until a passage is cut, to enable them to proceed with safety.

We can hardly blame Mr. John Knightley for his speculations about losing a carriage in the snow, when so many travelers in 1814 were forced to abandon their carriages.

On January 25, 1814, The St. James’s Chronicle discussed the potential sewage problems that could overwhelm (or flood) London, should the snow melt quickly. The paper also reported that in the village of Dunchurch, “drifts have exceeded the height of 24 feet.”

This was not snow to laugh at—for weeks the snow built up, making travel near impossible. In London, the Guildhall issued announcements not to shovel the snow from roofs onto the roads, because of the trouble it was causing. The snow did begin to melt, but then it became even colder, so cold in fact that the Thames River froze over in London, and the last London Frost Fair was held on its frozen waters. Printing presses were pulled onto the ice, meat was roasted on fires on the surface of the river, and tents were erected with various attractions. The ice was thick enough that an elephant—yes, an elephant—walked across the river, from one side of the Thames to the other.

Frost_Fair_of_1814_by_Luke_Clenell

The Fair on the Thames, Feb. 1814, by Luke Clenell (art in public domain). (To read more about the frost fair, see the following sources at the bottom of this post: Andrews; de Castella; Frost Fairs; Frostiana; and Knowles.)

The snows in 1814 were not just inconvenient: they were dangerous and sometimes even deadly. 

During the Regency period, it was difficult to stay dry and warm. Two previous posts on Jane Austen’s World address the efforts people took to keep warm in the Regency: part 1 and part 2.

In another article in The St. James’s Chronicle from January 25, 1814, several snow-related injuries were described. First we read that a middle-aged man slipped and fractured his knee, and then we read:

A young Lady of Kentish-town, whose name is Eustace, by passing from thence on Friday to London, by the public foot-path behind the Veterinary College, got completely immersed in a deep ravine by the side of the path which she was attempting to cross. After struggling for some time, she became quite exhausted, and must have fallen a victim to her unfortunate situation, had not two Gentlemen, who witnessed her distress, although at a considerable distance, ventured to her assistance, and relieved her from her perilous situation.”

With vivid prose, the article paints the precarious situation for Eustace—she almost fell “a victim to her unfortunate situation,” or, in other words, she almost froze to death.

While the middle-aged man and Eustace recovered from their mishaps, others were not so fortunate. 

This article, from the 19 January 1814 edition of The Times, reprinted information about deaths in Exeter and Shrewsbury on the 15th of January:

Transcription: Several accidents have occurred, some of which were fatal; on Wednesday a soldier was found dead on Haldon…and yesterday three of the Renfrew Militia were dug out near the same spot, and their bodies conveyed to Chudleigh…. Last week, several of the West Middlesex Militia, who had volunteered for foreign service, were frozen to death on their march from Nottingham. The unfortunate men had been drinking till they were intoxicated, and, lying by the road side, slept—never to wake again!

A week later, on the 26th of January, The Times reported on three more people who died in the snow.

3-Guard of the Glocester - The Times January 26

Transcription: The Guard of the Glocester mail reports, that three persons now lie dead at Burford; one a post-boy, who was dug out of the snow yesterday morning; a farmer, who was frozen to death on horseback; and another person, who died in consequence of the inclemency of the weather.

Reports of deaths caused by snow, ice, and cold were printed regularly in newspapers across the country throughout January and February of 1814. 

Readers of Emma would have read of death after death in the snow. Some of the readers might have become trapped in carriages in the snow, or forced to lodge with an acquaintance during the storm. If they had not personally suffered from the weather, they would have known people who had suffered. Would these readers really have blamed Mr. Woodhouse for asking “What is to be done, my dear Emma?—what is to be done?”

We do not have any letters from Jane Austen written in January or February of 1814, so we cannot directly access her thoughts on these snowfalls, yet we do know that she began writing Emma in January of 1814. She would have been well aware of the public memory that would develop around these snowfalls, and she uses the snow to not only influence the plot of Emma, but to create larger symbolism.

The scholar Elizabeth Toohey makes the argument that Mr. Knightley’s proposal to Emma is superior to Mr. Elton’s, in part because of the snow and all it symbolizes:

“Mr. Elton’s proposal takes place in a closed carriage in a snowfall at night with all the associations of coldness, darkness, and enclosure, in contrast to Mr. Knightley’s proposal, which occurs in the garden in the warmth of a late summer evening.”

Much of the beauty of Mr. Knightley’s proposal derives from its contrast with Mr. Elton’s proposal on a snowy night.

The characters of Emma lived in an age without snow plows, snow tires, or central heating, when large snowfalls were not just an inconvenience. Snow regularly caused disruption, injury, and death.

During their journey to the Westons, as the first snowflakes begin to fall, John Knightley declares:

“The folly of not allowing people to be comfortable at home—and the folly of people’s not staying comfortably at home when they can! If we were obliged to go out such an evening as this, by any call of duty or business, what a hardship we should deem it;—and here are we, probably with rather thinner clothing than usual, setting forward voluntarily, without excuse, in defiance of the voice of nature, which tells man, in every thing given to his view or his feelings, to stay at home himself, and keep all under shelter that he can.”

John Knightley’s view of snow has a certain soundness to it. Wouldn’t it behoove us all to take what shelter we can during difficult times?

As we read the snow scene in Emma, let us do so with a realization that while Austen may be painting an absurd portrait, the views of these characters are not, in and of themselves, absurd. For 1815 readers, a fear of snow and ice would be justifiable, or at the very least, understandable.

_________________________________________________________________

About the author

Katherine Cowley is the author of the Mary Bennet spy novel, The True Confessions of a London Spy, which features Mary Bennet of Pride and Prejudice in London during January and February of 1814. In addition to surviving epic amounts of snow and attending the last Ice Fair ever held on the Thames, Mary experiences her first London Season and investigates the murder of a messenger for Parliament.

Note from Vic, Jane Austen’s World: In 2021, we reviewed Katherine Cowley’s first mystery in the Mary Bennet series, The Secret Life of Mary Bennet. Attached to it is an interview with the author.

Accessing Regency Newspapers

If you would like to explore Regency newspapers, you can purchase an affordable monthly subscription to the British Newspaper Archive. They have digitized hundreds of newspapers from across the United Kingdom. While to my knowledge individual subscriptions to The Times Digital Archive are not available, many libraries and university libraries have subscriptions that allow you to browse and search the archives of The Times.

References and Further Reading

Andrews, Willam. Famous Frosts and Frost Fairs in Great Britain, George Redway, 1887. Accessed through Project Gutenberg, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/55375/55375-h/55375-h.htm, 1 Jan 2022.

Bartlett, Nora. Jane Austen: Reflections of a Reader, edited by Jane Stabler, Open Book Publishers, 2021.

de Castella, Tom. “Frost fair: When an elephant walked on the frozen River Thames.” BBC News Magazine, 28 Jan. 2014, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-25862141. Accessed 31 Jan. 2022.

Fergus, Jan. “Male Whiners in Austen’s Novels.” Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, vol. 18, 1996, pp. 98-108.

Flavin, Louise. “Free Indirect Discourse and the Clever Heroine of Emma.” Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, vol. 13, 1991, pp. 50-57.

“Frost Fairs: Where Thames Smooth Waters Glide. Frost Fairs on the River Thames.” Thames.me.uk, https://thames.me.uk/index.htm. Accessed 31 January 2022.

Frostiana: or a History of The River Thames, In a Frozen State, G. Davis, 1814.  

“Keeping Warm in the Regency Era, Part One.” Jane Austen’s World, 21 Jan. 2009, https://janeaustensworld.com/2009/01/21/keeping-warm-in-the-regency-era-part-one/. Accessed 31 Jan. 2022.

“Keeping Warm in the Regency Era, Part Two.” Jane Austen’s World, 3 Feb. 2009, https://janeaustensworld.com/2009/02/03/ways-to-keep-warm-n-the-regency-era-part-2/. Accessed 31 Jan. 2022.

Knowles, Rachel. “The Frost Fair of 1814.” Regency History, 3 Jan. 2021, https://www.regencyhistory.net/2020/05/the-frost-fair-of-1814.html. Accessed 31 Jan. 2022.

McMaster, Juliet. “The Secret Languages of Emma.” Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, vol. 13, 1991, pp. 119-131.

Mullan, John. “How Jane Austen’s Emma changed the face of fiction.” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/dec/05/jane-austen-emma-changed-face-fiction. Accessed 31 January 2022.

The St. James’s Chronicle (London, England), Tuesday, Jan. 25, 1814; pp. 1-4; Issue 8757. Accessed through The British Newspaper Archive 28 Jul. 2020.

The Times (London, England), Monday, Jan. 19, 1814; pp. 1-4; Issue 9122. Accessed through The Times Digital Archive 31 Jan. 2022.

The Times (London, England), Monday, Jan. 24, 1814; pp. 1-4; Issue 9126. Accessed through The Times Digital Archive 27 Jul. 2020.

The Times (London, England), Monday, Jan. 26, 1814; pp. 1-4; Issue 9128. Accessed through The Times Digital Archive 31 Jan. 2022.

Wingard, Sara. “Folks That Go a Pleasuring.” Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, vol. 14, 1992, pp. 122-131.

Read Full Post »

Emma (Kate Beckinsale) and Mr. Elton (Dominic Rowan) examine her drawings. Emma 1996 A&E

In the early chapters of Jane Austen’s novel, Emma, the reader learns that Emma “will never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience”, and that none of her portraits had ever been finished (although she had made some progress in drawing, considering the little labour she had submitted to). Steadiness and practice had always been wanting, preventing her from becoming an expert in this area.

In Volume 1, Chapter 6, Emma paints a watercolor likeness of Miss Smith in an attempt to draw Mr. Elton closer to Miss Smith. In Mr. Elton’s mind, the painting sessions present him with an opportunity to spend more time with Emma and toady up to her. Recent Emma film adaptations have captured this scene wonderfully, as you can see from the images that accompany Jane Austen’s text.

Did you ever have your likeness taken, Harriet?” said she: “did you ever sit for your picture?”

Harriet was on the point of leaving the room, and only stopt to say, with a very interesting naïveté,

“Oh! dear, no, never.”

No sooner was she out of sight, than Emma exclaimed,

“What an exquisite possession a good picture of her would be! I would give any money for it. I almost long to attempt her likeness myself. You do not know it I dare say, but two or three years ago I had a great passion for taking likenesses, and attempted several of my friends, and was thought to have a tolerable eye in general. But from one cause or another, I gave it up in disgust. But really, I could almost venture, if Harriet would sit to me. It would be such a delight to have her picture!”

Mr. Elton entreats Miss Woodhouse to paint. Emma 1996 A&E

“Let me entreat you,” cried Mr. Elton; “it would indeed be a delight! Let me entreat you, Miss Woodhouse, to exercise so charming a talent in favour of your friend. I know what your drawings are. How could you suppose me ignorant? Is not this room rich in specimens of your landscapes and flowers; and has not Mrs. Weston some inimitable figure-pieces in her drawing-room, at Randalls?”

Yes, good man!—thought Emma—but what has all that to do with taking likenesses? You know nothing of drawing. Don’t pretend to be in raptures about mine. Keep your raptures for Harriet’s face. “Well, if you give me such kind encouragement, Mr. Elton, I believe I shall try what I can do. Harriet’s features are very delicate, which makes a likeness difficult; and yet there is a peculiarity in the shape of the eye and the lines about the mouth which one ought to catch.”

“Exactly so—The shape of the eye and the lines about the mouth—I have not a doubt of your success. Pray, pray attempt it. As you will do it, it will indeed, to use your own words, be an exquisite possession.”

“But I am afraid, Mr. Elton, Harriet will not like to sit. She thinks so little of her own beauty. Did not you observe her manner of answering me? How completely it meant, ‘why should my picture be drawn?'”

Mr. Elton (Blake Ritson) can envision Emma (Romola Garai) painting a portrait of Harriet (Louis Dylan). Emma 2009

“Oh! yes, I observed it, I assure you. It was not lost on me. But still I cannot imagine she would not be persuaded.”

Harriet was soon back again, and the proposal almost immediately made; and she had no scruples which could stand many minutes against the earnest pressing of both the others. Emma wished to go to work directly, and therefore produced the portfolio containing her various attempts at portraits, for not one of them had ever been finished, that they might decide together on the best size for Harriet. Her many beginnings were displayed. Miniatures, half-lengths, whole-lengths, pencil, crayon, and water-colours had been all tried in turn. She had always wanted to do everything, and had made more progress both in drawing and music than many might have done with so little labour as she would ever submit to. She played and sang;—and drew in almost every style; but steadiness had always been wanting; and in nothing had she approached the degree of excellence which she would have been glad to command, and ought not to have failed of. She was not much deceived as to her own skill either as an artist or a musician, but she was not unwilling to have others deceived, or sorry to know her reputation for accomplishment often higher than it deserved.

There was merit in every drawing—in the least finished, perhaps the most; her style was spirited; but had there been much less, or had there been ten times more, the delight and admiration of her two companions would have been the same. They were both in exstasies. A likeness pleases every body; and Miss Woodhouse’s performances must be capital.

Emma's unfinished portraits of her family. Emma 1996 A&E

“No great variety of faces for you,” said Emma. “I had only my own family to study from. There is my father—another of my father—but the idea of sitting for his picture made him so nervous, that I could only take him by stealth; neither of them very like therefore. Mrs. Weston again, and again, and again, you see. Dear Mrs. Weston! always my kindest friend on every occasion. She would sit whenever I asked her. There is my sister; and really quite her own little elegant figure!—and the face not unlike. I should have made a good likeness of her, if she would have sat longer, but she was in such a hurry to have me draw her four children that she would not be quiet. Then, here come all my attempts at three of those four children;—there they are, Henry and John and Bella, from one end of the sheet to the other, and any one of them might do for any one of the rest. She was so eager to have them drawn that I could not refuse; but there is no making children of three or four years old stand still you know; nor can it be very easy to take any likeness of them, beyond the air and complexion, unless they are coarser featured than any of mama’s children ever were. Here is my sketch of the fourth, who was a baby. I took him, as he was sleeping on the sofa, and it is as strong a likeness of his cockade as you would wish to see. He had nestled down his head most conveniently. That’s very like. I am rather proud of little George. The corner of the sofa is very good. Then here is my last,”—unclosing a pretty sketch of a gentleman in small size, whole-length—”my last and my best—my brother, Mr. John Knightley. —This did not want much of being finished, when I put it away in a pet, and vowed I would never take another likeness. I could not help being provoked; for after all my pains, and when I had really made a very good likeness of it—(Mrs. Weston and I were quite agreed in thinking it very like)—only too handsome—too flattering—but that was a fault on the right side—after all this, came poor dear Isabella’s cold approbation of—”Yes, it was a little like—but to be sure it did not do him justice.” We had had a great deal of trouble in persuading him to sit at all. It was made a great favour of; and altogether it was more than I could bear; and so I never would finish it, to have it apologised over as an unfavourable likeness, to every morning visitor in Brunswick-square;—and, as I said, I did then forswear ever drawing anybody again. But for Harriet’s sake, or rather for my own, and as there are no husbands and wives in the case at present, I will break my resolution now.”

Harriet (Louise Dylan) responds to Mr. Elton's interest in her portrait. Emma 1996

Mr. Elton seemed very properly struck and delighted by the idea, and was repeating, “No husbands and wives in the case at present indeed, as you observe. Exactly so. No husbands and wives,” with so interesting a consciousness, that Emma began to consider whether she had not better leave them together at once. But as she wanted to be drawing, the declaration must wait a little longer.

She had soon fixed on the size and sort of portrait. It was to be a whole-length in water-colours, like Mr. John Knightley’s, and was destined, if she could please herself, to hold a very honourable station over the mantelpiece.

Keeping a pose for long for a portrait is difficult. Emma 2009

The sitting began; and Harriet, smiling and blushing, and afraid of not keeping her attitude and countenance, presented a very sweet mixture of youthful expression to the steady eyes of the artist. But there was no doing anything, with Mr. Elton fidgeting behind her and watching every touch. She gave him credit for stationing himself where he might gaze and gaze again without offence; but was really obliged to put an end to it, and request him to place himself elsewhere. It then occurred to her to employ him in reading.

Mr. Elton oversees the process. Emma 1996 A&E

“If he would be so good as to read to them, it would be a kindness indeed! It would amuse away the difficulties of her part, and lessen the irksomeness of Miss Smith’s.”

Mr. Elton was only too happy. Harriet listened, and Emma drew in peace. She must allow him to be still frequently coming to look; any thing less would certainly have been too little in a lover; and he was ready at the smallest intermission of the pencil, to jump up and see the progress, and be charmed.—There was no being displeased with such an encourager, for his admiration made him discern a likeness almost before it was possible. She could not respect his eye, but his love and his complaisance were unexceptionable.

Emma paints Harriet, with Mr. Elton and Mr. Knightley looking on. Emma 1996

The sitting was altogether very satisfactory; she was quite enough pleased with the first day’s sketch to wish to go on. There was no want of likeness, she had been fortunate in the attitude, and as she meant to throw in a little improvement to the figure, to give a little more height, and considerably more elegance, she had great confidence of its being in every way a pretty drawing at last, and of its filling its destined place with credit to them both—a standing memorial of the beauty of one, the skill of the other, and the friendship of both; with as many other agreeable associations as Mr. Elton’s very promising attachment was likely to add.

Harriet was to sit again the next day; and Mr. Elton, just as he ought, entreated for the permission of attending and reading to them again.

Miss Smith (Toni Collette) stands in a neoclassical pose. Emma 1996

“By all means. We shall be most happy to consider you as one of the party.”

The same civilities and courtesies, the same success and satisfaction, took place on the morrow, and accompanied the whole progress of the picture, which was rapid and happy. Every body who saw it was pleased, but Mr. Elton was in continual raptures, and defended it through every criticism.

“Miss Woodhouse has given her friend the only beauty she wanted,”—observed Mrs. Weston to him—not in the least suspecting that she was addressing a lover.—”The expression of the eye is most correct, but Miss Smith has not those eye-brows and eye-lashes. It is the fault of her face that she has them not.”

Mr. Elton applauds the unveiling of Emma's portrait. Emma 2009

“Do you think so?” replied he. “I cannot agree with you. It appears to me a most perfect resemblance in every feature. I never saw such a likeness in my life. We must allow for the effect of shade, you know.”

Mr. Knightley's (Mark Strong's) and Mrs. Weston's (Samantha Bond's) reactions. Emma 1995 A&E.

“You have made her too tall, Emma,” said Mr. Knightley.

Emma knew that she had, but would not own it, and Mr. Elton warmly added,

Mr. Elton's enthusiastic response continues unabated. Emma 2009

“Oh, no! certainly not too tall; not in the least too tall. Consider, she is sitting down—which naturally presents a different—which in short gives exactly the idea—and the proportions must be preserved, you know. Proportions, fore-shortening.—Oh, no! it gives one exactly the idea of such a height as Miss Smith’s. Exactly so indeed!”

Mr. Woodhouse examines his daughter's effort. Emma 1996

“It is very pretty,” said Mr. Woodhouse. “So prettily done! Just as your drawings always are, my dear. I do not know any body who draws so well as you do. The only thing I do not thoroughly like is, that she seems to be sitting out of doors, with only a little shawl over her shoulders—and it makes one think she must catch cold.”

1996 A&E Emma's pale portrait of Harriet by candle light

“But, my dear papa, it is supposed to be summer; a warm day in summer. Look at the tree.”

Closeup Emma 2009's painting of Harriet.

“But it is never safe to sit out of doors, my dear.”

Mr. Woodhouse (Bernard Hepton) expresses concern for Harriet's warmth and comfort. Emma 1996 A&E

“You, sir, may say any thing,” cried Mr. Elton; “but I must confess that I regard it as a most happy thought, the placing of Miss Smith out of doors; and the tree is touched with such inimitable spirit! Any other situation would have been much less in character. The naïveté of Miss Smith’s manners—and altogether—Oh, it is most admirable! I cannot keep my eyes from it. I never saw such a likeness.”

Mr. Elton (Alan Cumming) enthusiastically endorses the portrait and offers to take it to London to have it framed. Emma 1996

Mr. Elton expressed his extreme gratification by offering to ride to London in December to have the picture framed, leaving Emma with these happy but largely erroneous thoughts:

“This man is almost too gallant to be in love,” thought Emma. “I should say so, but that I suppose there may be a hundred different ways of being in love. He is an excellent young man and will suit Harriet exactly: it will be an ‘exactly so’ as he says himself; but he does sigh and languish, and study for compliments rather more than I could endure as a principal. I come in for a pretty good share as a second, But it is his gratitude on Harriet’s account.”

Read Full Post »

Is Sunday night’s broadcast of the 1997 A&E version of Emma on Masterpiece Classic worth watching? Absolutely! Even those who liked Gwyneth Paltrow’s elegant interpretation of 20 year-old Miss Woodhouse as much as I did, will find Kate Beckinsale’s bossy Emma satisfying in a more down-to-earth way. When Kate made this film she had just completed her role as Flora Poste in Cold Comfort Farm, a surprise cinematic hit.

Miss Emma Woodhouse, 20-year-old self-satisfied spinster

Kate plays the part of an interfering, well-meaning young woman with youthful ease and assurance. In addition, this actress is truly British, and she moves, talks, and acts naturally through the English landscape. I am always delighted to see a British actress play a British character (My apologies to Gwyneth, Renee Zellweger, and Anne Hathaway). I know many will disagree with me, but at times Gwyneth reminded me too much of a beautiful high fashion model with her uber thin, attenuated figure and modern facial features. She was as lovely to view as an Ingres line drawing, but I could relate to Kate’s old-fashioned prettiness better.

As you can see from the photos below, Kate’s range as an actress, when compared to supporting actress Samantha Morton, is somewhat limited. Nevertheless, she possessed sufficient acting chops to tackle this challenging role.

In these images (from left to right, top to bottom), Kate as Emma expresses 1) interest in Harriet when speaking to Mrs.Goddard, 2) a mixture of hurt and anger when listening to a lecture by Mr. Knightley, 3) proud admiration in viewing Mr. Knightley’s house, 4) disbelief and tender joy when Mr. Knightley proposes to her, 5) horror to Mr. Elton’s proposal, 6) envy listening to Jane Fairfax’s superior performance at the piano, 7) dreaminess after she and Mr. Knightley have declared their love for each other, and 8. polite and covert interest in Jane Fairfax as Miss Bates extols Jane’s virtues.
I love this reaction shot of Kate (below), whose expressions conveyed several emotions at once. Here, Emma has walked into Mr. Knightley’s sitting room, where she encounters her father by a small fire. Her face captures the combination of love, patience, forbearance, and puzzlement that Emma must have felt toward her father, as he once again frets and worries over minor points of comfort.

Miss Harriet Smith, 17-year old natural daughter of a gentleman

Movie buffs require no introduction to Samantha Morton, an actress so talented that one’s eyes immediately turn to her when she enters a scene.

Samantha’s Harriet Smith is all about innocence, naiveté, and puppyish eagerness to please. Her will – weak and easily persuaded – is sweet and passive. Emma couldn’t have found a more tractable person for her next project in matchmaking. Samantha’s artless Harriet, however, does not come across as dumb, for she often, though softly, questions Emma, and one senses throughout the film that she is unwilling quite to let go of her dream of living in a pretty yellow cottage with her yeoman farmer, Mr. Martin, and his two friendly, well-educated sisters. In Samantha’s interpretation of Harriet, we finally see a young woman worthy of Emma’s attempts at improvement.

While Toni Collette is a fine actress, whose turn as Cole’s frantic mother in The Sixth Sense moved me to tears, her plump, dumbed down Harriet left me perplexed and wondering what the elegant Gwyneth/Emma ever saw in her.

Mr. Knightley, 37-year-old gentleman, owner of Donwell Abbey, and Emma’s brother-in-law

Mark Strong’s Mr. Knightley sets the movie’s serious tone. His hawk-like features are dark, almost sinister, and his lithe, athletic figure moves with animal grace. In fact, Mark’s Mr. Knightley is dangerously and forcefully handsome, but not in a classical sense. His interpretation of Emma’s friend and lover is more vigorous than Jeremy Northam’s. Under repeated viewing and scrutiny, Mark’s performance holds up well. His angry encounters with Emma are a perfect foil to the moments when he is caught off guard tenderly watching her or smiling at something she has done or said, and after he proposes to her.
The change in Mark’s Mr. Knightley is most evident at the Harvest Ball, where he cannot contain his love for Emma. Many critics thought that this particular Mr. Knightley was too forceful, however I found that once he expressed his feelings for Emma, the change in his demeanor contributed to a completely satisfying romantic ending. The wolf has been tamed, and while we suspect that this Mr. Knightley will always be an exacting and demanding lover (ooh la la!), we also know that he will cherish Emma forever.

Critics of this movie will say it is too dark in tone, that the light-hearted spirit of Jane’s comedic novel was better captured by the 1996 theatrical film. Frankly, I prefer this film’s meatier fare. While Emma’s generous spirit and sincere interest in her charity work are largely ignored in this film version (and emphasized in Gwyneth’s Emma), Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are allowed to play out their charade under everyone’s noses, Bernard Hepton as Mr. Woodhouse is given free reign to explore his character, and the backdrop of regency life and manners is filmed in minute detail.

One of the film’s most important characters is the village of Highbury (played by Laycock, a National Trust village in Wiltshire.) This village is peopled with gentry, artisans, craftsmen, servants, and laborours going about their business. As the protagonists move through this landscape, the evidence of regency life playing itself out fascinated me – from Emma’s courtesy visits to Miss Bates – to the ball at the Crown Inn – to the seating at table, with Emma in the position of hostess, and Mrs. Elton and Mrs. Weston at the head of the table with Mr. Woodhouse – to the footman holding the candelabra up to Harriet’s picture so that everyone could see it better – to the farmers and their families harvesting grain before The Harvest Ball.

I found Gwyneth’s world overly beautiful, refined, and Hollywood-sanitized, but Kate’s world showed some rough edges, most particularly when depicting exactly how much hard labor was involved in supporting the lavish lifestyle of the landed gentry. Who can forget the strawberry picking scene at Donwell Abbey where footmen dressed in livery (an extreme sign of wealth) stood by each guest, moving the kneeling cushions along the rows of strawberries; or the servants laboring to cart furniture, dishes, and food up Box Hill in order to provide a bucolic outing for the guests? Or Frank’s gift of the piano being hoisted up to the second floor of Mrs. and Miss Bates’s rooms, because the stairs were too steep, winding, and narrow?

These typical touches of an Andrew Davies script influenced my decision: I prefer this cinematic version of Emma. Oh, please do feel free to quibble. As I watch Gwyneth’s version of Emma again, my preference just might swing back to that movie. When it comes to all things Jane Austen, I am known to be fickle!

Watch Emma tonight on Masterpiece Classic at 9 p.m. Read the reviews about Emma on PBS’s Remotely Connected, and details at this PBS site.

Can’t get enough of Emma? Please click on the following:

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: