Posts Tagged ‘Olivia Williams’

Inquiring Readers,

When I read Professor Ellen Moody’s comments regarding Jane Austen Regrets 2007, I realized we were in complete agreement about the movie. She includes historical and literary details that set her essays apart from most movie reviews. Ellen has graciously allowed me to publish her thoughts on this blog.

Dear all,

It’s been asked how accurate is this film as a biography. That’s a hard question to answer because it depends on how you read Austen’s letters; and the letters themselves represent a minority of the letters she wrote and they are censored (clipped, abridged, cut — and we all know how one word left out can make a very great change in tone, not to omit literal meaning).

I rewatched it last night (thanks to my good friend, Judy, who sent me a video of the movie as it played on British TV). Alas, it too seems to be 84 minutes. It’s reported on IMDb that the movie is 90 minutes altogether; since scenes are so short (sometimes lasting 11seconds nowadays) and the camera cuts to and fro from scene to scene, 6 minutes is not nothing to lose (if 6 are indeed lost — bringing up the question which 6 and why were these cut?)

I think the real question is how unhappy was Austen’s life. The film presented her as very unhappy basically, even though she had freedom to write. Olivia Williams did the part with great tact and intuition and irony and made the state much more believable than the shallow imbecility (and glamorized victimhood complete with the crew adoring our heroine at the end) of ‘Becoming Jane’. We should recall first that (as Mary Lefkowitz among others in her lives of the classic poets says), it’s common for popular biography to present the life of a genius in any area as miserable; she suggests this comes out of envy, a desire for compensation (that is, most or many people’s lives are thwarted and unhappy and it makes them feel better to see the genius suffer too, a sense of alienation from someone different) and her classic case is the myths surrounding Euripides and she has a number of modern ones too.

A perceptive article on the recent spate of biopic movies shows that to a movie they all attribute the genius’s insight to loss of love. It must be a love affair that motivates the writing; nothing else will do, and in the case of a woman, she must be helped, inspired by the man she loved. Shakespeare in Love. Moliere. Dear Jane led to write by Tom Lefroy.

This one did show these paradigms in spades. Jane is different and thus alone so must be unhappy. Jane must have been in love and lost and thus we see where she got her stories.

Still I think it better than that; smarter. It seemed to suggest she was unhappy beyond this simply because she was dissatisfied with the choices offered her, whatever these were. She urges Fanny to marry, but she herself won’t take what’s on offer because she doesn’t want it.

It would have been more believable as a real depiction of a real life if there had been less physical beauty all around her, but that’s too much to ask in a heritage film I suppose. And we did get the new poverty: Austen used to be presented as richer than she was; the recent spate of films about her characters show them as much poorer than Austen imagined, and now she has come down to live in a farm-like cottage (below) with Cassandra in barely clean clothes too.

But we do see that her relations with her relatives are less than comforting — too bad they had only the mother; what about the aunt? What about the uncle? And we got only two brothers. Was there some salary limit so the pathology of family life had only minimal representation? (The 07 films have all been very minimalist in budget.) It is true there is strain in the letters from the mother, and from the mother’s leftover writing we see that she was very materialistic.

I’ve thought Austen was not happy in the way that’s common in lives. She had to live on a small allowance; she couldn’t travel about without a man or post (beneath her); the little evidence we have about her family, the manuscript of her leftover chapters of Persuasion and her letters show she was under some pressure to write conventionally (she had thought she was safe over the moral about the mother’s advice in Persuasion but not so, her mother resented the book somehow or other). She had to write for 3 decades before she could get anything in print, and then she wasn’t exactly getting huge sums (but then that was rare). The man who wrote back about Northanger Abbey was very nasty over it: she must give him the 10 pounds before he returns the NA manuscript and if she publishes, he’ll sue. I guess he wasn’t impressed by her connections, wasn’t afraid at all of offending her. Her close woman friend may have betrayed her (by sending the young man she was attracted to away) and then she died early (from a carriage accident); another was a governess in her brother’s house; her sister-in-law and cousin, Eliza, died before her. Her father died leaving her mother and sisters and her without an adequate income. Most of all she died young and in great pain and the sickness was a while coming on.

As to the specifics the film made it’s claim for — as I read the letters with common sense — there is no iota of evidence that Austen ever had a deep feeling love affair with any specific man, none whatsoever, and certainly not with Bridges (Hugh Bonneville, left) nor he for her; he did marry and had a passel of children and as far as we know did not go after Austen with his grief from the loss of her. Family members, such as Cassandra, told of a romance around 1802-4 in the west country where the man said he would meet Austen again next year but died. He is strangely omitted from the film — too vague? It does seem Austen had a crush or liking for Tom LeFroy and he for her, but this was easily quashed: he was sent away to make sure he didn’t get any further involved with a girl with no dowry, a fringe person who needed better connections, couldn’t offer them.

James Macavoy as Tom LeFroy and Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen in Becoming Jane

The story of Harris Bigg-Wither was told by someone else, and it does have the ring of truth. None of these three is a deep romance; the two last are anything but. Reading supercarefully I have noticed that in a couple of instances when older Austen was attracted to an amusing or congenial man, like the apothecary. She jokes about the clergyman. But if there was anything serious in it, Cassandra destroyed the evidence, and the tone of the letters is such that lots of people haven’t seen anything in the couple of instances I’ve noticed. One was an apothecary, and to be sure, this writer picked that up.

But to say Austen was deeply regretful at the end of her life that she hadn’t married. Nonsense. Her letters are filled to to the brim with dislike of endless pregnancies. Absolutely typical:

Anna has not a chance of escape; her husband called here the other day, & said she was pretty well but not equal to “so long a walk; she must come in her “Donkey Carriage.”–Poor Animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty.—I am very sorry for her.–Mrs Clement too is in that way again. I am quite tired of so many Children.–Mrs Benn has a 13th… (Jane Austen’s Letters, ed. Le Faye 336, Letter dated Sunday 23- Tuesday 25 March 1817

She preferred to write and to read and had she married it would have been all over for her. She had 3 sisters-in-laws constantly pregnant all of whom died young in childbirth. She writhed under the control of her brothers because she couldn’t travel. The story to be told is of a woman who decided not to marry because in her circumstances, it would have been a slavery forever she couldn’t stand. She regretted not being able to make more money.
She writhed at dying young. She grieved over not being able to finish Persuasion properly.

The movie does include the incident with the Regents’ librarian (Jason Watkins as Rev. Clarke at left). We see from her letters she was “taken” up by the Regents’ librarian and show the library. He was a rare literary person she met (if third rate) and he treated her seriously and it was to him she wrote a letter where she expressed some worry that Emma showed she was running out of material in a more sophisticated way than she usually discusses her work. She also makes a striking comment on how court life is a form of slavery she wouldn’t be able to stand. She did make fun of him, but she makes fun of lots of people and sometimes (frequently if we are candid) maliciously. She hardly ever has a good word for a fellow novelist. She was afraid to meet famous novelists in public arenas; she wasn’t used to it and knew she had little to make them respect her in the ordinary wordly way. So she refused an invitation to a party where she would have met Madame de Stael (Wikipedia image at right) even though (a rare instance) she praised Corinne highly (better than Milton she said).

I did like how her friendship for Madame Bigeon was presented, and there was an allusion to Isabelle de Montolieu — the woman who is said to have written Raison et Sentiments. Since I have Montolieu’s text of Caroline de Lichtfield on my site, a biography and her preface to Persuasion the translation, I liked that. But why not Miss Sharpe? Where was Martha who lived with them and married Frank? Where Frank? Who I think Austen did love very much (if only as a sister probably) — at least deeply enough to make the name Frank a repeating one and have Janes fall in love with Frank clandestinely, and have sailors central to her books. Why did we not get Anna? who wrote too. Nor her nephew?

Again why were so many people left out? Maybe to make the interpretation of love as central stick.

I thought as a movie it held together movingly though and was intelligently done. If you know little about Austen’s life, it at least is not complacent like the old 3 part BBC “life and works” type thing, and may just lead the viewer to go back to her letters or find a decent biography.


Click here for Ellen’s other posts on this blog:

Click here for Ellen’s blog, Ellen and Jim Have a Blog Too and her main website.

Click here for my review of Miss Austen Regrets

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The Yorkshire Post wrote a review of Miss Austen Regrets four days ago. In it, script writer Gwynneth Hughes, who was interviewed for the article, traces the film from conception to realization. This is one of the best reviews of the film I have read, in part because so much of the material comes straight from Ms. Hughes, who provides her rationale for choosing specific scenes and themes. The review ends with this paragraph: “Ms Hughes has no regrets about her portrayal of JA. “People will find my Jane (and Olivia’s) surprising, maybe, but I stand by everything I wrote. It’s my account of how she might have been, and I don’t think she would have been any gentler or sweeter. She was no shy spinster.””

I’m glad Ms. Hughes made it clear that her account of Jane’s life is her own and therefore subject to interpretation. I also give her great credit for not making much ado of Jane’s short youthful fling with Tom Lefroy, and for writing such an intelligent script.

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Jane takes care of henryThe script from Miss Austen Regrets uses language from Jane’s letters and writing, and scenes from events that actually occurred in her life. For these reasons, the film is worth watching and rewatching – in addition to Olivia Williams’ complex and mature performance. I wish the tone of the movie had been less somber (read my review here), and had concentrated more on Jane’s sparkling wit and amazing publishing success, but many months after viewing the film, I am still left with a strong and positive impression.

One of the film’s historically significant scenes shows Jane’s meeting at Carlton House in 1815 with Rev. James Stanier Clarke, the Prince Regent’s librarian. Jane’s favorite brother, Henry (right in movie), lived in London at the time, where he worked as a banker and acted as Jane’s agent. At this prolific juncture of her life, Jane’s writing career had taken off and her books were selling well. Several of the Austen brothers were experiencing financial setbacks, and Jane’s added income must have relieved them from no small amount of anxiety.During Jane’s visits to London in 1815 to revise proof-sheets (of Emma, one supposes), Henry fell seriously ill and Jane spent her time nursing him (Top left). The doctor who attended Henry was also one of the Prince Regent’s physicians. Edward Austen-Leigh writes about his encounter with Jane in A Memoir of Jane Austen:

In the autumn of 1815 [Jane] nursed her brother Henry through a dangerous fever and slow convalescence at his house in Hans Place. He was attended by one of the Prince Regent’s physicians. All attempts to keep her name secret had at this time ceased, and though it had never appeared on a title-page, all who cared to know might easily learn it: and the friendly physician was aware that his patient’s nurse was the author of `Pride and Prejudice.‘ Accordingly he informed her one day that the Prince was a great admirer of her novels; that he read them often, and kept a set in every one of his residences; that he himself therefore had thought it right to inform his Royal Highness that Miss Austen was staying in London, and that the Prince had desired Mr. Clarke, the librarian of Carlton House, to wait upon her. The next day Mr. Clarke made his appearance, and invited her to Carlton House, saying that he had the Prince’s instructions to show her the library and other apartments, and to pay her every possible attention.

In the film, Jane is shown as feeling some apprehension and awkwardness as she walks through the grand house accompanied by footmen in livery to meet Rev. James Stanier Clarke (left in movie). Although no record Watercolour of Jane Austen (?)of the meeting survives, Jane’s correspondence with Mr. Clarke is well known. Jospehine Ross reveals in Jane Austen: A Companion that Mr. Clarke was slightly smitten with the author (p 38). A recent exciting find of Mr. Clarke’s Friendship Book contains a small watercolour likeness of a woman that many experts believe to be one of Jane. (See image at right.)

During this meeting, Mr. Clarke revealed the Prince Regent’s request to have her next novel dedicated to him. The prince was a great admirer of Jane’s novels and he kept editions of her works in all his houses. The “honour” of the Prince’s request might have induced mixed feelings in Jane, who reveals in this letter:

“I suppose all the World is sitting in Judgement upon the Princess of Wales’s Letter. Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband…” – February 16, 1813

After Jane returned to Hans Place, she was not quite sure of the exact nature of Mr. Clarke’s request, and wrote this letter to clarify her confusion:

Sir, I must take the liberty of asking you a question. Among the many flattering attentions which I received from you at Carlton House on Monday last was the information of my being at liberty to dedicate any future work to His Royal Highness the Prince Regent, without the necessity of any solicitation on my part. Such, at least, I believed to be your words; but as I am very anxious to be quite certain of what was intended, I entreat you to have the goodness to inform me how such a permission is to be understood, and whether it is incumbent on me to show my sense of the honour by inscribing the work now in the press to His Royal Highness; I should be equally concerned to appear either presumptuous or ungrateful. – November 15, 1815

When Emma was printed in March of 1816, Jane wrote this dedication to the Prince:


Read more on this topic at these links:

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Cast of My Boy Jack

My Boy Jack

My Boy Jack will be shown on PBS tonight at 9 pm. Click here to read my review of this powerful movie (Warning: spoilers) and here for Laurel Ann’s post on Carrie Mulligan, who played Elsie Kipling. Both posts also solicit your knowledge about movies in Six Degrees of Austen Adaptation Separation. Rudyard Kipling’s connection to Jane Austen is his powerful short story, “The Janeites,” which popularized the term, and his well-publicized admiration for the author.

Jane SmilesMiss Austen Regrets

Miss Austen Regrets.com offers a variety of current posts and photos of the film, to be shown on BBC on April 27th. Click here to see the stills I pulled from the film, and here for my review, Miss Austen Regrets Perhaps a Bit Too Much For My Taste. Learn more about Olivia Williams on this PBS press site.

Andrew DaviesAndrew Davies

In a recent interview with the Birminham Post, Andrew Davies shares his well-known insights on sexing up the classics for film adaptations. In a slightly older interview with CNN, Mr. Davies continues to expound on his script writing philosophy.

Best Quote Seen Over the Ether:

It was very entertaining, but shouldn’t have been called Mansfield Park.”

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Though in the course of fifty years I have forgotten much, I have not forgotten that Aunt Jane was the delight of all her nephews and nieces. We did not think of her as being clever, still less as being famous: but we valued her as one always kind, sympathising and amusing. Her talents did not introduce her to the notice of other writers, or connect her with the literary world, or in any degree pierce through the obscurity of her domestic retirement. – James Austen-Leigh

I am having a love/dislike relationship with Miss Austen Regrets, to be aired on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic, February 3 at 9:00 PM EST. On the one hand it is such a relief to see Jane Austen depicted as a strong, intelligent, witty, independent, tough, and mature woman through the person of Olivia Williams. On the other hand, why clothe the film in regret and gloom? On the occasions when Olivia as Jane declares she is happy with the choices she’s made in life and with the men she’s rejected, you don’t believe her for a moment. There is such a somber atmosphere to this film, underscored by the music and the long silent moments when Jane stares into space, or sits by a pond, or looks out of a window, that one is left with a melancholy feeling despite the sparkling words.
These scenes belie Jane’s statements of content. This viewer, instead of watching a movie about a confident and talented woman, was somewhat surprised to watch a film about a middle-aged spinster who, though not necessarily unhappy, seems to constantly ask the question: “What if?’ In addition, although Jane was not known to be a great dresser, there is almost a quakerish feel to the film.
So why does this movie, written by a female, delve so deeply into the ‘what might have beens’? The film opens with Harris Bigg-Wither’s proposal, and Jane’s acceptance, then rejection of it. Her retraction was not only a faux pas as far as Society was concerned, but it was a foolhardy decision for her era. Women were expected to marry, and Jane blew her chance for economic security. Mr. Big-Withers had a comfortable income, and he could have provided for Jane, Cassandra, and Mrs. Austen. In the movie, Cassandra seems to influence Jane for changing her mind, but one gets the sense that Jane would have come to this decision regardless of her sister’s pressure. (As an aside, Greta Scacchi is miscast as Cassandra. She may be the right age to play the role, but she looks much older. Worse, she does not exert the big sister influence that I expect Cassandra to have over Jane, who in real life looked up to her.)
After this dramatic introduction, we meet Jane as an aunt and confidante of Fanny Knight, daughter of her brother, Edward Austen-Knight, a widower with eleven children. These early scenes with Jane and Fanny are lovely, full of fun and mischief, and the dialogue is scintillating. “Want to know the true reason I never found a husband?” says Jane, “I never found one worth giving up flirting for.”

The aunt and niece laugh and dance and snoop on the men after dinner under cover of darkness. Fanny solicits Jane’s opinion about her suitor, Mr. Plumtree.

“Fanny Plumtree,” Jane replies in mock horror, sending Fanny into giggles.

But then Jane gets serious, saying, “I would have you marry because I know you won’t be happy until you are. Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor. And the best recipe for happiness is a large income.”

The dialogue sparkles with Jane’s wit and truisms culled from her writing, and if the film hadn’t taken such a gloom and doom approach to spinstershood, these lines would have sparkled more. Fanny did indeed go on to marry well three years after Jane’s death to Thomas Knatchbull, a widower with five children. As a young girl Fanny helped to raise her ten siblings, and she went on to have five children of her own. She is never portrayed in the film as a deep thinker, for all she can think of is marriage. In real life her journals bear this out. Fanny wrote copiously during her lifetime, but her dairies dealt with daily events, and she seldom wrote down her thoughts or deeper feelings.

Despite her enormous talent, Jane is human. According to the movie (and the letters on which it is based) Jane liked to dance, flirt, and drink wine, Perhaps she indulged in too much of the latter, and this draws the ire of Rev. Bridges (Hugh Bonneville), her former beau.

It seems the reverend proposed to Jane when they were both young. She rejected him, though it is obvious that the vicar, though married, still carries a torch for her. When Jane wonders what would have happened if she accepted his proposal, he casually answers: “You would have wound up as a vicar’s wife in Ramsgate.” Later on he professes to Jane that he would have allowed her to write, and taken care of a mother and sister. Again, the viewer is treated to another refrain of “What might have been.”

“I’d waited for news that you’d married,” he said.

“As every woman knows there’s a scarcity of men in general. And an even greater scarcity for any that are good for much,” was her tart reply.

“You can hide behind your clever words as much as you like,” he answers.

“Good, because my clever words will soon be the only thing that will put a roof over my head. Or over my mother’s. Or over my sister’s. I’m to be my own husband it seems.”

“I’d have put a roof over all your heads, and cherished you, dear Jane, ‘till death us do part.”

Jane’s outburst reveals the constant tension she is under. While her words and actions are those of an independent woman, she is a product of her times. She cannot go out and make a living. Worse, she must depend on the men in her life to act as her agents.
We meet Henry, Jane’s favorite brother, as he and Jane are strolling in London. He frets about Jane’s finances and her ability to support herself through book sales. Jane then explodes, saying, “Sense and Sensibility has brought me a 140 pounds. May I not be proud of that?”

I won’t review the entire film for you. Just suffice it to say that if I had been the director of this tale, I would have emphasized that single women do find fulfillment in pursuing their talents, in nurturing family relationships, and in being true to their vision. I wish the plot had dwelled more on the creative, talented side of Jane, instead of her constant worry for money. Aside from that, I was vastly relieved to hear Jane’s words spoken in such an intelligent manner and with such conviction by Olivia Williams. This movie almost makes up for the fairy tale that was Becoming Jane. Almost, but not quite.

Note: I am off on vacation for a week, and will return to answer any queries you might have.

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