Posts Tagged ‘Jane Austen’

Pride and Punctuation; or, Sense and Semicolons

October 28, 2010

As if it’s not enough that Shakespeare’s plays were written by the Earl of Oxford1, now we find that Jane Austen’s style was not her own, but rather the work of William Gifford, apparently the Best Editor Ever. Or so says Kathryn Sutherland, Director of the Jane Austen Manuscript Digital Edition. According to some of the many accounts (h/t: I first heard of this in a comment here),

"What I’m particularly interested in is that the manuscripts do not bear out that high degree of polished grammatical style for which Jane Austen is known"—what Ms. Sutherland calls "the exquisitely placed semicolon."


In particular, the high degree of polished punctuation and epigrammatic style we see in Emma and Persuasion is simply not there.


One of her grammatical errors was the inability to master the ‘i before e’ rule and her works were littered with distant ‘veiws’ and characters who ‘recieve’ guests.

On other occasions she wrote ‘tomatoes’ as ‘tomatas’ and ‘arraroot’ for ‘arrowroot’, which according to Professor Sutherland reflect her regional accent.

‘In some of her writing, her Hampshire accent is very strong. She had an Archers-like voice with a definite Hampshire burr,’ she said.

For some healthy skepticism about such claims see Language Log and Austenblog, with good comments to be found at both. I don’t have much to add, just to reinforce that the only real specifics in the reports are about spelling and punctuation—in rough drafts!—which really don’t detract from her “polished grammatical style.” Unless, I suppose, you’re Lynne Truss.

It’s always nice when the evidence for these bold claims is easily available online; so I had a look for myself at this new Jane archive. I have to say it’s pretty neat: whatever the merit of Professor Sutherland’s claims, she and her colleagues seem to have done great work amassing and transcribing and presenting all these manuscript pages.

The first problem in deciding what to make of Professor Sutherland’s claims on behalf of Mr Gifford is that there is virtually nothing in these manuscripts to compare with published versions. That’s right, not only are these all rough drafts, there rough drafts of things that weren’t even published. Apparently she didn’t bother to keep either rough or fair copies of the ones that were published. The only exception is a bit of Persuasion, which looks to me to be very nearly identical to chapter 24, minus the very end, of the published version (at least as it appears here), with fewer commas and more dashes. It is fascinating to look at what she crossed out and rewrote. The most interesting bit is a passage about Sir Walter Eliot’s newfound respect for Captain Wentworth, pasted over in favor of what I think is a rather less piquant version. Perhaps she decided she had already been hard enough on the Bart., or more likely that it was a little repetitive with passages earlier in the book. But it is funny:

As he saw & conversed with Capt. W. more, saw his complexion by daylight — & perceived in conversation that his Teeth were as fine as ever. — he could not but feel that in any present comparison with Anne, Capt. W. must have the advantage, that he had lost much leſs of Youth & bloom than she had, and consequently might now

Back to Jane’s alleged unpolished prose and lack of “epigrammatic style,” I suppose that one could make an argument based on the style of all these unpublished (but hardly hitherto unknown) works as compared to that of the published ones, especially those that Gifford edited. [Which, by the by, do not include Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park]. Maybe that is what Professor S means to say, but if so I haven’t heard her say it.

Oh, and and typography! Or, um, not typography, but whatever you call the handwriting equivalent (I should really know the right word, shouldn’t I?). These manuscripts are full of long s’s, the things that look like a bit f’s but aren’t (they look like ſ, with no crossbar, or sometimes a little nub on the left; italic ones generally look like integral signs; and they are simply an alternate form of plain old “s”). Jane seems to have been much more regular than many printers in her use of long s, her rule being (as far as I can tell) just that ss is always written ſs. Anyway, I had never seen any manuscript long s’s before. It turns out that they look like f’s (surprise!) with the bottom loop reversed. That would make them quick to write, I should think, with no stroke reversals (is there a technical term for that?). Here’s the word “less”:


Neat, huh? Well, I thought it was interesting.


1. That’s ridiculous, of course. Shakespeare’s plays were written by Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke.


The Jane Austen Book Club

April 5, 2008

Still more Janeblogging! Sort of; rather than real Austen, this is all about the fluff. Yes, I saw The Jane Austen Book Club, and thanks to the magic of low expectations, I even enjoyed it.

[I liked a chick flick! Crap, am I gay? Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it would be terribly inconvenient.]

Anyway. Five women and one guy (a handsome, charming, rich, and sensitive guy who likes older women1, it is worth pointing out) form a book club to discuss the novels of Jane Austen. They find their own lives and problems mirroring the books they’re reading (very vaguely and loosely), and with the aid and inspiration of said books are able to work out said problems (very unconvincingly, but that’s a quibble in this sort of movie).

It’s nice to see characters in a movie actually reading books, and not only reading them but caring about them and talking about them and thinking about them. Admittedly, their thoughts are on the shallow side—said the pot to the kettle; I’ve never had a deep thought in my life2—but it’s still nice. Usually in movies and on TV reading is something done only incidentally, or more often decorously left unmentioned, like using the bathroom or watching trashy television.3

What made the movie work for me, besides the low expectations, was mostly the very agreeable cast. Even when they were being charmingly annoying, Maria Bello and Amy Brenneman and Kathy Baker and Maggie Grace and Hugh Dancy were all just adorable. You sorta want to be their galpal (Damn! Still gay!). Of the central characters only Emily Blunt—so wonderful in the otherwise mediocre The Devil Wears Prada4—got a bum deal, forced to play the most unpleasant of our heroines, a pretentious, bitchy, and unhappy culture snob. Her unbearable superiority is indicated in part by the way she refers to Austen as “Jane”—but don’t we all do that?

The actors in minor roles fare less well. The great Lynn Redgrave is positively abused as Blunt’s mother, whose function in the story is to explain why Blunt is such a witch. Jimmy Smits and Mark Blucas, as the respectively unfaithful and insensitive husbands of Brenneman and Blunt, are treated with the usual clueless broadness reserved for husbands in this sort of story. Nancy Travis, whom I’ve liked ever since So I Married An Axe Murderer (no, really! I loved that movie!), is thrown away in a tiny part.

The Jane Austen Book Club has no particular insights into human nature, no great wit, and no characters I’ll remember in a month. If you want those, read Jane Austen. But if you’re looking for a pleasant time-waster you could do worse than this.


1 At least when they look like Maria Bello.
2 Actually, I did have one once. It was about modal logic.
3 Married With Children, Seinfeld, and The Simpsons being exceptions.
4 Emily Blunt, Stanley Tucci, and Meryl Streep seemed to be in a completely different, much better, movie than Anne Hathaway. My first thought was that a script doctor had worked over an originally flat screenplay, but hadn’t gotten to the whole thing. It turns out that at least Blunt improvised many of her lines.

Sense and Sensibility

April 3, 2008

I don’t know whether it makes, um, sense to say anything about the new Sense and Sensibility when we’ve only seen half of it, especially since for the life of me I can’t think of anything original or witty to say about it. But I shan’t let little things like that stop me!

The first thing to strike us–after the sex scene at the beginning–was how very like the 1995 Ang Lee/Emma Thompson version it was. A quick look about the more Janely neighbourhoods of the web confirmed that we were hardly alone in noticing. Given the talent involved in this production I had really expected something more original. Besides the skin, I mean. Not that following the older version is entirely a bad thing–it was, after all, very well done.

Some specifics. Dan Stevens as Edward Ferrars looked rather like Hugh Grant: certainly neither quite fit the description of Edward as “not handsome.” Perhaps that’s because “not handsome” doesn’t really work for leading men in movies and on television. Similarly neither’s manners would seem to “require intimacy to make them pleasing,” but again that might not work particularly well on television. I’ll reserve further comment on Edward until I see more of him next week.

Little Margaret also seems to be treated much as she was in the 1995 film, down to her hiding in the library. I’m not sure I could tell the two Fannys apart. The very first (non-sex) scene, Fanny talking John out of supporting his stepmother and sisters, seemed lifted directly from the older one, although I suppose that in that case they both stay fairly close to the book.

Where I disagree with some of the other comments I’ve seen (and with my wife) is about Hattie Morahan’s Elinor. I did not think she was noticably aping Emma Thompson–she can hardly help having an alto voice and acting, well, sensible. Indeed I thought she was quite perfect in the role. Not to mention closer to the proper age than Ms. Thompson was (Ang Lee is said to have told her not to look “so old.”).

I haven’t been able to get used to David Morrissey’s Colonel Brandon. He’s just too darned manly and heroic for what I think of as a rather sad character. Have I been overly influenced by Alan Rickman’s melancholy Brandon? Probably. I also might feel differently if I were a woman. Or gay.

Conversely I thought Dominic Cooper’s Wickham was a bit wimpy, but that might be appropriate to the sort of (apparent) swoony romantic Marianne likes.

One jarring aspect of many of these latter-day adaptations is the massive romantic over-dramatization of the incidentals. The beautiful and craggy seascapes, the pounding hooves in breakneck carriage rides, the dramatic and anachronistic incidental music–these things don’t say “Jane Austen” to me. To quote the New Yorker‘s review of Pride and Prejudice, “Jane Austen has been Brontëfied.” Although it’s not just Jane; I found the scene transitions in Bleak House fairly unbearable (my only complaint with that production).

Although I just quibbled about the anachronistic incidental music, I was greatly pleased with the, I’m not sure what to call it, maybe “non-incidental music?” What Marianne played on the piano (and it sounded like a period spinet, not a modern piano!), I mean. I’ll have to figure out what those pieces were.

Trilling on Mansfield Park

April 1, 2008

Inspired by Metropolitan, I finally got around to reading Lionel Trilling’s essay on Mansfield Park.1 Hie yourselves to a library and find a copy, all you academically inclined Janeites out there; it’s in this collection. It’s readable, entertaining, and thought-provoking (yes, readable and entertaining lit. crit.!), but I would advise against mistaking even the best of essays for anything like the novel itself, as Tom does in Metropolitan.

Trilling begins with a discussion of irony, and concludes that Mansfield Park seems not to have any:

But there is one novel of Jane Austen’s, Mansfield Park, in which the characteristic irony seems not to be at work. Indeed, one might say of this novel that it demonstrates that there are no two ways about anything.

But Trilling himself is being ironic here: as he later says:

…Mansfield Park proposes to us the possibility of this deception. If we perceive this, we cannot say that the novel is without irony–we must say, indeed that its irony is more profound than that of any of Jane Austen’s other novels. It is an irony directed at irony itself.

Really he means “irony” as a sort of synecdoche for style over substance, for artifice and insincerity over genuine morality. My reaction exactly.

Consider Sir Thomas and Mrs Norris’s attitude towards Fanny vis-a-vis the Betram daughters:

“Should her disposition be really bad,” said Sir Thomas, “we must not, for our own children’s sake, continue her in the family; but there is no reason to expect so great an evil. We shall probably see much to wish altered in her, and must prepare ourselves for gross ignorance, some meanness of opinions, and very distressing vulgarity of manner; but these are not incurable faults; nor, I trust, can they be dangerous for her associates. Had my daughters been younger than herself, I should have considered the introduction of such a companion as a matter of very serious moment; but, as it is, I hope there can be nothing to fear for them, and everything to hope for her, from the association.”

[Mrs Norris to Maria and Julia] “To be sure, my dear, that is very stupid indeed, and shows a great want of genius and emulation. But, all things considered, I do not know whether it is not as well that it should be so, for, though you know (owing to me) your papa and mama are so good as to bring her up with you, it is not at all necessary that she should be as accomplished as you are;—on the contrary, it is much more desirable that there should be a difference.”

Fanny, of course, proves to be far superior to the Betram girls in every sense that matters.

And the irony goes deeper. Trilling points out that Austen (in her other novels!) plays with you, dear reader, in an ironic way:

In irony, even in the large derived sense of the word, there is a kind of malice. The ironist has the intention of practicing upon the misplaced confidence of the literal mind, of disappointing comfortable expectation. Jane Austen’s malice of irony is directed not only upon certain of the characters in her novels but also upon the reader himself.

Good heavens, is there any novel of which that is more true than of Mansfield Park? I can speak only for myself here, but I don’t recall ever having been so practiced upon in all my life. Take Trilling’s stark declaration

Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park.

Well, I liked her, but not at first. Fanny at first seems nothing but weak and insipid. It’s hard not to be annoyed by her, especially in comparison with Austen’s other heroines. But Fanny is in her way just as strong as Elizabeth Bennet: her strength is entirely moral, and not at all obvious, either to the other characters or to us. Part of the brilliance of Mansfield Park is that Fanny’s inner fortitude only becomes apparent to us slowly. We are set up to despise her, but come to admire her.

And then there’s Mary Crawford:

…Mary Crawford is conceived–is calculated–to win the charmed admiration of almost any reader. She is all pungency and wit. Her mind is as lively and competent as her body; she can bring not only a horse but a conversation to the gallop. She is downright, open, intelligent, impatient. Irony is her natural mode, and we are drawn to think of her voice as being as nearly the author’s own as Elizabeth Bennet’s is. Yet by the end we are asked to believe that she is not to be admired, that her lively mind compounds, by very reason of its liveliness, with the world, the flesh, and the devil.


We begin to hear something disagreeable in their intonation: it is the peculiarly modern bad quality which Jane Austen was the first to represent–insincerity. This is a trait very different from the hypocrisy of the earlier novelists. Mary Crawford’s intention is not to deceive the world but to comfort herself; she impersonates the woman she thinks she ought to be.

I am not convinced about the novelty of Mary Crawford as the Type of Insincerity, but the greater point is well-taken. Mary is the anti-Fanny; we love her at first, and only later realize we have been taken in by her charm.

Viewing Mansfield Park as a polemic against artifice and insincerity may help to explain one the novel’s most confusing–to us moderns–aspects, the ado over the amateur performance of Lovers’ Vows. Now the theater has always had a reputation, sometimes well-deserved, as a great fomenter of immorality (my wife tells me of a community theater production of South Pacific that broke up nineteen marriages). But Fanny and Edmund’s horror at the play seems far out of proportion to the thing itself, and even to Sir Thomas’s inevitable disapproval. But, Trilling suggests, perhaps their reaction was not so much to the simple naughtiness of the play as against the very idea of “impersonation”:

…the fear that the impersonation of a bad or inferior character will have a harmful effect upon the impersonator, that, indeed, the impersonation of any other self will diminish the integrity of the real self.

Well, I’m not completely convinced, but it’s as plausible an argument as any I’ve come up with myself.

Mansfield Park is easily the least accessible of Austen’s novels to modern readers; in Trilling’s words

It scandalizes the modern assumptions about social relations, about virtue, about religion, sex, and art.

But I’m not sure its as little of a piece with the others as all that. All are in a sense about the constraints of society, about duty, and about virtue. Mansfield Park makes explicit exactly what duty and virtue mean, divorcing them from externalities. Elizabeth Bennet unites both internal and external virtues; Fanny Price and Mary Crawford divide them, and allow us to see which is superior.

And speaking of the contrast with P&P, I think I disagree with Trilling. He writes

[P&P’s] social doctrine is a generous one, asserting the right of at least the good individual to define himself according to his own essence. It is animated by an impulse to forgiveness…

Almost the opposite can be said of Mansfield Park. Its impulse is not to forgive but to condemn. Its praise is not for social freedom but for social stasis. It takes full notice of spiritedness, vivacity, celerity, and lightness, but only to reject them as having nothing to do with virtue and happiness, as being, indeed, deterrents to the good life.

Well! First, I don’t think P&P assert any “right of the good individual to define himself according to his own essence.” Elizabeth and Jane Bennet do manage to stay true to their “essences,” in that they do not have to marry for money alone, as does Charlotte Lucas. But they certainly don’t escape the constraints of society. They are simply lucky enough to fall in love with rich men. In all of Austen’s novels, those who stay true to their principles are rewarded, but always within society’s constraints. There is perhaps a grain of serious comment when Elizabeth Bennet dates her love for Darcy “from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.”

And to the larger point, that Mansfield Park rejects spiritedness and vivacity as being deterrents to the good life: I don’t think Mansfield Park actually rejects them, it merely shows that they must not be confused with the true virtue.

One last quibble. I feel I really have to stand up for Mr Bennet, of whom Trilling says

It weighs heavily against Mr Bennet that, his estate being entailed, he has made no effort to secure his family against his death, and by reason of his otiosity he is impotent to protect his family’s good name from the consequences of Lydia’s sexual escapade. He is represented as being not only less a man but also less a gentleman than his brother-in-law Gardiner, who is in trade in London.


The fathers of the heroines of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion, all lack principle and fortitude; they are corrupted by their belief in their delicate vulnerability–they lack apatheia.

That certainly applies, in different ways, to Mr Woodhouse and to Sir Walter Elliot, but not I think to Mr Bennet. Perhaps I’m overly sympathetic because of his “quick parts, sarcastic humor, reserve, and caprice,” but I don’t really see what else he could have done. He is as trapped by society as his daughters. And he supports them in their determination to marry for love.

1 Yes, I am that geeky.

Metropolitan, and Mansfield Park

February 22, 2008

We saw Metropolitan last night; my first Whit Stillman film. Rich (and one not-rich) preppy college students are home in Manhattan for Christmas break, they go to debutante parties and after-parties; they talk at great length and with great pretension and wit; not much happens. It’s one of those low-budget indie films that makes me like low budget indie films. The (Oscar-nominated) script struck me as stilted but at the same time so witty and engaging I didn’t care. The acting was (with one exception, see below) was, well, the acting of indie film actors-still-learning-to-act, most of whom (AFAICT) have done little since, but again, they were all endearing enough that I liked them anyway: the very sweet Carolyn Farina especially grew on me. The score was fabulously perfect.

Allegedly (that is, according to some random person who said so on the IMDB) it’s a “loose adaptation” of Mansfield Park. Really it’s not at all, except in a sort of vague thematic way, in that both are about manners and morals and why they’re important. And the heroine was rather a Fanny Price. Indeed, Carolyn Farina was a much better (at least in terms of being faithful to the book) Fanny than either of the two in the actual adaptations I saw recently–Frances O’Connor is a fine actress, but her Fanny bore little resemblance to Jane Austen’s.

And there is a great discussion of Mansfield Park in the movie, in which our hero eventually reveals that he formed his opinion of it based only on a Lionel Trilling essay, and sees no need to read the book itself; it ends:

Audrey Rouget: What Jane Austen novels have you read?

Tom Townsend: None. I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it really happened, that it’s all just made up by the author.

The lone really good actor I mentioned above was Chris Eigeman, whom I had previously seen mostly as Mr. Herkabe, Malcolm in the Middle‘s hilariously evil teacher. In Metropolitan he’s just as witty and smart and pretentious and funny, just not evil. I was also thought he looked frighteningly like Frankie Muniz. Mr. Herkabe is supposed to be sort of a bitter and burned-out older Malcolm, so I suppose it makes a certain kind of sense. I wonder if that had anything to do with his casting?

Mansfield Park(s)

February 11, 2008

Mansfield Park is the least accessible of Jane Austen’s novels to us moderns. Its heroine is literature’s greatest doormat. Its romantic hero is perhaps Jane’s dullest, a nice enough fellow, but no romantically aloof Mr Darcy or dashing Captain Wentworth. And above all, the whole story hinges on notions of morality and decorum that seem at best quaint now–what, after all, is so very wrong about privately staging a silly and mildly suggestive play? Fanny does prove to have an inner moral strength, but it is not apparent in any way that makes much of an impression on our modern sensibilities.

So it’s hardly surprising that film and television adaptations don’t really really do the book justice. I imagine the only two options are to be unfaithful to the spirit of the book or to be boring. Last week we watched the recent ITV production on Masterpiece (Theatre as was), and it opted for a bit of both. I never could take Billie Piper seriously as Fanny; she tried, I suppose, but she was just too darned perky for the part (also too breasty, I think, but I somehow reconciled myself to that). I have to admit I got bored and lost interest after a while; maybe it picked up after the halfway point.

By way of contrast we then netflixed Patricia Rozema’s far more compelling 1999 film. It wasn’t terribly faithful to the book, but at least it veered off in interesting directions. Rozema was after deep and dark subtexts–never mind that they really weren’t in the novel. The fact that the Bertram estate in Antigua was worked by slave labor, only briefly mentioned in the book, was made explicit here. Tom was no mere dissolute rake; he was a tortured soul trying to escape the horrors he had witnessed on the family plantation. Sir Thomas himself, creepily played by Harold Pinter, had depths best left unexplored. Mrs Price was a desperate drudge, Lady Bertram a blissed-out opium addict (both well-played by Lindsay Duncan). And despite all that (and unlike other Austen adaptations I might mention) Rozema somehow managed to remember that the book was in fact a comedy.

Mansfield Park does at least provide a pair of Jane’s best quasi-villains in the Crawford siblings, and (unlike the ITV film) Rozema found actors who could do the parts justice. Alessandro Nivola was not much as I had imagined Henry in the book, but I liked what he did with the part; he was a cad, but a driven, needy, obsessive cad. Gorgeous Embeth Davidtz, on the other hand, was exactly as I had imagined Mary, even if her best scenes were not in the book. I have to admit to very much liking the little frissons of lesbian attraction between Mary and Fanny, which I remember causing a bit of a stir when the movie was first released.

And speaking of Fanny, Frances O’Connor was so likable I can even forgive her her spunkiness in the part. If you’re going to make her a writer, well, you may as well take her writings from Jane herself. I do remember the ads for the movie called her something to the effect of “Jane Austen’s most spirited heroine.” I have to assume here that the tagline-writers had never read the book, and probably not seen the movie. Fanny is Jane Austen’s least spirited heroine (the most spirited being, of course, Elizabeth Bennet).

Northanger Abbey

January 23, 2008

Last night we watched the new Northanger Abbey on The Show Formerly Known as Masterpiece Theatre. Very cute; certainly much better than the dreadful Persuasion last week (the scriptwriters didn’t seem to realize that Jane Austen had a sense of humor; how is that even possible?). It’s been a while since I read the book–that must have been in the Great Austen Boom of ’95–so I have no idea how faithful the adaptation was, but I don’t really care (especially as NA was by far Jane’s weakest book).

Music notes that no one but me will care about: the soundtrack was certainly not period music, but it was nonetheless nice; again certainly better than the abysmal Persuasion‘s soundtrack. On the other hand the music in the show, in the dance and concert scenes and whatnot, was (I’m pretty sure) played on modern instruments, again unlike Persuasion, where the crappy fortepiano was one of the few things I actually liked. But I’m funny that way.

Another note: Gillian Anderson is no Alistair Cooke, or even Russell Baker. Coudn’t they have found someone more lifelike?