Sunday, July 24, 2011

The "Reel" Mr. Darcy

Fitzwilliam Darcy is supposed to be a bore. Actually, most of the good guys in Jane Austen's novels of love and marriage, which she set in Regency England, have a dull veneer, especially when contrasted with their flashy but morally flawed foils. Who wouldn't sense a fatal attraction to such dashing rogues as Willoughby ("Sense & Sensibility"), Frank Churchill ("Emma"), and Wickham ("Pride and Prejudice") instead of the shy Edward Ferrars, the middle-aged, sensible Mr. Knightly and the uncommunicative, snobbish Mr. Darcy? Austen lets her heroines, those models of courageous self-realization, uncover the paucity of character beneath dashing, rouguish veneers while simultaneously giving them the ability to see the gold mine of quality beneath the drab surface of her heroes.

Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy is perhaps the most notable of these heroes-disguised-as-bores, and that is because "Pride and Prejudice" is generally considered to be the most popular Austen novel. It is a Cinderella story that has the poor girl telling the proposing prince to get lost because she thinks he's a jerk. Well, Darcy is a jerk, but he's a really, really rich jerk. What spirit! Elizabeth Bennet, however, is not so mired in her beloved prejudices as to be obtuse to the growing realization that this boring stiff might possess some attractive virtues that are as solid as his material wealth, and this awakening self-knowledge makes her one of the most interesting characters in classic literature.

The novel has been transformed to celluloid many times, but I would like to explore here only those adaptations which keep Darcy and Elizabeth in Regency England, where Austen placed them. The story has timeless truths which can be transferred to any setting, I suppose, but I most savor watching adaptations that place literary characters in their original settings. In other words, much as I enjoyed watching Mr. Darcy time-travel to Victorian England (the 1939 version was at least 50 years off in setting not to mention 1,000 miles from the original plot points) or fly to 21st century India for "Bride and Prejudice," I would like to concern myself here with the films that place Darcy where Austen did.

Released in 1980, the BBC version of P&P includes more of the actual novel than any other adaptation and stars the ebullient Elizabeth Garvey as Elizabeth Bennet and David Rintoul as Darcy. Rintoul pours all his dramatic energy into the snobbish side of Darcy, creating a two-dimensional, cartoonish performance. His stiff gait and jutting chin serve as constant reminders (like we needed them) of Darcy's prideful character. Austen's Mr. Darcy is indeed a cold snob whose initial marriage proposal is vastly easy to resist, but refusing the proposal of Rintoul's Darcy must have been a breeze for Garvey's Elizabeth. His facial contours soften so drastically during the story's second marriage proposal that he almost looks like a different person. He was, of course, but Rintoul's performance in the main is so two-dimensional that his is the least appealing of that given by any actor in this well-intentioned and largely successful literal adaptation.

The 1995 A&E version, although a visual stunner which remains outwardly faithful to most of the book, does some major overhauling to Austen's characterizations. Mr. Collins is not merely a pompous doofus; he's a creepy pompous doofus. Jane Bennet is a good girl only because her IQ doesn't seem to be all that high. Colin Firth's Darcy — whose smolderingly passionate performance earned him cult status among an adoring female fan base — resembles a Byronic hero, the stuff of 19th century Romanticism: his performance makes one think that he may have gotten lost on his way to a Wuthering Heights adaptation. His Darcy certainly won our hearts, but I'm not sure he would have won Austen's; she was writing during the Regency period and wanted her heroes to keep their emotions under wraps.

Matthew MacFadyen stars as Darcy in the most recent adaptation, which, despite some serious character mangling (Lizzie a brat? Bingley a doofus? Mr. Bennet Donald Sutherland?) manages to sprint through the novel's major plot points in just over two hours, occasionally catching its breath during some artistic liberties of such sheer cinematic beauty and raw emotional truth that even an Austen purist (if she is also a fan of cinematic beauty and raw emotional truth) can easily forgive them. Does MacFadyen accomplish what Rintoul and Firth could not? A resounding yes! MacFadyen's Darcy is a solemn snob, unwilling to communicate except through his expressive eyes, and who "will not take the trouble of practicing" his underused conversational skills. His attraction to Keira Knightly's Elizabeth is quite palpable, yet he somehow manages to remain an 18th century stiff throughout the entire film. He is Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy through and through while giving an attractive performance that appeals to 21st century sensibilities.

I couldn't fall for Rintoul's Darcy and fell way too hard for Firth's; MacFadyen expertly combines the different angles of Darcy's difficult character to create a winning portrayal. I believe Austen herself would have fallen hard.

(This essay was published in Volume V, Issue 3 ("Phoenix Rising," Fall 2006) of Wild Violet, an online literary magazine.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Very First Austen Sequel: "Old Friends and New Fancies"

It seems that there is a new Jane Austen sequel being published every week and for Jane Austen fans, this is a wonderful opportunity to once again inhabit in the elegant but hilarious world of Austen’s Regency period romantic comedies. “Old Friends and New Fancies,” written in 1913 by Sybil G. Brinton stands out from the sequel crowd for a couple of reasons. Number one, it was the first Austen-inspired sequel ever written and two, it has a rather ambitious objective: to combine the principal characters from all of Austen’s novels into a single sequel.

“Old Friends and New Fancies” opens with Mr. and Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy, now a married couple of three and one-half years, wringing their hands over the apparently unhappy betrothal of Georgiana Darcy to Colonel Fitzwilliam. The engagement broken, the Darcys travel to Bath, connect with Lady Catherine, meet and are immediately attracted to the mysteriously wounded Mary Crawford who soon falls out of favor with Lady Catherine due to a rumor that reaches the imperious lady’s ears from her current hangers-on, Lucy Steele Ferrars and her sister Anne Steele. This is unfortunate because the now-free Colonel Fitzwilliam has developed a decided interest in the beautiful Mary who is completely offended and hurt by Lady Catherine’s censoring of her.

Soon, Emma Woodhouse Knightley – bored with country life and living in town – comes on the scene, befriending Kitty Bennet who has a developed a school girl crush on William Price while James Morland is making plans to move into the parish at Kympton.

It’s great fun to meet beloved Jane Austen characters again and to watch them interact predictably but within an entirely new social framework. How would Mary Crawford react to the interest of Colonel Fitzwilliam after being spurned by Edmund Bertram at the end of “Mansfield Park”? Would Kitty Bennet make a good wife for William Price? How long would Lady Catherine be duped by the Steele sisters? For better or for worse, these questions – and their answers – cause “Old Friends” to stand out significantly from the crowd.

One problem with the “Old Friends,” however, is that none of the characters have changed, even those who were supposed to. Yes, Lady Catherine will always remain imperious and Lucy Steele Ferrars will be an eternal toady, but wasn’t Kitty Bennet supposed to have de-Lydia-ed herself at the end of Pride and Prejudice? Wasn’t Darcy supposed to have lightened up a bit after three years of marriage to the sparkling Elizabeth Bennet? Didn’t Emma Woodhouse divest herself of her matchmaking schemes when she took on the name of Knightley? Briton doesn’t see fit to show us the results of the transformations Austen exhibited (or mentioned) but generally leaves us with the characters as they were in mid-novel.

The other problem is that, although Brinton’s sentence structure is remarkably and enjoyably similar to Austen’s – long, beautifully crafted sentences – Austen’s inimitable sparkle is completely missing. Because the writing is so similar to Austen’s, the reader keeps watching and waiting for that hilarious interchange, that sharp witticism, but to no avail. Brinton is definitely not Austen in that respect.

But to combine all of Austen’s characters into a believable and enjoyable story is quite a clever idea (not to mention a massive undertaking) and one that Briton, for the most part, pulls off. Readers who love the original Austen characters – especially those who can overlook the lack of sparkle in the general tone of the book – will no doubt find much to enjoy in “Old Friends and New Fancies.”

Book Review: "Major Voices: 19th Century American Women's Poetry"

“Major Voices: 19th Century American Women’s Poetry” showcases the work of 10 female American poets – most of them quite notable in their own time but rarely considered or anthologized since. Observing 19th century America through the lense of its female poets is an intriguing experience: many of the poems included here delineate the social issues of the time in a powerfully immediate – and of course, poetic – way.

For instance, Francis Watkins Harper’s account of a slave auction in “The Slave Mother” contains more stark emotive power than many other contemporary narratives:

His lightest word has been a tone
Of music round her heart
Their lives a streamlet blent in one–
Oh, Father! Must they part?

They tear him from her circling arms
Her last and fond embrace . . .

Lydia Huntley Sigourney – the first professional female poet in America – takes respectful notice of the diminishing Native American in her poems “Indian Names,” “Our Aborigines,” “Indian Girl’s Burial, ”and “Funeral of Mazeen.” “Funeral of Mazeen,” portrays the end of a royal lineage (that of the Mohegan Nation) and invites the reader to observe the profound sadness of a great nation in decline:

With the dust of kings in this noteless shade,
The last of a royal line is laid.
In whose stormy veins that current roll’d
Which curb’d the chief and the warrior bold;
Yet pride still burns in their humid clay,
Though the pomp of the sceptre hath pass’d away.

Most 19th century American female writers could not comfortably balance marriage and the writing life so some chose to simply avoid matrimony. Phoebe Cary, whose poems delineate matrimonial difficulties in a humorous and pointed way, was one of these single writers. In her poem, “Kate Ketchem” (get it?), she notes the foolishness of marrying for monetary reasons:

He married her for her father’s cash
She married him to cut a dash
But as for paying his debts, do you know
The father couldn’t see it so.

She wedded him to be rich and gay
But husband and children didn’t pay
He wasn’t the prize she hoped to draw
And wouldn’t live with his mother-in-law.

Cary, like many others presented in this collection, adds a powerful voice to the growing rumblings of the women’s movement. In her bitingly satirical dialogue poem “Was He Henpecked?” a husband responds to his wife’s desire for equality thus:

‘Now why,’ he said, ‘can’t such as you
Accept what we assign them?
You have your rights, ‘tis very true
But then, we should define them!’

‘I’d keep you in the chicken yard,
Safe, honored and respected;
From all that makes us rough and hard,
Your sex should be protected.’

“Major Voices” also gives a fresh perspective on the most currently celebrated 19th century American female poet: Emily Dickinson. Her poems are presented here in their raw, unpublished form; there are no titles and her original plethora of dashes are included, granting her poems a striking immediacy.

Providing an extensive and literary-slanted introduction to each writer and including a substantial selection of each one’s work, “Major Voices” presents a fascinating glimpse of 19th Century America through the eyes of its female poets.

Book Review: "The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte"

I find it unfortunate that certain fictional memoirs choose to call themselves diaries. Just as one can’t quite visualize Jane Austen’s Fitzwilliam Darcy scribbling his growing attraction to Elizabeth Bennet into the pages of a diary like a twelve year-old girl (“Mr. Darcy’s Diary”), neither can one imagine Charlotte Bronte doing the same for her entire life’s story – including a few PG-13 rated details of her wedding night.

But faulty title issues aside, “The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brönte” is a well-crafted book and an absolute delight for those Charlotte Bronte fans who can never get enough biographical facts of Jane Eyre’s alter ego. James’ novel centers on Bronte’s relationship with Arthur Bell Nichols, her father’s curate and the man who she eventually married. At the novel’s outset, Nichols appears on the scene and makes a derogatory comment about Charlotte which she overhears. James’ Charlotte uses this as an excuse to harbor intensely negative feelings for Nichols until his good character – and love for her -- finally wins her over. Their relationship is presented in an almost standard romantic comedy formula; only in this case, it is based on fact and generally works.

The earlier years of Charlotte’s life are presented via well-placed flashbacks: her time at the Clergy Daughters School where her sisters Maria and Elizabeth became fatally ill, the years she spent at Roe Head where she met Ellen Nussey, her life-long friend, and the time she spent in Brussels where she fell in love with Constantin Heger who later formed the basis of several of her romantic protagonists.

It is a well-known fact that Bronte used biographical material for her novels. Knowing that, however, does not prepare one to encounter scenes and conversations taken directly from the novels and placed verbatim into James’ fictional memoir, such as this conversation she portrays between Bronte and Heger:

“Here, I have talked, face to face, with what I reverence, and with what I delight in – with an original, a vigorous, an expanded mind. I have come to know you, Monsieur; and it fills me with sadness to contemplate that one day I must leave you . . . “

It is very possible that a scene such as this occurred between Bronte and Heger and that these exact words were spoken and later placed in “Jane Eyre.” But James could have been a little more indirect in implying the connection between fact and fiction with better and more believable results.

However, James is a Bronte enthusiast and as such, she can be forgiven for becoming too susceptible to these fascinating connections; the good far outweighs the questionable in this fictional memoir. The central love story is an appealing one and James has done a splendid job in capturing Bronte’s voice exactly and precisely (one might say, she’s hit the nail straight on the head) and has, in the process, managed to bring Charlotte Bronte’s biographical facts to life in a very engaging manner.