We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

_Wives & Daughters_, Amélie Mansfield_, _Claire d'Albe_: women's films & books · 2 July 05

Dear Fanny,

Though you could not have known Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (1864-65), you may well have read Sophie Cottin’s Claire d’Albe and Amélie Mansfield either in the original French editions (1799, 1803) or English translations (1807 & 1803 respectively; Claire d’Albe by Eliza Anderson Godefroy, a Baltimore intellectual who was one of the first women to edit a periodical in the US.)

Last week I finished reading Claire d’Albe (using both the French and English versions) and re-watched the 1999 BBC Wives and Daughters . This latter is the film directed by Nicholas Renton, screenplay Andrew Davies, with Justine Waddell as Molly Gibson, Francesca Annis as Mrs Hyacinth Gibson (poor Mrs Kirckpatrick that was), Tom Hollander as Osborn Hamley, Michael Gambon as the squire, Penelope Wilton as Mrs Hamley (to name only a few of the more remarkable performances). I’d read the first before just in French and seen the second before but all at once and late at night. Now I dwelt on two versions in the context of Amélie Mansfield and saw the second with Izzy over 4 nights . We luxuriated by starting each segment between 7 and 8. The 1999 W&D is not much shorter than the very similar 1995 A&E P&P: the 1995 P&P consists of 6 episodes of about 55 minutes each; this 1999 W&D consists of 5 episodes about 75 minutes each.

Davies and Renton’s product does ample justice to Gaskell’s themes and characters in the filmic way. Indeed I think this film is superior to most of the film adaptations of 19th century women’s novels I’ve seen; though the 1995 Miramax Sense & Sensibility, screenplay Emma Thompson and starring her as Elinor comes close; the sleeper BBC Persuasion, director Roger Michell, screenplay Nick Dear with Ciarhan Hinds as Wentworth has moments which are good as this W&D too. What interested me is how this W&D film updates Gaskell’s mid-Victorian novel and yet conformed to most of the archetypes in the feminine romance subgenre, so much so that you can find direct links between it and one of the most radical of the 18th century, Cottin’s passionate disjunctive Claire d’Albe. Gaskell’s reputation is not exactly consonant with Cottin’s: when remembered (rarely) Cottin conjures up images of lurid eroticism, while Gaskell has been (until the very recent filmic version of her North & South) seen popularly as all safe domesticity. Neither does the books of either of them any service: Cottin is disdained; W&D is not seen as the profound msterpiece it is, probably as a whole as good or better than Austen’s frequently intuitively merely suggestive & thinner and truncated (or censured) approach in all her novels.

Davies and Renton updated Gaskell’s conceptions mostly through the characterization of Molly Gibson. They kept the implicitly anti-feminist or deeply unsympathetic portrayal of the older woman who "traps" the unsuspecting man in their presentation of Mrs Gibson and Molly’s father (played mildly and half-apologetically by Bill Paterson). Molly’s stepmother was presented as utterly vain, shallow, a preying controlling sexualized spider with extravagant hats: Francesco Annis came complete with a lair into which we see Mr Gibson slyly slide, lured in despite embarrassment and his allegiance to Molly. Mrs Gibson is just waiting around eagerly for Osborne Hamlet to die; if not, well, then her daughter, Cynthia Kirkpatrick (played by Keeley Hawes, also in extravagant hats, with gestures and looks that were uncannily like Embeth Davidtz, even to being dressed like her), Cynthia can marry another male who comes with a fat purse. Cynthia was given kindly impulses (and of course she evidences respect for Mr Gibson), but she is a spider-in-training who will dominate her male once she lures him in.

This doesn’t sound too hopeful. But Molly makes up for it. The character of Molly utterly dominates this film and she is not just good, but a girl with a mind of her own who acts on her own. Her ethical stance is as fine-tuned and noble as Gaskell’s, with the addition that more than once (unlike Gaskell’s Molly), Davies and Renton’s Molly speaks out on behalf of her own wishes, demands and insists on leading her own life, on following her own decisions.

The filmic Wives and Daughters had a female centered point of view, not an omniscient impersonal narrator (as in Gaskell’s text). And it was mostly Molly’s. Episode One does end on Cynthia in the ship; the Miss Brownings, Mrs Gibson even, and Lady Harriet (played by Rosamund Pike). Lady Harriet was turned into a wonderfully generous strong woman who uses her station and wealth to control and thwart scapegoating and make for kind gaiety. The men were not just marginalized but not in control. The women determined their destiny. At one point Waddell as Molly says something never heard in a 19th century novel about frustration and how hard it is to repress oneself and yet live (not throw one’s life away is the idea). It came towards the end of the second episode. Yes there was really only sympathy for the younger heroines; mothers and spinsters were dead wood, ineffective or harmful.

Part of the displaced agency came from Gaskell’s 19th century novel. One way Gaskell displaces the erotic center of romance is to keep families to the fore. Her women in the novels I’ve read thus far are packed into families. Gaskell also deflects the erotic thrust at the center of her stories by her way of focalization through a delicate narrator, through scenes where Molly is not in command, through keeping Molly innocent of deeper sexual understanding or intutions. In the film this de- overt sexualizing was overturned through the gestures, body language and a few words here and there which turned Molly into a sort of Fanny Price (who throughout the latter parts of Austen’s MP knows she is intensely enthralled by Edmund).

I suppose one could make fun of the film by calling it "Molly Gibson to the rescue." Waddell just seems to sweep away the hard rascal, Mr Preston (played by Iain Glen) who is not dismissed in the way of Adrian Lukes (in the 1995 P&P): he is himself a possessed, intelligent, anguished man who has been marginalized and rightly is hurt and seethes. The modern audience, it’s assumed in this film, will sympathize with the ambitious aggressive male kept down. Molly does this through telling the truth and insisting on it—in public when finally it’s necessary. She helps the traumatized deeply sensitive misfit Osborne Hamley—I’d say the best single performance in the film was that of Tom Hollander.

Tom Hollander’s performance of Obsorne endowed the character with with an intensity, despair, and depth of apprehension made him a more alive and alert presence than even Gambon. For this viewer to see how the genre of the movie which must move on and provide a happy ending for the audience seemed simply to dismiss this extraordinary presence because he died was dismaying. I wondered if anyone but me had a hard time forgetting Hollander as Osborne. That Hollander as Osborne was central to the inner emotional movement of Gambon as the Squire is seen when once Osborne dies: Gambon turns into a childish caricature of the silly squire intent only on his grandson—except again for a moment when he urges Roger (played by Anthony Howells) at the very end to tell Molly how much he, Roger, loves her. Certainly Fanny and his brother, Roger were Osborne and the squire’s mainstays and we are to feel neither of them forget Osborne.

I’m afraid a too bland presence was staked out for Howells. Jonny Lee Miller was allowed to do this brilliantly obsessed ethical (half-neurotic) type much more fulfillingly in Rozema’s 1999 MP. Howells and Paterson as Gibson were presented through Molly’s eyes and she was kept sexually unaware. Still in a couple of soft focus moments between Patterson and Waddell sat in an idyllic landscape (while Francesco Annis was away in London) brought out the latent incestuous connection between father and daughter in the book. And the last moment of Waddell and Howells ecstatic on a hill in Africa together was as orgasmic as the first poignant close of the 1995 Persuasion with Root as Anne and Hinds as Wentworth walking down the lonely deserted street together, relieved to have seen the imbecilic circus pass on and then they too on the ship at sea together at film’s end1

What was remarkable about the film itself was its depth of emotion. The screenplay writer often used Gaskell’s language. In this it resembles a number of the 1990s adaptations of Austen. Since this material came from a 19th century novel you did have too many fleeting scenes as still projected memories dependent on the book (in the way of other adaptations of 19th century novels), but it did move very slowly over the chosen scenes. The stills were beautifully filmed—colors, focus of camera. Yes there was the usual determined attempt to have action: almost all the men were seen on horses at one point or other and some clashes occurred on horses (between Squire Hamley and Mr Preston). Memories of great moments on many plays flashed through. Squire Hamley bringing back the body of Osborne reminded me of Lear carrying Cordelia. When Roger finally asks Molly to marry him, she responds with words take from Molly’s "Yes, yes, yes, I will" soliloquy at the end of Joyce’s Ulysses. The fierceness of Waddell’s tone evokes the determination of the travelling heroine of women’s books too. The comic feel of the moment is that Roger can’t seem to take yes for an answer.

How did this resemble the later 18th century short and long French novels I’ve just finished? Endlessly and interconnectedly, especially if you bring in the film adaptations and actual scenes from Austen’s novels. So many motifs it’s startling. First you could take the actors from the film and slip them into the character’s roles in the French books. Michael Gambon’s Squire Hamley was just such a difficult, dense and yet loving (how Gaskell and Cottin both excuse male tyrants but not female!) man as Cottin’s M. Grandson. Ernest de Woldemar combines Darcy with Osborne Hamley. Claire is confused and abused, utterly abject and blinded Molly; Justine Waddell’s Molly combines Amélie and Cottin’s Elisabeth (Elisabeth, ou les Exilés de Sibérie, parodied by Austen in her _Plan of a Novel), Austen’s Elinor and Anne Elliot with the passion of Amelie. Aspects of the plot-patterns repeat themselves in permutations. Barbara Leigh-Hunt who played Lady Cumnor also played Lady Catherine de Bourgh in the 1995 P&P; she’s a stand-in for Madame de Woldemar. Rosamund Pike could do Elise; Keeley Hawes, Blanche. The hanger-on, cum-friend with high integrity forced to kowtow, Adolphe such another as Preston only with integrity—a kind of Lush (from Eliot’s Daniel Deronda to use yet another embodiment of this stuff). The filmic archetypes make visible the underlying analogous components in these romances written across 200 years, in different countries and by very different people.

Women are today on TV and popular film adaptations of "high-status" novels responding to the same material that gripped them first in the later 18th and early 19th century, took on masculinist embodiments in mid-century Victorian novels (and George Sand too) and then re-emerged full-blown once again from a woman-centered point of view in Woolf’s period, the 1910s and 20s which are so favored by Virago. It’s not dying: we find it in many women’s novels today, especially the type that win prestigious prizes (the Orange, the Booker).

Is there however varied on the surface and through manners and cultures an essential nature to women as there is for men? If there isn’t (and perhaps the surface is so varied that any assertion of sameness must remain metaphysical), then one can say that the art forms and archetypes underlying the cultural stereotypes are at any rate consistent across long periods of time and places widely-apart on the earth.

Are we seeing any changes in the situation and self-understanding of women and their position in society as seen in the changes in the permutations of this women’s erotic material? Yes. A film like this 1999 W&D makes me hopeful because it was meant to reach a wider audience than any particular book can.

I also think that it’s not true (as for example, Linda Nochlin, the art historian has argued) that women have not developed a form in which they express their sexuality and sexual desires. They have. It’s in these much maligned mocked, and marginalized (through labelling the films "women’s") novels. I do think this is important and don’t understand women who have some understanding and allegiance to their inner selves and are not interested in fulfilling their natures.

Why have some or so many given it up? (Fear?) What has come to or does for many women matter more once they mature? (Power, safety, imagined admiration from the dull?) Why in each case does this happen and how? Maybe some of these stories and films tell us that too.

A toute à l’heure,

1 See the last third of published essay, "Taking Sides", on filmic adaptations of high-status novels.

Posted by: Ellen

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