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

Jane Austen sequels: Musing on Imagining Characters · 15 July 05

My dear Fanny,

I’ve decided to develop some ideas at the close of my commentary on the two Emmas.

Where do sequels come from? One place is her readers’ desire to fill out Austen’s suggestive enigmatic texts, particularly to imagine her characters further.

For Emma on Austen-l people would joke that Harriet was the daughter of Miss Taylor by Mr Knightley or Miss Bates by Mr Woodhouse. People would invent long stories for Harriet, Augusta Elton. For myself I can find evidence for the idea that Mr Knightley and Miss Taylor were awfully close at one time. Perhaps instead of looking for incestuous motives between Emma and Mr Knightley we should see the real paternal relationship of Mr Knightley and Harriet Smith. Mr Knightley was so eager for that marriage.

I’m only half-kidding (smiling). I don’t know if you read Emma Fanny, but Maria Edgeworth did. She was envious and a dullard towards it and said it had nothing happening in it. It was Scott who confessed its greatness first and generously—at the same time as saying against Austen’s work as a whole he did not think that people needed to be more prudent, more cold, more selfish. I don’t think that is her moral or stance but have seen many people respond to her fiction in that way so there must be room for it in the text.

Were I to write a sequel for Emma, I’d look to the marginalization of Jane and Frank. This was after all No. 4 and she was running out of evasions and was yet older. The names make me think of Austen herself and the three packets of letters she wrote to her brother Frank which were destroyed by a later generation. A story of the deep love between Jane and Frank Austen as reflected in the stories of Fanny and William Price, Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, and Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth. Not fully acknowledged (?) lesbian (Jane and Cassandra), but heterosexual sibling love (Jane and Frank) is my sense of the family sibling erotic dynamics.

The character of Jane Fairfax (so marginalized, yet so suggestively & thus deeply outlined) would be the jump off point. Her obsessed running in the meadow by herself (seen in both 1996 films, though in the book Emma is only told of it in a sentence) subject to migraines (as was Austen herself) is a picture that remains in my mind—to begin with as it were.

Not that I’d do this for in my case what I love most about Austen is her, my contact with her mind’s extraordinary complicated tones, and no sequel can offer this. To me Austen’s novels are written in words that seem to say what I would have if I could have lived in her era. I find myself articulated (to use critical jargon) through her words, her tone, her stance. The characters are the mediums, the instruments, her heroines sybils.

I should qualify that I don’t think a film needs at all to be like its eponymous source text to be a success or offer an interesting interpretation or "reading" which one can then bring back to the source text. Films make visible and also change our experience of a book once we go back to it. They can enrichen our imagination.

In A. S. Byatt’s and Ingres Sodre’s Imagining Characters: Six Conversations [on high status novels by women], Byatt says effective novels offer us ideas or sounds or images which "hover between two people" (the novelist and the reader), shared, as you always share somebody’s image if you read "properly" (by which they mean accurately enough and in sympathy with the novelist’s emotions), but "you know you’re not visualizing the same image."

Sodre replies yes, and "one of the painful things about watching a loved novel on the television is that you feel robbed of a piece of your internal world which you may feel quite possessive of."

I like to ask why when we discover the image we had conjured up differs considerably from the image the movie-maker presents to the common audience or others have, we can get so upset? Why can we not dismiss it? I suggest its vividness stays in our brains and is brought to our next reading of the book, and we feel the experience has been spoiled, shaped in a direction we don’t like.

It comes down to personal physical details we have been hurt about or been attracted to in other’s bodies and sexuality too. Byatt writes:

"I can give you a beautiful example of that [being robbed of some internal image you had attached to the novelist’s presentations of a character]: I had a friend who watched a television dramatisation of a novel by Rosamond Lehman and she kept saying over and over again that the actess was all wrong, her shoulders were too broad, the actress was all wrong. And I looked at my friend who had tiny little thin delicate shoulders, and it was quite clear that until she had seen this actress she had been able to identify bodily with the character, and now she couldn’t, because actually the actress was extremely good in the part, but was physically incompatible with my friend. That observation does lead technically into something very interesting for novelists: if you want somebody to share properly, you must be specific.

Ever discreet in public when writing under her real name in non-fiction, Byatt goes on to write about the art: "one can be too specific, and not give a felt sense of the place or be suggestive enough while leaving "room for other people’s imagination." What’s intriguing and interesting is how we respond to body parts which we want to have or be coupled with.

For me as unlike Mr Knightley as Austen might probably have found Northam, now when I read _Emma, memories of his performance will enrichen the original Mr Knightley with an appealing male sexuality (in the way Alan Rickman now does Austen’s Brandon and Ciarhan Hinds her Wentworth). Why Jeremy Northam is a physical type like Dirk Bogarde, Ralph Fiennes. There’s something in their dark gay physical and persona that allures me. Austen oftend does not endow her dream males with enough physical life. Among those too emasulcated in this way are Edward Ferrars, Colonal Brandon, and Mr Knightley.

A standard of judgement of literal fidelity a false, indeed an impossible one. Films are machines for hallucination, to hear the mesmerizing voice and dream away with. I try to judge all film adaptations of novels as modern filmic art. I see them against a backdrop of other films of the same subgenre and when they are women’s books against other women’s books. I’m not sure I succeed, but then this is a blog, a space where one can freely and pleasurably try things out.


Posted by: Ellen

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