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

Two gothic films & 3 melancholy plays · 18 December 06

Dear Harriet,

I finished reading and grading student papers yesterday afternoon around 3 and since then I have been letting myself relax a little. I’ve kept to no schedule. I’ll probably do this for a couple of days more; then it’ll be Christmas and then we’ll be going to the MLA, so I won’t return to a hard work tight schedule for a couple of weeks.

I wanted tonight to write about 2 film adaptations I’ve watched on my computer since Jim installed and attached equipment to enable me to watch DVDs, video cassettes from England as well as the US, and plug-in screens on it. Also to tell of dramatic readings of 3 plays at the local Washington Shakespeare Theater (the Arlington one, located in a minimally renovated Clark Street garage) Jim and I have been attending for the last few weeks. All five are linked by their gothic and melancholy-bitter and witty moods.

I saw my 13th adaptation of an Austen novel: the 1987 gothic Northanger Abbey, directed by Giles Foster, screenplay Maggie Wadey, starring Katharine Schleisinger as Catherine Morland, Peter Firth as Henry Tilney, and Robert Hardy as General Tilney. I had watched it once before and hated it. Now I see I was overreacting to the dream sequences where Catherine imagines herself (and we see her) enacting the masochist in sexualized bloody images, and the viewer is meant to assume Catherine longs for the "thrills" of brutal physical punishment, to bleed, to be tortured, beaten, and carried about preparatory to or after sexual abuse.

There are several of these in the film: in them the actors double so that Catherine Schleisinger becomes Emily St Aubert, Peter Firth, Valancourt, and Robert Hardy, Montoni, the parallel characters in Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. This explicit intertextuality can also be found in a stageplay made from Austen’s novel by Matthew Francis. Francis has Catherine’s chaperone, Mrs Allen, become Emily’s maid, Annette; but while he has more such scenes, the paradigm varies so that we do not just have scenes which seem to come out of Rosemary’s Baby, but also playful, literary, picturesque and witty dialogue scenes. One still from the film shows that the camera people could be close in spirit to Francis’s adaptation as it is a restrained depiction of Catherine having a bad dream of herself as a double:

Catherine Schleisinger in an elegantly sinister dream

As may be seen I still do not like dream sequences in Foster and Wadey’s play. I recognize the film-maker or playwright has the problem of trying to translate a novel which is partly an unrealistic satire with a naif at its center whose target is literary folly, inanity, and unreality, particularly as manifested in the gothic, while the novel is also realistic and presents as a substiture for the dream-terrors of gothicism, the banal real and dangerous cruelties and lies and brutalities of everyday life. One solution is to alternate between realistic and gothic surface.

Now I think the problem with the 1987 film is it goes too far over in the gothic direction, without having enough scenes that are realistic, comic, and tonic. Foster and Wadey presents Bath as a series of grotesque character. The photographing of the actors in genuine period bathing outfits in the Bath pools was done as a floating dream-like semi-comic nightmare. Isabella Thorpe is an exaggerated caricature of a insidious bitchy cock-teaser who would fool no one and makes no connection with Catherine (she’s played by Cassie Stuart who who looks like the dopey-faced Kupie-doll cloying-coy Reese Witherspoon); John Thorpe (Jonathan Coy) is more than a coarse boor; he is from the beginning a treacherous leering liar. A gothic character is also added: General Tilney (Hardy) keeps an anorexic sinister lecherous witch-like mistress, a Marchioness (Elaine Ives-Cameron) and little time than ever is given to Eleanor Tilney played by Ingrid Lacey as a sane lonely tyrannized young woman with a sense of humour.

The realistic scenes are minimized and the sane characters hardly developed at length at all. The several scene where in the novel Isabella and John Thorpe and Catherine’s brother, James, bully or trick Catherine into standing the Tilneys up are telescoped into one brief incident. The walk to Beechen Cliff and talk about history versus fiction is kept, but it has no mooring in believable characters slowly building believable relationships. Ingrid Lacey as the decent friend, Finch as the witty kind perceptive Henry Tilney, and Mr (Geoffrey Chater) and Mrs Allen (Googie Withers) as equally common sensical enough characters are not on stage enough to have any effect on the storyline.

It’s not really that Radcliffe’s novel has displaced Austen (Marilyn Roberts’s argument in her esssay, "Adapting Northanger Abbey"). Rather a psychoanalytically-justified shallow caricature
dominates too many scenes. The scene up on Beechan Cliff is picturesque and matches the presentation of Northanger Abbey as a genuine half-crumbling gothic castle across whose parapets Catherine wanders in the evening; at the close of the film, Henry comes out of the mist to embrace Catherine (perhaps then the Focus 2005 P&P was not imitating the 1939 Wuthering Heights but rather this closer-in-time and familiar Austen adaptation); he rides a horse and had he a dog and gun, he would have looked exactly like Valancourt the first time Emily sees him in Udolpho (and Theodore the first time Adeline sees him in Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest as well as Willoughby the first time Marianne Dashwood sees him in Austen’s S&S). These are genuinely Radcliffian and in their literary forms blend in with Austen’s realisms through her characters’ mocking and earnest conversations.

To categorize this film adapation I’d place it with the 1999 Miramax Mansfield Park and 2005 Focus Pride and Prejudice as an unacknowledged frank reinterpretation1. The advertisement still is far too brightly colored but I’ll put it here as an emblem of not sufficiently thinking through the contradictions of Austen’s novel as well as observing how she tried to integrate her materials:

The other film adaptation I watched was of a little known fine and powerful story by Anthony Trollope. It’s actually characteristic of his art in numbers of ways: not only as to theme, but its use of landscape symbolically and the centrality work for money plays in the story.

There arrived on our front stoop early today the British video cassette of the 1974 Penrich Malachi’s Cove, directed and written by Henry Herbert, an adaptation of one of Trollope’s finest stories. I had bought this through ebay (my 2nd purchase on that auction site) and hurried to watch it to test our new equipment. The equipment works fine, and the adaptation is a successful translation of the original powerful story of a desperately poor and socially isolated young girl, Mally (played by Veronica Quilligan) who makes a meagre living for herself and her grandfather, Malachi, in this film, a badly crippled sick alcoholic but still sane and well-meaning old man (played very effectively by Donald Pleasance, also Mr Harding in the later Barchester Chronicles).

The use of landscape was cinematic and expressive. Herbert did justice to Trollope’s usual ambivalent way of showing how socially dangerous and psychologically deleterious and self-destructive is a partly self-imposed exile (Mally is also made an outcast because her poverty leads many in her community openly to scorn her). At the same time Herbert Mally was also an elfin creature of a fantasy-wild, Pleasance a greedy and dependent if loving gnome.

Veronica Quilligan as Mally on the wild cliff

My only adverse criticism of the film is that unlike Trollope, Herbert chose to present as a dense stupid unforgiving harridan only the mother of Bart, the boy whom Mally had vowed to prevent picking seaweed with her (to sell as manure) and instead saved. In Trollope both the boys’ parents destruct Mally and would have accused her of murder had not Bart lived. Thus an anti-feminist note is struck not in the original. Herbert also had the grandfather at great risk to himself perform the impossible feat of climbing down the rocks to hold onto the boy while Mally was gone for help. This made the grandfather seem not an irresponsible leech, but rather a desperate father-hero to his granddaughter. It deepened the girl-grandfather pair. They exist together near the rushing waters which drowned Mally’s mother and father. Herbert’s camera also recreated and dwelt on the drowning of Mally’s parents (which she witnessed and has bad dreams about) and their grave (which she visits), making a theme of the film how to the poor living close to nature there’s a fragile thin line between life and death.

Veronica Quilligan as Mally gathering seaweed from the ocean

The series of plays we’ve heard dramatically read over the past three weeks was labelled "the best of the Brits" and comprised Alan Bennet’s Kafka’s Dick, Simon Gray’s Otherwise Engaged and Edward Bond’s Bingo: Scenes of Money and Death. All three are superb plays and were read aloud dramatically with taste and understanding, a minimum of staging and blocking, and real alertness and effectiveness by a varying group of actors who comprise the repertory group of WSC.

I would probably never have gone to a play with the name Bennet gave his, but that it was virtually for free (it’s pay what you want and Edward and I give $5 each) and so close and done by this intelligent group of genuinely committed actors. Kafka’s Dick was hilariously witty, with ceaseless wisdom and insight on the ironic relationship between fame and how an author is read and the way a biography frames and makes the author as a commodity-fetish himself a popular mythic figure.

Edwards says he and I saw Gray’s play once before, perhaps in London, perhaps NYC, perhaps on Bravo TV or the tragicallyl defunct CBS Cable. In this reading rendition, Gray’s play gradually emerges as a study of the main character, Simon, who at first seems the perpetual distanced watcher of everyone else traipsing through his front room as he attempts to listen to Wagner’s Parzival on his stereo. After a while we see how he is in retreat from the sordid horrors of existence, the preying of people upon one another emotionally and financially, every way.

Bingo is perhaps the most despairing of all three plays. Bond uses the story of Shakespeare’s last years in Stratford to conjure up an image of Elizabethan England as filled with violent, cruel, irrational people (a starving young beggar woman is raped, whipped, and finally tortured and hung because she "deserves" this as a bad vagrant) who swirl around the central figure of a deeply depressed Shakespeare who like Ben Jonson (who also appears in the play) is fundamentally alienated from the society in which he is helplessly immersed. The great actor, Ted van Griethysen played Shakespeare as deeply depressed over the uselessness of his life’s work to anyone around him; the equally effective Christopher Henley was an embittered Ben Jonson come to borrow money from Will and get him to talk (which Will won’t), and Kate Norris was Judith Shakespeare, in this play a wretchedly lonely and frustrated woman whose mother has spent a lifetime alone and ignored, and who is condemned herself to spend her life similarly.

There were equally subdued fine performances in Kafka’s Dick and Otherwise Engaged, but since I didn’t have the opportunity to write about them close to when I saw them I can no longer recall the details.

This being the last night before the theatre closes until mid-January, there was a collation outside (wine and cake) and I was able for the first time briefly to tell Richard Mancini and Christopher Henley how much I admire their work. Mancini’s response was sweetly to say how sweet I was.

To conclude, this afternoon Caroline and Rob came over and the five of us (Yvette too) went out and bought a large wide tree, brought it back to the house and decorated it. We put the wrapped gifts under it and lit it up. My plastic penguin, Colin, is again standing near the tree, and lit up for a few hours now and again. We plan to spend Xmas day with them. Xmas eve I’ll watch George C. Scott in A Christmas Carol either out in the front room if Yvette wants to watch with me, or in here on my computer if she doesn’t.

I’ve also had a few kind email letters from friends on the Net who haven’t written in a while to add to few pretty cards from friends on the mantelpiece.

Our weather has been beautiful. Today it was like early summer.
I hope you are enjoying the same, Harriet,


1 One of the more fascinating comments in the film criticism I read is of the transformative Clueless where the reader is invited to see the incident where Cher talks to her dead mother’s picture as not just analogous to, but in its reach (how Cher came to be what she is) very like the dead mother’s picture in Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. There’s an essay on Austen’s Emma which reads like it was an essay on Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho in its interpretation of Emma as a deeply melancholy book arising out of Emma’s loss of her mother. Now we have a picture of Mrs Tilney which is central to the gothic dreams at Northanger Abbey which Henry Tilney is so dismissive over but the book suggests are only misaimed at dream figures not at real life. We see here how intelligent film adaptations shed light on their eponymous novels.

I do love gothics and it makes Austen’s Emma deeper for me to see this connection and explains to me why I have often said in response to "accusations" I really prefer Radcliffe to Austen that I do prefer Udolpho to Emma.

Posted by: Ellen

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  1. I think you underestimate the violence in Bingo. Bond: "I write about violence as naturally as Jane Austen wrote about manners. Violence shapes and obsesses our society, . . .. It would be immoral not to write about violence."

    He’s concerned not just with political violence: "the violence inherent in the system" (as Dennis put it); but with violence within the family (The Son shoots The Old Man, his father) and even the theatre (Jonson can’t stop talking about his history of violence and punishment). The two key speeches: (1) Shakespeare’s speech on bear-baiting to Judith towards the end of the third scene, which culminates in an attack on Henry VIII, (2) Shakespeare’s soliloquy in the fifth scene on how he and his fellow bourgeoises (including the audience) are responsible for the violence he sees. There are a lot of echoes of King Lear in the play, not least the relationship of Shakespeare and Judith. Bond wrote a Lear. His introduction to it starts with the lines I quoted above.
    jim    Dec 19, 11:04am    #
  2. On preferring Udolpho to Emma, on EighteenthCenturyWorlds, Luca Gandolphi wrote:

    "Me too, Ellen. By the way: differently from P&P, S&S and the others Austen’s work, the italian translation of Emma have an "heavy" language, sometimes arcaic, with involved periods and sentences; there’s a lack of the spontaneity in writing that you can find in the other novels. Is it the same also in the original english?

    Sylvia    Dec 19, 11:07pm    #
  3. Dear Luca,

    That’s very interesting . I have not tried to read Emma in Italian. I have read some of Mansfield Park (translator Jean-Claude Zylberstein) and Persuasion (translator Jean-Claude Zylberstein) in French translations and some of Northanger Abbey (Italia Castellini) in an Italian one.

    I found the French MP closer to Austen than I ever could have expected —at least in diction and tone and feel. The NA in Italian consistently made Austen more gothic and less parodic, more emotional and less satiric.

    Austen’s Emma is a highly controlled book. The key is Austen does not let on where she stands most of the time. I would not call the language stilted; I would call the narrator for the most part cool and distant, not there almost (like Flaubert said he was not there).

    I am attracted intensely to the idea Emma is melancholy. Mr Woodhouse is we are told a depressive, nervous, stressed, and think of all those long nights Emma was to endure with no company but him (more than a little of an imbecile) and the mindless elderly women willing to cater to him (the Bateses, Mrs Goddard). And yes Emma’s mother is dead, and there’s that picture Cher looks at: it’s as if Heckerling went intuitively to this unacknowledged center in Emma.

    The article arguing Emma is what we know Udolpho to be is filled with hard-to-read jargon but if you can manage it, it’s by Frances L. Restuccia, is titled, "A black morning: Kristevan melancholia in Jane Austen's Emma," and may be found in American Imago v51.n4 (Winter 1994): pp. 447(23).

    Sylvia    Dec 19, 11:08pm    #
  4. I have show the Giles Foster Northanger Abbey to several classes studying the novel, and they have regularly hooted and groaned over how bad it is—for many of the same reasons you dislike it. I have also shown them the PBS Wishbone version of Northanger Abbey, and we agreed that in spite of its being a twenty-minute adaptation for small children we preferred it to the film!
    Nicky Didicher
    Burnaby BC
    Nicky Didicher    Dec 20, 1:31pm    #
  5. More from Austen-l:

    "If I’m not mistaken, that version was only about 90 minutes long, which allowed only the main story line to be developed. The other parts had to be discarded.

    I like it well enough, though it’s not one I rewatch over and over again, though I have the tape. For that matter, I have all 3 versions of Emma and P&P. I rewatched the 1995 P&P several times, until I found the 1980 P&P, that is. The newer version of Persuasion and Mansfield Park, I never rewatched and do not plan to.

    Julie Lai"
    Sylvia    Dec 21, 7:22am    #
  6. Sarah Green on Austen-l:

    "A friend and I were having a feverish debate the other night over whether Northanger Abbey could be adapted successfully for the screen.

    I said yes, he said no (his rationale being that the book is too schizophrenic, with the half-in-Bath social comedy and the half-in-Abbey Gothic satire). For what it’s worth, I will direct interested listmembers to my Amazon review of the (only, that I know of) Northanger Abbey film (and I hope the copy-pasting works, I tried to make it plain text!):

    January 13, 2006

    The only good thing about this film is that, at 90 minutes, it is relatively short. The acting was so bad I felt embarassed for the actors. The costumes were amaturish and laughably hideous, as if the actors were in some sort of competition to see who could be the ugliest. But the soundtrack—-the soundtrack was in a league of its own. Strange Enya-like synthesizers! A saxaphone that sounded like it came right out of "Careless Whispers"! And a voice solo that reeked of Ariel in Disney’s "The Little Mermaid." (Ahh ahh ahhhhh! Ahh ahhh AHHHH!) After the first thirty minutes, my roommate announced she was going to bed (it was 9 o’clock). As this left me alone, with no one to make sarcastic comments to, the movie instantly became pointless. The only way one could enjoy this film is if one was simultaneously enjoying large quantities of alcohol or illicit, preferably hallucinagenic, drugs. For my part, when the credits rolled I stumbled away from my television with scorched retinas and the tragic knowledge that the hour and a half I’d just wasted could never be regained.

    I’m rating it two stars because I figure it is still (slightly) better than "Plan Nine from Outer Space." The book is wonderful and hilarious and would make an excellent movie—sort of a Scream/Clueless/Cold Comfort Farm." I hope some competent director/actors/production company/costume designers/casting agents/key grips/gaffers (really, blame for this travesty on celluloid must be shared by all responsible) will make a lovely adaptation someday. Then we can buy up and destroy all remaining copies of this version, like Cat Stevens tried to do with his albums, after his conversion to Islam.

    Sylvia    Dec 21, 10:20am    #
  7. ON the 1987 adaptation of NA by Maggie Wadey and Giles Foster, I by no means condemn it so outright, and find the acting no worse than the minor actors in many of the other films. The high caricature or over-the-top presentation is characteristic of the 1990s films where the actors have to compete with the computer and high speed of the scenes (down from 11 seconds on average to 8). One of the pleasures of the earlier films is the actors are given time to act and not in competition with computer technology.

    Young teenage students have little toleration for sentiment, and are not used to nuance or emotionalism not undercut by the form of jeering used in the 2005 Focus P&P

    The argument that the realistic portions were omitted because there was not enough time won’t wash in the sense that those who made the film were perfectly free to have less dream sequences and more Bath realistic ones. A decision was made to eliminate these. The added character—an anorexic sinister Marchioness—is evidence of this determination to develop just one aspect of the novel and that not as parodically or analytically as Austen does.

    If you go to IMDB you will discover that right now is advertised a coming 6 parter NA, screenplay by Andrew Davies:


    They are in post-production, pre-advertisement phase.

    I have in hand a paper given at a conference by someone who studied the Andrew Davies’ screenplay for the film adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now in the context of Davies’s other adaptations of novels by other writers, and would like to say there is a great similarity between what Davies does, and what he does not do. He overemphasizes activity, wholesome sex, will present a text to emphasize the male-female love stories above all, and finally over himself sympathizes with an amoral character the author may not have sympathized with and turns the older women into caricatures; it’s quite consistent. He also himself remains distant from the main characters who are women (cool) in ways most unlike Austen herself.

    I fear the real interesting subtext about women and gothicism will be lost—and it’s not one that turns women into delightedly compliant sadomasochistic victims. My guess is Davies will place his emphasis on realism and this will please the fan Janeites; if the BBC has hired sexy box-office stars for the centeral roles and spends enough for advertising and gets the right reviewers, they may have another hit. NA has never been a popular book the way P&P is though so that may limit the reach of the popularity of the film (if it becomes popular).

    Sylvia    Dec 21, 10:28am    #
  8. Fran wrote about Kafka and Max Brod:

    "As for Kafka, since he was very hesitant to publish, practically nothing of his work appeared in print during his own lifetime, and practically nothing would have been all we’d been left with if Brod, Kafka’s executor, hadn’t ignored his last will and actually destroyed all his papers.

    The problem with those papers is that Brod pretty much had to guess at the final form the works would have taken, especially in the case of the two novels, The Trial and The Castle, which is why you find different textual choices and different chapter orders in some of the later editions."
    Sylvia    Dec 21, 10:49pm    #
  9. Thank you, Fran. That’s what Alan Bennet says in the play (through the dialogue). Were it not that Brod directly ignored and did exactly the opposite of Kafka’s instructions, we’d not have Kafka’s texts today. Also that Brod is responsible for the way the texts are set up, the choices, the framing, and that Brod’s biography played a pivotal role in establishing Kafka’s reputation. I did not know this before hearing this play read dramatically.

    The pivotal role of a biography is not uncommon: we see this in Gaskell’s Life of Bronte. Perhaps the request of a writer that his published or non-published (even if most of his works) remain unpublished or be destroyed is not so common. It’s said of Virgil that he wanted his Aeneid to be destroyed. Jane Austen’s brother and sister named her last two novels (NA and Persuasion), and produced the texts we have for them.

    I’ll bet other people on this list could swiftly produce other instances.

    Sylvia    Dec 21, 10:54pm    #
  10. From Judy G:

    "I enjoyed reading your thoughts about the Northanger Abbey adaptation – I saw this one recently too, and, while I can see the need to get the Gothic element, agree that the dream sequences don’t really work, also that there is too little of the realism and irony in the novel. That scene in the baths with the ladies wearing their long dresses is the one which really sticks in my mind. Even though so much of it doesn’t work, I did still enjoy watching it, though, and liked Katharine Schlesinger and Peter Firth (who will always be Angel Clare for me) as Catherine and Henry, while being unsure what to think of Robert Hardy’s over-the-top performance as General Tilney.

    I’m looking forward to the new Northanger Abbey, but as it’s going to be a single drama (as with the other forthcoming ITV Austen productions) I fear it will have to leave out a lot of the book… it’s a shame in a way that ITV is doing compressed versions of three of the novels rather than taking their time over just one as in the older adaptations.

    I was also very interested to hear about Malachi’s Cove and see the pictures. I did know an adaptation had been made, but hadn’t realised it was available on video – maybe I will dip into ebay for it too after Christmas.

    Sylvia    Dec 24, 4:48pm    #

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