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

In which we were given summaries of parts of the stories of 6 1990s Austen films · 31 January 08

Dear Nick,

Thank you so much for your comment. I think I may speak for many of us on Trollope-l, Women Writers through the Ages, and Eighteenth Century Worlds, when I say how much we all enjoy and profit enormously from your meditative and insightful postings.

When you write: “This vitriol is solely connected to questions of
fidelity” I’d like to add to your comment that in fact film has NOT
arrived (it’s still not a respected form, still a mass commodity) that fidelity is also a stalking horse for other objections. I recognize when this happens in Austen studies: someone even apparently sincerely objects to a book or film on the ground of fidelity, but they are objecting to the actual content or agenda of the book or film even more. This is Deirdre Le Faye’s technique all the time: she hates any whiff of subversion when it comes to reading Austen and what she does is find “errors” in people’s work she dislikes. Thus Marilyn Butler’s life of Austen, Janet Todd’s work, and especially John Halperin’s are all said to have a specific number of errors (often in the hundreds, say 313). If you look, you find these “errors” come out of her point of view. So if you don’t like the movie, you find where it’s not literally the same, and you have your bludgeon to despise it. Probably the real basis of the poverty of thought in a lecture on the Austen movies I heard last night came from the lecturer’s assumption few people in the audience would have the boldness to object to what she said on the grounds we should treat films as serious art.

Yesterday evening I went to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in DC to hear a lecture by Virginia Newmyer called “Jane Austen goes to the movies.” I’m afraid her lecture consisted of her going through the story outlines of the central romances in 6 1990s movies. Can you imagine this, summaries of parts of the plots of the movies!! For over one hour and a half. She left out all characters not directly involved in the romances (e.g., Mrs Gardiner in the P&P movies) or who could not be sent up easily as ridiculous without offending anyone (Mr Collins in the 95 P&P). This was presented as explaining these movies. If I had not been sitting on the left side of the theatre in a middle row, I might have left early. It would have been hard to get out. The room was crowded.

To be accurate, Ms Newmyer’s “analysis” also included unexamined ideas about what is beauty and she used beauty as a criteria for “endorsing” a particular actress’s performance as a heroine. So a fun target for her was Sylvestre Le Tousel whose reputed ugliness was mentioned no less than 4 times (maybe more that’s all I remember—once during the question time). The 96 Emma with Gweneth Paltrow was presented as good because Paltrow is beautiful (she thinks) and dressed so elegantly; she couldn’t understand why Toni Colette looked so dreadful as usually she is a pretty actress. Her objection to the 96 Emma with Kate Beckinsale was that Beckinsale is not pretty enough and wore absurd hats (she was able to stigmatize Beckinsale as vain and silly over said hats because she asserted the choice of hats was Beckinsale’s). Other actresses were too old for this part or simply too “plain” (Amanda Root, though it was okay that Ciarhin Hinds is not conventionally elegant and attractive the way she finds Jeremy Northam). This was the level of her commentary on the women actresses. Newmyer’s imagined audience seemed to be cleverish high school students determined to keep up their sang froid: no surprize the one free adaptation she covered was Clueless. She used stills on the basis of which could ridicule any of her movies. This is the equivalent of slapstick.

I rejoice to report the questions afterwards showed her audience was nowhere as coarse, insensitive or forgetful of Austen’s own texts as she seemed to suppose. (She had handed out plot-summaries of Austen’s novels in xeroxes.) What she did was retort to these with quick harshness. One man wanted to make the point Austen did not write romances and that she had much acid and realism so she made fun of his first question as being no question at all. You see her response implied he was trying to make a point and not asking a question so he’s an egoist taking to take over the space. To his 2nd she replied to by saying the 95 P&P (Davies, Birtwistle & Conklin, Langton) was realistic because so long and had much acid. Her proof for the latter: the egregious grating over-the-top Mrs Bennet of that production. No surprize her favorite movie (and one whose plot she dwelt at length) was the 95 P&P. She had skipped Northanger Abbey in the movies; asked why, she said she didn’t like a novel about a silly heroine. She’s never heard of satire? of naifs at the center of satire? And she had quickly trashed the 2005 P&P (Wright, Moggach) on the grounds it had no wit, was all romance.

It was not a total waste because one could see she was smarter than she let on, and what she said set me thinking more frankly about my typologies. Perhaps it’s time to alter them. First she did have categories, not thought out by herself, but reasonable ones. Wagner’s: the transposition (which corresponds to my apparently faithful category); the commentary (which corresponds to my analogous or critical faithful type); and the analogy (which I call free adaptation as they don’t always have analogous story lines in them). She would label a film one of these types: so the 95 P&P, S&S (Lee-Thompson), Persuasion (Dearing, Michell, Finlay & Faber) were transpositions; so too both 96 Emmas (McGrath & Casavetti & Haft; Davies, Birtwistle & Conklin, & Lawrence). She apparently had no objections to non-faithfulness and just loved Rozema’s 1999 MP which she called a commentary and became more than a little absurd as she quoted Heckerling’s 1995 Clueless: Cher’s words were quoted as gospel, and the talk ended with Cher’s half-imbecilic talk to the class in the movie.

Something did emerge though: the 1990s films were what pleased her. That’s interesting & revealing. Now her preference may be the result of her age, and also that she goes for charismatic sexy stars and computer technologies. That’s what distinguished these 1990s productions, as well as big budgets for the film and advertisement; see my “Jane Austen on Film; or How to Make A Hit”. But these things and especially the money and new technologies of this decade rose to a new kind of embodiment. I’m seeing this in the 1991 BBC/WBHG Clarissa and 1999 Vanity Fair and 1995 The Aristocrats. I’ve yet to understand it suffificiently to find words to describe fully how the computer technologies and money spent made such vivid and exciting films.

Further I began to have a genuine question for her—one she couldn’t answer. I asked her how far she felt a movie had to go from the text before it became a commentary (or analogous & critical faithful type). In labelling Davies P&P, Thompson’s S&S, the 95 Persuasion and both 96 Emmas tranpositions, she repeatedly showed how much material they added and where they departed from Austen. She particularly approved of the “balance” achieved now that the males are made far more central (she just loved Colin Firth and made fun of David Rintoul). She had not one comment that had a whiff of feminism or any sense that anything is lost when the heroine of the story takes second place in the action while the story becomes how the hero “earns” the heroine (this is how she described the 95 P&P).

She was not able to answer my question because she had not seen the 2007/8 Davies’ Sense and Sensibility (de Sousa & Pivcevic, Alexander) and alas my question gave her the opportunity to mock the recent 2007 minimal films: the new Persuasion is a travesty; Billie Piper ludicrous (her hair worse). She then came out with the astonishing judgement that Northanger Abbey is a poor novel which is not interesting because it has a “silly heroine.” She’s never heard of satire? of naifs at the center of satire? In this comment she revealed that she reads characters in novels (no matter of what era) by her judgement of people. I did leave before the end of question time, just after she dismisssed Austen’s NA and trashed Davies’s 2007 NA, & am relieved to be able to say a woman in the audience raised her hand and managed to say (before she was cut off) she found the 2007 NA “delightful” and had seen it several times.

But she did say (quickly) that she didn’t think my question boring. I opened by saying she might think my question boring. She thought it is important in understanding a movie to ascertain whether it’s a transposition or commentary. But she didn’t say how much departure a film had to make before it became commentary.

And this gets me to my point for today from her lecture: I’m beginning to decide that Davies’ recent S&S is really intermediate. I have to go back and ask what is a main hinge-point. I have been sticking to a literal definition I hope most readers would recognize. I’ve also been unwilling to take into consideration how much replication of the novelist’s actual language is necessary before a film is apparently faithful. If I move off such literal standards and take into consideration literal replication of the novel’s language, Davies’s new Sense and Sensibility becomes commentary rather than faithful. My problem here is not everyone will agree with me about hinge-points if I use crucial presentations of characters (Davies changes the nature of Willoughby’s confession) because understanding a novelist’s characters takes more thought & care than understanding a literal event, and I would end up in talking percentages and having to count amounts of language inserted into the film in order to label a film less faithful.

I’m into degrees of faithfulness here; maybe I need to expand and alter my categories to make a fourth kind somewhere between faithful and commentary. I’m also not altogether happy about my way of defining the “free” types, for I mix films which essentially have allusions to Austen’s novels and whose stories and characters have few analogies with Austen’s (say Nunez’s Ruby in Paradise and Stillman’s Last Days of Disco), those which clearly invent a story which moves in parallel lines with the original novel (the 2003 Mormon Pride & Prejudice, Clueless, the two Bollywood films), and those which have allusions and correspondences (Stillman’s Metropolitan, Fielding & Davies’ Bridget Jones Diary).

I often find papers given in academic conferences absurdly hard to understand, but equally it is not uncommon to go to lectures given to a public audience and find the lecture well beneath the average level of many of the audience members so that at best one can use the matter of the lecture to help one’s thinking tangentially, but most of it be deeply dismaying. This happened about 2 years ago when Jim and I went to a lecture in the National Women’s Museum by Anne Higgonet who wrote a biography of Berthe Morisot. Higgonet’s lecture was billed as about Morisot and Mary Cassett’s art. Instead Higgonet dwelt on the art of the male impressionists, the paintings of Morisot & Cassett by their male contemporaries, & the lives of Morisot and Cassett. She made no attempt to describe what is unique to the women’s impressionism, and when (afterwards) asked why, Higgonet said she thought the men’s art was superior so that’s why she didn’t dwell on the supposed topic of her talk. Again a number of audience members objected, and Higgonet managed to make them appear absurd. I wondered if she lacked slides of the women’s work. There was no such excuse for Newmyer; she had many many stills, some good, some mediocre, & some very poor.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. I added to Judy’s Living in the Past journal:

    “Here I want to say that while I personally prefer Thompson & Lee's 95 S&S to Davies, as much more generous to women, thoughtful of them as people in their own right with their own desires and lives apart from men (even if this is just in the interstices of the story), and just all around superior in script, film-making and effect (far more careful time was given to the script and movie-making), more sensitive and funny in good ways (not hurtful or mocking vulnerable and easy targets); nonetheless, as a movie Davies is more interesting. The ways in which he departs in Elinor’s responses in Part 3 and when he for the first time in a long time gives us a genuinely reprehensible Willoughby, makes for a striking & intelligent film. This makes me think about how much more easy it is to write about movies which depart and a lot, how when we write about movies we do dwell on departures, and thus that the nature of the departure is where we can judge and evaluate its worth. His movie also goes further (as I’ve tried to say) in the use of mesmerizing computer techniques.

    I did notice the producers of Davies' film are women (as were the producers of his 95 P&P and 96 Emma. So maybe he does dominate the way Caldwell argues he does.

    Elinor    Jan 31, 9:45am    #
  2. I’ve heard from informed sources that D Le F is a pain in the -ss to work with, bludgeoning fellow scholars with a very heavy-handed proprietariness with regard to Austen studies. So this reader is not surprised to read the above. Ellen, Marilyn Butler’s “life” of Austen? What book is this?

    As always, many thanks for the fine post(s).
    T. Wood    Jan 31, 10:08pm    #
  3. From Clare:

    “Sometimes public lectures don’t rise above pretty slides linked by inanities. However, the dross recedes into oblivion when one experiences a good, challenging one. I’ve sat in boring “pretty picture” lectures and some of the audience have loved it. They’re usually the same folk that call anything at all challenging “too academic”. I think some of the people coming to the lectures I attend only want a substitute for day – time tv. However, fortunately there’s a nucleus of members who want to be challenged. Your point about tangental thinking is much to the point.

    Thanks anyway for your report.

    Elinor    Feb 1, 1:14am    #
  4. Dear Clare,

    What impressed me in both public lectures is how those audience members who spoke up either showed real respect and understanding of the subject or interest in it (the two women painters and Austen) and in the case of painting were there for a serious treatment of the subject. People did defend a particular movie but no one (as I say) either thought to or had the courage to stand up and say she had (in effect) mostly treated her chosen movies in a silly way and they as a group deserved better.

    Elinor    Feb 1, 1:18am    #
  5. Dear Tom,

    Marilyn Butler wrote the life of Austen that appears in the new ODNB. LeFaye attacked it by saying it had X number of errors.

    Over the years I’ve heard stories of how she uses open obnoxiousness against anyone who dares to present an alternative point of view from hers, which is basically that of Austen’s family (of themselves as well as Jane). One was of how she treated David Nokes on a particular occasion. Unlike Claire Tomalin’s, his biography is based on real original different research, and because he was more candid about the subjective nature of biography, he laid himself open to attack.

    Elinor    Feb 1, 1:22am    #
  6. From a member of ECW:

    “How awful Ellen. What I couldn’t and still can’t understand is quite why she was giving the lecture? I googled her and came up with one reference (from a Guardian article) which says she is ‘an American expert on British royalty’! I rather think I would avoided the lecture on these grounds alone (why on earth would anyone wish to be an expert on such a monumentally tedious topic?).

    This is a probably a cheap shot, but what annoyed me most was the way in which you described her
    putting-down and disrespecting those who asked questions. Inexcusable.”
    Elinor    Feb 1, 10:36am    #
  7. From Kathy C:

    “I was very interested in your analysis of the Austen film lecture. Yes, people often don’t go too deep. I’ll go to a lecture and be extremely disappointed (such as Smiley’s lecture on Dickens). That’s why we like your online groups.”
    Elinor    Feb 1, 10:20pm    #
  8. Dear Nick,

    I know I should have looked at the speaker’s credentials and background. But I hoped for the best. It was a mere 50 minutes away by car and train and a healthy walk. The crowd was probably a result of a mailing from the Jane Austen Society (which is how I knew about it). It’s so rare I see a topic just in my line. It’s a reminder what I’m up against in wanting to write about Austen and film seriously.

    Honestly I thought her rough, arrogant, getting a kick out of being obtuse (deliberately almost) and supercilious.

    Elinor    Feb 2, 1:47am    #
  9. From a member of WWTTA:


    Sounds like Americans are much like us. There is a marked reluctance to challenge the views of a stranger. I’d all put it down to British reticence, however, looks like many are the same over there. I agree that altho’ there’s the “pretty pictures” brigade, there’s also a core of people that really want to come to grips with and learn about the subject. I think the folk at my museum who attend lectures may well have had some pertinent questions for your lecturer. This woman’s lecture seems, from your retelling, to be almost patronising in it’s simplistic view. I suppose people are inhibited from showing “rudeness”. I think I might well have had an answer for her, if I’d been the man who had his intelligent commentarily summarily dismissed or ignored.”
    Elinor    Feb 2, 2:07am    #

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