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

Living in the Past · 26 May 07

Dear Marianne,

I’ve been struck by this phrase lately as I’m continually watching costume dramas by Austen as I work on my paper. I’ve long loved film adaptations of older high status novels (and newer not such high status novels too). Sometime ago I wrote a letter here where I made a case for the centrality of costume quite literally in these films, and defended the practice against derision and dismissal as “escapism,” women’s “peculiarly silly” soap operas, reinforcement of complacency towards those who control societies for their own benefit and against the interest of the majority.

I’d now like first to add to what I wrote last time from Pam Cook, Stella Bruzzi, Patricia Mellencamp, and other film critics I’ve been reading: costume drama allows highly subversive ideas expression under the guise of escapism: boundaries are crossed, identities tried out, repressive norms discarded for a time. There is deep pleasure in dressing up—and down too. We want to go back to the past the way we want to revel in fantasy (like Catherine Morland [Felicity Jones] when she is first taken to her room at Northanger Abbey in the 2007 film of that name), and often what’s shown creates a parallel with today’s worlds so we can question, critique, release ourselves.

There is something they leave out though: dignity. I feel I enjoy costume drama in the way I enjoy older pictorial art that maintains a strong dignity of presentation. I find the controlled outward behavior, the courtesies, the way the characters approach one another gradually (remember I know that costume drama and art are not real life but an artful representation of it), beautiful, a way of endowing existence with grace. It is a retreat which makes a strong demarcation between the private and the public.

Many of the pictures by 19th century (and other men and women) I’ve put on this blog (and also on the groupsite space of my lists) are chosen for having this quality, as, for example, Helen Allingham’s Stanfield House, Hampstead (1897):

It will be said not all costume dramas have this; some are just extravagant masquerades, particularly when it comes to action-adventure stories, the wild kinds of allegory, apocalyptic, cruel, violent that I see Yvette watching under the aegis of Robin Hood or science fiction. There the control is a thin veneer. Yes so I suppose I should amend my earlier letter and qualify the above by saying I find great comfort in the illusion of human presences in the landscapes of apparently realistic melodrama, comedy and romance when these appear in the guise of costume drama adaptations of high status high art novels and memoirs and legends (drawn from history, some of which is admittedly highly bogus). For example, again from Northanger Abbey (2007, Granada and WBGH) this one of Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones) and Eleanor Tilney (Catherine Walker) walking together in the park of Northanger.

I spent many hours today rewatching and studying (making notes and taking snapshots) from the recent 2007 ITV (Granada and WGBH) Northanger Abbey, 1983 BBC Mansfield Park and 1995 BBC/A&E Pride and Prejudice. How I enjoy simply looking at these. Another: Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones) and Isabella Thorpe (Carey Mulligan) talking of Mrs Radcliffe at the circulating library in Bath.

I was deeply touched by the great and eager tenderness J. J. Feilds conveyed as Henry Tilney taking in Catherine Morland’s (Felicity Jones’s) acceptance of his proposal of marriage. How much pained disillusion and loss of hope this presence once knew. He bends over her, is shivering slightly; she is anxious to reciprocate, to reassure.

What great joy one feels in the intense controlled pattern dancing of Fanny Price (Sylvestre Le Tousel) and Edmund Bertram (Nicholas Farrell) at the first ball at Mansfield Park (the 1983 BBC film of this name).

And finally, the first picture of Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet (the 1995 BBC/A&E Pride and Prejudice) as she gazes over the green landscape near Netherfield Park: calm, at peace, able to live within and on herself.

Posted by: Ellen

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