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Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal

June 11, 2014 18 comments

Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal

This review sees the application of the old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” After the last book in the series, I confess I was in two minds as to whether to bother reading this latest addition to The Glamourist Histories. It seemed to me the series was drowning in its own conceit as books written in the Regency style without actually spending a great deal of time in constructing a strong narrative arc in its own right. However, having now consumed Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor, 2014), I find myself relieved to be able to report the right balance has been struck in this volume.

 

I confess initial despair as we set off on the Grand Tour with the wedding party of Jane’s sister and her new husband. Jane and Vincent are towed along in the wake of the family party until they can use the excuse of a visit to Lord Byron in nearby Venice to justify setting off on their own journey. In fact, they intend to continue their research with the glassmakers of Venice who have one of the best reputations in Europe. The idea is to see whether the better techniques of blowing used by the Venetians will allow more complete glamours to be woven into the glass. However, we then arrive at a stylistic collision leaving neither side of the fence well served. Somehow the prose style of Regency England is better suited to gentle conversations in drawing rooms rather than dealing with attacks by pirates during sea crossings. The difficult is simple to state. The arrival of corsairs firing shots across the bows of the ship they are on generates little or no excitement. The whole point of the more florid Victorian penny dreadfuls was to build on the gothic styles, and generate melodrama and the tension of mystery and adventure. This opening sequence falls flat.

Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal

 

However, something rather miraculous then happens. Finding themselves stranded penniless in Venice, our couple are first assisted by a banker and, later, by some Catholic nuns and a puppeteer. During this time, we find ourselves engaged in what, for want of a better term, I’ll describe as a heist plot. There’s also considerable rumination on the subject of sexual equality which, although couched in the language and mores of the Regency period, actually manages to speak to some of the still pervasive problems in our currently patriarchal society. Taking the heist first, this is great fun as our couple demonstrate how the glamour can be used both as a means of offence and defence. Suffice it to say, this is all particularly inventive. Some of the ideas are devilishly ingenious, e.g. if a glamour can exclude light from an area, what might await an exploring hand thrust into the concealed area? The plot also conforms to the need to have an element of surprise in the execution of the plan. This is difficult to manage because Jane, as our point of view character, should be aware of all the detail of the plan. Yet, for reasons I’ll avoid discussing, the book manages to justify not giving us the key elements until we are there first-hand, to see the metaphorical rabbit pulled out of the hat.

 

As to the question of gender roles and sexual equality, the couple are rather rudely pulled out of their cocoon of wealth and privilege. Left without resources, they pawn her wedding ring and take up residence in a drafty room. Consider them as candidates for The Admirable Crichton moment. This was a stage play by J M Barrie about a wealthy family who are shipwrecked and discover they have no survival skills. Fortunately, their butler might be able to help, but on his terms. So Jane is great on the piano and other drawing-room skills, but has never been required to learn how to prepare food or wash clothes. Similarly, he’s been a professional glamourist, able to command work from the circle of the wealthy into which he’s been born, and surrounded by servants to attend his every practical need. Having to go out on to the streets to knock on doors looking for work comes hard to him. What rubs salt in the wound is that Jane gets paid work through the convent, and so is able to buy food and pay the rent. This dependence on her earning ability upsets his sense of gender roles. Although the way in which this is resolved is viewed through the slightly rose-tinted spectacles of romantic love, there’s much truth as to the actual compromises required to keep the peace in their relationship. There’s also an affecting discussion of what it feels like to have lost a child, and whether it’s appropriate to make sacrifices to try for a second.

 

So after a rocky start, I find myself enjoying this book as probably the best of the series so far. Thinking about the plot mechanics in play, I suspect many might not quite understand precisely what proves to be at stake. The Glamourist Histories is very much a serial and the events here grow naturally out of what has gone before. This creates a dilemma because this may involve you looking at less satisfying books first. It’s up to you. If you have already come through the first three books, Valour and Vanity is the best of the bunch. If this is your first, you should consider reading Glamour in Glass first.

 

For reviews of the other novels in this series by Mary Robinette Kowal, see:
Glamour in Glass
Shades of Milk and Honey
Without a Summer.

 

Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

June 17, 2012 2 comments

This review contains a discussion of a major plot element and you should not read beyond the second warning given below if you prefer to read the book without preconceptions.

 

There are times when I place an order for the book and I am having the second thoughts (sorry, much of the action in this book takes place in Belgium so I’m practising the accent). I am looking back at the book that inspire this deduction from my compte bancaire. Was it really so good? Is there enough in it to justify this dépenses supplémentaires? Well, I allowed la douloureuse (slightly slangy French for “the bill” and the final gesture at incorporating foreign language into my English text) to go through. With Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor, 2012) now read, I’m able to report it as a major improvement over Shades of Milk and Honey. This is not to say it’s without problems. But it’s at least beginning to show a new author with more real promise.

 

For this to make sense, I need to explain the nature of the problem. Mary Robinette Kowal is playing the dangerous game of writing as if she’s Jane Austen. Indeed, in her afterword, she explains how carefully she has modified her vocabulary choices to reduce the risk of linguistic anachronism. She hopes all us pedants out in the real world will mail her with lists of noncanonical usages. While I applaud her enthusiasm, I fear this may be taking the drive for accuracy a little too far. Modern writing should be about developing styles most compatible with current sensibilities and not optimising storytelling techniques within a historical linguistic straightjacket. I would be interested in seeing how well Ms Kowal writes when she’s not trying to be Jane Austen. Yes, I know there’s a collection. I’ve ordered it.

 

So why is Glamour in Glass better than Shades of Milk and Honey? The latter plays the Jane Austen game too well and although there’s a developed system of magic on display (pun intended), the main action (or lack of it) is constrained by the literary conventions of Regency England with much debate in drawing rooms and plot development reproducing events adjacent to books of the time. Glamour in Glass, on the other hand, breaks through the narrative constraints by main force. It has Jane and Vincent, our newly-weds, sailing off on holiday to Belgium in 1815 just as Napoleon decides to do a runner from Elba. So, at two levels, our heroine has to change her view of the world. As a woman, she’s been subject to the usual range of humiliations doled out by the British patriarchs. So what she finds in Belgian society is something of an eye-opener. Obviously, coming as an outsider, she’s always going to be treated differently, but it’s the sexual repression that comes under pressure. She’s used to being a shrinking violet whereas, in this more egalitarian environment, she’s expected to sit around the table after the meal to share a cigar and port with the men. It’s positively revolutionary, my dear. However, there’s a more dangerous side to the expedition with Bonapartists threatening innocent travellers as they cross through the countryside. Fortunately, expert glamourists can always disappear from sight if the need arises.

Mary Robinette Kowal offering typewriter repairs at cut rate

 

This leaves us in radically new territory with emancipation issues explored against a society in turmoil as another Napoleonic war looms. In this, it’s interesting to watch the “husband” develop from a man of his time into a more equal partner. There’s some irony in Vincent’s history. In this alternate version of Regency England, the art of glamour is culturally labelled as primarily suitable for women. When Vincent begins to practise, his father fears his son might be gay and tries to beat the interest out of him. Having become a professional, he now has to defend his wife against the prejudice she can’t be as good as a man because she’s a woman. There’s also a nice issue for Jane. He may call her his muse, but did he marry her only for her ideas about glamour? If so, what will happen to the relationship if she has to stop using the power because she’s pregnant? However, the plot is not without problems.

 

Spoilers follow so do not read beyond this point unless you are prepared to forego the surprise element when reading.

 

I confess this is going to take me into slightly unfamiliar territory and that I have not gone back through the book to check the detailed passage of time. According to history, Napoleon leaves Elba on the 26th February, 1815 and, according to the chronology of this book, suffers his defeat by Wellington on the 17th June (the actual loss at Waterloo came one day later). That’s about four months. For a doctor to be able to diagnose a pregnancy without the convenience of an ultrasound machine or the aid of chemical testing, he would be looking for physical symptoms which are most likely to be noticeable towards the end of the first, and the beginning of the second, trimester. One of the more obvious physical signs would be an increase in the size of the breasts and a darkening of the areola.

 

For these purposes, let’s say our heroine is diagnosed in or about the 12th week. This is going to put us at least six months into the term coming into June and, to my male mind, the chances of a woman coming into the third trimester being able to cross-dress convincingly as a man is zero. Although casual observers are often the victims of cultural expectations based on the clothes they see, there will have been significant expansion in both the abdominal regions and the breasts. Hence, it’s not just her shape in trousers. There are also the changes in the ability to balance and co-ordinate simple physical activities like walking. Even with her breasts bound, assuming this was comfortable given the usual tenderness at this stage in the pregnancy, the bulging would still be obvious through a shirt. Because the people who see her first are suspicious soldiers investigating an intruder at a sensitive military location, there’s no way she could pass scrutiny.

 

Now we come to the final problem. If my arithmetic is correct, this is not a miscarriage situation. It’s a case of premature birth. Given modern technology, 50% of babies born at 24 months survive. In 1815, the chance of survival would have been slight but, the closer she is to term, the more likely it is that the foetus would be viable. Even more importantly, she would go into labour. Dilation is not something women can ignore, so the idea our heroine could just sit around and not notice the start of the process is completely incredible. I understand this is not something Jane Austen would have wanted to discuss in any detail, but modern authors are supposed to deal with such issues in a reasonably realistic way.

 

Despite this, Glamour in Glass is a significantly better effort at developing themes outside the ambit of Austen expectations and shows an author who’s prepared to take some risks to push the story outside the Regency mould. That said, I think there’s still a little too much time spent on the social side of life with a lot of talking for its own sake. At the other end of the scale, work on the glamour in the glass itself and then thinking about glass-blowing technology seems slightly overdone. This leaves me with an order placed for Without a Summer which is to be set in 1816. Should we get that far, I understand the fourth book is to be titled Valour and Vanity and will be set in 1817.

 

The jacket artwork features the photographic skills of Larry Rostant and is particularly appropriate.

 

For reviews of the other novels in this series by Mary Robinette Kowal, see
Shades of Milk and Honey
Valour and Vanity
Without a Summer.

 

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2012 Nebula Award and the 2013 Locus Award.

 

Lost in Austen (2008)

May 28, 2012 3 comments

Lost in Austen (2008) is yet another television version of a fairly respectable literary idea, namely that a human being can transition into the pages of a book and become involved in the action. One of the most interesting and inventive versions of this trope are the Thursday Next novels by Jasper Fforde in which, through the use of a Prose Portal, characters can enter the fictional worlds of both existing great novels and new books still being written. The first is called The Eyre Affair and, not surprisingly involves Jane Eyre, some of Wordsworth’s poetry and Poe’s “The Raven”. If you enjoy literary fantasy, the six novels in this series are well worth reading (with another due in a couple of months). The thematic opposite is represented by books like the Inkheart trilogy by Cornelia Funke. In these books, fictional characters are released from their books into “our” world. Handled well, such books, films and television episodes are entertaining because they allow a completely different view of well-known texts. The problem comes with a phenomenon now called Mary Sue or Gary Stu stories.

Darcy (Elliot Cowan) and Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper) finally get it together

Many writers of what’s pejoratively known as “fan-fiction” imagine what it would be like to meet and interact with the characters in their favorite movie, TV show, book, comic, or video game. The trap most fall into is to make their treasured character so perfect, he or she becomes a figure of fun. Hence all the other characters are in awe of Mary Sue, believing everything she says or does yet further examples of her brilliance. She’s brave and never outfaced in difficult situations. On occasion, this will make her appear stubborn, but she never pays a price for failing to live up to everyone’s expectations. She just wins the day (again) and goes on as if nothing untoward has happened. Fortunately, the heroine in this serial comes with warts.

Let’s meet Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper) a modern fan of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. She smokes, drinks, has a lover and generally acts like a contemporary woman. Her fairly mundane life is disrupted when a doorway opens in her bathroom. Much to her surprise Elizabeth Bennet (Gemma Arterton) steps through. After some discussion, Amanda steps back through into the Bennet household, circa 1813. Even though she’s not been formally introduced, she’s accepted as Elizabeth’s friend just as Mr Bingley (Tom Mison) arrives next door. This gives her the chance to experience Jane Austen’s story from the ground up, as it were.

Mr Bingley (Tom Mison) as an almost complete nonentity

There are occasional moments when the humour works as our fish-out-of-water runs into mere incomprehension or actual hostility from the prevailing culture. But the jokes are repetitive. The first time our heroine blurts out some naff contemporary slang, we can smile at the incongruity. But the desperation with which jumbo jet jokes keep flying round the ballroom grows rapidly tiresome. The real problem is Guy Andrews, the scriptwriter, can’t decide what point is to be made. It could be a rewrite of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in which satire prevails on both sides of reality to amuse and divert us. Or it could be an entirely serious affair in which a character suddenly finds herself in an incongruous position and has to decide exactly how to survive. For, make no mistake about it, if the Bennets were real, they would throw Amanda out and watch her die without contemporary money or friends to rescue her. This approach most often comes in time-travel stories like “The Man Who Came Early” by Poul Anderson where a modern man is transported back to a 10th century Viking village and quickly killed in a blood feud because he has no idea how to behave. This serial offers us an entirely contrived situation in which our heroine is allowed to rewrite the book by her inappropriate behaviour.

Mr Collins (Guy Henry) is wonderfully awful

That said, Mr Collins (Guy Henry) is wonderfully awful and Mr Wickham (Tom Riley) is delightfully knowing and rather likeable. Mr Bingham is even more craven than anyone could have imagined and Mr Darcy (Elliot Cowan) is nicely snooty. The tendency of our heroine to drown her sorrows in too much alcohol, grab a fag when things go badly and rescue Jane Bennet with a quick paracetamol are very much of our time.

Now let’s get to the meat of the problem. What’s happening to the book in the “real world”? As our heroine is inserted into the story and begins to distort events, does this change all the words on the pages of already published books? Logic must be carried through. If the printed pages are not changing, why is this a purely personal experience? This is not the same question of how the exchange takes place, but limited to its consequences. To add to this problem, we then get the ultimate metafictional event. Having carried a copy of the book with her into the book, she throws it out of a window and Mr Darcy reads a part of it. He makes no mention of the fact the binding and paper quality is radically different to what would be achieved at that time. He simply accuses our hero of being Jane Austen who has apparently written a book about people without their consent. This makes absolutely no sense. Is he assuming our heroine wrote this before they met, i.e. it is fiction using their names? If so, how does it come to contain details of events only after they have met and where did she get the information about everyone’s income and background history? If it was only written after their first meeting, how has the book been written, typeset using the old hot lead system, printed and distributed in mass market paperback format within the space of a few weeks? This kind of sloppy writing just annoys.

Mr Wickham (Tom Riley) repairs Mr Bennet’s (Hugh Bonneville) broken head

It then gets even worse as first our heroine and then Darcy cross into modern London, then pick up Elizabeth who seems to have adapted well, and all three drop back into the Bennet home. Frankly, this is growing progressively more bizarre. I was prepared to accept a random door opening between Amanda’s bathroom and the Bennet home. It’s just a case of the right pair of women being in the right place at the right time for it to work. But a second door opening from one of those blue portacabin loos you see on street corners into a fictional world is just too much to stomach. Just what are the rules for these portals to keep appearing? Who can use them? Does their use show up in the published book? Frankly, what little possible logic might be suggested is completely abandoned for effect. This is just treating the audience with contempt. In fact, the Bennet story had grown more interesting with Bingham spending the night with Lydia (Perdita Weeks) in the bedroom of an inn and Mr Bennet (Hugh Bonneville) injuring himself in a duel to defend his family’s besmirched honour. It was all lining up to be an interesting mayhem when it all dies down. Elizabeth goes back to her new life in London (although how she will survive without a documented identity is anyone’s guess), Jane (Morven Christie) will get her marriage with Mr Collins annulled and elope with Mr Bingley to America, our heroine gets Darcy but, presumably, is left to honour all the promises she made to rescue the Bennets from the entail trap, and Mr Wickham is left to pursue Caroline Bingley (Christina Cole).

So Lost in Austen ends up neither science fiction nor fantasy. Worse, it avoids any real attempt at satire. It’s a weak-kneed collection of jokes that don’t mesh together into a coherent narrative. Austen purists will be outraged their favourite book has been pillaged. I was deeply disappointed and not a little annoyed as the serial progressed because Guy Andrews refuses to show any logic or self-discipline in the screenplay. Frankly, I can’t see anyone getting much enjoyment out of this.

Emma (2009)

April 8, 2012 2 comments

This is a four-part version of Jane Austen’s classic Emma (2009) starring Romola Garai as our misguided heroine and Jonny Lee Miller as the long-suffering Mr Knightley. Sometimes, I despair of the BBC. It collects all this licence money and could spend it making original drama or adapting any number of wonderful books. Yet it persists in remaking “classics” as from the pen of Jane Austen. At this point, I’m not commenting on the worth of this particular adaptation, but questioning whether any rehashing of old favourites is a good way of spending our money. Frankly, I see no good reason why production companies should continuously strive to produce the “definitive” version of any classic when we already have more than adequate versions in hand. It all seems so unnecessary in cultural terms. This is not to deny a market for any drama that is reinterpreted for our time. I’ve sat mesmerised in theatres up and down the country as new shafts of understanding about human nature cross the centuries from the quill pens of outstanding playwrights and pierce my befuddled brain. But, more often than not, these productions have been radical, relocating the play to different times and, on occasion, reshaping the language to fit. I can imagine the outcry if the BBC were to offer a modern-dress version of Emma. People would feel uncomfortable without the period costumes and props. They might actually have to listen to the words and watch the action reinvented for contemporary England. New objectivity might then offer a better measure of the quality of the story and what it has to say to us about human nature.

Michael Gambon, Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller looking like a family

My first impression is that Jonny Lee Miller looks and/or acts the wrong age as Mr Knightley — although, at my age, everyone on television looks generically young. He’s supposed to be thirty-seven as against Emma’s twenty. This gives him the benefit of experience and also explains why Emma would not immediately think of him romantically. Unfortunately, at first sight, this pair look to me about the same age and strike sparks off each other much as you would expect from bickering lovers. This is not taking anything away from either performance. But the casting does blur a rather important element in the story, cf this is the reason why Marianne Dashwood (aged sixteen) does not immediately favour Colonel Brandon (aged thirty-five), who does look his age in Sense and Sensibility (2008).

Blake Ritson looking for love (and enough money to live on)

The second problem with adapting this book is that, as written, we largely get to see the world through Emma’s eyes. The actual form of the narrative complicates the task of adaptation since, although it’s nominally in the third person as told by an omniscient author, the readers are left with many incidents involving Emma as an unreliable narrator. So the readers can either feel some degree of sympathy for her as she blights her own life and that of Harriet Smith (Louise Dylan), or they can detach themselves and make a more objective judgement of her vain and stubborn self-deceptions. Yet, once you have the camera as an objective third party observer, you can see more clearly what’s happening. This makes it more difficult to have any sympathy for her. She comes over as selfishly manipulative and rather unattractively domineering. This is reinforced by the performance given by Romola Garai. She appears somewhat cold, making it more than obvious why Mr Knightly would be so annoyed by the rejection of poor farmer Martin’s proposal of marriage.

Rupert Evans deceiving everyone as to his amorous imtentions

Now we have the two key developments in Emma’s misjudgment of Mr Elton (Blake Ritson), the amorously smarmy vicar, and her willing acceptance of Frank Churchill (Rupert Evans), the prodigal son. She’s suitably shocked by Elton’s proposal and deeply embarrassed when she must confess to poor Harriet. Of course, the girl is devastated, but humble enough to take most of the blame for allowing herself to think someone of higher status could ever fall for her. His month-long conquest of a replacement adds to her despair. The arrival of Jane Fairfax (Laura Pyper) allows us to see more clearly how awful loneliness has made her aunt, Miss Bates (Tamsin Greig), a rather sad bore. We are hitting the right notes, but there’s a certain lack of coherence. It’s as if the director couldn’t quite decide whether to present Emma sympathetically. So, for example, when Mr Knightley watches Jane Fairfax play and sing at the Cole’s party, there’s ambiguity. If we watch objectively, he may show romantic interest. If we watch from Emma’s point of view, she would never think him interested in Jane.

Box Hill Incident with Tamsin Greig holding forth

We now come into the finishing straights as the awful Mrs Elton (Christina Cole) arrives on the social scene and tries to take over, while Frank Churchill flirts with Emma and rescues Harriet from the gypsies. Poor Harriet. Her heart is all a-flutter again, giving Emma yet another opportunity to misunderstand. Mr Knightly is now physically appearing more his age (or perhaps I’m just beginning to see him as older) and continues to warn Emma about the relationship between Frank and Jane. Emma, of course, cannot see it. The feel of the adaptation is improving. The final episode pulls the fat out of the fire. This takes its time with the strawberry picking at Donwell Abbey, the trip to Box Hill, and the consternation of Highbury when Frank Churchill’s engagement to Jane Fairfax is revealed. The humiliation of Miss Bates is nicely handled as is Mr Knightley’s condemnation. It’s also good to see Michael Gambon playing Mr Woodhouse as slightly more normal, still grieving for his wife. Too often he’s played as a silly old hypochondriac.

On balance, we have one of the better Austen adaptations once we get past the first episode. In this instance, the BBC has not completely wasted our licence money (although asking ITV to rerun the 1996 version starring Kate Beckinsale would probably have been as popular). Indeed, the BBC’s efforts were recognised on an international stage when Emma won an Emmy for Best Hairstyling. This strikes me as a good basis on which to value this production’s contribution to art. The costumes are a feast to the eyes, the locations dazzle and the music is sumptuously apposite. But Romola Garai’s hair is world class. So there you have it. Emma (2009) is a difficult book to adapt and, as adaptations go, this effort by Sandy Welch gets the job done. We can cavil at Romola Garai’s portrayal of the heroine and wish the character came over as more sympathetic but, given our more modern sensibilities, perhaps she doesn’t deserve to be seen as sympathetic. Perhaps, until the bubble of her world bursts, we should always see her as smug, selfish, manipulative and somewhat cold.

Pride and Prejudice (2005)

February 12, 2012 1 comment

From the moment the dawn breaks and the sun rises to gild the lettering of the title, Pride and Prejudice (2005), you know you are in for a beautiful version of a traditional story. Indeed, as a piece of film-making, the cinematography from Roman Osin and art direction from Ian Bailie are second to none. There are, however, several issues to address. First, as to the plot, we have to make sacrifices if we are to emerge from the cinema in under two-and-a-half hours. The scriptwriters, Deborah Moggach and Emma Thompson, have cut down everything to the bare essentials of the two love stories. More or less everything else is dumped into to a few quick scenes and cameos from the supporting cast. This is not to deny the director, Joe Wright the chance to stage two balls with the manners of the period firmly on display. Except, during the second private ball, the device of having everyone disappear from the screen while Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley) and Mr Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) dance is an annoying distraction only mitigated because the sight of key people trying to avoid each other by moving through the crowds is decidedly apt. This scriptwriting process does produce a fast-track from first meetings to the breathless embrace of Elizabeth and Mr Darcy as the second dawn breaks over their impending marriage.

Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen end on the right note

 

Second, although we get to see Elizabeth in something approaching full flow, there’s a considerable amount of screen time denied Mr Darcy to establish his off-putting character. It’s the same with Jane Bennet (Rosamund Pike) who gets significantly less time than Elizabeth with poor Mr Bingley (Simon Woods) relegated to a comic turn. I know he’s not very bright but this is carrying the dimness a little too far. It’s rather the same with Mr Collins (Tom Hollander) who’s held up as clownishly short and awkward for us to mock before he makes an edited version of his proposal and then disappears more or less entirely. I think I did see Wickham (Rupert Friend) a few times, but not as often as I might have expected. I suppose he can make his contribution to Bennet family happiness off-screen.

Rosamund Pike and Simon Woods in a passionate huddle

 

Next, we come to the casting. Brenda Blethyn as Mrs Bennet is rather less afflicted by her nerves than in other versions. This is a more sensible person than we usually see, rightly obsessed with the need to get her daughters married off. In those days, marriage was very much a commercial necessity and, without a male heir to protect ownership of the family home, Mrs Bennet is committed to seeing her daughters safe in the shortest possible time. It’s hardly surprising she should be stressed. Judi Dench cannot put a foot wrong in her two minutes on screen. This is the usual stunning performance as a dragon, in this case Lady Catherine de Bourg. The outstanding catastrophe is Donald Sutherland. What were they thinking? I can’t imagine the producers hoped to increase the international distribution by having a Canadian star as Mr Bennet. As it is, this is a man struggling with his accent and, it would seem, to keep his teeth in place. Both hand gestures and facial movements seem to suggest a man afflicted by early false efforts about to drop out. Almost as bad was the lack of animation. Finally, we come to Keira Knightley.

 

This is an early version of the rebellious daughter and subsequent pirate we’ve all come to love. I’m stunned we should have such a fierce Elizabeth. In times when women were expected to be largely decorative and submissive, her body language and verbal aggression would mark her down as one of society’s barbarian princesses. She strides across the landscape, swinging her bloody sword from side to side, in search of another man’s head to add to the scalps hanging from her belt. Seeing her so dominating is hilarious. Except. . .

Brenda Blethyn and Donald Sutherland as the Bennets accenting the positive

 

When we denizens of the oughties go to the cinema, what do we expect to see as entertainment? If we were aiming for historical accuracy, then we would want not just the costumes and stately homes to match the period. We would expect the culture and language to be reproduced. The alternative approach would be to completely relocate the plot for contemporary audiences. So Clueless starring Alicia Silverstone as Austen’s Emma gives us a high school teen comedy of manners, showing a not unpleasing attempt at romance with a period twist. Returning to Kiera Knightley, this is a modern girl in a period dress. She cares nothing for propriety, never avoiding eye contact when giving her dismissals to the men who propose to her. It’s a, “look at me when I’m talking to you” approach to rejection. Yet it’s this performance that will most appeal to the modern audience. When you have the film framed by two dawns, this is signalling its intention to be lushly romantic. That means our Elizabeth has to wear her heart on her sleeve, first to be passionately wrong and then to be passionately right. That way, we can all stagger out of the cinema, profoundly grateful she finally saw the light (literally and metaphorically). I actually felt quite sorry for this Mr Darcy. He was doing everything according to the How to Propose for Dummies play book of his times only to be confronted by a harridan who shouts him down. Whereas he should have said, “Who cares about the difference in our status in the eyes of the world, let’s get it on right here, right now”, he began by apologising. Well, that’s never going to earn him brownie points with this Elizabeth, is it.

 

So, as a film to entertain modern audiences, this is a success. We can’t expect to see respect paid to an old author if that’s not going to get paying customers through the door. More to the point, modern audiences will not sit still long enough to get us through more of the detailed plot. And, if I stop being my natural curmudgeonly self for a moment, I will admit to enjoying quite large chunks of it. Whatever the faults, Pride and Prejudice (2005) looks the part and, courtesy of Joe Wright, is one of the most beautifully filmed versions of an Austen I can remember seeing.

 

Sense and Sensibility (2008)

January 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Sense and Sensibility (2008) is a three-part BBC adaptation of the classic novel by Jane Austen starring Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood, Charity Wakefield as Marianne Dashwood, Dominic Cooper as Willoughby, and Dan Stevens as Edward Ferrars. One of the points of the novel is the difference between Elinor and Marianne. My own preference, for what it’s worth, is a Marianne who’s a victim of her choice in reading material. Such is her passion for romantic fiction and poetry that she develops an unrealistic view of the world. This colours her actions and attitudes at every point. Elinor, on the other hand, is the epitome of practicality. If she does allow herself dreams of what might be, they are firmly recognised for what they are and subservient to more immediate needs. Yet although Hattie Morahan’s Elinor seems to be striking the right notes, Charity Wakefield’s Marianne seems cut from a similar cloth. Indeed, until we get to her overreaction in meeting Willoughby, she’s been rather more constructive and accepting of their fate in being banished to the wilderness than I would have believed possible. That said, once at the cottage, Marianne is allowed to behave in a completely uncivilised manner without sanction. She wilfully snubs poor Colonel Brandon (David Morrissey) who’s kept waiting for an unconscionable length of time, and her reward is to be carried back into the house by Willoughby — neither Elinor nor her mother (Janet McTeer) attempt to correct her barbaric lack of manners.

The Dashwoods — Janet McTeer, Hattie Morahan, Charity Wakefield and Lucy Boynton

Willoughby is generally shown to be at the very least culturally insensitive over the offer of the horse and then in whisking Marianne off when Colonel Brandon’s picnic is abruptly cancelled. The slightly scary obviousness of his intentions lead the neighbourhood to believe they are engaged. The possibility of the scandal is therefore established for the visit to London with Mrs Jennings (Linda Bassett). Yet, the whole production feels rushed. We only have an hour and must get Brandon out of the way, Willoughby off to London, Edward Ferrars on a whistle-stop visit, and the Steele sisters into play. That means a lot of ground to cover with a few broad brushes of the scriptwriter’s pen. The last of the three episodes continues at a headlong gallop, often with a rather more modern use of language than Jane Austen could ever have dreamed up. Elinor and Marianne are crushed by Willoughby in public and Mrs Jennings is shocked to discover the libertine is engaged to another. Edward’s engagement is revealed to his unsympathetic mother by the dim Miss Steele and he’s sent off without a penny. In Cleveland, Marianne falls ill (obviously disaster befalls her whenever she wonders around in the rain and has to be carried back in the arms of a strong man), Willoughby appears and Brandon does all the right things. Minutes later, we are back in the cottage by the sea (another interesting decision to include all the dramatic scenes of waves rushing in upon the romantically rocky shore). Marianne plays the piano in Brandon’s library, sees how good he is with a falcon and agrees to marry him. Edward comes and declares his love, and before you can say whatever you feel is appropriate in these situations, it’s all over.

Willoughby (Dominic Cooper) looking predatory

Frankly, I’m in a state of mild despair. The decision to try cramming everything into a nominal three hours (allowing for the odd advertising break every now and again) has produced superficial characterisations, key scenes are omitted as where Brandon agrees to give Edward a living, and the general tone of the production is slightly darker than I would have expected. In the last episode, Elinor and Marianne are in bed together discussing men. There’s no better place for such discussions. Marianne wonders whether men treat women as mere playthings. This seems to be emphasised by the way in the which production is paced. Willoughby is shown as something of a sexual predator. The inclusion of an actual duel with Brandon is an interesting decision to show Willoughby’s humiliation in private does nothing to damp down the public persona. Indeed, his manner in the London ball could not be worse and his dismissal of his new wife when confronting Elinor in Cleveland is cold-hearted, as is the implicit denial of wrongdoing in siring an offspring with Brandon’s ward. Where it not for Marianne’s lack of experience and more romantic temperament, he would never have made progress. Her experience shocks her into accepting Brandon as a rock she can cling to in any storm. I’m not sure I’m convinced by this Marianne’s declaration of love for the man. She seems to be recovering from Willoughby rather quickly and emerging as somewhat flighty. In the novel this is avoided because she firmly explains her emotions as being less than love. That’s why her marriage is a triumph of sense over sensibility.

Edward Ferrars (Dan Stevens) not clearly defined as a character

But the real problem comes with the lack of screen time for Edward. The whole point of this man is his honour. Yet we are never given the chance to get to see the man and understand just how seriously he takes any promise he makes. This underwriting complicates what we see of Elinor’s reaction to him. Depending on how you view their first meeting, he may be seen as leading her on when he knows he cannot take it further. Or we could see Elinor as being as overly romantic in her reaction to him. Why is there this confusion? It’s the scene in the library at Norland. By allowing Margaret Dashwood (Lucy Boynton) to leave and give them the necessary privacy, he’s encouraging Elinor to believe a proposal is coming. Worse, he should know Margaret will almost certainly pass on the news to the rest of the family. The behaviour of a gentleman of the time would never have allowed this to happen. He would have been sensitive to the needs of preserving propriety if others were present or of ensuring privacy. So this production starts us off on the wrong tack with this character. Frankly, this is one of the many problems with the script by the usually reliable Andrew Davies.

Brandon (David Morrissey) at home on the range

We can perhaps forgive the opening sex scene. It does give some credibility to the power the wife Fanny (Claire Skinner) exercises over John Dashwood (Mark Gatiss) and sets up the scenes showing the marginalisation and departure of the female Dashwoods to their impoverished cottage. The country houses and interiors, as always, show high production values and give the adaptation considerable credibility. If only there had been four rather than three hours, we might have had the time to meet and get to know the people. Sad really but, for once, this Sense and Sensibility is a poor show despite the more than competent acting of the principals.

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

December 22, 2010 1 comment

This takes us into the realm of the mashup. Frankly, this is not one of the better new words since the original meaning of the verb to “mash” is, with an appropriate degree of violence, to pulp, crush or otherwise destroy the texture of boiled vegetables, fruit, spices, etc. I grew up eating mashed potatoes and later enjoyed cider made from mashed and fermented apples. The idea is to take source material in one form and then convert it into something quite different by physical and/or chemical processes. Yet, as first applied to music and now writing, the technique is somewhat different. It is a blending of previously separate elements to produce a version in which the sources are recognisable, but transformed by being put together. In artistic terms, it is a type of collage.

Let’s take as an example Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith. The object of the exercise is to leave much of the original Austen text in place but add new elements from different genres. In theory, this is supposed to go beyond satire, parody or pastiche, producing an alternate history in which Regency England is overrun by zombies. It is not so much mashing up the original text, as creating a bandwagon new genre in which plagues of vampires, werewolves, mummies or other disreputable creatures are released into the literary wilds. I confess to being less than delighted by this shotgun marriage between what we may now call historical romance and more modern tropes. I do my best to be open-minded and am not against the idea in principle. There are some excellent historical fantasies in which magic and supernatural elements have been seamlessly blended into alternate histories of the world. But I confess to reading these mashup books with a health scepticism. You don’t have to pretend to be Austen, a Bontë, or some other luminary to write a good book. Put another way, parroting a plot from a classic novel cannot save an indifferent piece of writing.

All of which brings us to Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal. Here we are in Austen territory again. This is a classic Austen set-up with two daughters, a neurotic mother and concerned father as landed gentry stuck out in the West country. The language is reasonably well done and the social context is fairly convincing. The production of the physical book also helps. For once, TOR has broken with convention and has the lead page in each chapter with an old font and period setting, while the pages are not trimmed to produce the usual perfect edges. So we start off with a good look and feel.

I confess to initial feelings of doom and gloom as the opening passages turn into longer passages with little more than a fairly uninspiring pastiche of Austen. But, slowly, we also find ourselves introduced to a well-developed system of magic. This is a reimagining of the idea of ectoplasm — a visible substance thought to be produced by a medium during a trace. Kowal’s version of this phenomenon is drawn from the aether, taking on a physical appearance for the eye to see or holding sounds or melodies for the ear to hear. On a social level, it is up there with female skills such as playing the piano, singing or generally being decorative. It can hide blemishes of the skin and produce a more elegant dress for a social event. In a professional context, where men may be adjudged the masters, it can transform a room from a level of impoverished gentility to something spectacular. More importantly, such transformations persist over quite long periods of time so the less well-to-do can conceal their straightened circumstances with a little glamour.

There are immediate military applications with techniques that can conceal land-based defences, gun emplacements or even small numbers of troops or cavalry. This would allow the element of surprise as enemies innocently approach. It would be more difficult at sea because ships move around a little too much in the swell to remain effectively hidden for longer periods of time. Presumably, we will get into this in the second volume titled Glamour in Glass. As it is, we are left with the redoubtable female amateur meeting the professional male in an entirely social context. He considers her more than annoying because, with so little effort, she can deconstruct his methods and reproduce the effects. She considers him prickly and antisocial because he seems to reject the usual etiquette of the day.

On balance, I judge the whole to be reasonably successful. The magic of the glamour is innovative and the plot is twisted to produce an interesting climax in which all that has been learned is given a chance for practical application. Although it does rather lack humour and focuses too much on jealousies for my taste, this is not a mere Austen pastiche. It goes into new territory for a Regency romance by allowing a vengeful brother to seek personal satisfaction at the expense of the lothario who has trifled with his sister’s affections. More usually, these cads are bought off to save the family’s reputation. It also has some female empowerment with our heroine pulled from a sheltered life and encouraged to experience a more passionate way of seeing the world. So despite my initial scepticism, I am sufficiently interested to see how the magic system is developed, and have ordered the next book.

For the record, this book is one of the 2010 Nebula Awards Nominations. It’s also a finalist in the 2011 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.

For reviews of the sequels, see:
Glamour in Glass
Valour and Vanity
Without a Summer.

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