Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Jane Austen's Persuasion

Last night I finished re-reading Persuasion by Jane Austen. As I put my head on my pillow, as is often the case, I managed to draft a beautiful opening paragraph for a blog post in my head. Or at least it seemed beautiful in my semi-conscious state. I believe my best writing is done in my head walking home from work, in the shower and falling asleep at night. No one can argue this because they have never read the brilliant prose that flows through my head that never lands on paper (or screen).

I had a beautifully crafted line about why I love Jane Austen's writing despite the tra, la, la predictably happy endings. But I forget it now. I also drew an incredible parallel with myself and the protagonist, Anne Elliot that amounted to more than our sharing the same initials. I am not like Anne Elliot. She is shy and withdrawn and prefers to be in the background. I am loud and often obnoxious and enjoy attention. She was persuaded out of making a hasty match at 19. No one could have, even if they had tried, persuaded me out of making my hasty match at 19 (engaged at 19, married at 20). However, I can and do relate nontheless.

I am going to go ahead and tell you that I don't want to love Jane Austen. I feel, in recent years, it has become almost trendy to love Austen. And I don't really like being trendy. There is a great Simpson's episode (bear with me here) where in excitedly discussing a dog that came to school, Bart (I think) exclaims "I knew the dog before he came to school!" I love this line and feel this way often when something I love grows popular and hyped up. Kind of like Little Miss Sunshine and Juno and even Napolean Dynamite which my brother and I viewed on opening night and laughed alone until our sides hurt and tears ran down our faces while the rest of the stalwart theater chuckled on occasion. I like to believe those people laughed later after they were told it was ok to laugh.

I'm not saying I was the first to discover and fall in love with Jane Austen or any of the movies cited (clearly, I'm not).
{{But I did fall in love with Pride & Prejudice the first time I read it in high school and continued to love the book enough to not only re-read it but in August 2000 when my sister and I were riding a train through Switzerland when I prematurely finished the novel for the fifth or so time, but I did not hesitate (much to her shock since she had not yet read it) to start the book anew while I waited for her to finish her novel to trade. I hadn't yet seen the 1995 BBC movie and had no idea of the crazy following the book had. Wikipedia claims, in 2003 it was proclaimed the UK's Best Loved Book by a BBC poll.}}
Nor am I saying I don't want anyone else to love Jane Austen or any of these things I feel territorial over. Obviously I would not be foisting my tastes in movies, books and other sundries on you if I didn't want you to test them out. What I don't like is feeling like I'm on a bandwagon. I strongly dislike bandwagons. Too crowded. And you should know by now how I feel about crowds.

Hate them.

And yet, when it comes to Jane Austen, no matter how crowded it gets, I can't help but love her and her beautiful writing. And her wit. And delicious use of irony. And don't forget her strong female protagonists. Even with the tra-la-la happy endings. Maybe because of the happy endings, I don't know. No, more because every single heroin endures much heartache, misunderstanding and long-suffering before she finally lands at that happy ending. Which is much more true to life. Plus (and I realize none of this is profound, just my thoughts), I cannot recall a single one of Austen's leading ladies who is desperate. An Austen heroine does not waste away because she is not married. She may nurse a broken heart or have some regrets or have hopes for the future but she does not sit around feeling sorry for herself. Instead, what I believe they have in common is perseverance, fortitude and a focus on self-improvement. And this during a time in history when women's social and economic status lived and died by who and when and if she married. Jane Austen accepted that cultural limitation but still strived for more. I feel I can relate to that. I can focus on improving myself and still hope for the romantic ending without naively waiting for happily-ever-after to happen upon me.

What is unique about Austen is not only do I love her books but I also love many (most) of the movies I have seen based on her books. And I principally thank the BBC for somehow managing to pull off that tricky transition from print to screen so well. I don't know how they have managed to make movies out of books I love without ruining them. I guess they have just learned how to adhere to the novel and not re-write anything critical the way most screen adaptors do.

That being said, one of the things that prompted me to re-read Persuasion was watching the new 2007 version of the movie. I loved it from the start, the way it was filmed, the actors (perfect Captain Wentworth and an Anne that grows on you, as she should) . . . until the end. And I will go ahead and tell you that if you have not read the book or seen the movie, you might not want to read (or watch the clip) for a bit because this is a **SPOILER** of sorts. They ruined the ending. The book contains one paragraph that is breathtakingly simple as it reveals that Captain Wentworth had been furiously writing a love note to Anne Elliot while they were in a crowded room. The climactic paragraph, in all its subtle beauty reads:

She had only time, however, to move closer to the table where he had been writing, when footsteps were heard returning; the door opened; it was himself. He begged their pardon, but he had forgotten his gloves, and instantly crossing the room to the writing table, and standing with his back towards Mrs. Musgrove, he drew out a letter from under the scattered paper, placed it before Anne with eyes of glowing entreaty fixed on her for a moment, and hastily collecting his gloves, was again out of the room, almost before Mrs. Musgrove was aware of his being in it -- the work of an instant!

For me, this scene makes the book. It is the pinnacle moment to which everything before it is building. And the old 1995 version of the movie does it as much justice as possible outside of one's imagination, for how do you put onscreen "eyes of glowing entreaty fixed on her for a moment"? See for yourself here (the key scene is at 2:20 but the rest is good build-up):

This clip won't feel dramatic with all the subtle angst and fear and jealousies that were building up to it but I love it. I feel the newest version ruined that climax by changing the scene completely by leaving out the best part - the eyes of glowing entreaty fixed on her for a moment." They panicked and changed the climax. And while the closing scene was far more dramatic, it disappointed me and I had to re-read the book to remind myself that the first was correct. Why mess with a perfect dénouement? See here for the contrast in the 2007 version, or just watch the whole movie and judge for yourself:

One last thing, and this is completely nit-picking and I am only saying this because I have to get it out and just tell someone. I noticed that early in the book, Austen referred to the Musgrove's home as the "Great House" and then later the "Mansion House" and back to "Great House" before settling on "Mansion House" again. This annoyed me. I was ready to blame the Barnes & Noble Classics publication I was reading when it switched again and I had to know where the inconsistency was coming from. So I pulled down my Jane Austen The Complete Novels (I told you, I knew the dog before he came to school. . . ) and checked. The mistake is there too. I was a bit disappointed in Miss Austen for the error, but ultimately decided to forgive and forget because we take our favorites with their flaws.

P.S. Kami threw out an invitation on her blog to post favorite movie clips this week. This isn't exactly that assignment but I suppose the first clip qualifies as it is one of my favorite literary scenes translated onto film.

P.P.S. While I'm semi-reviewing Austen novels and movies. The old super long version of Pride & Prejudice (which I have watched more times than I can count) kicks the trash of the Keira Knightly version which I originally enjoyed in the theater because it was filmed so beautifully and the music was so good, etc. but never felt compelled to see it again and when I caught a bit of it on TV recently it only prompted me to pop in my BBC DVD for a full viewing of the original - with Collin Firth of course.


Tiffany said...

OK, I admit it--I am late to the Jane Austen table. I was never required (for some reason) to read her in high school and my natural tastes lead me to more modern stories.

However, I love the movies, and the clip you just shared piqued my interest enough that I am going to repent and start reading her as a wise, old thirty-something.

Mary said...

I'm blog lurking and must comment.

I totally agree with you on the earlier knowing of stuff. I read the whole complete fat book of Jane Austen in high school (and I think I rotate one of her books a year since then). I also had a Vote for Pedro T-shirt when they were hard to find, but I digress.

I'm with you on the Persuasion films. I loved the look of the newer version, but didn't care for how they changed the end. At first I also wasn't sure about how Anne looked at the camera a lot, but I like it now. She invited me in to see how and what she was feeling.

Did you see the newer "Sense and Sensibility?" I liked how it included more of the story than the Emma Thompson/Ang Lee version, but too much windy scenery by the sea. Willoughby was also shorter than I imagined him.

-mary (Autumn's friend, from the good ol' singles ward)

autumn said...

Love this post! I completely agree about not wanting to be part of the crowd...but when it comes to Austen I just have to be. I hate feel trendy...but there you have it. Also, maybe because it's fall, I feel a huge desire to start watching and reading all her books and movies again.

Meghan said...

I recently reread Mansfeild Park before I watched it on Masterpiece Theater. I was very disappointed with the movie. Sometimes actors can grow on you through the movie, but I never really liked the actor playing Fanny Price. Also, the ending was different. There is no dialouge in the last several pages of the book though, so I suppose you have to do something. Still, nothing beats Pride and Prejudice. Although as far are reading goes, I LOVE Emma.
ps. I would love your recipe for the vegetarian chili and the minestrone soup!

Kami said...

Thanks for playin' along, sorta. ;) I too have to admit that I missed the wagon on miss austen's stuff like Tiffany. I loved the clip though.

DeAnn said...

I'm a blurker too. But I knew the dog too before it was trendy! I saw Napoleon Dynamite at the theater! I loved Mr. Darcy before Mr. Darcy was cool! And I hate the bandwagon (I still refuse to read "Work and the Glory" even though all the other Mormons now have a testimony of it.) But I can't jump off the Jane bandwagon and admit a certain satisfaction of introducing someone new to the 6 hour P&P and "the look" that Mr. Darcy gives Elizabeth as she stands next to his sister at the piano. Mmmmmm.

MaryAnn said...

Hi - You don't know me, I'm a friend of Liz's. I was just browsing and came upon your blog and wanted to let you know that I loved your last post-especially the Bart Simpson analogy (even though I'm not a fan of his)... Anyways - I completely agree with you. Especially in regards to the Keira Knightly version. Anyways - thanks for the great thoughts and writing!

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