The Dangers of Reading Henry James and Jane Austen at the Same Time

264I have ended up really disliking “Portrait of a Lady.” I am listening to it, and although Flo Gibson is an excellent narrator (narratoress? should we collectively agree that that should be a word? Or would that be stupid?), I’ve ended up really getting annoyed with Mr James.

What I have shouted at my headphones, again and again, is “will you please get on with it!” Every single time two characters interact with each other, it’s like he has to spend half an hour explaining their opinions of each other, their worldly success, their perceptions of wealth, power, freedom, democracy, and cheese, and their relative weights and thoughts on the rise of the printing press in the middle ages. Seriously, James spends so much bloody time in asides and explanations that there were moments when I genuinely lost track of who exactly was talking to whom. And there would only be 2 people in the scene.

18619998This may have been more palatable, if I had not been re-reading “Pride and Prejudice” at the same time. And also George Eliot’s “Adam Bede.” As an aside, Eliot does the “explaining the mind at work behind the action” much better than James, faster, more directly, and with more humor and sympathy. But the important thing is the fact that Austen’s magic is to put characters in a room together and show their souls through conversation and occasional brief authorial commentary.

In fairness, I’m near the end of “Portrait” and James is finally starting to let people actually talk to each other. But I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to overcome comparing him to Austen and finding him verywanting.


2007 Persuasion: What’s this Gothic doing in my Austen?

th.jpgSeriously though, who thought gothic melodrama was the missing piece of a Jane Austen novel? From the romantic hero to the tragic heroine forced into servitude, with the massive wide shots, the pale faces and the dark colors, this movie screams “Gothic melodrama.”

And by melodrama I mean melodrama. The great moments, rather than being earned and interspersed in the story with the care of Jane Austen’s gentle touch, are chopped into pieces and tucked into ridiculously unsubtle moments of histrionic. Instead of being attacked by a spoiled child (and the spoiled children are almost totally absent), Anne takes a terrible fall and limps around for the next few scenes. Instead of Wentworth slowly loosing his composure at the musical performance, he storms out (opening both double doors on his way, of course).

25597577Oh, and the conclusion of the book that being sensible to persuasion is something that a prudent person must deal with, while being proud and stubborn costs happiness rather than ensuring it? Yeah, who needs it. Just turn Lady Russell into a villain and drop “persuaded” into the scene before the incredibly awkward kiss. Like, incredibly awkward kiss. My God, that man is over 6 foot and she’s a tiny little thing–what’s she doing, standing on her big toes like a ballet dancer?

Worst of all, the warm heart of the book which perfectly complements the romance is missing. In the novel, Anne has not only lost Captain Wentworth–she has lost the life she would have had with him. She would have been happy and valued. She would have lived among people who are kind and affectionate. She had a future in store for her like that of the Admiral and Mrs Croft. But the Admiral and Mrs Croft are pure plot devices in this movie–their lovely, devoted relationship is gone.

One more complaint: what kind of Austen adaptation doesn’t have a laugh until the last few minutes? Austen balanced her portrayals of selfishness–which sometimes verged on the cruel–with kindness and comedy. It was a delicate mix that she had mastered as no one before or since has managed. But, in the interests of the gothic, melodramatic tone, this movie slaughters 98% of the comedy so that we can get the camera shoved up in pale faces instead. Jane Austen novels are many wonderful things, and one constant in them is a spirit of fun. This movie is the least fun thing I’ve watched since a movie ended with dead children.

1999’s “Mansfield Park”: Wait, what?

th.jpgI try to be open to other interpretations of novels, but seriously, what? Quite aside from anything else, what in the name of God and all things good is explicit sex doing in an Austen adaptation?

There’s about a thousand things wrong with this bloody movie, but in the end the important thing is the fact that it’s not an Austen movie. It really has very little to do with “Mansfield Park.” Mansfield Park is a slow, nostalgic, biting, SUBTLE novel about inequality and womanhood. It’s heroine is a woman who finds a way to make passivity into a bullwark, who lives a life where the only power she has is to say “no,” and she manages to make that into a source of power. Moral questions play a central role, and each individual person’s understanding of morality has far-reaching consequences all through the plot.

701942.jpgThis movie is a judgmental, playful, smartly written by someone who is not Jane Austen at all, and as subtle as a heart attack. Class inequality is part of the setting, and is just a matter of juxtaposing the Price home and Mansfield Park, with nothing about the subtleties of interactions between actual people. Morality is not a constant balancing act among a group of interacting characters: it’s instead extramarital sex and various other similar anvils.

Other than that, it’s a “white people talk about racism” movie. Where people of color are utterly voiceless, and yet are contrived to be at the center of the plot. It’s sibling is the “white people fix racism” movie. Frankly, if the writer wanted to talk about race and racism she should have found a way to make a person of color and actual part of the plot.

It’s feminist not in a way that explores the problems of the time, but in a way that is designed to please viewers of the present. And it’s heroine, though she is named Fanny Price, simply¬† is not Fanny Price. She’s not an interpretation of the character: she’s an entirely new character. Which, not incidentally, renders her entire relationship with Edmund entirely nonsensical.

It’s really not a bad movie. It’s just not an Austen movie.

Jane Austen and Reader Perspective

thHow soon should the protagonist turn up? For Austen the answer was “right away” only with Emma Wodehouse. Fanny Price and Lizzy Bennett don’t appear in the first chapter of their novels. Anne enters only after her family is described in some detail. The situation of the family in Sense and Sensibility is the first thing to be described.

I didn’t realize how important this was until I had watched a few adaptations of Austen novels and noticed something interesting: when a film opens with a shot of the heroine, it is likely to be less “purist” than not. When it opens with the direct perspective of the heroine (see 1999’s Mansfield Park and 2007’s Persuasion) it takes even more liberties. But when it opens with the family, the community, it is more likely to take as many cues as possible from the book.

Until I had made this connection, I didn’t fully understand how important the setting is to Austen novels. The are not about a heroine; they are about how a heroine is functioning in a particular world. Establishing that world, be it the interaction of Mr and Mrs Bennett or the genealogy of Sir Elliot, is of central importance to an adaptation that wishes to capture some part of the soul of an Austen novel.

Why are there 5 Bennet Sisters?


Enter a caption

Let’s be honest: one of the fun parts of being widely read is editing novels in our heads. “Author A really failed to define this character properly,” “Author B really didn’t need this section where the character stays at yet another Inn (I’m looking at you Henry Fielding).” Personally, I like to take this critical editor’s eye to older novels, where editors operated differently then they do now. Victorians were clearly working in a bit of a different literary landscape, particularly when they were writing serials (Dickens, Gaskill, let’s be honest: did you need every one of those chapters?)

Having read “Pride and Prejudice” about 4 times in the last month (yes I’m obsessed, but what a wonderful obsession), I couldn’t help but poke at a few of the looser ends. Since we’re talking about Jane Austen, I had to start with the basic assumption that she is much smarter than me, so all of my questions must have an answer somewhere in the book.

The most striking “flaw’ in Pride and Prejudice is an overabundance of characters. A chunk of the characters, including Maria Lucas, Mr and Mrs Hurst, and Kitty, have no affect on the plot whatsoever. Take the Hursts: what purpose do the Hursts actually serve? They have absolutely no narrative function. They don’t do anything, which is why adaptations often leave them out. What they have is thematic significance, as an example of one of the many ways marriage can and does go wrong.

Another and larger question was: why are there 5 Bennett sisters? Kitty doesn’t actually do anything but cry over Lydia leaving and conceal information about her impending elopement. Neither of these things are actually necessary. And although each of the other sisters has a clearly defined character, Kitty is always just a parasite to Lydia.

That was where I realized I was onto something. Having 5 sisters of similar ages and identical situations in life should have been hard for a writer to juggle. But each of the characters comes out completely and utterly different, until mixing them up would be impossible. Each sister, coming from the same background of prosperous but neglectful parents, is left utterly to the development of their own character. They are in a perfect position for their selves to flourish.

Jane is kind and compassionate, always ready to see the best in others. Eliza is sensible and observing, comedic and judgemental. Mary is foolish and studious.Lydia is silly and small-minded.¬† Kitty…what is Kitty?

Kitty is a follower. She is, as I mentioned before, a parasite. Her oldest sisters were close, probably from a very young age. Mary doesn’t like anyone. Kitty thus had absolutely no one to turn to to exercise her instinct for flattery, enabling, and copying except for her younger sister Lydia. In a family where the parents paid attention to their children, Kitty would have been able to latch onto a governess or someone else. But Kitty is vulnerable in a way that no one else is.

She still serves no plot function. But in terms of psychology and human nature, the odd sort of hole that Kitty’s lack of independent characterization leaves in the novel makes sense.

Books in “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, or Why I Think There Will Be A Second Series

indexWhy do so many books get destroyed in the BBC version of “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell?” All books survive the novel intact, but there are two great feasts of book-destruction in the show. Once, when Mr Strange is in the Peninsula, his books are actually blown up. The imagery of the destroyed books is quite vivid, and the crisis as Strange must work without books very traumatizing to him.


Of course, the destruction of Strange’s “History and Practice of English Magic” takes place in both the novel and the show. But it is only in the show that all the books of magic in England are destroyed, transformed into ravens as a symbol of the magic of England. This is a symbolic break with the past, and is also in fact a sort of a triumph for Mr Strange’s way of doing magic over Mr Norrell’s, for without books Mr Norrell’s magic is impossible.


In the final scene of the series, Childermass definitively says that all the books of magic in England are gone. In the novel, this is because Strange and Norrell took them all with them. But on the show, there simply are no more books–except for the one written on Vinculus’s skin.

While the show also goes out of it’s way to express it’s love for the novel it’s based on (see the recurrence of the same image of a Raven that is on the cover of the first edition of the book, the comments about how the Lord of Lost Hope’s hair is like thistledown, and Vinculus saying smarily ‘maybe I’m a novel,’ it seems that it has moved from books to people in the last scene, like moving from a novel to actors. It seems like it’s setting up a second series/season.

There are plenty of other hints to this. In the book, the doors to a second novel are open. In the show, the characters have wedged themselves in the doors and seem quite determined to keep going. Lady Pole says she is going to the continent to be with Arabella and will no longer live with her husband; Arabella tells Jonathan that if he doesn’t find a way back and she gets tired of waiting, she is going to come get him herself…presumably by studying magic; the Raven King seems to have himself taken Strange and Norrell out of the world, after himself finally returning to England; and of course, there is the new York Society.

Will a second season/series of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell happen? I don’t know. But the bad habit of book-destruction the show got into would suggest that someone was thinking about it.

Authors, Actors, and Audiences of”Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” Part 3

indexTake the character of Jonathan Strange. In the book, we never directly experience emotions with Strange. The perspective shifts away from him whenever emotions become particularly strong; he is absent from the narrative for months after his wife’s death, then we see his reaction to discovering she is alive from the POV of Stephen and Mr Graystone. Even his reaction to Norrell’s destruction of his book appears only in a letter to a friends.

Clarke’s book’s Strange does not show deep emotions because there is a fundamentally selfish part of him, which keeps him from emotional depths. He is unable to release his arrogance. He and his wife are very social but do not share a very intense emotional bond. He has many society “friends,” but no real deep relationships with anyone but Norrell–a relationship based on shared interest rather than love.

images.jpgWith a book so long, meandering, and beautiful, an author like Clarke is willing to take a risk and give us a character who grows more shallow, not less–who deepens his flaws rather than overcoming them. And it works, because Clarke and the reader are on an emotional journey together. Not only that, but Clarke provides a constant outlet of humor, guided by an omniscient narrator (which, in itself, is a way to incorporate the audience into the book itself, the author becoming a part of the audience and thus drawing the reader deeper).

But while Clarke skirts Strange’s emotional depths, the show creates and plunders them to the fullest possible extent. Strange has multiple full-on breakdowns, including a half-episode of trying to resurrect his wife which is not even implied in the novel, much less actually portrayed. Rather than his break with Norrell being a difference in opinion, it becomes an emotionally fraught betrayal. And in the last few episodes, his love for his wife overtakes all his other motives for doing anything.

strange2.pngThis is most clear in the sixth episode, when we discover that he is trying to summon a fairy to make another attempt at raising his wife from the dead. His actions during this episode are very questionable. He makes a rather inappropriate friendship with a young woman (to her father’s regularly expressed dismay), he turns an old woman into a cat, and he gets positively creepy and pathetic the night he summons the fairy to bring back Arabella, carefully arranging a new dress and flowers to greet her. Yet, he is able to retain the audience’s sympathy because at the center of his character is an intense, desperate love for his wife.

But in the novel, his desire to summon a fairy has absolutely nothing to do with his wife. He arrogantly wants to assert himself over Norrell. It is, in the end, about his ego. As Arabella herself says, all he really cares about is magic (which is, after all, at the heart of his relationship with Norrell).

index.jpgClarke, as the author of a book, can take the reader on a long journey, can draw the reader’s emotions in a thousand different directions.For a writer, who is both the creator of the journey and a traveling partner, character sympathy is only one part of a vast tapestry. The Jonathan Strange of the novel begins as a fop, an entertaining fellow but one who produces (from the narrator, and by extension the reader) both delight in his comical antics and sober understanding that he is not a particularly good person. For example, in his second appearance just after his father’s funeral he sets out to convince Arabella Woodhope to marry him. He does this because he really does love and want to marry Arabella, and he judges that this is the best possible time to emotionally blackmail her into agreeing. Contrast this with the show, where he sets out so quickly after his father’s funeral out of pure eagerness, convinced that now he has fulfilled her condition of marriage.

Norrell is even more changed for the purposes of becoming sympathetic: in the book he does not even allow Segundus and Honeyfoot to remember visiting his library. If that had happened on the show, given how sympathetic Segundus and Honeyfoot are, we would instantly have hated Norrell.

At the end of the book, the reader (like Arabella Strange) is left feeling very ambivalent full_547.jpgabout Norrell and Strange as characters. You know them too well: you’ve seen their faults and their failings. But according to the writer of the TV show, “at the end of it, I bet you will love Strange and Norrell. To know all is to forgive all with both of them.”

The inescapable truth revealed by all this is that, on the show, subtleties have been sacrificed. This is partly due to factors like time, but largely it is because of the difference in medium. In a TV show which lacks a narrator to poke fun at the characters when they behave badly, the directions a watcher’s emotions travel are more limited, and the actors must work harder to bring the reader along. Whereas for a writer character sympathy is one of many parts, for the actor it is everything. The actors must not alienate the watchers: they must draw their sympathy. The more emotional space they have to work in, the better a job they can do.