Does Mrs Bennet need to be unreconstructed now?

To celebrate Mother’s Day: Mrs Bennet – the mother we love to hate

Every film or TV series of a novel set in the past recreates the novel through the lens of its own time.

Hence all these different Mrs Bennets. In the earlier adaptations she was strident, silly and money-grabbing, the coldness between her and Mr Bennet easily understandable – his cool rationality set against her hypochondria and hysteria.Mr-and-Mrs-Bennet-jane-austens-couples-14290545-499-281

These early incarnations of Mrs Bennet were misogynist creations, close to the mother-in-law stereotype, the Hyacinth Bouquet figure, the classic ridiculous middle-aged woman, beloved of sit-coms and old-school stand-ups, with her risible clinging to her lost youth, her faded looks, her ‘nerves’ and her slow brains, easily outwitted by her smart-arse husband and daughters (see…. this blog post…for my deconstruction of Mr Bennet – no more Mr Nice Guy).

Then in the more recent adaptations – the 2005 film, and also Lost in Austen – the reconstruction sets in. A feminist take on history is evident in the characterisation – Mrs Bennet’s venality and obsession with getting her daughters married is now to be sympathised with from a 21st-century standpoint: after all, what choices did women have in those benighted times?

Brenda Blethyn has some of the silliness, but she is also earthy, fully conscious of the social position of women, and surprisingly has a full sexual relationship with her husband, and even gets some love from Lizzy.lizzy and mrs b 2005

In the highly knowing Lost in Austen, a time-travel take on the novel, we get the most powerful, the most politically aware, and definitely the most genuinely sexy Mrs Bennet in the storming Alex Kingston

.alex kingston lost in austen

But what of Jane Austen herself? Jane Austen was not sentimental, she was not a feminist and in my view she wasn’t really romantic, even though her books are all love stories that end happily ever after.

All the characters, even the romantic leads, are seen through her piercing eye. She is interested in the lives of her female characters but she has no sympathy to spare for Mrs Bennet and her fate. In fact, women of a certain age often suffer badly from Austen’s sharp satire: Miss Bates in Emma, Mrs Musgrove in Persuasion with her “large fat sighings” (over the death of her son mind you – that’s how sympathetic Jane Austen was).

Despite the prince/pauper match-up of Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane Austen does not question the structure of social class of her time. She doesn’t pity Mrs Bennet’s dilemma and possible fate, she simply creates a believable caricature and skewers her with pithy dismissive remarks. (“She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.”)

The Mrs Bennet of the book is not a struggling realist, she is not a devoted mother or a sexually active wife: she is a caricature – she is vapid, empty and cruel, a neglectful mother, narcissistic, irresponsible, hypocritical and – well, just stupid.

I can understand why recent adaptors have wanted to flesh Mrs Bennet out: mothers today have careers, incomes, we read books, we even read Jane Austen. Middle-aged women are bound to be a big chunk of the audience for any Pride and Prejudice adaptation, and middle-aged women today do not care to see ourselves depicted as silly, greedy and hysterical. Also, in our post-Freudian world, we are all interested in motivation, in why people are the way they are. In my Mary Bennet sequel, I took an even more caricatured character and decided to turn her into someone real. And of course my novel is informed by my contemporary understanding of and obsession with psychology and child development.

It doesn’t ultimately matter whether the adaptations are true to the book: in fact, they can’t be. The context in which Austen lived and thought is almost completely foreign to us now. The wonderful scene in Lost in Austen, when Mr Darcy suddenly finds himself in modern Piccadilly Circus gives a sense of how far apart our societies are, despite some superficial similarities. (I wish there was a pic that showed the shock on his face)lost-in-austen-episode-four-mr-darcy-in-2008-sonya-heaney

Despite my purist tendencies, I pretty much love all the P&P adaptations, including P&P and Zombies, though I can probably dispense with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. I look forward to what the adaptors of the 2020s come up with. After all –

guinea pig pa ndp

Advertisements

One for Georgette Heyer fans/nerds mostly. Of which there can never be too many.

“Our appreciation of much-loved books changes as we age.” Discuss with reference to a favourite novel.

Don’t shoot me pleeeeez, but I’ve gone right off Annis Wychwood in Lady of Quality. I still enjoy the romance and the banter, but on a recent re-read I just felt, well,  Annis, get over yourself. (Disclaimer: this post written from a place of deep Heyer-love.)

lady of qu betterThe biggest sadness/trauma in Annis’s life was the restriction felt by a rich, independent woman forced to live a best-supporting-actor life in her brother’s house. Then guess what, she can afford to get her own place. Yes, it’s still boring, but for the times, my, did she have it easy. Her greatest anxiety in the book is that her protégée, Lucilla, might be thought ‘fast’ by the Bath Quizzes, thus damaging her prospects on the marriage-mart. First-world problems, Annis, first-world problems.

I’m not judging Annis by the standards of different historical times or fiction genres – even within the context of the historical period, and within the wonderfully integrated fantasy world that Heyer created, I think she is, as she might say herself, a poor creature – selfish, contemptuous and espousing values of extraordinary triviality. She can be kind to her sister, true, and she’s intelligent and beautiful – which helps: imagine if she wasn’t beautiful – she could never get away with being so snarky.

Compare and contrast your chosen novel with an earlier work by the same author.

sylvester-or-the-wicked-uncle-georgette-heyer

I couldn’t help comparing her to Phoebe in Sylvester. Phoebe has a proper Cinderella story – dead mother, weak father, cruel stepmother. Her response is to write a book – a creative response from within herself. Phoebe cares passionately about justice, about the underdog: she is more concerned with Sylvester’s moral character than with propriety or his status, but she is also capable of compassionate understanding of how the death of his brother affected him.

Phoebe’s behaviour is driven by her sense of justice, by remorse and self-criticism, by her care for others, whereas Annis’s behaviour is all aimed at her own comfort within a particularly limited palette.

All fiction is disguised autobiography. Discuss.

When I read Jennifer Kloester’s biography recently, I felt that the difference between these two heroines may well have been a reflection of Georgette’s own state at the time of writing. She was at her happiest and most productive when she wrote Sylvester; but Lady of Quality was her last book, and she was pretty unwell and tired. Stylistically, romantically, I think it is as good as any of her books, despite being very much a rehash of Black Sheep, but I think the narrowness and grumpiness of Annis’s inner (and outer) world, reflect the exhaustion, and dare I say it, rather self-righteous bitterness of a woman who had lived a life of both unthinking privilege and extremely hard work. I think there’s an autobiographical element in Annis, in Georgette’s idealising of Annis’s crossness, in the privileging of appearances over values and heart, but Annis lacks the saving grace of Georgette herself, whose achievements were hard won by her own graft. Annis was a daddy’s girl like Georgette, but Annis simply inherited money which gave her freedom. GH worked incredibly hard, and was the main breadwinner for much of her marriage, as well as supporting her mother and at times, her brothers. In a sense, she had earned the right to be a curmudgeon: Annis certainly didn’t.

I welcome comments and further discussion. It’s possible that you may not agree with the above!

Why the film and TV adaptations of Pride and Prejudice get Mr Bennet so wrong

In both the 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, and Joe Wright’s 2005 film, Mr Bennet is cast and played as essentially a lovable and cuddly fellow, with a twinkle in his eye, and a winning sense of humour. Yes, he has a few foibles and weaknesses but basically both Benjamin Whitrow (BBC, 1995) and Donald Sutherland (Joe Wright 2005) are quirky teddy bears. Just look at them:Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 12.07.31

Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 12.08.23

Even today a Mr Bennet would probably be good company – if you like drily witty verging on sarcastic (which I kind of do). But though I might enjoy a conversation with him, I wouldn’t like to be his friend. And I certainly wouldn’t want to be intimate or dependent on him.

But it’s not just that he’s “so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice”; he has more serious faults and Jane Austen cares very much about those failings. We’ve seen how he treats his wife – yes she’s annoying, but he’s really not nice to her and continues to punish her for not being who he thought she was. And his neglect of his children is highlighted in this scene, in which Lizzy begs him not to allow Lydia to go to Brighton. This is not just about whether he’s a nice person or not ( – not). What is demonstrated here is how his laissez-faire attitude is simply a rationalisation for his indolence. Lizzy adds more pressure to try and get him to act:

“Oh! my dear father, can you suppose it possible that they will not be censured and despised wherever they are known, and that their sisters will not be often involved in the disgrace?”

Mr Bennet saw that her whole heart was in the subject; and affectionately taking her hand, said in reply,

“Do not make yourself uneasy, my love. Wherever you and Jane are known, you must be respected and valued; and you will not appear to less advantage for having a couple of — or I may say, three — very silly sisters.”

He seems to understand Lizzy’s distress and is warm for a moment, but his response is to appeal to Lizzy’s vanity by simply comparing her favourably to her sisters. He is fobbing her off with flattery. This is now a more serious failing. It’s not just about whether he’s a nice person or not: what he avoids is the principle – the fact (of the time) – that reputation mattered to the respectability of the family, and that he was responsible for the moral character of his daughter. The overriding principle of his role as father at the time was to uphold the mores of society. He slithers out of his responsibility by turning a matter of principle into a personal matter.

Jane Austen sums him up through Elizabeth’s thinking:

Elizabeth however, had never been blind to the impropriety of her father’s behaviour as a husband. She had always seen it with pain; but respecting his abilities, and grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself, she endeavoured to forget what she could not overlook, and to banish from her thoughts that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible.

But she had never felt so strongly as now the disadvantages which must attend the children of so unsuitable a marriage, nor ever been so fully aware of the evils arising from so ill-judged a direction of talents; talents which rightly used, might at least have preserved the respectability of his daughters, even if incapable of enlarging the mind of his wife.

Austen’s disapproval couldn’t be clearer.

So why is it that the adaptations let Mr Bennet off the hook by both the casting and the script-writing?

I think partly they prioritise the humour of making him a foil for Mrs Bennet – polarising her silliness and his rationality. But Austen doesn’t do that in the same way – yes, her Mrs Bennet is silly and hysterical, but her Mr Bennet is a much more nuanced, ambivalent character than the film people convey. Austen allows and encourages us to disapprove of him, whereas both adaptations make him the good guy, the emotional heart of the house; more of a lovable rogue than a weak, selfish and indolent man who has not looked after his family as he should.

But I think there may also be a historical problem: Jane Austen’s values are not today’s values. A man of that time who did not uphold the moral principles of society, a man who did not do his duty by his family was a reprehensible character. The values of Jane Austen’s time are not romantic values – they are moral and they are pragmatic. Love does not conquer everything, principles matter, character matters. The principles of Jane Austen’s time are not the principles of our time – and for the filmmakers to be upholding 19th-century morality would make them look like disapproving fuddy-duddies of perhaps their own fathers’ generation. We are nowadays generally much more ambivalent about authority, and have a lot more freedom and variety in our definitions of morality.

In some ways, the adaptations say more about the problems of today in being a man and a father than they do about the original text. What is a father today? How does a basically decent man aspire to be as a father? If you uphold principles, act as the representative of the wider world, does that still allow you to show kindness, affection, understanding? Is a father’s job discipline? Is it a father’s job to come between a mother such as Mrs Bennet and her children?

Certainly Mr Bennet has opted out of all these responsibilities, and Jane Austen is fully aware of both his attractiveness as a wit, and his failures of principle, and of duty of care to his family.

I think the adaptations slide away from confronting the moral and emotional problems that Mr Bennet poses to a modern audience, and they go for the easy option, of making him cute and lovable. In this day and age, we really don’t know how to think about Mr Bennet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unlikely blogfellows: Jane Austen, Brian Williams (the NBC guy) and love

Because it’s Valentine’s Day, I’m not going to write about romantic love.

Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 09.22.56

 

 

 

 

I’m thinking about another kind of love. I’m thinking about the love that comes from celebrity, and what it can do to a person. In the back of my mind is the story of Narcissus, falling in love with his own reflection. I promise this will relate to Jane Austen, eventually.

The story of the NBC journalist Brian Williams who lied about his time in Iraq caught my eye this week. In an article in the New York Times, David Brooks wrote:

There’s something sad in Brian Williams’s need to puff up his Iraq adventures.

The sad part is the reminder that no matter how high you go in life and no matter how many accolades you win, it’s never enough. The desire for even more admiration races ahead. Career success never really satisfies. Public love always leaves you hungry.

I was really struck by this – especially the phrase “public love always leaves you hungry”.

It made me think about the different kinds of love that we need, and the different kinds of love that we crave.

Recently I had a miniscule taste of that celebrity feeling. When I launched my book Becoming Mary on Amazon there was quite a rush on sales, and I got extremely over-excited, casting the film, quitting my day job, lying awake all night with my heart pounding, checking my sales figures every few minutes (that’s actually not an exaggeration).

Inevitably the number of sales tailed off somewhat, and I found myself really missing that excited feeling. I’d been floating high in a fantasy balloon, and reality had punctured it, and the withered balloon was drifting back down to earth with me inside it. Boo hoo.

[On the plus side, I’m now sleeping better and eating less chocolate.]

Despite the smallness of my 15 minutes of fame, what I observed in myself was a hit of this craving for the excitement of being admired, that had got stirred up in me. I wanted more and more of it, and when it went, I felt deflated and a bit gloomy. I wondered how I could get it back.

Something then resonated with me on hearing about Brian Williams and his stupid lie.

I could imagine how he might allow himself to make that lie. I think any of us might recognise that moment of slippage – you’re telling an anecdote, and you embellish it just a little bit, add some hyperbole, make yourself look a tad better, overstate your part in something, add that fabulous one-liner as though you’d actually said it at the time.

Gradually you could forget the true story, because the new one is funnier and more interesting. It’s so tempting to believe the myths we tell about ourselves. In Brian Williams’ case the myth was that he was as courageous and active as the soldiers.

I think it’s hard to let go of celebrity love – this “public love”. The feeling of receiving it is intoxicating. It’s delicious – but unfortunately it’s delicious in the way that junk food is delicious – tasty, fatty, sugary and ultimately unsatisfying. It leaves you full but hungry, and in your heart of hearts (now lined with cholesterol), you know it isn’t nourishing, and you know it won’t last.

That’s the kind of love that any of us might crave – in small ways and not so small ways. It makes us feel good, big and clever and exciting.

But there’s another kind of love that we need. It’s a much more ordinary thing – more sustained and more sustaining. It’s not about worship and adulation, it’s open-eyed, realistic, aware of the good, the bad and the indifferent but reliably there nonetheless. If the narcissistic love is junk food, the other kind of love is the one that comes with hot-dinners and eat-your-greens.

When I thought about Mary Bennet, and why she’s like she is, both in Pride and Prejudice, and in my continuation, it seems to me that she craves her version of that celebrity love – she seeks satisfaction in admiration and praise, which she wants to garner by her musical performances and her displays of erudition. The myth she constructs about herself, is that she is wise, knowledgeable and a seriously good musician – and rather superior to others.

In her case, she turns to this narcissistic love, because there is such a shortage of the other kind of love. She really doesn’t know what else to do to get something. She has nothing that either of her parents value – no wit, no beauty – she’s not even very good at music. Her sisters have paired off, Jane with Lizzy, Kitty with Lydia, and there is nobody in the family for her. She’s lonely, neglected and thoroughly unlikeable.

What I did in my novel was take this Mary, and bring her to the point where she realises that she has been chasing a shadow, that what she was seeking was not the love that she truly needed, and she has to start the painful journey of self-knowledge, which, no doubt like Brian Williams, will include much remorse and heart-searching.

But because it’s Jane Austen fan fiction, she will also find true love and live happily ever after. So that’s romantic after all.

 

 

 

 

Self-improvement the Mary Bennet way

Becoming Mary is all about transformation – it takes a girl who’s a vain and pompous ugly-duckling type and also miserably unhappy, and turns her into a much nicer, more realistic sort of…. duck (can’t say she’s a swan really), who’s – well, more or less happy.

(Here’s a picture of an ugly duckling – you’d be surprised how hard they are to find on the internet. It turns out pretty much all ducklings are cute.)

Dusky Moorhen

Here’s what she grew up to be….

(or not)Ugly bird

Ok, maybe it’s disappointing that she doesn’t morph into a feisty, liberated, proto-feminist sex-kitten, but she does become happier and nicer, and that’s basically a result right?

So how the hell does she do it? We all want to know how to be happy – or happier. Some of us might like to be nicer. I’m naming no names.

What’s her secret?

Do not fret, dear Reader. I am here to reveal to you how to get a bit of a makeover if you’re a plain, affected and conceited fictional character in Jane Austen Fan Fiction. You need never feel anxious again about what to do if you suddenly get transported into a Pride and Prejudice sequel

Mary Bennet’s Top Tips to Improve your Life.

1. Leave home and get away from your critical, neglectful parents.
2. Preferably go to a magnificent country estate.
3. Have nice older sisters who decide to take you in hand.
4. Have an annoying younger sister who also takes you in hand a bit.
5. Meet a couple of guys who take an interest in you and try to help you.
6. Have a hideous public humiliation when you realise you are actually not as clever as you think you are.
7. Fall in love.
8. Have another hideous public humiliation when you realise you are actually an awful person.
9. Be forgiven by everybody and live happily ever after.

Sounds great doesn’t it?
I promise you it really works.

(This started out as a very serious post about what helps people to change, as illustrated in the story of Mary Bennet. I guess the ‘science’ bit is, reading between the lines: in order to change you need help, you need kindness, and you need to go through emotional pain. I can elaborate on this, pretty much endlessly. But I won’t)

Simon Cowell meets Jane Austen! Mary Bennet – does she have the X-Factor?

If you wanted a laugh in the 18th century you could buy a ticket to Bedlam to watch the lunatics.

hogarth lunatics

Nowadays we just watch X-Factor or Britain/America’s Got Talent.

OK sure, partly we’re watching it for the sudden pockets of brilliance, for the hook of seeing ‘ordinary’ people – people like us – randomly achieving stardom, but let’s be honest: mostly it’s for the rather nasty pleasure of those train-wreck auditions. I’m talking about the desperate ones, the ones who’ve been singing in the bathroom, or dancing in the living room, and someone’s told them, or they’ve told themselves, hey you should be on the telly! and it’s clear when you’re watching them, that they have no idea how dreadful they are. Why not remind yourself and have a guilty laugh by clicking here?

It is a kind of madness – like 18th-century Bedlamites, these folk don’t know what they’re doing, and they don’t know what they look like to others. We pity, sneer, and laugh at them simultaneously.

Of course those X-Factor contestants aren’t truly properly mad: what they’re doing is living in a sort of dream world: it’s a bit like when children play – they are the queen, or the sorcerer, they just inhabit the role, and when you watch them, you see how they are turned inwards on themselves as they live their game. In kids, this is fine, most children go in and out of this, it’s creative play which doesn’t affect their ability to be in reality as they grow; but for some people, for whatever reason, this deluded state hangs around, and in a sense, they are still caught up in the pretend game in which they are a hero or a star.

To my mind, the Mary Bennet of Pride and Prejudice is very much like one of these contestants. If she were alive in our times, she might well find herself queuing for an audition on X-Factor, and being stared at in disbelief by the mocking judges as she strutted her stuff. She has no idea how she comes across, she has delusions of grandeur completely at odds with what she’s actually like. And she was created for us to laugh at and despise.

Now Jane Austen was deliberately writing a caricature for comic, satiric purposes – just as the producers and editors of these talent shows are setting up the terrible performers for the same thing. There’s no interest in the inner world of these characters – they are there purely for entertainment.

But I became interested in the possibility of Mary being more than a caricature – what makes somebody behave like that? What makes her spout moralising nonsense that she’s read in books? What makes her continue to play and sing in public when she is so excruciatingly bad? What is she thinking about and feeling? How did she get like this?

These are some of the questions I was seeking to explore as I wrote the novel. And the answer to these questions – well, it’s in the novel, but I will also be writing some more on the topic soon.

The trouble with genre……

I love genre novels. Well, I’d better qualify that, because I’ve suddenly thought of 30 or 40 genres that I don’t love. So – I love crime, I love historical, I love romance, I love a whole load of sub-genres  – I don’t love science fiction (I’m sorry, I love some science fiction, I’m just not drawn to the genre –  no offence, seriously).

And just by writing a book based on what happens to Mary Bennet after the end of Pride and Prejudice, I am de facto writing a genre novel (mem to self: look up de facto and check that it means what you think it means [alternatively just publish the post and let someone have the pleasure of correcting you]) I guess the genre is:

– historical romance

– regency romance

– Jane Austen sequel

– fan fiction

All of the above.

And that causes me certain difficulties, because I’m also trying to write a novel which is primarily about the idea that a shrivelled, shallow and thoroughly unlikeable person such as Mary, can develop, given the chance, into a human being who is capable of loving and being loved – and I don’t just mean romantic love.

But of course, genre fiction sets up expectations – and readers have expectations – and I have expectations – that there will be a proper romance, with a proper Jane Austen type ending with love and marriage and all that.

I don’t want to give too much away (spoiler alert: I love genre fiction), but my recent structural editing job has been all about the demands of genre. And it was a killer to do – because well, apparently writing is hard.

But it’s done, it’s done, it’s done.

I think.