My review of the “Pride and Prejudice” update, “Eligible”, by Curtis Sittenfeld – no spoilers

My review of the “Pride and Prejudice” update, “Eligible”, by Curtis Sittenfeld – no spoilers

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld is the most recent of a number of commissions to write updates of Jane Austen – here’s a link to the facebook page which tells you more. I’ve only read Emma so far, and was somewhat disappointed. Eligible is a different matter altogether.

I had to read Eligible twice, once just to gobble it up as quickly as possible, and a second time to savour it.

Here’s why I’m impressed:

  1. Most importantly, Sittenfeld nails Lizzy’s emotional journey. The romance is great, Darcy is incredibly sexy, and Liz’s uncertainties, doubts, longings, changes and learning are all perfectly mapped and psychologically believable.
  2. The need for the Bennet girls in the original to be married is very real – they must marry for economic reasons as well as to maintain status. Being an old maid in 1813 was no joke – likewise Lydia’s disgrace was powerfully shaming back then. The difficulty is to recreate the same degree of jeopardy for the characters in our permissive world: I was amazed and delighted with Sittenfeld’s solutions to these problems. Not gonna tell you though
  3. The updating is very very clever. As a fully signed-up Pride and Prejudice nerd, there was enormous pleasure to be got from seeing how the author did it. I was wondering how she would recreate e.g. Lizzy’s walk to Netherfield in all that dirt, Darcy’s wealth and status, Kitty and Lydia’s vulgarity – and Mrs Bennet’s. Sittenfeld manages it so smoothly that you almost forget which bit of the original she’s referring to. Very very clever.
  4. The writing is plain and clear – it never gets in the way, is never bumpy, awkward or self-conscious.
  5. The book is fun – knowing, sophisticated, romantic, funny and contemporary.
  6. Hate the cover.

Recommended.

 

 

 

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

Stupidest criticism of Jane Austen ever

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Huh. Jane Austen is fed up with irrelevant criticism of her work.

You’ve probably heard someone say this – Jane Austen isn’t a great writer because she somehow managed to ignore the great events of her day like Waterloo and only wrote about domestic matters – little local problems, first-world problems, women’s stuff. Turns out she wasn’t Thackeray, and she wasn’t Dickens. Weirdly, she’s not Martin Amis, Virginia Woolf, Raymond Chandler or E L James either.

This is such a dumb criticism and here are a few reasons why people say this dumb thing :

Sexism

Clearly this is basically a sexist criticism, because it implies that a woman writing about her own concerns – the concerns of her class, of the people around of her, of her gender – is not important, not valuable, not what life’s really about.

Bad news-ist

It privileges a view of the world in which what matters are the sort of things that get reported on the news – even though by simple statistics, only a very few of these events actually affect the daily lives of any of us at one time (please don’t flame me about climate change etc -you know what I’m trying to say here). Most of us are kind of just getting on with incredibly mundane, yet to us, important activities. [NB this doesn’t ignore the great suffering of many people in the world – but this criticism of Jane Austen doesn’t usually come from a Syrian refugee or a London homeless person; it usually comes from a smart ass college student]

Historically narrow

The idea that history is (only) the history of kings, generals and wars, mass movements etc. rather than, you know, people. People including categories like poor people, or shopkeepers, or children, or musicians, people trying to live in the circumstances they’re in, people like…erm…women?

Lack of understanding of the artistic process

Artists create art (perhaps we’ll stick with literature for the moment) for all sorts of reasons, but usually it is not to present a balanced, historically accurate view of the time they’re living in. I don’t go for the whole ‘write what you know’ scenario –  Tolstoy didn’t know Napoleon’s attack on Russia from personal experience for example, but War and Peace ain’t a bad book. Likewise, if you read Austen’s biographies and letters, in fact the people she was writing about led a very different life to hers – mostly up a class or two. People create art because something matters to them – it may or may not matter to you, in which case, read something else.

[on an aside, as a writer, do you get people coming up to you and saying, I’ve got this great idea, you should write it? I find that so weird. a) Why would I want to write someone else’s idea? It’s hard enough getting on with my own ideas, and I’m not in school any more; and b) why don’t they write it themselves if it’s such a great idea?]

Lack of understanding of what art is

Again, better stick with literature. People, straw men who I’m arguing with, literature is not history. Nor is it sociology, or science. An artistic object – a work of fiction – is a thing in itself, and it sets its own terms of reference. To criticise something for being itself, for not being something else, is to start from a belief that every book should somehow be all things to all men. Which is just nonsense. If you criticise Jane Austen for not including the wars etc that were going on at the time, then you’d have to criticise Dickens for mostly creating caricatures rather than flesh and blood people, you’d have to criticise Lee Child for writing about the same protagonist over and and over again. Etc etc.

 

 

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

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

First-person narrator: the big fat lie. And a brief analysis of the opening chapter of Pride and Prejudice to make my point

It is a truth universally acknowledged that writing in the first-person throws up a whole load of different challenges to writing in the third-person. In first-person, every single word is a product of the mind of the protagonist, is in the voice of the protagonist – every description, every thought, every feeling. You don’t get to hop from mind to mind, POV to POV. You don’t get to pontificate, to be poetic, or to look on your protagonist as an object. Dammit, it’s tricky enough trying to get a physical description in there at all without using a rather contrived mirror sequence.

However, as well as the challenges, there are great joys to be had from writing first-person. Ask Raymond Chandler. Mark Twain (Huck Finn). Dog in the Night-time guy.

I’ve written two novels so far, Becoming Mary, my Pride and Prejudice sequel, and The Advice Lady, a northern noir with a young female sleuth (is northern noir a thing?). (It’ll be published soon, be calm, be patient)

Both of them are written in the first person, and here’s why.

1) Inner Turmoil. I love inner turmoil. And nothing expresses inner turmoil like the first-person pronoun. (Jane Eyre. I rest my case)

2) Unreliable Narrator. Everything in the action is seen through the eyes of your first-person protagonist. This will be by definition unreliable, as a subjective view is a subjective view.

In Mary’s case, the reader usually knows how wrong she is, and that (I submit) is part of the fun of the book; in The Advice Lady, Clare, the sleuth, is often in the dark, but so is the reader. Clare is a reliable narrator: her doubt is your doubt, her ignorance your ignorance. Such is the way of crime fiction. She’s not unreliable as such, just the blind leading the blind.

3) No snarky and omniscient narrator (this is a quote from someone who reviewed Becoming Mary on Amazon, and is not a Jane Austen fan….[weird that. I think they read it by accident]). Anyway, it’s an interesting one. In P and P, Jane Austen’s own well, yes, somewhat snarky voice is there right from the beginning, right there in your face. Let me explain….

Analysis time!

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Remember the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice? (of course you do! You wouldn’t be here otherwise). It opens:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

I don’t know the names of all the rhetorical tricks that are so densely packed into that sentence, but here’s my two cents.

It starts with a grand flourish – a truth – unarguable, almost an article of faith – universally acknowledged, like religion or something – an absolute, that everyone, yes, everyone, agrees on (how big is this universe?). So unless this is the opening of something like Fordyce’s Sermons, you’re already aware of the author’s sarcasm, and it’s already funny.

Then comes the bathos (you see I do know something – ‘from the sublime to the ridiculous’). From this grand, flourishing, absolute truth, you suddenly realise it’s actually about a little local difficulty, a specific person in a specific time and place; Jane Austen is observing a group of people with shared beliefs which they don’t see beyond, which are so basic to them that they have the quality of a universal truth. You can hear the assumptions and prejudices of Mrs Bennet straight away, and – clearly flagged up – the two inextricable issues of the novel: love and money, venality and romance.

That’s a helluva lot of info to get into one sentence. It’s then followed by a chapter where an enormous amount of information about both plot and character is revealed, in dialogue and in nuances and fragments. E.g.

You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”

This was invitation enough.

How much that tiny exchange tells us about Mr and Mrs Bennet! – his laconic and sardonic manner, her obliviousness to his put-down and his irony, her eagerness to talk at any price. That’s only one example of many.

Come the end of the chapter, and Jane Austen herself steps out from behind the puppet theatre from where she has been manipulating the characters to tell us plainly:

 “Mr Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develope. 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.”

Jane Austen shooting from the hip. Ouch. Just in case we hadn’t already got it.

OK, so that’s Jane Austen, both indirectly and directly telling us what to think about her characters. She IS absolutely the snarky and omniscient narrator. And I love her for it with every particle of my being.

But in a novel narrated in the first-person, where is the authorial, authoritative voice? How does the reader know what to think? How does the reader know what the author thinks?

Well, here’s where the big lie comes in. Because it might look like there’s no omniscient narrator, but of course there is. I know this is probably just stating the bleedin’ obvious, but I contend that I am every bit as opinionated, didactic and judgemental as Jane Austen. I have a lot of beliefs and theories about human behaviour, society and morality etc. etc., and I want to convey them to the reader.

The difference is, that with a first-person narrator, I have to say it at one further remove than Austen, because my ‘voice’ resides in the opposite of what Mary thinks, in Mary’s lack of self-knowledge. I can’t tell the reader directly what to think, because officially I’m not there. I have to tell you by subterfuge. I hope I succeed.

 

 

 

 

 

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.