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

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Sex! Pride and Prejudice! Mr Darcy! (Did I get your attention yet?)

I asked a friend of a friend to read my novel – I’ve had a lot of love for it from family and friends, as you do, and I thought I’d better bite the bullet and see what people think who don’t care about hurting my feelings, and don’t love me in the first place. She kindly critiqued it for me, and basically enjoyed it, which was great, though I have lost a few teeth in my bullet-biting experience.

One of her reactions intrigued me: it was a rather endearingly old-fashioned discomfort at the sex in the novel. Now just to be clear, as P&P sequels go, Miss Mary Bennet is as pure as the driven snow and other pure things. It’s much closer in tone to Georgette Heyer than to Fifty Shades. There are no explicit sex scenes. There are references to off-stage sex, ranging from Mary’s naive comments on Elizabeth’s state of deshabille, which the reader understands though Mary does not, through Lydia and Wickham’s obviously active sex-life (off-stage) to some kisses, desired and not, via some instructive conversations that Mary has with Lizzy and Jane.

My friendly critic was partly shocked by the non-Jane Austen nature of the – I can’t call it sexual content, let’s say sexual knowingness, or what I think it was – a fairly uncomplicated acknowledgement of the existence of sex as part of life; it felt a bit clunking to her, especially at first, and she also felt intrusive as a reader, as though she had strayed rather impolitely into the master bedroom and caught some respected figures in flagrante.

This got me thinking, mainly about sex and Mr Darcy (as you do). As you all know (massive assumption based on the thought that if you’re reading this post, you already have a keen interest in P&P and are probably familiar with a few of the sequels and may even have read some of them), the vast majority, and I mean vast majority, of P&P fanfiction, spin-offs, sequels etc etc are about sex. Yes, there are zombies and murders and christianity and feminism, but mostly, in the vast majority of the genre, the books are essentially about Darcy and Elizabeth having sex. Occasionally the other characters too.

As I have written before in my post “the whole wet shirt thing”, it is my contention that it is the wet shirt scene in the 1995 BBC adaptation of P&P that spawned the whole P&P sequel industry. The overt sexuality of Darcy and Eliz on the TV got people very excited – as it does – and it set something off in the national and international psyche – basically, it gave all the women of the world permission to fantasize about having sex with Mr Darcy.

It was a slow-burning phenomenon at first, this massive global sexual fantasy – I remember being delighted and astonished and I confess somewhat aroused by discovering my first lot of P&P inserts (sorry can’t think of a better word – there is one, isn’t there?) on the internet, and I have watched in amazement as it has proliferated and shows no sign of stopping.

This has inspired me to create a brief analysis of this global worldwide universal phenomenon of the sexual sequel to P&P. Here’s my 2 cents. I apologise for occasional wild generalisations and over-statements used in order to make my point.

Reasons why there are so many of these damn sexual sequels to P&P

1. Every woman in the world wants to have sex with Mr Darcy. He is your absolute classic blank-sheet hero onto whom everything can be projected. Plus he’s handsome, rich and mean. Luckily he gets nice enough to marry in the end. He is sine qua non the prototype for the romantic hero of Mills and Boon, Harlequin and pretty much all romantic fiction, up and to and including 50 Shades (interesting typo moment there – I accidentally typed 50 Shags…hmm no need to disturb Professor Freud for that one).

2. Next reason: every woman in the world – and I mean every woman, no exceptions, is convinced that she and she alone is the real Elizabeth Bennet (trust me this is true – I have literally come to blows with my sisters about which one of us is Elizabeth – and no, Lizzy, having the same name does not qualify you. Not as much as being the second-born daughter, that’s for sure [sorry everyone, I just can’t let it rest]). Because in our secret hearts we know we are witty, pretty with fine eyes, just as attractive and lovable and beloved of our fathers as Lizzy (or if not, dammit, we should have been). In a word, we are Cinderellas, one and all. (sorry if you’re getting mad now, feisty modern females, but you know I’m right. You don’t have to admit it to anyone, it’s fine.)

Reason no. 3: the costumes. It is  pleasantly pervy to be a sexual modern woman who in her imagination is wearing a high-bodiced dress with little puffed sleeves such as only children wear – i.e. very unsexual – and having sex with a man with big leather boots on. Well, I’m sorry, but it is. Or is it just me? Oh god, embarrassing. Never mind.

Reason 4: a nicer, innocent age where people had lovely manners and wore high-bodiced dresses with little puffed sleeves. The lovely enduring fantasy of the age of innocence – where nobody was bitchy or complicated or neurotic or corrupt – or if they were they were obviously baddies. Somehow it’s just classier to have sex in period costume than in modern clothes. There were actual virgins in those days too.

(Obviously Reason 4 is bollocks. We all know it wasn’t a nicer time – a) there was no internet b) there were no flushing toilets c) dentists were terrible as were teeth d)and what about antibiotics? I’m afraid a mustard plaster just isn’t as effective. also e) no central heating. Come on!)

Reason 5: I may have run out of reasons.

But it’s interesting isn’t it? Well, I think so.

 

The whole Mr Darcy wet shirt thing: why ‘Becoming Mary’ isn’t about that.

Don’t get me wrong, I love that Mr Darcy wet shirt thing. In fact I love it so much, here’s a photo of it.

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(hmm shirt is actually dry here, but never mind)

You know what, looking for that inspired me to post this one too – the “look of love” across the drawing-room at Pemberley

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(God I love that moment. Can’t actually count how many times I watched it.)

So yeh, I really loved the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, had a massive crush on Colin Firth, and he and Jennifer Ehle remain my preferred actors for Darcy and Elizabeth (having said that I loved Keira Knightley and Matthew McFadyen too and that whole film).

But. But. (Sorry back to the point….) I have also loved the book ever since it ruined my life when I was 13 years old. (Yes Jane Austen, thanks, thanks a bunch for ruining my life. I mean it. Ruined. Totally. Ruined.)

And like so many people out there, I really couldn’t bear that the book was over. So I decided I’d better write a sequel. I think  probably the only way for me to write is to write the book I want to read that I wish someone else had written. I still wish someone else had written it, dammit.

So back to the wet shirt thing. It is my contention that it is the wet shirt scene in the 1995 BBC adaptation of P and P that spawned the whole P and P sequel industry. Of which I have read and enjoyed much.

However, the book I wanted to write was less about sexual fantasies, enjoyable as they are, and more about what happens after “happily ever after”. When I was first thinking about it, I was in a cynical mood, probably at the tail end of one of my marriages, and I had mean thoughts about the Darcys, along the lines of ‘yeh, well, they may love each other now, but we’ll see what happens when the honeymoon period’s over’ etc etc. However, when I started to write, I realised that however much of a realist (read cynic) I am, I could not spoil the Darcys relationship, even in fiction. So that’s when the idea gradually came to me about how Mary might try to do so, seeing as she suffers from the same envy and bitterness that I was feeling at the time.

I suppose I wanted to explore how Mary goes from that  state of envy and bitterness to something even more painful, a realisation of the cause of her own envy, the lack of love in her own life, and then a realisation of the horrible and potentially destructive thing she has done to disguise and relieve her feelings. It’s an age-old sequence: if you can’t have something, first of all pretend you didn’t want it anyway, and then try to ruin it for the people who do have it.  Ouch.

Sound vaguely familiar to anyone else?

Here’s a scene from near the end of the novel, when Mary is full of remorse and is discussing it with “someone”. Hopefully no spoilers.

I took a deep breath and spoke in a rush. “I have destroyed the marriage of Mr and Mrs Darcy!”

“Mary, no! How can you say so? If ever there were two people who loved each other and will love each for ever, it is your sister Elizabeth and Mr Darcy. They could not be more devoted.”

“I know, I know! They were! But you have observed, I know you have, the cold looks he has given her. I have done this; I have poisoned his ears with lies. At least, I did not know they were lies, but I have filled his head with slander and untruth about Lizzy, and now he does not love her any longer, and their lives are ruined and it is all my doing.”

I yielded to a burst of sobbing that lasted at least five minutes.

“But Mary,” Mr Someone said when I had calmed somewhat,  “if you were genuinely mistaken about these lies, then of course that will be understood. If someone has misled you, it is not your fault.”

“No! No! I was not misled! Nobody lied to me; it was my own imagination, my own black and distrustful mind that invented it all. And now my poor sister will never be happy again!”

“Oh dear, this is certainly all very terrible. But I know Darcy, have known him for years, and a fairer-minded man does not exist. He will not blame you for your errors, and he will certainly be reconciled with Mrs Darcy, if indeed they have become seriously estranged, which I beg leave to doubt.”

I shook my head. “I know you are trying to comfort me, but it has gone too far for forgiveness – and anyway, I do not wish to be forgiven. I do not deserve to be. I only hope they can find a way to recover, so that the damage I have done can be repaired.”

He took my hand and held it. “Well, Mary, I think you may be proved wrong, and you will find that these misunderstandings can be cleared up by such rational people as your sister and brother. Meanwhile, if they do cast you off and you need shelter, I have been told that old Mr Jackson’s grandson who works the bellows on a Sunday no longer wishes to do so, so there is a vacancy there for a strong young person such as yourself.”

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.