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

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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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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The devil is in the detail: the pleasures of research

In my first Mary Bennet novel, I had a ready-created world, kindly provided for me by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice. I had no desire or need to stray from that – the point of the novel was to take an aspect of that world and run with it, to imagine what happened after P&P ended – for all the characters, but particularly for Mary – and to stay true to the universe of the original novel with some broadening out of landscape and particularly of Mary’s inner world.

In the novel I’m working on now, the sequel to the sequel, Mary is no longer in Jane Austen’s world, and although I am hanging on to some of the characters (because I love them too much to let them go), I’m having to imagine my own Regency world.

Of course, there’s Georgette Heyer to steal from, but I have tried very hard to excise all Heyerisms from my writing – which isn’t easy, given the number of times I’ve reread her books. I recently picked up a Regency period historical – ever hopeful to find the equivalent of an unread Heyer – and was horrified at how many direct steals there were in the dialogue in the first chapter (the author kind of gave up after that and went all MA-in-Creative-Writing on my ass but that’s another story). [Ouch. I can’t believe I’ve got ass and Georgette Heyer in the same sentence].

Thing is, Heyer invented her own Regency world, with its own highly researched but also highly stylised language, and its own social parameters, and I don’t think other writers can use her research and keep authentic. Also it’s just so glaringly obvious to any Heyer aficianado that they’ve simply stolen her research and her style.

(Will I ever get to the point???)

The pleasures of research, the pleasures of research. It’s not so much  getting accuracy of facts: facts are great – which kind of carriage, what you call that bit of a frock etc – but far more interesting to me is what would have felt like to live in that world. The noise, the smell, the utilities, how you pay a bill, what’s it like if you’re neither an aristocrat or a pauper, but earning a living somewhere in the middle, what are the pavements made of, who cleans the street, how was that banquet for 1200 people at the Lord Mayor’s organised, who did the catering, how did they get the courses ready on time, what was it like to be on stage having sung a big duet and have the pit and the boxes roaring at each other over whether you were going to do an encore or not?

There is a lot of music, both professional and amateur in my current project, so I’m reading a lovely book about Haydn’s trip to London at the end of the 18th century, to try and get a feel for what it was like to live and work as a musician at the time. Haydn speaks to my heart, not just in his music, but in his curiosity about this country he’s arrived in. He likes figures, he’s interested in how much things cost, he’s interested in the domestic and thinks it worth commenting about.

Here are some bits that I particularly like, and which open up a sense of everyday life at the time and also give a sense of the continuity of ordinary urban experience that it’s still possible to identify with:

“I have nice and comfortable, but expensive, lodgings. My landlord is Italian, and also a cook, and serves me 4 very respectable meals including wine and beer.”

“The noise that the common people make as they sell their wares in the street is intolerable.”

“The City of London keeps 4,000 carts for cleaning the streets, and 2,000 of these work every day.” (Helps you imagine what the streets must have been like)

“Oranges from Portugal arrive in the middle of November, but they are quite pale and not so good as they are later.”

“Lord Barrymore gave a ball that cost 5,000 guineas. He paid 1,000 guineas for 1,000 peaches. 2000 baskets of gusberes [gooseberries], 5 shillings a basket.” (That was in May: how do you get peaches and gooseberries in May in England?)

This is from a flyer for a concert:

“Tickets transferable, as usual, Ladies to Ladies and Gentlemen to Gentlemen only.” (What? Why have gender-based tickets? What was that about?)

“The subscribers are intreated (sic) to give particular orders to their Coachmen to set and take up at the Side Door in the Street, with the Horses’ Heads towards the Square.” (Of course you’d have to have all the carriages facing the same way – these things had to be thought of.) “The Door in the Square is for Chairs only.” (Yes, don’t forget that lots of people would arrive by chair. It was 1791)

But a final caveat. This is what Bernard Cornwell says about research, and he’s generally worth listening to, whether you like his books or not:

Research, how much is needed?  The answer is annoyingly contradictory – both more than you can ever do and only as much as is needed.  By that I mean that you can never know enough about your chosen period, and so your whole life becomes a research project into the 16th or 18th or whatever century it is you are writing about, but when it comes to a specific book there really can be too much research.  Why explore eighteenth century furniture making if the book doesn’t feature furniture?  Do as much research as you feel comfortable doing, write the book and see where the gaps are, then go and research the gaps.  But don’t get hung up on research – some folk do nothing but research and never get round to writing the book.

http://www.bernardcornwell.net/writing-advice/