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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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

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.

Reviews!

Stephen King said, write for yourself first, then edit for readers (or something like that). Here’s the quote

  1. First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience.“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

and you can read the rest of his tips here

I did write Becoming Mary for myself: I wrote the Pride and Prejudice sequel I would have wanted to read, but all the time I was aware of a reader, a reader who I wanted to come on the trip with me, to enjoy the funny bits as I did, to cringe in sympathetic embarrassment at Mary’s terrible self-deceptions and humiliations.

All the time I had an imaginary reader beside me, and I was saying, listen to this. And of course she (usually it was a she…) would laugh, cry and gasp to order.

Then I gave the book out to family, fellow writers, acquaintances in book clubs. The feedback was good – I think they genuinely enjoyed it, they weren’t just being nice. Not completely.

But what I long for now are the opinions of people who don’t give a shit about my feelings. I want to know what effect it has on strangers. I want actual readers to tell me ‘how it was for them’.

Writers need reviews!

Self-published writers especially need reviews!