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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

But when a young lady is to be a heroine...

...Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way. (Northanger Abbey)

My friends and I went to see Becoming Jane the other day. It was fine. We weren't hugely disappointed because we didn't expect much from it. The matinee showing did produce one of my favorite movie-going moments ever, though: when Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy are about to kiss in the garden, a woman sitting behind us called out, "No!"

It seems she wanted something from the movie that she wasn't going to get.

I tried to keep my own objections at the level of a few skeptical coughs and sighs, particularly in the ridiculous library scene in which Tom tells Jane she cannot write about love unless she's known it. This scene is the key to the movie and the justification for imagining a fictional romance for Austen (and here's Deidre Lynch on why that move is so tempting). This review from the Portland Oregonian gets at the fallacy of these attempts to make all creative output the product of (filmable) biographical events:
But if the notion that Austen was more reactive than creative in her writing is troubling, so is the idea that she needed Lefroy to make her into a great writer. "Experience is vital," he tells her. We should be glad this guy never got his paws on Emily Dickinson.

It seems like a particularly weird thing to do with Jane Austen because it means that the characters can't have the more likely drawing room discussion of the day: whether novels themselves could lead a woman to improper experience. The movie versions of Tom and Jane seem to be arguing the opposite of this idea, just so that the biographical fantasy can be fulfilled and justified.

That problem left me wondering howNorthanger Abbey, which takes up satirical elements of the novels-and-experience debates, fits into the movie's imagination (I know this is a silly question, like imagining what the movie would be like if it were completely different... and real... and written by me... I will only say that Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice do show up in the movie's imagination, so I'm not asking for something completely outside the purview of the film). The movie's writers clearly know something about Northanger Abbey, as they throw in a scene in which Tom takes Jane to visit Ann Radcliffe, the author of Mysteries of Udolpho. Radcliffe's novel is the source of Emily's enthusiastic reading experiences in Northanger Abbey to very funny effect, but in Becoming Jane the novel is used as another justification of the biographical fantasy, for Radcliffe looks stricken as she discusses the difficulties of being a married female writer. Northanger Abbey and Austen's early satires of late 18c. romances are all funny in their awareness about generic conventions, but the character in Becoming Jane can't be shown to be funny because she has to remain wide-eyed and earnest about all this experience Tom Lefroy is talking about.

So I know it's asking too much to expect the weirdness of Northanger Abbey's genre send-ups to be reflected onscreen--the book's unfilmable, right?--but I was struck in Becoming Jane how the filmmakers' intentions and the novelist's concerns seemed exactly at odds, if we're thinking about what role reading plays in affecting a heroine's life. Why include these scenes about their reading experiences, only to collapse them into a rejection of reading in favor of some vague idea of personal "experience"? Ah, well, it's easier to capture the latter on film.

If we're naming favorite filmed Austen adaptations--and why not do that?--I'm going to go with the Amanda Root-Ciaran Hinds version of Persuasion (it's also my favorite of the novels--except for Northanger Abbey, which I like for its weirdness... though I'm sure that's not clear at all from this post.)


Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Aug 09, 10:31:00 AM:
I would have a hard time choosing my favorite film adaptation. I'm a sucker for anything romance, and especially Austen. My favorite book, though, is Emma. I know P&P is supposed to be the best, but I love the flawed character of Emma and I am in love with Mr. Knightley. Northanger Abbey was certainly weird, but it was fun to see her experiement with the gothic novel and making fun of it.
Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Aug 09, 01:21:00 PM:
I'm not sure I'll be able to sit through *Becoming Jane* although I've been sworn into going with a friend at the end of the month. Not.really.looking.forward.
I like the BBC adaptations, not for their creative license, but for the dialogue. In general I have to say I'm somewhat of a prude when it comes to Austen and no movie really ever satisfies me at all.
My favorites? *Northanger Abbey* and, I'm torn between *Mansfield Park* and *Persuasion.* I love everything about P but there's something about that Fanny Price that just intrigues me. I think she's one of the best Austen characters.
Blogger Unknown on Fri Aug 10, 12:27:00 PM:
It's a truth universally acknowlegded that Persuasion is indeed the best of the bunch. I think Captain Wentworth is a more interesting character than Darcy and all of his 10,000 pounds a year. Though I will confess only to you few here on the world wide web that I did attend multiple viewings of the Keira Knightley P&P.

And Alice, I thought for sure you were going to say your most favorite moment (not for dramatic intesity but rather the hilarity) was when Jane asks what Lefroy is looking at and he responds drippily "you." Acckkk!!!!!