Wives and Daughters and Being a Lady

Elizabeth Gaskell, 1832: portrait by William John Thomson

I spent last night in bed recovering from a hectic week watching a gorgeous BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters. I was trying to find BBC’s Sense and Sensibility on YouTube but for some reason couldn’t; I ended up stumbling upon Wives and Daughters instead. Having already watched North and South, I am now interested in all things Gaskell and am anxious to read her novels.

As you probably already know, I’m a sucker for period romances and all things Austen and Brontë. I’m very fond of 18th and 19th century literature and have seen nearly every BBC adaptation of  Austen and the Brontë sisters’ novels. (As a general rule, the BBC adaptations tend to do a better job and remain truer to the texts than Hollywood). So it was no surprise that I fell madly in love with Wives and Daughters and wish to watch the 301 minute TV mini-series again and again and again.

clockwise from left: Anthony Howell, Bill Paterson, Francesca Annis, Keeley Hawes and Justine Waddell in "Wives and Daughters" (1999)

But something in me last night was especially receptive to what God was speaking to me through this movie, especially in the areas of being a woman of worth, and true romance. Yes, God can speak through movies. He can speak through anything really, but tends to use the Arts to speak to me. Years ago, a friend of mine mentioned that she likes to watch movies by herself, with God. For some beautiful, unknown reason, the viewing of Wives and Daughters corresponded perfectly with what He has already been teaching me about myself and developing good character.

Molly Gibson (Justine Waddell) is the perfect example of a True Lady: she’s steadfast, intelligent, kind, quietly confident, fiercely loyal, selfless, modest, and speaks her mind when it is right to do so (I’ve noticed this is a common trait among Gaskell’s heroines). The only time she is gossiped about and has scandal associated with her name (this is Victorian England, remember, and these things were detrimental to someone’s reputation) is on behalf of her stepsister.

Although not as pretty and flirtatious as her stepsister Cynthia (Keeley Hawes, who reminded me of a more finely featured Keira Knightley), a fact even her dear father will admit, it is her good character and pure heart which attract the love of the admirable Roger Hamley (Anthony Howell), someone she quietly loves without silliness and strain. While Cynthia gets more than her fair share of attention from men and more marriage proposals than she can deal with, Molly is wise enough to know that a good man’s heart should not be trifled with. She is constant and unwavering in her love for Roger, and when he becomes engaged to Cynthia, her inner torment is heart-breaking to watch.

"I wish I was pretty," Molly says to Cynthia

But good girls finish first in Gaskell’s story, and everyone gets what they deserve. The whole time I was watching, God was speaking to me about my character and how He is developing it for the better despite all the trials and slip-ups. He was showing me how often I can be like a Cynthia (to whom Gaskell is still very sympathetic, by the way, which is something I love about her. No one’s black-and-white). Silly, fickle, viewing attention from men like a game, a way of measuring worth. In a rare candid moment, Cynthia confides in Molly: “I just like to be liked!”

Oh, how familiar those words are.

But being like that, placing flirting and attention above true love and romance, is not without its consequences. It is far more rewarding to be like Molly, who waits patiently for her good man to realize he’s loved her all along. The scenes in which he realizes this are easily some of the most romantic I’ve ever witnessed. The way he looks at her is so pure, so loving, without selfish desires or expectations … it’s something worth waiting for I think, and much more valuable than tallying up the empty, shallow glances of men who simply want something other than one’s heart.

I love scenes in many period romances where there’s a ball, and two characters realize they have feelings for each other while they’re dancing. The band plays on, other couples continue gaily dancing, the candles flicker to a soft background glow, and yet it’s as if time stands still. All that matters is the other person and your heart pounding in your chest as you slowly and delicately, as well-composed and graceful as your dance steps, fall in love. I saw this in Wives and Daughters as well as The Young Victoria (2009).

Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend in "The Young Victoria" (2009)

When I watch Queen Victoria and Prince Albert fall in love as they engage in a dance, and Roger Hamley’s eyes burn with the realization of his love for Molly Gilbert as he gazes at her across a crowded dining table, God reminds me:

This is the love I have for you. This is the love, and more. My love for you is without agenda, without expectation, without limit. When I gaze upon you all I can see is your enduring beauty and loveliness and grace. I desire you. When I see you dancing with others who are not good for you, or when you’re sitting it out, pouting that you don’t have a partner, I’m dying for you to see me waiting patiently, hand outstretched. When we dance, I want nothing more than to have the world stop and nothing else matter but looking into your eyes and you looking into mine.

The British Do It Better

there are few ills a cup of tea can't remedy

While reading Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time for Book Club, I was struck by just how great the departure is from British terminology in modern Canadian language. Somehow, perhaps more to do with proximity than loyalty, we’ve allowed American terms to slip into our language like a sneaky terrorist, and this, dear friends and countrymen, is unacceptable.

Like many Canadian children, I grew up on a steady diet of British television programmes (not TV shows) like Fireman Sam, Postman Pat, Art Attack, and Paddington Bear, where I learnt that trucks are called lorries and mailmen, like my beloved Pat, are postmen. (Sidebar: Postman Pat has a website. This is too good to be true!)

Whether it be a result of watching (nay, absorbing) those programmes or because, behind all the Dutchness there’s some British blood in me somewhere, I’ve always felt a kinship with Limeys. I get their humour and their reserve and I’m saddened at how little of British culture has remained in Canada, despite our Loyalist heritage.

all you need in life

This is why, Canada, I propose to bring British terminology back. Let us apologise (with an “s” and not a “z”) for allowing those pesky, independent Americans from bastardizing the English language. Let us start using British terms and slang in everyday conversation, let us drink tea like it had never been thrown into the Boston Harbour, let us tune in to the BBC instead of ABC and pay proper homage to the United Kingdom.

I, for one, will abide by the following rules:

  • Mailmen are postmen and mail is post
  • The toilet is the loo
  • Trucks are lorries
  • Strollers are prams
  • Candies are sweeties
  • Cookies are biscuits
  • Chips are crisps and fries are chips
  • Soccer is football and football is American football
  • A cigarette is a fag
  • A line-up is a queue
  • “Cheers” is an acceptable way of saying “thank you”
  • Garbage is rubbish
  • “Bullocks,” “bloody,” “wanker,” and “sod” are acceptable swears
  • Pants are trousers and sneakers are trainers
  • “Taking the mickey” or “taking the piss” is an acceptable way to say you’re making fun of someone
  • A cell phone is a mobile
  • An umbrella is a brolly
  • Maths is an acceptable way to say my least favourite subject in school
  • “Quarter past” the hour is how you say “quarter after” the hour
  • If you’re crazy, you’re mad and if you’re different and random, you’re mental (ie. my friend Jenny and I are mental)
  • My friend is my mate

… So this is going to be harder than I had previously thought. Baby steps. Slowly but surely, the English language will be brought back to its origins in the same spirit of mastery and imperialism that brought the British Empire so much success.

Cheerio!

North & South

It’s unhealthy how many times I’ve watched this clip (the last 5 minutes of BBC’s mini-series, North & South) since completing the series last weekend. And I get teary-eyed every single time I watch it. I don’t call myself a romantic for nothing!

The rest of North & South is definitely worth watching too, if only for the brooding handsomeness that is Richard Armitage, who plays the steely Northern mill owner, Mr. Thornton. The film is an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel and chronicles the tempestuous relationship between Margaret Hale, from the balmy South of England and John Thornton, a self-made man with a manner rougher than Mr. Rochester’s. It’s a very socially-charged story set in the Industrial Revolution — an era romanticized by Charles Dickens — and deals with such sociopolitical concerns as union strikes, the working class, and the relationship between workers and masters. Aside from the beautiful scene I posted above, it’s quite a dark, gritty, heartbreaking film.

… But getting back to Mr. Thornton, I believe it has been decided. Darcy, Rochester, Knightley and now Thornton have ruined me for real men!

Mr. Knightley in Shining Armour

Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller as Emma and Mr. Knightley

I finally finished watching the 2009 BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma on the weekend, so my life can now go back to normal … whatever that means.

Remember how I said Mansfield Park was my favourite Jane Austen novel, yet Persuasion was slowly creeping into number one?  Well, now I think I’ve found a new favourite film adaptation in this Emma.

Emma has always been the Jane Austen novel I kind of forget exists. I don’t know why this is. It’s light, it’s fun, it’s humourous, but for some reason I’ve never been able to identify with Emma Woodhouse herself the way I do Fanny Price or Anne Elliot. I always found her selfish, silly, immature, and spoiled. As much as I like Gwenyth Paltrow, I never felt like she suited the role of Emma in the 1996 film version. She always felt just a little bit too reserved, old, and American for the role.

Talented and underrated actress Romola Garai, however, breathes new life into the latest adaptation. She’s equal parts girlishness and consideration, shallowness and depth, and her wide eyes are just so endearing. I found myself liking Emma Woodhouse for once, rather than shaking my head at her elaborate plans and shenanigans. Jane Austen is recorded as saying that Emma is a heroine only she could like, and up until I saw the BBC film, I agreed. I found her trite, vapid, too rich and proud for her own good, and her meddling in others’ affairs just a game to amuse herself.

This version of Emma gives the heroine more depth. She is completely devoted to her worrying, hypochondriac father (played excellently by Michael Gambon) and is socially intelligent. She is the one who tries to keep the atmosphere light and friendly, the one who can read agitation or distress on another’s face and make everyone friends again. Her intentions are always pure, so you can’t stay angry at her for too long after she messes up someone’s love life. And the knowing looks exchanged between Mr. Knightley and Emma … it’s the stuff that makes me mad for Jane Austen!

Speaking of Mr. Knightley, I think he may be my favourite Jane Austen hero. Although Mr. Darcy, everyone’s fave, is sexy, he’s much too moody for me, too arrogant and proud. Henry Tilney is too boring, Edmund Bertram too moralistic, and Edward Ferras is just a bumbling wimp. As for Captain Wentworth … he’s too unforgiving and I find I hate him for making Anne jealous with the Musgrove sisters.

But Mr. Knightley is perfection. He’s good and kind, stately and wise, and a perfect gentlemen at all times. And let’s be honest — he’s quite rich. While Jonny Lee Miller makes an irresistable Mr. Knightley, I prefered him as Edmund Bertram in the 1999 Patricia Rozema version of Mansfield Park. No one can hold a candle to the devastatingly handsome Jeremy Northam, especially with proposals like this one:

“I rode through the rain … I’d ride through worse than that if I could just hear your voice telling me that I might at least have some chance to win you.”

Yes, Jeremy Northam. I do. One hundred times over, I do!

It’s no wonder the ending of Emma always leaves me in tears.

The Art of Persuasion

Captain Wordsworth and Anne Elliot in the BBC version of Persuasion

Fanny Price has always been my favourite Jane Austen heroine and Mansfield Park my favourite novel.  Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I once took a Facebook quiz, “What Jane Austen Heroine Are You?” and I was Fanny Price: shy, reserved, intelligent, observant, and just a tad judgmental.  I enjoy the mutual love that develops over time between Fanny and Edmund (who is her cousin, but still …) and the marked differences between mercenary Mary Crawford and humble Fanny Price, and charming Henry Crawford and moral Edmund Bertram.

Even though Pride and Prejudice is by far Austen’s most beloved work because of the plucky nature of Elizabeth Bennet and the wonderfully entertaining chemistry between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy — and really, who can resist Mr. Darcy? — Mansfield Park has always had a special place in my heart.  Perhaps it’s because it’s Austen’s least popular novel and I have a soft spot for the underdog; or I can empathize with Fanny’s status as a wallflower set in contrast to the liveliness and vivacity or her rich, privileged cousins; or the strong emphasis on the implications of slavery and imperialism that run as a commentary throughout the novel.  Regardless; when my Jane Austen class in university was criticizing Fanny for being too timid and unlikable, I was championing her many virtues.

Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones as Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth

I’ll have to admit that when my class read Persuasion last year, I didn’t finish the novel because it was the end of the semester and I was having a hard time keeping on top of my readings.  I had heard by a few people that it is their favourite Austen and that it is a quiet, beautiful, affecting read.   I still have yet to read the whole novel but I feel like it’s becoming my new favourite.

On New Year’s Eve, TVO had a Jane Austen movie marathon and I watched the 2007 BBC version of Persuasion, directed by Adrian Shergold, for the first time.  What a gorgeous, captivating movie!  The soundtrack consists of several classical piano scores that bring to mind Yann Tiersen’s for Amelie, and although it’s admittedly slow, the movie is beautifully shot and does a great job of accentuating Anne Elliot’s profound yet unspoken pain at the return of Captain Wentworth, the man she never stopped loving.

At 27, Anne Elliot is Austen’s oldest character, and the fact that she is unmarried puts her in an uncomfortable position.  Like Fanny Price, she is often overlooked and much unlike her vain, self-absorbed relatives.  She is quiet, good, a lover of poetry, trustworthy, and sweet.  I couldn’t help but root for her when she gets her second chance at love, even at the ripe old age of 27 (which was nearly approaching spinsterhood in Austen’s day).  At the culmination of the story, Shergold’s direction has Anne Elliot (played by Sally Hawkins), running through the streets of Bath to accept Captain Wentworth’s (second) proposal.  The scene is appropriately drawn out to get viewers nearly frustrated in anticipation for the renewed engagement.

What strikes me the most about Persuasion, though, is a certain unpleasant trait I share with the heroine.  Like Anne Elliot, I’m easily persuaded.  Anne is influenced by her friend and mentor Lady Russell to break off her first engagement to Wentworth and the repercussions are devastating, especially when he returns a rich captain intent on finding a wife.  In the end, however, as we all know, Anne makes up her own mind despite Lady Russell’s encouragements to marry another.  I’ll be candid with you — the fact that I am so easily influenced by those I admire, and even those I don’t, is something I like the least in myself and I am doing some soul searching to find out why I’m not more confident in my own judgments.  I’m very impressionable and constantly doubt myself, which is why I’m often seen as indecisive and wavering.  I’m just hoping that, like Anne, I’ll learn to take the advice of others with a grain of salt and follow what my heart says is right.

Reinventing Jane

 

Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson in BBC's adaptation of Jane Eyre

 

After reading this article, about how new adaptations of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are being made to appeal to Twihards, I have just two questions:

  1. Can’t everyone just leave the Brontë sisters alone?
  2. Must this Twilight insanity phenomenon influence every aspect of culture, leaving nothing sucked dry (see what I did there?)?

Apparently, Emily’s gothic tale of dangerous, obsessive love has been experiencing an increase in sales due to its mention in the Twilight series and a revamped cover with a sticker that reads: Bella & Edward’s favourite book!   Don’t get me wrong — I’m glad kids are reading (even if they are reading low culture), and that it’s making them turn to the Brontë sisters.  My issue is with how they’re getting there — from a vampire’s recommendation.  I suppose my problem is that I suffer from true Old Lady Syndrome, which is why I haven’t touched the Twilight series, the Harry Potter series, and snobbishly disdain anything with that kind of collective hysteria.  Pop culture phenomena always makes me bristle and embrace the eclectic, the bizarre, the underrated.  When those things become unearthed and re-marketed for mass consumption, I feel as though I’ve been betrayed.  

I forget how I came to read Jane Eyre, but I was probably in grade 8.  As a somewhat pretentious adolescent, I was hungry for a good old-fashioned classic after the joys of reading Pride and Prejudice.  I remember the precise scene where I decided I had found my new favourite book: when Mr. Rochester dresses up as an old gypsy come to read the fortunes of his high society house guests, and Jane’s, and then his identity is revealed.  I remember my heart actually thumping loudly in excitement and fantasizing about Mr. Rochester, even more than I fantasized about the stuffy Mr. Darcy and his wet shirt clinging to his body (our teacher showed us BBC’s Pride and Prejudice as a graduation treat!)

 I have read Jane Eyre countless times since then and it is by far my most favourite book in the entire world.  Each time I read it, something new strikes me, a new dimension is added.  The last time I read it, in third-year Victorian Lit. class, I was shocked by the pre-feminist implications of the novel’s conclusion and the fact that Jane only returns to Rochester when he is blind and physically handicapped. Rereading it now, I’m finding all sorts of comments on the class system and Jane’s peculiar position outside the margins of society.

So strong is my loyalty to the story that I’m automatically nervous whenever a new adaptation is made to a novel I treasure.  Since I’m not a big fan of Wuthering Heights in the first place, I’m not overly concerned that the role of Heathcliff is being played by Ed Westwick of Gossip Girl fame in the newest adaptation.  The 1992 version, starring Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes, was pretty terrible and didn’t make me like the book any more.

However, since she is Charlotte’s sister, I cannot help but feel protective over Emily’s work and its latest bastardization to cater to Twihards and their disposable incomes.

Ladies, drool over your new Heathcliff!

 

The best adaptation of Jane Eyre I’ve ever seen is the BBC’s, starring an appropriately plain Ruth Wilson as Jane and an unconventionally sexy Toby Stephens as Rochester. If anyone has the rights to classic British literature, it’s the British, and they usually get it right, as is evident in their long, yet mostly accurate, adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.  The new Jane Eyre will star very pretty, very young (and very un-Jane Eyre-like) Mia Wasikowska and a ridiculously handsome Michael Fassbender whom I haven’t seen in anything else.

Will he live up to Toby Stephens' Rochester?

 

Too pretty to be plain Jane Eyre?

 

Needless to say, I’m very nervous about this adaptation, as I am with the untitled Dominic Murphy film project about the “imaginative worlds invented by the Brontës as adolescents.” According to Murphy’s producer Mike Downey:

“There is a whole younger audience out there that is ripe to enjoy these darker versions of what is generally served up, and the response from funders has been very upbeat, especially in the light of the recent success of Twilight”

I’m throwing up my hands, Stephenie Meyer.  If your terribly written, yet extremely successful series is going to lead sheep teens to my beloved classics, so be it.  If anything, it will give them their first taste of literature so good that it has stood the test of time.