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.

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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.

then her soul sat on her lips and language flowed …

I will tell you all about my first day (or first few days, if I can’t find the time …) later, but right now, let me leave you with a quote from an old favourite that took my breath away today, even though I’ve probably read it a million times.

photo courtesy of www.weheartit.com

photo courtesy of http://www.weheartit.com

… a beauty neither of fine color, nor long eyelash, nor penciled brow, but of meaning, of movement, of radiance. Then her soul sat on her lips and language flowed
–from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Bronte, Chopin, and Fitzgerald (Godwin, not so much)

A couple weeks ago I decided it was time to let myself pleasure read again. 

photo courtesy of www.weheartit.com

photo courtesy of http://www.weheartit.com

Even though, at that point, I still had a major essay and exam to get through, apparently I haven’t read enough in my 4.5 years as an English Language and Literature major.  I’m actually not sick of reading, and although I’ll never be able to read anything without analyzing the heck out of it, nothing gives me more pleasure than escaping into a good book. 

That being said, in the past two weeks or so I’ve come across some gems and some duds.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin was the first thing I pleasure-read, and pleasure it was from start to finish.  I promised I’d share my thoughts on it after I finished it, but the truth is that I really don’t know how I feel.  All I know is that it had a profound effect on me, and I was not expecting the ending, even though I already knew how it would end.  That Madame Pontellier would just give up–or be forced to give up–so suddenly . . . it left me stunned, much like the way I felt when Septimus Smith threw himself out of the window in Mrs. Dalloway–you know it’s coming but it still hits you with its suddenness.  Wow.  I know it sounds cliche to say that a book can change your life, but The Awakening really did. 

I then read The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a short story by F. Scott Fitzergald (on which the Oscar-nominated film was loosely based).  Like most of Fitzgerald’s fiction, it’s sparse, tight, and easily consumed.  I think I gulped it up in a few short hours.   It’s an interesting little gem, but having read The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer years ago, which basically has the exact same premise as Benjamin Button, I was expecting something more.  Maybe because Max Tivoli was so beautiful, heartbreaking and rich, I felt Fitzgerald’s characteristic sparse style a little lacking.  I would suggest reading Benjamin Button first, since, you know, it’s the “original” story of a man born as a 70-year-old and then aging backwards, but overall, I would say Max Tivoli is the read with the most juice.  Sorry, Fitzgerald.  I’m such a poor excuse of an English major!

I really like the cover on this Oxford edition

I really like the cover on this Oxford edition

My next reading pleasure project was to finally tackle Caleb Williams by William Godwin: the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and the father of Mary Shelley.  That book has been on the course reading list for two courses in my university career, both 18th century novels in third year and Writing Revolutions in fourth year.  I’ve only gotten a quarter of the way through both times and I’ve really liked it, but have never managed to get all the way through.  I thought I’d give it a try again with the intention to actually finish it this time.  No dice.  I end up falling asleep every time I stare at the page and attempt to make sense out of the words, I just can’t get into it, and it’s hurting my heart.  For some reason it’s really making me depressed and I can’t do this to myself upon recently surviving my fourth and final year of university.  I hate to just start a book and then give up, but Caleb Williams is just not doing it for me this time. 

photo courtesy of www.weheartit.com

photo courtesy of http://www.weheartit.com

At the used bookstore the other day, I picked up Shirley by Charlotte Bronte, keeping in mind that my professor said that Shirley, The Professor, and Villette were all highly imperfect novels and that in Jane Eyre, Bronte finally got it right.  I was also keeping in mind how much I disliked Villette and wanted it to be Jane Eyre, but it just wasn’t and I finished it profoundly disappointed that it wasn’t Jane Eyre.  I’m only a few chapters in to the thing, and so far, I’m beginning to get the feeling that Jane Eyre is the only Charlotte Bronte novel I will actually ever like.  It pains me like you wouldn’t believe.  One of the first paragraphs of the novel didn’t offer any consolation:

If you think, from this prelude, that anything like a romance is preparing for you, reader, you never were more mistaken.  Do you anticipate sentiment, and poetry, and reverie?  Do you expect passion, and stimulus, and melodrama?  Calm your expectations; reduce them to a lowly standard.  Something real, cool and solid lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning, when all who have work wake themselves with the consciousness that they must rise and betake themselves thereto.

–from Shirley by Charlotte Bronte

To answer all of those questions: yes, yes I was.  You can’t give me Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, and then dash my hopes like that.  I think what I want Bronte to be is Jane Austen, delivering to the romantic and sentimental sensibilities with every novel . . . but that’s not fair since they’re completely different writers.  I almost gave up after reading that paragraph, but part of me was strangely drawn in.  What is more unromantic than Monday morning, especially this one–cold, dripping, raining, stupid?  I have to keep reminding myself that the first time I read Jane Eyre, I found the first nine chapters exceedingly dull.  However, once Jane reaches Thornfield, the action really picks up.  Let’s hope I’ll be able to find a similar gem in Shirley.

Damaged Goods

mmmmmmmmm . . .

mmmmmmmmm . . .

Girls like me should probably tell the guys they’re dating, or about to date, that they’re damaged goods.

That is, they’ve been ravished, romanced, and seduced by men who are not real.  Mr. Darcy.  Mr. Rochester.  Heathcliff.  Rhett Butler.  Fabio.

Mr. Darcy (pictured above, played delectably by Colin Firth) and Mr. Rochester (played by Toby Stephens, pictured in another post) stole my heart at a tender age and have henceforth turned me into a blubbering, simpering idiot every time I read or watch Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre.  As much as I love and cherish these stories, in a way they have played on my penchant for romance and strong jawlines and made me believe that such men exist.  I’m sure I’m not the only woman who has kept her eyes out for a Mr.Darcy, only to be met with endless Wickhams.  These classic love stories-though improbable-have kept many a female heart thumping in the hopes of finding a rich, devastatingly handsome young man who also happens to be passionate, kind, and one hell of a kisser.  Financial security and brooding sexiness.  Yes.  please.

However, romantic that I am, I am here to crush your dreams.  I have long found out that Mr. Darcy and Mr. Rochester do not exist and never will.  Here’s why:

1.  This is neither Regency England nor Victorian England–a time period where corsets are worn, manners are remembered, and men are top-hatted and coat-tailed.  The landscape is not dripping with dew whilst horse-drawn carriages clatter by.  You won’t catch ill if you’re out walking the moors with only a thin shawl thrown over your shoulders, and a nice housekeeper named Nelly or Mrs. Fairfax or Mrs. Hill will not be waiting to light a fire for you and nurse your spirits back to health with tea and biscuits and a motherly clucking tongue.  The time period, I believe, is what adds to most of the romance of these books.  Take the story out of the 18th-19th century and you’re still left with a beautiful love story, sure, but facebook and instant messaging are not nearly as romantic as parchment and quill pens.  The 21st century, with its immediacy and ease of communication, has robbed a lot of the waiting, pining and imagining out of relationships.  Which is a shame, but that’s just how it is.

2.  In the case of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Rochester, these characters were created by women who never married.  Not to say that they never experienced love or romance in their lives, but they never got to experience the “marital bliss” they made possible for Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre.  Perhaps they themselves were waiting for their own Darcy or Rochester. 

When I was 13-14 (around the same time I read P&P, Jane Eyre, and watched Ever After), I wrote my own “historical romance” called Angelica’s Wings.  I created a character-a gypsy named Silver-whom I subsequently fell in love with upon writing.  Maybe Charlotte Bronte found herself so in love with Mr. Rochester, as we all are in some way, that she felt no other man could ever measure up.  No man will ever measure up to Silver, simply because I created him.

3.  The love stories aren’t perfect.  What relationship is?  Although Elizabeth and Jane find their happiness in the end, I would argue that it’s not all romance and kisses that last forever.  There’s something slightly unsettling in each of the plots.  First of all, I wrote an entire 12-page paper for Gothic Literature last semester about how Wuthering Heights is not a love story at all, but a story about two self-absorbed and selfish people who destroy not only their own lives, but the lives of everyone around them.  The fact that Jane only returns to marry Rochester once he’s become blind and dependent is just a tad disturbing, and I don’t know whether to cheer or say “hmmm.”  As for P&P, I’ve always felt a bit irritated that Elizabeth only falls in love with Darcy once she visits Pemberley and sees just how rich and grand he is. 

But maybe that’s just my 4.5 years as an English Language and Literature student killing everything for me.

4.  Do you really want perfection?  The thing about fantasies is that they’re best left in the head and not acted upon.  This can be taken many ways; what I’m trying to say is that if you ever met with Darcy or Rochester, would you actually want to marry them?  Darcy’s snobbish pretensions might intimidate you, and Rochester’s intensity and moods might exhaust you.  How many times have you crushed on someone heavily for months or years, and then when you get to know them, they just . . . sucked?

As much as I love romance as much (if not more) than the average woman, and have drooled over Colin Firth and Toby Stephens, I’m all about the real thing.  You might retort that I’m not, drawing attention to the name of this blog and the fact that since I started writing here, over half of the posts have been about Bronte or Austen’s novels.  But here’s the thing: sometimes I do wish that I lived in Regency England, but then I remember that my options, as a woman, would be very limited.  Marrying rich would be my main objective, and every ball would be dedicated to displaying my charms in the hopes of attracting a man like Darcy. 

I’m perfectly content with my life in the 12st century; with my amazing boyfriend; with my many options as a twentysomething year-old woman.  I’m happy to escape to the arms of Darcy and Rochester, remembering that they exist only in the pages of my best-loved books.  Where they belong.

Hell no, Lucy Snowe!

Let me preface this by saying that Bronte’s Jane Eyre is my favourite book of all time.  Set against that standard then, Villette will naturally fall short.  Perhaps the love story between an observant, reserved governess and her sardonic master with a colourful past is somewhat of a fairy-tale; however, Jane Eyre contains so many elements that make it better each time I read it (approximately 5 times).  First of all, the character of Mr. Rochester alone is enough to get my heart racing (and not in a Harlequin romance kind of way, but in a deep and meaningful and literary kind of way, obviously).  The erotic tension between two intellectual equals is always interesting (read: Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth), and the Gothic conventions only make it infinitely better.  I remember the first time I read Jane Eyre . . . I was either 13 or 14, and when I reached the scene between Jane and the “gypsy,” I knew right then and there that it was going to become a book very dear to me.  I wish I could convey to you how much I love Jane Eyre, but 00000you’ll just have to read it for yourself . . .

That being said, when I had to read Villette for a class this semester, I had high expectations for a Bronte novel.  I admire Anne and Emily, but because of Jane Eyre, Charlotte is by far my favourite of the sisters (or you could say that I prefer Currer over Acton and Ellis).  I started Villette over the Christmas holidays and I still haven’t finished this 496-page beauty, and I don’t know if I will anytime soon.  I’m suffering from reader’s block, and Villette is just so frustrating on so many levels.  Let me relate them to you.

First of all, Lucy Snowe is no Jane Eyre, nor is Monsieur Paul (or Dr. John, for that matter) my beloved Mr. Rochester.  Obviously.  Whereas my love for Jane and Rochester and their unlikely romance is something solid and unwavering, the triangles between Lucy, Dr. John and M. Paul are confusing and ambiguous.  There are no straight lines; everything is a grey area.  Even though (SPOILER) M. Paul and Lucy eventually fall in love, their end is not a happy one.  I don’t necessarily require a happy ending per say, but the ending left me cold (yes, the end was spoiled for me during lecture, but that is to be expected).

Lucy Snowe leaves something to be desired also.  Initially I thought, great, she’s shy and retiring like Jane Eyre and is often neglected in the corner where she observes and judges people.  This should be interesting.  Yet there is something so intangible about her which I neither like nor dislike.  I believe this is Bronte’s point; apparently she fashioned Lucy after herself.  Lucy is an invisible woman of shadows.  At one point she even declares, “Who am I indeed?” (308). 

As for the other characters, I don’t even know where I stand with them either.  Do I like Dr. John, or am I repulsed by his cavalier attitude and strange attraction to frail girl-women?  Do I detest M. Paul’s outbursts or do I desperately want him to fall in love with Lucy?  Is Paulina an admirable character, as Lucy concludes, or is she a weak, disturbingly precocious young woman with a strange attachment to her father?

I’m in a stage of in between.  While I can see the literary merit of this novel, perhaps what is frustrating me the most is that it is nothing at all like Jane Eyre.  Sure, there’s a ghostly doppelganger, a love interest with capricious moods, and a shy, retiring “heroine,” but that’s where the similarities end.

I think my problem is that I feel bad for not exactly liking something by Bronte.

Sorry Charlotte.