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Background and Foreground February 11, 2009

Filed under: Jane Austen,Michelle,Pride & Prejudice,Theory — m. @ 8:05 am

Erich Auerbach made my tiny heart flutter when I read him for the first time last semester — here was this man, a real, respected literary critic and in my syllabus, trapped between such towers of unreadable jackassery like Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault, who was readable. Not only that, but he was one of the very few theorists I read that semester to do what David Richter, the editor of my critical theory anthology, calls “pure literary interpretation” (704) — not out of choice, but because he emigrated to Istanbul during World War II and was deprived of the resources he would have access to normally.

“Odysseus’ Scar” is one chapter from the book he wrote during his time in Istanbul, Mimesis. The title refers to the moment in Book XIX of Homer’s Odyssey when Eurycleia, Odysseus’ old nurse, washes a stranger’s feet and because of the scar on the stranger’s thigh, realizes it’s her master. Auerbach compares this scene to the sacrifice of Isaac from the Old Testament in order to illuminate the passage of time and disclosure of events by narrators.

With regards to these, Auerbach refers to the moment when Eurycleia actually touches Odysseus’ scar — at that moment, the narrative goes off on a tangent to Odysseus’ childhood and how he received the scar for more than 70 lines (19.393-466). On the 74th line after the beginning of the digression, the narration returns back to the present moment. Auerbach points out that Homer “knows no background. What he narrates is for the time being the only present, and fills both the stage and the reader’s mind completely” (705). Compare this to the beginning of the sacrifice of Isaac, which begins simply: “And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham and said to him, Abraham! and he said, Behold, here I am” (707; Genesis 22:1). Auerbach notes this scene and how “it serves to indicate thoughts which remain unexpressed…. Everything remains unexpressed” (709).

And how does Pride and Prejudice fit into this? For one thing, few works between the epics of the ancient world and Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness novels in the early 20th century fit into the Homeric category which “knows no background” (where the events being narrated are the foreground) as the narrative progresses; nor are narratives as thoroughly opaque as the Old Testament. However, Austen’s novel straddles (gosh, that seems wrong somehow) the line and leans towards one or the other with more totality than other works I can think of off the top of my head. To be sure, there is background — if Lydia’s elopement were written by Homer, it somehow would have been worked into the foreground narrative. There simply isn’t a division of space in a Homeric narrative — a reader probably knows Clytemnestra is back in Mycenae throughout the events of the Iliad, plotting revenge on Agamemnon, but that background is entirely reader-created and never, ever mentioned by Homer until its relevance in the Odyssey. With Lydia’s elopement, however, Austen first withholds the events of that narrative completely and shows only the effects on her family; later, she weaves it back in and discloses it (as graphically as an 18th century woman can describe a regimental officer running off with and boning a 15-year-old girl).

There is also the matter of Darcy and Austen inserting his mental processes into the narrative in Chapter 6 (15) during a visit to Netherfield. Austen notes that as Elizabeth watches Bingley and Jane, Darcy watches Elizabeth — in that one paragraph, Austen shares with her reader that Darcy has evaluated her eyes, her figure, and her manner, and found them to be overall imperfect but “he was caught by their easy playfulness”. He then reinserts himself into the scene. Time didn’t stop while Darcy watched — Bingley didn’t stop flirting with Jane and Elizabeth didn’t stop watching them or talking to Charlotte. No, the whole scope of the narrative was shifted from one small conversation after another to focus on the mind of one man and the view from his eyes for the only moment in the narrative (corrections welcome!)

It’s a simple thing I’ve brought up here, this creation of background and foreground, but something that struck me as noteworthy once Auerbach had pointed out that literature had to progress to something that simple. And yes, rest assured, this is the last Pride and Prejudice post for quite a while. I’ll try and cover The Real Thing sometime this weekend (Stoppard!!!!)

References:

Auerbach, Erich. “Odysseus’ Scar”. The Critical Traditon: Claassic Texts and Contemporary Trends. 3rd Ed. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007.

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995.

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.

 

Pride and Prejudice February 6, 2009

Filed under: Guest Blogger,Jane Austen,Mallory,Pride & Prejudice,Text — m. @ 12:01 am

It was my Intro to Shakespeare professor who first alerted me to a kinship between Pride and Prejudice and Much Ado About Nothing, the play we were studying at the time. Beatrice and Benedick, he suggested, were the direct ancestors of Elizabeth and Darcy. The professor was probably trying to elevate Pride and Prejudice in our opinions, but at a women’s college where Austen classes are always oversubscribed even when taught by mediocre professors, Shakespeare probably seemed graced by the compliment.

Much Ado About Nothing would be a depressing comedy, full of disagreeable people desperate to believe the worst of each other, if it wasn’t for Beatrice and Benedick’s merry war, the “skirmish of wits” that erupts every time they meet. In Shakespeare, it is common enough for a witty character to destroy verbally opponents who never fully comprehend what is being said to them. But Beatrice and Benedick are evenly matched in brilliance. Benedick draws blood in the first encounter, only to be utterly crushed by Beatrice in their next scene—and each acutely feels the victories of the other. Until they are tricked into being in love with each other, as one only can in theatre, what draws them together despite mutual disdain is a desire to win, to have the last word, to put the other genuinely out of countenance.

If we look to Elizabeth and Darcy for this kind of reciprocity and oneupmanship, we won’t find it, because Austen seems to have been almost distrustful of witty men. In her first two published novels, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, her heroes are kind but dull: Edward Ferrars, Colonel Brandon, Charles Bingley. Darcy is hardly kind, but certainly dour. Men who shine in wit are Wickhams and Willoughbys, bounders not to be trusted, their lightness of manner paralleling the worthlessness of their own souls. Elizabeth Bennet is a true latter-day Beatrice, but if Austen ever created a Benedick, it was later, in Emma. Emma and Knightley enjoy a repartee that no one else in their novel could ever dream of sharing; as in Much Ado, they stand alone and are the only possible choice for the other. And yet I have it on as good an authority as the Folger Shakespeare Libarary that Elizabeth and Darcy are the truly Beatricesque and Benedicktine.

If there is an affinity between B&B and E&D beyond initial mutual dislike, it must be in Elizabeth and Darcy’s sense that no one else is worth bothering with. In Much Ado About Nothing, there can be no satisfaction in watching either Beatrice or Benedick toy with a fool once one has seen them lay into each other. Elizabeth is forced to a similar conclusion: no one in her family is even close to being her equal, not even Jane, and she is cruelly disabused of all the confidence she attempts to give others, such as her friend Charlotte or her object of interest, Wickham. Pride and Prejudice is to some extent a story of Elizabeth’s exceptionalism, her growing sense of singularity—felt acutely every time she watches her semi-vulgar family expose itself in public—and her choice to take refuge with Darcy, whose strong sense of superiority at first repulses her but eventually, when tempered with his tenderer impulses, draws her to him.

Unlike Emma, who only accepts Knightley because he allows her to remain with her father, Elizabeth gives up contact with most of her family—the more ridiculous elements—and settles down to live the happy ending set aside for the specially deserving. As she writes at the novel’s close, “I am happier even than Jane; she only smiles, I laugh.”

 

Pride & Prejudice and Adaptation: Less is More February 3, 2009

Filed under: Adaptation,Courtney,Jane Austen,Joe Wright,Pride & Prejudice,Text — noisyhope @ 7:57 pm

Apologies for the delay, the common cold with extra fatigue kick kept my brain and I from delivering a particularly promising post over the weekend, so I will do my utmost to give you a double whammy post to make up.

Any interest and/or tolerance of Pride & Prejudice is due, largely, to the 2005 adaptation by Joe Wright, and the promise of my colleagues from SLC to make good on one of my more rash oaths.  That is, that I would never watch it without a bottle of wine.  Once the DVD was out, I was summoned to their house where their flatscreen and a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc waited for me.  And it wasn’t that bad.  (It has also since become a tradition we like to call Pride, Wine, & Prejudice.)

Since then, I have read the book for a second time (for class), and watched the BBC adaptation (due to a mixup when I asked for the DVD myself).  I’ve never seen the Olivier adaptation, so I’m afraid I can’t give my full analysis, but I feel like the film, executed by Wright, easily trumps that of Simon Langdon (the BBC one with Colin Firth).  Why?  Because there is so much to be missed.

Langdon gives his audience every single word of the book — within reason.  Not a single moment or jibe (from the characters) is missing.  Every beat of every act is laid out before you to enjoy.  And I’m sure if you concentrated really hard and limited your distractions and bathroom breaks, you could read the whole of the book in the time it takes to enjoy the iteration featuring Colin Firth’s floating head

Wright remembers (as many of us seem to forget) that Austen’s second work is a comedy.  And you may cut in the interest of time, but you never cut funny.  Not only do you never cut funny, if you can add funny – you keep it.  As a result, characters go missing, time is compressed (as it often is as we only see in the movies), lines are reassigned (Mary takes on some boorish lines that belong to Lizzy in the book), and that which made you smirk in text, can at the very least elicit a chuckle when laid out in plain view.  I shall discuss each of these elements: lost characters, compressed time, reassigned lines/roles, and the visual joke to explain what makes Wright’s vision of Hertfordshire such a success.
The first characters the avid Austenphile would notice missing are Louisa and Mr Hurst.  While Mr Hurst is carried off perfectly by Rupert Vansittart (awesome name, that), best remembered by American audiences as the guy Hugh Grant meets up with in the Boatman right before he meets Andie Macdowell in her room in Four Weddings and a Funeral, in the BBC version, he and his wife are not missed here.  You know why?  They weren’t that funny.  Caroline Bingley can carry on flinging herself at Darcy without their help.  And Louisa’s one remarkable line about Elizabeth’s skirt being “six inches deep in mud,” is carried off so well by Kelly Reilly, best known to American audiences as the prudish girl from England in L’Auberge Espagnole, that personally, this viewer doesn’t miss Mrs Hurst for a single moment.  The Phillipses are also absent, leaving the Bennets with only one family to claim as their extended relations beyond Mr Collins (more on him later).  Again, they are not lost.  While Mrs Phillips proves to be a confidant of both Jane and Elizabeth regarding the men in their life, especially Whickham, she contributes little to the story, and to give them one family, the Gardiners, to both house Jane in London, and take Elizabeth along on their travels, is just more convenient.

Compressing time is another simple “just because it’s easier” move.  Not only that, but it raises the stakes.  While Jane is convalescing at Netherfield, it seems as if she arrives one day, Elizabeth the following, Mrs Bennet and the younger sisters visit, and then their arrival seems to speed Jane’s recovery along quite quickly, reminding the audience just how awkward and off-putting their mother really is.  (Side note: I am so sorry I cannot speak more about her.)  The other great example of this comes at the end of our tale: Jane accepts Bingley’s proposal.  That night, Lady Catherine arrives at Longbourn to tell Elizabeth to refuse any proposal from Darcy and well, we know how that goes.  By bringing Lady Catherine to the estate at such an “unacceptable” or at least, unsociable time, it makes her arrival carry even more weight than when she arrived in the evening and Elizabeth shows her the grounds.  It also makes Darcy’s renewed proposal at dawn all the dreamier.

Where was I?  Line-reassignment.  Personally, I’m a huge fan because occasionally these changes can tell the audience something about a character or situation they would get from a paragraph of very internal text.  When Mr Collins dines with the Bennets and discusses the compliments he pays Lady and Miss deBourgh, the responses from Mr Bennet and Elizabeth are taken from those originally belonging to Mr Bennet alone.  For fans of the book, this can be taken to better demonstrate the kinship between Lizzy and her father, and for those who are watching it for the first time, this relationship is well established through their similar snide remarks.  Mary is a character who picks up many lines belonging to her other sisters.  In the novel, I often imagined these lines (especially those belonging to Elizabeth or Jane), to be delivered with a healthy grain of salt, best illustrated with the line “What are men compared to rocks and mountains!”  You know she means it, while Lizzy would snark.  So much of Mary’s character is written internally in the novel, these moments better illustrate just how boringly pious she is.  (Piously boring?  That could be a six of one, half dozen of the other sort of situation, could it not?)

And finally, that above all else.  The visual.  I’ll admit Wright’s P&P contains so many single moments that convey pages of painstaking emotional upheval, I know I’ll leave some out.  My personal favorite is the moment Elizabeth first sees Pemberley.  The audience is given a shot of a low horizon with the sound of a carriage’s arrival.  It stops.  Elizabeth pops into frame, looking at something beyond the camera, and then lets out a nervous laugh, covering her mouth.  Then steps down.  Her aunt and uncle rise out of the coach, aghast.  In the book this feeling is best described when Elizabeth panics at the sight of Darcy, wondering how best to relate her feelings at seeing his home.  Austen takes time to describe what Wright shows us in a few seconds, the feeling of: “Oh God.  I could live here by now.  What.”

And I’ll offer one final moment of visual brilliance, again featuring our friend Mr. Collins.  He appears in a moment of, what a former colleague would be too eager to describe as: comedy of disproportion.  At the Netherfield ball, he recognizes Mr Darcy as his patroness’ nephew.  He approaches him from behind, and tries twice, to address Darcy.  This works beautifully because Tom Hollander (Collins) is short – average height, while Matthew Macfayden is quite tall.  When Collins attempts to clear his throat, every time, I keep thinking/hoping he’s going to knock on Darcy’s back like a door.  Alas, he only clears his throat and Macfayden turns to stare poor Hollander down.  It’s beautiful.

(Also, I just looked it up.  Hollander and Macfayden are 5’5″ and 6’3″ respectively.)

Anyway, I have more than fulfilled my superpost promise, and apologize for my loquaciousness, lack of clips (I may add in later), and neglect of mentioning “the hand thing” that m’colleague so adores.

Thank God, P&P is over, I’ll be writing more, and on schedule next Monday when we discuss The Real Thing, by Tom Stoppard.

 

Jane’s Early Reception January 31, 2009

Filed under: Jane Austen,Michelle,Pride & Prejudice,Theory — m. @ 11:09 am

I’m relatively well-versed in the early English novel, thanks to that class I took as an undergraduate where I read everything but Tom Jones (the lack of reading wasn’t due to the syllabus, but sheer laziness on my part). Let me try to explain something on the significance of Jane Austen and her little book, Pride and Prejudice.

I’ve noticed a few things in my researching Austen’s critical reception during the early years of the 19th century:

  1. To talk about one of her novels is to talk about all of them. Austen is a writer whose canon is what it is, but not in an interchangeable way. Critics genuinely appreciated her body of work as a whole — then again, that’s slightly easier when your ‘body of work’ is six novels and juvenilia.
  2. Critical writing on her works in periodicals wasn’t widespread until after her death. Things did move slower in Ye Olden Daeyes, but not reviewing Pride and Prejudice until 10 years after its initial publication? Seriously?
  3. The focus on gender in reviews of her work — men reviewing men could get away with polemic claims on their lack of breeding and education. In the dozen or so reviews I’ve read of her work, there came a point in each review (shortly before or after the summary of the novel which was about 80% of the review’s total text) in which the reviewer would take a moment to remark on Austen’s sweet character, gentle nature, talent with a pencil, lively disposition.
  4. Slightly related to the above: Everyone. Loves. Jane. Not in a polite way to be kind or (only) because she’s a lady, but adoration for her writing as well. (If you find a 19th century review or article where this isn’t the case, please let me know!)

Reviewers adored her novels for their attention to detail and her ability to turn the completely boring into the extraordinary, as seen in this extract:

You have actually met all her heroes and heroines before — not in novels, but in most unromantic and prosaic circumstances; you have talked with them, and never seen anything in them — anything, at least, worthy of three volumes, at half-a-guinea a volume. How could such folks find their way into a printed book? That is a marvel, a paradox, a practical solecism. But a greater marvel remains behind, and that is, how comes it that such folks, having got into the book, make it so interesting? (Jacox 18)

That’s from an 1852 article on Austen, part of a series on female novelists — 152 years later, I completely agree that this is why Austen’s novels appeal, except we would call “portraying prosaic characters in a dazzling manner” something like “exquisite social commentary for the win”. Austen’s characters are rather touched in the head, but more realistically and down-to-earth than, say, Charlotte Lennox’s eponymous protagonist of The Female Quixote (another terrifically funny novel from these early days of the genre).

Next week, I’ll work from the text of Pride and Prejudice, looking at the rather inventive way Austen uses time and events in her storytelling, using Erich Auerbach’s essay “Odysseus’ scar” from his book Mimesis. You may not know that I’m the one of this duo here at Withering Bites who writes the ‘now playing’ summaries — I hope next week, I’ll be able to show you how Austen and her writing are smarter and better built than most things I’ve yet to read.

I should also note that it was so very, very difficult to stop myself from simply calling our Author of the Week Jane throughout this piece. And for the slightly morbid among you — one of the articles I found in my research had printed a short account of Jane Austen’s last days, which I screencapped and uploaded here.

References:

Jacox, Francis. “Female Novelists”. New Monthly Magazine and Humorist. 95.377 (1852). 17-23.

 

Surviving P&P, Round 3 January 27, 2009

Filed under: Courtney,Jane Austen,Pride & Prejudice — noisyhope @ 11:47 pm

I know I promised an entry on Mrs Bennet.  And that it would be delivered on Monday.  Please expect it next Monday, and I assure you, you’ll find it there.  Due to a weekend away, and a few other small upheavals, I still have not finished the tome in question, and have not been able to “cheat,” as I hoped I could, watching the 5 hour BBC version which is, more or less, shot word for word.  That said, onto the entry!

I am a girl who does not adore Jane Austen.

I don’t hate her, either.  I’m just saying.

This is my third time reading Pride & Prejudice and I am dragging my feet.  I first read the book when I was fifteen, required reading during my summer job checking beach tags at the Jersey shore.  My coworkers swooned and the lifeguards gagged when they saw how I was passing my time.  My second time reading the book was more successful – I had just seen and tolerated the Keira Knightley version (more on that Friday), and had a brilliant professor who explained it in terms of comedy rather than its legacy.  Now I am not bound by any external authority, just my own willpower.

And I’m not having much fun, and I’ll confess right now, I’m not even done the damn book.

As Michelle noted on the sidebar, the plot of the tome in question is formula.  It is the formula, played out over and over again by so many great writers and even those not so great popcorn salesmen.  So, I attempted to attack the book with this angle.  It didn’t work.

So I decided to go to my “words are sacred,” perspective (more on that when we get to The Real Thing in a few weeks), and I discovered why I don’t hate Ms. Austen.

For lack of a more high-brow way to put this, her snark.

While the book is narrated in the third person, it shifts between objective and omniscient.  So, while the reader is privy to know that Mr Darcy is pining away for Miss Elizabeth who would rather see him dead because she’s pining away for Mr Whickham (now I remember why these tire me) &c, Austen (to borrow one of her favorite adverbs) archly describes even the most simple activities of the characters.  My favorite of these occurs at Netherfield.  While Jane convalesces and the other members of the party amuse themselves in the library, Darcy is making his way through some tiresome six volume novel.  Miss Bingley, desperate for his attention, picks up the second volume.  I confess, I smirk a little bit everytime I read that passage.  That moment alone could be the saving grace of the entire story.

But then of course, I am forgetting Mr Bennet’s cool analysis of character, Mrs Bennet’s embarrassing hysteria, the hand thing, anything Mr Collins does ever, Colin Firth’s head floating in a tree, Elizabeth’s somewhat hipper extended family, and the wonderful marks of comedy that really make Pride & Prejudice quite a charming story.  Once I finish reading it again, and rely less on film.

Friday I will deliver a comprehensive argument as to why I find the 2005 version to be a successful adaptation (moreso than its older BBC rival), and an in depth look at the heads of the Bennet family next Monday.  Really.