Showing posts with label Jane Austen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jane Austen. Show all posts

Friday, March 15, 2013


Adventures in Logophilia, Day 185:


To remove an article of wear (clothing: jacket, hat etc) from the body - taking off ones hat as a sign of respect.  In a more general sense it means to rid oneself of something or put it aside.  Think of Mr. Darcy taking off his hat to Lizzie Bennet.

Top Hat
British gentleman doffing his hat by Alistair

Friday, February 1, 2013

Something New (j)

I begin February with a question - obvious, yet compelling - that has been hanging over me for a while now.  What exactly is a novel?  

This is the 143rd word of my logophiliac adventures:

A novel is a fictional prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism.  The word comes from the Italian term novella storia , for "new story." (Novella being the feminine of novello and the Latin word novellus for "new".) The word was also utilized from Middle English to the eighteenth century in the sense of "a novelty, a piece of news, from the Old French word novelle.  This gives way to the adjective use of novel which means interestingly new or unusual.

But what should this "newness" look like?  The novel has become an incredibly versatile literary vehicle since Daniel Defoe, Charlotte Smith and Jane Austen gave it a solid form at the end of the eighteenth century.  When I first set out to create my own novels, I thought of the form as a long, extended story of someone's journey... like a good Dickensian bildungsroman (a coming of age novel like David Copperfield or Nicholas Nickleby).  Since then I've realized that the newness is not just a matter of introducing and following new characters and exploring a new setting, but in the way we tell our stories: non-linear, in braided narratives, from an unusual character's point of view, in the present tense, in the second person, in an otherwise impossible situation, etc.  Novels are experiments for testing new angles in story telling, and even if the story itself might be similar to something that's been read before, the telling makes it new.

Personal example. I finished a novel last year and have embarked on a sequel.  Granted, there is a certain amount of uncertainty that comes with such a decision - after all, I'm waiting to hear back from agents, and there is no guarantee that any one will want to represent it, or to publish it.  Whether or not it was the wise decision to go ahead with the sequel, I've found some pretty good reasons to do it.  

1.) Novel #1 (let's call it W1), isn't actually finished in the sense that it has not gone through the publishing process - has not encountered agents or editors.  When it is, somewhere down the line, accepted by a publishing company, there will be more changes to be made.  It is simply the way the process works.

2.) At this point, not knowing what those changes will be a year, two, five or ten years from now, I know there is room for improvement.  Writing the sequel (W2) will open up new doors and help me address questions that I couldn't answer (or even think to ask) about my characters in the first novel - a challenge in many ways.  How? 

3.) I've always wanted W2 to be it's own novel, with its own set of eccentricities, patterns and nuances - not just an expansion of W1.  I decided that W2 would be from a different character's point of view.  The narrative main character in W1 is a young woman (let's call her S) trying to decide whether or not to take vows in a quasi-monastic order.  The narrative main character in W2 is her romantic interest, a man who at 126 years old doesn't age and has a caustic, jaded personality (let's call him D).  D is going to be a challenge because his perspective is at a completely different angle from what I'm used to.  In this way, learning about the inner workings of D in W2 will help me to see S in a new light (from his eyes) and apply that newness to the revisions for W1.

4.)   I have ideas for a W3 and a possible W4 as well, although nothing is set in stone.  If they do emerge, they will be their own novels, as well; W3 being made of journal entries from both D and S, and W4 from the point of view of a character who has not yet been born.  Whether or not these ideas will ever come about, they're already bearing fruit in my daily experiments, and that fruit is in W1 and W2. 

5.)  There is no way to lose with this model (disorganized-jumble-of-ideas is more like it).  Yes, my dreams and prayers right now are bent on getting W1 published. And though there's a chance (as with every creative endeavor) that it won't catch the attention of an agent or a publisher, the story is still mine and it is worth writing.  

Worst case scenario: W1 and W2 aren't published, and I embark on a completely different project (oh yes, I have one), which is eventually published.  Once established in the business, I can go back to W1 and W2, improve them and try again.  It might take ten or fifteen years, but even this brood of brain children are worth that wait.  It may feel like a defeat at first, but with the right amount of audacity and devotion, this can be turned into an opportunity.  Look at Stephen King and the years it took to flesh out The Dark Tower and to re-release The Stand in its truest edition.  (Many.)  Time is not an adequate excuse to stop the experiment.  If we can't be "novel" or versatile with the strange ebbs and flows of the publishing industry in addition to our own creative challenges, we might not make it.  That is my theory, anyway, but a hopeful one.

Today, Sarah Callender wrote for Writer Unboxed in a similar vein "The Writer as an Inventor," which I found to be helpful and encouraging.  She emphasizes adopting the habits and mind-sets of inventors to better craft our stories through passionate curiosity, obsessive focus, loyalty to our project, to embrace a healthy balance of fear and foolishness, among other things. 

As inventor-creators, we strive to answer pressing questions about ourselves... even if we don't know how to ask those questions, they're still worth striving for, reinventing and examining in new angles, through different lenses (telescope, microscope - whatever is required) until we know.  It's by no means an exact science, but writing is novel... and it's our job to make sure it always will be.  I think we're up for that challenge.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Book to Film (Jillian)

Still from The Hobbit, starring Martin Freeman. Due out next year.

As a writer, I have a great (perhaps natural) interest in books that grow up to be made into films. I do get a little queasy, however, when such a film deviates from its original material to the extent that it is an entirely different story. But I always come back to my philosophy: a novel and a film are two completely different art forms - words and images - therefore, they cannot and will not be able to convey a story in the exact same way.

Twilight and Harry Potter aside, the biggest discussions I've heard (and perhaps been a part of) in the last several years, have inv0lved the innumerable film adaptations of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte's novels, new television and film revivals of Sherlock Holmes, an Oscar-contending remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and excitement over The Hunger Games, which hits theaters in March. The Hunger Games, by the way, looks exactly the way I envisioned it. I'll have a quiver in my spine till I can go see it!

There is an unconscious desire among fans for a perfect film version of Pride & Prejudice or Jane Eyre. Many cite the 1995 "Colin Firth" version of Pride & Prejudice as "the best", whereas others appreciate the simple, natural beauty of the 2005 film. For Jane Eyre, the debate has recently been strung between the 2006 BBC version starring Ruth Wilson, and last year's film starring Mia Wasikowska. There are as many opinions as there are films. One thing it does show us is that these stories resonate strongly... that we want to see it retold again and again, from different camera angles, with different faces, with new music, in new colors. This kaleidoscope of story is an incredibly beautiful thing!

What prompted my thoughts today is a quiver of excitement about The Hobbit. A trailer was released this week, a year in advance. I have to say I was skeptical about The Hobbit being brought to film (actually two), as the story, frankly, is a bit of a hiccup of events prior to The Lord of the Rings. Knowing Peter Jackson, I am well aware that liberties will be taken, that story lines may be embellished, and the final product will be spectacular.

Having seen the trailer, I am excited - not because this is a translation of a beloved story into film, but because it looks as good as The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings, books and films, has an incredibly special place in my heart. I will see The Hobbit next year knowing 1.) this is a mixture of Jackson's storytelling with Tolkein's storytelling; 2.) it will have a lot more in it than the book did; 3.) I may not agree with some of these creative changes, but; 4.) I will enjoy it very much.

In other words, to boycott a film because it isn't exactly like the book is silly. In some ways, perhaps the film of The Hobbit will delve deeper into plots and journeys (and not just because this story happens to feature a company of dwarves). That's possible, isn't it? But even if it is "better" or least "flashier" than the book, the film can in no way replace the book. A film is only a retelling.

One more example of novel-into-film is Neil Gaiman's Stardust. Book and film do not match because the story is told in different ways: the book is far more mysterious, magical and shadowy than the film; the film is faster, more adventurous and more perilous than the book. I love them both, just as I love the original and retold versions of The Lord of the Rings, Pride & Prejudice, and Jane Eyre.


As a side note, I am a little curious about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, mostly as a study in character. What I've read of Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander intrigues me, but I am not sure I'd want to be witness to the violence and brutality that inevitably comes with the story. I'll have to get back to you on that one.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Computer Diaspora (Jillian)

Alas, the time is coming soon where I might have to part from my beloved laptop on a temporary basis. Long story short, my laptop – friend and ultimate writing tool – decided it no longer recognized its AC adapter and refused from that point on to charge its battery. There is, of course, no logical explanation for this sudden bout of computer amnesia. I had two different partial diagnoses from two different “geeks”, and, believe me, a new adapter did no good despite their insistence. Hence, the fear that the geeks’ favorite way of solving things – that is, sending said machine off into the great unknown so someone else can attempt repairs and wipe the drive for good measure (grr…) – will have to be implemented.

Forgive the moaning in the above paragraph, but I am sure you can relate. When a writer’s preferred tool of crafting and performing her art is mercilessly taken away, a feeling of hopelessness settles in. Last year, I had the misfortune of falling down marble stairs at work with the same computer. Result? Cracked screen, just like a car windshield, but in retrospect, it could have easily been my skull. It was taken a repair shop where it languished idle for about two and a half weeks. Never mind how expensive that venture was, it was next to impossible to overcome the feeling that my hands had suddenly been cut off, and I could not write. Period. I dread returning to that state of writing paralysis again.

As I consider sending my dear friend away for another necessary respite, I cannot help but think how ludicrous the “writing paralysis” is. Yes, it is almost excruciating to be separated from the thing that has been such a vital instrument in my writing, but… I can write… because essentially writing is not about the computer. My brain works the same. My hands still work. The story is in my head, and not necessarily in its most consummate form on the hard drive, anyway. And, I must remind myself, writing via word processing machine is only a recent trend. After all the likes of the magnificent Mr. Chaucer and Mr. Shakespeare, many before and many, many after, produced manuscripts without use of a laptop, spell-check, online references and dozens of fancy fonts. Quills, hand-made ink, grossly expensive parchment and/or vellum, blotting paper, and candlelight… those were the tools. And what wonderful tools they are!

In fact, only last year (if you recall), Agatha Christie’s writing desk went on sale, no doubt for a pretty sum. I read Lucy Davies’ blog on the Telegraph website, and was intrigued some time ago by an entry devoted to those who collect the palettes of van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Mattise, etc. Anne Frank’s diary is preserved under glass. So is the Magna Carta in its various surviving versions. I wonder sometimes if I ever become noteworthy (ha! If at all, long after my demise!) would they preserve my laptop behind glass? Would it convey the same meaning as Jane Austen’s simple writing table, or would it be just another old computer with a black, dead screen? Hm…

Jane Austen's writing desk, from the Telegraph

I must remind myself that I do have these simple tools, too. Wouldn’t it be such a challenge, such an adventure to continue work on my novel as if nothing ever happened… except the change in medium? If all those others can make use of simple paper and pen, why can’t I? I already do.

So, I am beginning to toy with the idea of writing actual chapters via legal pad. While I have not yet lost the ability to write with a pen and paper, I don’t know if I’d have the patience for it. Another idea… old typewriter? That would definitely be an easier transition. But where might I find one that is both functional and semi-affordable?

A lot of things to think about. My only hope is that any crazy experiment can cause me to grow into a more versatile writer… the kind of person who can write a novel on a train or in a coffee shop, even if all I have is a napkin. After all, that’s what J.K. Rowling did – legal pads, coffee and a cafĂ© after hours.

By Jove! It’s so simple, it just might work!

Monday, February 1, 2010

A Matter of Mansfield (Jillian)

Fanny Price 2007 - Billie Piper
Fanny Price 1999 - Frances O'Connor
Fanny Price (and Edmund) 1986 - Sylvestra Le Touzel

It is a question that has plagued me for years now. This is probably the least regarded of Jane Austen's novels. A pity, really, because it is a sweet story of quietness and constancy: Fanny Price is sent to live at her wealthy uncle Sir Thomas Bertram's estate and is witness to the misbehaviors and self-importances of her cousins and their new "friends" the Crawfords. Fanny is good, genuine, dutiful and little appreciated. She is not Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse, but she is beautiful, and kind and persistent in truth. She assists her sleepy, simple aunt Lady Bertram, endures the criticism from her Aunt Norris and resists the enticements of flatterer Henry Crawford. I love this novel, because Fanny endures to be true to herself and to her family.

There have been three movies/mini-series attempting to encapsulate Mansfield Park. The 1986 miniseries is the version closest to the book, and built more like a play than a film, it captures the story in its entirety (like two two excellent adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's novels Wives and Daughters and North and South). Over all, miniseries have the advantage in translating novels into a visual form, as they are long enough to adequately balance the major and minor details. The Billie Piper version, which aired on the BBC in 2007, while takes strange liberties with the story in order to shorten it, remains true to her character. These two versions understand that Fanny's goodness, kindness and selfless love are the heart of this story. The 1999 does not.

The choices that the writers of 2007 made for their version are understandable. I could write a paper on the comparisons - why Fanny's journey back to her native Portsmouth isn't fundamentally necessary, how the story is made to work without such elements. But I grow increasingly puzzled over the 1999 film, starring Frances O'Connor. Both 2007 and 1999 show a condensed story. Both had to "cut" elements in order to give it a cinematic pace. 1999 makes bold choices - perhaps too bold - and seems to be using Mansfield Park as a shell, a disguise for creating a film about the social improprieties and harshness of a household built on decadence and slavery in 1806. It is, as Michelle put it so wonderfully long ago, "emotionally unkind" about the past.

The writers of Mansfield Park1999 decided to make harsh implications , most particularly on the characters, that never existed in the first place. Sir Thomas has plantations in the West Indies in Antigua - the novel shows Sir Thomas taking his eldest son Tom with him to settle unspecified problems there. Naturally, the screenwriters thought this was an excuse to write Sir Thomas as an abusive land-holder; operating on the assumption: "well, if he has slaves and if he's having trouble with the plantation, he must be abusing them." Hence, uncomfortable discussions about abolition and comparing slaves to mules. In addition to this, Sir Thomas' personality is more than that of a distant father, but a man more inclined to anger, cruelty and innuendo. He is not supposed to be a scary man. But in Harold Pinter, who is too creepy for the part in my opinion, he is definitely one I would not like for my uncle. He is not supposed to have an evil eye… but Pinter gives him one.

More importantly is the issue of Fanny's character. Fanny is not Fanny in this version. She is a composite of Fanny and young Jane Austen. While it is an interesting experiment - to put Jane's words into the mouths of her characters - it makes me wonder if the screenwriters saw Fanny's quiet appreciation of churches, constellations and Cowper to be too mild. In making her a writer (a novelist at a time when novels were first manifesting as an art form), she is allowed a sharp tongue and an exuberant spirit. Her original traits of service, patience and love are eclipsed by her novel-writing, which is not a part of her personality in the novel. In the film, her relationship with Edmund is that of best friends, with strong inclinations toward silliness and chasing each other through the house (incurring shouts from grumpy Sir Thomas). In the novel, Edmund, who is supposed to be six years older, was the first to befriend Fanny and warmly accept her into the family; he was her teacher of sorts and they share many an intellectual discussion in the course of Jane's novel. They think alike. They respect each other. And Edmund goes to Fanny when he is troubled. In the film, his character is weaker… less tormented by his confusion over Mary Crawford. He more falls into Mary's clutches rather than cautiously debating whether or not he loves her.

Another issue is of Fanny's constancy or, rather, conviction. The scheming Henry Crawford, once enamored by Fanny's cousin Maria, asks Fanny to marry him and she refuses because she cannot trust him, and knows she cannot trust him. Sir Thomas is shocked, makes her feel guilty, believes she doesn't know her own feelings and quietly lets her spend three months in Portsmouth with her poor and noisy family. Crawford arrives there, heaps kindness on her family, but Fanny, despite his sincerity, still does not trust him. In the film, Crawford deliberately follows her to Portsmouth, presenting her with fireworks and offering to help her family financially until she eventually accepts him… only to refuse him the day after. "I have no gift for certainty," Fanny tells her sister Susan. This could not be farther from the novel. Instead, it is demonstrated that Fanny's knowledge of the truth holds out against Crawford's inconstancy… and eventually proves him to be false when he runs off with the married Maria. The affair is supposed to happen as a result of Crawford's inconstancy, not Fanny's inability to decide whether or not Crawford's intentions are true to his heart.

And here is a matter of Mary Crawford… portrayed by Embeth Davidtz. In the films, she is a woman of overt sexuality (um... was it really fashionable to show so much cleavage in 1806??), outwardly flirting, smoking her brother's cigar and accepting the part of Amelia in the sordid Lover's Vows with no hesitation. Regardless of my personal opinion that Embeth is too old, her Mary misses the mark by being too sharp, too certain of Edmund's love and his willingness to marry her. Do you see what I mean? In the novel, Mary's character flaws are the result of being "in the world", educated by London social circles. She is more ignorant than cunning, less willing to snare Edmund than she is in teasing him about being a clergyman or convince him to leave the profession. Edmund spends much of the novel agonizing over his feelings for her - always on the verge of asking for her hand, but never quite succeeding until final comments from her mouth make it obvious that she "was a creature of my imagination." Their lack of agreement on fundamental things keeps them apart.

So, Jillian, are there any good aspects of the 1999 film Mansfield Park? It makes an awesome effort to be pretty. Ball-room scenes are captured in slow motion. The music is exquisite. I like the ending of the film wherein Fanny narrates what becomes of Maria and Aunt Norris and the rest of the family, "It all could have turned out differently, I suppose… but it didn't." Unfortunately…I find the little unnecessarily-added details of Lady Bertram's opium habit (seemingly implanted to explain her perpetual fatigue), the deletion of the character of Fanny's beloved brother William, the missing quietness of Fanny's character and other "little" pieces distract me too much… and make me sad.

And 2007, starring Billie Piper? Billie is very true to the spirit of Fanny, which reconciles me to the rest of the film. It is only 90 minutes long, which required the eliminations of Portsmouth and a formal ball, but it makes a better attempt of retelling the story than using it to create something different. Again: Fanny's quietness and patience. Sir Thomas is a little harsh, but he learns to see Fanny as a daughter by the end. The story is redemptive and blossoms here. As it should. And who doesn't love Billie? I am convinced (perhaps out of Doctor Who bias for Rose Tyler) that she can do anything!

And 1986? Corny! Bad costuming! Questionable acting, especially when it comes to the creepy-looking Henry Crawford! But it deserves praise because it tries very hard to be true to Jane's novel, and makes no blatantly unkind assumptions about the characters or the story. It shows Fanny as a witness to the opinions and selfishness of those around her. She is a small, plain looking thing, but she is true to herself… and her love for Edmund is long-suffering and beautiful.

There aren't enough Fanny Prices in the literary world today. Perhaps the 1999 was an attempt to modernize her, to make her more interesting and not so buried in the back ground of the antics of her cousins, an independent thinker who hasn't been seemingly molded by Edmund's wisdom. Whatever the intent, she lost some of her trueness. Not to say that I blame Frances O'Connor - not at all! I just look to Billie and Sylvestra Le Touzel… because they fully reflect Fanny, the heart of Mansfield Park. If a film or a miniseries cannot reflect the unquestionable heart of the story it claims to portray, it is a sad, sad thing. Anyway, read the novel, explore the various film versions! Judge for yourself!


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