Mansfield Park and Persuasion, retold by Gill Tavner, illustrated by Ann Kronheimer (Real Reads series)

A while ago, I offered to review two “Real Reads” retellings of Jane Austen for the Jane Austen Society of Australia journal. Unfortunately my review, plus those of the people reviewing the other books in the series, took up far more space than the editor could justify allocating to them, and so she was forced to ask our permission to severely cut the reviews to just a few grabs (naturally we all quite understood her dilemma, and were happy to give such permission). However, since lack of space is not a problem with a blog, I thought I might as well post my full review here. Though be warned – it is quite long.

It would appear that the Jane Austen Real Reads are aimed at the pre-teen, probably female, demographic. So my first question is why? There are many, many good books written for girls of this age. Frances Hodgsen Burnett, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Mary Grant Bruce, Noel Streatfeild, Louise Fitzhugh, Hilary McKay, Odo Hirsch: for over a century, people have been writing books for girls that are stimulating, challenging, exciting, or simply really good stories. So is there really a need for girls to be introduced to “adult classics” at this age? Particularly since the majority won’t really want to go straight from the cut-down to the full versions: most (though, of course, not all) would probably be better off waiting until they are a few years older before reading Jane Austen. So I don’t really see the point in introducing the stories this early.

But obviously someone disagrees with me, and so we have Real Reads: “Pick up these great little versions of the world’s greatest books, and you’ll discover that Real Reads are a Real Treat.” I volunteered to read Persuasion and Mansfield Park, but I’m afraid I didn’t find them a real treat, and I’m not sure I would have even as an 11 year old. Unfortunately, I did not have a tame pre-teen to try them out on, so the following review is based purely on my own reaction to the books.

On starting to read, the first thing I realized was that, although the cover says “Jane Austen” in big letters, and “Retold by Gill Tavner” in smaller print, the key word is definitely “retold”. These are not abridged versions of the book, they are complete rewrites. The narration contains little to nothing of Jane Austen’s words, and although the dialogue fares rather better, I would say that barely 50% is from the original books.

In some ways, the storytelling reminded me of film novelizations. An author writing a book-of-the-film, who has probably had nothing to do with the original production, presents the story in a perfectly competent manner, but is not allowed to put any stamp of his/her own individuality into the retelling. Similarly, in these two Real Reads, all of the Austen narrator’s personality is removed, and it is replaced with … nothing.

The books are also very short: 54 pages each, including illustrations and a two page character list (plus another ten pages on “Taking things further”). Unsurprisingly, therefore, a number of subplots are sacrificed, and most of the rich characterisation is also lost.

Persuasion does a reasonable job of covering the salient plot points, although the removal of all reference to Fanny Harville means that Benwick’s personality is something of a blank. (In case you are wondering, it also means that Anne does not talk about constancy to Captain Harville, who barely appears. But she has a similar, if shorter, conversation with Admiral Croft, enabling Wentworth to overhear and write an abbreviated version of the letter we all know.) I was also a little surprised that the book actually opens with the events of the year Six, rather than presenting them in flashback. But perhaps Gill Tavner felt that her readers do not yet have the literary sophistication to cope with a non-chronological ordering: as she is a teacher, I will defer to her greater knowledge of this age group’s capabilities.

The cuts to Mansfield Park are more extreme, but then the book is longer and more plot-intensive. I was particularly struck by the curtailing of the Sotherton scenes: the various meanderings through the garden are reduced to “[Mary] wanted to discuss the matter [of Edmund taking orders] with her brother, but as he and Maria had left the group to explore a more overgrown path, she would have to wait”. And the visit to Portsmouth is removed entirely! Gill Tavner also seems to have had some trouble with Lovers’ Vows: she describes it as “inappropriate”, without explaining why, and redefines Henry’s and Maria’s characters as lovers (in the same sense as Mary’s and Edmund’s characters), rather than as a mother and her illegitimate son.

The books are full of colour illustrations: these are not unappealing, but they didn’t always seem entirely right. However, this might just mean that Fanny Price and Anne Elliot aren’t really suited to this style of illustration: I thought the cover pictures for Emma and Northanger Abbey really did capture the spirit of the books.

But, for me, perhaps the single biggest problem with these retellings is … they aren’t funny. Admittedly, Mansfield Park and Persuasion are perhaps the least “light, bright and sparkling” of Jane Austen’s books, but they nevertheless have some wonderful comic scenes and ironic authorial comments. And all of these are totally absent from Gill Tavner’s versions.

So if you lose the authorial voice, the rich characterisation and the comedy of the original novels, is there any real point to these versions? I can’t help feeling that if the objective is to introduce young readers to the Austen’s stories – and I’m still not convinced that this is a good idea, particularly for an age group this young – it might be more effective for them to watch one of the better film/television adaptations. Even where these diverge markedly from the original plot (and in some cases, the amount of divergence is no greater than Gill Tavner’s) they offer an artistic reinterpretation of the novel, rather than just a cut-down, blanded-out retelling.

This is not to say that a child reader might not enjoy Real Reads. They are competently written, and pleasant enough. But if one ignores the fact that they are based on classics, then they don’t really have a great deal to offer. It seems to me that the time spent reading them could be much better spent on Saffy’s Angel, or Something’s Fishy Hazel Green, or Harriet the Spy, or Ballet Shoes, or The Secret Garden – classic or modern, these children’s books offer a much richer reading experience than Gill Tavner’s retellings of Mansfield Park and Persuasion.

Let Austen wait until the reader is ready for the originals – be that at age 12, age 17 or age 35. And let her (or him) enjoy seeing the story unfold, without pre-knowledge of the plot. We only ever have one chance to read Jane Austen for the first time. Why spoil it?

Pride and Prejudice at Hoyts, Broadway

[Warning – really, really long, and with numerous spoilers.]

Well, of course, the big question is Why? The BBC production of Pride and Prejudice is only ten years old: while not perfect, it was in many ways excellent, and for vast numbers of people it’s the definitive film/TV version of Austen’s novel.

I wasn’t actually looking forward to the new film of Pride and Prejudice, as I’d heard a number of things I didn’t like the sound of, and I thought the trailer for it was awful. In fact, not unlike Elizabeth with Darcy, I was determined to dislike it. Well, although I didn’t have the complete turnaround of Elizabeth, I’m forced to admit I enjoyed it far more than I had anticipated.

This production was supposed to be more “realistic” than earlier versions – which I take to mean less “chocolate box” in look. Not a totally new idea: it’s also the approach that was taken with the 1995 Persuasion. Some of the ideas (such as showing the Bennet household as being a bit run-down) were quite nice, though at times I think they took it a bit far. I know the estate includes a farm, but I wouldn’t have thought it would be quite so close to the house. I also couldn’t make up my mind about whether or not I liked the crush of people, and very loud music, of the Meryton Assembly: it felt over the top, but, for all I know, it could have been spot-on accurate. My knowledge of How Things Worked at that time is gleaned almost exclusively from fiction, rather than from reading actual historical descriptions.

The other aspect of “realism” was mud and bad weather. Obviously, part of this is straight from the book, and an important plot point (Jane riding through the rain, and Elizabeth walking through the mud), so is hardly innovative. But I thought having Darcy’s first proposal outside, in a raging storm, was completely unnecessary, added nothing, and, frankly, pretty much spoiled the scene for me.

For all the vaunted “realism” there were numerous occasions of appalling historical insensitivity: as Sandra Hall said in today’s Sydney Morning Herald review, the director is “careless with the customs and conventions that were part of the fabric of Austen’s world”. Generally, this seems to have been done to make things less subtle, and more “accessible” to the 21st Century viewer (or, occasionally, for a cheap laugh), and so meant ignoring the rules of propriety. There was an article by Natasha Walter in The Guardian (reprinted in the Sun Herald of 9 October, but there doesn’t appear to be any online version available) which made the excellent point that:

Once you start to lose the fence of decorum around the characters’ desires, you run the risk of losing the tension of the novels, the tension between outward convention and inner emotion that gives them their energy.

There was, of course, one glaring example of this in the 1995 BBC production: the infamous lake scene. This kind-of, sort-of worked, in that I can believe that Darcy might go swimming in his own lake, on his own grounds, although I find it rather less believable that he would then casually stroll up to the house, given that it is open to visitors. However, it did work to heighten the embarrasment and sexual tension of the meeting with Elizabeth: very unsubtle, but most effective.

In the new film, however, there were far more breaches of decorum, ranging from minor technical inaccuracies (e.g. a footman announcing “Miss Bennet, Miss Bennet and Miss Bennet”, and Miss Bingley commenting on the mud on Elizabeth’s dress but not mentioning that her hair is down) to much more serious changes. In my opinion (remember: my knowledge comes from fiction rather than history books) some of the worst offences were:

  • Wickham and Elizabeth sitting under a tree together with, apparently, nobody else for miles around.
  • Darcy just walking through the door of the Collins’ house (after dark, and without even ringing the bell) to give Elizabeth his letter.
  • Elizabeth getting separated from the Gardiners and the housekeeper at Pemberley (and the Gardiners leaving without her!), and then listening through a door to Georgiana’s playing.
  • Lady Catherine arriving at the Bennets’ late at night, when everyone has gone to bed.
  • Darcy’s final proposal scene occurring because Elizabeth (unable to sleep) has gone out for an early morning walk Most Improperly Dressed, and bumped into Darcy – also unable to sleep, and also Improperly Dressed. (One also has to ask with this scene where they actually were – still within the Bennet property, or halfway between Longbourn and Netherfield? One or both of them had walked an awfully long way, particularly considering their casual attire!) And it would have been nice if Darcy could have gone home to change before seeing Mr Bennet.

My reactions to these errors varied. In some cases, I felt the change was completely unnecessary (e.g. the Lady Catherine scene and Darcy giving the letter) or could have been easily modified (e.g. in the Wickham scene by showing Kitty and Lydia nearby, but out of earshot). The actual performances in all of these scenes were very good, but I just couldn’t surrender to them because part of my brain was screaming out about how wrong the setting was.

Then there were scenes that were wrong, but there did at least seem to be a point to them. The best example of this is Pemberley. I thought Elizabeth listening at the door was very wrong (though an ongoing theme in the film!), but seeing Darcy and Georgiana when they think they are unobserved was a very effective way of shortcutting the scenes in the book that show the “human” side of Darcy. I also really loved the bit afterwards, when Elizabeth and Darcy are completely unable to say what they are feeling, so they fall back on the standard social niceties. Probably there would have been a way to present this in a more appropriate setting, but at least there was some reason for the change.

And then there was the scene that intellectually I loathed, but emotionally I responded to 100%: Darcy’s final proposal. It was like Austen dialogue (well, some Austen dialogue) in a Bronte setting. It was in every way wrong, it was unnecessary, it was unsubtle … but in spite of all this I was completely sucked in by it. I’m angry because I think the scene would have worked just as well in the correct setting (due to fine performances by both actors), but I would be lying if I said that the change spoiled it for me.

Ignoring anachronisms, and ignoring the fact that they chopped up the Austen dialogue something horrible, I thought most of the alterations made to the plot were reasonable compromises to get the film down to a sensible length. A fair amount of subtlety was lost, but that was pretty much bound to happen. One change I didn’t much like, though, was Elizabeth not telling Jane about Darcy’s proposal, but then almost telling her about how her feelings have changed. And I really didn’t like the whole family overhearing the full conversation between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine.

In terms of characters and performances, I hated Mr Bennet: he was far too old, and he seemed a bit slimy. In the book I think you’re meant to like him, even as you recognise that he isn’t a very good father, but something about Donald Sutherland’s performance just creeped me out. I thought Bingley was a bit too much of a dork, and even thicker than he is in the book (which is quite an achievement, really!), although I loved the longshot scene between him and Darcy just before he proposes to Jane.

Jane, on the other hand, was quite good; and Mary, Kitty and Lydia, though very minor parts, still had their moments. I thought Mrs Bennet was much better than in the 1995 BBC production, and Wickham was great – he was actually good looking (if a bit of an Orlando Bloom wannabe) but in a completely different style from Darcy, and he didn’t seem to have “I am a lying cad” tattooed on his forehead. It was quite believable that Elizabeth would fall for him, and it’s a pity his part was one of those largely sacrificed in the interest of getting through all of the plot. Georgiana was a completely different character from in the book, but given that she had about a minute of screen time, I think it was an acceptable and necessary change.

But, of course, the key roles are Elizabeth and Darcy – if they’re not right, then there’s just no point.

Keira Knightley was better than I’d expected, though she can’t top Jennifer Ehle. Her performance had a lot of the liveliness of Pirates of the Caribbean, though naturally it was much less over the top. But she was just far too pretty for the role. There is absolutely no way you would say Jane was the beauty of the family: at best, she and Elizabeth were equivalent. And I think maybe Keira Knightley was a bit too modern looking. She had a way of scrunching up her nose when she smiled that just didn’t look quite right (though I’m not sure why – people had the same facial muscles 200 years ago, and she only did it when she was with family members and close friends, not in Society). She also giggled rather a lot: sometimes this worked in showing Elizabeth’s personality (and youth!), but at times it jarred a bit. On the other hand, she certainly has “fine eyes”, and I think she moved better in the period dress than, for example, Frances O’Connor in Mansfield Park (who strode around as if she was more accustomed to wearing jeans).

Matthew MacFadyen’s performance was interesting. In At the Movies, David Stratton said he liked the vulnerability MacFadyen gave to Darcy. I can’t disagree that the vulnerability made him an appealing character, but I tend to think maybe it shouldn’t have been so visible in the early scenes – probably not until the first proposal, in fact. And with Keira Knightley being too beautiful for Elizabeth, I think the film really needed someone more physically striking as Darcy. Because what I think was lost was the sense of exclusivity about Darcy. At the start, he’s unpleasant, but he’s also special and out of reach, so ultimately there’s a real sense of how amazing it is that Elizabeth is the one woman to break through his reserve and humanise him. Of all Austen’s heroes, he’s probably the one most like a fairy tale prince. But in this film, you could see the humanity right from the start – he seemed awkward rather than aloof, depressed rather than haughty, and at times almost shy and uncertain rather than standoffish and confident. And because his looks didn’t make him stand out among the other men to the same extent that hers made her stand out among the other women, well, he just didn’t seem quite special enough.

This makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy his performance, but I really did. It’s just … it wasn’t Darcy as I see him. I think I would have absolutely loved the performance if I hadn’t read the book. As it was, I only mostly loved it.

I can’t really say whether I liked this production more or less than the BBC version. I can only say I liked it differently. And – unlike Mansfield Park and the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma – it’s one I probably will be adding to my DVD collection. But it will never replace the book!

P.S. 3 November

Having now re-watched most of the BBC version, I can say that I definitely like it more than the new film. It has a lot more of Austen’s dialogue, very well delivered. The new film is a very enjoyable romantic comedy, but it’s missing many of the fine touches that make the book special.

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

This book sounded like such a great idea. And I loved the opening (“Each of us has a private Austen”) and the descriptions of each of the character’s Austens. There were also some really funny bits in the book – one of my favourites is:

“You’ve read The Mysteries of Udolpho?” Allegra asked.

“Black veils and Laurentina’s skeleton? You bet. Didn’t you think it sounded good?”

We had not. We’d though it sounded overheated, overdone, old-fashionedly lurid. We’d thought it sounded ridiculous.

Actually it hadn’t occurred to any of us to read it. Some of us hadn’t even realized it was a real book.

“The mother in Pride and Prejudice, on the other hand …”

“Don’t give anything away,” Grigg said. “I haven’t read it yet.”

Grigg had never read Pride and Prejudice.

Grigg had never read Pride and Prejudice.

Grigg had read The Mysteries of Udolpho and God knows how much science fiction – there were books all over the cottage – but he’d never found the time or the inclination to read Pride and Prejudice. We really didn’t know what to say.

Overall, though, the book was basically disappointing. I think the main problem was that I just didn’t like any of the characters, and I didn’t actually care what happened to them. In particular, I was all set up to really like Prudie (anyone whose favourite Austen is Persuasion has me on their side right from the start), and was disappointed when she turned out to be a completely unappealing character.

I’ve heard it described as “chick-lit with pretensions”, and also as “not very good chick-lit”. My experience of chick-lit is not vast – I think the only two proper examples of it I have read are I Don’t Know How She Does It and The Other Side of the Story. For me, both of these books had the same problem as The Jane Austen Book Club – I just didn’t want to spend time with the characters. A lot of the emphasis seemed to be on them wanting to have it all, and messing up in their attempts to do so. It may all be very modern, and empowering, and realistic – but honestly, if I want to read a “girl” book, I’d much rather give my time to someone like Georgette Heyer. Her values may be old fashioned, but at least she creates characters I can enjoy reading about.

Even though I didn’t enjoy the book much, when I heard that Karen Joy Fowler was giving a talk at Stanton Library (10 minutes walk from work) last week, I thought I might as well go along. And I actually enjoyed the talk. She had a lot of interesting and amusing anecdotes – and it was good to learn that she was, in fact, a Jane Austen fan from way back.

I particularly enjoyed the story of how she came to write The Jane Austen Book Club. She was in a book shop, and she saw a sign on the wall for the “Jane Austen Book Club”. Thinking it was an advertisement for a book, she thought it was a wonderful idea, and immediately decided to buy it. When she got a bit closer to the sign, she realised it was an ad for an actual book club. And she was quite disappointed to learn that this book she had been looking forward to reading didn’t actually exist. Then, on the way home, she realised this meant she could write it herself.

It was a nice talk, and she seemed like a nice person. I just wish I liked her book more. Because it is a really good idea, but now that she’s written it there’s no chance for someone else to do it better.

Sorcery and Cecelia* by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

This was such a fun book!

I think I first heard it described as “Jane Austen meets Harry Potter”. Well, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was also described that way, and I found it turgid to the point of unreadability. Sorcery and Cecelia was anything but. It’s a series of letters between Kate, in London, and her cousin Cecelia, in Essex. In both locations, Evil Doings are Afoot, involving a stolen chocolate pot, a beautiful neighbour, a missing brother, a charm bag … and two dashingly handsome (if frustratingly enigmatic) young men.

Coincidentally, just after I finished it, I discovered it was the Galaxy Bookshop Fave Rave in their April 2005 Nexus. Stephanie, who wrote the review, said it was “Jane Austen with magic”, and even considered whether or not you have to be familiar with Austen to appreciate it (which you don’t). I can only assume that Stephanie has never come across Georgette Heyer, since anyone who has will recognise her influence on the writing. I can’t really see any significant Austen connection beyond the time period (and it’s much more Heyer’s Regency than Austen’s), and maybe the epistolary format (which Heyer never used – the only published Austen that uses it is Lady Susan, but the first drafts of both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice were apparently written in this style).

The book is actually dedicated to Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer and J. R. R. Tolkein. I would say that while Austen and Tolkein have given the authors much joy and general influence, the most direct connection is with Heyer. It’s not as good as Heyer – it’s a sort of “Heyer-lite” (with magic). It’s actually being marketed as a Young Adult title, and I think this is the right call, although I can’t put my finger on exactly why it feels YA in a way that Heyer doesn’t.

I have a nasty feeling Heyer wouldn’t have approved of this book. In The Private World of Georgette Heyer (Jane Aiken Hodge, 1984) there is an extract from a letter to her publisher about an imitator:

I feel compelled to protest against the injustice done me by the author in omitting my name from her list of the works to which she declares herself to be indebted. It might well take the place of Jane Austen’s, for while no one would suspect [the author] of owing anything to Jane Austen it must be obvious to many besides my unknown informant that she owes to me plot, incidents, character, several surnames, and such examples of Regency slang as she has used.” (p. 145)

Sorcery and Cecelia does owe a couple of names and a great deal of Regency slang – plus a general Regency world view – to Heyer. On the other hand, the authors do acknowledge her (though I gather this wasn’t the case with the first edition of the book). Also, of course, the magic component means that it’s not actually a Regency Romance.

Another factor is that it wasn’t originally intended for publication. The two authors were simply playing the “letter game” – writing to each other in character, and making up the plots (without consultation) as they went along. It was only after it was finished that they realised it might be publishable. This makes the Heyer pastiche aspects of it more understandable – and it’s such a key part of the writing style, that I honestly don’t see how it could have been excised when they were preparing it for publication.

So maybe Heyer wouldn’t have objected to it. I’d like to think so, anyway.

Having read this book from the library, I have now ordered my own copy of the book, and of its sequel, The Grand Tour, which I’m really looking forward to reading.

* Actually, the full title is Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot: Being the Correspondence of Two Young Ladies of Quality Regarding Various Magical Scandals in London and the Country