Monday, November 7, 2016


Yes, it's finally here. The following is the flap copy, for your perusal and (I hope) approval: 

As a teenager, Jane Austen wrote “Edgar and Emma”—a withering satire on sentimental novels running four uproarious pages.

Now Robert Rodi has taken the brief text of this early story and expanded it into a full-length novel in the mature Austen style. Here you’ll find all the hallmarks of Austen’s immortal masterworks: a witty heroine, a hesitant hero, a romantic rival, a charismatic cad, several indefatigable talkers, a shattering crisis, shocking secrets revealed, and moments of the highest hilarity. 

You’ll also find some character types new to the extended Austensphere, including a firebrand preacher, a pair of ardent dog lovers, and a sardonic Oxford don. It’s a brilliantly witty homage to a beloved novelist’s oeuvre, by the acclaimed author of Bitch In a Bonnet: Reclaiming Jane Austen from the Stiff, the Simps, the Snobs and the Saps.

Edgar and Emma is now available through Amazon or Barnes and Noble, or for download it for Kindle. Other sales channels and ebook formats are forthcoming.

If you read it and like it, please consider leaving a review on the Amazon or B&N page. I can’t overstate how much difference that makes.

Thank you for your kind attention. Now go—enjoy!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

An Apology and an Announcement

I hadn't intended to take such a long break from my "Adapted Austen" survey of the various J.A. television and movie adaptation—and I promise I'll get back to it very soon, picking up where I left off, with Emma Thompson's lovely 1995 version of "Sense and Sensibility." I'm very sorry to have abandoned those of you who expressed interest in the project, and who gave me encouragement; I hope you haven't given up on me.

But I have, I think, a very good excuse. Longtime readers of this blog will recall that last summer I ran a Kickstarter campaign for an Austen-inspired novel, Edgar and Emma (you can scroll down several posts and see the proof, in fact). I was trying to crowd-source enough funds to allow me to set aside several months to sit down and write the thing; alas, I never met my funding goal, and Edgar and Emma got put on the back-burner.

A few months later, however, I started a freelance job, writing and producing segments for a daily documentary TV series; and it went well enough that the assignment stretched from weeks into months, and in Spring of this year they actually offered me a full-time gig. Since I enjoy the work, I figured what the hell; why not? But I gave them a proviso: I'd come on full-time, but only after a four-month hiatus. They were a little perplexed, but I explained: I wanted the summer off to write. A novel, in fact. In structured, hierarchical corporate America, those must be magic words; because they agreed.

And so I finished Edgar and Emma, and will be self-publishing it in the same manner I did the two volumes of Bitch In a Bonnet, which seems to work well for me. You can expect Edgar and Emma to be available as both an ebook and a trade paperback sometime in the next few months—certainly, I hope, before Christmas (in case you're stuck for a fine gift idea for someone you highly esteem). I'll certainly keep you apprised here, so no worries. But in the meantime, here's the cover/catalog copy:

As a teenager, Jane Austen wrote "Edgar and Emma"—a withering satire on sentimental novels running four uproarious pages. 
Now Robert Rodi has taken the brief text of this early story and expanded it into a full-length novel in the mature Austen style. Here you'll find all the hallmarks of Austen's immortal masterpieces: a witty heroine, a hesitant hero, a romantic rival, a charismatic cad, several indefatigable talkers, a shattering crisis, shocking secrets revealed, and moments of the highest hilarity.
You'll also find some character types new to the extended Austensphere, including a firebrand preacher, a pair of ardent dog lovers, and an unrepentantly fey Oxford don. It's a brilliantly witty homage to a beloved novelist's oeuvre, by the acclaimed author of Bitch In a Bonnet: Reclaiming Jane Austen from the Stiffs, the Snobs, the Simps and the Saps. 
Edgar and Emma: A Novel After Jane Austen, by Robert Rodi—coming soon.

And "Adapted Austen," after a long interruption, resumes even before that.

Meantime, thank you for your patience, and for your continued support. I hope to prove worthy of both, and oh, so very, very soon.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Adapted Austen: Sense and Sensibility, 1981

Ten years after its first attempt, the BBC took another stab at Sense and Sensibility. In some respects, it’s a step sideways, if not backwards; this 1981 production looks in many cases even cheaper than its predecessor, despite using actual houses of the period rather than wobbly stage sets. Lighting seems to be the culprit; videotape is entirely different from film, and what looks sharp and pristine on the latter can seem harsh and ugly on the former. In this regard, the new production at least benefits from an increased number of outdoor sequences, given that the BBC drama department had a perplexing policy of switching from video to film anytime the action shifted from interior to exterior scenes. (Anyone remember the hilarious Monty Python sketch mocking this practice?)

In some respects, the 1981 Sense and Sensibility can be called an improvement. Despite being almost half an hour shorter than the 1971 series, it seems to pack in more of the story without feeling bloated. And the leads are particularly well cast. Irene Richards is just about ideal as Elinor; she’s not conventionally pretty, but there’s something about her that makes it difficult to watch anyone else while she’s onscreen. She conveys a quiet dignity through not much more than the tilt of her head and the angle of her eyes. I found her enchanting. Tracey Childs is also very appealing as Marianne, though she tends to gush just a bit.

The script, by Alexander Baron, gives the two sisters more complexity than they had in the earlier adaptation—a challenge the actresses meet brilliantly. In the original novel, Austen begins with Elinor representing sense and Marianne sensibility, but soon comes to feel constricted by this choice (we can almost sense her rebelling against it as we read), and ultimately shows Elinor as being more susceptible to feeling, and Marianne to rationality, than either would want to admit. 

This was a failure of the 1971 adaptation that I should have noted; we never see Elinor’s stoicism crumble, or Marianne’s romanticism hobbled by momentary doubt. In this later production, we see both quite clearly. (It’s even reflected in the lovely opening titles, with the sisters seated on a teeter-totter, one going up as the other descends.) There is, for instance, the moment in which Willoughby, coming to rescue Marianne after she’s hurt her ankle, proposes to lift her up and carry her back to Barton Cottage; Marianne says, “Oh, sir, no, please. It would be immodest.” And there’s no sense of protesting for form’s sake, while being secretly excited at breaking such a taboo, as you’d expect from a true free spirit; no, Tracey Childs’s performance makes it clear that Marianne really is as shocked as a duchess by the idea.

Similarly, in a later scene, Elinor overhears Marianne and Willoughby make fun of Colonel Brandon and Mrs. Jennings, and confronts them, rebuking them for their ridicule. There’s a real sense of conflict—almost of menace—in Irene Richards’s tone, even though she barely raises her voice. “Perhaps the abuse of people like yourself and Marianne is a compensation,” she hisses, when the young couple try to defend their mockery by protesting that its only the truth. “If to be praised by them is bad, to be censured by you is praise.” These are pretty strong words for an Austen character, and it’s clear that “I-govern-my-emotions” Elinor is seriously, burn-the-house-down mad, here. Willoughby, in fact, is visibly unnerved by her slap-down; with a nervous laugh he calls her “saucy,” then says, “The battle grows too hot for me,” and basically makes a run for it. 

Speaking of Willoughby, Peter Woodward nails him cold. He has the requisite gallant manner and dazzling good looks, but he also conveys an odious oiliness … a kind of amoral, feline glee. In every scene, he behaves like he’s already lifted someone’s wallet but is sticking around just in case another really good idea occurs to him. He’s basically Martin Shkreli in a Regency wig.

And then there’s Bosco Hogan as Edward Ferrars. A slam-dunk. Like Irene Richards, he’s not conventionally attractive—he’s a slight man, with a large head, and the production has given him a head of flat blond hair, like he’s just lifted it out of a tub after dunking for apples—but there’s a sort of steely indomitability in him that grabs you early on. Elinor certainly feels it; it’s only shortly after meeting him at Norland Park, that he comes across her sketching on the lawn and looks momentarily uncertain as to how to react, and she tells him, “Do sit down. You will not intrude. We both appear to like silence.” In another setting, that line would be almost a warning: You’re free to join me, but keep your pie hole shut. But here, it really is one placid spirit recognizing its twin.

I also quite like Robert Swann as Colonel Brandon. Initially he comes off as a bit of a cipher; but as his scenes grow longer, and we get to know him better, he grows in interest and attractiveness—exactly the way he should, given his role in the story.

Some of the smaller roles are wonderfully cast, as well. As Fanny Dashwood, Amanda Boxer exudes gorgeous contempt for everyone and everything around her. She barely parts her lips to deliver her lines, as though whoever she’s talking to isn’t worth the effort of actually opening her mouth. There’s an early scene, at Norland Park, where Fanny is trapped in a drawing room with the not-yet-moved-out Dashwoods, and says, “And what shall we do now? Marianne, will you play us something?”—but with a sigh of defeat, as though Marianne’s playing is the only alternative to, say, everyone driving stakes through each others’ hearts.

Boxer’s finest moment comes during the scene in which Anne Steele reveals to Fanny that her sister Lucy has been engaged to Edward for several years. Fanny pauses for a moment—you can almost see the wheels turning in her head, as she weighs exactly how much ignominy this revelation calls for, before deciding, All of it—then she falls into convulsions, shrieking, “Trollops! Schemers!” It’s epic.

Alas, not everyone in the cast thrives. Julia Chambers, as Lucy Steele, is a mess; her first meeting with Elinor is all over the place. We can’t tell whether Lucy really does want Elinor’s friendship, or has come purely to warn her away from Edward. It is, of course, possible for an actress to convey both; but she’d need a better script, and far better direction. We never really do get a handle on who Lucy is in this production, and it’s a big mark against its ultimate success.

Even worse is Annie Leon as Mrs. Jennings, who sort of putters and sputters and coos and chuckles indiscriminately, like a windup toy; aim her at the white cliffs of Dover and she’d trundle right over the edge. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Mrs. Jennings is just about my favorite character in the novel, and I think she’s crucial to the story’s success (if only because, incessant talker that she is, she’s always reminding everyone where we all are in the narrative). But Annie Leon’s take on the character is all tics and mannerisms; there’s no heart to her—no weight. She’s like a housefly who keeps buzzing into the scenes, unwanted.

Donald Douglas, as Sir John Middleton, is also a bit of a trial. Like his 1971 predecessor, he seems to feel he can build a character just by dialing the volume up to eleven. His Sir John is always shouting happily at people who are standing literally inches away from him. A little louder and he might bring the roof down on his head, which by Episode 2 is exactly the fate we find ourselves wishing on him. (I did, however, enjoy hearing him blare at Marianne, while telling her what little he knows about Willoughby, “And he’s got the nicest little bitch of a pointer I ever saw.”) 

At least one role in the novel wasn’t cast at all: youngest sister Margaret Dashwood is no more on evidence here than she was in 1971. As if to make up for it, two characters are invented: actual servants at Barton Cottage. And in an even more sensational departure from Austen, they’re both given names (Tom and Sue) and honest-to-God lines. A triumph of democracy!

While the casting is largely, if not entirely, successful, the script is less so. For one thing, there’s the perpetual problem with language. While not as grievously so as in 1971, little here sounds authentically Austenian. There is, for example, once again that pesky reliance on gerunds—which is an utterly modern formulation, and rings totally false in period pieces. Elinor asks, “Is Mr. Edward Ferrars going to be married?” Remove that word, “going,” and what you have left is exactly right. But we keep getting the the same mistake, over and over again.

This is far from the only example of tone-deafness on offer. Some of my favorite lines are mangled—and needlessly so. For example, Charlotte Palmer (played with admirably unflagging idiocy by Hetty Baynes) says of her husband, who’s just directly ignored something she’s said to him, “Mr. Palmer doesn’t hear me; he never does.” Austen’s original, by comparison, is the entirely nonsensical, entirely genius, “Mr. Palmer does not hear me; he never does sometimes.” 

Problems with language might be overlooked with only an occasional cringe or grimace. But this production commits far worse offenses. The bones of the story are tinkered with, in ways that are damaging to the narrative flow—and in some cases outright ruinous.

For example, when Sir John tells the Dashwoods about the Steele sisters coming to stay at Barton Park, Edward is there—which he isn’t in the novel—and it’s clear from Edward’s reaction that the news is not at all welcome to him. This tells us at once that we can expect some kind of revelation about his relationship to the Steele sisters—which doesn’t come for quite a while; in the meantime, we’re put in the awkward position of knowing more about Edward’s feelings than Elinor does. This adds nothing to the story except setting up a tension that isn’t relieved nearly soon enough. 

Even worse, when Willoughby arrives at Cleveland late at night, having ridden all the way from London, it is not—as it is in the novel—because he’s heard that Marianne is ill. Never mind that that makes perfect dramatic and emotional sense. No, in this version Willoughby shows up in darkness, banging on the door, and when Elinor lets him in and tells him Marianne can’t see him because she’s ill, he’s astonished. He had no idea. Which leaves Elinor nothing left to say, but the obvious, “Mr. Willoughby, why did you come here?”

His reply: “I could bear it no longer.” So, rather than have him hear of Marianne’s mortal illness and come flying to her in a fit of grief and guilt and panic, we’re to believe he just sat up in bed on that exact night and decided to get on a horse immediately and go and say “Sorry I was such a jerk.” I don’t understand the point of this—why an entirely credible and dramatic rationale for his appearance—the rationale used in the original novel—was rejected in favor of one that wouldn’t pass muster in a first draft.

There are also a few lamentable instances of changing the story to pump up the melodrama—what I call “Victorianizing,” but you’re welcoming to call vulgarizing. For example: at the party where Willoughby rejects Marianne, it’s Colonel Brandon who comes to her rescue—keeping her from crumpling to the floor and almost carrying her bodily from the premises. Because of course it is. I suppose they didn’t have the budget to have him ride in on a white horse.

Another example: after Edward’s engagement to Lucy is revealed, John Dashwood summons his sisters to his London house, to compel them to have nothing more to do with Edward. Elinor proudly defies him, with Marianne’s vocal encouragement, and then the sisters storm out with their chins in the air while John, chastened, dribbles apologetically after them. The whole scene is a complete fabrication; not only did Austen not write it, she’d rather have thrown herself off a roof than descend to anything this heavy-handed. (In the novel, she has Elinor go voluntarily to John’s house to inquire after Fanny, who she’s heard has been taken ill by the news; and the conversation between brother and sister is entirely more civil, and endlessly more hilarious.)

There’s more along the same lines…but I haven’t the heart to dwell on it. I will, however, excuse one small dose of Victorianizing, at the very end. Edward arrives at Barton Cottage and, after some awkward moments of misunderstanding, makes it clear that it’s his brother, not he, who’s married Lucy Steele—meaning he’s still single, and free to marry Elinor. And Elinor actually gets up and flees the cottage, sprinting prettily across a verdant landscape, including a picturesque bridge over a babbling stream. Edward, thinking he’s upset her, has to be persuaded by Marianne to follow her, which he does; and when he finds her, she turns to face him, and says the words no Austen heroine ever uttered in print: “I love you.” 

Well…call me an old softie. I bought it. Austen would snark at me for it. But there’s probably a lot Austen would snark at me for, and in this case I’ve decided to live with it.

But by all means, feel free to be more stringent on your own behalf.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Adapted Austen: Sense and Sensibility, 1971

Hey, everybody! It’s been a while. 

The reason I’m back is that I still get comments and inquiries about the blog, and one of the questions I’m frequently asked is my opinion of the various Austen TV and film adaptations. As I’ve noted elsewhere, I’m not a huge fan of these; they manage, in my opinion, to get Austen so very, very wrong so very, very often. In fact, I can think of only two adaptations in the past forty years that I’d call note-perfect. Yet by the same token, there’s generally something to enjoy in most of them; only one, in my opinion, has been an unmitigated, drive-a-stake-through-its-noxious-black-heart disaster. 

But one of the surprises, for me, of having live-blogged the Austen canon for five wonderful years (and later collecting the posts into two bookself-worthy volumes, *ahem*) is that it altered my perceptions of certain aspects of Austen. I have a different appreciation for several of her gifts than I had prior to the project, and a better—or at least a different—understanding of some of the characters. 

So I’m going to try that with the adaptations, as well—starting right here, right now. I had to ponder a while on how best to go about this; should I go back to the early days and take on the various movies and serials as they appeared?—There are advantages to that approach; but ultimately I decided on a modified version. I’ll be looking at the adaptations of each of Austen’s novels in the order in which the novels were originally published. So we’ll begin with Sense and Sensibility, taking the adaptations of that particular novel in chronological order.

Which brings us to 1971, and—who else—the BBC. To the best of my knowledge (and Wikipedia’s), this four-part miniseries is the earliest adaptation of the story, and it comes at the beginning of the Beeb’s golden era, when they vaulted to transatlantic fame for their tireless production of magisterial costume dramas (which included I, Claudius, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Elizabeth R, Upstairs, Downstairs, the original Poldark, and many others). 

In Sense and Sensibility, we don’t yet find them quite at the top of their game. Budgets, of course, are minuscule; the sets in particular are borderline claustrophobic—it’s like the entirety of the story is being enacted in a series of scrupulously decorated cupboards. That wouldn’t be nearly so distracting if everything weren’t also powerfully overlit; the nineteenth century was all about candlelight, not the harsh fluorescent glare we get here. It’s especially bad when we get to Mrs. Jennings’ country house, Cleveland, whose interior seems to be constructed entirely out of unpainted plaster-of-Paris; you have to adjust the Brightness knob on your TV monitor or risk being struck snowblind.

The costumes come off better; they’re up to the BBC’s typically high standards (Elinor and Marianne’s matching pink-and-sage traveling costumes are just goddamn adorable; you want to hang them on a Christmas tree). But the styling is a problem. As is almost always the case with period dramas, you can take one look at the hairstyles and fix the year almost to the month. There was obviously an attempt to make Ciaran Madden, who plays Marianne, look Regency, but her coiffure seems to call more urgently for a miniskirt and vinyl hip boots. Likewise the early-seventies makeup that gives most of the women, but especially Madden, a kind of lacquered aspect; Marianne, on first glance, might pass for forty. (Madden was just twenty-three at the time.)

Fortunately, whenever she opens her mouth, Marianne’s youth and exuberance come spilling out. The triumph of BBC costume dramas was always in the acting, and Madden is amazing. She’s always sweeping around the frame in a rush of feeling. Whereas Joanna David, as Elinor, embodies the kind of stillness the character demands; she might be a maypole that Madden can’t stop dancing around. David is very pretty, too, in an entirely Elinor kind of way—wide-eyed and clear-skinned; and when she speaks, her cadences are measured and deliberate, but with a lovely delicacy. Best of all, these two actresses manage all this technique without being too showy about it, so there’s a nice, organic quality to their relationship—with each other, and the other characters.

Not all the rest of the cast is equally successful. The men in particular are a disappointment; Robin Ellis, for one, is far too dashing to succeed as Edward, and his stammering and tripping over furniture never remotely convinces. (He found his iconic role a few years later, as the dashing-is-his-middle-name Ross in the aforementioned Poldark.) Likewise, Clive Francis (another future Poldark alum) is far too chilly and remote as Willoughby; you can never quite make yourself believe Marianne would go all-in for someone so creepily guarded. Meanwhile Richard Owens, as Colonel Brandon, gives an utterly neutral performance; the only interesting or memorable thing about him is his wig.

Michael Aldridge, who plays Sir John Middleton, is an absolute trial. He not only overdoes the Devonshire accent (to the point you might check your DVD menu for close-captioning), he bellows all his lines as if he’s really meant to be in another production two soundstages over. As if that weren’t enough to convey Sir John’s natural ebullience, he gestures with great, swinging gusto, and you can sense all the other players carefully staying out of his way lest they get thwacked in the kisser.

Milton Johns, as John Dashwood, fares better; his simpering about his finances (which, as we know, are abundant), is repellent in exactly the right comic way. Unfortunately, his wife, Fanny, who in the novel is a volcanic comic character, barely registers here; nor does Lady Middleton, in the novel a hilariously narcoleptic figure. It’s not really the actresses’ fault; the parts are underwritten—which is, alas, a necessity when you try to sprint through an entire novel in four one-hour episodes; certain characters must have their roles whittled down. (Poor Margaret Dashwood, the younger sister of Marianne and Elinor, has been written out entirely.) That said, Maggie Jones as Anne Steele, the elder of the two Miss Steeles, manages to make the most of her own few scenes.

There are, however, three undisputed comic triumphs in the cast. The first is the most unexpected. As readers of this blog (and the collections, *ahem*) are well aware, one of my few gripes with Austen as a novelist is the blanket way she ignores the servant class, completely missing out the rich veins for comedy she might have mined there. Comb through the entire Austen canon, you’ll find only a handful of lines assigned to housekeepers or valets or their ilk, and even then they’re lucky if they’re given a name. 

In this adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, however, the Dashwood family is provided a servant at their cottage at Barton Park. Her name is Mary, played by Esme Church, and she’s an elderly woman who, in the best Austen tradition, seems convinced that if she ever ceases talking she will surely die. From the moment of her first entrance she’s at it, and the other cast members almost have to push her off-camera so they can get on with the plot. Her monologues are hilarious—droning litanies of gossip and misfortune and doleful observations (as when Willoughby carries Marianne home after she’s fallen and hurt her ankle while out walking; Mary says, with obvious relish, “Oh, poor soul, she might’ve dashed her brains out”). 

The second great comic performance is that of Patricia Routledge as Mrs. Jennings. If you’ve read my analysis of Sense and Sensibility, you’ll know that Mrs. J. is my favorite character in the novel, so I’m very jealous of her. She has to be treated well, or in my view the whole adaptation sinks. Routledge (who will later find her iconic role as Hyacinth Bucket in the nineties sitcom Keeping Up Appearances) attacks the role with all the unbridled giddiness and relish we’d expect from the character herself. She almost never pauses for breath, and when she does, she seems to breathe by chuckling. She boosts the energy level of every scene she’s in, and when she’s on-camera you almost don’t notice how badly overlit the production is—because she’s too busy outshining it. Even when she’s in obvious distress, she’s a scream. After Marianne falls deathly ill, Mrs. Jennings spends a good five minutes bemoaning to Colonel Brandon about how very bad it looks for the poor, poor girl; then when Brandon—understandably—tries to excuse himself, so he won’t be in the way at such a delicate time, Mrs. Jennings seizes him by the arm and forbids him to go, wailing, “I need the presence of another calm, cool head, such as yours!” I was weeping.

And finally we come to Frances Cuka as Lucy Steele. Sheer comic genius. She’s only in two episodes, but goddammit, she owns them. Her debut scene—as in the novel—is a tricky one; she has to let Elinor know of her engagement to Edward in a way that is ostensibly innocent—one young woman sharing a confidence with another—while simultaneously conveying that she knows of Elinor’s interest in Edward, and is warning her away from him. You’ve got to be an actress of some skill just to pull off that much duality of meaning; but Cuka manages to make it killingly funny as well. Her comic choice—and it’s a genius one—is to go full Dragon Lady in her body language, while delivering her lines in the sweetest, most lilting tones. She seethes, she scowls, she narrows her reptilian eyes, she holds her wrists in the air as if ready to scratch Elinor’s eyes out; and yet her voice itself is a kittenish purr. I was dazzled. 

Cuka’s gift for physical comedy gives her a leg up in all her scenes—as in the one where Edward’s mother, having been introduced to Elinor and wishing to put her in her place, calls Lucy over so that she can show her the courtesy she’s denying Elinor. Lucy makes this easy to do by stepping directly in front of Elinor to meet the older woman. I mean really, right in front of her—to the point that Joanna David must have gotten a mouthful of Cuka’s up-do. 

But there’s plenty of other physical comedy on offer elsewhere in the series—such as Mrs. Jennings running upstairs to deliver some news, then being too winded to be able to get it out; Lucy taking hold of Edward’s hand in front of Elinor, and Edward cringing away from her as though she’d just clamped him in irons; and a beautifully funny scene in which Marianne, left alone to bid a final goodbye to her childhood home, says, “Dear Norland, farewell,” then looks out the window and adds, “sweet garden,” then clutches the adjacent draperies and cries, “goodbye, curtains!”

So yes, there’s a lot to enjoy here, in spite of the antique production values and the often excessively leisurely pace. (Attention spans must have been much more generous back in the seventies; I found myself growing impatient during the opening credits—which amble on for, like, a week-and-a-half.) 

However…there’s one prevailing drawback, and it can’t be ignored. It’s the writing, which is pedestrian at best and awkward at worst. Denis Constanduros, who scripted all four episodes, has a tin ear when it comes to Regency speak, which is especially unfortunate, because dialogue is Austen’s principal genius. Everything sounds forced, and Constanduros can’t quite shake modern constructions—as when Edward observes, “Everyone doesn’t hunt,” which of course ought to be, “Not everyone hunts.” And there are clunky exchanges, as when Willoughby says, “I shall not be in this neighborhood for another twelvemonth, I am afraid,” and Mrs. Dashwood says, “Not for a year?” (as though showing off her impressive calculating skills) and Willoughby replies, “No, I am afraid not, Madam”—that repetition of “I am afraid” being so unnecessary, so clumsy, so jarring.

This may sound like nitpicking, but it’s not; these are just two examples among a profusion of them. And even worse are the head-scratching alterations Constanduros makes to the plot. For instance, he has Elinor tell Marianne of Willoughby’s unexpected visit to Cleveland as soon as Marianne recovers from her fever. So it makes no sense later, when the slowly recuperating girl tells Elinor that she’d be improving more quickly “If only I could feel that (Willoughby) was not always acting a part when he spoke to me as he did, not always deceiving me.” This is where, in the novel, Elinor reassures Marianne by finally telling her about Willoughby’s confession; of course it is. It makes proper dramatic sense that it should occur here. But in Constanduros’s adaptation, Elinor is reduced to having to remind Marianne that hey, you already know the guy was on the level, because remember what I told you earlier? About him coming to see me? Hm?

Some plot points just don’t get brought up at all; for instance, there’s not a single word spared to explain why Lucy Steele switched her affections from Edward to his brother Robert (who, in any case, makes no real impression as a character). Anyone unfamiliar with the novel will be wondering what the hell happened there.

Fine, it was 1971; television, while no longer a new medium, was still a very transient one…programs were broadcast once, maybe repeated a few months later, and then disappeared into the ether. Denis Constanduros certainly couldn’t foresee that nearly half a century on some snarky TV critic would be poring over his work, repeatedly rewinding passages so that he could transcribe them verbatim and then censoriously tsk-tsking over the result. But my aim here isn’t fairness to him; it’s counsel to you. I’m giving you my assessment of his version of Sense and Sensibility, and advising you as to whether it’s worth your time.

Which I think it is, if only for those few really brilliant comic performances. The rest of it—the crude production values, the dated styling, the stilted dialogue—is easily enough borne. But it’s an odd phenomenon, watching this Sense and Sensibility—one we’ll encounter again, as we discuss further adaptations—that what we have on our hands is a period piece done in a different period than our own. Meaning we’re twice removed from the original material. 

Whereas when we read Austen, there’s no removal at all: we’re immediately, and entirely, immersed in her world. Austen is never dated; she’s always fresh as paint.

Next time: The BBC’s second stab at Sense and Sensibility, from 1981.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Announcing: Jane Austen Team-Ups!

What would brusque, decisive Mr. Knightley make of chatty, epicene Mr. Tilney? Would Mary Bennet and Catherine Morland bond over their love of books, or despise each other’s taste? Would Aunt Norris and Mr. Collins meet in mutual obsequiousness, or clash over mutual ambition? Would Lucy Steele just flat-out eat Harriet Smith alive, then spit out the splintered bones?...These are among the questions that can be answered by our NEW Kickstarter reward level: For $225, you'll get signed copies of all my Austen books, PLUS your very own customized story (2,500 words+), featuring any two Austen characters you choose—and the story is yours to share, sell, or stash away, however you see fit. For more details, see our Edgar and Emma Kickstarter page.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

"Edgar and Emma" Kickstarter campaign is LIVE

I've posted the first ten chapters of Edgar & Emma below; if you'd like to see more, this link is the way to make it happen.

Please share it with your fellow Austenphiles, Janeites, Rege-freaks, and bitches-in-or-out-of-bonnets. I'd love for us all to go on this journey together. 

And as I say in the video, this could be just the beginning: the juvenile Jane wrote a lot of short fiction, and I'd love to spend the next decade or ish, turning all those stories into full-length novels in my best approximation of her mature style.

But it starts here; this is the gate through which we must first pass.

Until that time, I remain your loyal and most obedient servant.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Edgar and Emma, chapter 10

Emma, dismayed that she had not been able to catch Edgar's attention before leaving the churchyard—and even more distraught that the impediment to doing so was his apparent fascination with Alice Nesmith—again took to her room, with the stated intention of remaining there the rest of her days. This time, however, her family were less solicitous of her; no doubt they expected her to relent at any time, as she had done before. And she could not quite resent them for it, because she fully expected it as well.
Self-incarceration had not suited her; she had grown bored with herself, and weary of her grief, and maintained her isolation only out of dread of the embarrassment she should face if she ended it so soon. But when Tom’s letter had arrived, alerting her of Edgar’s imminent arrival, she joyed at her deliverance; for the reason for her seclusion no longer applied.
But there was little chance of that now. After she had wept out the initial ravages of her disappointment, she lay on her pillow and rationally examined the possibility of another face-saving miracle. It was slight. She could scarcely expect providence to come to her aid a second time; and even if she could, what might that aid consist of? A letter advising her that Alice Nesmith had been struck by lightning? She could not in good conscience wish for it, little as she cared for Alice—and the two had never been on good terms; not since they were very young, when, having grown tired and irritable over a game they had been playing for far too long, they had fallen out over the rules. Each one invented a regulation that favored her over her competitor; each then accused the other of trickery, and neither admitted the deceit; with the result that Alice had pulled Emma’s hair, and Emma had pushed Alice into a cow-pat. They had been forced by their fathers to make it up; but each was strong-willed, and nurtured a secret strain of rebellion in her breast, that kept them at arm’s length from that day to this. They might be coerced into civility, but they would never again choose to be friends. 
It sometimes seemed absurd that the effects of a petty childhood falling-out should yet be felt in full adulthood; but Emma could think of no possible amendment of it now. Except, in her less guarded moments…Alice Nesmith being struck by lightning.
But until this eventuality, Emma found herself self-exiled to her room…again.

Her salvation came in the form of Mrs. Curtis, who came to Graftings one morning to beg her company on a series of errands which it would be excessively tedious to have to attend to on her own. Emma put up a show of resistance, but allowed herself to be persuaded to end her tragic confinement; and thus when at last she came downstairs, she sacrificed no dignity, for she was doing her aunt a favor.
Still, she scolded herself for having got herself into the same predicament twice, and vowed to better suppress her more operatic impulses, that she should not do so a third time. Since the first two had been prompted by extremes of grief having to do with Edgar Willmot, she felt it might be best to avoid him entirely; for should she happen again to espy him doting on Alice, she could not depend on her reason.
Alas, she might conceivably evade him in the flesh; but the idea of Edgar was not so easily skirted. She learned as much within her first five minutes out-of-doors. She had known, of course, that the reason Mrs. Curtis sought her company was that she wished to talk—there being no circumstance in all of Creation in which Mrs. Curtis did not wish to talk—but she had not suspected that today, what she wished principally to talk of was the male Willmots.
“You turned the heads of both brothers on Sunday,” she said, as they headed toward the high street, arm in arm. “Mr. Curtis and I could not but notice it. That is to say, I noticed it and I pointed it out to him, and he did not contradict me. But I think I can guess which of the two pleased you better.”
“I hope you will not make the attempt,” said Emma, with no small dread.
“In fairness, I do think their finer qualities are evenly distributed; do not you? Edgar is very much the responsible one; his is the cooler head, his the sounder judgment. He possesses a very comforting gravity, and an endearing trustworthiness.” Mrs. Curtis recited all this as if describing a very well-made suit of clothes which she never wished to wear.
“Whereas Ralph,” she continued, “is the more suave, the more charming, the more conversationally adept. He is also more certain to be delightful company, and to notice everything, and to frame it in such a way as to make one laugh. Do you not agree?”
“I cannot disagree,” said Emma reluctantly.
“But while their characters are thus balanced, I think there is, alas, less equivalence in their aspects. Edgar is very self-contained and very graceful; but he has not the same advantage of countenance as does Ralph. Surely you will agree with me. Ralph is by any measure the handsomer of the brothers.”
Again, Emma could not argue the point; but she would not give her aunt the satisfaction of saying so. Mrs. Curtis placed far more importance on appearance than she did; and Emma would not encourage her by confirming a judgment based on such superficial terms…though she knew her aunt would press the matter. If only something would occur to divert her attention.
And at that moment, such a thing did occur; but not in a manner which Emma would have wished. For at the juncture where the high street met the road to the parsonage, they were intercepted by Alice Nesmith.
Mrs. Curtis was delighted. “Come and join us, dear Alice!” she exclaimed. “We are headed for the shops, as I deduce, by the basket on your arm, you are as well.”
Alice looked for a moment like she might turn and flee; but then she steeled herself, came forth, and fell into step with them.
“Good day to you, Miss Nesmith,” said Emma.
“And to you, Miss Emma Marlow,” said Alice crisply. “I congratulate you on your return to Marlhurst.”
“Oh, have you not yet renewed your acquaintance?” Mrs. Curtis asked. “What luck to have run into you then, Alice; for we are just now having a very illuminating tĂȘte-a-tĂȘte. What do you think Emma has just been telling me of?”
“I am sorry to confess,” replied Alice with perhaps too much satisfaction, “that I have not heard Miss Emma Marlow speak sufficiently often to guess at what she might say.”
“Why, she has only been saying which of the Willmot brothers she finds the most handsome. I think you may surmise which she chose.”
“I beg your pardon, Aunt,” said Emma, feeling color come to her face. “I have said not one word on the subject. The discourse has been entirely your own.”
“But there are so many Willmots,” said Alice, ignoring Emma’s protest; “I don’t like to venture a guess as to which one you mean.” But her eyes—which she now turned on Emma—betrayed that she had indeed ventured a guess.
“Difficult creature,” said Mrs. Curtis, and she playfully tweaked Alice’s arm—a familiarity that made Emma feel quite faint. “Why will you never guess when I ask it of you?”
“I am sorry, but I am very stupid at it.”
“I will have to tell you, then,” said the older woman, and she drew Alice closer that she might lower her voice. “It is of course Ralph whom Emma favors.”
“Aunt,” Emma cried, “forgive me, but I never said such a thing! It was yourself who named him.”
By this time they had reached the shops, and joined with other villagers who were out with their baskets, running their errands in the relative cool of morning, before the inevitable heat of midday.
“Ralph is very fair,” said Alice with a nod of approval. “Though I confess I prefer a darker complexion. No doubt Miss Emma Marlow and I have not the same taste in men.”
Emma, who did not like to consider that she and Alice Nesmith might have the same taste in anything, stilled the protest that was poised to leap from her tongue; in which interval her aunt renewed her discourse on the male Willmots.
“That is the benefit, you see,” she said, taking Alice in one arm and Emma in the other and leading them up the street, “of having so very many brothers in a single family. There is certain to be one to fit every fancy. Think of it, girls: Ralph is light, Edgar is dark; Richard is slender, David is burly; and Peter—well, Peter is too young yet to say what he will be. I suppose we must be content to wait.”
“I think he will be tall,” said Alice. “He is very high already, for just twelve years.”
“Then the Willmots must be persuaded to have another son,” quipped Mrs. Curtis, “that there may also be one who is short.”
“But what if he should instead be round? Then the Willmots must have two more sons: one who is short, and another who is gaunt.”
“Mrs. Willmot will not thank you for that, my dear,” said Mrs. Curtis, and the two laughed very wildly. Emma, whose elbow was securely interlocked with that of her aunt, could think of no greater mortification than to be seen with them behaving thusly, and indeed several heads turned in response to the noise they were making. But alas, she was to learn that greater mortification always awaits those helpless to defend against it.
“Why, bless me,” cried Aunt Curtis, “are those not two of the gentlemen we have only just named?”
Emma looked up, and to her horror saw that indeed Edgar and Ralph Willmot were a short distance ahead, very near to the milliner’s shop.
“Emma, my dear,” said Mrs. Curtis with telling deliberation, “was not our principle destination this morning the milliner’s?”
“No, indeed, Aunt,” said Emma, pretending not to take her meaning, “we have no business to transact there.”
Mrs. Curtis gave her arm a little shake. “Silly creature! You understand me, I am sure. I mean to say, what a chance this is to speak extemporaneously to your lover, Mr. Ralph Willmot!”
Emma felt her face burn again. “I have no such lover,” she insisted.
“Ah, but here is an opportunity to make it so!”
“The mere fact that an opportunity presents itself,” Emma said desperately, “does not signify that it is advisable to take it.”
Mrs. Curtis cawed out a laugh. “How clever you are! Ever ready with a turn of phrase. I suppose you think that gentlemen find cleverness an attractive quality in a lady. They do not. You may trust me on this, my dear; I know it for a certainty.”
“I am sure no one knows it better,” snapped Emma; and as soon as she had said it, she regretted that provocation had rendered her pert.
Fortunately her aunt was oblivious to her meaning, and merrily pulled her in the direction of the milliner’s shop.
“I declare,” said Mrs. Curtis when they came within hailing distance of the brothers, “here are friends of ours! Look, girls; it is the Misters Willmot.”
The brothers, who had been conferring together, raised their heads at this, and a momentary look passed between Emma and Edgar—a look of such candid, unaffected interest that each was embarrassed by it, certain that it was misconstrued—after which they turned their glances quickly away, and did not risk allowing their eyes to meet a second time.
“How do you do, ladies,” Ralph said as he and Edgar tipped their hats.
“Very well, thank you,” said Mrs. Curtis. “We are just come to visit the milliner’s. And what,” she added with unconcealed glee, “do you think we have all been talking about?”
Emma, whose skin was so recently reddened by shame, now felt it go pale with anxiety. “Aunt, no,” she whispered.
“You must not ask us to guess,” said Ralph. “For we might scandalize you by deducing quite wrongly.”
“Then I will have to tell you,” said Mrs. Curtis, and as Emma felt herself begin to sink into the ground, she declared: “We have been singing the praises of this lovely springtime weather.”
“Indeed it is very clement,” murmured Edgar, whose gaze remained downcast, as though in search of coins from Roman Britain that might be easily unearthed by the toe of his shoe.
“Such a wonderful moistness in the air,” said Mrs. Curtis with a quick glance at Emma; and the spark in her eye revealed how much she enjoyed causing her niece trepidation, then relieving it at the last possible moment. “So beneficial for the skin. Does not Emma’s visage have a particular glow this morning, Mr. Willmot?”
“Indeed it does,” said Ralph, at whom she had quite pointedly directed the question; for Edgar seemed to drift ever further to the outskirts of the group. “And yet she looks no less fine than Miss Nesmith—or I daresay yourself, ma’am.”
Mrs. Curtis laughed wildly again. “You must not say such things, Mr. Willmot! I am an old married lady.”
He flashed her a dazzling grin. “Then this moist air is more efficacious than any I have yet known; for you look no less a maiden than your two companions.”
Again she shrieked with laughter; up and down the street heads turned in curiosity at such stridency, and Emma longed to be gone. But she knew she was fixed in place for the time being. It was unlike her aunt to hurry away from a place where compliments were aplenty.
“To be sure,” Mrs. Curtis said, “there is but a difference of seven years between my niece and myself. My brother Marlow is fully a dozen years my senior, you know; so that I was but a child myself when Emma was born.”
“That explains it,” said Ralph with another bow. “I congratulate your husband, ma’am, on his good fortune in securing so young and comely a bride.”
“As well you might,” she said with a little smirk of pride. “For Mr. Curtis was nearly forty when I married him and might have done much worse, as I often tell him. But I daresay I have made him happy. He will not say so; but as he has not got rid of me in all these years, I must conclude he is not unsatisfied.”
“He is the happiest of men, I am certain,” said Ralph.
She crowed again. “Oh! if Mr. Curtis is the happiest of men, then what dour creatures all the rest of you must be!” She turned again to Emma. “I shall wish better for my niece, sir; that I shall. For her, I shall wish a husband who is always gallant, always gay, always ready with a compliment.” She took another quick look at Ralph, as if requiring further inspiration, then added, “A well-looking fellow, who is always considerate and obliging. That is my ideal. That is what I wish for Emma.”
“Such a paragon as that!” said Ralph, shaking his head and feigning a dubious look. “I wonder whether he exists in the world.”
“I am certain he does, and in quantity. In fact, you may be sure there is one to be found wherever you go.” She gave him a very sly look, as if daring him to take her meaning.
“Aunt,” Emma whispered frantically; “you grow too bold.”
“And Miss Nesmith,” Ralph said, nodding his head at Alice; “is she not included in your marital good wishes?”
“Oh, I shouldn’t like a cheerful husband,” protested Alice. “I should be much more contented with a sober-minded man—a scholarly man of great, mindful silences.” She did not look at Edgar as she said this; but Emma saw Edgar color and turn further away, as though he felt Alice’s eyes on him all the same.
“Then at least,” said Ralph, “you ladies will never be rivals for the same suitor. I congratulate you on the safety of your friendship.” He turned his head, as if to say something to Edgar, then appeared momentarily confounded at finding him so far off. “It appears my brother is impatient to depart,” he said, “and indeed we have lingered here longer than we had ought. But with such company as this, none would dare to blame us.”
“Such gallant words have bought you your release,” said Mrs. Curtis, waving him away. “Go, then; we will detain you no longer.”
As soon as the brothers were beyond the range of hearing, she turned to Emma and squeezed her forearm. “Did that not go well? How attentive he was! How rhapsodic in praise of your fine skin!”
“I believe,” said Emma, “he meant to praise each of our complexions in equal measure.”
“Oh, foolish girl; that was but a blind! He included Alice and me, the better to mask his compliment to you.”
Emma looked at her with incredulity. Was it possible Mrs. Curtis really believed what she had said? When Emma had last known her, she had admired her aunt very much, and thought her the pinnacle of all womanly achievement: a beautiful young wife with a fine house, and a liberal husband who allowed her to do what she pleased. Now that Emma had reached womanhood herself, Mrs. Curtis appeared very different to her; she seemed to be rather the younger of the two, as if her early marriage had frozen her in a perpetual state of juvenile giddiness. Were her aunt now to pick up her skirts and turn a somersault in the high street, Emma would be embarrassed, but not surprised.
“I must bid you good morning as well,” said Alice. “I begin my rounds just ahead, at the tobacconist’s shop, as my father has once again let his pouch go empty.”
Emma was surprised to her a daughter speak so sardonically of a parent; she kept her counsel, but the incident did nothing to inspire her to think better of her childhood friend.
Thus Alice left them, buffeted by Mrs. Curtis’s regretful effusions; after which aunt and niece went on alone. Emma had to endure another four minutes’ dissection of their encounter with Ralph, until by chance they passed the draper’s shop, and Mrs. Curtis must abandon all talk of the Willmots and tell Emma the shocking history of Madame Claude. Emma, grateful to be quit of the earlier subject, listened to the narrative with great equanimity, though she had already heard it twice before.

Thus at the end of the morning, each of its principal participants returned home secure in an entirely erroneous conviction.
Ralph was certain, by the way Mrs. Curtis had spoken, and by the way Emma had blushed at it, that his way to the latter’s heart was clear.
Edgar was equally certain of his brother’s success with Emma; and was additionally persuaded, having now seen both girls together, that Alice suited him much the worse of the two—but that she was, all the same, the best for which he could hope.
Emma was surer than ever that she could not be in the presence of Edgar and Alice without suffering great unhappiness. Never mind that he had behaved diffidently towards Alice; it was clear Alice had not minded—which, to Emma, meant that she had accustomed herself to such behavior from him, and did not find it an impediment to love.
Mrs. Curtis was confident that she would soon triumph on two separate fronts. Her campaign to match Emma with Ralph Willmot gave every indication of success; and by the way Alice spoke of preferring “a scholarly man of great, mindful silences,” it was clear she was indeed an ideal match for Tom Peake, did she but know it—and Mrs. Curtis would see that she did know it.
As for Alice herself…she was the least deluded of those here enumerated. For she was certain that Emma was less immediate a danger to her than she had feared, and that she had somehow gained an advantage with Edgar—an advantage she meant to press.
And let the consequences be what they may.