The Complete Jane Austen News Roundup: Are They All Horrid? Edition

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Felicity JonesARE they all horrid? Our Gentle Readers have judged the latest adaptation of Persuasion and found it lacking; next up, Northanger Abbey.

Several Alert Janeites, alarmed and horrified to find Andrew Davies holding forth on Jane Austen on the front page of CNN (we’re not snarking, you should read the e-mails), sent us a link to this article. We were a little surprised to see so many e-mails about it, as we were fairly certain we had already snarked this particular piece, but alas, no. It’s just that we’ve read it all before.

Her work, Davies argues, “is not just social comedy. It’s about money, struggle for individualism, sex — all the kinds of things that interest us now. People sometimes misinterpret that. Jane Austen is regarded as such a prim writer. Well, she’s not, really. The engine of her plot is often sexual desire.”

Are we all taking notes? Good.

And, airing 9 p.m. EST Sunday, a charming parody of gothic fiction, “Northanger Abbey,” whose virginal teen heroine, Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones) displays a penchant for romantic, even erotic fantasies.

“Characters can’t have sex until after they’re married in this kind of story,” says Davies. “But one can remind the audience in various subtle, and less subtle, ways that sex is in the air.” And he beckons the audience to take a deep breath.

Well, there you go.

“My mother was a difficult and unfathomable woman,” declares Davies, “and I started trying to understand women at an early age.”

That explains a great deal, doesn’t it?

Hear him lovingly survey the young women in a typical Austen novel: “Their bodies are quite a substantial part of what they bring to the whole sexual equation. Their hair and their shoulders and their necks and their breasts” — ripe in decolletage — “are all on show, part of the whole deal.

Oh, please. As if that’s all that Jane Austen’s heroines have to offer. That, too, explains a great deal.

“And the men, too,” he goes on. “I have men on horseback riding very fast, working up a sweat, in boots and tight breeches, all that kind of thing.

*falls over laughing*

Oh, Andy. You do amuse us, little man. It doesn’t astonish us at all that you think no more of consumers of Austen than you do of the novels themselves. Thanks to the Shell-shocked Yet Alert Janeites who sent us this link: Jessica, Marcia, Julie S., Rosa Cotton, and Arti.

In general the press coverage has us rolling our eyes just a bit. The San Francisco Chronicle’s review is rather typical.

“Northanger” is interesting in part because, in addition to being an amusing send-up of Gothic romance novels, it is a sketchbook for the plots and characters that would come to full bloom in Austen’s later novels.

Okay, that’s the second time that we have read a similar comment: that NA was “practice” for Jane Austen’s later novels, instead of being something rather different from the others. Is this a meme that somebody (PBS, perhaps?) is sending around to the press?

There is, of course, a young, somewhat plain heroine who is pursued by a perfectly pleasant but bland chap, while her heart flutters for a more aloof man.

Uh…BLAND? Surely you do not mean Da Man. Surely not. And when, IN THE NOVEL, does Catherine’s heart “flutter” for anyone but Henry Tilney? Somebody didn’t read the assignment, we think.

But “Northanger” also has its own charms, slight though they may be in comparison with Austen’s later masterpieces.

Okay, we’re done. Next victim. DOROTHY! A fresh spork!

The Los Angeles Times also has a review.

In the good old days, before Jane Austen was a pop star, with assorted websites and an action figure, “Northanger Abbey” was what used to be called a “lesser-known work.” “Emma,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility,” even “Persuasion” all could be referred to in casual conversation by those desirous of proving their good taste and general familiarity with English literature. Mention your devotion to “Northanger Abbey,” however, and you instantly identified yourself as a Jane Austen geek.

She says that like it’s a bad thing.

This is strange, since “Northanger Abbey” is the most lighthearted of Austen’s novels, a gentle take-down of the popular Gothic novels of the time, with their swooning, sexually endangered heroines, mildly depraved villains and heroes in thigh-high boots.

Thigh-high? Doubtful, but…hmm. Oh, and don’t forget the Many Caped Great Coat!

The second in Masterpiece Theatre’s “Complete Jane Austen,” “Northanger” lends itself more freely to the term “based on.” Thus Andrew Davies (who has done many Austen adaptations, including the 1995 TV production of “Pride and Prejudice,” not to mention those Bridget Jones movies) may hew faithfully to the essential story, but he also has a little fun with it.

We suppose one might attach a certain value to “fun,” yes.

Oh, you could poke a few holes in the production — the 90-minute playing time does not leave much room for mood. Beck’s John Thorpe is not polished enough to fool even a young woman for more than a few minutes, while Feild seems to downplay Tilney’s rather zany charms. Davies gets a bit carried away with the sexiness — “there’s a young peach ripe for plucking,” comments the young roué as he catches sight of Catherine, while Austen no doubt turns in her grave.

Heh.

“Northanger Abbey” the novel was as fun as it gets for Austen, and the television film quite lives up to the same standard. Which is not to recommend it as a substitute for the novel, which it is now quite the fashion to have read.

*puts down spork*

While we didn’t agree with all of that article, we liked it quite a bit. We liked this one from the Boston Globe as well, again written by someone who actually seems familiar with the original.

There are things to like about Davies’ “Northanger Abbey,” even while it is flawed and superficial, particularly when the storyline collapses awkwardly toward the end. It is not one of Davies’ most consistent adaptations, but still, it’s an easy-to-watch introduction to one of Austen’s lesser-known novels. Austen wrote “Northanger Abbey” early in her career but, after a publishing misadventure, it was not released until after her death. About an imaginative young woman who reads too many Gothic novels, the story is Austen’s most lighthearted.

Fair enough!

At one point while staying with the Tilneys at their large home, Northanger Abbey, Catherine imagines that their father, a stiff general, was in some way responsible for the death of their late mother. Swept up in her sense of drama, she shares her theory with Henry and appears to trigger a series of unpleasant events. By that moment, though, the movie has already given up on its storytelling efforts and on making the secondary characters anything more than sketches. Davies and director Jon Jones seem to be saying, “OK, you know where this is all going, so let’s just go there. You’ve seen an Austen movie, that’s good enough.”

Is it?

Part of “The Complete Jane Austen” presented by “Masterpiece” this season, “Northanger Abbey” probably needs more than 90 minutes to do justice to Austen’s novel. While it is a fairly obvious piece of work, in that the perceptions of characters generally match their realities, the story still deserves enough time to explore more thoroughly how the Thorpes’ behavior affects our heroine, and how our heroine grows. As she learns not to be so easily influenced by others and by books, we need to know more about the allure of those influences.

Which sounds an awful lot like what Cub Reporter Heather L. said, though she said it rather more elegantly. 🙂

Unfortunately our duty to our Gentle Readers plunges us back in the maelstrom of the ill-informed ink-stained wretches of the public press. The New York Times:

“Northanger’s” heroine, Catherine Morland, dreams of being ravished in the manner of the preposterous Gothic novels she reads. The movie visualizes these fantasies with full submission to their campiness, effectively conveying the novel’s ideas about the way pop culture invades our psyches. By candlelight she slops up “The Mysteries of Udolpho” by Ann Radcliffe and “The Monk” by Matthew Lewis, the actress Felicity Jones giving us Catherine’s breathless readings in voice-over:

“The amorous monk had full opportunity to observe the voluptuous contours and admirable symmetry of her person as she dropped her last garment. Ambrosio could bear no more.”

Catherine Morland is the most naïve and least verbally choreographed of all of Austen’s heroines, and Ms. Jones gives her the full milkmaid. Just one look at her, and you know you’d crush her in a game of whist. In some ways “Northanger Abbey” was made to be a television movie — it’s actually more fun than the book, which is as much a parody of Gothic novels as it is a parody of the sensibility that would develop in Austen’s five subsequent novels. Pages and pages of “Northanger” are devoted literally to manner: to the logistics, for instance, of taking a long walk.

*sporks out eye*

Our own hometown newspaper, for our sins:

Austen’s playful parody of the then-popular Gothic novel isn’t the best of her books, but Andrew Davies’ sprightly adaptation does it only good.

*sporks out other eye*

See how we suffer for our art? But we did like this bit about Miss Austen Regrets in the NYT article:

What eluded Austen herself, of course, was sustained love and marriage. And though she completed six brilliant novels before she died, at 41, she left the world having no inkling that immortality was hers. As Austen, played by Olivia Williams in a dramatization of the writer’s late life (“Miss Austen Regrets,” to be shown on Feb. 3), explains, “My work is so small.” Written by Gwyneth Hughes, the film, despite the hokey title, gives us a moving vision of Austen as a pragmatist who comes to wonder if her aversion to gold-digging might have been ill advised. Love is all that matters in making a marriage, Austen’s young niece tells her during a carriage ride with Austen and an older man.

“And in heaven’s name what gave you that idea?” Austen replies.

The niece answers, “Well, it says so in your books.”

“If that’s what you think they say, my dear,” the man pipes in, “perhaps you should read them again.”

Indeed. (Thanks to Alert Janeite Maria for the link.)

20 thoughts on “The Complete Jane Austen News Roundup: Are They All Horrid? Edition

  1. LauraGrace

    Mr. Davies—you pitiably paltry being: the projection of your nastiness onto Jane’s work is a repulsive thing to witness. Not lasting, but repulsive.

    “Their hair …” etc. is “…all on show, part of the whole deal.”

    What about their brains? In his demeaning take on women, particularly the women of Austen’s works, he doesn’t seem to acknowledge brains or even actual, respectful love. It’s all just erotic.

    Again, projection is an ugly, revolting, hideous thing to witness.

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  2. Diana I-C

    In semi-defense of the SF Chronicle: I’m pretty sure that the “bland chap” they’re refering to is Thorpe, while Tilney is the “more aloof main” for which the heart of our heroine flutters. Now, I’m not exactly sure why Mr. Tilney is beign describe as aloof, but I suppose that when one is using Mr. “subtle as a train-wreck” Thorpe as a comparison, anyone would be seen as more aloof.

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  3. Thanks for the laughs. My wife and I missed Persuasion last week, but happened to come upon it on Thursday. We tuned in just at the moment when Charles came back from hunting, when he was missed at breakfast. We didn’t know who the composer was, but we felt that it was way over done. We lasted only about a minute before the music did us in. It felt like we were sitting in a hotel lobby trying to spy on someone’s conversation but the darned piano player insisted on not using the dampener. Which is a shame because I wanted to be able to see the Bath Marathon in person. Maybe if I set my expectations really low I’ll enjoy these recent adaptations…

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  4. Katie

    Have already seen them all as compulsively hunted them down online when they first aired in the UK and can safely say that while Persuasion is hideous (mostly the end) and Mansfield Park is … bland at best, the others are lovely. In particular AD does a nice job with the upcoming S&S (and, as a devotee of both the book and the Ang Lee version, I say that with quite a lot of weight behind it), and the Northanger Abbey to be shown tonight is simply *lovely*. It made me laugh out loud in parts and their Catherine is pretty perfect. Plus Henry Tilney is a far cry better than Peter Firth (ahem) and also seems much as I pictured him while reading the novel. They had to cut quite a bit to make it fit in 90 mins, but I feel like the essence of the thing is there and the humor and warmth of the text also remains. So don’t despair! Tonight will be good 🙂 And no one ends up inexplicably running around the streets of Bath.
    Although — that did provide the excellent question: how exactly did Anne, who was wearing a corset and clearly hadn’t been running around a great deal before in her life, manage all of those hills in Bath? If it were me, I never would have made it back up to the Royal Crescent, I would have collapsed in a heap somewhere around Milsom St from lack of oxygen to the brain.

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  5. Diana, perhaps you are right. I am still thrown by the description of John Thorpe as “perfectly pleasant.” He’s anything but! And he’s not exactly “bland,” either. 😉 He’s a great character, but not a great person, and it’s his not-greatness of personality that makes him great as a character.

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  6. Niamh

    “Characters can’t have sex until after they’re married in this kind of story. But one can remind the audience in various subtle, and less subtle, ways that sex is in the air.”

    I’d go for completely and utterly unsubtle, myself, judging by this adaptation…
    It’s not that I’m ‘offended’ by AD’s clearly non-canon sexual references, or the supplanting of Udolpho for The Monk (I’ve read both, so I know exactly how wide the gap is between the two) and how unlikely it would be that Catherine’s parents would allow her to read Matthew Lewis, much less have a copy of the book in the house. Most of Catherine’s character still remains intact, bar the subject of her reading matter… No, the aspect of this adaptation that disappointed me the most was the alteration of Thorpe’s character. US viewers will see what I mean after they watch it. Davies clearly got so obsessed with creating a ‘rival’ for Henry Tilney, he completely forgot what the original character was like. John Thorpe has his faults, but I can say one thing for him – he is the one Austen character who I laugh out loud at, no matter how many times I’ve read the novel.

    Although if you really hate this, it was the best of the 3 ITV adaptations by a long way. 🙂

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  7. LynnS

    I’m still reeling over the description of John Thorpe as a “perfectly pleasant young man.”

    To quote the HP: What the Frank Churchill??

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  8. LynnS

    Heh! Just went back and read other comments. Can I say great minds think alike? No? Oh well, I’ll just go get my Team Tilney banner to wave during the program tonight.

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  9. Julie P.

    I’ve now seen them all and have to say that S&S is far and away my favorite. Despite Andrew Davies’ attempts to sex it up, I liked it anyway.

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  10. Surrey Hill

    “And the men, too,” he goes on. “I have men on horseback riding very fast, working up a sweat, in boots and tight breeches, all that kind of thing……

    Oh dear.
    How well he knows some of us. *puts bag over head*

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  11. But…he’s missing the point there. He thinks that’s all we care about–not story, or good filmmaking. We like hot guys in an otherwise losing cause, but not at the expense of story. At least I don’t think so. I may be a fangirl, but I still have a functioning brain. And so do you, O Ebert’s Worst Nightmare! 😉

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  12. Surrey Hill

    I do, but after P&P05, I’ve decided to look on the bright side, as it is fast becoming useless to expect anything Austen to be much separated from Barbara Cartland. I see that most of them seem to at least flash us a glimpse of Sam West’s two-tone boots from “The Vacillations of Poppy Carew”. To the extent they do not, I am forced to fall back on analysis of plot and continuity. 😦

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  13. Both movies (Persuasion and Northanger Abbey) are enjoyable; I thought Thorpe was portrayed as obnoxious in the film as he is in the book; I found Persuasion not up to snuff, especially the desecration of the Overheard Conversation, one of the high points in English indeed in world literature (why not). having seen them only once I can’t do an analysis, but I thought the Northanger Abbey was more similar then different from the 1986 version. I think it somewhat useful to talk money; but really Isabella’s going to bed is perhaps too much, she sure gets her comeuppance!

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  14. Allison T.

    Bleagh! AD as a sort of literary “air freshener” (“all my creativity goes into freshening up these great works,” he says or something like that).

    I’d like to take one of AD’s own works (he didn’t start writing until he was 50???) and “freshen IT up,” said she, cackling wickedly.

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  15. PaddyDog

    For me, this wasn’t AS bad as Persuasion simply because it’s my least favourite Austen and therefore I care less about its desecration than I do about the others. As I’ve posted previously, I don’t mind a little sex creeping in to a film/TV version but that can be done without resorting to a complete lack of subtelty. For instance, my husband who walked into the room last night when Katherine was having one of her dreams and asked me “did Jane Austen realy write about female masturbation?”. I don’t even know if I can bring myself to watch Mansfield Park. I loved Billie Piper in Dr. Who but, seriously, “Austen Chav” is this a new genre? And from the previews it looks as if she’s had some strange plastic surgery to give her cheek bones. Ugh!

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  16. Mandy N

    But to me a real issue is, can Jane’s books really be replaced by any adaptation ?Despite cutting out bathtub and book burning scenes…people don’t appear fazed Catherine reads the wrong book and fantasizes about the wrong guy, a lecherous monk. In NA, she isn’t at all interested in Thorpe or asks about the Monk. Maybe I’m odd, but how can any film be better than a JA book ? Oh, were vampires around in literture in JA’s time ? In a story about reading books and people; how did Henry know of them ? I thought the modern vampire wasn’t invented till ‘Dracula’ in mid-Victorian era. 😉
    I did much prefer S&S3, closer to Jane and nicely done.

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  17. Hey Mandy–

    I thought Varney the Vampyre was around JA’s time, but it’s Victorian (and pre-Dracula). Wikipedia–which is hardly an unimpeachable source, but it’s easy–has Polidori’s The Vampyre, 1819, as the first vamp book. Polidori was Byron’s physician and it was written as part of the Regency NaNoWriMo that also produced Frankenstein. Byron also mentions a vampyre in “The Giaour.” So it wasn’t unknown, but not really a big part of Gothic novels. Especially Mrs. Radcliffe’s–her tendency was always to explain away the supernatural, not romanticize it.

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  18. Mandy N

    Thanks Mags, but that’s a point- Varney the Vampyre was published in the mid-Victorian era, long after Jane’s death in 1817. Ooh ! I’ve heard of Dr Polidori; he personally knew the Shelleys and took part in the writing competiton among friends when ‘Frankenstein’ was written (published 1818)…. C18th Travellers’ tales from Eastern Europe mentioned vampyres but my impression is they were like wild hermits; rather than any life sucking beings- as Henry describes as similar to Gen. Tilney ‘sucking life’ from his mother in NA2. 😉
    My impression is JA’s Northanger Abbey parallels Udolpho; although it satirizes gothic novels and it’s readers generally. ..but some people dispute this, thoughts anyone ? 🙂

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  19. Having just seen the adaptation last night (TiVo is wonderful, isn’t it?), I have to say I was quite pleased. Despite the over-the-top sexual references that I’m certain weren’t anywhere in the book, I was excited that someone finally cast Henry Tilney as he was meant to be cast. NA being the only one of Austen’s novels that I actually read before ever watching any adaptation, I was more than disappointed at the ridiculous Peter Firth version; which, I might add, ended just plain stupidly, with the viewer uncertain if Catherine was experiencing something real, or just another of her ridiculous fantasies. Had I seen the film first, I might never have read the novel for fear it would leave me with too many questions. (Although, I’m sure I would have soon learned that our dear Jane would not be so cruel.) All in all, despite my despair at the attempt at Persuasion, which I’m certain would have left Jane wondering if the creators had read the novel at all; I felt, at least, that Northanger Abbey somewhat made up for it.

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