Friday, March 28, 2014

My Life in Middlemarch

"We have often wished that genius would incline itself more frequently to the task of the biographer—that when some great or good personage dies....we could have a real 'Life,' setting forth briefly and vividly the man’s inward and outward struggles, aims, and achievements, so as to make clear the meaning which his experience has for his fellows....But the conditions required for the perfection of life writing—personal intimacy, a loving and poetic nature which sees the beauty and the depth of familiar things, and the artistic power which seizes characteristic points and renders them with lifelike effect—are seldom found in combination."
—George Eliot, "Carlyle’s Life of Sterling"

The conditions required for the perfection of life-writing are fully met in Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch (Crown Publishers, 2014). It's a record of the changing meanings that George Eliot's Middlemarch has held for Mead as she has reread it over the course of her life. It's also a concise and highly compelling biography of Eliot, a description of the creation and reception of her great novel, and a frank and moving account of Mead's life and experience as it has been reflected in and informed by Middlemarch.

Eliot lived a remarkable life: she was a public intellectual in an era where the home was considered to be women's proper sphere and silence her proper state. Scandalously, Eliot lived openly with a married man (the writer and editor George Henry Lewes), and took his given name as part of her pseudonym. (Blanche Williams, a biographer of George Eliot, has speculated that the second part of her pseudonym is also a tribute to Lewes: "To L—I owe it.")

As Mead writes about her lifelong relationship with Eliot's masterpiece,
"Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it's a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows....This kind of book becomes part of our own experience, and a part of our own endurance." (p. 16)
My Life in Middlemarch is essential reading for lovers of Eliot's great novel, but also for those, like Mead (and myself), for whom books have been a crucial element of their "self-fashioning." It's also essential for those looking back from the vantage point of middle age at their young adulthood and wondering at how little temporal and emotional distance seems to separate them from their 20-year-old selves. Like Middlemarch itself, My Life in Middlemarch is a book to reread and treasure for its vision of "the beauty and the depth of familiar things."

Friday, March 14, 2014

Pride and Prejudice (1940)

Darcy proposes to Elizabeth

I've long been skeptical about the 1940 MGM Pride and Prejudice with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier—the glossy classic Hollywood treatment just seemed wrong for Jane Austen. And the 1995 BBC adaptation with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth is so good that I haven't been eager to seek out other versions.

But lately my partner and I have been seeing a lot of films from the 1930s and 1940s, including Mrs. Miniver (1942), which featured Garson in the title role as a stalwart wife and mother trying to hold her family together during the Blitz. Garson was wonderful in that role, and it made me curious about her Elizabeth Bennet.

Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet
My misgivings about the MGM Pride and Prejudice weren't misplaced, but Garson is almost reason enough to watch it. She's a bit mature for the role of Elizabeth: she was in her mid-30s at the time of filming, while in the novel Elizabeth reluctantly tells Lady Catherine that she is "not one-and-twenty." Many actresses can successfully play characters a decade or more younger than their actual age: Jean Arthur played 20-something ingenues well into her forties, and in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice Julia Sawalha does a brilliantly convincing job as the 15-year-old Lydia Bennet (although Sawalha was actually older than Jennifer Ehle, who played Elizabeth). It's not only Garson's looks that are a bit too mature for Elizabeth, though, but her characterization—Ehle captures more of her vulnerability and uncertainty. Even so, Garson is highly enjoyable in the role, conveying all of Elizabeth's intelligence, wit, and kindness (and of course, she has many of the best lines).

Laurence Olivier as Darcy
The other key role in Pride and Prejudice is, of course, Mr. Darcy. And on the basis of his smoldering Maxim de Winter in Rebecca (1940), Laurence Olivier would seem to be perfect for the role. But while he captured Darcy's fundamental shyness as well as his arrogance, I wanted more evidence of the passions under all that aristocratic composure. Olivier plays the role with a coolness that at times seems to border on detachment.

Edmund Gwenn as Mr. Bennet
The rest of the mixed cast of North American and British actors is generally good, although none of the other Bennet daughters looks the age of her character either. Maureen O'Sullivan, the adventursome Jane Parker in the Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movies, is cast against type as the reserved Jane Bennet, although she is scarcely believable as Elizabeth's older sister. And Ann Rutherford, Scarlett O'Hara's flirtatious sister Carreen in Gone With the Wind (1939), plays the flirtatious Lydia. Edmund Gwenn is an excellent Mr. Bennet, and Mary Boland a suitably annoying Mrs. Bennet (although again, she's a bit too old—she could be the girls' grandmother).

Mary Boland as Mrs. Bennet
If you poke around online you'll discover that the costumes come in for a great deal of criticism, and indeed (especially for the women) they're far out of period. The novel was published in 1813, but full skirts with layers of crinoline date from the 1830s at the earliest, as do enormous puffed sleeves. And the absurd dinner-plate bonnets depicted in the film are a Hollywood version of those worn by actresses onstage to keep their faces unshadowed by stage lighting; they would never have been allowed near the heads of women who wanted to appear respectable (or avoid looking ridiculous). The fashions of Jane Austen's day were much simpler:

Jane's niece Fanny Knight; watercolor by Jane's sister Cassandra (ca. 1810)
But the variable accents of the cast and the out-of period or inauthentic costumes can be forgiven. Where this version really fails is in Aldous Huxley and Jane Murfin's script, adapted from a play based on Austen's novel by Helen Jerome. It's at least one layer of adaptation too many. While it's to be expected that compressing a 350-page novel into a film with a 2-hour running time requires major cuts, some of the missing scenes are critical—for example, there's no visit to Pemberley, the moment in the novel when Elizabeth begins to view Darcy differently.

But worse than what's missing is what's changed: there are scenes with no counterpart in the novel, alterations of the plot, and modifications of the characters. The changes are most notable in the actions and character of Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Edna May Oliver in one of her last roles), and they have implications that radically shift the story. There's no way to discuss these without giving away the ending, so be forewarned that spoilers follow.

First, the changes in plot: In her interview with Elizabeth towards the end of the movie, Lady Catherine claims to be able, as the trustee of her sister's estate, to "strip Mr. Darcy of every shilling he has." In the novel this is not a possibility, nor is it a claim ever made by Lady Catherine. Also, the revelation to Elizabeth (and us) of Mr. Darcy's role in Lydia's marriage to Wickham comes from Lady Catherine during this interview, and not (as in the novel) from the thoughtless Lydia.

After her interview with Elizabeth, Lady Catherine goes out to her carriage, where (in another departure from the novel) it turns out that Darcy is waiting. She tells him,

She's right for you, Darcy.
Edna May Oliver as Lady Catherine
What?! Lady Catherine approves of Elizabeth as a match for her nephew? The implication is that the interview was intended as a test by Lady Catherine (and perhaps Darcy, who seems to have had advance knowledge of it) to see if Elizabeth is fortune-hunting. It also implies that Lady Catherine's revelation of Darcy's role in forcing Wickham to marry Lydia was intended as a signal to Elizabeth of Darcy's continuing romantic interest in her—again, perhaps with Darcy's foreknowledge if not outright collusion.

This utterly changes the meaning of the scene and the character of Lady Catherine (so splendidly portrayed by Barbara Leigh-Hunt in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice), not to mention Darcy himself. She and Darcy become calculating co-conspirators sounding out Elizabeth about her feelings (and giving her a strategic nudge or two). Needless to say, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the characters created by Austen.

In Chapter 8 of Pride and Prejudice Austen has Darcy remark of women's romantic stratagems, "Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable." To which I'll only add that the word applies as well to those who apparently felt that their inspirations improved on those of Jane Austen.