Thursday, June 23, 2016

Kim Gordon: Girl in a Band

Sonic Youth always seemed to exude an aloof, supercilious cool, which is perhaps why some people can't stand them. In part because I too was put off by the band's air of self-importance, it took me a while to appreciate their music. What finally won me over in the late 1980s, though, was not only their glorious guitar squall, but bass player Kim Gordon's voice: half-talking, half off-key singing. Her delivery suggested a certain vulnerability behind the bravado, and an unwillingness to care that she didn't have a conventionally "good" voice. While Thurston Moore's drawling sneer could be annoying, Gordon's hoarse whisper, occasionally rising to a strangulated shout (on, for example, Sonic Youth's cover of the Stooges "I Wanna Be Your Dog" on 1983's Confusion is Sex), was compelling.

Here's a sample: "Starpower," from Sonic Youth's breakthrough album Evol (1985):

Sonic Youth was always half-great and half-... well, not. (Evol as an album title is a case in point.) This half-great, half-not problem crops up again and again in their music and self-presentation, and it's also an issue with Gordon's memoir. Girl in a Band (Dey Street, 2015) is really two books: the first is the story of how Sonic Youth came to be formed and and then managed to stay together for 30 years. The second is a breakup memoir about the end of Gordon's marriage to guitarist Moore and the resulting split-up of the band in 2011.

Clearly Gordon's impetus for writing the book was her divorce, but the most interesting part of the book (and of the story of the band) is not how it ends, but how it begins: Gordon's description of her troubled family dynamics, the confusions of growing up in LA in the 1960s and 70s, and coming to New York in 1980 to make art and music.

The title, by the way, is taken from an interview question Gordon was asked repeatedly during Sonic Youth's heyday: "What’s it like to be a girl in a band?" She was hardly a girl, of course: when she met Moore and formed the band she was 27. There had been women rock musicians before Gordon, and in the punk and postpunk era The Slits, The Raincoats, Delta 5, Au Pairs, and Kleenex/Liliput—and in New York, Mars, Ut, the Bush Tetras, and The Bloods, among others—featured women as songwriters, instrumentalists and singers. But in the 1980s as lower Manhattan was beginning to gentrify and as the punk and No Wave scenes were dissipating, Gordon assumed a particular prominence. This despite the effort it cost her to stand in front of an audience, especially at the start:
When I first began playing onstage, I was pretty self-conscious. I was just trying to hold my own with the bass guitar, hoping the strings wouldn't snap, that the audience would have a good experience. I wasn't conscious of being a woman, and over the years I can honestly say I almost never think of "girliness" unless I'm wearing high heels, and then I'm more likely to feel like a transvestite. When I'm at my most focused onstage, I feel a sense of space with edges around it, a glow of self-confident, joyful sexiness. It feels bodiless, too, all weightless grace with no effort required. (p. 125)
...the only really good performance is one where you make yourself vulnerable while pushing beyond your familiar comfort zone. I liken it to having an intense, hyper-real dream, where you step off a cliff but don't fall to your death. (p. 132)

Steve Shelley, Kim Gordon, and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth

When it reaches the point of Gordon's discovery of Moore's betrayal of their marriage, though, Girl in a Band cannot avoid the banality of a midlife crisis narrative. Contrary to Tolstoy, unhappy families are often alike. This is not to question how hurtful this experience must have been for Gordon: "It was like a nightmare you don't ever wake up from...—just like in the movies, only this was painfully real" (p. 252).

Moore, a middle-aged husband and father, had begun having an affair with a younger woman. When Gordon discovered incriminating texts and confronted him about the other woman, "...he denied it, then admitted it, then promised things were all over between them. It was a pattern that would happen over and over again. I wanted to believe him" (p. 252).

Gordon's sense of betrayal and hurt are clearly still raw. But what's also clear is that once her trust in Moore was destroyed, the marriage was over, even if she didn't yet recognize it: "...I had told Thurston that as someone who had been betrayed by him, I felt I had every right to look at his laptop, especially if, as he kept saying, he had nothing to hide" (p. 254). Gordon doesn't seem to be aware of how counterproductive her vigilance is. When you are reduced to searching your partner's e-mails and texts for evidence of his or her infidelity, your relationship is done whether they are lying or not.

The book is also peppered with Gordon's dismayingly superficial musings about larger historical and cultural events. Here are some samples, chosen more or less at random:
  • "Female singers who push too much, and too hard, don't tend to last very long. They're jags, bolts, comets: Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday" (p. 127).
Janis Joplin died at age 27 only three years after coming to prominence at the Monterey Pop Festival, so no argument there. But although Billie Holiday also died far too young—she was only 44—at the time of her death she had been performing professionally for 30 years, and had recorded hundreds of songs. Tragic as her death was, she was not exactly a bolt of lightning streaking across the sky.
  • "The crack of idealism between the performer and the audience signaled the end of the 1960s. Altamont, inner-city riots, Watts, Detroit, the Manson murders, the Isle of Wight Festival" (p. 260).
This is a very strange statement on many levels. Not least of which is the clear indication that neither Gordon nor her editors bothered to consult even Wikipedia. The Watts riots were in 1965, and the Detroit riots were in 1967—both too early to signal the end of The Sixties, particularly if you think that the decade began (in pop culture terms) with the Beatles' appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964.

But apart from the factual slippage, is Joni Mitchell crying during her Isle of Wight Festival set due to the audience's indifference or hostility equivalent to the deaths of Meredith Hunter at Altamont, the 34 people killed during the Watts riots, the 43 people killed in the Detroit riots, or the five people slaughtered by the Manson cult?
  • "The 1970s were the first era that learned how to exploit youth culture, and it was the birthplace of corporate rock" (p. 260).
Really? There was no corporate rock or exploitation of youth culture before the 1970s? In the late 1950s and early 1960s the Brill Building was essentially an assembly line for the creation of hit singles using interchangeable performers. I also seem to recall a group called the Monkees, formed in 1965 by two TV producers, and another group called the Archies created in 1968 for a comic-book cartoon series. (Both groups were immensely popular: both achieved #1 singles, and the Monkees had four #1 albums within a 12-month period in 1967 and 1968.)

Gordon's lazy and lazily-expressed ideas, together with occasional lapses into Artforum-speak ("the three of them [Raymond Pettibon, Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler] eschewed the conceptual mantle of seventies formalism and mixed high and low culture"), detract from what is most powerful in her book: the articulation of her experience as a girl—or rather, a woman, a writer, a musician, a mother, and a visual artist—in a band:
From the beginning, music for me was visceral. I loved playing music. When it was going well, it was an almost ecstatic experience. What could be better than sharing that feeling of transcendence with a man I was so close to in all other areas of my life, someone who was having the same experience? It was a feeling impossible to communicate with someone outside the two of us. I wanted deliverance, the loss of myself, the capacity to be inside that music. It was the same power and sensation you feel when a wave takes you up and pushes you someplace else. (p. 146)
At its unsettling best Sonic Youth's music can feel exactly like a slowly building wave of sound, both harshly dissonant and ethereal. "On the Strip," from 1992's Dirty:

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Suggested reading: Green colonialism, the mysteries of taste, and music as conversation

Another in the occasional series of my favorite recent articles, posts, etc. from around the web:

1. Fossil fuel sacrifice zones and "green colonialism"

Edward Said
Edward Said

Naomi Klein writes in the LRB about how the insights of the late Palestinian critic Edward Said may offer a way to combat both environmental and cultural destruction:
People do tend to get cynical when their lives are treated as less important than flowers and reptiles. And yet there is so much of Said's intellectual legacy that both illuminates and clarifies the underlying causes of the global ecological crisis, so much that points to ways we might respond that are far more inclusive than current campaign models: ways that don't ask suffering people to shelve their concerns about war, poverty and systemic racism and first 'save the world'—but instead demonstrate how all these crises are interconnected, and how the solutions could be too. In short, Said may have had no time for tree-huggers, but tree-huggers must urgently make time for Said—and for a great many other anti-imperialist, postcolonial thinkers—because without that knowledge, there is no way to understand how we ended up in this dangerous place, or to grasp the transformations required to get us out. [1]

2. What are the odds we are living in a computer simulation?

Early virtual reality

Vanishingly small, of course, but that doesn't stop Jonathan Rothman from asking the question in the New Yorker. While it might bring some comfort to those in the developed Western economies most responsible for the exploitation of people and nature to believe that our experience is only virtual, it says a great deal about our current valorization of tech culture that ideas this pointless are taken seriously.
The simulation argument begins by noticing several present-day trends in technology, such as the development of virtual reality and the mapping of the human brain...The argument ends by proposing that we are, in fact, digital beings living in a vast computer simulation created by our far-future descendants. Many people have imagined this scenario over the years, of course, usually while high. But recently, a number of philosophers, futurists, science-fiction writers, and technologists—people who share a near-religious faith in technological progress—have come to believe that the simulation argument is not just plausible, but inescapable. [2]
Of course, this "inescapable" argument conveniently absolves those who adopt it from any moral responsibility. It's akin to using the arguments of "effective altruism" to justify doing nothing to assist anyone currently alive. But besides the obvious self-interest of those who make it, this argument must be invalid for another reason: would any super-intelligent being create a world that included the Eurovision Song Contest, The Bachelor, and monster truck rallies?

3. The mysteries of taste

Thumbs-up Like icon

But someone out there must like popular entertainment, or it wouldn't be popular. Taste has always been fraught, functioning as both a marker of our personal uniqueness and a signal of our social status (or at least the status to which we aspire), as argued in Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Harvard University Press, 1984).

In Bookforum (subscription required), Jacob Silverman reviews Tom Vanderbilt's You May Also Like (Knopf, 2016), which examines "algorithmic taste formation." The new technologies of purchasing and viewing make possible a fine-grained analysis of our habits and preferences, and those of millions of other consumers. The point is not only to predict and profit from our future preferences, but to shape them in the interests of those doing the predicting: [3]
The finer (and marketing-driven) critical distinctions that propel products to the top of a Pandora playlist or Netflix queue may raise questions about the ethics of design and the consequences of large tech and media companies' (and their automated systems) being able to dictate consumption, if not taste, on such a massive scale. Vanderbilt almost tackles this issue head-on when he observes that Netflix "is not in business to turn you into a cineaste. It wants to keep you signed up with Netflix. It is like a casino using clever math to keep you on the machines." [4]

4. Chamber music as conversation

Joseph Haydn playing a string quartet
Heliogravure by Franz Hanfstaengl (detail), 1907, after Julius Schmid, Haydn Quartet, c. 1905–6 (painting now lost).
Vienna City Museum
Taste is a highly complex phenomenon, however, and as anyone who has looked at their Netflix or Amazon recommendations quickly realizes, algorithms still have a hard time keeping up with us. As Zadie Smith describes in her New Yorker essay "Some Notes on Attunement," we occasionally have conversion experiences: we can find ourselves suddenly receptive to things that had previously inspired indifference or even outright aversion. This has been my experience with chamber music; after many years of avoiding it, I am finally beginning to appreciate its beauties (thank you, Joseph Haydn and Quatuor Mosaïques).

On her blog, Jessica Duchen interviews musician and writer Edward Klorman about his new book Mozart's Music of Friends: Social Interplay in the Chamber Works (Cambridge University Press, 2016). Klorman describes the interplay of the instruments in chamber music as a conversation:
Chamber music is fundamentally a music not just for friends but of friends. Its natural habitat is the drawing room, where it was played among friends in intimate settings, but even when it is played in large halls, the music reflects its sociable ethos through the way the musical parts interact with one another. We become friends just by playing or listening to it together. [5]
Here is one such conversation among friends: Mozart's Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in F major for string trio, performed by Rémy Baudet, violin, Staas Swierstra, viola, and Rainer Zipperling, cello:

Klorman has put together a website,, as both a standalone resource and as a supplement to the book. It's unfortunate that Cambridge University Press has priced this book at a level that will sharply restrict its audience (although a substantial discount is available by purchasing through Klorman's site); it deserves a wide readership.

Update 21 June 2016: Edward Said, of course, was a noted writer on music as well as a literary critic and social theorist. To bring this post full circle, in 2013 I wrote about Said's LRB essay "Thoughts on Late Style," Beethoven's late string quartets, and Yaron Zilberman's film A Late Quartet (2012); see "A Late Quartet."

  1. Naomi Klein: "Let Them Drown: The Violence of Othering in a Warming World." London Review of Books, Vol. 38 No. 11, 2 June 2016
  2. Joshua Rothman, "What are the odds we are living in a computer simulation?" New Yorker, 9 June 2016
  3. And that we are incredibly suggestible has been demonstrated again and again. The latest evidence is from a UCSF study that showed that all it takes to influence physicians to prescribe expensive brand-name drugs instead of equally effective but cheaper generics is a free lunch costing the drug company between $12 and $18: see "Drug Company Lunches Have Big Payoffs," New York Times, 20 June 2016
  4. Jacob Silverman, "All-Consuming Interests: A critical look at the brave new world of algorithmic taste formation," Bookforum, June/July/August 2016
  5. Jessica Duchen, "Civilisation is...Mozart's chamber music," JDCMB | Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog, 18 June 2016

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Berkeley Early Music Festival and Festival Fringe

Earlier this month the San Francisco Early Music Society sponsored the weeklong Berkeley Festival and Exhibition of early music, together with the BFX Fringe. It was wonderful to spend a week in which it was possible to attend a concert every day around lunchtime, as an afternoon break, or after work (often I could choose from multiple events happening simultaneously). That most of the concert venues were within a few blocks of one another and near the delicious food and drink of the Musical Offering Cafe made me feel that I'd been transported for a week to Paris. We'll have to wait until 2018 for the Festival's return to Berkeley; in 2017 it's the turn of the Boston Early Music Festival.

What follows are some notes from this year's Festival and Fringe.

The hardest-working woman in early music: Danielle Sampson

Danielle Sampson

Mezzo-soprano Danielle Sampson appeared by my count in four Fringe concerts, each with a different group and an entirely different, carefully-thought-out program, all performed ravishingly:
  • Sunday June 5: With the superb support of Liaison Baroque Ensemble and mezzo-soprano Melinda Becker, Sampson performed "The Nature of Love," a program featuring vocal and instrumental music by Barbara Strozzi, Antonio Vivaldi and Claudio Monteverdi—a wonderful start to the week of Festival and Fringe concerts.
  • Tuesday June 7: As Ruggiero, the enchanted knight, Sampson sang highlights from Handel's Alcina with members of Black Box Baroque and the Albany Consort from their recent production (alas, I missed the highlights concert).
  • Wednesday June 8: With Nash Baroque, Sampson performed "Music of Arcadia: Pastoral and Courtly Diversions of 18th-Century France," featuring vocal and instrumental music by Monteclair, François Couperin,  Boismortier, and others, none of which I had heard before.
  • Thursday June 9: As Jarring Sounds (with her accompanist Adam Cockerham on theorbo), Sampson sang a beautifully conceived program in which Henry Purcell's elegies for the composers Matthew Locke, John Playford and Thomas Farmer were followed by songs written by those composers. The concert closed with a gorgeous newly composed elegy for Purcell by Kyle Hovatter, "on a flat stone over his grave"—a piece commissioned by Jarring Sounds for this program (!)—and some of Purcell's songs.
The name of Jarring Sounds is taken from John Dowland's "In darkness let me dwell," though "seventeenth-century songs about death" are only a part of their wide-ranging repertory. (For this program they also performed some more lighthearted and amorous songs such as Locke's "The delights of the bottle" and Purcell's "When first Amintas sued for a kiss," with some nicely judged characterization by Sampson.) And the sounds that they produce are anything but "hellish jarring sounds"; Sampson has a beautifully clear, pure voice:

More performances are available on the websites linked above. I was impressed by her Ruggiero when I saw the Black Box Baroque production of Alcina in April, and now I'm a fan; I'll be following this artist and her musical collaborators with great interest.

Most charming new discovery: Haydn's English Love Songs as performed by Jennifer Paulino

Jennifer Paulino

This was a week of discovery: I had never heard Haydn's English songs before attending this concert (Wednesday June 8). But these charming pieces—settings of poems by Anne Hunter, who may have been Haydn's lover—were most winningly performed by Jennifer Paulino (accompanied on fortepiano by Elaine Thornburgh). To close the concert, Paulino gave a powerful and moving rendition of Haydn's 20-minute-long dramatic scene "Arianna a Naxos." Paulino has performed with some of our favorite early music groups, such as Magnificat, and it was a pleasure to hear her rich soprano in this repertory.

On Friday Paulino, together with mezzo-soprano Celeste Winant, David Morris on baroque cello, and Yuko Tanaka on harpsichord, performed a program of duets by Handel, Vivaldi, and Alessandro Scarlatti on the theme of love. Not only was this program of glorious music beautifully sung and played, it had the most fun program notes of the Festival.

From a few years ago, here is Paulino performing with the ensemble Les Grâces in rehearsal:

You can find additional audio clips on Paulino's website.

Peak experience, instrumental: Rachel Podger with Elizabeth Blumenstock, Hanneke van Proosdij and Voices of Music, co-directed by van Proosdij and David Tayler, Thursday, June 9

Rachel Podger and Elizabeth Blumenstock

Podger is an internationally-renowned violinist, while Blumenstock (violin) and van Proosdij (recorders, organ) are beloved figures in the Bay Area early music community. Together they performed a program of virtuosic pieces by Bach and Vivaldi. The concert included Bach's  Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 (Andrew Levy duetted with van Proosdij on "echo flute") and his Concerto for two violins in D minor (Blumenstock was Podger's able partner). The concert also included some pieces by Vivaldi: a concerto from La Stravaganza as a showpiece for Podger and an electrifying concerto for sopranino recorder in C major, which van Proosdij played spectacularly.

But these performers also excelled at slower and more emotionally expressive pieces. Here's a small taste: the Sonata in G major from Bach's cantata Himmelskönig, sie wilkommen:

For more from Voices of Music, visit their YouTube channel.

Peak experience, choral: Vox Luminis, Lionel Meunier, artistic director, with Philharmonia Baroque Chamber Players and Concerto Palatino

Vox Luminis

Another discovery of this festival for me was Vox Luminis, a Belgian vocal ensemble, who performed the closing program on Sunday, June 12. Early that morning the latest mass shooting with a legally-obtained assault rifle had taken place in Orlando, and so the somber, mournful music by Thomas Morley and Henry Purcell for the funeral of Queen Mary on 5 March 1695 felt entirely fitting. When the first notes of "Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let me crying come unto thee" permeated the stillness of the First Congregational Church, it was transporting.

I could only wish that Vox Luminis had also performed Purcell's great elegy on the death of Queen Mary, "O dive custos." (That link takes you to a portion of the full music for the death of Queen Mary, from a Vox Luminis program last year; I definitely recommend listening to the entire concert when you have the chance.)

In the second half of the closing Festival concert Vox Luminis performed the incredibly difficult "Dixit Dominus" by Handel, which featured split-second antiphonal call-and-response between two seven-voice choirs. Their precision in that music was amazing, but I will remember even longer the moving funeral music.

It seemed like a good idea, but...

Among so many fantastic experiences, there were a couple of concerts that did not quite live up to my expectations. One lunchtime Fringe concert by a local instrumental group that shall remain nameless was either drastically underrehearsed or simply beyond their capabilities; whichever was the case, the performance—filled with flubbed notes and fudged runs—was a disappointment.

And the Festival's opening concert by the sackbut consort ¡Sacabuche! on Sunday June 5 was held in the new Berkeley Art Museum's lobby amphitheater. While the rich sonorities of the trombone-like sackbuts would sound great anywhere, the timbres of the high strings and of countertenor Steven Rickards were not flattered by the acoustic. And the amphitheater seating was incredibly uncomfortable: the plank seating offered no back support and the low-rise dimensions were so awkward there wasn't room either to stretch out your legs or cross them. Half an hour into the concert my body was aching and it was becoming increasingly difficult to focus on the music. To top it off, the location right at the entrance of the museum is noisy. The space is striking, but is not really suitable for extended listening. I hope I have a chance to hear this ensemble again under less distracting conditions.

I don't want to end my reflections on this wonderful festival on a negative note, though. So here is Danielle Sampson once again, performing Monteverdi's "Lamento della ninfa,"  with Jason McStoots and Charley Blandy (tenors), Douglas Williams (bass), Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette (theorbos), and Laura Jeppesen (gamba):

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Six months with Jane Austen: Favorite adaptations and final thoughts

Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC series

Favorite Austen adaptations

In "What Would Jane Watch? A Fan's Guide to Austen Films," New York Times critic Mary Jo Murphy lists some film and television adaptations of Austen's novels. The article overlooks some key films, and I don't agree with some of Murphy's judgments. So what follows is my own survey of adaptations of Austen novels.

Sense and Sensibility

Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood and Charity Wakefield as Marianne in the 2008 BBC series

  • Favorite adaptation: The 2008 BBC production starring Hattie Morahan as Elinor, Charity Wakefield as Marianne, and Janet McTeer as Mrs. Dashwood.
The superb Hattie Morahan, an actress formerly unknown to me, carries this 3-hour Andrew Davies-scripted adaptation as the wise, kind Elinor; the other roles are also filled with excellent actors. Barton Cottage is perhaps more remote and more windswept than my image from Austen's novel, but it feels emotionally right as the correlative to the Dashwood women's decline in social standing. This was one of the few bright spots in the "Complete Jane Austen" series broadcast on PBS eight years ago.

Emma Thompson as Elinor, Kate Winslet as Marianne, and Gemma Jones as Mrs. Dashwood in the 1995 film

  • Honorable mention: The 1995 Ang Lee film starring Emma Thompson as Elinor, Kate Winslet as Marianne, Gemma Jones as Mrs. Dashwood, Hugh Grant as Edward Ferrars, and Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon.
This version is beautifully shot by Ang Lee, has a witty script by Thompson, and is well-performed by a cast of actors familiar from film and television. But there's no way around this: at the opening of the novel Elinor is "only nineteen" and Edward Ferrars twenty-four, but Thompson and Grant were in their mid-30s. Colonel Brandon, whom Marianne mocks for his "advanced years" and claims is "old enough to be my father," is thirty-five; at 49, though, Rickman really was old enough to be the 20-year-old Winslet's father. Having the characters appear older than they are intended to be changes our perceptions of them. In particular, it gives Edward's flirtation with Lucy Steele (Imogen Stubbs) a different character, and it makes Elinor's "strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment" less remarkable.

Aishwarya Rai as Meenakshi (Marianne) and Tabu as Sowmya (Elinor) in Kandukondain Kandukondain

  • Best updated version: The delightful Kandukondain Kandukondain (I have found it, 2000), a Tamil-language film starring Tabu as the thoughtful Sowmya (Elinor) and Aishwarya Rai as the impulsive Meenakshi (Marianne). 
In my full-length review of Kandukondain Kandukondain I wrote that it is "surprisingly faithful to its source while believably updating the story to the present." Plus, it has some excellent A. R. Rahman songs. Thanks to Rajshri Films, you can watch the full movie on YouTube, with English subtitles.
  • I'm curious about: The 1971 BBC production with Elinor played by Joanna David, later a wonderful Mrs. Gardiner in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice (see below).

Pride and Prejudice

Julia Sawalha as Lydia, Susannah Hacker as Jane, Lucy Briers as Mary, Polly Maberley as Kitty, and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth in the 1995 BBC series

  • Favorite adaptation: There's no contest, of course: the 1995 BBC production written by Andrew Davies and starring a radiant Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth, Susannah Harker as Jane, E & I favorite Julia Sawalha as Lydia, and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy.
This series is perfectly cast, amazingly faithful to the novel, and rewards repeated viewings. This is the best adaptation of any Austen novel, and is a must-watch.

Greer Garson as Elizabeth and Laurence Olivier as Darcy in the 1940 film

  • Disappointing: The classic Hollywood version from 1940 featuring Greer Garson as Elizabeth and Laurence Olivier as Darcy. 
Garson is a lovely, if too mature, Elizabeth, and is almost reason enough to watch this version. But Olivier's Darcy seems oddly detached, the costumes are far out of period, and the ending and some of the characters are changed almost beyond recognition. If you are curious, you can read my full-length review.
  • Avoid: The 2005 film directed by Joe Wright, with a miscast Keira Knightley as Elizabeth and Matthew Macfadyen as Darcy. 
Deborah Moggach's unsubtle script has pigs wandering through the halls of Longbourn and Elizabeth and Darcy snogging in a rainstorm. As I've written elsewhere, this version "makes almost no effort to place its characters in the social context of the period...Austen's book is much more subtle, layered, nuanced, and funny than you would suspect from that simplistic and forgettable movie." If you think you like this one and haven't seen the 1995 version, you're doing yourself a disservice.

Martin Henderson as Darcy and Aishwarya Rai as Lalita (Elizabeth) in Bride & Prejudice

  • Bollywood-style version: Bride & Prejudice (2004), directed and written by Gurinder Chadha, starring Aishwarya Rai as Lalita (Elizabeth), Anupam Kher as Chaman Bakshi (Mr. Bennet), and Martin Henderson as William Darcy.
This film, written and directed by the creator of Bend It Like Beckham (2002), should have been fun. But as I wrote in another post, it was "fatally handicapped by New Zealand actor Martin Henderson's lackluster Darcy and. . .Chadha's mediocre script." This "Bollywood-style" film (produced by Pathé and distributed by Miramax) could have used a jolt of real Bollywood showmanship.

Mansfield Park

  • Favorite adaptation: None.

Frances O'Connor as Fanny Price in the 1999 film

  • Honorable mention: The 1999 film directed and written by Patricia Rozema, starring Frances O'Connor as Fanny Price, Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund Bertram, E & I favorite Justine Wadell as Julia Bertram, and a menacing Harold Pinter as Sir Thomas.
Rozema makes explicit—perhaps too explicit—the slavery subtext of Austen's novel. She also turns Fanny into the young Jane Austen: we see her scribbling stories and anachronistically surrounded by balled-up pieces of paper (paper was very expensive in Austen's day and would hardly be wasted). More Becoming Jane than Mansfield Park.
  • Avoid at all costs: The 2007 ITV version, broadcast as part of PBS' "Complete Jane Austen" series, is mis-conceived on every level: mis-directed by Iain MacDonald, mis-written by Maggie Wadey, and starring a miscast Billie Piper as a bold and athletic Fanny. 

Deepika Padukone as Naina and Ranbir Kapoor as Bunny in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani

  • Bollywood versions: The "shy girl secretly in love with her male best friend" plot, (very) loosely based on Mansfield Park, has been used frequently in Bollywood films such as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something is happening, 1998), Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow may never come, 2003), Ishq Vishk (Love and all that, 2003), and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (These young people are crazy, 2013). All of these films are recommendable if you're open to Bollywood storytelling conventions.

Emma (updated 2020)

Romola Garai as Emma and Jonny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightley in the 2009 BBC series

  • Favorite adaptation: The 2009 BBC production starring Romola Garai as Emma, Jonny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightley, and E & I favorite Jodhi May as Mrs. Weston.
This adaptation, written by Sandy Welch (North & South), is expansive, lushly photographed, and fully justifies its 4-hour running time.

Mia Goth as Harriet and Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma in the 2020 film version.

  • Honorable mention: The 2020 version starring Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma, Johnny Flynn as Mr. Knightley, and Bill Nighy as Mr. Woodhouse.
In the original version of this post I wrote "I will get a fair amount of dissent from this opinion, I'm sure, but I found the less-than-perfectly faithful 1996 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma, Greta Scacchi as Mrs. Weston, and Toni Collette as Harriet Smith to be pretty entertaining, although I haven't been tempted to rewatch it since." That version has been completely superseded by this one. Director Autumn de Wilde's eye-popping visuals and wide-eyed leading lady Anya Taylor-Joy were perfect for rendering Austen's most irony-filled work. De Wilde's visual style and Taylor-Joy's quizzical stare place invisible quotation marks around every scene, and if period deportment is largely absent, the period costumes are sumptuous.
  • Disappointing: The 1996 ITV version starring Kate Beckinsale as Emma, Samantha Morton as Harriet Smith, and Olivia Williams as Jane Fairfax.
Despite an Andrew Davies script, this version fails to engage. The problem for me is Beckinsale, who in looks and characterization simply is not my image of Emma. (She seems a much better match for the character of Lady Susan in Whit Stillman's Love and Friendship (2016), although I have to qualify that judgment by confessing that I haven't yet seen it).

Paul Rudd as Josh (yes, he's reading Nietzsche) and Alicia Silverstone as Cher in Clueless

  • Updated version: Clueless (1995), directed and written by Amy Heckerling, starring Alicia Silverstone as Cher (Emma) and Paul Rudd as Josh (Mr. Knightley).
I missed this teen comedy when it first came out, and may have waited too long to see it. Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) cleverly updates Emma to 1990s Beverly Hills High. But as with Aisha (see below), the updating places a key issue in stark relief: why should we care about this superficial and super-privileged character? Silverstone handles the (often slapstick) comedy adroitly, but I liked this movie less than I was expecting to.
  • Bollywood version: Aisha (2010), starring Sonam Kapoor as Aisha (Emma) and Abhay Deol as Arjun (Mr. Knightley).
In "Who cares if Tanu Weds Manu? The new Bollywood romantic comedy," I wrote that Sonam Kapoor "is pretty enough, but blank: her performance suggests that Aisha really is as shallow as she seems. By the end of the movie we've seen three couples united, and all of the romantic happy endings feel unearned."

Northanger Abbey

Carey Mulligan as Isabella Thorpe and Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland in the 2007 ITV production

  • Favorite adaptation: The 2007 ITV production directed by Jon Jones and written by Andrew Davies, starring Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland, J. J. Feild as Henry Tilney, and Carey Mulligan as Isabella Thorpe.
This version is too short at a mere 90 minutes, and takes some liberties with the novel. But the principles are perfect (and appear age-appropriate) for their roles, and despite the compression required to fit the story into a 90-minute frame Davies' script brings out a great deal of the novel's wit and charm.


Ciarán Hinds as Captain Wentworth and Amanda Root as Anne Elliot in the 1995 BBC production

  • Favorite adaptation: The 1995 BBC production directed by Roger Michell, written by Nick Dear, and starring Amanda Root as Anne Elliot, Ciarán Hinds as Captain Frederick Wentworth, and Fiona Shaw as Mrs. Croft.
Almost as great a miracle as the Jennifer Ehle-Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice adaptation of the same year, this version beautifully renders key scenes from Austen's novel (and, amazingly, is able to do so in under two hours). Both Root and Hinds are completely convincing as the estranged lovers who are suddenly reunited after eight years apart. It's clear, too, that great care has been taken in portraying locations, interiors, music, and other details from the novel. Not to be missed.
  • Avoid at all costs: The 2007 ITV production directed by Adrian Shergold and written by Simon Burke, starring Sally Hawkins as Anne and Rupert Penry-Jones as Wentworth.
A disaster from the start (when, at a dinner party, Anne casually utters lines from the novel's climactic letter scene) to the finish (when Anne sprints through the streets of Bath to publicly throw herself into the arms of Wentworth, something no woman of her time and situation would do). You can see my more detailed commentary in the post "The Complete Jane Austen: Unpersuasive." While I've admired Hawkins' work in Tipping the Velvet (2002), Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), An Education (2009) and Never Let Me Go (2010), she is out of place here, and blond, bland Penry-Jones is unconvincing as a seasoned veteran of close naval combat.

Final thoughts

Spending six months re-reading Jane Austen's novels (plus some of her letters and works unpublished during her lifetime) has been a remarkable experience for me. I hope in this series I've been able to convey some of my sense of discovery; I'm deeply grateful for the work of passionate readers and scholars who have revealed layers of meaning in her books of which I wasn't aware before.

But I also hope I've communicated the sheer pleasure of spending an extended amount of time in Austen's company, and perhaps inspired you to consider reading or re-reading her novels. Her books are inexhaustible; I know that I will be returning to them again and again.

Sources on Austen and her world consulted for this series

  • Henry Austen, "Biographical Notice of the Author," in Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, John Murray, 1818
  • George Boukulous, "The politics of silence: Mansfield Park and the amelioration of slavery." NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 39 No. 3, 2006, pp. 361-383
  • Paula Byrne, The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, William Collins, 2014
  • R. W. Chapman, Jane Austen: Facts and Problems, Oxford University Press, 1948
  • R. W. Chapman, ed., Jane Austen's letters to her sister Cassandra and others, Oxford University Press, 1932
  • Edward Copeland, Women Writing About Money: Women's Fiction in England, 1790-1820, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, Second Edition. Cambridge University Press, 2011, especially Chapter 1: Jan Fergus, "The professional writer"; Chapter 8: Juliet McMaster, "Class"; Chapter 9: Edward Copeland, "Money"; and Chapter 10: David Selwyn, "Making a living."
  • Frank Gibbon, "The Antiguan connection: Some new light on Mansfield Park." The Cambridge Quarterly, Volume 11 Issue 2, 1982,  pp. 298-305.
  • Jocelyn Harris, A Revolution Almost Beyond Expression: Jane Austen's Persuasion, University of Delaware Press, 2007
  • James Heldman, "How Wealthy is Mr. Darcy—Really? Pounds and Dollars in the World of Pride and Prejudice." Persuasions 12, 1990, 38-49.
  • Robert D. Hume, "Money in Jane Austen." The Review of English Studies, New Series (2013), Vol. 64, No. 264, pp. 289-310. doi: 10.1093/res/hgs054
  • [Walter Scott] "Art. IX. Emma, A Novel" [review]. The Quarterly Review, Vol. XIV, No. XXVII, October, 1815, p. 188-201.
  • Brian Southam, Jane Austen and the Navy, Hambledon and London, 2000
  • Brian Southam, "The silence of the Bertrams: Slavery and the chronology of Mansfield Park." Times Literary Supplement, 17 February 1995, pp. 13-14.
  • Katherine Toran, "The Economics of Jane Austen’s World," Persuasions On-Line, 36(1), 2015. 

Other posts in the "Six months with Jane Austen" series:

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Six months with Jane Austen: Persuasion and Austen's sailor brothers

The frigate HMS Unicorn captures the French frigate La Tribune
 A continuation of the post "Persuasion and war."

"How fast I made money in her": The prize-money system. In Chapter 8 of Persuasion, Captain Wentworth regales his listeners (the Musgroves, the Crofts, and Anne) with stories of the ships he has commanded. His second command was the frigate Laconia: "Ah! those were pleasant days when I had the Laconia!  How fast I made money in her." [1]

It may seem odd for a military officer to speak of war as a money-making opportunity, but victors in naval battles were usually awarded prize-money and other honors (titles, pensions, valuable commemorative swords, gold medals, "freedom boxes," and other trophies). The sources of these honors were both official and private. After Trafalgar, for example, Parliament awarded £320,000 in prize-money to the officers and men of Nelson's fleet; every captain who saw action received over £3300—more than eight times his yearly wage—"with lesser sums to the lower ranks." Another source of honors was Lloyd's Patriotic Fund, created by the insurers of ship-owners and merchants, whose profits depended on the naval defense of trade routes; the honors and prize-money the fund offered (primarily to officers) were "material inducements to stick to the meritorious but otherwise unprofitable task of protecting trade."
That a Captain...was after prize-money was not a cynical assessment, but a truism accepted throughout the Navy...It was regarded as the fairest and most straightforward way of rewarding success and for ensuring that sailors at sea, both officers and crew, gained some recompense for putting their lives at risk. [2] 
Wentworth was particularly concerned with earning money because while home in England on leave after the Battle of St. Domingo in 1806 (see "Persuasion and war"), he had met and proposed to a young woman. However, while she had accepted him, her family and friends were unalterably opposed to the match due to his lack of fortune. Her father "thought it a very degrading alliance"; her closest friend "a most unfortunate one...[she had] of anything approaching to imprudence a horror.  She deprecated the connexion in every light." Captain (then Commander) Wentworth "had nothing but himself to recommend him, and no hopes of attaining affluence, but in the chances of a most uncertain profession, and no connexions to secure even his farther rise in the profession." Under pressure, the young woman withdrew her consent, and the lovers were separated. [3]

The woman Wentworth proposed to in 1806 was, of course, Anne Elliot. Now, eight years later, Captain Wentworth has, "by successive captures," accumulated a fortune in prize-money of "five-and-twenty thousand pounds, and [has attained a position] as high in his profession as merit and activity could place him." [4]

HMS Peterel vs. La Ligurienne (detail), Antoine Roux
Battle between a British sloop and a French brig
"A ship not fit to be employed": Wentworth's first command. Merit and activity, indeed: Wentworth's disregard for his personal safety was, at least in the early years of his captaincy, almost suicidally courageous. We learn that his first ship was the sloop Asp, "a ship not fit to be employed," of which he took command shortly after Anne was persuaded to break off their engagement. "It was a great object with me at that time to be at sea," he tells the group, but meaning, of course, for his words to be heard primarily by Anne, "a very great object—I wanted to be doing something." [5]

A sloop was "a ship of between ten and eighteen guns, the humblest of vessels." [6] Wentworth tells his audience offhandedly that "I had the good luck in my passage home the next autumn, to fall in with the very French frigate I wanted."  A frigate was a substantially larger ship than a sloop, and carried between 30 and 40 guns. For a sloop to attempt to capture a frigate that might outgun it three to one was daring in the extreme; however, Wentworth says with an understatement that conceals what must have been a desperate encounter, "I brought her into Plymouth." And, of course, the prize money for frigates was greater than for smaller vessels. [7]

Wentworth has proved that he is worthy of Anne by earning his fortune through bravery and skill. Now Anne must prove that she is worthy of him by showing a "character of decision and firmness" by defying the disapproval of her family and (especially) of Lady Russell. Although she considers Lady Russell to occupy "the place of a parent" in her regard, Anne is no longer nineteen, and "it was now some years since Anne had begun to learn that she and her excellent friend could sometimes think differently." Anne, at 27, is now willing to overcome Lady Russell's disapprobation by resolutely advocating for her own desires. "Anne knew that Lady Russell making some struggles to become truly acquainted with, and do justice to Captain Wentworth. This however was what Lady Russell had now to do." [8]

The novel closes in February 1815. Jo Modert has written that "the chronologies within [Jane Austen's] novels merit far more attention than has been given them thus far," and this is especially true of Persuasion. Following Modert's suggestion, Ellen Moody has identified the very day that Captain Wentworth and Anne renew their engagement after eight years of separation: it is Saturday, February 25, a date freighted with significance. [9]

The end of the false peace. The date can be no coincidence. On Sunday, February 26, 1815, after remaining in exile for a little more than nine months, Napoleon escaped Elba. Two days later he landed in France, and on March 20 he entered Paris to popular acclaim. The false peace was over and the Hundred Days had begun. In mid-June 200,000 men would clash to decide the fate of Europe near a small Belgian town named Waterloo.

After Waterloo and his disastrous retreat through France, Napoleon finally surrendered—to the British Navy. He turned himself over to Captain Frederick Maitland of HMS Bellerophon, one of the ships blockading Rochefort, on July 15.* He was transported to England, and sent to exile on the island of St. Helena in the Atlantic Ocean on August 7.

The very next day, August 8, 1815, Jane Austen began writing Persuasion, in which Admiral Croft and Captain Wentworth participate in the British Navy's greatest victories in the war against Napoleon's France. And the date of Anne and Wentworth's éclaircissement is a suggestion that even in times of apparent peace, vigilance is necessary. Despite Anne's newfound felicity, she cannot be free from "the dread of a future war." [10]

The Destruction of L'Orient at the Battle of the Nile (detail), George Arnald, 1827
The French ship Franklin, after capture to become HMS Canopus, at far left
Jane Austen's sailor brothers. By ending Persuasion on such a significant date, Austen was making an argument against demobilization of the Navy on behalf of her brothers Francis and Charles, both naval captains. Francis left active service in May 1814, as Navy demobilization began after Napoleon's first exile, while Charles left active service in the summer of 1816, as Jane was finishing Persuasion. (Between 1814 and 1820, "the number of ships in commission dropped from 713 to 134..., and the number of seamen from 140,000 to 23,000." [11]) As is the case for the novel's wounded Captain Harville, officers not on active duty received half pay: £200 a year, more or less, depending on seniority. [12] Such a sum was barely adequate to sustain a middle-class family; Lady Russell's skepticism of Captain Wentworth's suitability as a husband for Anne eight years before is perhaps understandable.

Many of the details of Admiral Croft's and Captain Wentworth's naval careers were drawn from the experiences of Jane Austen's sailor brothers:
  • Trafalgar: Admiral Croft was "rear admiral of the white" at Trafalgar; Francis commanded a ship in Nelson's fleet, the 80-gun HMS Canopus, but was sent on convoy duty with five other ships of the line two weeks before the battle. Jane gave to the sympathetic Admiral Croft the participation in the Navy's most glorious victory that was denied to Francis.
  • Battle of St. Domingo: A few months after missing Trafalgar, Francis' ship took part in the destruction of a French squadron at the Battle of St. Domingo, the battle after which the Lieutenant Wentworth is promoted to commander. In the summer of 1806 Francis married his fiancée Mary Gibson; it's in the summer of 1806 that the newly-promoted Wentworth first proposes to Anne.
  • Sloop as first command: Wentworth's first command is the unseaworthy sloop Asp; the first commands of Francis (the 16-gun Peterel) and Charles (the Indian) were also sloops.
  • Prizes taken: In 1800 the Peterel encountered three French ships off Marseilles. Even though he was missing a quarter of his crew (they were manning other captured vessels) and the Peterel was within range of shore batteries, Francis ordered an attack on the three ships. The Peterel drove two aground and captured the third, the 16-gun brig La Ligurienne. Shades of the Asp's "touch with the Great Nation" when, against the odds, Wentworth's sloop attacks and captures a French frigate. [13]

Captain Francis Austen, ca. 1806 (left); Captain Charles Austen, ca. 1810 (right)

Domestic virtues and national importance. Francis may also have been a model for Captain Harville—at least, Francis thought that "some of his domestic habits, tastes and occupations bear a strong resemblance to mine." [14] At the home of the Harvilles, Anne notes the "ingenious contrivances and nice arrangements of Captain Harville...a mind of usefulness and ingenuity seemed to furnish him with constant employment within.  He drew, he varnished, he carpentered, he glued; he made toys for the children; he fashioned new netting-needles and pins with improvements; and if everything else was done, sat down to his large fishing-net at one corner of the room." [15] Jane would have had the opportunity to observe Francis' "domestic habits" after staying with him and his wife Mary at Southampton on and off for several years beginning in the fall of 1806. Harville and Wentworth, modelled at least in part on Jane's brothers, exemplify "that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues, than in its national importance." [16]

It is these domestic and social qualities that inspire Louisa Musgrove to "burst forth into raptures of admiration and delight on the character of the navy; their friendliness, their brotherliness, their openness, their uprightness; protesting that she was convinced of sailors having more worth and warmth than any other set of men in England; that they only knew how to live, and they only deserved to be respected and loved." [17]

It is hard not to hear in this speech the views of a loyal and loving sister of two sailor brothers. And it is difficult to imagine that these sentiments do not also reflect those of the most gentle, wise and steadfast heroine in all of her novels, Anne Elliot.

Next post in the series: Favorite adaptations and final thoughts
Previous post in the series: Persuasion and war

Other posts in the "Six months with Jane Austen" series:

* Jane Austen's brother Charles would later serve as the captain of the Bellerophon.
  1. Persuasion, I. iv.; 4.
  2. Quotes from Brian Southam, Jane Austen and the Navy, Hambledon and London, 2000, Ch. 6: "Rewards of success: Prize money, honours, promotion."
  3. Persuasion, I. iv.; 4.
  4. Persuasion, II. xii.; 24.
  5. Persuasion, I. iv.; 4, and later in the same chapter.
  6. Southam, Jane Austen and the Navy, p. 197.
  7. Persuasion, I, iv.; 4.
  8. Persuasion, I. x.; 10, II. xi.; 23, I. xvi.; 16, and II. xii.; 24.
  9. Jo Modert, "Chronology within the novels," in J. David Grey, ed., The Jane Austen Companion, Macmillan, 1986, p. 58; Ellen Moody, "A Calendar for Persuasion,"
  10. Persuasion, II. xii.; 24.
  11. Jocelyn Harris, A Revolution Almost Beyond Expression: Jane Austen's Persuasion, University of Delaware Press, 2007, p. 75. Much of the information in this section of the post is taken from the books of Harris and of Brian Southam, who themselves drew extensively on John and Edith Hubback, Jane Austen's sailor brothers, Lane, 1906.
  12. Southam, Jane Austen and the Navy, p. 285. 
  13. Persuasion, I. viii.; 8
  14. Quoted in Southam, Jane Austen and the Navy, p. 308. 
  15. Persuasion, I. xi.; 11.
  16. Persuasion, II. xii.; 24.
  17. Persuasion, I. xi.; 11.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Six months with Jane Austen: Persuasion and war

The Battle of Trafalgar (detail), Auguste Mayer, 1836
During Jane Austen's lifetime Great Britain was almost continually at war. The year of her birth, 1775, was the year of Lexington and Concord, the battle that inaugurated the War of American Independence. And for more than two decades beginning in 1793, Britain and its European allies engaged in a long-running conflict against Revolutionary and (after Napoleon declared himself Emperor in 1804) Imperial France.

Rumors of war touch several of Austen's novels. In Pride and Prejudice, the militia regiment quartered at Meryton and Brighton in southeast England is there to defend against a French invasion (its other purpose is to violently suppress demonstrations by agricultural or industrial workers). And in Mansfield Park, Fanny Price's brother William is serving as a midshipman on a British Navy vessel patrolling the Mediterranean to intercept French ships.

But the novel which is most profoundly affected by war is Persuasion. Austen could presume that her readers would know the significance of the timing of the action of the novel and the military engagements she mentions. But as Jocelyn Harris writes in A Revolution Almost Beyond Expression: Jane Austen's Persuasion, "Nearly two hundred years later, explanations are essential." [1] What follows is a brief discussion of the military context of the major events in the novel.

The false peace. As the novel opens the financially embarrassed Sir Walter Elliot has grudgingly decided to rent his estate, Kellynch Hall, and as a cost-saving measure move with his still-unmarried daughters Elizabeth, 29, and Anne, 27, to the resort town of Bath.

Sir Walter's resolution is made in the summer of 1814, just two months after Napoleon had been defeated, forced to abdicate, and exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba (between Corsica and Italy). With peace at hand, apparently, demobilization has begun, and naval officers granted extended leave from active duty are returning home. Into the neighborhood of Kellynch seeking a place to live have come a naval couple, Admiral and Mrs. Croft, along with Mrs. Croft's brother, Captain Frederick Wentworth.

Admiral Croft, war hero: The Trafalgar action. Admiral Croft, "rear admiral of the white...was in the Trafalgar action." [2] In October 1805 at Cape Trafalgar, near the Straits of Gibraltar, the British fleet under Lord Nelson defeated a larger combined fleet of French and Spanish ships. The British fleet was divided into three squadrons (Red, White and Blue), with each squadron having two sections commanded, respectively, by a vice admiral and a rear admiral. The fictional Admiral Croft's command would have been the rear section of Nelson's second squadron.

Trafalgar was the most decisive and most celebrated British naval victory of the Napoleonic Wars, so Sir Walter's new tenant is a war hero. Sir Walter's churlish attitude towards navy men in general and Admiral Croft in particular is thus an especially telling indictment of his character. It is also especially painful to Anne, who, when Sir Walter begins to muse about restricting the use of the estate by his tenants, notes that "The navy, I think, who have done so much for us, have at least an equal claim with any other set of men, for all the comforts and all the privileges which any home can give." [3] As someone who knew Jane Austen said, "Anne Elliot was herself; her enthusiasm for the Navy, and her perfect unselfishness, reflect her completely." [4]

 The Battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the mizen starboard shrouds of the Victory (detail), J.M.W. Turner, 1806-8.
The mortally wounded Nelson is visible at the base of the Victory's mainmast.
The human cost of war. Naval warfare was brutal. Long-range fire from pitching and rolling ships was generally ineffectual, so ships maneuvered to be able to fire concentrated broadsides at ranges so close that sometimes the opposing vessels were actually touching. At Trafalgar, the HMS Victory and the French ship Redoubtable were in such close contact that their rigging became entangled. Decks were blasted with cannon and raked with musket fire at point-blank range. So that men could keep their footing, sand had to be spread on planking slippery with blood. Be forewarned: some of the eyewitness testimony quoted below is fairly graphic.

An officer on the huge 130-gun Spanish warship Santisima Trinidad at Trafalgar later wrote:
The scene on board the Santisima Trinidad was simply infernal. All attempts at working the ship had to be abandoned. She could not move...The English shot had torn our sails to tatters. It was as if huge invisible talons had been dragging at them. Fragments of spars, splinters of wood, thick hempen cables cut up as corn is cut by the sickle, fallen blocks, shreds of canvas, bits of iron, and hundreds of other things that had been wrenched away by the enemy's fire, were piled along the deck, where it was scarcely possible to move about. . . . Blood ran in streams about the deck, and in spite of the sand, the rolling of the ship carried it hither and thither until it made strange patterns on the planks. The enemy's shot, fired as they were from very short range, caused horrible mutilations. . . . The ship creaked and groaned as she rolled, and through a thousand holes and crevices in her hull the sea spurted in and began to flood the hold. There was hardly a man to be seen who did not bear marks, more or less severe, of the enemy's iron and lead.
Another Spanish officer wrote that the dismasted Trinidad had surrendered, "not being able any longer to work her guns, owing to the mass of wreck which covered her decks and hung over her sides, and the heaps of dead which choked up her batteries." A midshipman from one of the British ships that took possession of the Trinidad after the battle wrote that "she had between three and four hundred killed and wounded ; her beams were covered with Blood, Brains and peices of Flesh and the after part of her Decks with wounded, some without legs and some without an Arm." The hundreds of dead were heaved overboard.

An American tourist visiting the coast near Cadiz a few days after the battle reported that "as far as the eye could reach, the sandy side of the isthmus bordering on the Atlantic was covered with masts and yards, the wrecks of ships, and here and there the bodies of the dead." [5]

The human cost of war is represented in Persuasion by Captain Harville, who "had never been in good health since a severe wound which he received two years before." [6] "Two years before" the action of the novel in the summer and fall of 1814 would place Captain Harville's wounding in the second half of 1812. Austen here might be subtly reminding her readers, through the person of the wounded Harville, of the string of British disasters in the early naval battles in the recent war with the United States: in August 1812, HMS Guerrière was forced to surrender to the USS Constitution; in October, the Macedonian was "shot to pieces" and captured by the USS United States; and in December, the Java was defeated and captured by the USS Constitution. [7]

Destruction of the French squadron of Admiral Leissègues at Santo-Domingo (detail), Nicholas Pocock, 1808
Lieutenant Wentworth's promotion: The battle of St. Domingo. In February 1806, a few months after Trafalgar, then-Lieutenant Frederick Wentworth is "made commander in consequence of the action off St. Domingo." [8] While the Battle of St. Domingo has been overshadowed by Trafalgar, it took place in a crucial theater of war and, on a smaller scale, was nearly as decisive.

Santo Domingo was a large port city on the French-controlled island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean; that island, like the nearby British West Indies, was devoted to sugar cultivation on huge plantations that depended on labor of and the trade in slaves. The British and French fleets fought there as a consequence of each side's attempting to disrupt the other's trade.

As Jocelyn Harris points out, the West Indies were "Britain's most important colony, providing most of the nation's wealth," while St. Domingo "was the richest single colony in all the European empires, its foreign trade bigger than that of the United States." [9] The islands of the Caribbean were the economic engines of both Britain and France, and both nations attacked each other's convoys; the naval conflict over the Caribbean and Atlantic trade routes is one reason that Mrs. Croft has "crossed the Atlantic four times." [10]

Officers generally received promotion only when positions became vacant, or when a new ship was commissioned. For Wentworth to receive a promotion immediately after a battle implies that a superior officer had been wounded or killed (or, possibly, had himself been promoted to take the place of a superior officer who had been wounded or killed).

Promotions were rapid in wartime due to the expansion of the navy and the frequent need to replace officers. With the coming of peace and demobilization in 1814, however, promotions could take years—or might never come at all. Early in the novel, Admiral Croft says, only partly ironically, that he hopes "we have the good luck to live to another war." [11] Later, in Bath, Admiral Croft recognizes a young sailor as the relative of an acquaintance and says that "the peace has come too soon for that younker"; a minute or two later he says of Captain Wentworth's friend, Captain Benwick, "these are bad times for getting on." [12] Promotion is important because the captain of a ship received the greatest share of the prize money when an enemy ship was captured; it is prize money that will enable Captain Wentworth to seek a wife.

Next post in the series: Persuasion and Jane Austen's sailor brothers
Previous post in the series: Northanger Abbey and women writers and readers

Other posts in the "Six months with Jane Austen" series:

  1. Jocelyn Harris, A Revolution Almost Beyond Expression: Jane Austen's Persuasion, University of Delaware Press, 2007, p. 74. 
  2. Austen, Persuasion, I. iii.; 3.
  3. Persuasion, I. iii.; 3.
  4. "Mrs. Barrett," quoted by an anonymous correspondent to Austen's nephew James Austen-Leigh in R. W. Chapman, Jane Austen: Facts and Problems, Oxford University Press, 1948, p. 98. 
  5. All eyewitness testimony from Edmund Fraser, The enemy at Trafalgar: An account of the battle from eye-witnesses' narratives and letters and despatches from the French and Spanish fleets, Hodder and Stoughton, 1905, pp. 268-272 and p. 335.
  6. Persuasion, I. xi.; 11.
  7. Brian Southam, Jane Austen and the Navy, Hambledon and London, 2000, pp. 259-260.
  8. Persuasion, I. iv.; 4.
  9. Harris, A Revolution Almost Beyond Expression, p. 79.
  10. Persuasion, I. viii.; 8
  11. Persuasion, I. viii.; 8.
  12. Persuasion, I. xviii.; 18 and later in the same chapter.