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Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson – A Vicarious Book Review

book-cover-clarissaLast week I came downstairs to find my sister in the kitchen, crying and eating up all the dried mango in the house (which was the only sugar we had). She had just finished reading Clarissa, a fifteen hundred page novel by Samuel Richardson. The heroine, she told me, took forever to die, and my sister had just spent the last three hundred pages of the book with tears streaming down her face.

As our friend Andrea said, three hundred pages makes a whole book! A whole book of tears. What was this book that could move my sister so strongly? I’ve decided to write a vicarious book review, based on my sister’s account of the plot and her reactions (vicarious reading, I believe, is a seriously underappreciated form of reading).

Clarissa was written by Samuel Richardson and published in 1748. He was much admired by Jane Austen and known for his realism, despite what sounds to contemporary readers as rather sensational plots. His novels were epistolary, that is written entirely as letters between characters.

The first thing to understand, my sister told me, is that Richardson wrote books that were meant to provide a template for how young ladies ought to behave. He was known for this and Clarissa Harlowe is a virtuous young lady trying to do good. Half her letters to her friend involvse the two of them discussing it. How does one do the right thing?

It’s especially difficult for Clarissa, because she seems to have the world’s worst family. Her parents have generally abdicated their responsibility and her brother and sister are running the show, trying to force Clarissa to marry a man she does not love. She even tells the man, Mr. Solmes, to his face that she does not like him, but he is not discouraged. She begins to fear that they will physically force her to marry this man. In the meantime, the charming libertine Lovelace has set his sights on Clarissa.

Through trickery, charm, connivance and a little hustling, Lovelace manages to get the desperate Clarissa (her family really is terrible) to run away with him. His goal is to seduce her and he is used to having his way. What he cannot understand is that Clarissa, as a person striving to do good, is genuinely repulsed by him…or at least the wrong things he does. This completely baffles and angers him and makes him even more desperate to humble her. What follows is a horrifying cat-and-mouse game between Lovelace and Clarissa. She is essentially a prisoner and he surrounds her with lies and people who he presents one way and turn out to be different. Clarissa does not initially realize just how bad Lovelace is. He’s charming, witty, educated and intelligent, but he’s also a skunk. My sister says it’s shocking how deceptive he is. He completely undermines himself and her through his deceit.

Robert_Lovelace_Preparing_to_Abduct_Clarissa_HarloweEventually, in desperation, he rapes her and that is the last straw. Previously, because she was a ruined woman and she was attracted to him, she had resigned herself to marrying him, even saying later that “she could have loved him.” She thought maybe she could redeem him, not understanding how deceitful he really was.  But afterwards, she doesn’t even want to see him, despite the fact that the solution of Lovelace’s family to the rape is that he marry her (!).

When she finally does escape from him, it’s like she’s lost the will to live. In the words of my sister, “he broke her.” He surrounded her with such a “cocoon of lies”, which takes her quite a while to sort out, that she doesn’t trust anyone anymore, especially men. Eventually, like a martyred saint, she fades away and Lovelace commits suicide via a duel.

It sounds like sheer melodrama, but the emotional scope, my sister said, is tremendous. And after spending fifteen hundred pages and two months with all these characters, she felt particularly invested and involved with them, making Clarissa’s extended demise all the more painful.  She said she just felt so sorry for Clarissa and that everyone else in the novel reacted to Clarissa exactly the way she did. People who meet her feel terrible for her.

I couldn’t figure out how that relatively simply plot could take up fifteen hundred pages, but apparently it does. My sister explained that there is a lot of back and forth between characters – deciding what to do, explaining what they are going to do, reporting what happened. Because of the lies of Lovelace, some of the interactions are even fake. There is basically a giant con going on in the middle of the plot and Clarissa has trouble discerning what is true and what is real. Another thing my sister found interesting was how Clarissa was attracted to Lovelace, but she did not fall in love. His character prevented it. It’s an interesting view showing that falling in love is not just a physical reaction, but also a choice.

After watching the sheer emotional investment involved in reading Clarissa, the angst and tears, the dried mango and two months reading time, the frustration and inevitable tragedy…I want to read it, too! Anything that can move somebody so deeply has to be worth checking out. I asked my sister if she regretted reading it and she said she did not.

 
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Posted by on April 25, 2016 in Books

 

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Pride and Prejudice (1940)

PrideundprejudiceI’ve always had a weakness for the 1940 Pride and Prejudice. I think possibly this is because I can watch it without really thinking of it as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. If it was closer, I might dislike it more. There’s nothing worse than a movie trying to be close to the book and missing the mark. The result is something tepid, but MGM’s Pride and Prejudice is so enthusiastically buoyant and over the top that I can enjoy it. I can’t help analyzing its inaccuracies, but that doesn’t dint the fun.

Elizabeth Bennett is played by Greer Garson, who admittedly is too mature to be Elizabeth. The only explanation that makes sense to me is that in the movie, Elizabeth is actually the oldest sister instead of Jane. She does interact with Jane as though she were the elder, always comforting Jane and looking out for her health. I can accept that, though. As long as it makes sense within the movie.

She has the funniest expressions, though. When she is sitting in a chair, literally leaning back, radiating offense when Mr. Darcy tells her that he loves her despite her inferior family, it always makes me laugh. It’s not a nuanced reaction, but seems suited to this exaggerated comedy of manners.

Though truthfully, everyone is shockingly rude to each other and there’s very little good manners to be seen. Elizabeth even refuses to dance with Mr. Darcy and then turns around and dances with another man – an unthinkable breach of propriety in reality. In the book, when Elizabeth is trying to avoid dancing with Mr. Collins, the only polite way she can do so is to not dance with anyone.

Mr. Darcy has just expressed himself badly and Elizabeth is offended

Mr. Darcy has just expressed himself badly and Elizabeth is offended

Mr. Darcy is played by Laurence Olivier. His Mr. Darcy is a bit of a fop; he even wears a polka dotted necktie at one point (I’m trying to imagine Colin Firth in a polka dot necktie). He’s also much more openly in pursuit of Elizabeth, so much so that Lady Catherine (played with hilarious aplomb by Edna May Oliver) notices it. In the book, no one noticed except Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte and even she wasn’t sure.

Elizabeth’s family in the movie is really not all that embarrassing as in the book. To put up with her family all that is really necessary is to loosen up and go with it, which Mr. Darcy evidently learns to do by the end. Mrs. Bennett is played by Mary Boland, still silly and fluttery, but rather lovable despite it. Edmund Gwenn (Santa Clause from Miracle on 34th Street) makes a good, slightly absent-minded Mr. Bennett who likes to make almost affectionate fun of Mrs. Bennett. Jane is played by Maureen O’Sullivan, a lovely, though slightly weepy and more outgoing Jane. When Mr. Darcy tells Elizabeth that he observed Jane and his friend Mr. Bingley together and did not think Jane was really in love, I do not believe him.

One of my favorite characters in the movie is Melville Cooper as the pompous and foppish Mr. Collins. For some reason – perhaps code reasons – he is not a clergyman in the movie, but Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s librarian. He is Mr. Bennett’s nephew and comes to the Bennett’s home, Longbourn, to make amends for the fact that he will inheriting Longbourn by marrying one of the daughters. He eventually settles on Elizabeth and his proposal is possibly the funniest moment in the movie (and even the book – it has translated well to nearly every adaptation I’ve ever seen). He can’t seem to understand that when Elizabeth says no, she really means no.

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The Bennett Family: Heath Angel, Marsha Hunt, Edmund Gwenn, Greer Garson, Ann Rutherford, Maureen O’Sullivan and sitting is Mary Boland

And you have to watch the way he sits down. He does so in one smooth movement of sitting, swishing his coat tales back and inserting himself in the chair.

You can tell that the screenplay was adapted from a play that was adapted from the book. The film has very distinct and extended scenes: scene at Longbourn, scene at Netherfield Park, scene at Rosings Park and so on. Multiple events from the book are squished into these individual scenes. At the end, Mr. Wickham, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mr. Collins, Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy all manage to visit in the same day! Needless to say, it is rather crowded in the house with all these people coming in and out.

The dynamics between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are also slightly different, though relatively consistent within the context of the film. In this case, Mr. Wickham does not tell Elizabeth his lies about Mr. Darcy until later in the film. This allows Elizabeth, although prejudiced against Mr. Darcy because he is so rude to people, to experience some glimmerings of liking. They even temporarily make friends until he is scared away by her loud relations. And when Wickham does tell her about Darcy’s supposed perfidy, she is surprised, as though she has trouble believing it of Mr. Darcy. In the book, Elizabeth is extremely eager to believe anything bad about Mr. Darcy.

Elizabeth is listening to Mr. Darcy make rude and cranky comments about people

Elizabeth is listening to Mr. Darcy make rude and cranky comments about people

And when Darcy proposes in the movie, she is deeply offended (and I would be, too – this Darcy’s real problem is that he has no tact), but after she leaves there is a look of distinct regret, like she’s sorry he’s such a pill because she actually kinda likes him.

The ending is a bit too pat. I’m not a fan of making Lady Catherine de Bourgh a good egg after all. It lessens her comic bite. I’m also not a huge fan of conveniently finding potential husbands for every single Bennett sister, but I suppose that since this family is not really dysfunctional and actually are quite affectionate, they deserve to be happy.

What really sells this movie for me – apart from the irrepressible way the characters bounce through the film – are the gowns. The gowns were designed by Adrian and are the reason that the film was moved out of the Regency period into the early Victorian era. The gowns are practically characters of their own. Seriously. If you ever watch the movie, look carefully at the gowns and hats. There are bows everywhere (in Elizabeth’s hair, on her shoulders, on the front of her dress); massive puffed sleeves, lace and frills and pleats and feathers and flowers and ruffles. Even simple dresses have complicated patterns. It’s fun to just watch the costumes go by.

Check out thatdress

Check out that dress!

The movie was adapted by Aldous Huxley and I’m impressed at how much of the dialogue of the book he did weave into the film after all. But he weaves it in smoothly. One of the things that drove me nuts about the 2005 adaptation was how they seemed to chop up the dialogue into little bits. I would have preferred if they’d just made up entirely new dialogue.

Since it’s so far from the book, for a while it puzzled me why I am able to enjoy the 1940 Pride and Prejudice and not the 2005 remake. I finally concluded that the real reason I can forgive it for straying from the book is that I like the genre. It’s period drama farce and I would have watched it even if it was not an adaptation of Austen’s book. I would not have watched the 2005 Pride and Prejudice if it had not been Pride and Prejudice. Modern romance in period garb with people walking through the fields in their nightdress? I’d rather watch Frankenstein or something. Or Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier.

 
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Posted by on June 17, 2015 in Movies

 

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Emma – Jane Austen: Mystery Novel

Emma_CE_Brock_1909_Vol_I_Chapter_VIIf there was one book I wish I could go back and read as if for the first time, without any prior knowledge or expectations, without ever having seen or heard of the movies, it would be Jane Austen’s Emma.

Unfortunately, when I first read the book, I had seen the movies many times and knew exactly what to expect and I think it clouded my initial appreciation of what a well constructed novel it is.

I once read it described, and I wish I could remember where I read it, as a mystery. The book is almost exclusively told from Emma’s perspective, though not in a first-person narrative and it is fascinating to read her perception of what is going on, along with the clues that Austen gives about how things really are.

The book was published in 1816 and the mystery novel was not a genre at that time, so Jane Austen is once again at the forefront of literature. It’s not a mystery novel about crime and murder, but it is the way that Austen misleads her readers through her heroine, but at the same time invites them to perceive the truth, that makes it like a mystery…though without the readers necessarily knowing that there are mysteries to be discovered.

The heroine, Emma Woodhouse, knows that she is a very clever young woman and believes that she has a gift for perceiving the feelings of others and sets out to assist people in reaching their goals, usually romantic, as she perceives those goals to be. It’s not just that she believes that she has a gift of perception, it is also that she believes that she knows what is best for people and these beliefs conflict, most notably and most frustratingly, in her treatment of her friend Harriet Smith.

I must admit that for me the first half of Emma is a little slow. I like it, but I tend to meander through it pleasurably, like an afternoon walk in the sun, but the second half is really where the action is. That is when Frank Churchill, Jane Fairfax and Mrs. Elton all arrive in Highbury to shake up Emma’s placid and self-satisfied existence and where Emma begins to see that maybe her life is lacking a little something, somewhere.

That is also when much of the mystery begins (there is some during the first half, when Emma takes it for granted that Mr. Elton loves Harriet, while Austen hints that it is really Emma that Elton is interested in by his outlandish flattery of her). Emma believes Frank Churchill is distinguishing her with his attentions, she believes that Frank Churchill does not like Jane Fairfax, she believes that Harriet is in love with Frank Churchill and she believes that Jane Fairfax might possibly be in love with a man named Mr. Dixon. In the meantime, there is an undercurrent regarding Mr. Knightley, who does not like Frank Churchill, which is very unlike him since he usually likes most people.

All of this is taken for granted by Emma and Austen seems to assume that we the readers are taking Emma’s view of things, however, she is also inviting us to see where Emma has it wrong. Frank repeatedly finds excuses to go over and talk to Jane and her aunt, Miss Bates, and Frank only arrives in Highbury after Jane has come. Harriet is never seen talking to Frank, in fact, she seems to be talking to Mr. Knightley quite a bit (the man she currently loves). Frank seems to have knowledge about Dr. Perry that he only could have gotten from Jane Fairfax or Miss Bates.

And during the whole book, we are invited to wonder why Mr. Knightley is so jealous of Frank Churchill and everyone’s obvious desire that Frank marry Emma.

In most mystery novels, there is a scene at the end where everything becomes clear and every little mystery and inconsistency is explained. There’s no detective, obviously, in Emma, but there is one scene that serves to resolve nearly every mystery. It is when Emma has just heard that Frank Churchill is engaged to be married to Jane Fairfax, that they were engaged all along. It explains so much of Frank’s behavior and Emma is filled with shame and grief at how she has also behaved and how badly she has misjudged everyone.

Emma is also afraid that she has encouraged Harriet to indulge her love for Frank and that she has once again caused Harriet to be disappointed in love. She dreads telling her friend, but Harriet arrives perfectly unconcerned and it is revealed that Emma has once again been mistaken. Harriet never cared for Frank Churchill at all; the man she really loves is Mr. Knightley. In this revelation comes the final, unexpected and most important revelation of the whole book, that the book has been building to and that Emma has been completely unaware of: Emma discovers that she loves Mr. Knightley and she cannot bare the thought that he might marry Harriet.

It is a wonderful and touching scene. Emma spends the whole book thinking she understands everyone, but it turns out that the only person she really needs to understand is herself, which understanding she only comes to after her peaceful existence is threatened by the thought that Mr. Knightley might be taken away from her.

And it turns out that Mr. Knightley went through a similar episode of self-discovery. It was only when Frank Churchill came to Highbury and, as Mr. Knightley thought, threatened to take Emma away from him that he realized how much he loved Emma.

I’ve always wondered what it would have been like if I had read the book before seeing the movies. I wonder how much I would have seen and how much I would have just gone along with Emma’s view of things. It hasn’t dinted my appreciation of the book now, but I always wished I could have had the pleasure of reading it with a truly receptive attitude, without preconceptions of my own, and watched how the romance developed without any comfortable knowledge of how it would be. Would I have picked out Mr. Knightley as the one she would marry from the moment I first met him? I’d like to think so, but I don’t know.

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2014 in Fiction

 

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