We speak of them as they were
Male Voices in Praise of Jane Austen
First Anniversary Issue
|Volume 2, Number 9||September 1, 2003|
Edited by Sophia Sentiment
Here is the surprise link for this month.
Sophia Sentiment welcomes you to the September edition of The Loiterer—The First Anniversary Issue! Not really knowing how this Newsletter would turn out, we are amazed at the number of subjects we covered, information we shared, and we had some just plain fun, too. It was certainly worth the effort. I do "Thank you" all for your participation and especially Cheryl for pinch-hitting for me. I am looking forward to another interesting year.
Yours, as you behave,
Contents of this Issue
Ashton: Jennifer Ehle & PossessionJeremy Northam in Enigma Anna Lefroy's copy of The Loiterer Final Comments
Jennifer Ehle and Possession
I have some observations about the recent filmed version of Possession (2002) that I would like to pass along. The film starred, among others, Jennifer Ehle, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jeremy Northam—So, Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley are on the same screen in this film! Actually, Anna Massey has a tiny role in this film and some of you might remember her in the role of Aunt Norris in an early filmed version of Mansfield Park.
This film is better than 97% of the films made nowadays (including those made by that Junior Varsity we call "Independent Films".) I know that because I actually watched the entire film—didn't just sigh and then walk away after a few minutes. I don't think that was because of my inordinate respect for Jennifer Ehle although I am not absolutely sure. I must say that Ms. Ehle proved, once again, that a great actress can make a little something out of a basically silly role. (And, of course, any sighting of that Anglo-American actress is a bit like catching a glimpse of Chawton Cottage or Winchester Cathedral—her image is forever burned into the collective psyche of Janites.)
The film is based upon a novel by A.S. Byatt, who, my personal, well-informed informant assures me, is very popular these days. The novel is set, in part, in modern England—more precisely, in the modern-day English academia. It is a sort of fictional Double Helix for the humanities in that it exposes the pettiness, professional jealousies, and the underhanded dealings of some professors of the Humanities. Actually, the film is set, simultaneously, in two different time periods: The relationship between Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart is set in the present while that of Ehle and Northam is set in the Victorian period.
The protagonist (Eckhart) is a young, American research-assistant trying to make his way in the world of the English Universities. He is not doing very well as the film opens, and he is being treated with contempt and condescension by his English colleagues and supervisors. Americans will be delighted by the manner in which he deals with overt English contempt for American academics. For example, a librarian expresses amusement that an American might presume to come to England to profess English literature and the protagonist replies, "Surely there are others, England is our favorite colony you know." Eckhart delivers that, and similar lines, with good humor while avoiding the impression of animosity or anger. Still, the character makes his points.
The basic plot is the solution of a mystery, and presents us with a surprise ending. But I will say nothing about those because it will ruin everything for you and I don't want to do that. I want you to have the fun of watching the mystery play out. In general, neither attention to detail nor character development is to be found in this film—don't expect anything resembling a Jane Austen novel. The lone exception is the character of the American protagonist so that Eckhart's performance is the very best even though he is surrounded by a boat load of superior acting talent. Possession is Eckhart's film! (Except, can someone explain to me how it is that a man can walk about with a perpetual 5:00 O'clock shadow? I mean wouldn't that take a great deal of continuous, complicated grooming? and for what purpose?) That is all the plot detail you will get here—rent a copy of the film for the rest.
The biggest blunder in the making of the film was the casting of Gwyneth Paltrow, and that is true on two counts. First of all, she is cast as an English academic which means that she had to haul out that English accent that didn't work in Emma or Shakespeare in Love and doesn't work here either. The problem is her voice, a particular kind of American nasalness that some Americans refer to as "honky". Well, even if you get everything else right, "honky" will never sound English. Secondly, we are to understand that Paltrow's character is a "ball-buster"; and, while Ms. Paltrow "knows the words, she hasn't got the tune". I mean that the actress's underlying sweetness shines through so that her depiction of ball-busting comes across as kind of cute. Real ball-busting is never cute—refer to your nearest feminist web site. Still, Gwyneth Paltrow is an actress of the first rank so that she is able to hold our attention, especially if we don't listen too closely.
Jennifer Ehle is wonderful, as usual, and she looks great in the bargain. That small, natural beauty-spot on her upper lip is untreated by cosmetics and continues to draw our attention. The writing for her role, however, is slightly preposterous and the filming is unintentionally amusing at places. Ms. Ehle's character is a poet and a lesbian in a committed relationship, but becomes infatuated with—ugh!—a man (played by Jeremy Northam). I guess her forbidden infatuation with a man has something to do with the fact that he is a poet, and the affair is actuated by his sincere and persistent suit. (We are left to only guess about such things—remember this is not a Jane Austen novel we are talking about.) He is married, loves his wife, but their marriage is not "physical" nor ever has been. So, what is it then? Don't look at me, and don't bother studying the film for an answer—this is not a Jane Austen novel. In one scene, the wife begins to weep and apologizes for the lack of physical love, and he comforts her by reminding her that "there are many different types of love." Oh yeah?—name some. But, the state of the marriage saves us the trouble of being disturbed with Northam's character for his extra-marital affair.
The writing conforms to that silly convention in which any great poet or writer must be poetic in all her letters or conversations, regardless of how spontaneous they might be. Ehle's character is all-knowing and comprehends all matters immediately and to a degree unmatched by anyone else. Ehle's expression is appropriate for such an infallible character: I would describe it as a cross between Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile and the Madonna's expression of saintly tolerance (not that Madonna!—the real one!). The facial expression amused me, but it certainly was appropriate for the script as it is written. Well, if the character knew so much, then why did she not anticipate the consequences of her forbidden love affair?
Personally, I suspect that poetry is a lot more difficult than that, I can't believe that it is always at the tip of the tongue. I suspect that great poetry comes in fits and starts and is a lot of hard work. To support my position I would submit Jane Austen's letters, which are fascinating but do not show any of that literary merit we all admire in her novels. No, I believe a more reasonable depiction of poets and their creative powers is provided in Pandaemonium, which shows a Wordsworth or a Coleridge to be just as big a fool as the rest of us, just more contemplative and a lot more creative on occasion.
However, Ehle's monotone expression reminds us of just how Jane Austen's great work of art—what I consider the most perfect novel of all time—was the vehicle that allowed Jennifer Ehle to display a far greater range of emotion and understanding. Also, it is a curious thing, but her role of Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice was far sexier than her role in Possession even though in the latter, we see her character in an explicit act of intercourse. It is very interesting to realize that Jane Austen's standards of probability and nature in this context are far more affecting than an explicit sex scene. I mean that Darcy doesn't even hold Elizabeth's hand except during their brawl—excuse me, I mean except during their dance at Netherfield.
There is one scene in Possession that is supposed to be terribly romantic, but struck me as terribly campy and, therefore, terribly amusing. The two poets arrange to go off together in order to sack out together for four weeks (and no longer, so that their other partners will not be unduly disturbed). Anyway, there is this scene where Ehle's character is taking this long walk down an enclosed promenade to meet Northam and then embark on their assignation. It is done in slowed motion which makes it funny enough, but wait until you get a load of Ehle's costume. To me she looked like she was dressed like the wicked witch of the west—the costume is over done, way over done. (On the other hand, what do I know, maybe that is the proper attire for a turn-coat lesbian.) My well-informed informant guessed that this fault is consistent with the novel by A.S. Byatt, whose work tends to be overly wrought.
Ehle and Northam are among my favorite actors and their performances in this film did nothing to diminish my admiration. Sadly, however, they failed to spark the chemistry we might have expected. Although, ...
... they do look good together, do they not?
When their characters finally arrive at their love nest, Northam tries to embrace Ehle but she says, dramatically, "not yet"; he replies, dramatically, "no, not yet ..."; but, I thought, unromantically, "why ever?"
But that is not so bad compared to another scene which is perfectly ludicrous. This scene is played between Paltrow and Eckhart, whose characters, for unexplained reasons, are romantically constipated. (Maybe it has something to do with that 5:00 O'clock shadow.) In this scene they arrive at a hotel to find that they had been booked into the same room, with a single bed, and that no other accommodations are available. (All of which reminds of that one about the traveling salesman and the farmer's daughter ... .) They eventually decide not to have sex, which is perfectly understandable—even a relief—given the level of constipation.
OK, so this film is not based on anything like a Jane-Austen novel; but, on the other hand, it is nothing like Gigli, American Pie, or the latest, special-effects extravaganza either. So, if you love movies, Possession is one of your best bets these days—pop the popcorn, snuggle up to your own well-informed informant, and enjoy the film.
The Emma-Films All-Stars Ballot: A Mid-Term Debate
We are a bit past the half-way point in our election of an All-Star team of actors in the various versions of Emma. Originally, I had designated the end point to be when one of the productions received 1,000 votes. It would have taken something like 200 ballots to achieve that number. I have since increased the requirement to 500 ballots. That's right, I changed the rules in the middle of the election—it's good to be the Meister!
There are still some interesting contests and that is the primary reason that I extended the voting. Clearly, the voting for the title role is a virtual dead-heat between Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckensale. And the voting for an actor in the role of Mr. Woodhouse is an even more interesting, three-way race. The other contests have been pretty much decided.
I am surprised at some of the voting preferences and you might be as well. My personal choice for "Emma" herself is Doran Godwin, but that actress is proving to be nearly the least favorite actress or actor on the entire board (sniff, sob!). Ah well, I can certainly live with the choice of either Paltrow or Beckensale. What I cannot fathom is the clear preference of Sophie Thompson in the role of Miss Bates! I have nothing against Thompson in general, I admired her interpretation of Mary Elliot in Persuasion—she was absolutely perfect in that role. And, the woman did well in her supporting role in Gosford Park. However, she was all wrong, physically, for the part of Miss Bates and her interpretation of the role lacked all the Jane-Austen subtlety that I expected voters would demand. Well, I can complain all I want but I cannot change the votes.
I am gratified that Donald Eccles is making such a good showing in the voting for the role of Mr. Woodhouse. I would rank his interpretation of that role as near perfection as Jennifer Ehle's interpretation of Elizabeth Bennet or Amanda Root's interpretation of Anne Elliot—he was that good! The impressive thing is that it is probable that most voters are least likely to have seen the 1972 version. If that version had been viewed as often as the Beckensale or Paltrow versions, then Eccles would surely be dominating the voting at this time. I am also pleased to see Samantha Morton winning in her category. I was surprised at her interpretation of Harriet Smith because it was not the one that I had envisioned. However, I have changed my mind and now think that Morton got it right.
There are some votes for actors in Clueless and that surprised me a bit. This may have something to do with the fact that a few of those actors have blossoming careers at present. That can be said of Jeremy Sisto, but the best example is Brittany Murphy who is getting a great deal of high profile work these days. Curiously, Alicia Silverstone's star seems to be setting at present.
Jeremy Northam in Enigma
Ashton: I agree mostly with your assessment of Possession, though you failed to mention how much Jennifer Ehle looks like Meryl Streep these days. Eat a sandwich girl! I confess our present time leading man [Eckhart] left much to be desired in my book. Generically annoying if such a thing is possible. I understand the book is much more complex and like The Name of The Rose, the film is more of a "precis." Your post plus the recent bomb Gigli makes me wonder where Hollywood finds all these lesbians who are, of course, just waiting for the Right Man To Come Along.
I'm sorry to say that Jeremy Northam is nowhere near as successful in Enigma a mildly entertaining mess of a movie which also suffers from a leading man with the looks and charisma of your average Turnip. Saffron Burroughs plays our leading man's ex-lover (cleverly named Mr. Welshman because they couldn't get permission to use the real character's name, but he was Welch) who disappears the day he's due back to work after suffering a nervous breakdown. This is Tom Stoppard screenplay so everything including the kitchen sink and dirty dishes are thrown in willy-nilly.
Jeremy N.'s character is described as "ruthless" multiple times but Northam himself comes across as his usual charming self. Of course, many spies and security agents rely on their charm, but Northam clearly has nothing with which to back it up. Kate Winslet is dependable as the frumpy "gosh you look dreamy without your glasses Miss Smith" love interest. It all ends with a silly scene in which a Nazi submarine is sunk in Loch Loman (I think it was L. Loman). As an historical note, for all the pounding on the table about the damned Americans rewriting history regarding U571, it is nowhere mentioned in Enigma that the Poles provided the UK with a reverse-engineered Enigma machine before the start of the war; a feat which took the Polish cryptoanalysts over ten years.
"Countdown To Kittyhawk"
This year is the 100th anniversary of the Wright Bros Kittyhawk flights, the first known manned heavier than air flight in a powered vehicle. The EAA website has plenty of historical info and a schedule of the traveling exhibit. We went to the Museum of Flight at Boeing field to enjoy it. It's small but fascinating; we spent two hours in the two rooms of exhibits which included one of the Wright flyers that's been built for the upcoming centennial flights, original letters, notebooks and incorporation papers for the Wright Aircraft company. Particularly fascinating was one of the Wright's original windtunnels and the scale they invented to measure drag and lift. As it turns out, those who claim the Wright brothers weren't doing anything different than everyone else at the time; that they were just luckier or knew the importance of documentation are pretty seriously mistaken. The Wright brothers were the first to understand that an airplane's propeller was not comparable to a ship's screw, but a specialized type of wing. I'd say most of us who fly as passsengers don't understand even today.
Of course the Museum of Flight has plenty of other things to look at as well. Military, private, and racing planes especially plus a space exhibit. There's a B-17 in the process of restoration and as the Museum abuts the tarmac of Boeing Field, plenty of private planes of all descriptions to watch landing and taking off. With no Bonine I had to decline both the flight simulator and biplane rides so we still have something to look forward to.
I feel compelled to say how much we've enjoyed our Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) membership even though neither of us flies. We joined 2 years ago when the Aluminium Overcast was in the area (a $100 discount on two rides if we joined). A lot of the information in the monthly magazine is interesting and valuable to anyone who enjoys working with metal, fabric and various manmade materials as well as engines and electronics. Lots of generalized historical information also.
Happy Labor Day to everyone!From Ashton: I am glad that you mentioned the windtunnel, because I believe that to be a Wright brother invention as well. And, it points out that the brothers were not tinkerers but engineers in the modern sense of the word. You may have noticed that the propeller was mounted behind the pilot and the elevator was mounted in front. After that, the arrangement was reversed; however, people are experimenting with placing the elevator in front again and for good reasons.
You know, I think that Northam was convincingly sinister in The Net, what say you?
Anna Lefroy's copy of The Loiterer
In the current issue of JASNA News, the newsletter of the Jane Austen Society of North America, Joan Klingel Ray, in her "Message from the President", talks about her visit to the McCord Museum, McGill University campus where she says the following:
"The presentation by Dr. Jacquie Reid-Walsh included the McGill Library Special Collections Room where we were allowed to handle and examine a bound copy of Anna Lefroy's The Loiterer, produced by James and Henry Austen. Elaine read aloud the contribution by Sophia Sentiment, and we discussed whether Jane Austen, herself, could have written it."
I do dream of finding such a copy for a couple of dollars in a yard sale of old, unwanted books by an unsuspecting owner. However, abebooks.com does have one for sale for a mere $3982.90. If all that fails, one can always go to the McGill Library in Canada.
JASNA booklet and CD offering
JASNA's Annual General Meeting is being held in Winchester and Chawton this year in October. For those of us who cannot attend, a booklet is being prepared covering the "cottage", Edward's mansion, and St. Nicholas Church and titled The Essential Guide to FINDING JANE AUSTEN IN CHAWTON. It can be obtained from the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton or Jane Austen Books in Chicago. (When it comes to all things Austen, I am a shameless shill.) I picked up a Souvenir List order form while I was there, so for the above booklet or any other souvenir things, write to:
Jane Austen Memorial Trust
Jane Austen's House
A CD recording of the entire Memorial Service honoring Jane Austen's memory in Winchester Cathedral is to be offered. The Men and Boys Choirs will perform the music accompanied by the Cathedral organist. (I enjoyed hearing them "live" and they are very good.) Michael Wheeler's sermon and the "Bidding" by the Dean of the Cathedral will be included. This is a limited edition CD so I will take advantage of the coupon in the back of the JASNA newsletter to reserve a copy.
Reply to Cheryl
Re Twain and Jane: You have put into words what I have suspected all along. I have a lot more reading to do in that area. I did find a book discussing this subject: Richard Poirier's A World Elsewhere, New York: Oxford UP, 1966 in the section titled: "Transatlantic Configurations: Mark Twain and Jane Austen". I saw it at the library recently and found it to be written in that hard to understand (at least for me) academic style, but the gist of it was the author was fond of our JA and looked upon the American writer's as "rebels" of English literature of that era. I don't mean to put words into the author's mouth, but that is what I saw in my scan of those pages. I think it would be worth it to carefully read the entire section because he gives you a sense of that time period
By the time you read this six weeks will have passed since my trip to England and Jane Austen's county. During those six weeks, if it was at all possible for anything to go wrong, it did! Be that as it may, that is why it has taken me so long to get my travels written up to share with you all. But, that has been done and is available HERE.
I will be flying again this weekend to Baton Rouge in order to visit the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in New Orleans. Now that I have some traveling and touring experience I will take better notes, etc. I leave you with every wish that you also enjoy your Labor Day holiday!
Yours, as you behave,
In Remembrance of September 11, 2001
"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated. ..."
Thomas Paine The Crisis 1776
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