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Thursday 26 December 2013

Austen with knuckledusters

Jane Austen’s Emma is a manipulative prig and movie adaptations must work hard to rehabilitate her later in the story. VR believes no movie has done this.

However when Emma insults  poor Miss Bates at the picnic Mr Knightley’s reprimand is Dear Jane at her finest. Austen dialogue is mostly civilised and a bit over-formal. Not here:

"How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?
"Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done indeed! You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honor - to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her - and before her niece, too - and before others, many of whom (certainly some) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her. This is not pleasant for you, Emma - and it is far from pleasant to me.”

And there’s more.

Resuming my 2/5 diet I conserved Boxing Day energy by watching the 1996 version starring Gwyneth Paltrow. In the novel Emma is 22 and Knightley 39. Paltrow was 24 and Jeremy Northam, first-rate tearing her off a strip, 35. Close enough yet in visual terms they’re more like twins. Virtually the same height too. Spoilt the story a bit.

WIP Second Hand (52,469 words)
“Charles McGraw,” he said. “A professional lifetime spent mainly as a cop in B-features like the film we’ve just seen, Narrow Margin. He died quite young. Do you think he was aware? That all this tough dialogue and cutting – especially cutting – would end up in a string of noir classics.”


  1. Mr Knightly's ticking off of Emma is one of the finest things in the novel. So too is the way Emma comes to recognise her arrogance and manages to become a better person by the end of the story. Jane Austen does well to achieve the transformation credibly. Probably her best novel.

  2. 'Emma is a manipulative prig'

    true, and yet...

    JA's conjecture that no one much would like Emma but herself proved untrue. I too think it's perhaps her best, and come back to it often. I've always found the novel, and indeed the character, a source of comfort and hope; I wonder if Emma appeals to those of us who are hard on ourselves and our own mistakes, but go on making them anyway. And she's kind and loyal to her father, even though he's an exasperating near-imbecile (as is Miss Bates, really, though one feels so acutely for her in the Box Hill episode), and she's oddly lacking in self-regard in terms of her own attractions and in not falling into the obsessive hypochondria and controlling use of health and medicine that constitutes such an astonishingly large part of the narrative and the characters' motivation.

    Austen seems an unreliable narrator concerning Emma's snobbery, as I suppose she is generally about that kind of thing; apparently deriding and demolishing it while also supporting it. I don't think this is must modern hindsight, she was torn like that.

    I still rather like the version with Kate Beckinsale, and Prunella Scales as Miss Bates, can't remember who played Knightley. Never could take to the Gwyneth Paltrow one.

  3. Joe: Most TV/movie adaptations of nineteenth century novels are of necessity too clipped, the dialogue often reduced to soundbites. A big influence here has been Andrew Davies who specialises in this kind of work and who has a habit of rather "electrifying" the plots also. Janeites (as Kingsley Amis called them) belly-ache about this but in doing so are refusing to wrestle with reality. An adaptation that attempted to catch more than just the flavour of JA's dialogue (including some of the best bits which are to be found in author talking) would be interminable and dangerously static.

    What impressed me about this version was that there were several longer-than-usual monologues which paid tribute to JA's writing at the risk of slowing down events. The passage I cite is superbly delivered by Jeremy Northam - I've never seen a better - but it may have lasted all of a minute. This is an eternity in script-writing terms and yet reminded me how well JA writes - not always the case in adaptations which have found public favour.

    I agree about Emma's redemption and GP did her very best to make it work.

    One disadvantage about Emma is that it may be the longest novel JA wrote. First time round (but then I was impatient sod from up north) I felt the substance had been stretched. It's a long time ago since I re-read it and I may be unfair on this.

    Lucy: and yet, and yet...

    You are writing, as are all three of us, as one who has read the novel several times (more than once, anyway) and seen several adaptations. Can you be sure that you would have picked up those observations and conclusions about Emma's character in one pass (all of which I more or less agree with; and am in any case delighted by the affection and perception you show in recounting them).

    Actually I feel sure you're entitled to say yes. Many novels are read just once and don't enjoy the benefits of further experience.

    But the problem is the difference between a novel and a film-script. Reading a book is a discursive process with pauses for reflection, perhaps even going back to check details. Absorbing a script is inevitably a linear event. Almost a third of the GP adaptation consists of setting the scene and establishing the fact that Emma has defects. There's a cumulative effect in all this and these early impressions may be the ones that stick.

    However, just to show how even-handed I am (a claim that requires frequent substantiation) I'm well aware that there's a completely different way of handling Knightley's reprimand and it occurs in the Beckinsale version you allude to. Rather than give us the gorgeous passage I have posted, the adapter reduces it (if my memory is still working) to: "That was badly done, Emma. Badly done." immediately after the insult. It works terrifically and has stuck in my mind ever since.

    I could go on. My prefernce, just in case it matters, is S&S but then I'm a great Emma Thompson fan (it's her adaptation I'm thinking of) and am pleased she is getting the recognition she deserves in this latest movie about the author of Mary Poppins.