Thoughts on Megan Garber’s Essay–Colin Firth’s Shirt: Jane Austen and the Rise of the Female Gaze

Photo credit BBC/UK Telegraph

There have been a lot of Jane Austen articles and/or clickbait online this year–they have been so plentiful that I’ve been saving the links to re-read and digest them.  Usually I print them out and save them for the train ride commuting to or from work.  Megan Garber, wrote a very interesting essay back on July 17, 2017 via The Atlantic online. The complete title as noted above is — Colin Firth’s Shirt: Jane Austen and the Rise of the Female Gaze.

Ms. Garber starts off with the recent exhibit held at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC: “Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity.” Sadly I did not make it down to DC to see this exhibit, I did however enjoy many photos by writers, and Janeites who did travel there and posted the photos online.

One of the key items on display she describes was, “the shirt,” the tunic worn by actor Colin Firth in the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.  Ms. Garber contends, as many others that the scene where Mr. Darcy was a pivotal cinematic, soon to become iconic moment, “he dives in –clad in nothing, at this point, but his breeches and THE SHIRT.”  Correctly, Ms. Garber notes the displeasure of many Austen scholars and perhaps some more traditional Janeites, since that scene is no where in the book at all and that the film’s director Andrew Davies took a bit of liberty objectifying Darcy, “proud and prejudiced and Fabio-ed.”

Would like to pause here and say a couple of things.  First, Pride and Prejudice  was the first Austen I ever read, back in the early 1990’s as part of a classic novel course in college.  A young 20-something I was juggling a modern/popular novels class at the same time–which lead to the unfortunate timing of reading Gone with the Wind at the same time as Moby Dick — kid you not.

At the time, I liked Pride and Prejudice, but I sort of was bemused by the barriers drawn between economic class levels, the idea that everyone was worried about everyone’s honor, and of course marrying off the girls. In short, I missed a lot, in a word — whoosh.

Our classics teacher did show us a film version of Pride and Prejudice, the old Hollywood black and white version starring Greer Garson–who was a lovely Elizabeth Bennet, and Sir Laurence Olivier was a dark, brooding Mr. Darcy.  To be noted, the Hollywood version of this film did not follow Austen’s book very closely either, most notably inserting the archery scene. Also the ending was tweaked with Darcy’s aunt, Lady Catherine paying a faux visit to truth test Elizabeth’s intentions, and not to express her blustering outrage as in the book.  Most of all, the gowns are not period appropriate, it’s like someone raided an old Civil War stockroom on a studio back lot, and then decided to call it a day.

My mum still loves this version, and Olivier’s portray of Darcy is her favorite.  Generational speaking, I’m more partial to the 1995 version which yes did spur me to re-read Pride and Prejudice, which was the beginning of my becoming a Janeite.  The scene that most impresses me is when Darcy visit’s Elizabeth at the Collin’s parsonage cottage, and is sort of trying to find out how she would feel about living so far away from her parents at Longbourne.  This scene was in the book where they discuss travel distances and “good road,” and I think Mr. Firth, did a really excellent, subtle job of Darcy’s sort of trying to find out how she felt, in of course in his planning to propose to her. Lizzie of course has no real idea what he is fishing for here–she’s is freaked out and put out by his surprise visit.

On going back to the essay, Ms. Garber makes an interesting point that the pond dive sort of humanizes, if not objectifies Mr. Darcy into a characterization beyond a stereotype–of a wealthy man, “both something simpler and more radical: a sex object.”  Agreed, it’s interesting and certainly an ongoing debate among Janeites — the idea of a favorite Austen hero, romantic lead is often divided, and again I think generationally.  Although these days, I tend to agree with the younger Janeites and vote for team Captain Wentworth.

Darcy though I would say is the origin of the bad boy with the heart of gold–again really an iconic character in literature, film and even sadly in real life.  Sometimes you people who are obsessed with the “bad boys” or “bad girls,” and I think they are sort of mistaken in their reality–that this person is misunderstood in some way– they will not accept that is not going to turn around into someone they can love forever.  And I’m not citing Austen here, because I don’t think the majority of these people have even read Austen–although I do think it remains a strong and much large part of inter-relational culture.

If I had to give a current pop culture example I would cite, MTV’s Catfish the TV Show, which although it has been scripted and edited, revisits the same theme again and again, as people falling for the perfect persona online–the illusion–but they cannot one hundred percent connect with this person–even the evasive and/or bad behavior does not seem to dissuade them.  The people featured on this show/or who participate–seem to almost know they will be disappointed and deceived but seem to need some sort of closure to the deception that they participated in, sometimes sadly for years–in the hopes this person would turn around and there would be some sort of a resolution of being together.

Austen often deals with the idea of illusion in Pride and Prejudice, the idea of giving a poor first impression is significant, from Mr. Darcy’s rude dismissal of Elizabeth, to Mrs. Bennet’s gossiping tenacity, and Mr. Collin’s braying condescension–these characters are imprinted on the reader’s experience and we see though–Austen’s intentions behind some of their motivations later with Darcy trying to explain to Lizzie that he has issues talking with strangers (social anxiety), and ties back in somewhat the reality of Mrs. Bennet’s ongoing quest to marry of her daughters bringing her almost to a nervous collapse.  Mr. Collins, not so much–I think Austen was just having fun with the obnoxious parson persona–and I think also sometimes Austen used her own mother’s ailments to inspire Mrs. Bennet’s nerves.

Garber’s article continues on, tackling Austen’s other characters, including Willoughby and Mr. Collins, “Austen had her own Willoughby, it seems — Thomas Lefroy, an Irish political, whose family disapproved of the match–and also perhaps, her own Collins: Harris Bigg-Wither, a man of wealth and education whose proposal of marriage she accepted in December of 1802 and then, the next day refused.)  To note, I’m not really in hundred percent agreement with either of Ms. Garber’s theories here.  Lefroy is long thought to the be the model for Mr. Darcy.  To say, he’s the model for Willoughby is interesting, but I think Austen pulled the model for both Wickham and Willoughby more from the general fear and/or experience of the times.  To my knowledge, Lefroy never had any kind of a scandal of  running off with a girl and then abandoning her.  As for Mr. Bigg-Withers, the Austen’s remained connected to the family, and while he was certainly solvent, I think there are many theories about why Austen refused, most of all through her letters to younger nieces and the importance of marrying for love.  Which Garber points out, was a new-fangled concept in those days. Here is a link to the article, and it is worth a read:  https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/07/who-gaze-on-the-men-in-jane-austen/533415/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Longbourn for sale?

Actually the manor house used as the Bennett Family’s home (Longbourn) in the BBC’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries/adaptation is up for sale via JASNA newsletter.

Here is the URL/link to an article in Country Life UK:

http://www.countrylife.co.uk/property/luckington-court-the-cotswolds-manor-house-that-featured-on-the-bbcs-pride-and-prejudice-156102#o7fmzzMxb0DXJCax.01

Literary Digression: Anne with an “E”

Via Lithub I read an interesting essay/editorial at the Atlantic magazine online, which discussed the new Netflix series, adaptation of Anne of Green Gables.  The author talks about how after viewing the adaptation and then re-reading the book, she got more of a sense of the darkness.  In the new adaptation there will be more of a focus on Anne’s past via flashbacks — suggesting perhaps PTSD from her orphan years.  The author also sort of dismisses I think the beloved CBC’s adaption that ran on PBS for many years.

While I realize that Anne came from a dark and unstable background, I think it is her unending optimism that sets her apart — as misguided sometimes as it may be.  Kindred spirit has been part of my vocabulary since I read the first book, and also “getting into scrapes.”  For some reason I had a stretch of strange, little accidents and/or scrapes back in my late 20’s–which resulted in minor injuries and visits to the emergency room–on the last one I said to the nurse doing the intake interview, “I just keep getting into all these scrapes–thinking I’m going through this Anne of Green Gables phase or something.”

And without missing a beat she looked up at me and asked: “Well you didn’t try to climb up on the roof pole did you?”  Yes you know you live in a well-read city, when your ER nurse gets your Anne of Green Gable  reference.

Generally, these days I’m not sure about all these adaptions.  To be clear, I have nothing against book to film, or book to TV adaptions.  If done well they can be a nice companion of sorts to the original book.  But I feel like we are perhaps re-visiting  and recycling things a little too much and in the process to do this revisiting/recycling, putting darker/different shades of meaning on them — really moving away from the original books.  Full disclosure here, I don’t have Netflix or Hulu so I may not see any of these more recent literary adaptations unless they are rebroadcast later on regular cable/television — years later, etc.   Here is a URL if you want to check out the editorial/essay at the Atlantic:

https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/05/anne-with-an-e-netflix-review/525987/

 

Mrs. Austen & Mrs. Bennet

Today on this Mother’s Day holiday in the U.S., I’m thinking about two ladies, both British — one fictional, mother of a beloved literary character, and the one was the mother of one of my favorite authors.

Of all of Austen’s maternal characters — probably think Mrs. Bennet is the most well known, if not iconic in her own way.  Tends to come off the page as obsessed with marrying off her many  daughters, a bit of a gossip and busy body — via mean and dismissive remarks about her neighbor’s the Lucas’, her sister Mrs. Gardener and her husband, and also as a bit of a hypochondriac.  This image has been cultivated and reaffirmed by many of the film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice.

Reading through Austen’s collection of letters, there are many references to Mrs. Austen, chiefly about her health or more specifically comments about her health, complaints, and mostly if she felt she is improving or becoming ill — using the latter.

In these letters to her older sister Cassandra, Jane Austen almost always refers to “my mother” — which seems a little bit stiff or formal.  And realize there were conventions and civilities during this time, in personal correspondence and letters — still it seems strange she would not say or write: “our mother.”  Makes me think it was some sort of intimate code or signal between sisters.  But perhaps more likely, this is just my writerly imagination taking hold here.

All cites to: Jane Austen’s Letters, Fourth edition, collected and edited by Deirdre LeFay, Oxford University Press, 2011