Saturday, 26 December 2009

Costume Dramas

image (c) to, I suppose the BBC. Don't nick it.

Like most families, we have inviolable rituals for the spending of Christmas Day. There's a couple of church services, of course. There are particular foods to be eaten at their apportioned times, and the contents of crackers to be guffawed at; and once the food and the red wine and the effects of the past week have taken effect, there is, for me, a couple of hours asleep. There is a particular time for parcels to be unwrapped and a time honoured way of going about it. There is the ritual phoning and texting and skyping to be done, and then, finally there is the one thing that happens on the evening of every Christmas Day: the watching of something long and absorbing on an LCD screen. There are some rules about suitable content, of course. It must be British (or at a pinch, something directed by Peter Jackson or something Canadian). It must involve people dressed in costumes from another time and/or place. It must have believable characters, lots of clever dialogue, great production values and at some stage it must make all of us cry, if only just a little. Last night it was the BBC's 2007 production of Persuasion, which ticked all the boxes very nicely indeed, and if I find the time in the next day or two I will review it. Like all satisfying works of art, it sent me to bed thinking, and allowed me to wake up with an idea.

I took a degree in English literature in the early 1970s which meant reading lots of books and lots of poems from the 19th Century. I did papers on Romanticism and on the development of the English novel, but it occurred to me this morning, that most of what I studied was books and poems by and about and for blokes. In three years, I think I studied two novels by women: Middlemarch and Mansfield Park. The great women writers: The Bronte sisters; Jane Austen; Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot were of course acknowledged, but they were at best, placed in the second rank of writers behind the true greats: Shakespeare, of course and Milton, Dickens, Shaw, Byron, Wordsworth and all those other guys with whiskers and quill pens. The women swam in the middling waters of the literary pool with people like Walter Scott and Thomas Hardy. Which is odd. Very odd, when you think that any list of the greatest English novels of all time must contain Middlemarch and Pride and Prejudice amongst the top 5 placings, and probably amongst the top 2.

Which leads me to this morning's thought. A mini revelation, of sorts. The tide has turned, and it is shown in the huge revival of interest in Jane Austen: not just in the many film and television productions of her work, but in the renewed printings of all her novels and in the dramatic knock offs and speculations about her life: Lost in Austen and Miss Austen Regrets, for example. This is surely a mark of our progress in gender relationships: More women readers; more women academics; more women making production decisions at the BBC; more women buying the stuff that is flogged off in the ad breaks; more people of both genders making a truer assessment of our literary heritage and what was and what was not important in its development.

There is the germ of an idea also about the world which gave rise to 19th Century women's literature and that which gave rise to the stuff that blokes wrote, but that's probably a decent PhD thesis, and I'd get myself into trouble trying to develop it in a blog post.

And if I wanted to get myself into real trouble I would speculate about why ardent, convinced, articulate, educated third wave feminists such as my daughters and their friends are so emotionally and intellectually enamoured of the formalised and mannered sexual politics of the early 19th Century. But I'm not that silly.

In the meantime, I will bow to the household's resident Jane Austen authority and agree to watch the definitive Pride and Prejudice yet again tonight, or, if I can get my own way,perhaps negotiate a compromise, and watch Silas Marner.

4 comments:

Barbara said...

Regarding the renaissance of appreciation of Jane Austen,perhaps the Daughters of Eve have a yearning for the feminine,which classical Feminism must ignore.but which may be approached at at a space/time distance, or by proxy.
Jane Austen is such fun,but I love George Eliot's heroines because she gives them spiritual depth as well.

Barbara

VenDr said...

I think you're right about the yearning bit, Barbara. Right too about the heroines. George Eliot's personal life gave her a much broader view of the human psyche than Jane Austen's I think. Also, her novels engage with the wider issues of the world in a way which Jane Austen's don't. The great changes wrought by the industrial revolution sweep through Middlemarch. Contrast that with the way the militia come and go from Meriton and Bath with no hint of the Napoleonic war which is the reason for the movement. Jane Austen's heroines do an awful lot of sitting around waiting for stuff to happen. George Eliot's are up and at 'em from cover to cover. Which raises the one small flawI have always found in Middlemarch - the ending. I've never quite understood why on earth Dorothea subsumes all her grand projects to Ladislaw's mediocre ones.

Anonymous said...

Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

Gaynor said...

Hi Kelvin,
You briefly mentioned the Bronte Sisters and left them in that one anonymous breath.
Imagine as a 13 yr old girl in the 50s, meeting Jane Eyre, read to your class by a teacher with a wonderful Scottish accent and really able to bring the book to life.
Imagine as that girl identifying with the schoolgirl Jane, separated from family and nursing an elder sister through death, going home and nursing her mother through death etc etc. - the other experiences of that young girl's teenage life ! the grim realities of the young girl in another time in the country we still in the 50s regarded as "Home" though our ancestors had emigrated 3 generations back.

Imagine the utter devastation of that young woman discovering that her Groom to be already had a wife.
And later at exactly the right moment that young woman hearing him calling "on the wind" - could that happen? It was on the very edge between believability and impossibility.

Could any man ever write such as these?

These books relate more to many of us than storied of upper-middle class aristocrisy. They relate more to the part of "ordinary people" I grew up amongst. We could relate to them rather than just yearn for a life out of reach.

We visited Haworth when in UK. (That is the centre of Bronte Country) where the sisters grew up. The whole town tells the history of the life they lived. The places described in their books are tourist destinations - lots of them free access. Spending 2 nights and a day in that town allowed us to seep into that time of history and learn even more about the hardships of an earlier era.
We have a lot to be grateful for in social and health conditions today.

Regards,
Gaynor