Watching Frank Churchill

amo vitam

FrankChurchill (3)I’ve been watching the 1996 Emma again. No, not that one, the other one. The one with Kate Beckinsale. Yes, I like the Gwyneth Paltrow version a lot too, and the 2008 Romola Garai one – in fact, so far the Kate Beckinsale one has been my least favourite of the three; I only own a copy on taped-from-TV VHS (I know, right?). But I pulled it back out lately for reasons of research completely unrelated to Jane Austen.

You see, I’m using the Frank Churchill in that movie as a model for one of the characters I’m writing at the moment. Just physically, mind you – it’s the actor, Raymond Coulthard, his looks and the way he moves and smiles, that I’m using, not Austen’s Frank Churchill. I’m picturing a young Ray Coulthard, ca. 1996, playing the scenes in my story, which helps with writing them…

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Emma and Persuasion, the Movies

I never did let loose with my opinion on the Persuasion and Emma movies, after finishing with the books. Yes, I did watch them – of course. I own the lot of them, some on VHS, still, taped off the TV, but most on DVD. So here it is, my entirely personal opinion on them in a rather large-ish nutshell (coconut, I presume).

So, three versions of Emma – both of the 1996 adaptations (what were they thinking, making two adaptations of the same book in the same year?), and the 2009 one with Romola Garai in the lead. That one is my favourite, as are all the mini-series film versions of the books vs. the theatrical releases (the same goes for Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility). You can just pack so much more detail into three or five hours than into an hour-and-a-half. The theatrical or shorter TV version have to, of necessity, leave out a lot, cut whole characters or events, or greatly simplify character or plot development, whereas the more leisurely pace of a miniseries allows for much more storytelling. They’re more booklike, if you will. Granted, the theatrical versions can pack more punch, in some ways – they’re a different medium again, not as far different as movies from books, but they’re not the same. If movies and books are apples and oranges, perhaps TV versions and theatrical releases are Granny Smith vs. Golden Delicious.

So in the 2009 version, they really build the backstory of Mr Woodhouse, of Emma, of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. You actually see little Frank and Jane being sent off to live with other people (in the movie, Jane is being sent away as a really small girl, to the sobs of her aunt and grandmother, whereas in the book it’s a far more gradual process – she just goes for visits with the Campbells, and then goes to live there when she’s 11 or so. Not nearly as heart-wrenching as they make it out in this film.). It’s also the only version in which Mrs Weston’s pregnancy isn’t ignored, and right towards the end she has her baby girl, which event miraculously restores Mrs Bates to speech – now she becomes so loquacious poor Miss Bates can’t get a word in edgewise. Not anywhere in the book, but funny nonetheless. Mrs Bates is, in fact, in none of the movies like the Mrs Bates of the book; they all make her out to be quite senile and mostly speechless. It’s one of the instances of movie adaptations taking as much from each other as from the source book. The 2009 Emma takes a lot from the Gwyneth Paltrow version (which is my other favourite). Even in looks – both Gwyneth Paltrow and Romola Garai are blonde and beautiful, whereas Kate Beckinsale in the other 1996 version is dark (but also beautiful).

I very much like all the Mr Knightleys in these three movies – as for a favourite, it’s a toss-up between Jeremy Northam and Jonny Lee Miller. The former is more elegant and handsome, the latter quite well fits the “plain gentleman” that Mr Knightley is meant to be in the book. Another character that’s really good in all three versions is Miss Bates; I guess she’s such a caricature she’s not difficult to write and play. The most memorable (and quotable) version of the three is probably Sophie Thompson’s, shouting at her real-life mother Phyllida Law as Mrs Bates: “PORK, Mother! ANGEL, Mother!” The three Harriet Smith’s are also all excellent; the 2009 one (Louise Dylan) perhaps the best by sheer screen time which allows her to build the character, while Samantha Morton opposite Kate Beckinsale gives her usual fantastic performance which really brings out Harriet’s sweetness and naïvete (I love her bubbly enthusiasm about Mrs Martin’s “sweet little welch cow”).

Emma is not a difficult character to bring to screen; all three of these films are very “successful” (I’ll rant about that word some other time). Emma is someone very easy to understand for 21st-century audiences; we “get” the headstrong heroine who gets in trouble because of her overdose of self-confidence. Emma’s declaration that she will never marry rings an easy bell for women who have grown up with feminism; there’s no difficulty for film makers in translating her attitudes to an audience. It’s much harder to make today’s audiences understand and relate to the Dashwoods, for example, or the Bennets, who must marry or be destitute.

Now, some quick words on Persuasion. I’m not entirely sure why they bothered making the 2007 version. Mind you, I’ve only watched it twice, but to my opinion, it doesn’t do anything that the 1995 movie doesn’t do, and do better. They alter the denouement, and the ending, which does away with one of the main points of the story, and the characters of both Anne and Wentworth are quite changed, too. In fact, this is a bit of a Jane Eyre version of Persuasion – Anne is perpetually downtrodden and unappreciated by everyone (including the Musgroves), while Wentworth is a scowling, resentful person, who in the end becomes Anne’s rescuer, restoring her to her rightful heritage (but only after she chases him, hatless, through the streets of Bath, partially accompanied by an inexplicably healthy Mrs Smith, to beg him to take her back). I’ll have to watch this version again a time or two, it might grow on me, but I’m not so sure.

However, the 1995 version with Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds is, quite simply, the most beautiful film of any of the Austen adaptations. It is every time a delight to watch. The visual storytelling, the acting, the softness and the power of the characters, the beautiful artifice and yet utter naturalness… By the latter I mean especially the final scene, the commedia dell’arte pageant sweeping by Anne and Wentworth, who are so absorbed in each other they are completely untouched by the glitter, noise and hubbub of the circus, until they are left in the stillness of the street with just they two of them, arm in arm, walking through Bath. And this self-conscious staging throws into relief the naturalness of the setting and costumes – this is one of the few adaptations where people actually have messy hair, and look like they’re sweating after having just climbed a hill on country hike, and get red noses when they’re out walking in November. It feels “real”, somehow. And that in turn makes it so much more believable when Anne gets more and more pretty as the story progresses. Every time I watch this movie I so enjoy the art of the film makers; it’s a wonderful piece of work.

(And I wonder if the red cloaks Henrietta and Louisa are wearing on their walks and in Lyme aren’t the same ones that Kitty and Lydia have on in the 1995 P&P. Sir Walter’s ridiculous daisy-print coat makes a re-appearance in the 2007 Mansfield Park on the back of Tom Bertram, so they certainly re-use costumes from one film to the next.)

I’m knee-deep in studying background materials on film adaptations, and the Austen films in particular, for my term paper. It’s quite amazing how much has been written about that topic already. Seems almost presumptuous to want to add to that…

Money money money / must be funny / in a rich girl’s world

Emma is the only Austen book in which “money is no object”. Well, not for the main characters, anyway. In all five other stories money, or rather the lack thereof, is the key driving force behind the plot.

Think about it:

Northanger Abbey: General Tilney pushes Henry to court Catherine because he thinks she’s rich. He kicks her out when he finds out she’s not. If he hadn’t made Henry pursue her, the whole thing might have fizzled into a Bath flirtation, and nothing much might have come of it, but as is, Henry is emotionally and “in honour” engaged, so he marries her.

Sense and Sensibility: the Dashwood women’s being poor makes them move to Devonshire, where they meet Willoughby and Colonel Brandon. Edward can’t marry Elinor, because she’s poor; he gets in trouble over his engagement to Lucy because she’s poor (if either girls were wealthy, his mother wouldn’t blink at his marrying one of them) and the trouble results in him being poor, too. Willoughby dumps Marianne because she’s poor and he needs a rich wife… The whole thing revolves around poverty and inheritance.

Pride and Prejudice: the entail. Need I say more? Well, okay then: the Bennet girls must marry, or they’ll end up destitute. But they’re poor prospects because of their lack of dowry. Their mother is fully aware of this, which makes her the rapacious and obnoxious son-in-law hunter, which disgusts Mr Darcy, leading him to convince Mr Bingley to drop Jane (temporarily, anyway). Mr Collins proposes to Elizabeth to make up for inheriting her father’s estate. Wickham runs off with Lydia and needs to be bribed to marry her. Money money money…

Mansfield Park: Fanny is the poor relation and thoroughly downtrodden for it. Her family’s poverty is what makes them rather less than respectable. It’s sheer folly for her to turn down Mr Crawford; economically, she’s one step away from condemning herself to penury (there’s a good chance she’ll end up a poor old maid like Miss Bates), which makes her uncle very angry at her. Mary Crawford is after Edmund, or rather renews her interest in Edmund, when there’s a chance he’ll be Sir Edmund the estate owner after all.

Persuasion: Captain (then Mr) Wentworth’s relative poverty and lack of immediate prospect of greater wealth is what makes Lady Russell persuade Anne to break off the engagement when they’re young, leading to seven years of heartbreak. Sir Walter’s spendthrift habits land the family in deep debt, and they are forced to rent out the estate, which brings Captain Wentworth back into Anne’s life. Mr Elliot is interested in Anne because she’s the daughter of Sir Walter, and he wants to make sure he gets the title in order to be able to raise more money for himself.

And then there’s Emma. Emma, alone of all of Austen’s heroines, has no need to marry, as all the others do. With them, a husband means a home, economic security for the rest of their lives. Emma has that all on her own, husband not required; and the contrast between her attitude to the world and that of the others is striking. She alone is not hurt by the restricted society she finds herself in, as she has no need to be on the hunt and meet as many men as possible to find someone to marry. She loudly proclaims she will never marry, and means it, too. When Elizabeth turns down Mr Stupid-Clergyman Collins, she not only potentially condemns herself, but perhaps even her sisters and mother, to a life of straightened financial means; when Emma does the same with Mr Obnoxious-Clergyman Elton, she just has her nose put out of joint at his presumption. There are no practical consequences to her choice. Emma messing with Harriet’s life, making her turn down an extremely eligible match for reasons of snobbery, shows her complete lack of comprehension for those whose lives are determined by economic considerations (and Harriet is too naïve to know better herself).

In a sense, Emma is the only one of Austen’s heroines who can afford all those character flaws of hers, who can have a whole story to herself about a person who just needs to grow up, but has no economic imperative to find a spouse – who can genuinely, purely, marry for love. Emma and Mr Knightley freely choose each other, and they are able to do so – none of the others have that same unthinking freedom. For them, it’s either a question of choosing love over wealth (Edward and Elinor come to mind), or of turning down love for the sake of not enough wealth (Willoughby with Marianne; initially, Darcy and Elizabeth, Bingley and Jane, Wentworth and Anne), or of pursuing someone for the sake of their wealth or perceived wealth (Mary Crawford and the Bertrams, John Thorpe and Catherine, etc.).

One could even say that Emma is the only straight-up love story in the Austen canon. All the others are love-and-money stories. And even in Emma, there is no shortage on money-driven sub-plots – Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, the Bates’, Harriet Smith…

Love and romance? Not so much. Pounds, shillings and pence, rather.

Raising a Wife

Emma is, quite possibly, the Austen book that has the most to say about patriarchy.

As I pointed out before, the age gap between Emma and Mr Knightley is almost as great as that between Marianne and Colonel Brandon. Brandon, in fact, marries a woman who is practically the same age as his ward Eliza, the girl everybody thinks is his illegitimate daughter. It’s made me wonder if he ever had a thought in his mind of marrying Eliza himself, once she’d get to marriageable age; but that plan (if it ever existed – there’s no evidence for it, just my conjecture) is spoiled, of course, by her letting herself be seduced and impregnated by Willoughby. So Brandon marries another woman, just as young, just as emotional and impulsive, although he has to wait for her to grow up to be a suitable mate first.

Mr Knightley, on the other hand, actively helps with raising Emma into the kind of woman he can marry. In fact, if he wasn’t around to tell Emma a few home truths, she’d be completely spoiled; between her poor pathetic father and her intelligent but a-little-too-indulgent governess, both of whom think Emma is just wonderful, she would think herself completely infallible. At least Mr Knightley lets her know that there’s one stronger than her whom she can’t lead around by the nose. I love the little side remark at the end of the book, when Emma and Mr Knightley are discussing what Emma should call him, and she says “I remember once calling you ‘George,’ in one of my amiable fits, about
ten years ago. I did it because I thought it would offend you; but, as you made no objection, I never did it again.” Way to deal with a brat, Mr Knightley! He is the one person in Emma’s life against whom she can test her mettle, the one who sets her boundaries, who gives her strong personality some strong guidelines to operate in. What an excellent father he is to little Emma…

And then he marries her. Although, first, he has to subdue her one more time, has to give her one more lecture on where she’s out of line. Chastened, she molds herself into what he would wish. And then they both realise that they’ve loved each other “ever since [Emma was] thirteen at least”, and they marry, rice is tossed, and that’s the end of that. One gets the impression that Mr Knightley is now resolved to no longer be the father figure (he apologises for the lectures he’s given her), and Emma no longer the rebellious kid who needs bringing into line.

However, there is, to me, a faint undercurrent of uneasiness in that ending. For one, I can’t believe that they will actually be able to shed the habits of a lifetime, drop their roles of father-daughter in favour of the husband-wife ones. And that scenario is one which I find just a little uncomfortable.

But then, I’m a twenty-first century inhabitant. For Austen’s time, the patriarchal model of the father-husband and the child-wife was one quite normal form of marriage. It crops up more than once in her writing as something she approves of.

Fanny and Edmund are one example – he “formed her mind”, taught her what to think and like and feel, which ensures their happiness together as they think alike in everything. Not quite a Pygmalion, but the suggestion is there. The other quite patriarchal story is Darcy and Elizabeth: she goes around with false ideas, until his wiser input, his better judgement and knowledge of reality, sets her straight. But more importantly, Darcy is the powerful man who can bring the headstrong heroine to her knees.

Mr Knightley and Emma combine the two storylines: the Pygmalion-style “fashion a wife in your own image” and the “a strong woman calls for a strong man” one. A strong woman needs the most powerful male of her acquaintance to bring her to submission – and both Darcy and Knightley are definitely the king pins of their circle. They’re not just very gentlemanly gentlemen, they’re the richest gentlemen with the biggest tracks of land, the ones with the most power whom everyone defers to. They’re the only ones who are suitable mates to an Elizabeth or an Emma.

Of course, in none of these stories is there a real father to help out the young heroine. Mr Woodhouse is pathetic, Mr Bennet emotionally and mentally unavailable, Mr Price coarse, poor, and just plainly out of reach.

The most interesting one of them is Mr Woodhouse – his relationship with Emma is the parent/child scenario in reverse. She has to baby him, has to be mother to her father – and she’s had to do that ever since she took over running the houshold at thirteen or thereabouts. (Come to think of it, perhaps there’s a good reason Mr Knightley has been in love with her ever since then – she’s been a woman from that age on, and is obviously very well suited to being a mother and the mistress of an estate.)

In Emma, Austen has quite a lot to say on the subject of what being a father means, both  a real father, and a pater familias.


An assortment of random thoughts about Emma:

-Emma is an unmitigated snob. In fact, I think that’s her chief failing: unadulterated, unmitigated snobbery. Fortunately, her snobbery is not incurable, so that’s good.

-Which leads me to a second point: once again, I’m struck by the brilliance of Austen’s writing. Like Elizabeth, Emma has her “repentance chapter” (book 1, chapter XVI) – almost a full chapter where the reader is being walked through, step by step, as the heroine comes to realize just how wrong she was, and changes her mind. For Elizabeth, it’s after she reads Mr Darcy’s letter; for Emma, after Mr Elton’s proposal, when she sees that she’s totally messed up Harriet’s life and badly hurt her friend, and is desperately sorry for it. Her thought processes are so clearly laid out, so believable – and all of it in third-person viewpoint, too, which isn’t easy to do (it’s much easier to write things like that from a first-person viewpoint).

-Emma is hilarious in the way she manipulates her father – all to his own good, of course. They’ve slaughtered a pig, and sent some of the meat to the Bates’, a lovely piece of generosity right there (see next point). Mr Woodhouse fusses, because he’s worried that sending them the loin would lead them to cooking it in “unwholesome” ways such as roasting it – he’s terrified of any of his friends having an upset stomach from too much rich food; as far as he’s concerned, everybody should live on “basins of thin gruel” (smooth, runny oatmeal porridge, the “please, sir, I want some more” of Oliver Twist. Yummy.). “I think we had better send the leg – do not you think so, my dear?” he says. Emma most emphatically does not: “My dear papa, I sent the whole hind-quarter. I knew you would wish it. There will be the leg to be salted, you know…” (178, Broadview edition; Peterborough: 2004. Italics mine.). Well done, Emma. The truth is, papa doesn’t wish any such thing, but the Bates’ certainly do; and with Emma telling Mr Woodhouse that that is what he would wish, he actually does. In a sense, Emma’s had to be the parent in her house from the time she’s about thirteen, her father being the useless sort and needing to be babied, humoured and manipulated into doing what’s the right thing. But she loves him anyway – and you’ve got to love her for it. (And I want to know how they did the salting of the pork leg – Miss Bates says they were worried they “had not any salting-pan large enough”. What’s that mean? Recipe, please…)

-Miss Bates is incredibly good-humoured. And genuinely so. Unlike Mrs Bennet and Lydia, who are described as being, or having once been, good-humoured, but as soon as they don’t get their way becoming whiny and obnoxious, Miss Bates is unfailingly cheerful, even though her situation in life is far less than desirable. She and her mother live in a small apartment, on the “drawing-room floor” (first floor, or second floor in American language) above a business – so, there’s probably some kind of haberdasher’s shop on the ground floor – instead of the nice, roomy vicarage they used to inhabit (where Mr Elton now resides). One gets the impression they’re chronically broke, with absolutely no hope of a better income at any time. And then she says: “If ever there were people who, without having great wealth themselves, had every thing they could wish for, I am sure it is us” (179). Wow, talk about looking on the bright side. Miss Bates is silly, and talks hindlegs off mules (or porkers, as it were), but she’s a thoroughly good woman. Oh, and her first name is Hetty. Short for Henrietta, presumably?

-There’s almost as big an age gap between Mr Knightley and Emma as between Colonel Brandon and Marianne (37 and 21 vs. 36 and 17). But somehow with them it’s never an issue, really. I wonder why. Although the fact that Frank Churchill is 23 does make a difference; it makes Mr Knightley that much more jealous.

-Jane Fairfax is a Fanny Price. At nine years old taken from her home of poverty into a wealthy household, educated with the family’s children to become a “lady” – the same story for both. Jane is raised for “a career in education”; her becoming a governess is a foregone conclusion (her marriage with Frank Churchill is rather a knight-in-shining-armour ending to that story, extremely lucky for her). It makes me wonder what Sir Thomas thought would become of Fanny, when he first took her in; she’s not being raised to become a governess, or indeed anything else. It makes the whole thing of her rejecting Henry Crawford that much darker, more sinister – if Edmund hadn’t married her, she’d likely end up much worse than Miss Bates. No fortune, no skills – move back to Portsmouth, live with her noisy family, and die of consumption at age 20 or so. Scary. There’s dark undercurrents in Austen that the bright, lovely cheerfulness of her happy endings tend to obscure. She never dwells on it, but any reader with imagination (and “sensibility”) can figure it out for themselves. (And it’s one of the things I like about Austen that she does leave you to figure it out for yourself. I hate having painful stories shoved in my face.)


I don’t like Emma. There, I said it. I know for a lot of people she’s the favourite Austen heroine, but I find her thoroughly obnoxious. Well, okay, not entirely. She is likeable, and intelligent, and her best feature is her good-naturedness and genuine love for her fusspot of a father. But the way she treats Harriet… Gah! I just want to slap her!

In fact, I find the scene where she destroys Harriet’s marriage proposal the most painful scene in all of Austen. Worse even than Mr Collins’ proposal to Elizabeth, or Mr Thorpe’s messing up Catherine’s walk with the Tilneys.

Here’s sweet, silly little Harriet; she’s over the moon because Robert Martin has proposed – she had no idea he liked her that much, she’d only thought him the most agreeable man she’d ever met, and so kind to her, and so nice, and such a pretty little Welch cow in his stables, and now he’s actually proposed marriage! And then Emma has to go and totally squash Harriet’s happiness. Hitting a puppydog with a slipper, that is. And a puppydog that brought you the newspaper and expected to be praised for it, too. Badly done, Emma, badly done indeed!

In fact, Emma is being a bully here. A well-meaning, self-deluded bully, but a bully nonetheless. It’s just that her bullying is very, very refined, for refined reasons. She’s amusing herself with getting reactions out of Harriet, making her into something she’s not, just to feel her own power in doing so. It’s exactly what bullies do, they poke at you to feel their power of provoking a reaction.

Thank goodness Emma has Mr Knightley to set a counterpoint. Although, he doesn’t play the Knightley in shining armour for Harriet at first, doesn’t protect her from Sweet Bully Emma – that service is reserved for Miss Bates on Box Hill; when he rescues Harriet later in the book, it’s from the bullying of the Eltons. And he kind of saves Emma from herself, from letting her silliness run amok and destroy all around her – which, for me, means he saves her from being so thoroughly disagreeable that I don’t like that book at all.

On a different note, though, I wonder if Emma isn’t the most patriarchy-enforcing of the stories. The lively, spirited heroine calls for a powerful hero to subdue her; Elizabeth and Darcy are nothing to Emma and Knightley. Darcy is still vulnerable because of his shyness and social awkwardness; Knightley has none of that. By the same token, Elizabeth’s economic situation is what makes her vulnerable; Emma has none of that problem. Once again, Austen is all about the money…

Fanny Price

Austen is supposed to have said that in Emma Woodhouse she created a heroine whom nobody but herself would like much. She was wrong, at least as far as the 21st century is concerned – Emma is quite popular. But the one whom this statement would fit far more accurately is Fanny Price.

People today get Emma – bossy, outgoing, self-confident, and with only those faults which these (somewhat laudable) character traits predispose her to. But Fanny? Shy, quiet, “creepmouse” Fanny? Oh dear. Social Anxiety Disorder, definitely Generalized Anxiety Disorder; Chronic Low Self-Esteem; Strongly Perfectionistic Tendencies; probably Major Depression or at least Dysthymia. Possibly Codependence. Of course, with her history of childhood emotional abuse, it’s not a big surprise that her genetic tendency to neuroses burst into full bloom. It’s sad, but some people are just born with this warped personality which has them chronically and cripplingly hypersensitive and shy. Fortunately, that can be treated; an SSRI should take care of it. If only they had known that in Austen’s day, we wouldn’t have had to have a Fanny Price.

But we do have a Fanny Price. And Austen approves of her. You can put away your prescription for Prozac; Fanny doesn’t need fixing – she’s great the way she is. Even though nobody’s understood her well enough yet to make a decent movie of Mansfield Park – but that’s a topic for another post.