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From Phyllida's Desk

Emma's Perfect Mood

I saw the “new” Emma (from the BBC) the other night. And I'm in love: with Emma herself, as portrayed by Romola Garai; with Blake Ritson (Mr. Elton); with Tamsin Greig (Miss Bates)—and most of all, with what I can only call the “mood” of the production. I haven't been so excited—heart racing, blood pounding, given to jumping up and exclaiming out loud unexpectedly and out of context—since I saw Prick Up Your Ears, Alan Bennet's amazing screenplay of John Lahr's book about Joe Orton.

Since I no longer have TV (oh! the joy of having that monkey off my back!) I get my recommended daily allowance of essential drama by way of Netflix. And there was a serious miscalculation somewhere along the line, because I put Emma at the head of my queue the moment it was released on DVD, only to discover there was a “very long wait.” Is it possible that the programmers at Netflix missed out on the Jane Austen craze (perhaps they confused her with Maria Edgeworth) and ordered only one or two copies?

At any rate, I have now seen episodes 1 and 2 and am almost incapable of functioning, at work or at my “homework” of reading and writing and self-promotion, until I can see episodes 3 and 4. I have an “ear worm,” the tune that won't leave your brain, of “No One Can Love Like an Irishman,” the “traditional” ballad so very, very mischievously assigned to Laura Pyper's character, Jane Fairfax, to play at the conclusion of episode 2. Sandy Welch, who adapted the novel for the small screen, is clearly a genius.

At the last meeting of the Jane Austen Society book group, there was an intense discussion of this production. Most people hated it. They had nothing good to say about it. So what's up? It might be tempting to conclude that, since I am (in my own modest estimation) Public Enemy No. 1 to Austenites for my disgraceful bisexual “porn” version of Pride and Prejudice, I simply prefer messed-up, perverted versions of Austen's novels to faithful adaptations.

However, just for the fun of it, and also because, in fairness, some of the other book group members did like this Emma, I'm going to discuss why I love it. The short answer? As I said at the beginning, it's the mood.

Every work of fiction, be it book, TV show, play or movie, has an overall feel. It's the atmosphere that scares you witless while deluging you with pop culture references in a Stephen King novel, or the inspired silliness that has you quoting—for the rest of your life—every line from a Monty Python skit, or the realism and humanity of a serious work of fiction like War and Peace where the characters become as real as your own family (and often a hell of a lot more beloved) and you feel their joys and sorrows as your own.

This Emma's mood is extraordinary from the very first scene: a voice-over as three children are orphaned and two of them are sent away to live with relatives. This dark sequence, narrated and depicted so affectionately and sympathetically that it had me literally laughing and crying simultaneously, establishes the situations of the young people who will figure in the “romance” at the center of the story proper: Emma Woodhouse, Frank Churchill, and Jane Fairfax. With this approach, Ms. Welch has found a “concept” for her Emma, what the story is “about” beyond the plot: the close ties that bind families in a small village, ties that chafe and irritate even as they support and give meaning to our lives. I apologize deeply for the clichéd phrasing. That's what makes Ms. Welch's adaptation so superb. She suggests all this without resorting to one cliché or tired trope of her own, or overused dramatic device.

Ms. Welch succeeds, I think, because she never loses sight of the fact that Emma is essentially a comic novel. By beginning with this depiction of death and loss, but tempered by love, by decent people doing their best, Ms. Welch allows us to move on, relax and enjoy Austen's humor, the comic situations and brilliant lines of dialogue. And this may be why, ironically, so many Austenites dislike her adaptation. No, I don't mean they're a bunch of philistines who can't appreciate Austen's genius. But I wonder if, like everybody who bonds with a writer and her work, they have such a distinct and ingrained vision of Emma from the book itself and from previous adaptations, that any new interpretation puts them off.

It's Ms. Garai's Emma that seems to bother people the most. She's not always dignified; although her costumes are gorgeous, she often has a gawky, awkward way of walking; she makes childish faces, and laughs and teases like a girl barely out of her teens. Which is exactly who Emma Woodhouse is: the wealthy, unmarried twenty-one-year-old younger daughter of a doting but controlling hypochondriac widower. Most important, she lives in the country. She has not been to London, not been to school. She is, most definitely, “unfinished.” I suspect Ms. Garai is portraying a kind of “country” beauty that has persisted in England since the rise of cities and civilization—a natural, slightly gauche, unfettered femininity that is physical, innocent and powerfully sensual all at once—and that we on this side of the Pond can't recognize.

And I think this is the side of Jane Austen herself that, even today, many of her most ardent admirers (I won't insult them by calling them fans) fail to acknowledge. When I read biographies of Austen, the aspect of her personality that most intrigued me, as a chauvinistic citizen of New York City, was her determined Country-Mouse-ism. I was fascinated to learn, for example, that she had a country accent, that the poetry she and her family wrote rhymed “smile” with “toil” and “thine with “join.” Her world is a lot closer to Henry Fielding's Squire Western than it is to Noel Coward or Henry James

In the hundred years after her death, which saw her world straightened and refined by the Victorian era, and then, in the hundred years after that, turned upside-down, inside-out and ass-backwards by the reaction against the Victorian era, Austen's actual universe has been rendered invisible to most of us. We can't see it because it has been obliterated, not only by time, but by the revolutionary changes in outlook; in men's and women's roles in society; and by the loss, in this country, of any sense of the minute distinctions of the class system.

Austen was a genius as a writer, but her brilliant works of literature were severely underestimated for the first hundred years after they were published. In the early twentieth century, the perception of her novels as “nice,” as the bland, ladylike output of a shy spinster, was at its zenith, which was necessarily the nadir of her reputation as a serious writer of acute psychological insight and scathing satire. You can see the pictorial version of this attitude in the pretty but bloodless illustrations by the brothers Charles and Henry Brock, showcased in the calendars called “A Year With Jane Austen.”

Emma Woodhouse is not a delicate, genteel late-Victorian maiden in properly loose-fitting gowns and deep-lappeted bonnets; nor is she a haughty, polished but empty-headed product of a London seminary (like Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice). The fact that she runs her father's household gives her a gravitas that eludes a younger sibling like Lydia Bennet, and her desire to appear dignified and adult can sometimes curb her girlish lapses. But this is not London, not the height of pre-WWI urban sophistication. This is Highbury, and the time is closer to 1800 than 1900. There is real sex and death and suffering in this world, and even pretty, well-to-do young girls like Emma Woodhouse are aware of it. They visit the poor and they befriend the “natural” daughters of wayward aristocrats.

Which leads me to another reason that I suspect some people don't like this production, even if they may not be conscious of it: Ms. Garai is an extremely sexually attractive young woman, and her Emma Woodhouse is bound to quicken the heartbeat of any viewer with a pulse (certainly this viewer). I wonder if a sexy Emma subconsciously disturbs people because the love story at the center of the novel seems so passionless. If Emma is somewhat cold, overly dignified or brittle, then her eventual settling into the avuncular friendship of marriage to George Knightly, sixteen years her senior, may not seem so bad.

Well, that's the point, isn't it? If you live in the country, that's how it goes. Life is unfair, choices are limited. But the compensations are there, too. Miss Bates has come down in the world and she drives everyone crazy with her incessant gossip and chatter. In London, she'd be left to manage on her own, with her reduced income and her invalid mother, slowly starving, or freezing in a hard winter. But here in her village she has neighbors who remember when the Bateses were gentry, who will tactfully supply the welcome pork butt as a casual act of friendship, not charity, and who will visit and listen with well-concealed impatience to the recital of the contents of another letter from Jane Fairfax.

That's why Tamsin Greig's portrayal is so breathtakingly brave. She shows us a Miss Bates who still retains something of the middle-class young lady who lived in the nice house, and who enjoyed caring for her niece, her “dear little girl,” Jane Fairfax. Ms. Greig's Miss Bates is not old or dried up; she's an attractive, unmarried woman who is still very much a woman, trying to maintain some of her former dignity, even if she has lost the status along with the income that supported it.

One other actor seems out of character, too, at first: Michael Gambon's Mr. Woodhouse. The “real” Mr. Woodhouse is a fragile, benign character, surely, whereas the robust Mr. Gaambon is remembered, at least by me, for many sinister or dark roles, as in The Singing Detective. But, boy! when he reacts to the suggestion that Emma might marry and move away, his blank, flat question, “But who will run the house?” nails it. This man is a tyrant. Like many successful tyrants, he rules with love, but there's no escaping his true nature. Mr. Woodhouse loves his daughter, but he depends on her. And in any fight for survival, it's each man for himself, no matter how much he may love the people he needs. And Mr. Gambon is the perfect actor to portray that reptilian, instinctive, self-protective cruelty.

Emma enjoys a life in which she's the queen of her limited realm. She won't meet a Mr. Darcy or even a Willoughby or Henry Crawford. She'll marry the safe, honorable, Mr. Knightly, the only man of appropriate rank and with sufficient property to match well with hers, and she'll have a companionable marriage with a friend who understands and loves her. She and her husband will live “at home”—her home—instead of moving the mile “away” to his estate. Who knows? Perhaps there are hidden fires in George Knightly that Austen, product of the 18th century as she was, could imagine very well but was too discreet to share with readers. But even if there aren't, overheated passion is not all it's cracked up to be, as Austen continually reminds us, and more often leaves charred ruins than a perfectly cooked roast.

In the DVD's special features, the designer explained why she wanted Emma's clothes, and the whole look of the production, to be bold or bright colors, not pastel. Exactly. That nice, genteel spinster Austen of 1900 was all pastels. But the Georgian world of the real Jane Austen was bold and brightly colored. It had sex and death and passion in full measure and yet wasn't afraid to look them square in the face—and laugh. That's the world of Austen's fiction, and the world we see in this hilarious, moving and sensual new Emma.
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