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Monday, October 8, 2012

Under the Bleachers: Northanger Abbey and the Teen Film

There are many things wrong with the film adaption of Pride & Prejudice which stars Kira Knightly, the most obvious of which is tone. Though Austen is often mistaken for a high Romantic, thrown in with the Brontës with their wild passions and Gothic styles, rainstorms and moors are not Austen's purview. Her plots and characters are based on social realism or caricature; her sensibility is of the satirist. Darcy does not stride out over the morning grass with his coat unbuttoned, and Elizabeth would never smirk her way through their engagement, finding it hard even to meet his eyes in the book. 

However, Joe Wright - the filmmaker - does get several things right in the adaption, my favorite being the hat-tip he makes to teen movies. There's a scene where Elizabeth and her friend Charlotte are talking shit about Darcy after he's snubbed Elizabeth within her earshot, and it reads like an under-the-bleachers scene in some Regency John Hughes film. Though Elizabeth and Charlotte are in their 20s, they are in a long adolescence: living at home, going to dances. When the scene has them making their cat talk and then clasping hands and laughing at how mean they are, how clever, it was a pretty perfect capture of the tone of that section of the book. 

The beginning of Northanger Abbey is so very much a John Hughes film. Catherine is much younger than Charlotte or even Elizabeth, a tender farm-bred 17. She heads to the resort town of Bath, and it's either a summer camp movie, or a new girl in school movie, or elements of both. Catherine has chaperons, but they are so mild and unobservant that Catherine may as well be one her own, a fact that troubles Catherine occasionally – why did you not tell me I was doing the wrong thing? Catherine is a good girl though, sweet and either dumb or innocent, because it' s difficult to tell them apart sometimes. The narrator – and Mr. Henry Tilney, Love Interest – make great fun of Catherine's wide-eyed inability to picky up on innuendo. There are whole pages of conversations where he is saying one thing, and she is understanding another, and only you and Henry are in on the fun. 

Oh, speaking of the narrator! Once I noticed the narrator in Persuasion, I have been in love with Austen's narrators. Lord, they are strong voices: often wry, occasionally sarcastic, always smoothly barbed. This is the first of Austen's novels, likely never re-written by her and published posthumously, and it reads like a first novel. The narrator gets out of hand at points, clumsily commenting on the state of the novel, addressing the reader directly. This is (a bit) charming, because it makes you think about how Austen was writing these novels primarily to amuse her family. There's a long section bitching about the sorts of people who can be found on a Sunday at a certain intersection in Bath, and it has the ring of the inside joke, which is totally freaking adorable. But like most inside jokes, it's not especially amusing to those of us not in on it, and comes off as a well-written traffic report. 

And speaking of early novels, this one is bisected into two discreet sections that have only the shakiest of thematic overlap. The early part of the book has Catherine meeting two sets of siblings, the Tilneys and the Thorpes. She meets Isabella Thorpe first, who is a classic mean girl, the hot girl who knows it. But Catherine is too naïve and good natured to understand Isabella's bitchiness. Isabella's brother is even better: cussing all the time, crude, prone to wild exaggerations and criticisms of people and events, which can be altered to their opposite with just a little prodding. This is the best coach in the world! It is about to fall apart! etc. Then Catherine meets the Tilneys. The sister is a bit of a cypher, sort of Georgeanna Darcy-ish in her mildness, but Henry is a total babe. Not because he's super hot, but because he takes the time to talk about muslin with Catherine's chaperon and tease her mercilessly. Interest and attention go a long was towards affection. Naïve Catherine slowly learns how to navigate a tricky social terrain based mostly in frivolity; why, yes, high school, I remember you well. 

The second half is a funny take-down of the Gothic novel, Catherine gone to visit the Tilneys in their abbey. Being a somewhat silly girl who has read too many Gothic novels, she starts imagining all sorts of fell deeds, partially helped along by Henry's gentle teasing. The most memorable sequence has Catherine approaching a spooky old piece of furniture within her room with trembling hands, looking through all the drawers until she finds a roll of papers! What horrors will this manuscript enumerate? What dire deeds of yore!? Omg!!1!! Then, it turns out the papers are laundry lists. The plot from the first half of the novel intrudes, but somewhat distantly – there is a scandal, but it is learned about in letters, and then discussed at the breakfast table. In Pride and Prejudice, Lydia's elopement, which learned about in letters as well, was much better played. The drama of Lydia's scandal is acted out in the Bennet household breaking into activity – Mrs. Bennet screaming about duels, that great speech by Mr. Bennet about his culpability. Here it was just less interesting to watch.

The end? Well, the end is abrupt and unsatisfying, the plot resolved only in the most mechanical way. Catherine is turned out of the Tilney house by the father for no good reason anyone can discern. (We do learn the reason, and it doesn't have any relationship to the earlier scandal or the first part of the book, so it feels like a lost opportunity.) The section of her going home – the cruelty of turning a 17 year old out onto the roads with no servant or pin money, forcing her to ride the Regency Greyhound back 70 miles to her house – this was a nice bit of writing. Seeing how beholden to the male head of a family everyone – but especially women – are, this was honestly freaky, and freakier than the Gothic spookings that had Catherine jumping at her shadow. It's a pretty sly commentary on horror fictions – no, the father didn't kill the wife, but he certainly has the very real power to make everyone miserable, put them into real danger, and destroy their lives. Watch the birdy, because the real horror is in the everyday. Nice. And just a stray thought – I loved the portrait of General Tilney – this twitchy, overbearing asshole who clearly has OCD; kind enough if you are in his good graces, and a monster if you are not. 

I'm not even going to put under spoiler that everything works out in the end, but this was mostly truncated and distant in its recounting. The narrator becomes obnoxious, relating everything and enacting speeches in a bald manner, ending with a Law & Order style dun dun – but at what cost?? I feel very affectionately towards this novel, but this is mostly because I love Austen enough to want to read this twice, just to see her grow and change as a writer. Also because when I first read it, I had much less experience with the Gothic novel. I said this before somewhere else, but for the writers we love, sometimes the failures are as interesting as the successes. (And this isn't a full-on failure, just uneven.) Watching an author's voice develop, from the first rough coughings to the later arias, this can be a joy to read for the beloved author. So, reader beware, this is not a smart book to start with if you've never read any Austen, or you don't particularly like Austen's more assigned readings. For me, it was an excellent October read. Spooooooky. 

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