Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Bonnets, mud and the blessed Jane

The recent surfeit of nineteenth-century costume dramas - faithfully rendering or monstrously misconstruing some of the glorious masterpieces of Eng Lit, depending on one’s viewpoint and taste - has been exercising the book-blogging community no end in recent weeks. And rightly so.

Once a scriptwriter ‘adapts’ a well-loved, much-studied ‘classic’ for the screen and casting directors and a production team get going on it, then they must expect some pretty close scrutiny from those of their audience who have actually read the book, rather than simply seen the previous TV version (and nine times out of ten there will have been a previous TV version – often within the last decade, which raises cries of ‘why another so soon?’, as well it might).

The latest offering from the BBC, Larkrise to Candleford, has been baffling us all (see, eg, Elaine’s Random Jottings and Maureen’s Random Distractions here and, more generally, here).

Apart from the obvious overlap of actors (and thanks to Elaine for providing a comprehensive list), which turns Cranford/Sense and Sensibility/Lark Rise into a kind of vast, bonnetted, Ven Diagram – can there really be such a small pool of costume-thesps for these casting people to choose from? – the main source of anxiety is the transformation of what is essentially a collection of autobiographical vignettes and vivid accounts of fast-disappearing country ways into a long-running period soap (there's talk of a 'second series' already), with a newly fashioned narrative thread, specially created ‘comedy’ characters and (as Diane so pertinently commented) a complete lack of authentic muck and filth.

It is very wholesome and pretty and easy to watch and will no doubt be essential, cosy, family viewing, here as much as anywhere else, but Lark Rise to Candleford it most certainly ain’t.

Here’s my well-thumbed copy from the 1970s, just to prove that I know what I’m talking about here!

Re mud (and I speak as something of an expert on the subject ) - this is one of the many reasons (but an important one) that the Amanda Root/Ciaran Hinds version of Persuasion remains one of my all-time favourites. It's gloriously mud-spattered. The characters go for a long walk and the backs of the dresses and the men's coats are filthy. Which rings entirely true. When you consider the effort involved in laundering in those days, it’s very likely that the general condition of the average sprigged muslin dress, let alone cloaks and coats, was pretty grubby most of the time.

And while on the subject of Jane Austen: I’d always considered myself something of a Janeite.

35 years [eek - so many!] years of reading her novels; enthusiastic study of them at school and university; subsequent immersion in biographies and letters; plus annual re-reading (or dipping-into, at the very least) of one or another of her works – oh, and an awful lot of viewing hours of television adaptations, of course . . . Surely I could claim to be a bit of a bona fide fan?

Well, so I thought until I dipped my toe into Internet Janeism and – woah! – my interest is mild to the point of borderline non-existent when compared with the passion for the subject displayed on a zillion or so blogs and websites devoted to the Blessed Jane. A huge number are based in the US. Some are indescribably awful (to my English eyes, anyway – sorry!), but here’s a rather lovely one, Jane Austen Today , which gives a flavour of the best (and links to many, many more).

(Warning: Don’t even think of going there if you haven’t quite a lot of time on your hands, though – it’s dangerously easy to disappear into CyberJane-land and not re-emerge for hours and hours. If you dare to visit and you come back in one piece – do please recount your adventures in a comment here!)


Anonymous said...

I don't know if I should be admitting this but I have just retrieved my illustrated Lark Rise to Candleford (A trilogy by Flora Thompson) from the 'books for the fete' pile. I hadn't appreciated that it was an abridged version but it does contain lots of photos and the most beautifully bucolic paintings. I note that the Post Office memories are at the end of the book. I don't have anything against television taking this and making it into gentle entertainment on a Sunday evening. Surely it is the appeal of happy family life and the closeness of communities helping people cope with the ups and downs of life that we enjoy easing us into the start of a week? So what if stories are altered in the telling - it's as if television has become the equivalent of the tradition of travelling storytellers. The gist is the same but each telling has its own character. There are plenty of terrible things on television so I applaud the attempt to have lightweight family programmes, as long as they are entertaining.
I absolutely loved the little clip of Mersea on your last post but I think it does serve to illustrate how we choose to present things. In this case a slice of beautiful island life but would we be accused of over-romanticising by others? Teresa

Juliet said...

Hi T - I agree with your point about Sunday-night viewing. As I said in the post, I will be continuing to watch it with my children regardless. It takes me back to the 60s when there was ALWAYS something of this type we could all watch with our tea. And it certainly makes a change from the endless diet of reality shows which make up the rest of prime-time weekend telly.

I think what people object to is that Lark Rise is being presented as if it were an 'adaptation' of a work of fiction, while it is in fact a newly constructed 'storyline', based very loosely on small parts of a rich and detailed autobiographical/historical account. I suppose I am just waiting with a shudder for all those 'I tried this book but it was really boring and nothing like the TV series' comments on Amazon.

Re the film clip - I guess it does look quite romantic, although just after I stopped filming I tripped backwards over an anchor and fell into a water-filled boat, which wasn't so great. And in my defence I do link to Stroodcam and surely few views of island life can be less idealised than watching cars driving backwards and forwards rather jerkily over the Strood!?

Anonymous said...

Welcome to the world of internet Janeism! I'm with you -- I adore the version of Persuasion with Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds. It's strikingly beautiful...

monix said...

I share your concern about people's expectations, J. Saying 'based on' rather than 'adapted from' would have avoided this problem.
I am actually quite pleased to see a lighthearted bit of family drama. This looks like 'The Darling Buds of May' or 'Jam and Jerusalem' in a nineteenth century setting and that's fine so long as it isn't confused with Flora Thompson's books.

Juliet said...

Lori - hi. Yes, it's a whole other world out there, isn't it? I've just enjoyed a quick look round your two sites and added your interesting-looking book to my Amazon shopping basket (don't hold your breath - there are hundreds of other must-reads in there - but I promise to press 'buy' someday soon!)

M - exactly so.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Monix that 'based on' is a better description and I hope that anyone reading Flora Thompson's book would be delighted with it. I don't know if Monix likes 'Jam & Jerusalem' but I'm really enjoying it although the rest of my family don't have time for it. I think it is Jennifer Saunders at her cleverest. I've encountered those characters and the sentiments and worries they have. Saunders seems to be able to get right to the crux of things whilst on the surface seeming to make fun of them. It is very well observed even if she annoys people with her exaggerations. Sorry Juliet, I hope you will forgive me going off your original point.T

monix said...

Yes, Tarviragus, I do like Jam and Jerusalem, even though it has been panned by most of the critics. I think you have to live in a small community to appreciate the truth of it, even if it is exaggerated.

Sorry to hi-jack your topic, J!

Juliet said...

Oh, that's OK, ladies, make yourselves at home. Don't mind me. Have another biscuit or two and some more tea and I'll just go and do the ironing or something until the discussion turns to a programme I've actually watched!

I'm not feeling left out or anything like that. Honest. No, really. I'm not . . . sniff . . .
So please . . . sniff . . . don't feel bad about TAKING OVER MY BLOG!!!!!

monix said...

I'm going away for the weekend, J. Feel free to post anything you like on RD in my absence. No refreshments until I'm back, though.

Juliet said...

Ha ha! No tea and biscuits? No comments! Your blog will be perfectly safe until your very welcome return. Have a lovely w/end Jx

Unknown said...

I can see that I'm seriously late on this particular thread but... I'd just like to add that personally, as a confirmed costume drama addict, I am simply cannot cope with Lark Rise to Candleford. It is like watching Heartbeat in corsets... yeurch! I like a bit of duvet telly on a sunday night as much as the next knackered mummy but I just can't face it... I am compelled to haul my backside off the sofa, track down the remote that has been carefully hidden by one of my many offspring and hit the eletronic kill button. There's only so many rose tinted, fuzzy focused chocolate box homilies that I can cope with. Rant over!