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Tag Archives: Sense and Sensibility

Winter brings us the flu season (and COVID is still a threat), but with vaccines and modern medicine, the vast majority of us take it for granted we will survive.

In the Regency era, though, influenza and other infectious diseases were often fatal. In 1775, an epidemic killed 40,000 people. It is not entirely clear if all the deaths were from what we know as influenza. Similar illnesses went by such names as the grippe, putrid fever, putrid infection, putrid sore throat. They might have included illnesses we know today as typhus, strep throat, Scarlet fever, pneumonia, diphtheria, or others.

Whatever illness, though, there was no effective cure for it.

Medicines like Edinburgh Powder or Daffy’s Elixir were advertised as cures, but were ineffective.

Regency era science had not yet learned exactly what caused the infectious diseases, nor exactly how they were spread. For example, it was not until 1909 that French microbiologist, Charles Nicolle, discovered that typhus was spread through body lice. Concepts of bacteria and viruses were unknown, although some illnesses were believed caused by breathing in “bad air.” It was also understood that one person could catch the illness from proximity to the sick person. In fact, the concept of quarantining was used as early as the 14th century to protect against plague.

In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, when Colonel Brandon rescues the rain-soaked, feverish Marianne, it sends pregnant Charlotte Palmer, the lady of the house, fleeing the house along with her husband and her servants, for fear of catching whatever fever from which Marianne suffers. Austen obviously realized illness could be contagious.

In addition to lack of effective medical treatment during the Regency, sewage was dumped in the streets, water was contaminated, and rodents and lice spread disease. In our modern age, we don’t worry about such things.

Thank goodness!!

I went off to today to see what happened today a couple hundred of years ago, and the answer is, not much, or at least not much that interested me. A lot of obscure composers were born on this day. There are always a lot of obscure composers having birthdays.

Turning to the letters of Jane Austen–yes, good idea, let’s talk about Jane Austen–March was not a big letter writing month for her. Her letter of March 9, 1814 to  Cassandra contains this sisterly gem:

If Cassandra has filled my Bed with fleas, I am sure they must bite herself.–

Cassandra got busy with the scissors on a letter of March 21 2014 to (maybe) Francis Austen but allowed this to remain:

Perhaps before the end of April, Mansfield Park by the author of S&S–P&P may be in the World.–Keep the name to yourself. I shd. not like to have it known beforehand.

Ah, those were the days. You could be all secretive about your impending release and even about your own identity. No facebook. No twitter. No wall to wall squeeing promo. Heaven.

I’ve been having a Jane Austen-ish time recently, doing what I swore I’d never do because there are too many polluting the world, experimenting with a P&P-based book. More about this darling child, maybe, later. I also went out to Minneapolis for a very short trip–Minneapolis in March, not so good–to talk to their JASNA chapter about Austen and servants. Fun, fast, furious, the weather cooperated, whew.

I also read S&S again. I’ve always thought that one of the wonderful things about Austen is that the books change for you every time, and sure enough, it was like reading a whole new book. I last read it in 2011 and this time I was very much aware of it being “about girls filling in their time waiting by the phone for unsatisfactory men who don’t respond in the right way.” (That was from a post I wrote in 2011 on the JASNA-AGM which was about S&S and hearing Andrew Davies talk about his Austen screenplays.) Because, sorry to say, other than being by Austen, it’s not a very good book. There are so many things in it that don’t work, principally Marianne, Elinor, and Edward.

JenningsBut Mrs. Jennings. Oh gosh, I love Mrs. Jennings. This time around she was the heroine of the book for me.  She’s fun. She’s lively. She isn’t afraid to tease Marianne about Willoughby while everyone else tiptoes around her, not daring to ask whether she’s engaged to him or not. And above all despite the meddling, grasping the wrong end of the stick (considerable), and gossip, she’s kind and loyal and sensible. She knows Marianne will get over Willoughby, and ultimately, get over herself.

Let’s hear it for Mrs. Jennings. Here’s a bit of video for you to enjoy–I love the pained expressions of everyone else while she and Sir John Middleton guffaw away idiotically.

Have you been surprised by a minor character when rereading a book? Do share!

Amanda mentioned in her post about JASNA that one of the highlights was Andrew Davies’ presentation in which he talked about his Austen screenplays. He’s such a good speaker that I found myself writing notes–oh my gosh, I must tell the Riskies about this!–and so I thought I’d share what he said about his various screenplays, and also about the cast and crew comments that prompted changes and rewrites (as well as the inside jokes). First, he has a huge oeuvre–minds out of the gutter ladies, although he’d probably appreciate it–check it out. He’s got a lot of projects on the boil including a novel based on his childhood as well as other screenplays. I asked him if he’d tackle Mansfield Park because I think he could do amazing things with it and he said he was asked that fairly often. (I also told him I was chaperoning Amanda and not to squeeze her too tightly when we were photographed together.)

Talking of photos, mine were abysmal, so I borrowed this one from Austenprose (thanks, Laurel Ann!). This was taken on the grand parade in Sundance Square. Now I do have to admit that some things about the conference were a bit weird, like running into people who wore their regency stuff all the time even outside the hotel. But on Sunday night when we were all dressed up we had an official parade outside where people took our pics and seemed entertained/bemused. Mr. Davies, as guest of honor, was escorted by two lovely tall blonde Texans who were dressed up in their western gear (and honest, in Texas you do get dressed up in a stetson and cowboy boots. It can look very chic). You can’t see it in the pic but their Stetsons featured flashing jewels and they claimed to be the Blingley Sisters.

The conference was about Sense & Sensibility and Mr. Davies explained that he started his screenplay with Willoughby seducing Eliza because this–not the Dashwood deaths with which the book begins–for him is the real start of the story. It was very much an anti-Willoughby interpretation–he described him as “a glamorous shit”–but like many of us he had problems with this novel. It’s too much “about girls filling in their time waiting by the phone for unsatisfactory men who don’t respond in the right way.”

And then there’s Edward–how do you explain a hero who’s too scared to break off an engagement to a woman he no longer loves, and lies to and deceives both her and the woman he really does love? So he inserted a scene in which Edward pours out his heart to Elinor about his family’s expectations and how he wants to be a simple country parson–heck, they virtually do each others’ nails–which naturally led the women involved in the production to complain that now he wasn’t butch enough. Hence the woodchopping scene (ooh, wet shirt), inspired by a woodcutting scene in Davies’ favorite movie, Shane. Incidentally, if you are familiar with English slang you’ll appreciate the hilarity of the cast when Fanny[‘s] hair was mentioned.

I also loved what he had to say about Emma, which was the underappreciated version starring Kate Beckinsale. There’s a very long and funny story about the scene with Emma, Knightley and the baby which I won’t relate here, but he had these extremely perceptive comments about the novel:

She’s a fearful snob with no insight whatsoever who treats other people as though they were dolls or toys. Either she’s very young and a slow developer, or she’s an artist, a creator, a novelist who’s too lazy to write… Austen always has a girl or two who are disadvantaged and succeed despite the efforts of a rich bitch…

in this case the rich bitch is our heroine Emma and the disadvantaged girl Jane Fairfax:

Jane Fairfax is possessed of a deep and passionate nature. She’s had the misfortune to fall in love with a handsome psychopath; she’s sexually in thrall to a man she has little respect for.

He believes Frank did seduce her in Weymouth and he also mused on Mr. Knightley visiting the Woodhouses every day for years. Why? Not to visit Mr. Woodhouse, surely. He proposed a Tennessee Williams-like scenario in which the young Mr. Knightley visited Mrs. Woodhouse and then transferred his affections to her daughter (hopefully after Emma was 16 or so). Yikes.

And, oh yes, P&P, wet shirt and all, and the title of this post is what Davies saw as the governing idea behind the book–sex, money, and physicality. It explains why he saw the beginning of the story, not with the famous quote, but with Bingley leasing Netherfield, hence masculine guys galloping around on big horses (with Elizabeth being “strangely excited” when she sees them from a distance).

After that it was a question of finding as many opportunities as possible for undressing. The film crew referred to his frequent scenes where Lizzy and Jane exchange confidences in their nightgowns as “hair and shoulders shots.”

He decided to bring Georgianna much more into the story, originally to show “Darcy being tender with girls.” As he pointed out, until Georgianna shows up we’re not even sure Darcy likes women. But I was surprised to learn that his favorite scene is with Georgianna, Elizabeth, Darcy and the Bingleys and as it opens Elizabeth sings an aria from The Marriage of Figaro. As Georgianna plays next, Miss Bingley makes snide comments about the regiment moving to Brighton and brings up Wickham’s name. Georgianna stumbles on a note at the piano and Elizabeth moves in to protect her, apologizing that she should have realized the music was too difficult to play without someone to turn the pages. She and Darcy exchange one of those long, significant glances (ooh).

What’s your favorite Davies’ screenplay? And do you agree or disagree with what he said about the novels?

Alert! Last day to enter the contest on my website (yes I know it says October 26 but it’s still up so go for it) and you have a chance to win a copy of Jane Austen: Blood Persuasion at My Jane Austen Book Club.

This past weekend, our Washington (DC) Romance Writers workshop was a discussion of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, both the book and the Emma Thompson movie, led by our very own Austen scholar, Kathy Gilles Seidel.

In addition to having a Ph.D in English, Kathy has won every romance writing prize you can think of. She was the speaker at the very first WRW meeting I ever attended, talking about endings. I was enthralled and so very impressed. Kathy continues to impress me at every WRW Retreat where she is our opening speaker. Her talks are always intelligent, literary, accessible, and very practical.

This talk was fun. Kathy showed clips from Sense and Sensibility and compared and contrasted Emma Thompson’s adaptation with Jane Austen’s first published work. Interspersed in the discussion, Kathy imparted her Sense and Sensibility about writing books.

Here are a few of her gems (more or less direct quotes):

“Your opening should be consistent with the overall tone of your book.”

Originally, the S&S movie was going to start with a bloody fox-hunting scene in which Mr. Dashwood falls from his horse, but the tone would have been all wrong.

“If you have a character whose virtues are not appreciated, and you want the reader to invest in him, have a character criticize him.”
This was about Edward. Kathy felt that Emma Thompson improved Edward as a hero in the movie.

“Secrets are fabulous. Secrets keep readers reading.”
This was about Edward’s secret betrothal.

“Restraint is cool and sexy.”
A response to Alan Rickman’s portrayal of Col. Brandon! But we already knew Alan Rickman was cool and sexy in the role, especially when he says, “Give me an occupation, Miss Dashwood, or I shall go mad.”

“Books are all about the connections between people.”

I don’t remember the context, but I love the quote.

Kathy pointed out that the minor characters in the movie often provided the movie’s “feel good” moments and that it is important to think about “how readers will respond to minor characters.”

Kathy also pointed out that the point of “Ritual Death,” the “Black Moment” should be an “alternative to the happy ending,” the point where the character has to believe nothing will work out.
In S&S, the scene where Elinor believes Marianne is going to die is the Black Moment. Everything has gone wrong. Willoughby has abandoned Marianne, Edward is to marry Lucy, and Elinor is about to lose her sister.

I wish I could reproduce the discussion that led to these pieces of wisdom. All I can say is that it was stimulating and fun.

What’s the best piece of writing wisdom you’ve heard lately?

When you are reading, do you notice these things in the book, or do you just get lost in the story?

Try Kathy’s latest book about the mother of the groom, Keep Your Mouth Shut and Wear Beige.

Take a look at my website, with its new stuff and new contest. If you missed some of my early books they are being re-released in the UK. February is The Wagering Widow and March is my RITA winner, A Reputable Rake. See details on my UK page. Remember, Book Depository offers free shipping (and both are sold at discount)!

And while you are on the Book Depository website, also pre-order Janet’s February UK release, Improper Relations. I’m reading an advance reader copy and it’s fab! (and there’s a 53% discount on it!)

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