Friday, October 15, 2010

Turning to Austen

One of the great pleasures of reading Austen is that she combines incredible control and wit with a lushness of vocabulary and grammar that makes most modern prose seem boring and puritan. It is as if the word went forth in the 1970s to every burgeoning, creative writing program that the only verb that should be used to mount dialogue is an unadorned 'says' or 'said'. And I've heard plenty of modern authors essay that this is one of the most golden rules of good writing.

It's a pleasure then to be only a couple of pages into, say, Pride and Prejudice and already people are replying, crying, scolding, sneering, whining, etc. often with an adverb in tow, e.g.,

"Do you not want to know who has taken it?" cried his wife impatiently.

"I do not cough for my own amusement," replied Kitty fretfully.
Go Jane.

I've long suspected that this layer of authorial pointing in Austen's texts is partially responsible for their great adaptability to the screen. Returning recently to Emma, one of Austen's last novels, I was struck by its great freedom of stage-directions often enclosed in parentheses within direct speech. There's a real sense of Austen pre-directing scenes that the reader is supposed to be mentally staging. E.g.

"A better written letter, Harriet (returning it,) than I had expected.”

"I trust, at least, that you do not think Mr. Knightley looking ill,” turning her eyes with affectionate anxiety towards her husband.

"For my part, I would rather, under such circumstances, fall short by two than exceed by two. I think you will agree with me, (turning with a soft air to Emma,) I think I shall certainly have your approbation, though Mr. Knightley perhaps, from being used to the large parties of London, may not quite enter into our feelings.”

"I have the honour of being acquainted with a neighbour of yours, (turning to Emma,) a lady residing in or near Highbury; a family of the name of Fairfax."

“Oh! very delightful indeed; I can say nothing less, for I suppose Miss Woodhouse and Mr. Frank Churchill are hearing every thing that passes. And (raising his voice still more) I do not see why Miss Fairfax should not be mentioned too."

"He never can bear to be thanked. But I thought he would have staid now, and it would have been a pity not to have mentioned. . . . Well, (returning to the room,) I have not been able to succeed. Mr. Knightley cannot stop. He is going to Kingston. He asked me if he could do any thing. . . .”

"These amazing engagements of mine—what have they been? Dining once with the Coles—and having a ball talked of, which never took place. I can understand you—(nodding at Mr. John Knightley)—your good fortune in meeting with so many of your friends at once here, delights you too much to pass unnoticed. But you, (turning to Mr. Knightley,) who know how very, very seldom I am ever two hours from Hartfield, why you should foresee such a series of dissipation for me, I cannot imagine."
Perhaps the most vivid example of Austen's directorial tendency in Emma occurs in the crucial and justly famous Box Hill scene. The garrulous but constant Miss Bates self-deprecates that she'll play a game of 'telling things' at its meanest, 'three dull things' level.
Emma could not resist.
“Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once.”

Miss Bates, deceived by the mock ceremony of her manner, did not immediately catch her meaning; but, when it burst on her, it could not anger, though a slight blush shewed that it could pain her.

“Ah!—well—to be sure. Yes, I see what she means, (turning to Mr. Knightley,) and I will try to hold my tongue. I must make myself very disagreeable, or she would not have said such a thing to an old friend.”
That's already half-way to a winning screen version with Sophie Thompson (sister of the famous Emma T.) outstanding as the humiliated Miss Bates:

most of Austen's continued cultural success is traceable to her plotting skill, the vividness of her characters, the general depth of her insight into the minutiae of human interaction, and the like. But that she doesn't write stupidly bifurcated texts - dialogue over here, description over there - that she's always authorially describing and directing the dialogue helps a lot too. Insofar as we are allowed to project personal traits and destinies into new cultural settings for light sport, to that extent one feels certain that Austen would have made a great writer for the screen.

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