Monday, February 11, 2013

Speaking of Austens and Abbeys

A Review of Downton Abbey & a General Review of Jane Austen

Last night I was feeling off, so after a few hours of reading Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, I decided to watch the 1999 movie, starring Frances O'Connor as Fanny Price. I've seen it before and thoroughly enjoyed it a second time, although I was interested by some of the differences with the original. A few of the characters were subtly re-interpreted, just enough to change their nature, such as Sir Thomas who is more lordly and controlling in the movie, while being fatherly if distant in the book. Even Fanny Price seemed altered, turned into a writer and lover of wit, while in the novel she is not so much witty as clear-thinking, far-seeing, and wise.

I also thoroughly enjoyed seeing Hugh Bonneville, made famous lately by his role as Lord Grantham in the television series Downton Abbey, playing the dimwitted and foppish Mr. Rushworth. He put me rather in mind of Sir Percival Blakeney from The Scarlet Pimpernel who plays the fool in order to hide his secret identity as an eighteenth century superhero. In fact, while Bonneville's character was far more silly here than in Downton Abbey, I think I liked him better in it.

The truth is, I have become for a second and final time completely unenamored with Downton Abbey and would heartily recommend not watching it (in case you are one of the three remaining people left alive who has not seen it). [Spoiler alert] I was disheartened the first time by the way in which the show treated Miss Mary Crawley's affair with the turkish gentleman. More recently, however, I was appalled at Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) out of the blue kissing one of his own servants, a war widow employed at the estate. It was out of character for him; the lead-in to the affair was horribly predictable, unrealistic, and strange; and I thought the maidservant's reaction the only thing realistic about it (her own behavior I find to be poorly-acted and hard to believe already).

I have heard this show referred to by many of my girlfriends as a "modern Jane Austen," but being a fan of her books and the subsequent film renditions by A&E, BBC, etc., I abhor people putting her in the same class as what is obviously a modern soap opera using period dress and the novelty of a war to push it forward. Downton Abbey has many historical aspects, to be sure, and I applaud their depiction of World War I and the sufferings of the people involved; I laughed, too, at their reaction to the new technology like telephones. But as to landing next to Austen in the genre of moralism and romance, it is far from.

The thing about Jane Austen's novels is that they don't find their appeal simply in being romances. Many romance novels are available for cheap today that are practically trash: all flowery words and romantic Prince Charmings. And the reason they are so popular is because something in a woman's heart wants to be loved passionately like that, so no matter how trashy the book, my gender will eagerly, and sadly, eat it up. (I put this as the reason Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series, which I have nothing to say either for or against, is so popular: it is a woman being simply, passionately pursued.) But men do not pore over such things, and the reason is that it does not speak to their essential heartache.

Jane Austen is different: she is not simply grabbing at a deep hearstring and strumming it for all its worth. Her books appeal to both men and women, and anyone who reads her will find that they are mostly, in fact, not about romance, but rather about human beings. Austen was a true student of humanity, and each of her characters have defining qualities (such as prideful piety, class prejudice, self-righteous selfishness, or shy compassion) which Austen follows, often through years and many situations, as they change and act and react. Her point was not that everyone should be romanced and fallen in love with, but that lengths of time should reveal at the end of the novel where each character will end up with the consequences of their actions. Austen shows us how our choices affect us, if and how it is possible to change, and how our choices affect other people in different ways.

Some might suggest her books go rather under a different heading, that of Victorian moralism. But even there, I am not so sure: the characters act outside the bounds of Victorian morals as often as they act within them; they challenge the morals of the day, sometimes successfully and sometimes not; we see the Victorian framework raising unhealthy characters (the Bertram sisters in Mansfield Park) as often as it raises healthy ones (Jane Bennett from Pride and Prejudice). Jane Austen does in her novels what few can do so artfully: both challenge and praise her culture for its good and its bad, while observing human nature with its many faces, how it is formed, how it acts, and how it ends.

What I like about Austen is the general conclusion that she comes to with all her characters. Not all the good characters marry dashing young men, nor do they end rich and well-cared for. In other words, happy as her novels all end, it is not a typical material happiness. Rather, those characters who are based on healthy stuff--compassion, wisdom, patience, a listening ear, thinking before speaking--end happy with their lot and their choices, knowing they have done the right thing. Not everyone ends as rich as Elizabeth Darcy nee Bennett and Austen is clear in showing that good behavior doesn't mean you will have a comfy, problem-free life.

On the flip side, the characters who either gain, or do not lose, bad affectations are not necessarily left shivering and poor. Materialism and morals are not connected. But those who do not love find themselves unloved or unable to enjoy the many happy things they have gained. It is not the happiness we are used to, perhaps, but I think it rings more true to the justice our hearts desire. I do not imagine her good characters riding happily off into the sunset, but rather living normal, everyday lives, loving and being loved and working through problems with the people around them. It is a true happiness: one that doesn't lie about green hills on the other side, but shows me where I might find my own in life if I but work at it.

And through all of this, she weaves the ever-essential threads of romance and marriage. Important both to the human heart and to Victorian culture and especially integral to the lives of the female characters who are always her primary focus, Austen follows the lines of heartbreak, the many forms of love, what love can and cannot live upon, and the characters' capacities to love in various forms. It is a study in human passion, choices, and consequences, especially in this most important and life-lasting sacrament.

[Spoiler alert] In Mansfield Park, to make a good example, Maria Bertram marries her foppish and stupid fiance, Mr. Rushworth, hoping that by doing so, and gaining through the marriage all the material comforts she could wish for, to silence her heart which has been pining for romance and special attention (most recently from Henry Crawford). But her return from her honeymoon finds her still in the midst of heartache and indecision, and ultimately she decides that fidelity is not worth living with a man with whom she does not have a passionate romance, and so has an affair with Henry Crawford. Henry deserts her afterward, and she is left with neither the man she thought loved her nor the husband she unwisely chose.

At the same time, protagonist Fanny Price nearly makes the same fateful choice, marrying for comfort rather than love, when the man she was in love with gets engaged to her best friend and Henry Crawford stands ready with open arms and many ardent displays of affection. He loves her; perhaps that is enough? Perhaps the comfort his wealth offers would make her love him too? But that is not an acceptable reason for the heart. In the end, she rejects him and marries a man whom she loves and who loves her back. It is not, says Austen, affection which makes us feel loved; we must love those who love us, else their love has no effect in feeding the needs of our hearts.

I wish I could draw parallel lessons of humanity and the heart from Downton Abbey. I first quit watching after the third and fateful episode (with Mary's affair) because I could see neither the character qualities that would lead to such a thing nor character development afterward that should most definitely occur. The most that can be said is that Lady Mary is occasionally guilty over it, but no more. No clue is given as to how our nature might respond to such a catastrophe, how we might flog ourselves or justify it or ignore the whole issue. There is nothing in her response or in the show to explain how this event is in any way connected with the rest of her life except to be used as a bargaining chip by her later fiance. To be sure, the event seems to gleefully dog her footsteps in the events that follow, but of the inner life and character change that it affects in those around her nothing is to be seen.

Downton Abbey thus seems to take so much pleasure in torturing their characters and making their lives difficult. Though there appears to be grace at times, forgiveness over past misdeeds is never absolute. Things are always up or down; and nothing is good but that there is a catch to it. I do not wish to watch a show whose whole purpose in having terrible events and bad choices by the characters is to be dramatic. Isn't that what we mean nowadays when we talk about "drama"? Everything is big, fateful, scary, and emotional. Nothing can be handled with equanimity; everything is too big.

Dramatic people weary us--we say it all the time, "I hate drama"--and yet, there is something in drama, in the emotions of it, that makes us feel alive. In a society so emotionally dead in other ways, where you have to put your heart aside and feed on leaner meats, we ache to feel again. As many poets have written, even to feel pain is beautiful, for it means we are alive. I think it marks one of the saddest aspects of our society: we do not believe a good thing can be truly good and enjoyable; we are pessimists at heart. The only emotion left for us to feel is dread. We revel in watching on TV what we consider to be the only reality: problems, scrapes, and realized fears falling catastrophically into characters' lives. To feel their dread, we feel alive.

And that is all I feel when I watch the show: fear over what might happen, apprehension, excitement that things might actually work this time, and disappointment as yet another unexpected sorrow occurs. And it's true, there's something in it that makes me want to keep watching. But I don't want to be addicted to dread. I want to be alive with joy and cheerfulness. I want to be like one of Jane Austen's characters, ultimately happy not because my life goes well and smoothly, but because I have made the right choices. It means building a character of compassion, forgiveness, and true humility. But when we learn to love fully, that is when we can feel fully loved and fully alive.