by Janet Todd

SRB Diary: Sex and Sensibility

October 20, 2009 | by Janet Todd

Venice at the beginning of a new year sounded enviable. I went to chase up a document supposedly held by a Venetian scholar: the record of visitors to the Danielli Hotel in the beginning of the nineteenth century when Shelley’s daughter might have died there. Efforts with the hotel management had failed; so I was pursuing the person now said to possess the document.

This was my second attempt. The previous visit might be summarised as a series of coffees with the owner’s relatives and friends, pleading letters, emails, phone calls in broken Italian to bemused Romans. Nothing doing. The people appealed to forgot to mention it; the emails went unanswered. This time I gave myself four days of pursuit.

To get round a Venice so misty it was hard to see one’s feet I needed an iMob card for the boat. I’d applied online and been told it would be in an office near St Mark’s. I went there. No card. I should return another day. Another two boat trips and I was back. It was now the wrong office. I should go to the Tronchetto car park outside Venice. I did and the card was not there. I should go to the office in Mestre, ten miles over the water. I got cross in the proper Italian manner, but to no purpose: I must have checked the wrong box on the Internet, and asked for the card to be delivered to Mestre. The iMob was proving as elusive as the Danielli papers. Only when I returned to my apartment, located the original email declaring the card to be in St Mark’s, and returned to Tronchetto did they apologetically take two minutes to issue me with the thing. A day and a half had been consumed. Only two and a half days left to chase up my document, since two days were given over to a trip to Milan. See below. Needless to say I have yet to find out whether the Shelleys stayed at the Danielli.

Before returning to Aberdeen last week I visited Godmersham in Kent on a bitterly cold day with rain lurking in the air. It was the final bit of field research I plan to do for the Jane Austen volumes which I’ve been editing for the past five years. Godmersham Park was the home of Jane’s wealthy brother Edward; he’d had the good fortune to be adopted by childless relatives, owners of much desirable real estate in southern England. Now in the twenty-first century Godmersham Park is in the hands of the wealthy Sun-ley family, who live partly in the neighbouring vicarage, a lovely house overlooking lush water meadows. They rent out Godmersham Park to the Association of British Dispensing Opticians. I hope they turn their lenses on the stunning views.

Mrs Sunley invited me and my co-editor to visit the vicarage, take coffee, then see the restored stuccoed hallway of God-mersham – though the rest remained out of bounds, inevitably given over to banks of computers, cafeterias, coffee machines and seminar rooms. Of course I wish the house were totally open to the public. Yet the public – you and I with our taxes – did not want to keep it up in the way the Sun-leys have done. Like the Knights’ other stately home, Chawton House, close to where Jane Austen lived for much of her writing life, Godmersham Park would probably have crumbled if not bought by someone rich enough to restore it and sensitive enough to cherish it.

From the outside at least Godmer-sham Park seemed unchanged. The area is comfortable and well-heeled, with timbered inns and small country schools. Yet there has been change. The only unpicturesque spot is the village of Godmersham itself, some way from the Park. The Knights had the cluster of houses moved from beside their gates to make more distance between themselves and labouring folk. This was long after Austen’s time – but the area was changing when she was there too, enclosure moving relentlessly across the land, although she did not note it.

I knew I had on the wrong clothes, having been fooled by the weather-woman – again – and having set out at 6 am before the day could uncover itself. I even had on the wrong shoes, thinking of coffee in the vicarage rather than walks in the fields. I wished I had the pattens Jane Austen wore in such places, even more the serviceable donkey she rode towards the end of her life. Nevertheless this was a chance not to be missed and as the rain fell we tramped round the house and along a muddy path to the church with two knowledgeable local ladies. I’d scoffed (privately) at the local notion that Godmersham was the scene of much of Pride And Prejudice and that Mr Collins lived in the vicarage and went through the door in the wall to contemplate the vista of Rosings, but I was prepared to sit reverently in the pew that Jane Austen might just have graced.

I was brought up short. The church was indeed old, but it had been altered out of all recognition in 1864. One of the ladies took us through the differences, with the help of an illustrated account made by the vicar when he was about to obliterate the old church forever. On the outside one could see where the door had once been, where a window was blocked off and, by looking at the sketches, where the vaults of the Knights had become inaccessible. The nineteenth century’s democratic pews and open spaces were very little like what Jane Austen contemplated as she sat raised above the congregation in the Knights’ special place. She would have been separated from the labouring classes in their boxed pews below. In a family game at Godmersham, where each person had to make a poem with a single rhyme, Jane Austen described a happy labourer in his Sunday clothes: he goes to church with a cabbage rose in his buttonhole, enjoys the incomprehensible language, sleeps through the sermon, and is presumably contemplated in his sleep by his betters above him.

Next day I took the plane from Luton to Aberdeen. I was beginning to develop a raging cold, brought on, I am convinced, by wandering round the Godmersham fields and through wet grass – like Marianne inSense And Sensibility, when she has been betrayed by Willoughby and is intent on letting her heart break for as long as possible. Well – like Marianne in Jane Austen’s novel. For the Marianne who has just appeared on our television screens in Andrew Davies’s new adaptation is at this point more Cathy on the heath in Wuthering Heights than Austen’s slightly absurd second heroine.

Before seeing this new adaptation I was asked to talk about it, sight unseen, on Woman’s Hour. I’d heard nothing of it except that it began with sex. In preparation I read some comments from Andrew Davies, that his version was sensual and exciting, revealing the ‘dark underbelly’ of the book; it would make the film by Emma Thompson and Ang Lee seem a pale, unsexy thing, he said.

So on Woman’s Hour I declared that, for me, the opening sex – presumably the seduction by the dastardly Willoughby of the good Colonel Brandon’s ward – was fair enough; it would suggest why young women needed chaperoning: it saved them from ruining their lives.

A week or so later I saw the three parts of the BBC Sense And Sensibility; I was surprised. There was indeed sex in the first scene, but that was it. Of the proclaimed raunchiness, the butching up that Davies had supposedly done, there was not a lot. The passion that Ang Lee put into his Mar-ianne was hardly to be seen. So little was this Marianne overwhelmed by her betrayal by Willoughby, a currant bun of a man rather than the book’s charming rake, that, minutes after her life-threatening illness, she was up contemplating her betrayer from the balcony.

Now this was all very odd. So I decided to find out more of what Andrew Davies had intended. I looked at his comments from the Hay Festival and in a Times article. There he claimed he hugely admired Jane Austen – but found her wanting. “The problem lies with the men”, he wrote. Viewers have to have an erotic charge from the men. Do they? The success of Colin Firth’s wet shirt has gone to the head of adapters it seems. Women in these TV versions get wet through with rain, which rarely improves them (see the two recent Persuasions), but men must be wet from deep pools or their own manly sweat. “Can we really convince ourselves that Edward is worthy of Elinor, or that Marianne could come to love Brandon?” Davies wrote. “It’s cheeky of me, but I think she [Austen] should have given it one more rewrite…”. Ah the mischievous ‘cheeky’ Andrew, who blames the nineteenth century spinster for failing with scenes the full-blooded twenty-first century adapter would have written better.

Am I wrong in thinking Janeites more common south of the border? Do the English especially enjoy the sort of nostalgia Austen has come to represent – for a pre-industrial, pre-immigration, pre-urbanised, pretty world? (Interestingly, black actors play the lead in Restoration or Jacobean drama but never in Austen adaptations – for this particular Regency is very specifically English). I wonder if it has anything to do with style and accent. Everyone – well everyone who likes costume drama – appreciates nice frocks and houses, smooth green lawns and sprung carriages. But in England we like the way characters are made to speak; we like the intonations of the upper middle class. It’s not old Received Pronunciation, but is largely unmarked by region. We assume Jane Austen spoke like the actresses now playing Elizabeth Bennet or Anne Elliot. Yet it’s likely she talked with a soft Hampshire burr. There’s a poem she must have dictated on her deathbed to a friend who presumably spoke in much the same way: this friend added an ‘r’ to a word ending in ‘a’, exactly as one would expect from someone in Hampshire.

I’m not suggesting that Jane Austen is not a shared community. She is. There’s now a Jane Austen Society in Scotland, but it’s recent. The English have been Janeites for a very long time.

In which case, if I don’t want to be a professional Englishwoman in Scotland, I must go back to Walter Scott. I admire, read, study him, but not yet, alas, quite like him. But I’m hopeful. I’ve had a lifelong aversion to Wagner. But just after my dismal efforts to get an iMob card and the Danielli document, I traipsed through the sleety streets of Milan to La Scala to accompany my husband, a passionate Wagnerian, to see Tristan And Isolde. I’d agreed to see one Wagner opera. Well, I was bowled over by five hours of singing, during most of which I was standing up since our seats were in the back row of the gallery. We came out at midnight: my husband declared he could hear it all over again immediately. I couldn’t echo this, but I’d been impressed.

So, if I can learn to like Wagner, I can learn to like Walter Scott. In any case, to be honest, it’s only recapturing an earlier love. The students who take Jane Austen courses mostly sign up because they liked the films. I grew up in the ex-colonies where my reading was so unPC as to be off the radar: The Empire Annuals and Our Island Story, with memorable pictures of brave ladies waiting to be relieved at Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny. But above all I loved the complete set of comic classics found in our Bermudan house. I especially relished the versions of Ivanhoe and Rob Roy. I vividly remember Ivanhoe kissing Rebecca. Now was that in the book?

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