Next week the much anticipated third Bridget Jones novel will be available in bookstores and yet again internet and newspapers are infected by a true Bridget-frenzy. Just like in the 1990s, journalists all over the world try to answer the one question: Is Bridget Jones a feminist or the incarnation of a conservative, pre-women’s-rights-movement image of a woman? Continue reading
I am not a big fan of costume dramas. It took me ages to watch all the parts of the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice. This is why I was hesitating when everyone in England was talking about the latest episodes of a show called Downton Abbey.
Yet, with a long weekend to come I decided to take the DVD home with me from university and to have a look at what all this fuzz is about… Well, what can I say except for: Can I please rent a room at Downton Abbey!?
I. Am. Addicted!
This weekend I watched each episode of the first two seasons: I was laughing, I was nervously biting my nails, and I was crying… crying a lot.
Downton Abbey is the country estate of the Earl of Grantham (played by Hugh Bonneville whom some of you might remember as Bernie from Notting Hill), his wife and his three daughters. The first episode is set in 1912 and begins with the sinking of the Titanic and thus the death of the heir of Downton Abbey, the Earl of Grantham’s nephew. This changes the whole family and it is soon revealed that a lawyer from Manchester will be the next heir of Downton. A middle-class lawyer, who is received by the aristocratic and slightly snobbish family with a good portion of skepticism. However, they soon learn that the new heir is not a nasty upstart, but a very lovable, good-natured young man and wait for the eldest daughter, Mary, to fall in love with him. This is the beginning of an epic love story between Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley, future heir of Downton Abbey.
What gives the show its twist is that – unlike in all the Austen movies and typical heritage films – you also get a closer look at the servants who inhabit the attics and cellars of Downton Abbey. Some of them are loyal, some of them recognize that aristocracy is an outdated model and rebel against their status in society. By means of eavesdropping, open doors, and gossip, the problems of the aristocracy and the servants are caught up with each other and the perfect surrounding for intrigues and love stories is created.
In the beginning, I told you that I do not like costume drama. What I find upsetting and also problematic about it is that all the Austen adaptations etc. advertise an image of the English past that has never actually existed. There is no war, no working class, and in the end all the couples are neatly brought together according to their social status. Yet, while Austen’s novel do criticize this with a certain amount of irony and thus create awareness for the injustices in society, the film adaptations often gloss over Austen’s irony by foregrounding the (commercially attractive) love story and thus exploit the audience’s nostalgia.
Downton Abbey does not do this! The plots in Downton Abbey are so absurd that you do not conceive of it as an honest image of the past. While the writers include historical events like the sinking of the Titanic or WW-I, the stories are exaggerated and you can hardly belief what the characters are forced to endure in only one lifetime. Downton Abbey entails a huge cast and what is so exciting is that the characters all have their good and bad traits. Of course, you can tell apart the good guys from the villains but you are invited to feel for each of them. They all get their ups and downs in this Regency roller coaster.
The series is very fast paced and there are huge time jumps which allows the audience to experience a time of groundbreaking changes and alterations in society. While the aristocracy is not amused about all the footmen being sent to war (I mean… You cannot have maids in the dining rooms, so who is serving you food??), the servants are slowly realizing that there might be other paths in life for them and that war – if only for a short time – dissolves social boundaries. And while some members of the Earl of Grantham’s family also feel the change and the need to change, you will always get a snappy comment from his mother (gloriously played by Maggie Smith), who considers the telephone an invention of the devil and thinks that electric light will be a trend that won’t survive for long.
This mixture of (melo)drama and an ironic and simultaneously nostalgic glance at the “glorious” past makes Downton Abbey my new favourite TV show.
In the movie “Becoming Jane”, starring Anne Hathaway as Victorian authoress Jane Austen, there are some scenes showing Jane Austen publicly reading to others from her novels. It is a nice image, but actually scenes like these would never have taken place. Jane Austen did not have a room of her own to write and had to write in the family living room. Luckily for her, the hallway door squeaked when someone entered which gave her enough time to hide her writing.
This is how most Victorian female writers behaved. In the 19th century, the literary market went through a lot of changes, such as a huge rise in the number of public libraries, the possibility to distribute books to the provinces by train, or the rising interest in the person of the author. Yet, women were still restricted to a private sphere of domesticity. The engagement in a literary life was often even brought in connection with the trope of the “fallen woman”: a woman who cheats on her husband, who walks the streets alone and freely without protection, or a prostitute.
In her biography of Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell (author of North and South and Mary Barton) writes:
“[…] henceforth Charlotte Brontë‘s existence became divided into two parallel currents – her life as Currer Bell, the author; her life as Charlotte Brontë, the woman. There were separate duties belonging to each character – not opposite each other; not impossible but difficult to be reconciled. When a man becomes an author, it is probably merely a change of employment to him […] a woman‘s principal work in life is hardly left to her own choice; nor can she drop the domestic charges devolving on her as an individual, for the exercise of the most splendid talents that were ever bestowed.”
Although the three Brontë sisters decided to write under gender-neutral pseudonyms, they couldn’t help being entangled in a public literary life, when they were called to London to identify themselves as the authors of their works.
In a letter to Robert Southey from 1837, Charlotte Brontë writes:
“I carefully avoid any appearance of pre-occupation and eccentricity which might lead those I live amongst to suspect the nature of my pursuits. Following my father’s advice – who from my childhood has counseled me, just in the wise and friendly tone of your letter – I have endeavored not only attentively to observe all the duties a woman ought to fulfill, but to feel deeply interested in them. I don’t always succeed, for sometimes when I’m teaching or sewing I would rather be reading or writing; but I try to deny myself, and my father’s approbation amply rewarded me for the privation.”
And here’s another example, which shows how dangerous a literary activity was to the reputation of a woman. This is from Mary Brunton’s preface to her novel Emmeline:
“I would rather, as you well know, glide though the world unknown, than have (I will not call it enjoy) fame, however brilliant, to be pointed at, – to be noticed and commented upon – to be suspected of literary airs – to be shunned, as literary women are, by the more unpretending of my own sex; and abhorred as literary women are, by the pretending of the other! – my dear, I would sooner exhibit as a rope-dancer.”
These struggles between the woman and the writer, and between duty and art (luckily) appear very unfamiliar to us, who we are used to live in a world in which not only women have more liberty, but in which reading and writing are considered highly prestigious and esteemed activities.
These Victorian women, who had to obscure their literary engagements and their interest in books, are a stark contrast to one of the most sparkling literary personas of the 19th century: Charles Dickens. Dickens is frequently called one of the first “literary celebrities” or “international media stars”: he went on reading tours and the people waited for hours only to hear him read from Oliver Twist, he travelled to America to promote his books, he acted in the theatre, he visited charity balls to promote himself as figure of public interest, and he had his face painted on matchboxes or other objects of daily life. Dickens was seen everywhere, while the Victorian female writers were nowhere to be found. It is interesting to note that Dickens also worked as a publisher and collaborated with Elizabeth Gaskell on the publication of her novel North and South, which appeared in small installments in Dickens’s magazine Household Words. A letter by Charles Dickens shows how his frustration with her not keeping the deadlines links his authority as a publisher with her husband’s domestic authority over her:
“If I were Mr G oh! Heavens, how I would beat her!”
In The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes writes:
“This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature.”
This is actually a thought that crosses my mind pretty often. I love reading and read a lot, which sometimes gets me wondering whether I spend too much time pondering on the literary quality of my own life. When there’s a thunderstorm going on outside, I wonder how amazing it would be living in Wuthering Heights and trying to hide my affection for Heathcliff. When I’m in London I immediately imagine myself buying flowers just like Mrs. Dalloway did. And when I wandered the streets of Dublin a few years ago, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I was taking the same route as Leopold Bloom once did in Joyce’s Ulysses.
Last week I rented a DVD entitled Lost in Austen, in which a contemporary London girl, who wonders why her boyfriend does not bear any resemblance to any of her favorite novel heroes, suddenly discovers that a secret door in her flat allows her to enter the world of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
And this BBC mini-series is by far not the only cultural product which tackles the problem of reality meeting fiction. I will stick with my initial example of Pride and Prejudice, as this is a cultural phenomenon which has shaped Britain’s sense of its own past and has made its way into the hearts of many (predominantly female) readers… or viewers, as in the case of my alter ego Bridget Jones. Bridget is addicted to the BBC-adaptation of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth and she becomes somewhat annoyed when she finds out about the real-life love affair of Colin and female co-star Jennifer Ehle:
“When I stumbled upon a photograph in the Standard of Darcy and Elizabeth, hideous, dressed as modern-day luvvies, draped all over each other in a meadow: she with blonde Sloane hair, and linen trouser suit, he in striped polo neck and leather jacket with Shoestring-style moustache. Apparently they are already sleeping together. This is absolutely disgusting. Feel disoriented and worried…”
Bridget adores Darcy and Elizabeth but wants their love affair to remain strictly locked up in a fictional world (I would hate to see Darcy and Elizabeth in bed, smoking a cigarette afterwards). Welsh cult author Jasper Fforde, on the contrary, plays with the idea of connecting the fictional world and the real world. In his Thursday-Next-Series, he designs a fictional Britain obsessed with literature where there are actual gang fights going on regarding the true identity of Shakespeare. His protagonist special agent Thursday Next enters the world of Jane Eyre and is culpable for the novel’s happily ever after. A few weeks ago I attended a reading of Jasper Fforde in which he discussed this idea turned topsy-turvy and wondered how fictional characters would find their way in our world: “Imagine Hamlet in Starbucks… My God, he could never decide!”
Although I try keeping fiction and reality apart, I want my life to have a certain literariness and I love secretly comparing myself to Catherine Earnshaw or even Bridget Jones, and I also love to imagine entering their world… Do you, as well?
Oh! Nearly forgot: You probably still wonder about the title of this post. You might even have expected some pornographic content… (Come on, admit it!) Or a very personal confession? Well, then I am sorry to disappoint you. The title only refers to a quote from Friends’ Chandler Bing (who does, or rather did, have a third nipple), who jokingly said: “If you press my third nipple, it opens up the magical world of Narnia.” Well, a blogger’s got to do what a blogger’s got to do to advertise her new blog. So go out there, spread the word, tell people about my blog, twitter about my blog, write poems about my blog etc.
And please: Hit the comments and tell me which fictional character you would like to meet, to have some drinks with, to change lives, or to fall in love with. Would you rather have a passionate Heathcliff waiting for you outside in the storm (as I would) or do you prefer going to Bermuda with a sparkling accessory such as Edward Cullen?
I’m sure you have met Mr. Darcy. Yes, Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. Now, close your eyes for just a second and try to come up with a mental image of Mr. Darcy… I guess for some of you, he will look exactly like Colin Firth.
When in 1995 Andrew Davis’s BBC-Adaptation of Pride and Prejudice came out, England – and shortly afterwards a larger part of the world – was infected with Darcy fever. This adaptation fashions our beloved Mr. Darcy as an often brooding hero, who is presented to us for the first two hours mainly in profile and frequently looking out of windows. This allows us (female) viewers to stare at him while he remains a mystery to us.
When offered the role of Mr. Darcy, Colin Firth’s brother wondered: “Darcy? But isn’t he supposed to be sexy?” And Colin made him sexy. This is mainly achieved by the famous pond scene, which made Darcy, Firth and Davis’s Pride and Prejudice famous.
This scene (which does not have an equivalent in Austen’s novel) has made Colin Firth “Mr. Wet Shirt”. On Facebook there is even a “Mr Darcy Wet Shirt Appreciation Society” which celebrates Firth’s jump into the pond. Colin Firth is very aware of his status as cultural icon and of the immense influence of Darcy on his career and public image:
But Darcy is a figure that won’t die. He is wandering somewhere. I can’t control him. I tried to play with it in Bridget Jones – Schokolade zum Frühstück (2001). I’ve never resented it: if it wasn’t for him I might be languishing, but part of me thinks I should do this postmodern thing, change my name by deed poll to Mr Darcy. Then people can come up to me and say, ‘But you are not Mr Darcy’ which would be different. I dare say it will be my saving grace when the only employment available to me is opening supermarkets dressed in breeches and a wig. (Colin Firth)
While I’d argue that many other actors would have tried to fight the curse of Mr Darcy by taking on different (more avantgardistic) roles, Firth’s shirt gets wet again… and again… and again. As already mentioned, his character in Bridget Jones (called Marc Darcy) gets soaking wet when fighting opponent Daniel Cleaver (who actually ended up in a pond in an earlier scene) in the rain. And of course, the sequel to Bridget Jones finds its climax in another very wet fight between Darcy and Cleaver.
But Firth does not only play with his darcyesk image in the Bridget Jones movies, but also in less generally acknowledged teen movies, like Was Mädchen Wollen, in which his character is called Henry Dashwood (after another of Austen’s protagonists). And in The Girls of St. Trinian he ends up falling into a fountain… And yes, his shirt is soaking wet. And not to forget Love… Actually in which his character has to jump into a pond to save the pages of his unfinished novel (And notice that the song covered in Love… Actually is originally by the band Wet Wet Wet. Coincidence? I don’t think so).
“I was delighted to become a popular-culture reference point. I’m still delighted about it actually, and I still find it to be weird.” (Colin Firth)
Yet, in recent years, Firth appeared to finally have taken another course by starring in Tom Ford’s A Single Man and playing King Edward in The King’s Speech, for which he received an academy award.
It really does seem that Colin finally got rid of his obsession with ponds, lakes, and white wet shirts. But, don’t worry ladies! Apparently a third part of the Bridget Jones series is coming up (working title: Bridget Jones’s Baby) and I would bet my blow dryer that Mr Firth will find a pond/fountain/lake/bath tub to jump in and get wet.