The header for these many postings about books I’m reading for pleasure, insight, comfort are a play on Fleur Adcock’s lines in a sonnet.
Since I last wrote of books I’m going on with, I’ve read many more than those I’m going to describe today, particularly by and about Jane Austen, and the Austen films. For these, you have to go to “Reveries under the Sign of Austen”. Here I’ll just link in the two filmographies of Austen films I’ve put on my website:
The two I want to talk of to others outside WWTTA (where I have written about them) are Forster’s Howards’ End (and the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala film adaptation) and Nicola Beauman’s The Other Elizabeth Taylor (the novelist). Forster and Jhabvala’s work and Taylor’s novels belong to a tradition brought to an early brilliant incarnation by Austen, one not well-understood because not respected for real.
Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham-Carter as the sisters of Howards’ End
You may find a good general account of Forster’s book for a preface (I won’t go into a story summary or general thematic analysis) at Frisbee: a book journal (Kathy and I discuss it further in the comments) as well as on Jhabvala’s novels. I’ve dedicated part of my website to Jhabvala’s heavily-Austen centered work and a blog to Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala films too.
In this blog I want simply to bring out a significant aspect of Forster’s Howards’ End: he had Austen’s Sense and Sensibility closely in mind as he wrote it, at times following its trajectories, even parodying it. It seems to me an instance of the type of adaptation Kamilla Elliot calls “de(re)composing”. As somewhat mystically (you can’t prove this sort of description) by Thomas Leitch, this is a text or film which decomposes, merge, and form new composition at underground levels of reading. Film a composite of textual and filmic signs merging audience consciousness. Howards End is a transformation of Sense and Sensibility into Forster’s wonderfully nuanced widely-suggestive art. It’s an extended intertextual engagement with Austen’s novel.
I list the more obvious examples: the chapter where Margaret, Helen, and Tibby are described: it’s is a redo of the description of Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret in modern terms. The likeness is down to Tibby getting but one sentence, and he is marginalized in something of the way Margaret is: it is left to him to make the wry ironic pragmatic remarks shorn of cant (which usually accompanies faux pragmaticism). Aunt Juley is an ironic replay of Mrs Jennings. There are little allusive clues: for example, Charles Wilcox’s young wife is called “Miss Dolly Fussell that was …” We are to add the poor. A funny scene where the news is brought to the Wilcoxes that Mrs Wilcox left her house to Miss Schlegel (Margaret) has allusions and imitations in parody of the famous Chapter 2 of S&S: Dolly fears she and her family will be thrown out; any minute now Margaret will arrive to do it.
Helen has a predilection for rain, and meets our victim-hero, Leonard Bast by taking his umbrella; here she looks back through a window or gate
More transformed yet: there’s Helen’s night (if that’s what it was, meaning a fuck) with Paul Wilcox who (like Willoughby) will of course marry money and rank — she is a modern variant on Marianne and Eliza Williams, where pregnancy does not emerge from one night stands (as it rarely does). Jackie is such another as the two Elizas (including Eliza Brandon who was passed from man to man we are told by Austen’s Mrs Jennings). Mr Wilcox and the Wilcoxes a realistic set of Fanny, John, and Robert Dashwood, and Mrs Ferrars.
The inheriting of the cottage is central to the sister’s safety. It was the one act on her own Mrs Wilcox made, and she was almost thwarted because she didn’t do it legally: no lawyer, no witness that counted, in pencil, yet. Like so many legacies of women until the 20th century. Now they may live in it and leave it to their nephew, Leonard Bast’s son. But still Jackie (poor Eliza) is excluded.
The cottage used for the filmic Howard’s End could easily be the Dashwood Barton Cottage, and is more run-down at the moment of photographing early in the story than most of the cottages used for S&S except in the last 2008 film. M-I-J were ahead of the time in using decayed and older and poorer images. They are by no means all luxury; the story is in fact about the contrast of the deprived, outsiders, disconnected people and those with padded wealth and privilege which is what S&S is about.
It really is there, I am not fantasizing — the process has been far more closely interlined than Ian McEwan’s Atonement out of Richardson’s Clarissa.; and unlike McEwan who substitutes a misogynistic cruel set of norms for Richardson’s proto-feminist one, Forster takes Austen’s point of view and makes it more compassionate, deeper, wider, more sophisticated intertwined with larger social, sexual, and economic arrangements.
I am no hagiographer and have not lost sight of those areas of life where Austen is naive, inflexible or limited. She is naive about sex; the idea that Elinor and Edward would hold out to obey such a promise is silly romance found in earlier novels; the self-sacrifice & punishing of heroines (like Elinor is to be the one to tell Edward of Colonel Brandon’s offer) is a motif still in Howell’s novels. Austen does not see the poor, nor connect subtly to larger economic and cultural forces. Forster does.
Howards’ End is not the only sister book genuinely taking Sense and Sensibility in further or sympathetic (but sometiems not as deep) directions that I have found, and his erases the the woman-centered basis. There’s the one she imitated: Isabelle de Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfieldwhere the older man is crippled (uncannily picked up by the 2000 Tamil free film adaptation I Have Found It which itself anticipates motifs and expansions in Davies’a dn Pivcevic’s 2008 BBC/WBGH S&S); Edith Wharton’s Summer where the unromantic marriage to the older man after the young man has seduced, impregnated and abandoned our heroine is dreaded because of the sex, and E. H. Young’s Jenny Wren.
Now as Joe Wright seems to have been aware that Atonement is a rewrite of Clarissa, so Jhabvala and then Merchant-Ivory are aware Howards’ End rewrites the first book. Their film is a deeper comment on the relationship of the two sisters and what their natures stand for and how such natures (when lucky) can survive in a harsh had world.
I’ve written about Nicola Beauman’s book on women’s novels of the early to mid-20th century in my old blog, A very great profession: the woman’s novel, 1914-39
Still from filmed ghost story, The Maze, typical of the kind of fiction Beauman treats of, very Brief Encounter-ish
and her literary biography of Taylor’s life and writing at “Reveries” (just scroll down to the last quarter of the posting).
Here I want to record about Taylor the kind of insights into her behavior, attitudes and writing that place her in the tradition of novels to which Austen’s and Forster’s belong. I recorded at Reveries that for Taylor letters provided the finest truest friendships as they allowed people to learn about one another, share things, support one another in a kind of intimacy of the private self not readily possible face-to-face. She stayed home to write, to delve into her mind and imagination and live with other fine spirits through books and art.
I forgot to say that most piquantly for me is that she found reading good mysteries anything but an escape: they distressed and unsettled her. So too me. Susan Hill’s The Various Haunts of Man left me genuinely disquieted. I felt anxious about going to dark lonely places, about being alone at night in a house.
Peter Parker writes well on this book and Taylor’s work on The Telegraph He mentions how important an influence was Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster. But less famous are closer influences: Ivy Compton-Burnett’s depictions of private and family life were very important to her (and she was friends with C-B) as were Elizabeth Bowen’s books (another friend and supporter), especially The Death of the Heart (which I’ve read and know is one of the great women’s novels of the 20th century.
Nicola Beauman was founder and continual supporter of Persephone books and the subtheme of this book is that of Alison Light’s Forever England: great women’s books are not recognized as great books, called conservative as they love landscape and quiet, and don’t follow the artistic aims of men’s books; they are hardly given space to be in print unless they may be converted into romance by talk and movies. It’s true that Beauman doesn’t report the many painful reviews of Taylor’s books, e.g., Joyce Carol Oates is among those who ridicule Taylor. She also overpraises, but this is what happens in compensation.
Taylor herself includes a defense of women’s novels and art in her A Wreath of Roses. I’ve read Taylor’s The Soul of Kindness, (bitingly bitter book), In a Summer Season, Palladian and Mrs Palfrey at the Clarement (moving book about an old woman going into a retirement house for the more wealthy, recently adapted into a film, about which I also wrote on my old blog). They use the same coded conventions of Howards’ End (which Taylor loved particularly) and Sense and Sensibility.
The disposition of the two sisters here is repeat of precisely the way they are presented in all the S&S films, looking out a window, after Willoughby’s snub, discussing some risk or worry. It is well before Margaret marries the older rich man and they inherit Mrs Wilcox’s cottage.
Opening scene from 1979 P&P: Charlotte (Irene Richards) and Elizabeth (Elizabeth Garvey) holding on to one another