February 2010

Part I: Sense and Sensibility

I first read Sense and Sensibility in the mid-90s, when “Austenmania” started.  I liked it, but not as much as P&P or Emma or Persuasion (which is possibly my favorite book of all time).  I have re-read it several times over the years, and I find myself liking it better each time.  I own several copies of each of the “Big 6,” and recently bought a set of paperbacks published in 2008 by Signet Classics, which is an imprint of Penguin.  All of the books in this series have introductions by Margaret Drabble and afterwords by popular authors of contemporary women’s fiction.  This edition of S&S has an afterword by Mary Balogh.

The introduction and the afterword seem to be about different books.  Drabble quotes Austen biographer John Halperin as saying that S&S is “bleak and black and nasty.”  She admits that this is, perhaps, an overstatement, but she does refer to the book as “unhappy” and “almost tragic.”  Meanwhile, Balogh refers to S&S as “…an enjoyable double love story” and a book “to be enjoyed purely for its happily resolved love stories and its marvelous cast of secondary characters…” (all quotes, except the Halperin quote, come from the Signet Classics edition of S&S, New York, 2008; the Halperin quote is, in turn, taken from his The Life of Jane Austen, Harvester Press, London, 1984).  Who’s right?  I think that, as with beauty, happiness is in the eye of the beholder.  Personally, I lean more towards Balogh’s opinion than either Drabble’s or Halperin’s.  The story is interesting and the characters are very real.  Yes, even the villains.

I’ve said many times over the years that each time I read an Austen novel, I see something I’d never noticed before.  And this re-read of S&S was no exception.  I cannot believe I never paid attention to this gem before (from chapter 36):

I come now to the relation of a misfortune, which about this time befell Mrs. John Dashwood. It so happened that while her two sisters with Mrs. Jennings were first calling on her in Harley Street, another of her acquaintance had dropt in — a circumstance in itself not apparently likely to produce evil to her. But while the imaginations of other people will carry them away to form wrong judgments of our conduct, and to decide on it by slight appearances, one’s happiness must in some measure be always at the mercy of chance. In the present instance, this last-arrived lady allowed her fancy so far to outrun truth and probability, that on merely hearing the name of the Miss Dashwoods, and understanding them to be Mr. Dashwood’s sisters, she immediately concluded them to be staying in Harley Street; and this misconstruction produced within a day or two afterwards, cards of invitation for them as well as for their brother and sister, to a small musical party at her house. The consequence of which was, that Mrs. John Dashwood was obliged to submit not only to the exceedingly great inconvenience of sending her carriage for the Miss Dashwoods, but, what was still worse, must be subject to all the unpleasantness of appearing to treat them with attention: and who could tell that they might not expect to go out with her a second time? The power of disappointing them, it was true, must always be hers. But that was not enough; for when people are determined on a mode of conduct which they know to be wrong, they feel injured by the expectation of anything better from them.

(Emphasis mine)

Another beauty is here, also in chapter 36:

As John Dashwood had no more pleasure in music than his eldest sister, his mind was equally at liberty to fix on anything else; and a thought struck him during the evening, which he communicated to his wife, for her approbation, when they got home. The consideration of Mrs. Dennison’s mistake, in supposing his sisters their guests, had suggested the propriety of their being really invited to become such, while Mrs. Jennings’s engagements kept her from home. The expense would be nothing, the inconvenience not more; and it was altogether an attention which the delicacy of his conscience pointed out to be requisite to its complete enfranchisement from his promise to his father. Fanny was startled at the proposal.

… “My love, I would ask them with all my heart, if it was in my power. But I had just settled within myself to ask the Miss Steeles to spend a few days with us. They are very well behaved, good kind of girls; and I think the attention is due to them, as their uncle did so very well by Edward. We can ask your sisters some other year, you know; but the Miss Steeles may not be in town any more. I am sure you will like them; indeed, you do like them, you know, very much already, and so does my mother; and they are such favourites with Harry!”

Fanny, rejoicing in her escape, and proud of the ready wit that had secured it,…

(Emphasis mine)

Fanny Dashwood is one nasty piece of work.  She is vindictive, petty and just plain mean.  I sincerely hope that, if Harry Dashwood ever marries, he tosses his mother out on her ear.  His poor wife shouldn’t have to deal with such a shrew of a mother-in-law.  I am fully aware that these are not real people, but it is fun to speculate.

I liked Marianne more than I have in the past, and I still love and admire Elinor.  A lot of people denigrate Edward because he insists upon marrying Lucy, but I find that he shows the same honor and “gentlemanliness” as Frederick Wentworth does in Persuasion.  Edward is engaged to Lucy and, in early 19th-century England, an engagement was practically as binding as a marriage.  A woman could break off the engagement more easily than a man, but a man who broke off an engagement risked being sued for breach of promise.  According to a post in the Pemberley.com Life and Times archives, there was a British breach of promise case entitled Holt v. Ward in which a couple became engaged when both were under the age of majority (21).  The man married someone else, but the woman sued and won.  Edward’s family obviously doesn’t care about the scandal that a broken engagement would cause; they are, instead, blinded by Miss Morton’s £30,000.  Given what Austen tells us about Edward’s mother, sister and brother (and his brother-in-law), it’s no wonder he’s happy to be rid of them.  Granted, he does make an effort to get back in his mother’s good graces so she’ll help him financially, but he doesn’t do it for superficial reasons.  He does it because it will help him marry Elinor as soon as possible and make their lives (and the lives of their future children) easier.

On the other hand, however, Marianne has no case against Willoughby because he never asked her to marry him.  We know that everyone in the vicinity of Barton expected Marianne and Willoughby to marry.  But expecting a marriage proposal and actually receiving one are, obviously, two different things.  Marianne never received a proposal so she cannot sue Willoughby for breach of promise.  This does not make Willoughby a more sympathetic character.  Quite the contrary; I find him to be Austen’s worst villain because of the way he treated Eliza Williams, Marianne and even Miss Grey.  All three are fatherless, powerless girls and he preys upon them because it’s easy and fun.  Luckily for Marianne, she has friends who are willing to look out for her.  The other girls are not quite so fortunate.

While I am admittedly more in line with Balogh’s way of thinking about S&S, I do understand some of what Drabble and Halperin are saying.  There are ugly people in this book, and bad things happen to good people.  But the good people manage to overcome the ugliness they are confronted with and we get our happy ending.  I am not one who believes that greatness in literature is in direct proportion to how depressing the book is.  I like happy endings when they make sense in relation to the story.  And, in Sense and Sensibility, a happy ending makes perfect sense.

Next up, a report on Kandukondain Kandukondain (because it’s due back at the library on the 4th).


My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World’s Most Coveted Handbag, by Michael Tonello

I just picked this up from the library.  It is laugh-out-loud funny.  I started it last night, after getting home from my Torts class (repeat after me: DUTY, BREACH, CAUSATION, DAMAGES; DUTY, BREACH, CAUSATION, DAMAGES…), and read right past my bedtime.

Here’s some of what Publisher’s Weekly has to say:

Tonello plans a weekend drive to Madrid in search of the haute couture holy grail; the result is a both a hilarious raid on fashion’s strongholds and a memoir that satisfies like a novel. Fashion die-hards, and many others, will be delighted from beginning to end.

OK, Tonello is now a columnist for HuffPo, but his book is still worth reading so I’m putting politics aside and am thoroughly enjoying myself.

Yes, I know this post is filler and no, I am not ignoring you all, it’s just that Real Life is getting in the way.  Plus, I’m  thinking  about what to say in my “book report” of Sense & Sensibility.  The good news is that my local library has Kandukondain Kandukondain, so I can report on that too, as part of the S&S film festival.


Sarasota is a lovely city with a lot of things to see and do, but it’s a place I am still, after one and one-half years, getting used to.  It’s not easy being 1,189.2 miles from The World’s Most Convenient City, where pretty much everything I wanted was close by. I didn’t have to order L’Occitane products from Drugstore.com because one of their stores was a 15-minute walk from my apartment.  I didn’t have to be a member of Netflix because my mom-and-pop video store had all the foreign films I wanted…and they delivered.   I passed 2 Barnes & Nobles on my way to the subway, 3 movie theaters, and some genuine dives with some great food.

Every time I meet someone from New York or Philadelphia or Boston (and there are a lot more of each here now than there were when I came down to visit my grandparents in the 1960s and 1970s), the first topic of conversation is how hard it is to find decent food at a decent price.  You can eat well here —  it just costs an arm and a leg — but we’re all used to being able to find holes in the wall with great food.  It’s definitely culture shock.

So, in order to help out any new Sarasotans (or anyone planning on being a tourist here), here are some of the best places to eat well for not a whole lot of money.  One former New Yorker owns Bonni Bakes; she is searching for a recipe that will allow her to produce a good knish (I don’t know if she has good bagels, because I haven’t found one yet).   I would love to visit her restaurant in Bradenton’s Village of the Arts, but she’s not open often enough hours for someone who works down in Sarasota, so I have not yet been there.   Il Panificio, on Main Street in Sarasota, has the best pizza in the vicinity (the owners are from New Jersey).  “Soprano’s of NY” on SR70 in Lakewood Ranch has melt-in-your-mouth garlic knots (the owners are from north of NYC) and very good pizza.  Next door, the Big City Grille (owned by a native Philadelphian) offers up incredible chicken wings and a variety of “signture sandwiches” from around the country.  “South Philly” on 34th Street West has excellent cheesesteaks, and you can drink Yuengling or Rolling Rock while you eat.  It’s enough to make a transplant weep.   You can call me a snob, but let’s face it  — Northeasterners know food.

Honorable mention goes to TooJays, a deli/diner with several locations around Florida.  Sarasota’s is in the Westfield Southgate Mall along the Trail.  I don’t know who owns them, but they serve up all sorts of comfort food: bagels, corned beef and roast beef sandwiches as tall as the ones in New York, rugelach, chicken soup, black-and-white cookies (no, they’re not nearly as good as those at Glaser’s on First Avenue in Manhattan, but they’re better than anything else you’ll get down here), whitefish salad, shrimp salad…  It’s well worth the visit.

As I posted a few weeks ago (here), Masterpiece Theatre offerings have long been edited for North American television.  Dozens of people of my acquaintance have sent e-mails to PBS, complaining about the edits.  Here is the e-mail I sent:

Obviously, those of us in the US would have had no way of knowing that you cut scenes out of programs before the birth of the Internet. But, now that we do have ways of learning about scenes that we cannot see, why do you persist in doing it? It is, frankly, unconscionable that you would continue to cut these programs. I have seen “Emma” in its entirety, and some of the scenes that you cut were simply delightful. The cuts disturbed the flow of the program.

I met Rebecca Eaton at a screening of “Persuasion” in New York and she tried to convince the audience that ITV and the BBC determined what scenes were cut. I do not believe that for an instant. The DVDs for Persuasion and Sense & Sensibility were released by the BBC and the scenes that had been cut for the US market were put back on the DVD. But the DVDs for Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey were released by you at WGBH and the cuts were retained. I am lucky that I was able to see the films the way the writers intended them to be seen, but most people in the US are not that fortunate.

Here is their response to every single person’s e-mail:

Thank you for your interest in MASTERPIECE.

Some viewers have noted that the Masterpiece Classic version of “Emma” is slightly different than that which ran last year in the UK. It’s true. While we all wince at the loss of even a few frames of our favorite dramas, the realities of broadcast conventions dictate slightly different versions be created for the various territories where the programs are shown. As with nearly all programming, adjustments are made to accommodate the variation of time slots between the UK standard and those in the US, as well as other markets. In the case of “Emma,” our co-production terms called for the BBC to create a version that fit the requirements of the PBS time slots. Masterpiece itself doesn’t edit the films.

Viewers wishing to savor the full UK version can do so by buying the BBC’s release of the DVD at PBSShop or via iTunes.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that’s a very satisfactory answer.  So I decided to write back:

First off, you did not cut just “a few frames.”  I can name at least half a dozen scenes that were cut out completely out of just the last 2 hours of the production.  These cuts appear to be completely arbitrary.  You cut out one of the most delightful scenes in the entire piece, the one right after the proposal, where Emma and Knightley are on the bench talking.  What was the purpose behind that?

Second, you say I can buy the uncut version from the BBC.  But why can I not buy the uncut versions of Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park?  You showed edited versions of those too, yet the DVDs you sell under your own name are exactly the same as the cut film you showed, not the version ITV showed in the UK.  But Persuasion, which was also an ITV production, is available uncut through the BBC.  Why does PBS sell edited films and then not tell anyone that they have been altered?  You only admit something has been altered when forced to.

And third, you will not be able to get away with this much longer.  The people who watch Masterpiece don’t care about conventional time slots.  They do, however, care about quality programming.  In addition, there are an ever-growing number of people in this country who have access to the originals of all these productions, and they are very, very angry.  Those cuts were made to fit in Laura Linney’s inane introduction and all of the commercials whose existence PBS continues to deny.  The DVD is 229 minutes in length.  229 divided by 4 is 57.25.  Last I checked, 57.25 is less than 60, which is the standard US time slot.  You had plenty of time to give us the episodes in their entirety without all of the extraneous material.  You just don’t want to.  Plain and simple.

I repeat — BADLY DONE.  And you wonder why I refuse to contribute to PBS. I’d rather keep the money and buy the DVDs directly from the UK for viewing on my computer.

Yeah, I was on a roll.  And they actually responded:

Thank you for your interest in MASTERPIECE.

Our programs are routinely edited to fit our PBS time slot, which is different from the UK’s.  Depending on whether our UK partner is producing for a commercial broadcaster or the BBC (i.e., commercial breaks vs. no commercial breaks), the episodes may vary from between 3-5 minutes to 10 or more. In the case of Persuasion, Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park, approximately ten minutes were deleted in each.

While we obviously have no control over the amount of time we are given by PBS to air particular films, know that when faced with the need to edit, we take it very seriously and with great care. Almost always, it is the UK producers who determine which scenes should be trimmed from the U.S. broadcast. Our goal is to deliver to you the film that is closest to the original intent of the producers.

The good news is that many MASTERPIECE films are becoming more widely available around the world than ever before thanks to DVD and home video offerings. However, because of various formats and contract stipulations in different parts of the world, there may be some differences in content. In some cases, a DVD available in the US or Canada (such as those released by WGBH Boston Video) may only contain the US version, while in others, a DVD may contain the original UK version. This is further complicated by the fact that published running times may be an approximation of the running time, or more frequently the timeslot of the film was intended for (e.g., a 100-minute film may run in a 120 minute timeslot, and that longer timeslot information may end up on websites, DVD packaging, etc., despite the actual shorter running time of the film).

While we can’t control the marketplace, we will be happy to post DVD information to the MASTERPIECE Web site when we have it that may inform your purchasing decisions.

Again, a non-answer.

I implore you, remember that you have options.  You do not have to be limited to what PBS deigns to give you.  They obviously don’t care that we can (and will, if possible) figure out ways around them.  But if enough people do stop giving them money during the beg-a-thons (thereby showing them they can not continue to edit programs with impunity), or if enough people refuse to buy DVDs through their shop or with their name on it, we can do what consumers have been doing since time immemorial: namely, hitting PBS where it hurts most — on their bottom line.

I’ll say it again: Pitchers and catchers.

For baseball fans, those are three of the sweetest words in the English language.

Gaylord Perry once said “The trouble with baseball is that it’s not played the year round.”

Rogers Hornsby once said “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball.  I’ll tell you what I do.  I stare out the window and wait for spring.”

Neither is completely true anymore, because there is baseball played in the Caribbean during the North American winter, but what Perry and Hornsby said still work for me.  Yes, I love football, and yes, I love hockey but, in the final analysis, both are merely placeholders until baseball starts again.

And today is the day.  I live pretty much halfway between where the Orioles train (Sarasota) and where the Pirates train (Bradenton), but my heart is in Port St. Lucie, where the Mets train.  Unfortunately, that’s a good 150 miles from my home, and I won’t be able to get out there this year.   The good news is that I already have tickets to see the Orioles and the Pirates, and one of those games will be the Orioles and the Mets on April 3.  That’s the closest I’ll get to seeing them this year, but at least we have a Single-A team in Bradenton (a farm club of the Pirates called the Marauders) that plays the Single-A St. Lucie Mets, so I’ll get my fix that way.

Yes, the Mets were bad last year, but I have loved them since the mid 1960s and have no plans to stop.  Roger Angell, one of the best baseball writers in the country, once wrote “There is more Met than Yankee in all of us.  What we experience day to day in our lives is much more losing than winning.  That is why we love the Mets.”  So true.  Check out Angell’s “Season Ticket” or  “The Summer Game.”  Both are outstanding but, to be honest, you really can’t go wrong with any of his books.

Or is it President’s Day?  I never know.  Are we honoring one of them (Washington?  Lincoln?), or Washington AND Lincoln, or all 44?

Regardless, both the courts and the banks are closed and, since the majority of my workday is spent dealing with both, I was off today.   And how did I spend my time?  Reading Sense and Sensibility while at the mechanic’s, waiting for him to fix a window in my car.  It took longer than we’d anticipated, so I got a lot more reading done than I’d expected.

Every time I read an Austen novel, I notice things I’d never noticed before, and this re-read is no exception.  For years, I loved Emma Thompson’s adaptation of S&S, even though I’d known that it diverges from the novel on several counts.  But lately, I’ve noticed more and more differences between the novel and the adaptation, and this particular re-read of the novel is in an attempt to determine just how faithful the various adaptations are.  Again, I have enjoyed Emma Thompson’s script over the years, but now I think a large part of that is because I saw the adaptation before having read the book.  I say that because, after having read the book multiple times since seeing the adaptation and having seen other adaptations since this one, I have decided that, while S&S95 is a wonderful movie, it is NOT a wonderful adaptation.  Emma Thompson gives us too much Margaret and too  much Mr. Palmer, but not enough Willoughby.

I believe that Willoughby is arguably Austen’s worst villain, and I also believe that S&S95 barely touches on his toxicity.   This is a young man who preys upon fatherless, powerless young women.  He impregnates one and deserts her.  He leads another on, making her think he will propose, deserts her too and then publicly humiliates her.  He marries a third because of her money and then wishes that she were dead.  But S&S95 glosses over all of this, and allows the viewer to think he is merely troubled.  I beg to differ.  He is a textbook narcissist who loves no one but himself and spends a lot of time blaming other people (particularly Colonel Brandon) for his problems.

As for my assertion that Thompson gives us too much Mr. Palmer, all I can say is that an awful lot of people who see S&S95 love Mr. Palmer.  But in the book, he is barely there and, when he is, he is beyond surly and is not even remotely interesting.  I know that Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie were at Cambridge together, but is that an excuse to take a rather unappealing character and turn him into an appealing one?  After re-reading the book and seeing all of the other adaptations out there, I can honestly say that I don’t think it is.

After the mechanic, I took myself to see A Single Man.  There were 3 of us in the theater, me and 2 other women from the New York area.  We all loved it.  The cinematography was particularly striking — I found it interesting that all of George’s happy memories are in brilliant color, but his day-to-day life and his bittersweet (and even sad memories) are in sepia.  It worked very well and I believe that Colin Firth deserves his Oscar nomination.  I’ve seen him in some absolute trash (A Thousand Acres, anyone?) and I’ve seen him be brilliant (Conspiracy) but he’s really surpassed himself here.  I don’t really care about the Oscars (trite, revisionist garbage like Titanic is the best picture of the year?  I think not.) but I do hope he wins this year.  The story was intriguing, the ending took me by surprise, and Firth gave the performance of a lifetime.

When this film came out back in 1994, I fully intended to go see it.  Alas, it was not to be, and I did not get around to seeing it until this past Friday evening.  It was adorable.

Princess Caraboo is a highly fictionalized take on a true story, that of one Mary Baker, a cobbler’s daughter from Devonshire who fooled the rich and powerful in early 19th-century England.  In the film, she was a servant girl (played by Phoebe Cates) who made up her own language and allowed Bristol society to believe that she was a princess from an island nation in the South Pacific.  The film shows her dancing with the Prince Regent and falling in love with a reporter (played by Stephen Rea).  According to this article on the hoax from the BBC, neither of these actually happened.

Regardless of the departures from fact, the movie is highly entertaining and has a wonderful cast.  Jim Broadbent is Mr. Worrall, Princess Caraboo’s host; Roger Lloyd-Pack (Owen from The Vicar of Dibley) plays a local magistrate who is also Mr. Worrall’s business partner; Kevin Kline plays Frixos, the Worralls’ Greek-born butler; John Lithgow is Mr. Wilkinson, the Oxford don who tries to figure out where Caraboo comes from; and Anna Chancellor (probably best known as “Duckface” from Four Weddings and a Funeral, but who also played Miss Bingley in the 1995 version of P&P) plays Mrs. Peake, Mary Baker’s former employer, who is the woman who “outs” Princess Caraboo as a fake.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable film and I’m glad I finally saw it.  Next in the Netflix queue is “Party Girl,” with the Queen of Indie movies, Parker Posey.

Yesterday, while waiting for Olympic hockey to start (Canada’s women destroyed Slovakia, 18-0), I watched a new favorite movie, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. I had seen it on the big screen back in New York and loved it so much that I bought it as soon as it came out on DVD.   My friend Karen, the proprietress of BookishNYC, recommended the book by Winifred Watson that the film is based on, and it’s just wonderful.  It’s been described as an adult fairy tale — in late 1930s London, a down-on-her-luck governess changes her life in one almost indescribable day.  She wangles her way into the employ of Delysia Lafosse, a nightclub singer with more than her share of man problems (all of them of her own making), and the fun begins.

Yes, the film is somewhat different from the book, but it is absolutely possible to love them both.  The film stars Frances McDormand as Miss Pettigrew, Amy Adams as Delysia, Ciarán Hinds as Joe, Shirley Henderson as Edythe, Mark Strong as Nick, Christina Cole as Charlotte (“the Rabbit”) Warren (she is so good at playing nasty pieces of work — check her out as Mrs. Elton in the new Emma) and Lee Pace as Michael.   In my own humble opinion, McDormand does a better job with the accent than Pace does, but Pace definitely gets an A for effort.

Read the book.  See the movie.  You will not regret either.  Now I need to find other books by Winifred Watson.  If her other books are as much fun as Miss Pettigrew then they are worth looking for.

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