Friday, 30 December 2011

Emma two versions

A feature of television at Christmas is a congestion of times past for the landed gentry who live in fine country houses and this year was no exception with Emma and Mansfield Park, a Downton Abbey Christmas special and from Time to Time. I also include the Dickens Great Expectations.

I have been less of a Jane Austin fan than the Bronte sisters as her portrayals of the superficiality between the landed gentry leave me cold. Mansfield Park and Emma is the same story told with different principal characters in the sense that a man and a woman become close friends over a period of time and only later appreciate that they also wish to become adult lovers and because they are friends there is confidence that their love could be long lasting if not happy ever after.

I have not read Emma the 1815 comedy of manners among the genteel of Georgian Regency England and therefore have been guided by others about the authenticity and effectiveness of the 1996 version with Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role and Ewan McGregor and Greta Scacchi among the cast. A year before there had been a a USA set version called Clueless and last year an India film called Aisha. The television productions have been more faithfull to the original intentions with versions in 1948, a six part BBC serial in 1960 with another in 1972 and a four part version in 2009. In the same year as the Paltrow the BBC produced a single session film with Kate Beckinsale which should be the one to compare. By coincidence this film featured on ITV in the afternoon so my decision to watch the second part of the Harry Potter finale and then write about the series proved justified in more ways than I had anticipated. The Americans, NBC and CBS have produced three TV versions in addition and there have been seven stage production, including three musical versions.

Emma is an intelligent young women stuck in a world where she has too little to do other than gossip and match make about which she no talent. She is only twenty one so one has to make allowances for her youthful silliness. I am not sure if we learn when her mother died but with the marriages of her sister and her governess she lives alone in the country house with her father who leads his own life and therefore leaves Emma (Woodhouse) to enjoy the riding, the country walks, the picnics and dancing with her permitted circle of contemporaries. She enjoy the company of her father’s friend George Knightly unmarried and in his late thirties whose younger brother has married Emma’s older sister. They have five young children and prefers nuclear family life but indulges his wife’s enthusiasm for vacations and visitations. Something which she shares with her young sister who one predicts will follow in similar fashion.

Having decided that she is a good match maker Emma sets her sights on finding a husband for her friend Harriet Smith who is illegitimate, and raised locally and not part of the set until introduced by Emma. When a local farmer and his sister take an interest in Harriet, Emma does all she can to prevent a relationship developing and insists that the girl rejects the offer of marriage from Robert Martin and friendship of his sister because she believes the girl could do so much better.

She targets the new young Vicar Philip Elton but he first sets his sights on Emma and when Emma rejects him, he quickly marries another young woman from out of town because of her income of £10000 a year. Augusta but lacks the genteel qualities of her new circle and is written as pretentious and boastful and likes to have her own way. She struck me as very suitable for her husband who in the tradition of the Church of England is an ambitious man with only the trappings of Christianity lacking religious sincerity.
There are two other principal characters. The first Frank Churchill, the son by his previous marriage of Mr Weston who has married Emma’s governess of sixteen years and who acted as a substitute mother to Emma, exercising good influence but limited to having been a servant in the household. Frank has taken the name of the husband of Mr Weston’s sister who raised the boy has their own after the premature death of his mother. He was raised in Richmond in Yorkshire but becomes an immediate hit when he visits except for George who becomes jealous when Frank sets his sights on Emma. He appears to be good in his judgement when Frank returns briefly to London for the purpose of getting a haircut.

The other principal character is Jane Fairfax who has been raised by her grandmother and a spinster aunt to be a spirited and sensible young woman of musical and social talents but because she is without fortune to make an appropriate marriage she appears destined to become a governess. She and Frank Churchill became acquainted while holiday in Dorset and where he executed a rescue of the young woman when out on a boat trip which ended in heavy winds and seas.

Frank arranges a dance at the local Inn at which Mr Elton declines to dance with Harriet Smith who has to sit and watch the others enjoys themselves. Mr Knightley steps in. When Emma and Harriet and walking to her home one day they are accosted by gypsies in one version for their purses and by begging children in another. Harriet who falls to the ground is rescued by Frank Churchill and Emma gets her wires crossed and believes the girl has become infatuated with Frank who appears to be taking an interest in her when in fact she is taken with George Knightley.

There is a strawberry picking tea party at the home of Mr Knightly who owns the great house and estate in the areas. Mrs Elton says he should have asked her to organise the event but he puts her down saying that this will be the responsibility of his wife when he finds her but he remains in control until he does. I was struck by the volume of perfect strawberries on show in the British film version which does not reflect the size of the beds in the kitchen garden where they picks those they plan to take home.

There is a significant difference between the two films in the scale of the picnic to Box Hill which remains an important visitor attraction to this day and which I visited as a child in an extended family outing by bus. I revisited a few years ago and it is possible to park the car at the top of the film. In the British version film the party includes footman, cooks and maids in their uniforms who transport screens and comfortable chairs as well as setting a table with a full buffet style meal displayed. The Paltrow version the picnic is modest by comparison.

This is a pivotal event because Emma humiliates the spinster aunt of Miss Fairfax and is severely reprimanded by George who is disgusted and disappointed her behaviour and she suitable chastened and remorseful. However the crunch event is when the new arrives that with the death of his aunt Frank Churchill has announced that he and Miss Fairfax are engaged. They were secretly engaged after meeting during the Dorset holiday but could not disclose further because of the anticipated disapproval of the aunt. With her death the relationship can be acknowledged. Because Mr Knightly had made his carriage available to Miss Fairfax her grand mother and aunt for a musical evening, Emma had thought he was interested in the young woman at one point and that it was George who had provided the sister with a piano sp Miss Fairfax who is considered an excellent pianist and singer could play. In fact it was Frank Churchill who arranged the delivery on his supposed mission for a haircut in London. George returns home and visits Emma as soon as he learns of Frank’s deception. The scene leads the two disclosing their long term affection for each other. Meanwhile Harriet had regained contact with the farmer Martin and his sisters and they are also to be married. The film ends with a joint wedding.

Apart from her attractive facial features and body it is difficult to see what George sees in Emma It can be argued that at least Emma does not spend all her time seeking a partner or pursuing a fortune. However she must be condemned for the attachment to class and belief in her superiority over others. She contributes nothing to humanity. Miss Paltrow is excellent without a trace of an American accent and I preferred hersion to that of Kate Beckinsale. Mark String is excellent as Knightly and Bernard Hepton as Emma’s father in the latter.

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