Archive for August, 2010

One turned white, the other red…but which is which?

IN preparation for beginning to teach Pride and Prejudice this Friday, I’ve been rereading the novel (for probably the hundredth time), but one of the joys of teaching Austen is re-discovering the magic of the stories with the students–of despising and loving Darcy by turns; of being captivated by Frank along with Emma every single time even though we know he’s something of a rattle. But I digress. What struck me today while reading was the scene depicting that first encounter between Darcy and Wickham–particularly Austen’s description of their facial expressions; quite simply, “one turned white, the other red”, but it’s left to the reader to decide which color is attributed to which character. There’s been some recent work on the significance of the blush or “coloring” in Austen’s novels and other nineteenth-century fiction as well, but such discussions are, at least to my knowledge, relegated primarily to the consideration of female characters. In this case, if the whiteness signifies anger or fury–surely it would be Darcy who would justifiably betray such emotion; then again, he might have reddened with indignation. Contrarily, Wickham might have blanched with fear of Darcy or, perhaps,of potential public disgrace; the former would be more likely since such exposure would implicate Georgiana as well–and Darcy is nothing if not conscious of preserving family pride and his sister’s reputation. Then too, Wickham might redden with embarrassment or shame–also a highly probable reaction.
This seems hardly worth noting, except for the fact that on the simplest level, it reflects Austen’s frequent tendancy to give us little information respecting the physical characteristics of her characters. We’re rarely given detailed descriptions of what her characters “look like”, which on the one hand can be irritating to a reader and on the other encourages us to exercise our own powers of imagination.
It’s the main reason why I’m both amused and baffled by Colin Firth’s off-hand comment that he does not, in fact, look anything like Darcy–for all we know, he might. True, Darcy is described (though in broad strokes) as being strikingly handsome, and Colin’s appearance is traditionally described as nutral, though certainly not without attraction. If anything, we can probably conjecture that he’s a bit shorter than Darcy, though since all we know about Darcy’s height is that he’s taller than Bingley, there again, much is left to imagination.
But to return to the original question that sparked this rather unsystematic analysis: the only logical explanation I can think of at present–and admittedly I haven’t given it much thought–is that attributing those facial expressions to one or the other man would probably have revealed or hinted at details in their relationship to one another that Austen wants to withhold from us until later.


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True Believer by Nicholas Sparks

After reading /True believer/, I remember why I always choose to read Nicholas Sparks novels during the summertime–they’re some of the only novels I can read and still put my brain on autopilot. They’re like reading a fill-in-the-blank story in a children’s reading workbook.

Meet Jeremy Marsh, New York Journalist who travels to Boon Creek North Carolina to investigate the source of ghostly lights in the local semetary. Meet Lexie Darnelle, Boon Creek’s librarian who loves her town, loves her family, loves her life, and doesn’t really need a man like Jeremy Marsh to fall back on…until he suddenly appears in Boon Creek on this fateful weekend. If you’ve ever read a Nicholas Sparks novel, you can fill in the rest without too much ingenuity.

Truthfully, the one thing I can say for Nicholas Sparks is that while he predictably fills the narrative necessity of our need to read about characters who inevitably wind up in bed together, he adds to that a more textured exploration of the comfort level that we establish in loving relationships and, I think, calls us to question whether or not this isn’t what we really want–the making dinner together in the kitchen, the comfortable, warm weight of someone’s presence on the opposite end of the couch, the soft turning of pages in the bedroom as two people, reading different books, are united in an otherwise solitary activity. In all honesty though, and I don’t say this out of any sense of prudishness, I’d love to see a novel (with the possible exception of /A Walk to Remember/) in which the hero and heroine don’t wind up in bed with one another, because I still get the feeling that having characters sleep with one another after they’ve just met discredits the deeper message he’s trying to convey about human relationships–especially romantic ones. I recall recently listening to an interview on NPR with Colin Firth about his role in “A Single Man,” and one of the things he talked about that I think really encapsulates my point is this issue that anyone can have a night of passion, but it takes months, often years, to develop a true sense of comfort with another person–something that can’t be replaced by simply having sex with someone else–and this is why we feel the loss of a significant other (usually, but not necessarily through death) so keenly) because we know that something we’ve possibly spent a lifetime building is susuddenly no longer there–the foundation for our existance seems to have been pulled from underneath our feet. WE know somewhere inside of ourselves rationally that we might be able to rebuild this with someone else, but it won’t ever look or feel precisely the same–how can it?

Of  course, my own views about intimacy color my reading of the story. Then again, maybe Sparks’s novels are just meant to be an escape artist’s dream come true, in which case I should just enjoy the story.

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BBC1’s Sherlock

This past week I had the opportunity to view the first season of BBC1’s new series “Sherlock”, which, in short, features everyone’s favorite consulting detective and his faithful sidekick in the 21st century. As a Victorianist, I was intrigued about how this would work, but on a completely non-academic note, delicious Britishness is always welcome to a starved American anglophile.

Having only watched each episode once (so far), my comments are pretty generalized, sprinkled with some rather interesting observations made during the shows with the friend who introduced me to the series. For me, at least, the plots of the cases, though certainly interesting, were secondary to the unfolding relationship between Sherlock and John; the writers make no secret of the fact that they’re teasing out an oft-overlooked romantic and/or homoerotic element of this friendship, and it is, I think, done tastefully (deliciously so). One can certainly ignore the hints, but they’re there if you choose to observe them (i.e. the suggestive addressing each other by their first names–something that never occurs in the original stories).

I definitely want to watch each episode again before I can really draw my conclusions, but I felt the need to put my initial reaction in writing. Generally speaking, what intrigued me most was the way that the series calls into question the way that we categorise the relationship between John and Sherlock: are they lovers, or is it a “romantic friendship”? (Tangentially, it’s delicious that the series is addressing something so taboo for the Victorians). I think the initial response would be to read the homoerotic subtext, and while one could certainly do so, this would imply that there can’t be romance between two men, not to mention our difficulty in separating the dominant/submissive roles in a relationship from gender–the notion that dominance is characteristic of the male in a relationship, and submissiveness characteristic of the female. Sherlock is undoubtedly the dominant one in the relationship, and even I found myself slipping and referring to him as “masculine” and John as “feminine” because it’s just a knee-jerk reaction; without meaning to, I automatically tried to analyze their relationship and make sense of it within a heteronormative framework. In general, we can’t seem to wrap our minds around the possibility that dominant and submissive roles can exist independently of gender roles.

I was also pleasantly surprised to find that the contemporary setting works quite well, mostly I think because there’s no time-travel involved; it’s as if the characters were created to exist in the 21st century, which still takes considerable imagination and creativity to pull off. Admittedly though, since I grew up on the original stories, there were several jarring moments: seeing the London streets full of cars, Sherlock comunicating via text rather than employing the irregulars–though he does use them in the third episode because, despite the advancements we’ve made in technology, the boys are still the most efficient and unobtrusive way to have ears and eyes all over the city.

In short, it’s an innovative way to make the stories accessible to a 21st century audiance, and it’s an interesting coincidence that Doyle’s Dr. Watson is a military man who’s served in, of all places, Afghanistan. Highlighting that element of the original character is something that would certainly resonate with the viewing audience.

I’m certainly going to need to watch each of the three episodes again before writing up a more detailed reaction, but my appetite has certainly been wet, and I’ll be curious to see how the American audience will respond when it airs here in October.

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