Monday, June 9, 2014

"Only the Beautiful, Simple Things": Women Writers in Period Cinema

In period drama, the theme of the young woman writer learning her craft is a popular one, largely because it's one of the most common themes of popular girls' fiction, a genre that has invited film adaptations since the beginning of cinema. Little Women (1933, 1949, 1994) is the most obvious example and has influenced nearly every other such cinematic narrative featuring a young woman with literary aspirations. In all adaptations, Professor Bhaer exhorts Jo to write "from the depths of your soul;" though his actual words are less professorial in the 1994 version, he essentially tells her to write what she knows, "the beautiful, simple things that I understand now." This idea of a male figure instructing the young woman to write of beautiful, simple things is certainly rooted in Louisa May Alcott's novel, but it is even more pronounced in the films. Jo's development as a writer takes her from writing sensational gothic stories (a genre that Alcott relished and to which she contributed fabulous work, including A Long Fatal Love Chase) to essentially writing a memoir of her childhood in tribute to her sister Beth. This same literary arc is repeated in Kevin Sullivan's Anne of Avonlea a.k.a. Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel (1987), although it is not present in L. M. Montgomery's novels.

In Anne of Avonlea, it is Gilbert Blythe (and to a lesser extent Marilla Cuthbert and Rachel Lynde) who advises Anne to write about life in Avonlea, that is, the beautiful, simple things that she knows. In the novels, Montgomery does have Anne writing her Tennysonian romantic fantasies, but Anne never really rejects this form of writing and eventually relegates it to a mere hobby. In the film however, Anne learns Jo March's lesson and chooses to write a fictionalized account of Avonlea, which is duly published and dedicated to Gilbert. This plot is handled convincingly within the framework of the Sullivan adaptation, but it is a decidedly cinematic construct, one that panders to modern standards, giving Anne a profession and thereby allowing her to conform to our current standards of a good role model (I critiqued this change on feminist grounds a month ago). In all of these films, women's writing is defined as ideally personal, emotional, and simple, as well as autobiographical.

This is true even in the brilliant feminist film, My Brilliant Career (1979), in which Sybylla's novel is once again a veiled adaptation of her own life and her development as a writer, though happily in this case she is not "inspired" by a hovering male figure. Interestingly, in one of the oldest iterations of this story, Daddy Long Legs (1919), adapted from the novel by Jean Webster, the heroine Judy, though she does indeed write a fictionalization of her brutal experiences growing up in an orphanage, does not have a male figure spurring her on to write. Rather, her writing is a sign of her independence - financial, professional, and psychological - from the men in her life, though she naturally succumbs to a matrimonial fate.

In the novels from which all of the above films are adapted, the young heroines all have literary ambitions and attempt to publish their work, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. But the trope of the young woman writer in period pieces has become a means of mitigating the currently less acceptable qualities of the heroines of classic literature. In the abysmal adaptation Mansfield Park (1999), the character of Fanny Price is a writer, deeply influenced by her (male) cousin's encouragement, in opposition to Austen's characterization of her as a retiring, modest, frail woman of upstanding moral character. The choice to give Fanny a vocation as a writer panders to our modern ideals of womanhood. Though she cannot be given a profession without collapsing the (admittedly already ramshackle) adaptation of Austen's plot, Fanny the writer is automatically made into a more modern woman because she is attempting to voice her opinions, feelings, and thoughts - something Austen's Fanny would never dare do.

When the writer is a historical figure, the role that writing takes in her life tends to be somewhat less confined to the autobiographical and personal - after all there is actual published work to draw upon - but the emphasis is almost always placed upon the work that most intimately reflects her personal life, particularly her romantic life. In The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), Elizabeth Barrett is a newly established poetess when she meets her future husband and fellow poet Robert Browning, but of her substantial oeuvre, the emphasis is placed on her "Sonnets from the Portuguese," her brilliant and gorgeous - and also highly autobiographical - cycle of love sonnets, rather than on, say, her equally brilliant "Aurora Leigh," which in blank verse narrates the life of a young woman who also aspires to be a great writer in the tradition of Shakespeare. In Out of Africa (1985), Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen writes only peripherally about her romance with Denys Finch Hatton, focusing instead on the agricultural developments on her farm, her experience of the Kikuyu and Masai cultures and her relationships with native Africans, and the beauty of the extraordinary African landscapes. Although the film includes many of the experiences described in the book, Blixen's romantic life is undoubtedly emphasized over her identity as a storyteller and eventual author.

In the end, the salient feature of all of these heroines' stories is a central romance. I would argue that this is a result of the conventions of the period drama, which tend above all to stress the romantic over every other aspect of life, despite the fact that much of the literature that these films are based on emphasizes decidedly different themes, from moral development to parental and sibling relationships, cross-cultural exchange, and politics of every stripe. Even in the case of a period film in which the writer and protagonist is male, as in Jane Campion's Bright Star (2009), the romantic tends to be stressed over the literary. But, when one contrasts Keats in Bright Star with the female heroines listed above, one notices some striking differences.

First of all, Keats is presented as a fully fledged, published, (and deeply misunderstood) artist (as is Robert Browning in The Barretts of Wimpole Street), while the women, even including Karen Blixen, are developing writers, learning their craft rather than practicing it, in need of advice and counsel, which is usually provided by men. Secondly, Keats is not at all restricted to the autobiographical and personal. Though much of his work featured in the film, particularly "Bright Star," is directly linked to his romance with Fanny Brawn, his poetry is not confined to the autobiographical, anymore than it is confined to the beautiful and simple. Thus, women writers in period dramas are rewarded with success when they plumb the depths of their souls, making personal revelations and describing the beauty and simplicity of their domestic lives, whether they are emancipated and living in the Australian outback or African plains, or confined to the homes of their parents awaiting the proper suitor. Male writers, on the other hand, are artists - they may love, but they do not depend on the revelation of the personal for their success. We are still lacking portrayals of women as creative artists who need not confine themselves to work that reflects "the beautiful, simple things."

All that being said, I highly recommend the films I have discussed, with the exception of the silly and self-indulgent Mansfield Park.

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