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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The ultra-romantic dialog Jane Austen DIDN’T write—and Emma Thompson’s shocking source for it!

 “Forget witty chat up lines, when it comes to the language of love and wooing the fairer sex, it appears men would do well to follow in the footsteps of Jane Austen. The words
'My heart is, and always will be, yours'
from her classic novel Sense And Sensibility have been voted the most romantic by thousands of women. They are uttered by Edward Ferrars (played by Hugh Grant) to Elinor Dashwood (played by Emma Thompson) in director Ang Lee's 1995 screen version of Austen's classic novel. The line, which is from Miss Thompson's Oscar-winning screenplay, was the top choice of 2,000 British women who were polled for the TV channel Drama to discover the most romantic line from literature, film and TV drama.
It gained 16 per cent of the vote…” END QUOTE

One key reason why Emma Thompson won her richly-deserved Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Sense & Sensibility was her judicious addition of memorable dialog, like “My heart is, and always will be, yours”,  to dramatize scenes Jane Austen merely narrated. But, as I will reveal by the end of this post, there is a shocking apparent source for that most romantic of lines, which, once identified, has the disconcerting effect of popping that romantic balloon.

I’ll set the stage for my discovery, by first presenting another example of Thompson’s screenwriting, one with which some Janeites may already be familiar – it comes when Willoughby woos (and wows) Marianne with literature. Here’s how Austen describes the action in the novel:

“...[Marianne] proceeded to question [Willoughby] on the subject of books; her favourite authors were brought forward and dwelt upon with so rapturous a delight, that any young man of five and twenty must have been insensible indeed, not to become an immediate convert to the excellence of such works, however disregarded before. Their taste was strikingly alike. The same books, the same passages were idolized by each—or if any difference appeared, any objection arose, it lasted no longer than till the force of her arguments and the brightness of her eyes could be displayed. He acquiesced in all her decisions, caught all her enthusiasm; and long before his visit concluded, they conversed with the familiarity of a long-established acquaintance….”

And now, see below how Thompson seized the narrative moment, and ratcheted the emotion up, by bringing to bear some of Shakespeare’s most romantic poetry:

WILLOUGHBY sees a book lying on MARIANNE's footstool, picks it up and--to her great delight--
sits down on the stool at her feet.
WILLOUGHBY: Who is reading Shakespeare's sonnets?
Everyone answers at once.
MARIANNE/ELINOR/MRS DASHWOOD   I am. / We all are. / Marianne.
MRS DASHWOOD:  Marianne has been reading them out to us.
WILLOUGHBY:  Which are your favourites?
It is a general question but MARIANNE gaily commandeers it.
MARIANNE:  Without a doubt, mine is 116.
WILLOUGHBY:  Let me not to the marriage of true minds  Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,  Or bends with the remover to remove  ----then how does it go?
MARIANNE:   'O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark.'
WILLOUGHBY joins in the line halfway through and continues. ELINOR and MRS DASHWOOD exchange glances. Clearly, their contribution to this conversation will be minimal.
WILLOUGHBY:  'That looks on storms'  --or is it tempests? Let me find it.
WILLOUGHBY gets out a tiny leatherbound book.
WILLOUGHBY:  It is strange you should be reading them--for, look, I carry this with me always.
It is a miniature copy of the sonnets. MARIANNE is delighted, and, mutually astonished at this piece of synchronicity, they proceed to look up other favourites, chatting as though they were already intimates.

Thompson’s choice of that specific sonnet cannot be accidental, since, a scant few chapters later, it is the abrupt alteration in Willoughby, changing from virtually engaged to Marianne, to suddenly and inexplicably riding off, never to return, thereby eventually breaking Marianne’s heart.

Now shift to much later in the action, when Thompson subtly presents the bookend to that Shakespearean overlay, when we see her, again, performing alchemy on a passage of Austenian narration…
“Two delightful twilight walks on the third and fourth evenings of her being there, not merely on the dry gravel of the shrubbery, but all over the grounds, and especially in the most distant parts of them, where there was something more of wildness than in the rest, where the trees were the oldest, and the grass was the longest and wettest, had—assisted by the still greater imprudence of sitting in her wet shoes and stockings—given Marianne a cold so violent as, though for a day or two trifled with or denied, would force itself by increasing ailments on the concern of every body, and the notice of herself. Prescriptions poured in from all quarters, and as usual, were all declined. Though heavy and feverish, with a pain in her limbs, and a cough, and a sore throat, a good night's rest was to cure her entirely; and it was with difficulty that Elinor prevailed on her, when she went to bed, to try one or two of the simplest of the remedies. “ turning it into onscreen magic, with dark irony echoing, in a minor key, Marianne’s pre-alteration Edenesque romantic rapture, as the shaken Marianne stumbles through a tempest of tall grass and taller grief:
 MARIANNE has reached the top. Soaked to the skin, she stands with the storm raging around her, staring at the spires of Combe Magna, the place that would have been her home. Rain streaks her face and the wind whips her hair about her.  Through frozen lips she whispers:
MARIANNE:  Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds Or bends with the remover to remove: O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark That looks on tempests and is never shaken...

But there’s even more to Thompson’s erudition and deep insight into Austen’s shadows than she has heretofore been given credit for. The archives of the Janeites group confirms to me what I dimly recalled, which is that nearly exactly a decade ago, I wrote the following:
“Emma Thompson…was not simply fabricating that Shakespearean sonnet allusion out of her own imagination, but was instead responding to a very strong, if subliminal, prompting from JA herself!  I argue that by the repetition, in appropriate context, of the usage of the word "alteration" in S&S (a repetition far in excess of that in any of the other 5 novels), JA meant for the reader who was versed in Shakespeare to recognize, whether consciously or subconsciously, the invocation of that particular sonnet, and to investigate further. …in general, the Sonnets (to say nothing of Shakespeare's plays) are obsessed with the question of the constancy and durability of love. The word "alteration" was JA's way of pointing to this Sonnet in particular. ….”

In twice borrowing those lines from Sonnet 116, Thompson also picks up on the numerous references to the hurtful “alteration” in Willoughby’s behavior toward Marianne, and the inevitable bad “alterations” in Marianne (in looks, mood, and health). Thompson has picked up on this Shakespearean subtext implicit in S&S, and deployed it subtly to great emotional effect. She highlights the inconstancy of Willoughby, whose passionate love for Marianne may remain constant, but whose behavior toward her alters for the worse, with near fatal consequences for the passionate, vulnerable, young heroine.

And today, with the deeper insight gained by my research during the past decade, I see a further ironic twist within Thompson’s allusive brilliance. The word “alteration” is a two-edged sword, romantically speaking, in Sense & Sensibility. I.e., Willoughby’s not the only romeo who gives signs of deep romantic attachment, but then inexplicably disappears for a long stretch, leaving his supposed beloved grasping for answers.  Of course I’m referring to Edward’s “alteration” vis a vis Elinor, whose emotional distress is doubled when Lucy shows up and sadistically confides in Elinor as to Edward’s and Lucy’s longstanding secret engagement!

Which leads me to my main point today---S&S’s climax---when Edward and Elinor eventually marry. It is, along with the union of Edmund to Fanny in Mansfield Park, less than satisfying, to say the least. In these two dark novels, neither Edmund nor Edward fires the romantic heart and imagination the way Henry, Darcy, Knightley, and Wentworth do. These two low-key Mister E’s are just like the anti-heroes of Shakespeare’s two anti-romantic comedies, Angelo (Measure for Measure) and Bertram (All’s Well That Ends Well)—no coincidence there. But that is in stark contrast to the ultra-romantic ending of Thompson’s Sense & Sensibility, which, as we see from that literary poll, snags first place! What a leap that is, as Thompson and Hugh Grant transform nebbish to heartthrob.

First, here’s the way Jane Austen wrote that climactic scene:
"I meant," said Elinor, taking up some work from the table, "to inquire for Mrs. EDWARD Ferrars."
She dared not look up;—but her mother and Marianne both turned their eyes on him. He coloured, seemed perplexed, looked doubtingly, and, after some hesitation, said,—  "Perhaps you mean—my brother—you mean Mrs.—Mrs. ROBERT Ferrars."
"Mrs. Robert Ferrars!"—was repeated by Marianne and her mother in an accent of the utmost amazement; —and though Elinor could not speak, even HER eyes were fixed on him with the same impatient wonder. He rose from his seat, and walked to the window, apparently from not knowing what to do; took up a pair of scissors that lay there, and while spoiling both them and their sheath by cutting the latter to pieces as he spoke, said, in a hurried voice,  "Perhaps you do not know—you may not have heard that my brother is lately married to—to the youngest—to Miss Lucy Steele."
His words were echoed with unspeakable astonishment by all but Elinor, who sat with her head leaning over her work, in a state of such agitation as made her hardly know where she was.
"Yes," said he, "they were married last week, and are now at Dawlish."
Elinor could sit it no longer. She almost ran out of the room, and as soon as the door was closed, burst into tears of joy, which at first she thought would never cease. Edward, who had till then looked any where, rather than at her, saw her hurry away, and perhaps saw—or even heard, her emotion; for immediately afterwards he fell into a reverie, which no remarks, no inquiries, no affectionate address of Mrs. Dashwood could penetrate, and at last, without saying a word, quitted the room, and walked out towards the village—leaving the others in the greatest astonishment and perplexity on a change in his situation, so wonderful and so sudden;—a perplexity which they had no means of lessening but by their own conjectures.
Unaccountable, however, as the circumstances of his release might appear to the whole family, it was certain that Edward was free; and to what purpose that freedom would be employed was easily pre-determined by all;—for after experiencing the blessings of ONE imprudent engagement, contracted without his mother's consent, as he had already done for more than four years, nothing less could be expected of him in the failure of THAT, than the immediate contraction of another.  His errand at Barton, in fact, was a simple one. It was only to ask Elinor to marry him;—and considering that he was not altogether inexperienced in such a question, it might be strange that he should feel so uncomfortable in the present case as he really did, so much in need of encouragement and fresh air.
How soon he had walked himself into the proper resolution, however, how soon an opportunity of exercising it occurred, in what manner he expressed himself, and how he was received, need not be particularly told. This only need be said;—that when they all sat down to table at four o'clock, about three hours after his arrival, he had secured his lady, engaged her mother's consent, and was not only in the rapturous profession of the lover, but, in the reality of reason and truth, one of the happiest of men. His situation indeed was more than commonly joyful. He had more than the ordinary triumph of accepted love to swell his heart, and raise his spirits. He was released without any reproach to himself, from an entanglement which had long formed his misery, from a woman whom he had long ceased to love;—and elevated at once to that security with another, which he must have thought of almost with despair, as soon as he had learnt to consider it with desire. He was brought, not from doubt or suspense, but from misery to happiness;—and the change was openly spoken in such a genuine, flowing, grateful cheerfulness, as his friends had never witnessed in him before. His heart was now open to Elinor, all its weaknesses, all its errors confessed, and his first boyish attachment to Lucy treated with all the philosophic dignity of twenty-four…."

That’s hardly the stuff of high romance, which is why Thompson wrote this dialog, so dramatically (yes pun intended) different:

MRS DASHWOOD:  I meant to enquire after Mrs Edward Ferrars.
EDWARD colours. He hesitates.
EDWARD:  Then you have not heard--the news--I think you mean my brother--you mean Mrs Robert Ferrars.
They all stare at him in shock.
MRS DASHWOOD:  Mrs Robert Ferrars?
ELINOR has frozen. EDWARD rises and goes to the window.
EDWARD:  Yes. I received a letter from Miss Steele-or Mrs Ferrars, I should say- communicating the... the transfer of her affections to my brother Robert. They were much thrown together in London, I believe, and... and in view of the change in my circumstances, I felt it only fair that Miss Steele be released from our engagement. At any rate, they were married last week and are now in Plymouth.
ELINOR rises suddenly, EDWARD turns and they stand looking at one another.
ELINOR: Then you--are not married.
ELINOR bursts into tears. The shock of this emotional explosion stuns everyone for a second and then MARIANNE makes an executive decision. Wordlessly, she takes MARGARET's hand and leads her and MRS DASHWOOD out of the room…ELINOR cannot stop crying. EDWARD comes forward, very slowly.
EDWARD:  Elinor! I met Lucy when I was very young. Had I had an active profession, I should never have felt such an idle, foolish inclination. At Norland my behaviour was very wrong. But I convinced myself you felt only friendship for me and it was my heart alone that I was risking. I have come with no expectations. Only to profess, now that I am at liberty to do so, that my heart is and always will be yours.
ELINOR looks at him, her face streaked with tears of released emotion, of pain and of happiness.

And that’s where conventional analysis of the alteration of the ending of S&S would ordinarily end.

But because of my prior awareness of Thompson’s erudite covert allusion to Austen’s Shakespearean “alteration” subtext, I couldn’t resist a Google search of the phrase “is, and always will be, yours”, on a hunch that Thompson might just have had a secret source in mind for it as well. But I was unprepared for the happy shock of finding (in an 1809 edition of the Harleian Miscellany, a famous book which Austen might well have read while revising Elinor and Marianne into Sense & Sensibility) the following letter, from an infamous wooer to a famous wooee, who (rightly and tragically, as it turned out) doubted the constancy of his love. The time was nearly 300 years before JA published S&S, the bubonic plague was afoot, and fears of different kinds reigned supreme in the hearts of both sender and recipient:

“The uneasiness, my doubts about your health gave me, disturbed and frightened me extremely, and I should not have had any quiet without hearing a certain account. But now, since you have yet felt nothing, I hope it is with you as with us; for, when we were at Waltan, two ushers, two valets de chambre, and your brother, master-treasurer, fell ill, and are now quite well; and since we are returned to your house at Hondson, we have been perfectly well, God be praised and have not, at present, one sick person in the family; and, I think, if you would retire from the Surrey side, as we did, you would escape all danger. There is another thing that may comfort you, which is, that in truth in this distemper few or no women have been taken ill; and besides, no person of our court, and few elsewhere have died of it. For which reasons I beg you, my intirely beloved, not to frighten yourself, nor to be too uneasy at our absence. For, wherever I am, I am yours; and yet we must sometimes submit to our misfortunes; for, whoever will struggle against fate, is generally but so much the farther from gaining his end: wherefore, comfort yourself, and take courage, and make this misfortune as easy to you as you can; and I hope shortly to make you sing for joy of your recall. No more at present for lack of time, but that I wish you in my arms, that I might a little dispel your unreasonable thoughts. Written by the hand of him, who is, and always will be yours,
my H.A. Lovely.

The identity of the jittery lovebirds? None other than King Henry VIII and his mistress, Anne Boleyn!

Now, why would Emma Thompson choose, as the source for the most romantic line of screen dialog extant, the insincere words of the worst possible model for a constant male lover—a Bluebeard who went through wives like disposable razors, and had several of them murdered?

Upon initial consideration, it seems to me quite possible that Thompson was thereby reinforcing her prior subliminal message in the word “alteration”—that Edward, like Willoughby, was an inconstant man, and so irresolute a lover as to wind up married to Elinor almost by accident. Of course, it’s a giant leap from wussy suitor to Bluebeard---but I find it hard to believe that this apparent quotation is just a coincidence. I think instead that Thompson, in the great literary tradition of subtexters like both Shakespeare and Jane Austen, would just prefer not to explicitly reveal all her authorial secrets.

And finally…I also wonder if it is just a coincidence that, in Sense & Sensibility, we find the following details relating to familial succession, which correspond to details in the reign of Henry VIII:

ONE:  Henry Dashwood and Henry Tudor both:

a.       during life, sired four children on more than one wife;
b.      after death, left a questionable chain of succession among those children.

TWO: Brothers Edward and Robert Ferrars, and brothers Arthur and Henry Tudor, respectively, were both involved in disputed successions to the family birthright, and, as in Genesis, the younger of the two wound up with the prize.

THREE: Mrs. Palmer leaves in a panic to avoid her baby’s getting infected by Marianne’s putrid fever, just as Henry VIII, in his above-quoted letter to Anne Boleyn, begs her to do the same to avoid infection by the plague.

FOUR: Most intriguing of all, Lucy Steele is in many ways like Anne Boleyn—a mysterious resourceful young woman operating at the edges of a powerful family, who winds up married to Robert, the future “king” of the Ferrarses, after .

And I now wonder if there’s a connection between Lucy’s married name, Lucifer, and the very famous speech by Wolsey in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, which Henry Crawford may have recited to such great effect in Mansfield Park:

I’ill continue to explore the possibility that Thompson was once again plucking a jewel from the Shakespearean deep hidden beneath Austen’s text, and paying it a worthy, covert homage. Meanwhile I conclude in that same vein by quoting a speech by Marianne, which perhaps conceals in plain sight more remains of Henry VIII, famous dissolver of monasteries----a passage which is actually in the novel:

"When the weather is settled, and I have recovered my strength, we will take long walks together every day. We will walk to the farm at the edge of the down, and see how the children go on; we will walk to Sir John's new plantations at Barton CROSS, and the ABBEYland; and we will often go to the OLD RUINS OF THE PRIORY, and try to trace its foundations as far as we are told they once reached.”

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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