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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Sally Rooney's Normal People (Episode 8) winks broadly at Jane Austen's Emma (Donwell Abbey episode)

My wife and I have watched 3/4 of Normal People, the new miniseries on Hulu, and will watch the rest by the end of this weekend. We have found it to live up to all the buzz, and then some – it is remarkable and, indeed, Austenesque, in its understated subtle power.

I posted a few years ago about Sally Rooney when I first heard about her, particularly the oft-repeated suggestion that she was a 21st century Jane Austen, in her very small scale focus on complicated romantic relationships which includes crucial family and socioeconomic context. Her characters instantly come alive through their dialog.

Rooney and a collaborator have now adapted her novel for TV, and it is brilliantly realized, and makes for compelling watching. There is a fair amount of sex, which some have objected to, but I think it is clearly the opposite of exploitative – all the sex is all tastefully portrayed with great feminism-informed sensitivity. Sex and love are inextricably interwoven in this story, as it is in in real life.

There is an explicit mention of a scene in Emma, which comes up during a discussion in a college English seminar. But also, I see a very sly wink to the hardcore Janeite, in another scene --without any spoilers, there is an evocation, which fits very well with the arc of the storyline, of the following passage in the Donwell Abbey scene in Emma:

“The whole party were assembled, excepting Frank Churchill, who was expected every moment from Richmond; and Mrs. Elton, in all her apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way in gathering, accepting, or talking—strawberries, and only strawberries, could now be thought or spoken of.—“The best fruit in England—every body's favourite—always wholesome.—These the finest beds and finest sorts.—Delightful to gather for one's self—the only way of really enjoying them.—Morning decidedly the best time—never tired—every sort good—hautboy infinitely superior—no comparison—the others hardly eatable—hautboys very scarce—Chili preferred—white wood finest flavour of all—price of strawberries in London—abundance about Bristol—Maple Grove—cultivation—beds when to be renewed—gardeners thinking exactly different—no general rule—gardeners never to be put out of their way—delicious fruit—only too rich to be eaten much of—inferior to cherries—currants more refreshing—only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping—glaring sun—tired to death—could bear it no longer—must go and sit in the shade.”
...It was hot; and after walking some time over the gardens in a scattered, dispersed way, scarcely any three together, they insensibly followed one another to the delicious shade of a broad short avenue of limes, which stretching beyond the garden at an equal distance from the river, seemed the finish of the pleasure grounds.—It led to nothing; nothing but a view at the end over a low stone wall with high pillars, which seemed intended, in their erection, to give the appearance of an approach to the house, which never had been there. Disputable, however, as might be the taste of such a termination, it was in itself a charming walk, and the view which closed it extremely pretty.—The considerable slope, at nearly the foot of which the Abbey stood, gradually acquired a steeper form beyond its grounds; and at half a mile distant was a bank of considerable abruptness and grandeur, well clothed with wood;—and at the bottom of this bank, favourably placed and sheltered, rose the Abbey Mill Farm, with meadows in front, and the river making a close and handsome curve around it.
It was a sweet view—sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive.” “

Here is a screenshot of that moment in Normal People, at the very beginning of Episode 8, do you see the object which is mentioned in the above passge in Emma? 

When you see Episode 8, think about how the rest of that Episode relates to the Donwell Abbey episode in Emma:

Otherwise, I have the sense that another, perhaps improbable touchstone for Normal People is the recent sexploitation series of Fifty Shades of Grey novels and films. But unlike Rooney’s clearly great admiration for Austen, I think Rooney decided to, in effect, satirize Fifty Shades of Grey through an Austenian lens, and replace E.L. James’s absurd, unrealistic, poorly acted, and poorly written characters with compelling characters closely observed. Rooney’s sex scenes are among the most powerful scenes in the miniseries, because of the way the characterizations are convincingly furthered in them, not in any way for purposes of titillation.

So, don’t miss the Normal People miniseries; and I have already placed an order for the novel, so I can read it, too – I bet you will also want to do so!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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