A Room With a View, by E. M. Forster

Every once in a while, I turn back to a book that I enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy at all) in my  early teenage years, only to find that my experience of the book has completely changed.

So it was with A Room With a View. While I didn’t read the book until I was about 16, I believe I must have first watched the film when I was about 10 (and this is one of those instances where the film is astonishingly loyal to the book).

A Room With a View

This was the first film I saw Helena Bonham-Carter in, which has made her subsequent films quite startling.

When I first watched and read A Room with a View, it was in the same sort of way that I generally read classic romances (a dreadful habit I need to get out of): as a character study with a love story in it. I think that A Room with a View  can still definitely be read in this way – after all, there are so  many interesting characters in this novel.

However, this is the first time I have read the book, and felt something deeper in it – understood a sort of moral standing within it, I mean, which can definitely be applied to one’s own life. In this instance, the novel suggests a way of living that is true to yourself, and true to decency, while disregarding the niceties of society.

The View

The story follows Lucy Honeychurch, a young woman who is travelling in Europe with her poor older cousin, Miss Charlotte Bartlett. The two of them are shocked to meet two men in their Pensione in Florence who not only come from the working class, but also disregard tact – when they mention dissatisfaction with the room they’ve been given, the men (Mr Emerson and his son George), immediately offer them their own room in exchange. Note: this is considered inappropriate because it leaves the two women beholden to strange men.

While they are in Florence, Lucy finds herself in a number of situations which challenge her ideas of how to behave; she is separated from her chaperone while exploring the city, witnesses a murder, and finally finds herself being kissed by George, in a field above Florence. Charlotte convinces her that George views this as an exploit, and they leave.

In the second part of the book, Lucy returns home with her new fiance Cecil (in the film, played by Daniel Day-Lewis).

Cecil

This was also the first film I saw Daniel Day Lewis in – which made all his other film roles even more of a shock than those of Helena Bonham-Carter.

Cecil is a bit of a snob – he looks down on her friends and family as being too middle-class, closed-off, and not interested enough in the higher things of life (such as art and music). He is actually a fascinating character: he doesn’t become a villain at any point, when it would be very easy to make him one. Nor is he particularly ridiculous. His one fault is that he is a restraining influence on Lucy, wanting her to fit into a particular mould, mix with particular people and live in a particular way.

I will leave the ending to you to discover, but I will say that this is a wonderful book, both as a character study of Edwardian society, and as a way of understanding a radical lifestyle lived in an unobtrusive manner. It is well worth reading, and also very short. Also, the film is lovely.

The Painted Veil, by W. Somerset Maugham

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. One of my favourite films is the adaptation made of it in 2006, which is both beautiful and heartbreaking. For years, however, I’ve been under the impression that I would really dislike the novel. The film has a sort of slow, ponderous beauty to it which I thought might be stodgy and dry when written down.

Like, this level of awkwardness, written down

Like, this level of awkwardness, written down

Oh, how wrong I was.

But to get to the matter of the story. It is the tale of a youngish woman in the 1920s who, realising that she is running out of time to make a successful marriage, marries a government bacteriologist who works in Hong Kong. He loves her, but is incredibly awkward and shy, and we never really get to grips with what he is thinking.

Being bored, she has an affair with a far more attractive man. Her husband finds out and makes her a deal: either he will divorce her (which would have been a massive disgrace in those days), or she can come with him to Mei-tan-fu, a part of mainland China which is suffering from cholera. She chooses to go with him.

At this stage the film and novel somewhat get away from each other: in the first, she undertakes work with the local nuns and *SPOILERS* falls in love with her husband, in the second she undertakes work with the local nuns and *SPOILERS* begins to find a sense of herself which is independent from men and from what her mother has told her. She also does not fall back in love with her husband, seeing him until the end as somewhat malevollant.

I think Maugham might be the grimmest-looking author I've put on this blog.

I think Maugham might be the grimmest-looking author I’ve put on this blog.

Maugham (who, by the way, seems to have had an amazing life, being first a doctor, then a novelist, an ambulance driver in WWI, and a spy), writes at the beginning of the book that the story is based on another story which he learned from a young woman called Ersilia who was teaching him Italian. There are some lines in Dante’s Purgatorio which Ersilia told him related to Pia, a gentlewoman of Siena whose husband suspected her of adultery and who took her to his castle in the Maremma where he was sure she would die of the noxious vapours (when she did not, he threw her out of a window). Sometimes the inspiration which authors get for their stories is really fascinating, and while it seems that Maugham’s book fits more closely with his original inspiration I think that the film is still well worth watching. Nevertheless, and surprisingly to me, I think I prefer the novel to the film.

Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare

Last night, I sat down to watch the new film version of Much Ado About Nothing, which was directed by Joss Whedon. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect – here is one of my favourite directors, directing my favourite Shakespeare play, and yet as far as I have seen, it has not received the best ratings. The ratings are not the worst, to be sure, but at three and a half stars, I feel that I should be able to expect more from Mr Whedon.

Of course, this seems to have been a little bit of a departure for the director. I have not seen absolutely everything he has ever directed or created in general, but the things he is most famous for – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, The Avengers, etc – are all either science fiction, fantasy, or a mixture of both. Whedon is also especially good at two things – witty and interesting dialogue, and finding excellent choreographers for fight scenes. Since he chose to stick to Shakespeare’s script, and Much Ado is almost completely lacking in physical conflict, there does not seem to have been much room for Whedon to add his own style.

There isn’t much room for this kind of thing in a romantic comedy.

Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s romances. Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon, comes to the house of Leonato following a battle. Two of his officers, Claudio and Benedick, are already known to Leonato and the ladies of the house, Leonato’s daughter Hero and his niece Beatrice. Claudio sets eyes on Hero and falls heartily in love with her, and following a small amount of confusion obtains Leonato’s permission to marry her. Benedick and Beatrice have both sworn against love and marriage, but through a cunning plan carried out by the Prince they are tricked into declaring love for each other. The force for bad in this story comes through the Prince’s brother, Don John, who is intent on messing things up for the Prince and chooses to ruin Claudio’s marriage since the Prince had encouraged them to wed.

I just have to say, at this point, that the main reason I love Much Ado About Nothing is because of Beatrice. As I said before, she has sworn off marriage, and she declares this in beautifully witty ways. She is a devastatingly intelligent character (apart from the fact that she is tricked into falling in love), and despite being tricked into falling in love with Benedick, she is shown as remaining strong and having a fair amount of power within the relationship.

Much Ado About NothingGenerally, I think the problem with Joss Whedon’s version of the play is that he changes the setting, without changing much else. His version is in black and white, and the characters appear to all be a part of the mafia or something similar, but I don’t feel this really brought much to an understanding of the story. Where Baz Luhrmann decided to bring Romeo and Juliet up to date and used it as an opportunity to make the audience consider, for example, how violent young men never really change over the course of history, Whedon’s version of Much Ado About nothing just seemed very slow-moving and the updating of it did not really go very far.

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

“It is a truth universally acknowleged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
There is something about a really beautiful beginning to a book which just makes me smile. Same goes for The Odessey. And the wonderful thing about the beginning of Pride and Prejudice is that it is one of those quotes that everyone knows, or at least recognises. Type it into Google, incidentally, and it links to the Wikipedia post on Irony.

It’s going to be hard for me to write about Pride and Prejudice and say anything bad about it, because it’s been almost an ever-present novel for me ever since I was eleven years old and watched the BBC miniseries.

Yes, this adaptation.

Yes, this adaptation.

Soon after that I read the book for the first time, watched the miniseries a lot more times, was bombarded by references in popular culture (a Lot in Bridget Jones’s Diary, which is based on Pride and Prejudice), and was baffled at the speed with which Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen got through their lines in the 2005 film adaptation.

Needless to say, I like it. A lot.

The basic plots of Jane Austen novels are more or less identical. I say this lovingly – she took one basic formula and added on characters and situations which make a massive difference so that you can’t easily confuse her novels. The formula goes like this: a middle-class, Regency-era young woman meets, or is already friends with, a man. She gets a crush on another man, who turns out to be horrible in some way, or lying to her. The first man saves the day, she realises she has loved him all the time, and they marry. Then the dramas of additional characters are added on.

In Pride and Prejudice, our young woman is Elizabeth Bennett, who is one of five daughters. Her father is not wealthy enough to give them all dowries (money to recompense their husbands for the expense, basically), and because of what is basically the Will of an ancestor, they are not going to inherit their father’s estate after his death, because they are all female. Her First Man is Fitzwilliam Darcy, who has a large estate in Derbyshire and is very rich, but is also a bit rude. Darcy has a wonderful character – he is rude, but in part it seems it is because he is shy, or things come out the wrong way sometimes. Elizabeth casts her eye instead on Mr Wickham, who claims to have been wronged by Mr Darcy. Mr Wickham turns out to be a nasty piece of work, who seduces 15 and 16 year old girls to get their dowries.

But he's not as seductive as this...

But he’s not as seductive as this…

Mr Wickham proceeds to seduce Elizabeth’s youngest sister, Lydia. In those days, and for the middle class, this meant that a woman was shamed for ever – and her chances of marriage would be gone. Luckily Mr Darcy saves the day by paying a dowry for Lydia and forcing Mr Wickham to do the right thing and marry her. He proposes to Elizabeth, who accepts (he also did this earlier, but was a bit of an arse and she turned him down).

Jane Austen was a very witty and cynical woman, and this is really shown to its best in Pride and Prejudice. From the very beginning we are shown her sarcasm in the form of Mr Bennett, Elizabeth’s father, her ability to create ridiculous yet realistic characters in Mrs Bennett, and one of her strongest heroines in Elizabeth.

To continue Jane Austen month, next week’s review will be on Emma.

Have another Mr Darcy in a wet shirt.

Have another Mr Darcy in a wet shirt.