I have, of late, written of my great pleasure in turning once again to the works of Jane Austen. I speak in particular of Sense and Sensibility, an early work by this author. I had read this novel once before – indeed, had read Austen’s entire oeuvre while a besotted undergraduate many years ago. I have, since that time, revisited them numerous times as rendered in filmed versions. Due to time constraints, rereading has been undertaken a good deal less frequently.
I found that on this occasion, reading Sense and Sensibility presented me with certain challenges. In a previous post, I described the first of these, encountered by me in the novel’s opening chapter. The problem centered on Austen’s setting out of the relationships of the various members of the Dashwood family. I reread this chapter, went on to the next, and became well and truly enthralled. The riches of Jane Austen’s tale of love found, lost, and ultimately recovered lay before me and I feasted upon them, with the greatest pleasure imaginable. That is not to say that the challenges disappeared completely….
When reading a novel published in 1811 (the initial work on which was begun even earlier, in the late 1790s), one is bound to encounter some unfamiliar and/or antiquated vocabulary. In the course of one conversation, for instance, Willoughby makes this comment: “Perhaps…his observations may have extended to the existence of nabobs, gold mohrs, and palanquins.”
Puzzlers like this are much easier to research now that we have Google, Wikipedia, and Amazon at our disposal. All three of the somewhat obscure terms uttered here by Willoughby relate to India. Wiktionary informs us that ‘nabob’ derives from ‘nawab.’ the term for a ruler in the Moghul Empire. Thus nabob has come to signify a person “of great wealth or importance,” and or a person who in his style of living exhibits a ‘grandiose’ manner. (And who of my generation can forget “nattering nabobs of negativism,” that triumph of alliterative obscurity coined for Spiro Agnew in 1970 by columnist and speech writer William Safire?)
‘Gold mohrs’ presented more of a challenge. I got the best result from searching inside an annotated text version of the novel on Amazon. A footnote contained the following: “Gold mohrs, or mohurs, were the principal coins used in British India.”
Jane Austen’s sentence structure can take some getting used to, as here, where Marianne’s temperament is subject to her creator’s keen analysis:
…Marianne abhorred all concealment where no real disgrace could attend unreserve; and to aim at the restraint of sentiments which were not in themselves illaudable. appeared to her not merely an unnecessary effort, but a disgraceful subjection of reason to common-place and mistaken notions.
In contemporary parlance, Marianne sees no reason to conceal or temper her feelings for Willoughby. There was no reason that the two should not form an attachment. Why should she strive for a severe comportment? She was young, high spirited, and in love, and she didn’t mind who knew of it.
At any rate, the reward for the reader in overcoming these admittedly minor obstacles is to have Jane Austen’s richly imagined world made real. You enter that world and are filled with delight. (Tis truly a delight, Gentle Reader, despite the presence of certain characters in the narrative whose behavior is so odious that you’d like to smack them! One has only to think of the scheming, tightfisted Mrs. John Dashwood and her milquetoast of a husband….)
I had seen the film version of Sense and Sensibility with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslett, and Hugh Grant when it came out in 1995. As I made my way through the novel, I realized that I was recalling the story as told in the film rather than in the novel. Emma Thompson, who wrote the screenplay, made significant alterations in the plot and eliminated several minor characters from the narrative. Even so, her greatest challenge was in writing the dialog, as she herself explains:
The language in the novel is complex and far more arcane than in the later books. In simplifying it I’ve tried to retain the elegance and wit of the original and it’s necessarily more exacting than modern speech.
All I can say is, watch the movie and see just how brilliantly she has succeeded. (Emma Thompson is a graduate of Cambridge University, where she read English literature.)
In the same year as the film came out, Thompson published a book containing her screenplay and also entries from the diary she kept during production. The diaries are a delight. Here are some of my favorite bits:
After screening a seemingly endless parade of potential cast members, director Ang Lee, in some amazement, asks, “Can everyone in England act?” Thompson and producer Lindsey Doran consult together on this question and decide that the answer is probably yes.
Jane Gibson, whom Thompson describes as “movement duenna and and expert on all matters historical,” served as a consultant. Cast members learned a great deal from her:
The bow is the gift of the head and heart. The curtsy (which is of course a bastardisation of the word ‘courtesy’) a lowering of status for a moment, followed by recovery. [Gibson] speaks of the simplicity and grace of the time, the lack of archness. The muscularity of their physique, the strength beneath the ease of movement.
There’s more. Jane Gibson’s insights exert a subtle but crucial influence on the actors, on how they move and carry themselves.
The possibility is raised that Emma Thompson’s script might be novelized, i.e. made into a book which would constitute another version of Sense and Sensibility. Her reaction to this suggestion: “I’ve said that if this happens I will hang myself.” She adds: “Revolting notion. Beyond revolting.”
The sheep in this film were numerous and photogenic: “Very bolshie ‘period’ sheep with horns and perms and too much wool….Ang wants sheep in every exterior shot and dogs in every interior shot.” To which Thompson added the helpful suggestion that sheep be included in some of the interior shots as well.
In one of the film’s final scenes, Edward Ferrars, played by Hugh Grant, finally declares his love for Elinor (Emma Thomson). Ang Lee’s command to Grant: “‘This is your big moment. I want to see your insides.'” To which Grant replied, “Ah. Right-o. No pressure then….'”
Both Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant played that scene beautifully. I’ve watched it over and over again and I cry every time. In fact, the entire film is ravishing. The costumes are gorgeous; likewise, the magnificent stately homes.* The English countryside, with its breathtaking beauty, seems a veritable Eden. And finally, and most importantly, the acting is superb. I see I have run out of superlatives. How can I help myself? Sense and Sensibility is now my favorite film in the whole universe!
There is one more thing I want to say about The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay and Diaries, and that is, that Emma Thompson’s book provides a fascinating glimpse into everyday life on a film set. It was not until I perused the diary that I realized just how little I knew about the process. Thompson makes it sound exhilarating, exasperating, and utterly exhausting – but never boring!
Here’s the trailer for Sense and Sensibility:
Emma Thompson won both the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for her screenplay. She was also nominated for best actress in both venues. In my opinion, she richly deserved that accolade as well.
In her acceptance speech at the Golden Globe Award ceremony, Emma Thompson paid very special homage to Jane Austen:
For a list of the locations where Sense and Sensibility was filmed, see the “Filming” section in the Wikipedia entry .