Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s speculative work The Last Man starts very much like a run-of-the-mill regency-era novel with its three-book structure. You even start to wonder whether much of interest is ever going to happen.
And then a plague hits. Book three, especially, where people drop off like flies, felt rather grim even before living through a pandemic myself. (I read it a few years ago.)
Since the plague aspect is a little too on the nose, I’m going to skip all of that for now. Instead, below is what the protagonist thought about reading:
“I felt convinced that however it might have been in former times, in the present stage of the world, no man’s faculties could be developed, no man’s moral principle be enlarged and liberal, without an extensive acquaintance with books. To me they stood in the place of an active career, of ambition, and those palpable excitements necessary to the multitude.”
– Lionel Verney in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man
Sounds astonishingly like Mr. Darcy’s line about a truly accomplished woman who must improve “her mind by extensive reading” in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, doesn’t it? It must’ve been very much in the air in the early 19th century.
Set in 1862, the story is about two people looking to break barriers by hot-air-ballooning higher than anyone before. Felicity Jones stars as Amelia Wren, a female balloonist who agrees to take meteorologist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) up to the sky to perform experiments.
Whoa—looks rather incredible! Although there seems to be a little too much of a pet peeve of mine: climbing on things only to fall down. It’s getting to be an overused feature in contemporary visual storytelling, if you ask me.
The trailer says it’s inspired by true events. Indeed: Glaisher broke the world record for altitude in September 1862, although Wren’s character is a complete fabrication. If you’ve come across more, please share.
Situated in 1927, this story will have the king and queen—George V and Mary of Teck, of whom I know nothing—visit the Abbey. From the IMDB casting list it sounds like we have a few new characters.
Since there seems to be little hope of another Jane Austen production (beyond Sanditon, which has not been released yet, and another Emma, which is of very unknown quality) I guess Downton will have to do. Even though I’m not really a fan of the era, I am looking forward to seeing the fabulous, fabulous acting (especially Maggie Smith!), multi-faceted characters, and gorgeous costuming and sets again.
I do, however, confess that the rigid adherence to artificial rules of “good” society really rubs me the wrong way at times. Sadly, a royal visit makes it sound like there might be overly much of the artificial, but we’ll see.
Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.
As a reader, and specifially a reader of speculative and historical fiction primarily not in my native language, I run into differences in culture a lot. And as a person in a multicultural, multilingual relationship in a strange country where I’m a cultural and linguistic minority, from time to time I find myself slammed against more deep-seated cultural assumptions.
Joan pointed out that culture is a way of thinking, or cognition, or perspective. As an example, I’d like to share two failures of cultural expectations from my personal experience.
At a con once, I wanted to get a book signed by an American author. I happened to know from their online presence that the author is an introvert. Even though we were both at a public place where introverted authors and panelists often don a more outgoing persona than they do in private, as another introvert I wanted to make sure I’d be especially considerate. However, quite without intending to I tripped over a distinctly Finnish quirk.
One of the big unspoken assumptions in the Finnish culture is that silence isn’t a negative. (Erik and I have both written about it for instance here, here, and here.) In essence, how I understand it, silence means space, and space means respect to other people.
Accordingly, at the abovementioned autograph session, when it came my turn I said my hellos, presented the author with my book, and waited silently. It wasn’t until the author asked me “Did you read it?” that I realised they expected me to say something else. And I had thought I was being courteous not to burden them with yet another dose of chitchat on a weekend full of being “on” at a busy con. I can’t remember for sure, since it was a kind of a deer in the headlights moment for me, but I think I was able to stutter my way to an exit without actually breaking into a run. In any case, not terribly smooth on my part.
I’ve also had a previously friendly person walk away from me when, in the middle of a presentation, I (I’m guessing “merely”) nodded to them to acknowledge their presence and silently continued to listen to the speaker (I’m guessing instead of starting a conversation with the friendly person). Although it’s been years, I still find that an utterly, completely, and thoroughly puzzling reaction.
Over the years, I’ve built a store of strategies and stock exchanges I can pull out if needed, but it’s been hard to try and perform—for it is essentially a performance—in a way that feels unnatural and at times even rude to me. Even after 10+ years, I still can’t bring myself to commit to it wholeheartedly. I suspect I’ll always be the odd, quiet one in Anglo-American contexts, but that’s my background and temperament.
So: yes, cultural assumptions and perspectives are difficult to convey, whether in writing or otherwise. Adding surface details to a fictional culture is easy, and it can be a fantastic tool for both creating distance from the everyday world and deepening the invented one. I love seeing glimpses of the practicalities that fictional characters deal with; I would find—and have found—stories seriously lacking without them. Never, though, should the surface glitter be where invention on the part of author ends; that is as unsatisfying as a lack of external cultural markers.
Being a truly exceptional author has, for me, come to mean not only the ability to create layered, nuanced worlds (or convey the complexities of everyday life in historical fiction). In addition, skilled authors I enjoy the most are able to avoid massive infodumps and to suggest underlying cultural values subtly, as inseparable part of narration and dialogue. And that’s a very challenging thing to do. It sometimes takes me more than one read-through to feel I’m beginning to understand a story. Then again, worthwhile things often are the most difficult ones.
Sense and Sensibility (anonymously published in 1811) is by far my favorite Austen novel, and my favorite adaptation is the Andrew Davies miniseries (directed by John Alexander; 2008). It stars Hattie Morahan and Charity Wakefield as Elinor and Marianne. Both were new to me, but I was familiar with the significant male actors: Dan Stevens (Mr. Edward Ferrars) is in the first few seasons of Downton Abbey, David Morrissey (Colonel Brandon) portrays the confused faux-Doctor in the Doctor Who Christmas special “The Next Doctor”, and Dominic Cooper (Mr. Willoughby) as young Howard Stark scratches science to see if it bleeds in Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Captain America: The First Avenger and Agent Carter (and rules as King Llane Wrynn in the Warcraft movie).
It was a gutsy choice of Davies to begin the series with Willoughby’s explicit seduction of a 15-year-old girl, an event which happens very much off-screen in the novel and most adaptations, but becomes the crux of the plot.
The series does have some issues. For example, the Devonshire “cottage” that the financially strained Dashwood ladies had to accept was turned into a literal cottage instead of a good, solid house from the novel. The events are condensed, sure, but their pace doesn’t feel rushed like in the movie versions. Most of the writing, acting, propping, and costuming are solid to excellent.
Emma (1815) was the fourth and last of Austen’s works to be published during her lifetime, and the Emma miniseries from 2009 (adapted by Sandy Welch, directed by Jim O’Hanlon) outshines the other adaptations. (Unsuprisingly, the miniseries format serves Austen’s nuance much better than the movie length.)
The version has several strengths, starting with excellent casting. Romola Garai stars as Emma Woodhouse, and Jonny Lee Miller (who has more recently – and deservedly – starred as Sherlock Holmes in the series Elementary) as Mr. Knightley. Miller’s is by far the most enjoyable Mr. Knightley performance I’ve seen. Mr. Knightley is often played as rather curt and strict, which I find not just offputting but a mistake.
All major characters are introduced at the beginning of episode 1, which helps people new to Austen. Moreover, this version does the epilogue clearly and succinctly, without massive infodumping. In addition, I immensely enjoy the music, the set dressing, costuming and propping, and other visuals. It’s a thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyable Emma. In fact, if the same team were to make other Austen adaptations, I’d go to great lenghts to see them.
Finally, Persuasion is a novel of pressures, choices, and second chances, posthumously published in 1817. The 1995 movie version of Persuasion is excellent. The screenplay is by Nick Dear, and Roger Mitchell directed Amanda Root as Anne Elliot and Ciarán Hinds as Captain Wentworth. I really like Root’s understated and considerate version of Anne; Hinds works well enough even if a few scenes tend towards hammy.
Although the picture quality is grainy, the soundtrack is nice and there are subtitles (not a given on older DVDs). The props, locations, and costuming are also great. This is my favorite version so far—in an ideal world, of course, we would be due another adaptation.
While there were solid choices on the list, what struck me was that out of 15 named creators only 2 were women. That’s 13%. Since women make up half of the world’s population, an eighth is an unacceptably low proportion in my eyes, so I made a list of my own.
Notes on my list: 1) it’s novels only (no anthologies), 2) in a random order, 3) with no double entries (otherwise I’d include also Jemisin’s The Inheritance Trilogy), 4) and I include not only a variety of flavors within the fantasy genre but also historical fiction. Moreover, 5) I’ve included old and newer favorites as well as new-to-me authors whose works sound intriguing. Finally, 6) the common denominator is (like in the Game of Thrones) the presence of power struggles of various sorts, negotiation of identities, and survival.
1. Ursula K. Le Guin. The Earthsea cycle (A Wizard of Earthsea; The Tombs of Atuan; The Farthest Shore; Tehanu; Tales from Earthsea; The Other Wind)
Aspects of identity examined in an island-based early medievalesque world with magic and lots of sailing.
2. Kai Ashante Wilson. Sorcerer of the Wildeeps
Sword and sorcery, gods and mortals, with a band of mercenaries working as caravan guard in focus. (Linguist’s note: Fascinating mix of vernacular and more formal language.)
3. N.K. Jemisin: The Dreamblood duology (The Killing Moon; The Shadowed Sun)
Ancient-Egyptian-flavored fantasy on a moon orbiting a Jupiter-like gas giant.
4. Samuel R. Delany. Nevèrÿon series (Tales of Nevèrÿon; Neveryóna; Flight from Nevèrÿon;The Return to Nevèrÿon)
Sword and sorcery in a world before the dawn of history, with strong elements of power, economic development and breaking barriers.
A blend of a coming-of-age story with high-stakes intrigue and danger on an island with water-based tech.
Enjoy! I know I will get back to this list after finishing my current reading project.
Image: Monteleone chariot with Thetis and Achilles, detail of image by Peter Roan on Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0 (Etruscan, currently Greek and Roman galleries, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 2nd quarter of the 6th century BCE; bronze inlaid with ivory)