Review Fridays: Kate & Leopold

I am about fifteen years late in watching Kate & Leopold, so please excuse me, but it seems appropriate for a movie about time travel.

I am always searching for a good costume romantic comedy, but when I found this movie, I wasn’t entirely sure if the time travel plot would ruin it. Fortunately, I decided to watch anyway. Leopold is feeling stuck in his life in nineteenth century New York. He is a Duke, but his family is no longer wealthy, so his uncle is trying to persuade him to marry a rich heiress. He spots a man, Stuart, who seems to be following him and chases after him to find out why. When Stuart jumps off of the still-being-constructed Brooklyn Bridge, Leopold tries to save him. Instead, they both fall through a time portal. Or something. The science behind it all does not matter.

Back in the present day, Kate is a successful market researcher, but unsuccessful in love. She enters the movie trying to get her phone back from her ex-boyfriend and upstairs neighbor, Stuart. In his apartment, she finds a man straight out of the nineteenth century, literally. Leopold is devastatingly handsome and dashing, a man who follows rules of conduct out of another age. At first, she doesn’t like him and doesn’t buy his act, but she slowly realizes that she misses the sort of chivalry he offers.

Let us not kid ourselves. Hugh Jackman as Leopold carries this movie. There is not much of substance in the time travel aspects of the plot. If historical inaccuracies bother you, this is not the movie for you. It simply does not make any sense, so if you have any hope of enjoying this movie, you need to step back and ignore the plot holes and watch Hugh Jackman. He is lovely and dashing and manages to make his role believable. Meg Ryan stars as Kate, and if you liked her in other movies, you will probably like this role as well.

What I found most interesting is the battle between practicality and romantic, idealistic notions. Before Leopold jumps through time, he is a dreamer, an inventor, and he scoffs at his uncle’s suggestion of marrying money. Kate has spent her life fighting to be successful and priding herself on her independence and practicality. She supports herself financially by finding the best methods of selling bad products. Although she has been trying to convince herself that duty matters more than her heart, meeting Leopold makes her reexamine her life.

This sort of message tends to work better in theory than in practice, but it’s nice to be reminded to reexamine my priorities every so often. I sometimes like movies and books for escapism, when I am feeling disenchanted with the world, and in another mood, I might not have enjoyed this movie as much. It has potential, however, as a reminder that being a dreamer is not such a bad thing after all.

The marriage plot

Unlike most readers, I didn’t admire Dorothea Brooke the first time I read Middlemarch. Instead, I wanted to be honest, intelligent Mary Garth. Mary is plain, in contrast to Dorothea and Rosamond Vincy, the novel’s other leading ladies. She is largely ignored by everyone, except for Fred Vincy, the man who brings her books and has loved her since childhood. But she won’t marry him, not until she can be sure that he will reform his imprudent ways and find employment for himself.

Mary’s practical nature in the face of love made me think more about the marriage plot. I naturally turned to Jane Austen since she is my favorite author, but I wanted to consider the marriage plot for some of the minor characters first instead of the heroines. In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price’s mother married for love and to disoblige her family and subsequently lived in poverty. In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas married for money and security, but not love. Mary Garth occupies the middle-ground. I do not think Mary Garth would marry without love and respect (unlike Charlotte Lucas), but she would also not marry a man she loves without being assured that they will not live in poverty (unlike Mrs. Price). Mary seems like she wants Fred to succeed and loves him back, but she is willing to wait until he gets his act together before she will agree to spend her life with him.

Austen’s heroines fare much better than the minor female characters, mostly because we are assured, as readers, that they will receive the happy ending they deserve. In fact, they have the privilege of choice and refusal. Lizzy Bennet turns down two offers of marriage, both from highly suitable men who would have saved her family from utter ruin if her father died. Fanny Price is poor but principled. Although she is not as widely admired as Lizzy Bennet, Fanny demonstrates a thorough self-knowledge and an awesome ability to resist intimidation. She will not be bullied into doing what she knows is wrong. She refuses to marry a rich, eligible man because she does not trust him. Her uncle punishes her by banishing her from Mansfield Park, but he comes to realize that Fanny was right. Both heroines eventually end up with the heroes whom they not only love, but are also wealthy enough to live a comfortable life.

The marriage plot is occasionally turned on its head by impending spinsterhood. In Villette by Charlotte Brontë, Lucy Snowe finishes by invoking the names of those who are also alone yet thriving. She is trying to harden herself to the idea that the man she loves may never come back and to remind herself that she is perfectly capable of living a fulfilling life alone. Villette is not as famous nor as beloved as Jane Eyre, and I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that the latter has a happy ending with the marriage plot fulfilled. There is something extremely satisfying about plodding along in a book, sympathizing while a heroine suffers, and then being assured that they received everything they wanted in life. However, Villette offers an important reminder of the strength of the heroine and her ability to prosper even without a hero.

I feel like the marriage plot is unfairly ridiculed. The unspoken criticism seems to be that there are more important things for heroes and heroines to do, but I wonder if that’s right or not. Jane Austen’s books are just as much about life and society and money as any other author, but she is often written off as being someone who focused on marriage and love while ignoring bigger issues. There is an unfair preference for big gestures, for something other than love, but the truth is that in most of our lives the biggest decision we make will be whom we choose to spend our lives with (or not) and whom we love whether Platonically or romantically.

I think that what I have learned, above all else, from the marriage plot, is that following one’s own instincts and happiness is important above all. As Fanny Price said, “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”

Downton Abbey recap, Season 6, Episode 4

While Mr. and Mrs. Carson are away on their honeymoon, Thomas is filling in as butler at Downton Abbey. Predictably, the staff are not enthused about this and don’t really seem to be following any of his orders. Poor Thomas. If nothing else, this season so far has made me feel bad for him, a thing I never thought would happen. I think he seems precariously close to either burning down the whole house or poisoning everyone. We shall see, but I don’t think this show will go out Hamlet-style, with most of the characters taken out and a victorious Thomas sipping the good stuff in the library as the police sergeant enters.

But the sergeant is back again, this time for Baxter. She asks the lovely Molesley to stand in the room with her while she is questioned. This time, the police have not come to accuse. The sergeant is there instead to ask her to testify against her old frenemy, Coyle, he who instigated her to steal her employer’s jewels. Coyle has tricked many women into doing his illegal bidding, so the sergeant would like Baxter to testify against him. Baxter hesitates because it would be humiliating. The sergeant asks her to think about it. It would help keep Coyle away from other women whom he might persuade into a life of crime. Molesley also encourages her, but Baxter is unsure.

Outside, Baxter and Thomas have a little heart-to-heart wherein Baxter tells him that she envies him because he does not care what others think. She thinks that she is weak and incapable of standing up the the man who wronged her so long ago. Thomas tells her that she is stronger than she thinks. Goodness, Thomas, why can’t you always be that kind? It was a great moment, showing the viewers that Thomas, despite his harsh exterior, really is fond of Baxter. Eventually, Baxter agrees to testify.

Aunt Rosamund is coming to visit, for two reasons. First, she is going to take Cora’s side against Violet in the hospital fight. Second, she wants to get Edith involved in a college for women who might not otherwise have an opportunity for education. My first thought was that this will somehow benefit Daisy. Edith likes this idea and wants to be involved. Rosamund has arranged for someone from the school to visit to tell them more about it. It turns out that this man is married to Gwen, who was a housemaid at Downton Abbey in season one! Thomas answers the door to them, and Gwen pretends like she does not know him. Anna is very excited to see Gwen, her former roommate, but Gwen seems intent on not letting anyone know who she is. When in the company of the upstairs family, Mary says that she looks familiar, but Gwen denies any previous acquaintance. None of them really recognize her, except for Tom, because as Daisy says, they don’t really look you in the face.

It all comes out in the dining room when Thomas, in annoyance and jealousy at this former-downstairs success story, outs her. Embarrassed, Gwen explains that she used to be a housemaid at Downton Abbey. When the family asks for the story of how she ended up there, having a meal in the upstairs dining room, she explains that Sybil did everything. This show needs a Sybil, and Mary and Edith are poor substitutes. Everyone gets a bit weepy remembering how, in season one, Sybil would mysteriously disappear, and now they learn it was all to help Gwen. Tom particularly is a mixture of happy and sad at the memory of his late wife. I loved this scene, but it made me miss Sybil a lot. None of the characters can even remotely compare to her in likability.

Robert gives Thomas a warning that Carson rules by being kind and making people like him. One does not rule by outing former housemaids in the dining room. Robert is still feeling ill. I keep waiting each week for this to turn into a bigger issue, though I don’t believe that Robert will die. That will create too many issues with little George, and Mary in proxy, taking control of the estate, and at the snail’s pace this season is moving so far, it probably couldn’t be dealt with in detail. So, some sort of health issue is going to bubble over from these anvil-sized hints, but I’m sure it will be disappointingly mild.

Rosamund has come to support Cora, but Violet has called in her own support for the hospital battle. Lady Shackleton is coming and bringing her nephew. Violet tells her that she does not need to know the facts, only that Violet is right. It turns out that Lady Shackleton’s nephew is Henry, the car racing chap from last season’s shooting party. Well, both potential suitors from that party are coming back, first Bertie last week, now Henry. Mary is surprised but pleased to see him. They flirt all evening, and he gives her his card and asks her to call him the next time she is in London.

Emergency calls as Anna is having pains. Mary rushes her off to London to see the doctor, and she is just in time. Anna is still pregnant, but needs to rest. I don’t give Mary credit for doing this from niceness. She is not the new Sybil. Anna has done her so many favors, including literally dragging a dead body from her room, that Mary owes her several times over. Besides, Mary uses this opportunity to call Henry to have dinner again. More flirting. I cannot remember if Mary explained the reason why she is not all that fond of cars. I would think it would be an important point to Mary, given how her first husband died, but if she likes Henry enough, perhaps she would be able to overlook the potential danger.

Back at Downton Abbey, Daisy is very angry that Mr. Mason is not going to be given the Drewes old farm. She resolves to go upstairs to give Cora a piece of her mind. The entire downstairs staff rallies around to try to talk her out of out, but Daisy is so upset that she will not hear reason. Kind Baxter goes with her. What Daisy does not know is that all of the talk of Sybil has softened Cora’s heart. Although it is not the best financial decision, she wants to give Mr. Mason the farm. Tom and Robert agree, and Tom says he will convince Mary. In the hallway, Cora sees Daisy and is confused about why she is there. Daisy is about to start her rampage when Robert comes into the hallway and tells Daisy the good news. Much chastened, Daisy goes back downstairs. Cora has the odd feeling of having dodged something awful, and if only she knew.

Everyone is gathered for a party for the returning Carsons. Anna finally, finally tells Mr. Bates that she is pregnant and that it is going much better this time. She is hopeful, and they are both happy, but I wish she had told him sooner.

This week, for a change, Edith is not running off to London to deal with her editor. That is mostly because she has not hired anyone to replace him yet. So, she fired her editor and then left the rest of the staff behind to sort it out by themselves, to get a new issue of the magazine ready? True leadership, there. She says that she wants to be something like a co-editor (what, all the way from Yorkshire by phone?) and therefore wants to hire a woman, feeling that a woman might be more willing to work with her. If she wants to realistically be a co-editor, she has to move to London, but no one points it out to her. Instead, Mary offers a compliment, which she immediately barbs after Edith walks away.

All of the upstairs folks, particularly Robert, are whining about having to call the newlyweds Mr. and Mrs. Carson now. Mary says it is like Jane Eyre asking to be called Mrs. Rochester, and while I appreciate the literary reference, I hate that they’re all dragging their feet about it. Luckily, once they have returned, Mr. Carson says that they would like to remain Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes to their employers. Robert gratefully announces this to the room, making me cringe. What was the big deal about calling her Mrs. Carson now? Thomas tells Carson that he learned a lot while filling in for him, which Carson seems sort of pleased about.

Mr. Carson goes up to see his old room one last time. The Carsons will be moving into a cottage, so the home Carson has known for so many years will be his no more. He takes a look around, closes the door, and takes his nameplate off of the door. Mixed emotions at being married, Carson moves on to his new life with his wife.

Review Fridays: The Return of the Soldier

As a word of warning, there will be spoilers throughout. This is a short book, one which I would find it difficult to discuss at all without ruining the plot.

Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier is so impossibly devastating that I don’t know what to do with my feelings about it. I was not very impressed with the style of writing, I have to admit, and I had to read some sentences several times to get the gist. But the characters, the plot! Chris has suffered shell-shock in the war and now cannot remember the past fifteen years. All he can remember is that he is in love with Margaret, who is now married and drab and sadly kind. She is the sort of woman who wipes her shoes a bit too zealously on the doormat before entering a home.

Chris is married, too, but to an awful woman, Kitty, who does not even attempt to understand him. Kitty is selfish and ornamental and cares mostly about the appearance of things. The book is narrated by Chris’s cousin Jenny, who lives in the house with him and Kitty. When Margaret arrives at the house, they think that she is out to con them, to take money from them, but the truth is that Chris cannot recall his wife. He simply remembers Margaret and the perfect summer he spent at her father’s inn. When he suffers shell-shock while away fighting in the war, therefore, word of it gets to Margaret instead of to Kitty.

Margaret may have lost her youthful vitality, but she has depth. She waited for years for a letter from Chris. She believed that he did not care and did not write. But she finds out that the people who took over her father’s inn did not bother to forward her mail. She finds out, too late, that there are twelve letters waiting for her, that he did still love her, that, although she waited for five years to despairingly submerge herself in marriage to another man, he had written. They loved each other, but were kept apart by lost letters.

And now Chris does not remember that he had forced himself to move on and to change himself, to become more subdued, less like the jovial boy he was, and to marry Kitty. His cousin Jenny also loves Chris. Jenny is jealous of Margaret’s love and fears that, once Chris sees her, transformed by years, no longer the beautiful girl he remembers, he will not love her anymore.

But that is not true. He is just as much enchanted with her as he had been despite the outward changes. Chris, his memory lost, simply cannot believe that he ever gave Margaret up and married a different woman. On the advice of the doctor, he and Margaret spend time together, during which she tries to bring back his memory. When she finally finds the point that will restore his memory, she tells him. This brings Chris back to his unhappy life and unhappy memories and sends Margaret back to her respectable but dull life with her husband.

Something about it made me so sad for the characters, and because it is set during the 1910s, there is no hope for any other ending than for Margaret to go back to her husband and for Chris to accept Kitty as his wife. Even before I read the ending, I felt where it was going. Part of the problem with modern novels is that there is no earthly reason why Chris and Margaret could not be together nowadays. Divorce is common and would not have ostracized either of them from good society. There is no honor, in modern literature, in staying unhappy, in following a code of morality passed down for generations. For Chris and Margaret, however, there can be no happy ending. This book made me sad, but I think it is worth reading.

Downton Abbey recap, Season 6, Episode 3

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Lady Edith is going to London again to deal with her insubordinate editor. This is precisely what happened last week. Granny asks her if she plans to stay with her aunt, but she is planning to stay in her own flat! Wow, actual progress. I think part of my frustration with this season so far is that most of the storylines have very, very low stakes, with very, very obvious conclusions, but they drag out week after week. Does anyone doubt that Edith belongs in London? That the hospital should be modernized? But, alas, I am getting off track. Granny seems to think it might not be proper for Edith to stay alone in London, but hasn’t her daughter Rosamund been living alone in London for years? It hardly seems scandalous, but maybe it is too much to expect consistency. It is a bad sign when I have to keep reminding myself to just enjoy the pretty costumes and forget about the plot and characters.

Sigh.

While in London, Edith runs into the nice agent, Bertie, from the shooting party at the end of last season. He asks Edith out for drinks, and they agree on a time. At the paper, Edith argues with the editor over some of his decisions. It seems he is recycling magazine covers and generally not doing a good job. Edith fires him, finally! Even the secretary, who is apparently called Audrey, sitting outside of the office barges in afterwards, glad Edith found the guts to get rid of him. They decide that they’ll pull together to get the issue done without the horrible editor. Edith leaves momentarily to inform Bertie that drinks won’t be happening, and he responds with an offer to help. Well, how wonderful. I can already see where this is going, and it is nice that Edith is getting a romantic subplot. They do an admirable job, and Edith realizes that she can do the magazine work herself. But she won’t do the job again. For secret reasons. Best not to ask, I suppose, but Edith should simply realize London and being more involved in the magazine would be the best thing for her.

Back at Downton Abbey, wedding plans continue. Mrs. Hughes informs us that Mr. Carson and Lady Mary won with their plans of having the reception at Downton with elegant, meagre food. Mrs. Hughes claims that she doesn’t care, but when did that happen? She cared a lot about it last week. Where is the consistency? This scene doesn’t even have a pretty dress to distract viewers since Mrs. Hughes is showing a rather dowdy outfit to Mrs. Patmore as the wedding dress. Mrs. Patmore is no fashion plate herself, but even she is not impressed. But not to worry, she has a plan to help her good friend.

Mrs. Hughes gets more help when Lady Grantham hears that Lady Mary has pressured Carson and Mrs. Hughes into having their reception at Downton Abbey. With Lady Mary present, Cora questions Mrs. Hughes until she finally admits that all she wants is a wedding breakfast at the schoolhouse. If she truly did care about it, I do not understand why she gave up and agreed to Mary’s plan. Maybe just so we could have another low stakes scene where Lady Mary is annoyed and embarassed in front of the servants. Carson agrees to the breakfast at the schoolhouse rather quickly, and after they leave the room, Mary starts sniping at her mother. That is interrupted when Carson reenters, but Mary is clearly very annoyed.

There is a very strange subplot in the Dowager house with Spratt and Denker. Spratt has a shifty family, apparently, although it has never come up before. His nephew has escaped from prison and Denker saw something. When the police come to ask questions, they both say that they did not see the escaped nephew. All you need to know is that Denker plans to hold this over Spratt’s head, but surely the moment she lied to the police, she lost her advantage?

Lord Grantham is still feeling a bit sick. Indigestion, he says, but this is another small thing that has been simmering all season, so it is bound to turn into big trouble soon.

Tom Branson has written Mary the most homesick, purple prose letter ever written. Dreams and strolls through the grounds of Downton Abbey. I suppose he’ll be back soon, then?

Anna is happy because she may be pregnant, but she tells Lady Mary instead of her husband. Why? Why doesn’t she tell Mr. Bates? Just tell your husband what is going on, Anna, so he can take the good and bad. That is the point of being married.

Molesley helps Daisy study for her exams, and it strikes me that he missed his calling. He is not a very dashing footman, but he is very invested in Daisy’s success and dedicated to helping her succeed. After hesitating a bit, he tells her that the Drewes will be leaving their tenancy, and Daisy reaches the conclusion that obviously Mr. Mason can take over. That is what I had assumed last week, too, so I don’t fault Daisy, but I only thought so because it felt very neat and tidy, narrative-wise. However, it seems it was a bit too neat and tidy because we are getting anvil-sized hints that nothing of that sort has been decided. Daisy meets Lady Grantham in the hallway, and poor Cora is so flummoxed that she can’t get out words to correct Daisy. If Mr. Mason doesn’t become the new tenant farmer at Downton Abbey, I wonder what sort of angry tirade Daisy will go on.

Thomas continues to be hated by the other servants, with the exception of Baxter, and to search for a new job. Another ad answered, another run down estate. You would think, after the first ad, he would realize being a footman or valet at a grand estate is no longer a viable job. He needs to look at shops. I think Thomas would fit in better in London, but he apparently has a soft spot for the Downton area and is resisting change.

Mrs. Patmore ordered a wedding dress for Mrs. Hughes from a catalogue, and, as with all orders from a catalogue, it looks nothing like the picture. When Anna tells Lady Mary about it, she says that they can borrow one of Lady Grantham’s coats. Just like that, without even asking, because she is entitled and presumptuous Lady Mary. So imagine, for a moment, Anna and Mrs. Patmore in Lady Grantham’s bedroom, helping Mrs. Hughes raid Cora’s closet, with the permission of Lady Mary. And let us leave them there to be dealt with soon, for this cannot end well.

The hospital issue has not been resolved yet, but Lady Grantham is becoming more involved with her opposition to the Dowager Countess. It is frustrating because it seems such a simple thing to resolve to the good of all, but the Dowager Countess is stubborn. Feelings are hurt and Cora is tired and it has been a long day and all she wants is some rest. And then she finds Mrs. Hughes in her bedroom trying on her clothes. She sends them on their way, wondering how dare they, but even when tired, is that at all like Cora? But then it gives Mary a chance to chatise her, just as she did to Mary earlier, but it was all Mary’s fault, so she really has no moral high ground to stand on. Cora apologizes to Mrs. Hughes and gives her the coat to keep, which is much more like her.

Wedding day! This is one of the better scenes so far this season. The perfect amount of being sentimental about characters we have spent five plus seasons caring about. Anna and Mrs. Patmore and Baxter help Mrs. Hughes to get ready. Tears, but not too many, during the ceremony. Mrs. Hughes was right about the schoolhouse. Everything looks very nice, food and table settings and decorations, though I wish, after all the trouble about it, that I could remember what the dress looked like.

We even have a wedding crasher. Tom Branson has come back with Sybbie to Downton Abbey and will stay for as long as they want him. They are his family, he says, amid the joyous reunion and the ending of the episode.

Way to upstage the bride and groom, Tom.

Review Fridays: The Code of the Woosters

I reached out a hand from under the blankets, and rang the bell for Jeeves.

“Good evening, Jeeves.”

“Good morning, sir.”

This surprised me.

-Opening lines of The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse

Bertie Wooster has got himself into another jam, this time involving a silver cow-shaped creamer, a leather-bound notebook, and the possible toll of matrimony. Externally, Madeline Bassett seems like a good match, but the woman is distinctly dotty. While Bertie “won’t go so far as to say that she actually wrote poetry,” she thinks that “stars are God’s daisy chain.”

Madeline has got the wrong idea about Bertie. She thinks that he is madly in love with her and wants to marry her. And so Bertie has to make sure that Madeline marries his newt-obsessed friend, Gussie Fink-Nottle (the names are all this fun), or else Bertie, too chivalrous to correct her, would have to marry Madeline himself. He also has to steal a silver cow-creamer for his Aunt Dahlia and find Gussie’s burn book before Madeline’s father does.

Luckily, Bertie has his valet Jeeves on his side. In The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse, Bertie will once again be relying on Jeeves to get him out of a mess. Jeeves is Bertie’s infinitely reliable and intelligent foil, the one who instinctively knows how to solve each problem and does so with grace and discretion.

I love this series, but if you’ve read one Jeeves and Wooster book, you pretty much know the structure for the other books. That does not take away the pleasure of reading them. They can be read in any order, although the plots of previous books are usually summarized at the beginning of the next, letting you hop in at any point in the series, but giving away the plot if you want to work backwards.

No matter which you pick up, all of the Jeeves and Wooster books are riotously funny. In my opinion, the funniest scene in all of English literature is in Right Ho, Jeeves when Gussie Fink-Nottle, “full to the back teeth with the right stuff” (e.g. very drunk), presents the prizes at Market Snodsbury Grammar School. Wodehouse has a way with words, telling the stories from the point-of-view of the ditzy but ultimately lovable Bertie.

The only danger with these books is that you might find yourself laughing out loud in public places while you are reading, on the bus, in the library, on a park bench. The books are that funny, and so I highly recommend them to anyone who loves a book with a good sense of humor.

Rest in Peace, Alan Rickman

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My God, that voice. “The air is full of spices.”

I was a preteen when I first began reading Jane Austen, and naturally I went for the adaptations soon after. I remember getting a VHS (which makes me practically a dinosaur) of the elegant 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility. When I first read the book, I hated Colonel Brandon, and I thought it a grim fate indeed that Marianne should marry him at the end. Colonel Brandon in his flannel waistcoat was no hero for a young girl, and I rejected him heartily.

And then there was Alan Rickman.

Colonel Brandon: What can I do?
Elinor Dashwood: Colonel, you have done so much already…
Colonel Brandon: Give me an occupation, Miss Dashwood, or I shall run mad.

Sense and Sensibility (1995)

From the moment I watched that adaptation, I thought that perhaps Marianne and Colonel Brandon had more in common than I assumed. He was a romantic hero with a deep voice and commanding aspect, and I was subconsciously drawn to him. He managed to make me care for a character who otherwise seemed boring, dull, doomed to flannel waistcoats. Each time I saw him in a movie, he impressed me, and that voice. What a gift of a voice to bring to the world.

I am not much of a crier, but I have to admit that I shed tears when I heard today that Alan Rickman died at the age of 69. I had not read anywhere that he was ill, so it was a shock for me to lose my first Colonel Brandon. He was a magnificent actor and shall be missed by scores of fans.

Rest in peace, Alan Rickman.

 

 

Bullies in literature

One of the things that has always bothered me about the Harry Potter series is that, in the epilogue, Harry has partially named his son after Severus Snape. By doing so, Harry gives Snape equal footing in his memory with his father, Sirius, and Dumbledore. JK Rowling recently attempted to explain this. Post-war Harry would have understood, she said, would have better appreciated the heroism of Snape.

Severus Snape was a brave man who was also an unforgivable bully. Yes, he did a lot of help the Order fight against Voldemort, but he didn’t do it because he decided that it was the right thing to do. He did it because he was in love with a woman, who, let’s face it, would never return his feelings. He ruined his friendship with her by insulting her. That woman was killed by Voldemort, and, after that point, Snape ceased to be Voldemort’s man. His change of heart, however, did not extend to the way he treated the children of those he fought against while he was a Death Eater.

Take Neville, for example, poor Neville whose parents were tortured by Bellatrix Lestrange until they went insane. Snape is not kind to Neville. In fact, in the third book, when he has to face his biggest fear, the thing Neville fears most in the entire world is Severus Snape. Snape also is consistently rude to Hermione, who has done absolutely nothing to deserve it. This is a grown man who gets his kicks by bullying impressionable teenagers. Why does the ever-wise Dumbledore allow Snape to be around students when he is so awful to them?

Snape is in a strange category. He is not villainized by Rowling like Voldemort is and perhaps is not even as bad as characters like Umbridge and the Malfoys and other Death Eaters. But it is by putting him in this other category, one of being a brave but flawed man, that almost makes it worse. Severus Snape should know better, but he doesn’t seem to care. In fact, he manages to make Harry, whom he relentlessly bullied for years because he hated Harry’s father, Harry who has so much reason to dislike Snape, forgive and name one of his children after the man. For some reason, I do not think Snape would have much appreciated the gesture.

The fact that Rowling seems to approve of and even like Snape further complicates the issue. What should the reader think when the author, the person who created the beloved literary landscape and the characters who inhabit it, actually defends a character who is a bully?

To find an answer to this, I began thinking about some other books I cherish and the ways in which bullies affect the heroines. In Mansfield Park, there is no character who is more of a bully than Mrs. Norris. She constantly shows preference for the Bertram children over Fanny and wants Fanny to remember her place. She doesn’t miss a single opportunity say something bad about Fanny. In Mrs. Norris’s opinion, Fanny is only a visitor, a charity case, and should earn her keep, ironically ignoring the fact that she is also only a visitor at Mansfield Park.

Fanny quietly and dutifully does what she can, but she is often ill and pushed to the limit by Mrs. Norris’s demands. However, Fanny does not show any hostility against her aunt. She offers respect and obedience in return for Mrs. Norris’s bullying. The two characters serve as a contrast, with our heroine showing the strength to be the better person. Fanny is not bitter and would probably have wholeheartedly forgiven her, but Jane Austen gives Mrs. Norris her just desserts. In the end, Mrs. Norris decides to go live with the ruined Julia, where, Austen tells us, “shut up together with little society, on one side no affection, on the other no judgment, it may be reasonably supposed that their tempers became their mutual punishment.”

Next, I turned to Jane Eyre. Mrs. Reed, Jane Eyre’s aunt, does not care about her niece. She sends Jane off to a horrible school where she is abused. Her hatred for Jane is limitless. When Jane’s uncle from Madeira writes to Mrs. Reed saying that he is now wealthy and would like Jane to live with him, Mrs. Reed responds that Jane is dead. She does not mention this at all until three years later, when she is dying. Jane forgives her. Even though her aunt has been horrible to her, Jane offers forgiveness and love.

I get moral philosophy from books more often than I should, but maybe the answer is that it is more important for the hero/heroine to forgive than it is for the bully to redeem himself/herself. Snape never redeemed himself for me in the way that JK Rowling implies that he should have, but Harry can forgive him, can accept his faults, and can further appreciate the good that he did. Like Fanny Price and Jane Eyre, he chooses to ignore the bad in a person who bullied him. He chooses to rise above the bullying and to be the better person. And that seems like a heroic way to live, to look for good in people and to ultimately forgive them.

 

Downton Abbey recap, Season 6, Episode 2

Edith has gone back on her intention of moving to London. She is still arguing with her belligerent editor over the phone from Downton Abbey. When she decides to take a trip to London to deal with the issue, she does not even stay in her own flat. Her aunt asks her why, but even Edith does not seem sure why she is not living in London. It apparently has something to do with never having lived alone? If anyone is a candidate for happily living alone, it is Edith. And, besides, Edith, with her connections at the paper, would find plenty of friends and dinners to attend whenever she wanted. What does she gain from living at Downton Abbey? She is merely under the watch of Mary and her cruel judgments, putting Marigold in danger of seeing the Drewes again, particularly Mrs. Drewe, who did not want to give up the child. Speaking of which…

While Edith is in London, Mary, who does not know Marigold’s true identity, takes the children down to the Drewes’ farm to see the pigs. Edith feels that Mary would use the secret as a weapon, which, yes, I think that is true, but she will find out eventually. While they are at the farm, Mrs. Drewe has a weepy meeting with Marigold that shows that she is not over her obsession with the child. Lady Grantham watches the exchange warily, clearly wishing that they had not brought Marigold anywhere near the woman. Why couldn’t they have invented some sort of illness for Marigold, any excuse at all, to keep her away from the Drewes’ farm? It seems silly to say, “Lady Mary wishes for it to be done, and so it shall” when so much is at stake. Lord Grantham speaks to Mr. Drewe about his wife, but he says that he has it under control, so there is not much more that Lord Grantham is willing to do.

Meanwhile, Daisy is fretting over her speech last week to Mr. Mason’s new landowners. Molesley (who should really get more to do on this show) gets her a copy of past examinations to prepare her for her own, which at least temporarily makes her happy, but she is troubled by her father-in-law’s fate. She wishes that Lady Grantham could do something about it and decides that she has to speak with her about it. It would be better, she reasons, to know that she did everything she could. Lady Grantham thinks that, perhaps, there is a chance that she could have an idea for Mr. Mason, and I have a feeling that things are about to work out too conveniently, given the trouble with the Drewes.

Anna is the queen of drama. Can’t the woman get a single break? She is crying in private about her inability to have a child, and Bates wisely tells her that she should share her problems with him. Lady Mary, in a moment of kindness, brings Anna to London to see a specialist, the same one she saw when she was having difficulties before she had George. The doctor knows what the problem is and seems to have a solution, which I hope bodes well for Anna. She certainly is a great deal happier after the visit to London.

Given his past in the house, Thomas is somewhat of an outcast. He is continuing to see his redundancy and feels hostility from the rest of the house, so he interviews for a new position. It does not go well. Not only would he have to fill various roles (chauffeur and valet and footman), the man who is interviewing him seems to sense that Thomas prefers men and is prejudiced against him for it. Poor Thomas. I would never have thought, during the first season, that there would come a time when I would feel bad for Thomas. So does Baxter, but he does not want her pity or sympathy, so he is simultaneously hated and ostracizing himself.

Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson are having more problems with their wedding planning, but this time it is about location. Lady Mary is insistent that the reception should take place at Downton Abbey. Mrs. Hughes feels that, since it is her wedding day, it should take place somewhere else. She rightly feels that Downton is just the place she works and not who she is. However, Carson has always had a soft spot for Lady Mary and does not want to go against her wishes. This is not resolved by the end of the episode, and I do hope Mrs. Hughes wins. After all, if it were held at Downton Abbey, I doubt that Lady Mary would be doing any of the work setting up the reception. She is saying that they can use the space, but not that they won’t have to do all of the work of getting it ready for the reception.

The Dowager Countess and Isobel are still fighting over the hospital. Each are trying to gain votes to their own side, and despite my deep admiration of Dame Maggie Smith, I feel that Isobel is bound to win this fight. It is all about change and progress, and this series has always been on the side of change.

Lady Mary is taking her role as the new agent, and her first course of action is to enter one of Downton Abbey’s prized pigs into a local competition. Hence the visit to the Drewes’ farm described earlier. During the showing of the pigs, Mrs. Drewe arrives and lurks in a most sinister way. When Lady Mary wins, everyone is distracted and Marigold disappears. It does not take Mr. Drewe long to realize what has happened. He drives with Lord and Lady Grantham and Lady Edith to his farm (leaving Lady Mary, poor thing, to be miffed about having to find her own way home). Just as Mr. Drewe suspected, he finds his wife with Marigold in one of the more chilling scenes of the series. I can sympathize with Mrs. Drewe (having the daughter that she always wanted, and then having her taken away by wealthy, entitled people), but the scene was presented in an extremely creepy way. Mr. Drewe takes the child from his wife and brings her back to her family, agreeing that he should find a new place as soon as possible.

I do wish that this season had brought new storylines. Instead, we get a rehash of the secret daughter drama and more Anna troubles. It would be a better solution, since the Drewes have otherwise been such good tenants, for Edith to finally move to London with Marigold. But then Mr. Mason needs a place, so it seems that the Drewes must go. Given the difficulty Mr. Mason is having, would it really be that easy for Mr. Drewe to relocate his family? And London really is the best place for Lady Edith and Marigold, which makes the resolution all the more frustrating. I had high expectations since this will be the last season, but everything has a very Cold Comfort Farm feel to it. Lady Edith, if you are unhappy, do something about it. That is all.

Review Fridays: How to Be a Heroine

I wanted to like How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis. From the blurb I read before starting the book, I knew that Ellis and I share favorite heroines in common (Lizzy Bennet! Esther Greenwood!). But I felt like the book fell flat for me in some undefinable way: the date who seems perfect on paper but just doesn’t click when you’re in a room together. I got annoyed, at some points, with her idea of what women should be and shouldn’t be. Beth March is dismissed as a wet blanket, too quiet, too submissive, too good. My beloved Fanny Price is similarly thrown aside as dreadfully dull.

I started wondering whether picking up the book had been a mistake when Ellis admitted that she had always wanted to be Cathy Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights. Cathy? Really? That was the first sign to me that Ellis and I weren’t on the same page or even in the same book or genre or library. Gradually, as I read, I realized more and more that this book and I were not a match. Ellis’s feminist interpretations emphasize the romantic plots while minimizing the growth of the characters, whether they are quiet or loud, beautiful or plain.

In a book that is supposed to be about relating to heroines, every time Ellis said she wanted to look like a heroine, focusing on the outward description rather than personality traits, I thought she rather missed the point. During the Scarlett O’Hara chapter, she mentions that she tried to starve herself so that she could have Scarlett’s 19 inch waist (an impossible feat). She wants long, blond hair like a Disney princess. I couldn’t relate to that, and, after a while, it was a bit annoying. The qualities she admires are similarly puzzling. She says at one point that she likes Lydia Bennet’s complete lack of shame after she ran away with Wickham and that she dislikes Lizzy’s judgment of Lydia. Why is it wrong for Lizzy to think that Lydia should have shown some remorse and humility? Lydia almost ruined her entire family’s reputation. Is the message that, if you do something wrong, you should just flaunt it regardless of the consequences, that it is better to learn nothing at all?

The book is all over the place. In the Lizzy Bennet chapter, she jumps from Pride and Prejudice to Shakespeare to Judy Blume to Jilly Cooper (whom, it seems, she talks about just so she can describe raunchy scenes. The discussion of Cooper’s books adds nothing at all to the chapter). She continues this pattern throughout the book. The chapters are unfocused, jumping from one heroine to the next, instead of specifically talking about what she learned from each of the chapter title characters and the novels they inhabit. it is a shame because Ellis does have some good insights into the novels she writes about.

Add to all of that a shaky understanding of author’s lives. Her conclusions about Jane Austen at the end of the Lizzy Bennet chapter felt wrong to me, like Ellis had only watched cheesy biopics of Austen’s life and had drawn all of the wrong conclusions. I knew less about some of the other authors she talked about than I did about Jane Austen, but, as a result of my misgivings about what she wrote about Austen, I was unwilling to continue to accept everything she wrote as true. It is difficult to read a book by someone when you aren’t entirely sure that you can trust their research or conclusions.

This book could have used some order, or, as a memoir, a narrative pulling the entire thing together. The best memoirs have a thread connecting all of the stories of the writer’s life. Ellis writes about her family being uprooted from Iraq and her body image issues and expectations for marriage and her first experiences with dating and boyfriends and love and about her formative years at Cambridge. However, she wrote a coming-of-age story without really defining her personal journey and what was at stake.

There were some interesting points, but the actual book did not meet my expectations based on the blurb I read. The title is How to Be a Heroine, but it doesn’t really tell the reader anything about that.