My Year with Jane Austen: “Emma” [2009]

mv5bmtgxmdc1mzqxmv5bml5banbnxkftztcwmzy0mzuwmw4040._v1_TV Mini Series: “Emma”

Release Year: 2009

Actors: Emma – Romola Garai

Mr. Knightley – Jonny Lee Miller

Harriet Smith – Louise Dylan

Frank Churchill – Rupert Evans

Comparison – “Indulge your imagination in every possible flight.”

As it is so much longer than the previous version, this mini series was able to do what the 1995 BBC version of “Pride and Prejudice” was able to do for that story. Every  major scene and character is included, and the series doesn’t shy away from adding its own touches here and there which further flesh out side characters like Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. The series also plays fairly fast and loose with the dialogue, but overall it retains the spirit of every exchange and there are few instances where these changes stand out.

One of the more major changes from the book is in the framing of the story around Emma, Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill and how their lives were greatly influenced by the losses they experienced as children. This version of the story devotes quite a bit of time to the story before where the book itself picks up. In this way, we really do see how Emma has always been the center of attention. Unlike the other two children without a parent(s), she stays home. We see that even as a governess, Miss Taylor is bewitched by the charming Emma. And, of course, her father can see no flaws in her. Mr. Knightley is the only one to critique her, and even he admits privately that she’s the most beautiful and smart of her family. The movie also does a lot of groundwork to set the stage for Emma’s matchmaking. This version has Emma claiming to be the influence behind her sister and John’s marriage, a change from the book. So by the time she gets to Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston and has success there, it’s hardly any wonder that she believes herself an expert in this area.

The cast is also superb. There’s not a single misstep in the entirety. If forced to single someone out, I might say that this version of Jane Fairfax leaned very heavily into the reserved portion of her character at the expense of her elegance. In this way, the 1996 version may have come out ahead. The Jane we saw there was undeniably elegant, and it was easy to see why Emma would be threatened by her. This Jane had a tendency to fade into the background and read as more shy than anything else. But other than that small quibble, I really loved everyone who was cast in this. Michael Gambon is probably the standout as far as excellent side characters, and he really helps sell the loving, but dependent, relationship Mr. Woodhouse has for his daughter.

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

Romola Garai’s Emma is very different than Gwyneth Paltrow’s. Where Paltrow’s version was more cool and collected, Garai’s is joyous and exuberant.  This version of Emma seems to ground more of her flaws in youth and actual inexperience with the world and people than in any true character flaws. In many ways, I think this is very accurate to the book. Both there and here, we see a character who has always been the center of every social situation she’s in: family, friends, and the greater neighborhood overall. It’s like Frank Churchill notes later, “she presides over all.” It’s no wonder that this early regard from almost everyone in her life, regard pushed to the point of adoration even, would have this effect on her. We only ever see Mr. Knightley be critical of Emma and her decisions and even he can’t resist pairing his criticism with compliments (to her looks, when he is talking to Mrs. Weston, and to her wit, however misused, when he’s fighting with Emma herself).

Garai’s version of the character definitely pops on the screen, and it’s easy to see how the eyes of all would be drawn to her. She has a much more playful take on Emma’s matchmaking than we’ve seen before, but is still able to capture the more serious moments as well. When she confesses to Harriet, after revealing the truth about Mr. Elton, that she would be lucky to resemble Harriet in any small way, it’s very touching.

I also like all the attention that is given to Emma’s relationship with her father in this version. We see many small moments of the two of them together, with Emma fretting over her father’s scarf and worrying over the brewing conflict between him and John Knightley. I also really liked the way they dealt with the situation about their living arrangements after Emma and Mr. Knightley get engaged. It works both as a comedic scene, with Emma barging into Knightley’s office and declaring they can never marry and rushing out again, and as a serious one, as we can also see the true pain Emma is feeling about the prospect of hurting her father and her refusal to put him through that.

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

I absolutely love Jonny Lee Miller in most everything, and his take on Mr. Knightley is probably one of the strongest selling points for this version of the story for me. I really have zero criticisms for the way he portrays this character. In the book, Mr. Knightley really doesn’t have a lot to do in the first half of the story. He kind of pops in and out, has a big fight with Emma, and then disappears for a good bit until reappearing about halfway through the story. But this version makes good work of including him better in scenes and giving him more lines here and there to keep him ever present in viewers minds.

Miller has great delivery on some of the more comedic lines, like his and Emma’s teasing about the use of carriages. And, of course, he excels in the scenes in which he fights with Emma. This version’s fight over the Harriet/Mr. Martin situation is the most extended of all the versions, and it’s great watching them both shine. And then in the Miss Bates scolding, I love the way he delivers his lines, especially the “badly done.” You can see a marked difference in this fight versus the first. Miller’s able to add a new layer of disappointment and concern that speaks well to the character’s change in perspective to Emma.

I also liked all the scenes they include of Mr. Knightley walking about the countryside, playing in the snow with his nieces and nephews, etc. It’s a good highlight of the type of active, outdoorsman that he is presented as. This version also gives us personal insight into Mr. Knightley’s own thoughts. After the ball scene, we see him imaging Emma in his own home. It’s a good contrast to the two scenes we had before where Emma imagines Mr. Knightley married to Jane Fairfax. It’s great having both scenes with the different insights into their different thoughts and feelings.

The movie also includes several little scenes between Harriet and Mr. Knightley. We see them walking together, sitting next to each other, and talking privately. It all comes across in a very natural way, but then when Harriet brings up her hopes for the future, we, the audience, can see the groundwork lain. And it’s easier to understand Emma’s real concern that Harriet may be a true threat to Emma’s future happiness.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

The Frank Churchill of this version leans heavily in on the villainous side of the character. He takes every opportunity to criticize Jane behind her back, commenting to Emma about her hair being ugly and how unlovable a reserved person is. He seems to be criticizing her when he sidehandedly comments about the mistake he made in bring up Dr. Perry’s carriage plans when hardly anyone else knew about it. And the flirtation with Emma is at a peak. At the Box Hill party we see him making more snide comments to Jane, all while being completely overboard with his compliments to Emma, even laying on her lap at one point, a shocking level of familiarity at that time.

He also seems often poor tempered. Whining and complaining about his life to Emma during the strawberry picking, and then, again, being a poor tempered brat at Box Hill. The actor’s take on the character really works well with this interpretation of the character, as he has a bunch of perfect facial expressions that highlight how shallow and spoiled Frank can often be. All in all, it’s hard not to agree with Knightley’s assessment of the situation: that Jane could do much better.

There is an interesting added twist to his character in that we see early in the movie the scene where he is sent away from home after his mother dies. And then towards the end, we see him return to the same spot. It seems to be implying that he holds some bitterness towards his father for sending him away. But the movie just barely brushes on this angle, and even the interpretation I’m making from it is by no means super clear. It’s an odd little track that I wish they had either more fully committed to exploring, in context of the character traits Frank exhibits as an adult, or left out entirely. As it is, it’s a bit weak, and like I said, I don’t feel fully confident that I even understand fully what they were going for.

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

I really, really like what they do with the romance in this version. Like I pointed out in my review of the book, the romantic plotline isn’t really even hinted at until over halfway through the story. So if readers aren’t invested in Emma’s comedy and antics, it can be a bit of a letdown. And in a movie version of the story, it’s even harder to pull of this type of late-game introduction of a romantic storyline.  If not handled right, it can make the romance seen as an afterthought and not properly built to.

Here, however, by giving Mr. Knightley more to do and more lines, the movie is careful to lay a thorough groundwork for the romance throughout. There are at least two instances that I can think of specifically where the movie goes out of its way to show how Mr. Knightley’s actions are often motivated by his feelings for Emma. First, when John and Isabella are visiting and John begins to become snappish with Mr. Woodhouse, the camera cuts to Mr. Knightley’s face and we see him observing Emma becoming more and more distressed. Even though they are still fighting a bit over the Harriet/Mr. Martin thing, it’s clear that Mr. Knightley’ speaks up to redirect his brother in an effort to bring Emma more peace. And secondly, at the ball, we see Emma become increasingly upset as she dances nearby Harriet and witnesses the rudeness of Mr. Elton. Again, the camera cuts to Mr. Knightley and we see his face as he watches Emma becoming more and more upset before he steps forward to aide Harriet. Both of these are very small moments, but they are so important for constantly fixing audiences’ attention on the importance of Emma to Mr. Knightley. And in both instances, Emma expresses thanks for Mr. Knightley’s actions, either in a quiet smile towards him or directly spoken to him.

I also really like the way they film the proposal scene and the moments directly afterward. I would say I wish they had filmed it in a bit less of a sunny location as you can tell both actors are having to squint at each other while talking. But as for the added dialogue and the delivery of lines, I think it’s excellent. Miller has perfect delivery on the “If I loved you less, I could talk about it more” line. And I really liked the added lines they gave Emma for her response to his declaration. As the book doesn’t include these lines, all the movies have to make something up here, and I think they did very well.

I also like the scenes after, the quiet, intimate moments when the two are sitting on a private bench discussing when they realized they loved each other. It has a nice balance of romance and a continuation of the type of friendly teasing that will always be in their relationship. And, of course, we get to see them go on their honeymoon and go to the seaside. The movie does a good job of introducing this fact, that Emma has never been to the seaside, early in the movie and then touching on it here and there throughout. So it’s a neat little button on the movie to end with her and Knightley standing on a cliff side looking out over the ocean.

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

Louise Dylan does a fantastic job as Harriet Smith. She perfectly captures the character’s simple beauty and charm, but also her lack of real depth. I love her facial expressions as she’s posing for her portrait and trying to secretly sneak Mr. Elton’s pencil. I also think one of the funniest lines in the entire movie is when she’s trying to work out Mr. Elton’s riddle and when asked by Emma to put the words “ship” and “court” together, she excitedly comes up with “Ship court!” Good stuff.

The Eltons are also always good for a laugh in more of a love-to-hate them sort of way. Mr. Elton’s exuberance early in the movie is overwhelming. And he’s at his peak at the Christmas party where he rudely snaps at one of the servants not to crush Emma’s coat. And then constantly bothers her with questions and, later, literally wedges himself in between her and another guest. You have to wonder if Emma was beginning to question whether Elton would even due for Harriet, let alone herself.

One of Mrs. Elton’s best moments is when she commenting about abhorring being over-trimmed while literally being covered with feathers and ruffles. The movie also does a great just with some quick cuts between characters when Emma is trying to plan the trip to Box Hill. We see how instantaneously Mrs. Elton dominates every social plan to make herself the center of attention. It’s also a nice little karma moment for viewers when we see Mr. Elton struggling to pull along the donkey that Mrs. Elton insisted on riding to strawberry picking. It’s completely ridiculous, but he literally yoked himself to this situation, so…

Fun facts – “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”

I remember hearing in some commentary or another that the stylists exaggerated Mr. Elton’s puffed up hair do more and more throughout the movie to signify is growing ego and ridiculousness.

Jonny Lee Miller and Blake Ritson (Mr. Elton) had both previously played the same Austen hero, Edmund Bertram, in two different adaptations of “Mansfield Park.” We should have seen them both in those first had I reviewed these in the right order, but alas. I bet everyone can guess who I thought did the character better…

There was a surprise spattering of snow outside the house that was staged as Hartfield one day.  And when the director was notified of it, they rushed cameras down, along with the signature swan that was often shown outside of the house, to capture the view for the winter scenes.

Christina Cole (Mrs. Elton) played Caroline Bingley in “Lost in Austen.” A pretty good fit, I’d say.

Emma is often shown at Hartfield wearing a small watch adornment attached to her dress. This was included to signify that she was the lady of the house.

Best Movie Gif/Meme: “I dearly love a laugh.”

Have I mentioned that I love Jonny Lee Miller’s version of this character? Even in small moments like this, when he’s being exasperated by Emma’s silliness:

And this movie has one of the best Austen dance scenes, as we get to see our two main characters dance together while clearly enjoying each other’s company. It’s also fun because Miller makes several awkward facial expressions throughout that show that he is becoming more and more aware of how in love with Emma he is, even though she’s still obviously clueless.

In two weeks, I’ll review a modern adaptation, “Clueless.”

My Year with Jane Austen – “Emma” [1996]

mv5bn2e1ytuzzdatodq2ys00mwnjlwezmzatzjgwy2m3ztcwotjhxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynje5mjuyotm40._v1_uy268_cr00182268_al_Movie: “Emma”

Release Year: 1996

Actors: Emma – Gwyneth Paltrow

Mr. Knightley – Jeremy Northam

Harriet Smith – Toni Collette

Frank Churchill – Ewan McGregor

Comparison – “Indulge your imagination in every possible flight.”

This and the 1995 “Pride and Prejudice” were probably my earliest adaptations of Jane Austen books that I watched repeatedly. Since the release of the 2009 version of “Emma,” I’ve preferred that one, but much of that comes down to its longer length and my never-ending love for Johnny Lee Miller. I ultimately still enjoy this version and can appreciate Paltrow’s version of the main character.

The movie definitely stays more true to the book in the first half of the story, covering the Harriet/Elton/Emma love triangle pretty effectively. Once Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax arrive on the scene, the story diverges more and leaves about a bunch of fairly critical information/scenes that really establish the situation going on there. While effectively changing the way that story line plays out and the fallout of that situation, overall, given the time restraints of this movie, things still seems to come together well enough. If you were going to cut back on a portion of the story, it makes sense that it would be that one. It really does take all of those extra scenes and little side comments from Frank Churchill to establish the full history of between him and Jane and why she would choose to pursue being a governess. There’s no way to really include all of that without either cutting back on Harriet’s story or cutting back on Knightley and Emma, which would be inexcusable.

The movie keeps a few important lines of dialogue, but definitely strays pretty far from adhering to close to the original. More often than not, it will cover similar scenes and topics of conversation but mildly tweak the actual dialogue itself. Most of this works well enough, though I didn’t care as much for this version of the final romantic exchange between Mr. Knightley and Emma. Instead, I appreciated more the added small jokes that the movie threw in between these two characters which I thought worked very well and highlighted the good chemistry between the two actors.

While I still prefer the 2009 version (it’s really just impossible to compete with a version that can devote literally two times more time to the story), I do like this adaptation overall. I don’t have any real complaints with Paltrow’s interpretation of the character or much of what is cut. I also think the music, costuming, and many of the outdoor sets are also excellent and tie well together with the overall tone of the movie.

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

Since this film’s release, Gwyneth Paltrow has developed a certain reputation that often plays against her. I’m not quibbling with that, as she has definitely said and done some things that deserve all the raised eyebrows. But as a performer, I’ve never had a problem with her. And in my opinion she’s pretty perfectly cast as Emma. Even the weirdness of the actress kind of makes sense for a character like Emma!

While she definitely plays Emma a bit more cool than some of the version we’ll see later on,  I do think that this interpretation is pretty close to the book’s description and to what one could expect of a lady of the time in her position. She’s polite and proper for the most part, but we do see small breaks that show that she’s still a flawed young woman: snapping a bit at Mr. Elton at the Christmas party, deferring performing at the party until Jane is suggested as an alternative, etc.

The movie also includes a bit of inner narration for the character which I think is an interesting and almost necessary aspect to really get at Emma’s inner thoughts and all the flaws in her own reasoning. To make up for where this tactic doesn’t work, the movie adds in more talks between Emma and Mrs. Weston that further elaborate. Emma confesses to Mrs. Weston the mess she made of the Elton/Harriet situation, swears off matchmaking, and then promptly begins wondering aloud who would be right for Harriet. She also confesses her realization about her own feelings for Mr. Knightley to Mrs. Weston later in the movie. Here, in something that I think is unique to this adaptation, we see Mrs. Weston give Emma instructions that exactly match what Emma had told Harriet to do with regards to Harriet’s love life earlier. It’s a nice touch that highlights just how much of Emma’s true wisdom came from Mrs. Weston originally, as we see in this later exchange that these instructions must have been things she had said before to Emma.

I also liked the way that Emma experiences the fall-out of her cruelty to Miss Bates. The event itself is made pretty heart-wrenching with Miss Bates commenting that she must be pretty intolerable for an old friend to say something like that. Mrs. Weston shoots her many disapproving looks. And, of course, the lecture from Mr. Knightley is harsh, and we see Emma immediately break down under the crushing disappointment of her friend. To make matters worse, in this version, Miss Bates refuses to see Emma the next day when Emma attempts to visit to make up for things.

I also really like Toni Collette’s version of Harriet. She’s immensely likable, and it’s impossible not to feel for her as she suffers from Emma’s nonsense. Another interesting change in her storyline is that Emma thinks up Harriet and Frank as a couple before the interaction with the gypsies. I’m not sure exactly why they changed this, as it seems much more random this way. Though we don’t hear any dialogue, I like that we see a small snippet of Emma having to confess to Harriet that she has yet again become the object of love of the man Harriet has been pining for. We see Harriet run from the room and it really help it hit home how hard this would have been for both Harriet and Emma.  To balance this out, I really like that we get an additional scene, later, where Harriet herself tells Emma about her new engagement to Robert Martin, and the two make up. It’s a bit more happy and seems to set up a future of friendship between the two than the more distanced ending in the book, but I don’t mind the change.

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

Jeremy Northam definitely brings his own take to the character of Mr. Knightley. I’m not sure how accurate I feel it is to the book version, however. Not that this is a huge complaint, as I think the version he brings works well with the overall tone of this movie. He’s much more teasing and laughing than the more generally serious Knightley we see in the book. The movie adds a number of additional quips and jokes between Emma and Knightley, and I think the chemistry between the two actors works well to establish this type of familiar, teasing friendship. Northam has a great way of laughing with his eyes whenever the camera cuts to him after one of Emma’s more silly moments. It’s a nice way of seeing him “in” on some of Emma’s plans that probably go unnoticed by most of the other people around them. Even their fight over Harriet and Robert Martin is more light-hearted than what we see in the book, with a few of the more heated exchanges getting broken up with humor.

The age difference thing was pretty weird, however. The movie goes out of its way to include a very specific line about how these two are 16 years apart in age, but this age discrepancy doesn’t hold true at all when actually looking at the characters involved. I’m not sure why they chose to even include this line as it wasn’t necessary in any way to the story they were telling and just threw me out of things since it seemed so glaringly inaccurate with the casting.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

I guess we’ll throw Frank Churchill in this section, though I think one of the bigger changes this movie makes is in really scaling back his storyline and making him much less “villainous” than he was in the book. For one, when he goes to confess to Emma in the first half of the movie, he ends up being interrupted and the way it is played makes it seem much more like he was actually planning on telling her the truth about him and Jane.

From there on out, he’s much less flirtatious with Emma than the version in the book. And he’s also much less cruel to Jane, both in secret jokes with Emma and in public. The Dixon joke goes nowhere, and we never see Emma and Frank put Jane on the spot over this. They don’t fight at the strawberry picking. Frank doesn’t flirt obnoxiously with Emma at Box Hill, instead spending his time distracting Mrs. Elton from her persistent haranguing of Jane about her future as a governess. And then due to all of this, Jane never takes the extreme step of actually reaching out to an employer and making plans for her future down that path. In the end, this leaves much of the harm from the Frank/Jane secret fairly toothless. Emma rants for a bit to Mrs. Weston about Frank’s being lucky that she wasn’t more attached, but from what we saw, Frank’s behavior to her wasn’t that extreme to begin with. All told, he gets off with much less criticism (particularly from Mr. Knightley) and behaves better here than he does in the book.

Ewan McGregor’s performance is solid, and he has a way of making his charm slightly sleazy at the same time, which immediately sets him apart from ever being considered a true love interest for Emma. He gets an opportunity to sing, as well, which is always a bonus!

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

The romance is nice enough in this movie. I think it plays second fiddle to much of the comedy, however. Even Emma and Mr. Knightley’s relationship plays better in their teasing friendship stage than the actual romance itself. There’s this weird running commentary of them being like brother and sister and then not actually brother and sister that I just found off-putting. I don’t need the mental image of them being like siblings ever introduced in the equation, even if they set it aside later. Just leave it be.

The dance scene is also a bit of a let-down. The dance they used in particular had Northam needing to prance about a bit more than is becoming. And the way it is filmed is never very intimate, undercutting what is usually one of the more romantic (or at least important) scenes in any Austen story. The camera stays at a distance for much of it, and while I get the symbolism of Knightley and Emma always coming together and then moving apart, it didn’t really hit home the way other dance scenes in other Austen adaptations have.

Lastly, the proposal/love confession scene at the end of the movie. I liked the awkwardness at the lead up and the way Emma shuts him down only to catch him back up and continue the conversation. The movie does include the pivotal “if I loved you less maybe I could about it more” line, but this is one of the few moments where Northam’s winking smile undercuts the sincerity of the line that makes it really hit home. They also had to add in more lines to make up for the fact that Austen never actually wrote a response for Emma. It’s ok, but I wouldn’t list this scene as the best original writing in the movie, which is too bad.

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

Miss Bates is quite good in this version. She adds a few tics, like shouting random words at her elderly mother, and continuously interrupting herself to fetch napkins, that really work well. She doesn’t have tons of screen time, but she works well with what she has and sets the character up well enough that the viewer really feels the cruelty in Emma’s throwaway comment at her about talking too much.

Unfortunately, Mr. Woodhouse has even less screen time so much of his humor is drastically cut back. They still include the cake moment in the beginning of the movie, which is always funny. But for much of the rest of the movie he kind of fades into the background.

Instead, the Eltons, both Mr. and Mrs., really hold the spotlight on the comedy side of things. This version of Mr. Elton really leans in to the ridiculousness of the character. He’s not made out to be very handsome or charming at all, something that the character is noted as being in the book as Knightley comments that Elton won’t waste these advantages in marriage. One almost feels sorry for any potential future Harriet would have with this version of the character. His pestering of Emma at the Christmas party is quite funny. And his cruelty towards Harriet at the ball is equally harsh.

Mrs. Elton is pretty great all around. Her constant interrupting of Mr. Elton really cements the unfortunate future he has ahead of him with this woman he deemed better than the sweet Harriet. She doesn’t have tons of screen time, so we miss some of her good moments from the book, but the movie does what it can. Instead of having her lord her position as a new bride over the ball, the movie shows various characters spotting the Eltons coming and making quick escapes, another glance into the future these two have before them. She also gets the only break of the third wall in the entire film when she speaks directly to the camera/audience, criticizing Emma’s wedding for having a deplorable lack of satin.

Fun facts – “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”

The same dance used for Emma and Mr. Knightley is also used in the 1995 version of “Pride and Prejudice” for Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth. We see much less of it here, of course. I will say that I think it was much better suited for the latter film. The rather stuffy, overly regal tone of the dance fit better with Elizabeth’s perceptions of Darcy at the time. And the less intimate style of dance also suited the awkwardness of that situation for those two characters at that point in the story. In this story, the dance between Emma and Mr. Knightley should be one of the first overtly romantic moments we see. And, if nothing else, we should have a style of dance that highlights the close relationship these two already have, not something that distances them.

Mrs. Bates and Miss Bates are real life mother and daughter, though it was just chance that they were both cast. They are also mother and sister to Emma Thompson, so yet another Austen adaptation with some connection to that actress (the third)!

Ewan McGregor regretted being in this movie. It’s not super clear why, but he disliked his performance and noted that the atrocious wig was definitely not doing him any favors.

Best Movie Gif/Meme: “I dearly love a laugh.”

Mr. Knightley’s line here is “Try not to shoot my dogs.” This is part of the scene where they’re fighting over Harriet’s future and her turning down Robert Martin. It’s a nice example of the teasing approach to the character that Northam has.

In two weeks, I’ll review the 2009 version of “Emma”

My Year with Jane Austen: “Emma” Part II

6969Book: “Emma”

Publication Year: 1815

Book Description: Emma Woodhouse is one of Austen’s most captivating and vivid characters. Beautiful, spoilt, vain and irrepressibly witty, Emma organizes the lives of the inhabitants of her sleepy little village and plays matchmaker with devastating effect.

Note: Yes, this is out of order. I blame the quarantine and general craziness of watching over a one-year-old, but I finished reading “Emma” about a week or two ago, and only then realized that I had skipped “Mansfield Park.” I probably could have banged “Mansfield Park” out in this last week, but I didn’t want to rush my read of that rather hefty book. And then when I would finally get to “Emma,” around July, I’d be several months removed from my actual read through. So, I think this is better than doggedly sticking to my original order. It is what it is!

Part II – Volume 2, Chapters 11 – End

Story – “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

Frank Churchill is called back to his ill aunt, leaving the entire neighborhood bereft. Before he leaves, however, he visits Emma and seems to be on the cusp of some great confession. He doesn’t get it out, but Emma assumes it was a profession of love. She believes she must be in love, too; how could she not be?

Soon enough, however, a new distraction arrives in the return of Mr. Elton with a new bride. Mrs. Elton soon makes a poor impression on Emma, coming across as snobby, full-of-herself and, especially bad, overly familiar with Mr. Knightley, calling him “Knightley” after only one meeting. Mrs. Elton soon cools towards Emma, too, and between herself and Mr. Elton, the two become quite unpleasant neighbors, though Emma puts on a good face about it. For a new companion, Mrs. Elton takes Jane Fairfax under her wing, eagerly hoping to help with Jane’s need to look for a governess position soon. Jane attempts to dissuade her, but Mrs. Elton is persistent.

Frank’s aunt decides to take up residence much closer to Highbury, so he becomes a much more frequent visitor of the neighborhood. Emma finds, on his return, that she didn’t seem to miss him much at all and must not have really loved him. He, too, seems to be less in love, though the two still enjoy joking around with one another. Frank, Emma, and the Westons arrange to have a ball in the town center. It’s a fancy affair and everyone arrives decked out, though Frank comments negatively on Jane’s looks.

Early in the dance, while most people are paired up already, Mr. Elton rudely and publicly snubs Harriet who is still sitting alone without someone to dance with. Mr. Knightley arrives and asks her to dance, pleasing Emma to see her friend so happy. Later, she admits to Mr. Knightley that she was wrong about Mr. Elton, and Mr. Knightley concedes that Harriet has some first rate qualities that the new Mrs. Elton with without. The two dance together.

A while later, the neighborhood is thrown into confusion when Harriet and her friend are set upon by gypsies while walking. Frank arrives in the nick of time and whisks Harriet back to Hartfield. Emma believes she may see a spark between the two after this incident. Later, when she and Harriet are talking, Harriet confesses that she no longer plans to marry and Emma guesses to her that it may be because the man she prefers is so far above her. Harriet confesses that it is true. Emma reassures her that unequal marriages happen all the time and its no wonder Harriet fell for him after he rescued her like that. Harriet goes on about her feelings at the moment, though both she and Emma agree not to name the gentleman in question so there are no mistakes this time around.

As the summer progresses, there are many opportunities for the group to gather together. They all go to Mr. Knightley’s home one summer day do pick strawberries; even Mr. Woodhouse is convinced to come and Mr. Knightley makes great effort to make sure he is comfortable. Mrs. Elton continues to hound Jane about her future as a governess, and in a quiet moment, Emma catches Jane sneaking away. Jane begs her to let her go on her own and claims that she is emotionally exhausted. Emma helps her and worries about her health. Soon after Jane leaves, Frank Churchill arrives in a poor temper, saying his life is a series of frustrations and he will soon leave the country. Emma convinces him to come on a trip to Box Hill that they are all are taking.

The trip is immediately a poor affair. It is hot and everyone seems to be in bad moods. After wandering around, they all sit down for a picnic lunch though no one seems to talk much. Frank and Emma try to carry the conversation with Frank becoming more and more exuberant and ridiculous, prodding Emma that she must find him a wife who is just like her. Emma thinks of Harriet. Jane pipes up that it is hard to truly know someone on short acquaintances, and Frank seems put out. He insists everyone play a game in which they must say something clever, two things sort of clever, or three things dull indeed. Miss Bates says she will succeed easily as she always says dull things. Emma laughingly says that the struggle will be only saying three at one time. This hits with a thud. Everyone gradually wanders away. As Emma is walking, she is caught up by an angry Mr. Knightley. He berates her for being so cruel to Miss Bates and says it was badly done. Emma feels the truth of his words, but he walks away before she has time to apologize.

The next day, Emma gets up early to call on Miss Bates in an attempt to apologize and start to behave better by her. When she gets there, she meets with Miss Bates but Jane refuses to see her. Miss Bates says that Jane has accepted a governess position, taking them all by surprise, though Jane seems very sad about it. Upon returning home, Emma meets with Mr. Knightley who is just taking his leave. He is told about her trip to the Bates’ and seems to know what she was about. He says that he is leaving on a substantial trip to London. Emma is saddened to see him go.

Over the next few weeks, Emma tries to befriend Jane but is turned away at every attempt. Eventually, news comes that Frank’s aunt has passed away. Soon after, Emma is called to the Westons for urgent news. It turns out that Frank and Jane have been secretly engaged since before either of them came to Highury. Mrs. Weston is beside herself, worrying that Emma was in love with Frank and knowing that that is what she and her husband had been wanting. Emma is hurt and confused by Frank’s behavior, but reassures Mrs. Weston that she never loved Frank. She understands, now, why Jane avoided her, however, seeing as Frank flirted with her constantly in front of Jane.

Emma goes to Harriet, feeling the awful weight of having to deliver the bad news once again that the man Harriet loves is with someone else. But Harriet seems unaffected! Emma soon learns that she was again, mistaken: Harriet never meant Frank Churhill when she spoke of being in love, she meant Mr. Knightly. They go over all the details of their confusion, and Emma sees how she, again, misinterpreted things. Harriet feels confident that Mr. Knightley returns her affections and Emma admits that he is the last man who would ever intentionally lead someone on. The entire affair makes one thing blatantly clear: she, Emma Woodhouse, is in love with Mr. Knightley.

Wretched, Emma returns home. A few days later, Mr. Knightley arrives at Hartfield. He and Emma walk about the house and Mr. Knightley hurries to reassure Emma that Frank is a scoundrel who never deserved her. Emma confesses that while Frank did use her to continue his scheme of hiding his relationship with Jane, she was never in love with him. Mr. Knightley says that he is jealous of Frank in a way, that Frank’s secret is known. Emma cuts him off quickly, not wanting to hear his confession of love for Harriet. Shortly after, however, she feels what she has done and rushes to tell Mr. Knightley that he can say anything to her, as her friend. Mr. Knightley says he doesn’t want to be just friends and asks if he has a chance with her? Emma realizes that she was mistaken once again, and the two confess their love for each other.

Eventually all is settled. Harriet, again heart broken, manages to find love for a third time with Mr. Martin and the two are married. Mr. Knightley, knowing Emma cannot leave her father who depends on her so much, decides to move into Hartfield after they marry. John and Isabella come to stay with Mr. Woodhouse and give Emma and Mr. Knightley the chance to go on a honeymoon to the seaside.

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

I think what really sells Emma to the most readers, something that Austen didn’t put enough stock into when she worried people wouldn’t like her heroine, is just how much page time is devoted to her feelings of regret, sorrow, and duty. She makes mistakes, huge ones and small, but it can be argued that she pays equally high prices for those mistakes.

In her misleading of Harriet, she ends up in a situation where Harriet sees a future for herself with the very man Emma now knows she loves. And the book spends pages really exploring how Emma realizes all of the little mistakes and steps that she took that lead to this situation. But on top of her regrets, there are even better small moments, like a line detailing Emma’s inner thoughts about how she had no right to crush or criticize Harriet’s dreams of a life with Mr. Knightley. Emma recognizes that it was she who formed this friendship with Harriet, she who encouraged attachment and the trust Harriet now puts in her sharing these deep secrets. Emma has no right to smack her down, and so she stays quiet and says what needs to be said: that she will support Harriet and that Mr. Knightley would never lead any woman on.

We also see Emma pay the price of her foolishness with Frank Churchhil. Delayed, yes, but she does try to form a friendship with Jane and gets no where. Once the truth comes out, she sees the part she played in Jane’s ongoing torment and deeply regrets her behavior. She admits to Mr. Knightley that it is her own behavior more than anything that pains her when she thinks back on that entire situation.

And, of course, the Miss Bates situation. Unlike Mr. Knightley, we see how immediate is Emma’s reaction to his words. She not only recognizes how right he is in this situation but sees how easily she has given way to selfish neglect of Miss Bates in the past. The scene where Emma visits Miss Bates the next morning is awkward and uncomfortable, but we see a reformed Emma who is willing to pay that price to begin again on the right foot.

Beyond all of these moments where we see Emma confront her own inner demons, there is plenty of opportunity given throughout the series to appreciate her innate good qualities. Any and every interaction between Emma and her father shows just how good-hearted Emma can be. She does sacrifice much of the independence and fun that many young women in her position would crave to make sure her father is comfortable and happy. She recognizes her own power in his life, either as a force of good or evil. And she always chooses the good, arranging his evenings to be quiet and comfortable and not pushing him too much as far as her own social plans go. And, obviously, in the end we see just how far she is willing to take this. She fully expects to only be engaged to Mr. Knightley for many years. It never crosses her mind to leave her father, and instead she is ready to put off the biggest happiness of her life, marriage to her true love, in an effort to keep him happy and comfortable while he lives.

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

We see a lot more of Mr. Knightley in general in this second half. And not only does it feel like he’s around more often, but he has some pretty great moments. Rescuing Harriet at the ball, of course, serves as a pretty major lynchpin in the following romantic confusion. He has some excellent lines with regards to Mrs. Elton, effectively putting her in her place when he refuses to let her invite whomever she wants to his house for strawberry picking, noting that only “Mrs. Knightley” will have the privilege of doing that. And he’s the only one to pick up on the weirdness between Frank Churchill and Jane. He even goes so far as to warn Emma about what he suspects, though she laughs him off. You’d think that after admitting to Mr. Knightley himself that he saw things in Mr. Elton that she didn’t, she might be more open to his maybe cluing in on things she isn’t. But, again, she really has no reason to suspect anything like this, what with Frank’s unnecessarily rude comments about Jane’s hair and such.

The only thing he gets wrong is Emma’s regard for Frank, and you can hardly blame him for that given the two of them and their behavior. But it’s funny to see how much of Mr. Knightley’s opinion of Frank depends on Emma’s opinion of Frank:

He found [Emma] agitated and low. – Frank Churchill was a villain.- He hear her to declare that she had never loved him. Frank Churchill’s character was not desperate. – She was his own Emma, by hand and word, when they returned to the house; and if he could have thought of Frank Churchill them, hi might have deemed him a very good sort of fellow.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

Frank Churchill is the closest thing to a villain in this second half of the story. As Mr. Knightley rightly points out, he treats everyone poorly and then everyone is eager to forgive and forget. He is lucky that Emma didn’t fall in love with him, what with his constant flirtations. And for what? He by no means needed to have another object of interest to deflect attention from his engagement to Jane. It’s pretty clear that no one would have put those pieces together (except, obviously, Mr. Knightley).

What’s more, we’re meant to think that he truly loves Jane. And yet, he continually goes out of his way to hurt her by his behavior. Some of it to her face and some of it behind. Talking badly about her appearance to Emma? Why?? For no obvious reason other than his poor character. And then, again, flirting continuously with Emma. He’s at his worst at the picnic at Box Hill, but it’s pretty bad the entire time. Getting Emma to tease Jane alongside him and everything. He really doesn’t deserve Jane, who, other than the questionable decision of being in a secret engagement, really does seem like a nice woman. All of it throws back to Mr. Knightley’s original assessment of Frank: that any man who knows what is right but chooses not to do it is not a man to be admired. Mr. Knightley says this in context of Frank not visiting the new Mrs. Weston, but it applies here, too. Of the two, Jane is the one who suffers more for their secret engagement. And at least half of her torment is due to Frank’s own, intentional behavior. It’s no way to treat someone you claim to love.

Even in the end, with his apologies to Emma, it seems clear that Frank is only half-heartedly feeling the true weight of his poor behavior. He’s still quick with a joke and seems barely able to remain serious long enough to get the basic words out.

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.

I have a note in my Kindle that flags the first real signs of romance in this book, and it comes about two thirds into the story in the second chapter of the third volume. It’s certainly another example of how “Emma” differentiates itself from Austen’s prior novels. Emma herself, as we’ve discussed, is very different than the other heroines. And here we see how much of a back burner the romance plays in this story to the comedy itself. Of course, once it comes it’s immensely gratifying, but again…two thirds of the way through. And even then, it’s Emma admiring Mr. Knightley’s fine figure at the ball and still placing him right aside Frank Churchill as being uncomparable in the room.

It’s kind of an odd thing, but having talked to many “Emma” fans, both of the book and of the various film adaptations, two scenes often stand out between Emma and Mr. Knightley and they both involve the two fighting. Or at the very least, Mr. Knightley scolding Emma. The first, of course, is the fight over Harriet’s future in the first half. And the second is Mr. Knightley’s lecture to Emma about her bad behavior at Box Hill. Let these instance note that for centuries now, people have found romance in this kind of “enemies to lovers” story. Obviously, Mr. Knightley is never Emma’s enemy, but why do people always comment on his “badly done, Emma” as such a notable, almost romantic line? It’s an interesting thing, I’ll say that.

Readers are too sauvy to ever buy into the whole Mr. Knightley/Harriet thing like Emma does. But Austen does do a good amount of work to lay groundwork for why Harriet might think what she does. And really, the entire reason she thinks these things is due to Emma herself. Not only the obvious line about unequal marriages, but the entire way she essentially trained Harriet to look for romance. During the Elton situation, Emma raised even the smallest interaction to heights of importance that of course Harriet would adapt this same method for evaluating all men’s actions. Simple conversations suddenly mean interest. Small moments of kindness mean true love. This all goes to say, that Emma is right when she says she only has herself to blame for the Harriet situation, even if she was more hands off in this second round.

But, of course, it all turns out well. The scene between Mr. Knightley and Emma is everything one could want. We see personal growth on Emma’s side when she catches herself being selfish and turning away from hearing Mr. Knightley. We see how long Mr. Knightley has struggled against his feelings for Emma, going back to the very beginning of the book when he was criticizing Emma, even if he wasn’t aware of it at the time. And we see Emma finally be wrong for one last time, but in the best way possible.

And, ultimately, I don’t think there’s another Austen hero that pulls off as romantic a gesture as Knightley does here. Moving in to Emma’s house for her. Giving up large portions of his own independence, something he has had probably for the last 18 years of life. Now, to live in another man’s house and a man who is by no means the easiest person to live with. And all for Emma. I mean, Darcy’s got some moves, but in all practical senses, I think Mr. Knightley has him beat with this one.

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

Mrs. Elton could also be in the villains category, such as it is. But I think she fits better in comedy in that she really has very little power to inflict real harm on people, unlike Frank Churchill. Instead, her jabs and barbs are more of a nuisance to most than any real threat. Emma, herself, feels very little other than annoyance that Mrs. Elton doesn’t like her. And it seems that by the end of the book, that even Mrs. Elton herself sees the writing on the wall with regards to her dwindling power over those around her. Mr. Knightley proves he won’t be bullied by her on his own, and the combined forces of the Knightleys and Woodhouses once they are married will be more than enough to quell any further major maneuverings by Mrs. Elton.

Because Emma is so secure from Mrs. Elton’s attempts to make her unhappy, Mrs. Elton instead comes off as the kind of non-threatening character who is made all the more fun for being so unlikable. One does feel bad for poor Jane, and it does serve as another example of Emma’s failings in that respect. But Mrs. Elton on a whole is pretty funny. All of her fancy-schmancy mannerisms, her false humility, her assurance that she is the most fashionable, the most influential. Good stuff.

Favorite quotes – “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.”

The classic favorite line, of course. But I think this is also proof that besides the fact that she wrote romances, Austen seemed to struggle the most writing the actual romantic dialogue. There’s really very little in many of the books, if you actually look for spoken lines specifically.

“If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”

Emma is redeemed largely by how much time Austen devoted to her really feeling the weight of her actions, both in the Miss Bates situation and with Harriet’s love for Mr. Knightley.

With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of every body’s feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange every body’s destiny. She was proved to have been universally mistaken; and she had not quite done nothing – for she had done mischief. She had brought evil on Harriet, on herself, and she too much feared, on Mr. Knightley.

And a small line, but one that I found extremely funny this read through:

Mr. Knightley seemed to be trying not to smile; and succeeded without difficulty, upon Mrs. Elton’s beginning to talk to him.

Final thoughts – “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”

I’ve always loved “Emma.” Perhaps less romantic than some of the others, I think the balance of comedy and romance plays perfectly. The fact that Emma has more to her life than her love interest (in fact, he’s a literal afterthought!) is a perk for modern audiences. And I think the personal growth she experiences and her original flaws make her all the more relatable to many readers.

While Mr. Knightley is by no means the most overtly romantic of Austen’s heroes (Darcy has the brooding and grand gestures, Captain Wentworth has that letter), he’s the kind of romantic lead that always appeals to me. I always love the friends-to-lovers storyline, and he has the rare ability to somehow make lecturing sexy.

There are also very few “villainous” characters in this story. The Eltons are more just nonsensical than anything, and Frank Churchill’s wrongs are quickly gotten over, for better or worse. As I’ve discussed previously, Emma herself causes the most actual harm to poor Harriet. Harriet not only loses a year of a presumably happy life as Robert Martin’s wife, but also spends much of that year caught up in foolish ploys followed by crushing disappointments. The fact that their friendship wanes in the end of the book is definitely best for both of them. And while Mr. Knightley may not have been completely wrong when he said they’d both do each other harm, he wasn’t far off base either.

I’m excited to get into the movie adaptations of this movie. From my general memory, “Emma” is the book that has the most versions that I generally liked. So we’ll see if that holds true in the coming weeks!

In two weeks, I’ll review the 1996 version of “Emma.” 

Kate’s Review: “The Silence of Bones”

44280973Book: “The Silence of Bones” by June Hur

Publishing Info: Feiwel & Friends, April 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: I have a mouth, but I mustn’t speak;
Ears, but I mustn’t hear;
Eyes, but I mustn’t see.

1800, Joseon (Korea). Homesick and orphaned sixteen-year-old Seol is living out the ancient curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Indentured to the police bureau, she’s been tasked with assisting a well-respected young inspector with the investigation into the politically charged murder of a noblewoman.

As they delve deeper into the dead woman’s secrets, Seol forms an unlikely bond of friendship with the inspector. But her loyalty is tested when he becomes the prime suspect, and Seol may be the only one capable of discovering what truly happened on the night of the murder.

But in a land where silence and obedience are valued above all else, curiosity can be deadly.

June Hur’s elegant and haunting debut The Silence of Bones is a bloody tale perfect for fans of Kerri Maniscalco and Renée Ahdieh.

Review: Book buying is my version of retail therapy, so you can imagine that lately I’ve been doing a lot of it. While I mostly decide to get print books I can hold from local booksellers, on occasion I will snag something for my Kindle, to save space on my physical shelf and to get some instant gratification as well. “The Silence of Bones” was that kind of scenario, as I had heard of it on and off various book circles online and was interested to check it out and just have it at the ready. I finally dove in over the weekend as chaos and unrest overtook the Twin Cities, needing moments of escape to a completely different place. 19th Century Korea seemed like the perfect place to visit, so “The Silence of Bones” by June Hur was the right book to pick up.

What struck me most is the time and place of this YA mystery thriller. While you can find oodles of historical mysteries that take place in the U.S., or Europe, or other Western cultures, I’m not as aware of the genre branching out to other parts of the world that often. That very well just may be my own levels of exposure to such things, but because of this “The Silence of Bones” felt incredibly unique to me. I know so little about Korean history that I felt like I was learning a lot as I was following Seol as she tried to solve a series of murders as she works as an indentured servant for the police. The descriptions of the urban settings and rural settings alike were vibrant and detailed, and I felt like I could picture the places in my mind and got a good sense for how the society was structured. June Hur clearly did her research, and it really paid off. I especially liked the way that geopolitics of the time entered into it, with hints and whispers of Western Influences starting to move in no matter how local Governments try to stamp them out, sometimes in extreme and violent ways. The sense of impending threat from Catholicism, and the actions taken towards Catholics and other Western traditions, was a very fascinating angle to throw into this story, as knowing what we know about Imperialism in that part of the world now (and other parts not addressed in this book) there was a lot of nuance to parse through.

I also just really liked Seol as a protagonist and the mystery at hand. Seol definitely felt like a sixteen year old girl, even though she was living in incredibly difficult and different circumstances than one sees for sixteen girls in YA today. Her story addresses indentured servitude, the oppression of lower classes, misogyny, and trauma, and her perseverance (and at times stubbornness) was really satisfying to read. Being taken from her home and losing everything to go serve as an indentured servant is quite the backstory, and I really liked it. She sometimes makes mistakes and jumps to conclusions, which makes her all the more real and complex, but overall you can’t help but really want her to figure out what is going on, especially when she begins to find herself in danger. The mystery of who killed a local noblewoman is very well crafted, and Hur throws in a lot of twists and turns that keep the reader wondering and on their toes. There is also the mystery of what is up with Seol’s boss, Inspector Han, who Seol is drawn to and forms a friendship with before he becomes a suspect in the mystery. Han feels like he is steeped in a lot of greys, and I was genuinely on the edge of my seat wondering if Seol’s faith in him is unfounded. By the time everything comes together, you can trace how it does so and it is done seamlessly.

“The Silence of Bones” is a unique and thrilling mystery, and if you like historical mysteries I cannot recommend it enough!

Rating 7: A unique and fascinating historical mystery in a not as seen setting, “The Silence of Bones” has a lot to offer to fans of YA mysteries!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Silence of Bones” is included on the Goodreads lists “Historical Fiction: Korea”, and “2020 YA/MG Books with POC Leads”.

Find “The Silence of Bones” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

My Year with Jane Austen: “Emma” Part I

6969Book: “Emma”

Publication Year: 1815

Book Description: Emma Woodhouse is one of Austen’s most captivating and vivid characters. Beautiful, spoilt, vain and irrepressibly witty, Emma organizes the lives of the inhabitants of her sleepy little village and plays matchmaker with devastating effect.

Note: Yes, this is out of order. I blame the quarantine and general craziness of watching over a one-year-old, but I finished reading “Emma” about a week or two ago, and only then realized that I had skipped “Mansfield Park.” I probably could have banged “Mansfield Park” out in this last week, but I didn’t want to rush my read of that rather hefty book. And then when I would finally get to “Emma,” around July, I’d be several months removed from my actual read through. So, I think this is better than doggedly sticking to my original order. It is what it is!

History – “I read it a little as duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me.”

Jane Austen wrote “Emma” between early 1814 and the spring of 1815. Once she was ready to publish, she decided to switch publishers and went with the well-known London publisher, John Murray. It is thought that she hoped to get a better copyright deal with this publisher and had been put off her previous editor after he refused to publish a second run of “Mansfield Park.” After originally being offered a fixed copyright price for “Emma, “Mansfield Park,” and “Sense and Sensibility,” Austen opted to go with a commission option instead for both, taking on printing and advertising prices. “Emma” had an original first-run of 2,000 copies, Austen’s largest first-run to date.

The book also included dedicated to the Prince of Wales. A fan of her previous books, her identity had been made know to the Prince Regent and his librarian dropped the not-so-subtle comment that she was free to dedicate any future books to him, a hint Austen didn’t feel she could ignore even though she didn’t personally care for Prince Regent

The book was met with middling success at the time, but has grown to be one of her most popular titles with modern audiences. And, despite the author’s fear that readers would not like Emma herself, many fans have connected strongly with the character, faults and all.  (source)

“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” – Jane Austen

Part I – Volume 1, Chapter 1 – Volume 2, Chapters 11

Story – “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

Emma Woodhouse is the wealthy second daughter of the eccentric Mr. Woodhouse. Her family and their good family friend, Mr. Knightley, share the role as the most prominent families in their small community. A new family group is about to come on the scene, however, with the marriage of Emma’s good friend and former governess to Mr. Weston. Though sad to see her friend go, Emma takes credit for the match herself. Mr. Knightley scoffs at this idea, but Emma is sure of her own abilities.

The marriage also brings up a new topic of gossip, that Mr. Weston’s son, a young man who grew up with his aunt after the death of Mr. Weston’s first wife when the son was young, will likely have to come to visit finally. Mr. Frank Churchill has been long looked for, but due to the sickly and ill-spirited nature of his guardian aunt, he’s never actually visited his original home. But it comes to nothing, and he doesn’t come. Mr. Knightly is the only one to raise an eyebrow at what he sees as poor behavior of an independent man who must know what is due his father on the occasion of a wedding.

To make up for the loss of Mrs. Weston’s daily presence, Emma makes a friend of Harriet Smith, a young boarder at a nearby school. Her parentage is not known, but Emma sees her as a great project. She is dismayed, however, to find that Harriet has already formed a connection with a local farmer family, the Martins, and in particular with the son, Mr. Martin. To ward off the evil of Harriet marrying below what Emma has in mind for her, Emma sets her eyes on Mr. Eldon, the local parson as a better marriage option for Harriet.

Soon enough, however, it comes to a head when Harriet shows Emma a letter from Mr. Martin in which he asks her to marry him. Emma deftly maneuvers Harriet to what she deems the appropriate response: a resounding no. When Mr. Knightly hears of this, he is appalled and he and Emma fight. He says that she is playing with people like they are dolls and that Harriet had a happy future ahead of her with Mr. Martin. Now, Mr. Knightley worries she will look too high and be disappointed by the lack of men who will want to risk a marriage with a girl whose family is unknown. Emma counters that Harriet is beautiful and pleasant, two qualities that are the most important to men, seemingly. And that since Harriet associates with gentleman’s daughters, it is only right to assume that Harriet is a gentleman’s daughter as well. Mr. Knightley also warns that if Emma is thinking of Mr. Elton instead, he’s not all that and it will come to nothing. The two part in unhappy spirits.

Over the next several months, Emma makes great work to throw Mr. Elton and Harriet together, thinking she sees many signs of attachment. He praises, almost to a ridiculous degree, a painting that Emma does of Harriet. And later contributes a riddle to Harriet and Emma’s collection of romantic ditties. The riddle itself makes out the word “courtship,” and though Emma is confused by his references to Harriet’s “ready wit,” she still sees this as a good sign.

Around Christmas, Emma’s older sister and her family, who is married to Mr. Knightley’s younger brother and lives in London, come to visit. They entire group is invited to a party at the Weston’s; Mr. Elton and Harriet are invited, as well. Harriet, however, comes down with a bad cold and has to miss the party. On delivering the news to Mr. Elton, Emma is confused by his seeming lack of real concern for her friend. John Knightley, on seeing the exchange, warns Emma that Mr. Elton seems particularly interested in her. Emma scoffs at the idea. But at the party itself, where Mr. Elton makes a nuisance of himself trying to ingratiate himself with her, Emma is forced to begin to worry about her plans for him and Harriet.

She ends up in a carriage alone with him on the ride home, and her entire plan crashes down around her when he proposes to her. She is appalled, but soon learns that all of the signs she had thought were directed to Harriet were instead meant for her. Worse, Elton reveals himself as an arrogant, rather scheming man who looks down on Harriet for being too much below him but doesn’t seem to equate the situation with himself and Emma, an equally un-equal match. Emma sees it for what it is: he’s only in love enough to see the his gains in a marriage with her. She turns in down soundly. The next day she learns that he has left Highbury, and Emma has to break the terrible news to Harriet.

Around this time, Highbury gains a new person in the form of Jane Fairfax, the niece of Mrs. and Miss Bates. While Miss Bates is rather silly and prone to talking excessively, Emma knows it is her duty to call on Jane. She finds Jane to be too reserved to appeal as a potential close friend and is content not putting much effort into the relationship. Shortly after, Mr. Churchill finally arrives on the scene and Emma is much more struck by his charming, open disposition. The two quickly form a friendship, and it is clear the Westons would like nothing more than an even greater attachment in the future.

As they all circulate within each others’ circles and through various dinners and parties, Emma and Mr. Churchill find great amusement in coming up with scandalous histories for Jane Fairfax that would explain her shutting herself up with her less appealing relatives. Jane receives a piano as gift from an anonymous giver and this only adds to Emma and Mr. Churchill’s fun, trying to guess who would have given her such a great gift. Mrs. Weston suspects Mr. Knightley, but Emma laughs at this and says Mr. Knightley would never do anything in secret.

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

It is easy for readers to understand why Austen was worried fans might not connect with her character. For one thing, Emma is anything but an underdog, very unlike previous Austen heroines. She is wealthy, charming, beautiful, and has no material concerns before her, with a future secured by an independent income and a beloved place in a loving family and happy neighborhood where she is highly esteemed. What she says to Harriet, that a lack of income is all that makes spinsterhood so abhorrent, isn’t quite true in that she is underselling many of the other privileges that make up her existence. On top of that income, she has friends in Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston. She is highly valued as a connection to the general public of Highbury. And, of course, she is loved above anything by her father. Compared to Austen’s other heroines so far who have all been held back by finances to some extent, and by family members in other ways, Emma is sitting pretty.

But it’s also easy to see how this very distinction is one of the things that makes Emma such a popular character to modern audiences. Marriage is by no means the goal and, in many ways, Emma herself sees it as more a hindrance than anything. Instead, she’s fully independent and takes joy in the various roles she plays in her community. Her love story is purely based on the joys of a long friendship discovered to be more with no aspects of gratitude, luck, or necessity sprinkled on top to lessen the romance for modern readers who like their love stories to be “pure” like this. Even “Pride and Prejudice,” the most romantic of the previous three books, has a few pretty straightforward lines about Elizabeth feeling a lot of gratitude towards Darcy for taking any interest in her. Joined with the rest of the romance, this is fine. But to modern audiences, again, there is something appealing about Emma’s story having zero strings attached to it other than mutual affection and love. Neither Knightly or Emma need the other, and it is easy enough to see them living out the rest of their lives single and happy.

The other obvious turn-off is Emma’s meddling, the main focus of the entire story. But I think Austen under-estimated how many good qualities Emma has and how much they balance out much of her nonsense. Beyond which, I think many readers like their main characters to have flaws that they overcome throughout the story. Elizabeth Bennet, the other most beloved Austen heroine, definitely has a story arc that involves her overcoming a personal shortcoming. Emma’s flaw hurts more people than Elizabeth’s, however. But like I said, we see important moments that help counterbalance this. Particularly in the way she truly loves and cares for her father, putting forth a lot of effort to fill his days with activities and people he enjoys and attempting to keep family gatherings cordial and not upsetting for him. We also see enough of Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston to know they are sensible, kind people and that if they can vouch for Emma’s worth as a friend, there is more to her than the blatant meddling we also see.

This first half, of course, sees Emma commit probably her biggest sin: persuading Harriet to turn down Robert Martin. Beyond that, we see the pain that is caused by her major error with Mr. Elton and the lasting hurt it inflicts on Harriet who falls into a fairly deep depression for several months over his “loss.” But we also spend a lot of time in Emma’s head and do see that she is genuinely distressed over the way this situation unfolds. If still not distressed enough not continue in her ways to some extent throughout the rest of the book.

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

I love Mr. Knightley; he’s one of my favorite Austen heroes. But, I’ll be honest and say that after watching the 2009 “Emma” with Johnny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightley, I have a very hard time not simply picturing him and his performance for all of the Knightley portions. But beyond that, I do always like romantic heroes like his character, those who are stable, reliable, and always there for the heroine, even when she doesn’t know she needs him.

There are none of the dramatics of Mr. Darcy, and none of the indecisive weirdness of feelings for other women, like Edward Ferrars or Edmund. (Technically, I should have read “Mansfield Park” before this, so Edmund gets thrown in the list of Austen heroes who came before Knightley, even if we haven’t covered him in this reread, yet.) No, Mr. Knightley is that long friend of Emma’s who has always been there. He clearly cares about her welfare, worrying to Mrs. Weston about Emma’s friendships and future. And he understands her family, seeming to be pleased to spend quiet evenings at her home with her and her father.

He also is completely spot-on with his views on people. Unlike Emma, we’ll see in the second half that Mr. Knightley is the true match-spotter in the neighborhood when he catches on to the Jane/Frank thing before anyone. But in this half, we see that he values hard-workers like Mr. Martin and sees him as a good match for Harriet. Unlike Emma, Knightley is aware of the precarious situation that Harriet is in and sees all the good in her marrying Mr. Martin. He also is spot-on with his estimation of Mr. Elton, a fact that Emma herself will have to admit to later on in the book.

We also see Mr. Knightley make an effort to befriend and care for Jane, understanding the strains that must be on her living 24/7 in the Bates’ house. He is empathetic and kind, sending his carriage to bring that household to local parties when he knows they’d have to walk anyways. Emma sees all of this and appreciates it in the sense that “of course, that’s what he’d do!” but doesn’t really stop to think how rare of qualities all of these are and how much they should not be taken for granted.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

In many ways, Emma herself is the biggest villain in this first half. We see the entire arc of Harriet’s tragic love story play out, all at the hands of Emma. And while we do believe that she was honestly confused by Mr. Elton’s behavior, truly thought she was doing right by Harriet, and felt terribly once the truth came out, there’s no denying the real harm done here. We know how it turns out for Harriet in the end, but things could have went a very different way and followed the dark path Mr. Knightley laid out in which Harriet ends up at the boarding house forever, a spinster living her days at the mercy of others. Turning down the genuinely nice-sound Mr. Martin could have had lasting consequences, and it is clear that, coming form her own privileged position, Emma has not thought about these dangers to her friend whatsoever.

Further, Harriet suffers for quite some time after the loss of Mr. Elton. We know enough about her character to see that she doesn’t have the same resources of self that Emma has, and therefore it is very difficult for her to move past the depression of finding herself not preferred by Mr. Elton. Emma had her fully convinced of a happy future with him, and its loss is felt wholly by poor Harriet.

The other main villain would be Mr. Elton himself at this point. Villain is probably too strong of a word for him, but he still fits best in this category. As readers, we take more heed of Mr. Knightley’s warning about Mr. Elton and his search for a wealthy wife, so it’s less of a surprise when he fully exposes himself. It’s also easier to see how ridiculous and over-the-top Mr. Elton is from the very start. To her credit, Emma sees much of this too, but figures that he’s just so in love with Harriet that his senses aren’t quite right. She’s even more horrified when she realizes that these obnoxious flirtations had been meant to attract her, not Harriet. And, of course, Mr. Elton doesn’t make himself look very good in proposal scene itself. He’s cruel to Harriet and clearly not really in love with Emma at all. Again, knowing how it turns out, and with future Mr. Knightley’s words in our heads, that “Emma chose better for [Elton] than he did for himself,” we know that Mr. Elton will create a punishment of his own by marrying the obnoxious Mrs. Elton.

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.

Other than poor Harriet’s tragedies, there is really no romance in this first half. Knowing the outcome and knowing the secret hearts of characters who aren’t even aware of themselves, it’s easy enough to see romantic tension between Emma and Mr. Knightley, but there really isn’t anything on the page itself to justify it. There fight is the sort that could be had between any good friends, and the compliments that Mr. Knightley pays Emma when speaking to Mrs. Weston about his concerns about Emma and Harriet’s friendship are, again, of the sort that don’t really raise eyebrows. Mrs. Weston herself doesn’t bat an eyelash at it.

There are other small indicators here and there for Mr. Knightley’s attachment. His dislike of Frank Churchill from the very start is a pretty clear sign, before Frank is even on the scene in person. But, at the same time, Mr. Knightley seems to also be the only one objectively seeing some of the fairly questionable missteps in Frank’s behavior, all the way from the start when Frank failed to visit the new Mrs. Weston. So, it’s kind of half and half to see his dislike as motivated by the knowledge that many people are matchmaking Emma and Frank in their heads or to see it as just another example of Mr. Knightley’s good sense about people and their behavior.

One small moment that stood out was when many of the main characters are gathered at the Bates’ to view Jane’s new piano. Miss Bates sees Knightley riding by and asks him up. Once he hears that Emma is there, he seems to be about to come up, but makes a quick about-face when he hears that Frank is also there. Emma is the temptation, but Frank is the deterrent, especially when Frank is around Emma herself.

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

Mr. Woodhouse is just the kind of lovable fool that Austen does best. His concerns and worries about health add the perfect levity needed to some of Emma’s more serious failings. Not to mention, he’s a main source of good in showing Emma’s loving side. There are bunch of small lines thrown in here and there about some of his worries: his concern about the cake at the wedding and dismay at the doctor’s children eating much of it, his worry about the hassle of his driver having to get a carriage ready for this and that small trip, endless frets about the temperature. As a reader, it’s very amusing. But we also see how it could be trying for family members, especially in-laws. During their visit, we see that Emma’s brother-in-law, John Knightley often struggles to deal with Mr. Woodhouse’s eccentricities. Mr. Woodhouse is clearly not aware of how intrusive some of his “concerns” can be into the choices of another person’s family. But we also get to see a lovely example of Emma and Mr. Knightley working in tandem to keep their respective family members polite and to avoid familial conflict.

The other main source of comedy comes from Miss Bates. Austen doesn’t hesitate to devote paragraphs and paragraphs to the dialogue for this character so that readers can truly understand what it would be like to be the listening party, trapped in a one-sided “conversation” with Miss Bates. She’s clearly well-meaning, but man, it can be exhausting just reading her unfiltered, scattered speeches. While Emma clearly over-steps later in the book and could do better in general with regards to Miss Bates, it’s also easy enough to sympathize with her desire to avoid getting trapped in long visits with Miss Bates.

Favorite quotes – “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.”

Mrs. Goddard was the mistress of a School – not of a seminary, or an establishment, or anything which professed, in long sentences of refined nonsense, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality, upon new principles and new systems.

This quote stood out to me as yet another example of Austen’s wit striking on aspects of life that still hold true today. Having worked for many years in academia, the line about “refined nonsense” in the way that colleges and universities try to sell themselves is spot on.

“And till it appears that men are much more philosophic on the subject of beauty than they are generally supposed; till they do fall in love with well informed minds instead of handsome faces, a girl, with such loveliness as Harriet, has a certainty of being admired and sought after…”

While wrong overall, Emma does makes some good points in her argument with Mr. Knightley about Harriet’s future prospects. This then leads, of course, to a general favorite quote when Mr. Knightley comments that it might be better to be without wits than misapply them as Emma does here.

“I lay it down as a general rule, Harriet, that if a woman doubts as to whether she should accept a man or not, she certainly ought to refuse him.”

Again, this is a rather wise line being used in service of a poor scheme overall on Emma’s part. And I think there is a bunch of wiggle room to be made with the word “doubt.” But, in general, if there are doubts, that at least is a sign that more thought needs to be given before the “yes.”

In two weeks, I’ll review the last half of “Emma” and share my final thoughts on the book as a whole.

Kate’s Review: “The Mountains Sing”

49631287._sy475_Book: “The Mountains Sing” by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Publishing Info: Algonquin Books, March 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: With the epic sweep of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and the lyrical beauty of Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, The Mountains Sing tells an enveloping, multigenerational tale of the Tran family, set against the backdrop of the Viet Nam War. Tran Dieu Lan, who was born in 1920, was forced to flee her family farm with her six children during the Land Reform as the Communist government rose in the North. Years later in Hà Noi, her young granddaughter, Hương, comes of age as her parents and uncles head off down the Ho Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict that will tear not just her beloved country but her family apart.

Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Viet Nam, The Mountains Sing brings to life the human costs of this conflict from the point of view of the Vietnamese people themselves, while showing us the true power of kindness and hope. This is celebrated Vietnamese poet Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s first novel in English.

Review: I’ve decided that every once in awhile I’m going to branch out from my usual genres that I review on here and dive into something different. Don’t worry, reviews of all that’s scary, thrilling, or picture heavy will still be dominant when it comes to what I talk about on here! But when I come across a book like “The Mountains Sing” by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, I really want to share it with anyone who will listen! Because while I love me horror and thrillers, I also really love family sagas in my fiction. And “The Mountains Sing” is the best family saga I’ve encountered since “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi.

“The Mountains Sing” is a lyrical and bittersweet family saga that follows the Tran Family in North Vietnam. There are two main perspectives. The first is that of Hương, a young girl who is living with her grandmother during the last days of the Viet Nam War as her parents are fighting on the Ho Chi Min Trail. The second is the story of her grandmother, Dieu Lan, who had to escape her farm during the Land Reform Movement lest she and her children be murdered as landowners. These two stories follow significant moments in North Vietnamese/Vietnamese history, and the repercussions for the people who were living there during those times. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai paints a beautiful picture of the setting, and draws complex and engrossing characterizations. Both Dieu Lan and Hương have to confront difficult decisions for themselves, and the difficult decisions of others. As someone who grew up in the United States, Vietnamese history isn’t something that was covered in the classes I took in high school. Hell, even though I went to a pretty progressive private school with better and more honest history texts than others, we still didn’t take a deep look into the Vietnamese side of the Viet Nam War. So reading this book from the perspective of a Vietnamese author whose characters had to live the consequences of the war as civilians on the Northern side, it was eye opening and very worthwhile. It should also be noted that the deep complexities living under the North Vietnamese Communist Party’s rule aren’t ignored or swept away. I had never heard of the Land Reform, and it is absolutely horrific. That said, the horrors of being attacked by the United States with imperialist motivations isn’t dismissed as nothing. If anything, this story shows how those seeking power will exploit those below them to do their dirty work, be it French colonists trying to take over and using locals to inflict rule, or farmers murdering landowners to take land for the movement, or soldiers from America being sent to fight a war for the upper classes and killing civilians on the ground.

I also greatly liked the characters and the various journeys that each one took, and the emphasis on family. Hương learns the truth about her family history, just as she learns the truth about the things that her family members have had to do to survive during times of great violence and tragedy, and you see her grow in empathy and character. But it was Dieu Lan’s story that really hit me in the heart, as she tries to keep her children safe as they escape their village and go on the road to Ha Noi. The horrible choices that she had to make, and the repercussions of those choices, were heartbreaking and left me in tears many times, and seeing her become more resilient and tough was a character journey that had the most effect on me. I enjoyed the contrast between these two women and their experiences, and how each of them had ripple effects upon the other. Their strengths manifest in different ways, but it’s a great way to show that strength comes in many forms.

“The Mountains Sing” is a heart rendering and hopeful story from a gifted voice. I eagerly await any other novels that Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai may write in the future.

Rating 9: A beautifully written family saga set in Viet Nam, “The Mountains Sing” gives the perspective of the Vietnamese people during times of conflict and shows how hope and family can get people through difficult times.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Mountains Sing” is included on the Goodreads lists “Family Saga Novels”, and “Books by Vietnamese/Vietnamese-Diaspora Writers”.

Find “The Mountains Sing” at your library using WorldCat, or at your local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Body in the Garden”

51318896._sx318_sy475_Book: “The Body in the Garden” by Katharine Schellman

Publishing Info: Crooked Lane Books, April 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: London 1815. Though newly-widowed Lily Adler is returning to a society that frowns on independent women, she is determined to create a meaningful life for herself even without a husband. She’s no stranger to the glittering world of London’s upper crust. At a ball thrown by her oldest friend, Lady Walter, she expects the scandal, gossip, and secrets. What she doesn’t expect is the dead body in Lady Walter’s garden.

Lily overheard the man just minutes before he was shot: young, desperate, and attempting blackmail. But she’s willing to leave the matter to the local constables–until Lord Walter bribes the investigating magistrate to drop the case. Stunned and confused, Lily realizes she’s the only one with the key to catching the killer.

Aided by a roguish navy captain and a mysterious heiress from the West Indies, Lily sets out to discover whether her friend’s husband is mixed up in blackmail and murder. The unlikely team tries to conceal their investigation behind the whirl of London’s social season, but the dead man knew secrets about people with power. Secrets that they would kill to keep hidden. Now, Lily will have to uncover the truth, before she becomes the murderer’s next target.

Review: I’m always on the look out for a new historical mystery series. And while I love my Amelia Peabody and Veronica Speedwell mysteries, the two together can begin to feel a bit repetitive. They each are excellent on their own, but Amelia and Veronica have similar personalities and their strong women personas both play of the gruff-with-a-heart-of-gold romantic interests in very similar ways. The mysteries and settings are very different, but reading this last Veronica Speedwell book (I didn’t love it in general, so that doesn’t help), left me feeling a bit like the genre was starting to all feel the same. So I was both excited and nervous when I saw the book description for this one. On one hand, a recently widowed heroine is definitely different than those other stories. But then you add “roguish navy captain”…and would this really be all that different? Yes, it was, and it was just the breath of fresh air I was looking for!

Only one year into mourning her beloved husband, Lily Adler decides that enough is enough: it is time to rejoin the world and what better place than London itself in the midst of a Season? With the help of her dear friend, Lady Walter, Lily is quick to fall back into society, making new friends and visiting with old acquaintances. But amid all the typical gossip and small dramas that are always to be found in society, Lily suddenly finds herself caught up in a mystery: a young man murdered in Lady Walter’s own garden. A murder that no one seems to care much about but Lily and a few of her new friends. Soon enough, however, it seems that this young man’s death was only one small part of a much greater scheme and one that now begins to threaten Lily herself.

I really loved this book. And mostly this was down to the refreshing new characters that the story centers around. Lily is by no means the plucky, go-get-em leading lady that we see in Amelia Peabody or Veronica Speedwell. Instead, her strength comes in a calm, steely resolve to do what she sees right, while always maintaining a strong sense of dignity and knowledge of where her own particular strengths and weaknesses lie. She doesn’t seek out this investigation out of any sense of adventure, but rather she pursues it only because of her strong sense of justice. If, by the end of it all, she finds a new direction for her life, it’s not due to any intrepidness that has always persisted throughout her life. She’s a much more quiet, reserved leading lady, but just as skillful in being more withdrawn. Indeed, I think some of her observations, not only about the case but about people’s general behavior, were even more striking for being discussed in cool tones without much flair or fanfare.

I also really liked Jack Hartley, the aforementioned navy captain. Lily’s recent loss and continuing grief over the loss of her husband is never forgotten, which leaves this book to build up a solid friendship and partnership between these two without any real vibes of romance. Whether the series goes that direction or not is yet to be determined (I’d guess yes, but I’m also fine with it staying as is). One that that really stood out for me with this character were a few brief moments when Jack’s beliefs of himself as a man who greatly respects women was truly put to the test. We all to often see these historical pieces with men that “respect women” in the most obvious ways, but the story never really addresses the underlying tones that undermine this supposed respect. Lily calls Jack out on a few of these points, making him aware that as much as he does respect her, he still can fall into traps of limiting his perception of her due to her gender. These are smaller moments, but they are the kind of observations that often are left without being addressed in historical books like this.

I also really liked the inclusion of Ofelia Oswald, a POC heiress who becomes the third partner in this little crime team (Jack Hartley is also of mixed heritage). It’s rare to find historical books that include many POC characters, let alone two in prominent roles in the story. The author also included a great note at the end about her research into the challenges POC people faced in London society at this time and how she chose to position her characters in a way that was historically accurate but also put them at the forefront of the story.

The story was a bit on the slower side, but as I enjoyed the three main characters so much, I never had a problem with this. But I do want to put it out there for those thinking to pick it up: this book is definitely meant to feel immersive and spends a lot of time putting together all the details and pieces of the mystery and the characters involved. I really enjoyed the mystery itself, too. I was able to guess the villain about halfway through, but I didn’t get all of the pieces to fit together until much later in the book. The mystery was well thought out and the pieces were laid craftily throughout the story. Readers looking for a new take on historical mysteries should definitely check this one out!

Rating 9: Excellent. Lily Adler may be quieter than some other heroines in the mystery market, but she’s definitely one to pay attention to!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Body in the Garden” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Historical Mystery 2020.”

Find “The Body in the Garden” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “A Murderous Relation”

35530507Book: “A Murderous Relation” by Deanna Raybourn

Publishing Info: Berkley, March 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Veronica Speedwell and her natural historian colleague Stoker are asked by Lady Wellingtonia Beauclerk to help with a potential scandal so explosive it threatens to rock the monarchy. Prince Albert Victor is a regular visitor to the most exclusive private club in London, known as the Club de l’Etoile, and the proprietess, Madame Aurore, has received an expensive gift that can be traced back to the prince. Lady Wellie would like Veronica and Stoker to retrieve the jewel from the club before scandal can break.

Worse yet, London is gripped by hysteria in the autumn of 1888, terrorized by what would become the most notorious and elusive serial killer in history, Jack the Ripper–and Lady Wellie suspects the prince may be responsible.

Veronica and Stoker reluctantly agree to go undercover at Madame Aurore’s high class brothel, where another body soon turns up. Many secrets are swirling around Veronica and the royal family–and it’s up to Veronica and Stoker to find the truth, before it’s too late for all of them. 

Previously Reviewed: “A Curious Beginning,” “A Perilous Undertaking,”“A Treacherous Curse” and “A Dangerous Collaboration” 

Review: I was even more excited than usual to pick up the latest “Veronica Speedwell” mystery when it came out. Finally, at the end of the last book, it seemed like Veronica and Stoker were finally confirming their romantic interest in one another. But, in a cruel twist of authorial spite, readers were left right at the brink of these two actually acting on their feelings. So here, in the next book, how would this newly forming relationship affect their working relationship and would we finally see them actually together? Well, yes, but not necessarily in the way I would have preferred.

Immediately upon their return to London, Veronica and Stoker once again find themselves caught up in mystery and scandal. This time, rather than solve a mystery, they are tasked with protecting Veronica’s “family,” the monarchy that has not acknowledged her. To do this, they must go under cover into an elaborate private club in hopes of retrieving a rare jewel that can be used to implicate Prince Albert Victor. But things are never as simple as they seem, and soon enough Veronica and Stoker find themselves mixed up with familiar foes and wandering streets that are plagued by a horrific serial killer.

So, this was a bit of a frustrating read for me. It seems that recently the books in this series have been see-sawing a bit as far as my enjoyment goes. The third book I found to be a bit lagging, but I loved the fourth book. Sadly, here, we see a return to some of the dragging bits. Ultimately, I struggled with two aspects of this: first, like in the third book, it felt like the author was not willing to deal with the burgeoning romance she had started and instead created roadblocks and delays that didn’t feel natural to the story; and second, there was a distinct feeling of familiarity and lack of new material to this particular story.

When I said “immediately” in my book description about how quickly the mystery started, I meant immediately. So much so that the entire question of the burgeoning romance between Stoker and Veronica is effectively sidelined right off the bat. From there, the book is quick to establish how tired they both are, how the beginning of a case is not the right time, etc, etc. And then the rest of the book happens with the entire mystery taking place in one full swoop spanning a hectic day and a half or so. Right there, we have a problem. Regardless of how silly and obvious some of the “tiredness” and “not the right time” conversations felt, the mystery itself did not gain anything for having to frantically move fast enough from one element to another in order to prevent addressing the romantic elephant in the room. Emotional moments didn’t ring as true or feel as earned. The build-up, crescendo, and conclusion to the mystery itself felt rushed, making it hard to feel invested in what was happening. It all felt forced and I think hurt the story more than it accomplished…whatever it was trying to accomplish.

My second problem had to do with the actual elements involved in the story. Almost all of it were retreads of themes, characters, and dilemmas that were found in previous books. We’ve already covered much of the emotional groundwork to be had with regards to Veronica and her feelings towards a royal family who doesn’t want to acknowledge her unless she can do them some favor. There has already been an entire book about a salacious secret society, so the escapades at the private club feel all too familiar. Even the villain, for the most part, is a return to a motivation and individual we’ve seen before. And for all of that, the Jack the Ripper portions that are teased in the book description are barely worth mentioning.

The primary strength of the series has always been Veronica and Stoker themselves. But even they, when given tired material that offers no room for new personal growth, can only do so much. Veronica’s voice is still strong and compelling, but that’s probably the best that can be said. Stoker felt largely absent from the story, even when he was right there on the page. And the small bits of emotional groundwork covered between the two of them felt like, again, retreads of conflicts that had already been resolved. There is a payoff for these two at the end, but I found it to be too little too late.

Overall, I was pretty disappointed by this book. It felt like the author had ran out of ideas as far as the mystery went. And then was too scared to confront the changing romance she had started in the last book, so she threw in a bunch unnecessary and ridiculous roadblocks in order to write one more book between these two prior to any romantic commitment. I honestly don’t understand the concern here. I’ve often compared this series to the “Amelia Peabody” books. And in that series there was only one book before our main characters not only paired up, but got married! And then only one more book or so before they had a kid along with them! And that series never lost anything for resolving the “will they/won’t they” aspect early, let alone 5 books in like this one. Frankly, I feel like this shying away from resolving “will they/won’t they” relationships in general, across all media formats, needs to die a quick and final death.

I believe the author has a contract with a publisher to write at least two more books, so of course I’ll be reading them. And, at least given the events of the end of this book, this whole relationship thing should be settled. Hopefully she’ll come out with some more unique themes and elements, too. But if I catch even a whiff of forced drama to the romance of this story again, I’m pretty sure I’m out.

Rating 6: A disappointing follow-up after one of my favorites in the series so far. The author seemed to run out of ideas and resorted to pulling old tricks out of her hat. And then became a deer in the headlights with the romance she had written herself into at the end of the last book.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“A Murderous Relation” is a newer title so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Historical Mystery 2020.”

Find “A Murderous Relation” at your library using WorldCat!

My Year with Jane Austen: “Pride and Prejudice” [2005]

mv5bmta1ndq3ntcyotneqtjeqwpwz15bbwu3mda0mza4mze40._v1_sy1000_cr006741000_al_Movie: “Pride and Prejudice”

Release Year: 2005

Actors: Elizabeth Bennett – Keira Knightley

Mr. Darcy – Matthew Macfadyen

Jane Bennett – Rosamund Pike

Mr. Bingley – Simon Woods

Comparison – “Indulge your imagination in every possible flight.”

So I’ll just preface this entire post with the fact that I’ve never particularly cared for this movie. For me, there are several problems with it as an interpretation of “Pride and Prejudice,” several characters seem to be completely out of character, and…ok, I also really dislike Keira Knightley almost always and this is by no means an exception to that.

I think it’s important to note, when comparing this movie to the BBC version, that the additional length is not a trump card for the latter. It isn’t simply better because it had much more time (though of course this doesn’t hurt it either.) But in this review series, this comparison is directly following “Sense and Sensibility,” a book that was successfully translated into BOTH a longer mini series and a feature length film to great effect. And I would go as far as saying that every other book has a feature length version that is more successful as an adaptation than this one is for “Pride and Prejudice.”

There are good things about it, of course. The cinematography is beautiful, vibrant, and definitely out classes the 1995 version that, not only due to age and time but style choices, is very washed out at times. The score is also dramatic and, combined with artistic uses of weather, brings an increased vitality to the story. I would also say that Rosamund Pike stands out as one of the characters who is better cast in this movie than Jane was in the 1995 version. Her beauty better matched the type of rare good looks that Jane was described as having. There’s also no denying that Keira Knightley is beautiful, too, but Pike’s glowing good looks do put even Knightley to the test, adding to the sense that Jane, not Elizabeth, would be credited as the beautiful one.

But as for many of the other characters, I think they were woefully miscast. Either miscast or their interpretations of the characters were so far from the ones we’re given on page that it feels as if either they or the writers (or both!) didn’t actually read the book. I’ll go into more specifics about the cast in the sections below as most of them neatly fill all the categories.

To end this section on a good note, there were some additions to this movie that were left out from the 1995 one that I liked a great deal. It’s only a little part, but I loved that this Lydia has the bit where she sticks her hand out the window to display her ring when she returns home after marrying Wickham. It’s only a small line in the book, but it perfectly illustrates how unchanged Lydia is by this whole debacle, and I love that it was included here. While I don’t like Knightley or Matthew Macfadyen in their roles, I do like that the movie added the bit of the two of them at Pemberley after they’re married. I wouldn’t have picked this scene and dialogue in particular, but it’s a nice nod to the fact that the book had several pages of story left after the proposal (something we didn’t really see in the 1995 version other than the weirdly-toned wedding itself).

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

Like I said, I don’t care for Keira Knightley as an actress in general, so this was always going to be a hard sell for me. I think she often overacts, and she has a few particular quirks that she brings to every role that I find incredibly distracting. Most notably, her mouth is always hanging open. Once you see it, you can’t stop seeing it! But beyond my personal distaste for her style, I think she was miscast in this role. That, or like I said before, the writing/directing really missed the mark if she was lead to this performance in any way. It feels like she read the character description and all she saw was “independent woman” and completely blocked out “refined and polished.”

Her emotions are all over the place, and even smaller confrontations, like that between Lizzy and Charlotte, feel blown completely out of proportion. And then there’s the proposal scene….oof. Looking at how this entire thing was staged, it’s clear the director was going for a dramatic, powerful scene (I don’t like this take on the scene in general, but that’s not on the actress). But for me, it was simply melodramatic and Knightley’s antics completely lost me. She in no way fits the bill of a lady of her time, all too often presenting Lizzy more like a “Jo March” type character than the respected, accomplished lady she was supposed to be. Lizzy stood out for her wit and sense (most of the time), not for wild bouts of adventure and emotion. Her liveliness was expressed in smaller moments, as typical of a lady of her time. Instead, Knightley translates that liveliness much more literally in a way that undercuts the respectability that is so important to the character, especially as it’s meant to be a contrast to the other three sisters.

To give props where props are due, I think Knightley does the best in the more comedic moments in the script. In particular, I always laugh at the part where she’s just heard the news of Lydia and Wickham’s “elopement” and is pacing in and out of the scene. Like in”Bend It Like Beckham,” Knightley is at her best in a comedy role rather than a dramatic one. So, too, her stronger moments in the original “Pirates of the Caribbean” were also centered around comedy. As that series progressed and the character moved in a more serious direction, Knightley’s performance followed a similar dip in quality.

I already mentioned Rosamund Pike as one of the standouts in this movie. She fits the bill perfectly for Jane, and unlike Knightley, her interpretation of the character felt more grounded in the time period of the movie.

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

Matthew Macfadyen definitely brings a unique take on Mr. Darcy. I get that he wanted to distance his performance from Colin Firth’s, especially considering how iconic Firth’s take on the character had become over the years, but I’m also not a fan of this interpretation of the character. Between Macfadyen’s take on the character, making Darcy seeming to simply suffer from excessive shyness more than anything, and the styling that has his hair all over the place and him looking like a general mess most of the time, I felt that the entire thing didn’t read Darcy at all. He definitely reads as a generic romantic hero, but Darcy he is not.

During the first proposal, readers (and viewers) should feel equally justified in Elizabeth’s righteous anger towards Darcy as she does. At that point in the story, her opinions seem solid and Darcy’s behavior is atrocious. But here, with Knightly getting right up in his face reaming him one over, I just felt sad for the poor, pathetic Darcy that Macfadyen gave us. It’s not the type of role reversal that does either character any favors in the long run.

I also hate, hate, hate this version of Bingley. I’m not sure if this was the actor’s decision or just the writing, but I have the exact same problem with Bingley here that I do with how Ron is presented in the Harry Potter movies versus the book. Both adaptations took a character who is all heart over head and reduced that down to a bumbling fool playing almost entirely for comedic value, completely at the expense of the character, leaving both as nothing more than caricatures. How are we to believe the friendship between Darcy and this dunderhead?

Again, one of the few moments where I think these versions of the characters do well are in the overtly comedic moments. Particularly, I like the scene where Bingley is practicing his proposal. It’s light, funny, and does a good job portraying the friendship between them.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

I have mixed feelings about Rupert Friend’s Mr. Wickham. On one hand, he’s much more good-looking than the 1995 actor, so it’s easier to understand Elizabeth being so quickly and thoroughly taken in by him. And everyone else for that matter also being enamored by him! But he also seemed too young. Obviously there doesn’t need to be a huge age difference, but I need to buy that this is a guy whose has already gone far enough in life to have tried to seduce a 16 year old and is now moving on to different strategies. He just seemed a bit too fresh faced for that aspect of things.

Judi Dench is fantastic as Lady Catherine. I like the 1995 version of this character, but in a comparison between the two, it’s easier to understand how others could be intimidated by Dench’s version of the character. The 1995 version of the character was more ridiculous seeming in all of her pomp and ego. It’s almost impossible to not take Judi Dench seriously, and it’s very believable that people would be quelled by her sheer presence. The way her visit to Longbourn was staged added drama and made her come across as truly sinister.  Like the broken record I am, I again had problems with Knightley’s take on this scene, but Dench killed it.

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

I genuinely think that if this had simply been a historical romance completely disconnected from the book, I would have enjoyed it a lot more. Again, Knightley was always going to be a problem for me, but that’s neither here nor there. Her acting aside, there’s no denying the great chemistry she has with Macfadyen. And if I wasn’t so distracted by how far off these characters are from what we were given in the book, I think I’d really appreciate the love story that’s presented.

This movie is simply beautiful to look at, and many of the more dramatic images are connected with important moments in the development of the romance. For a “Pride and Prejudice” retelling, I don’t like the overly dramatic rain proposal scene. For a generic romance though? It’s gorgeously shot. And the long, drawn out moment when Elizabeth and Darcy meet in the dawning morning towards the end? Lovely to look at, though perhaps a bit too long. I also really enjoyed the Netherfield ball scene, especially the long single shot that sweeps through many different rooms catching small moments with all of the characters.

As a romance story, all of these moments come together well. The actors have great chemistry, and if they were original characters, their personalities and the conflict, misunderstanding, and slowly built love story would all come across very well. I can just never escape the comparisons and how off they both felt from the original characters. I suspect, however, that this movie is much beloved by viewers who haven’t read the book or only read it once or twice. And I think a lot of that appreciation goes to how well the romance plays out.

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

This movie definitely presents a different take on Mrs. Bennett, Mr. Bennett, and their relationship. Essentially, it’s much more kind to them all than the 1995 version or the book were. As I said in my review of the book, there really isn’t anything given on page that would hint that Austen was offering any true commentary on the plight of mothers with only daughters and very little income to justify Mrs. Bennett’s actions. She’s comedy all the way at best, and at worst actively hinders her daughters’ chances. Here, the movie goes out of its way, even offering up direct lines from Mrs. Bennett herself, to attempt to redeem some of the character’s antics. Overall, I’m fine with this, I guess, but I think it’s yet another example of this movie drifting away from the actual book characters in an attempt to make the movie more palatable to the average movie goer. I think this can be seen here, in the adjustments to Mrs. and Mr. Bennett (making them both more likable and their marriage better overall), and in the Elizabeth we are given who is definitely trying to check a more modern box of an “independent woman.”

I also want to touch on Tom Hollander’s Mr. Collins. This Mr. Collins is much easier to take than the one we saw in the 1995 version. Yes, he still has his ridiculous moments, but he’s nowhere near as smarmy as the Mr. Collins of the previous film. In this way, it makes Elizabeth’s even stronger negative reaction to Charlotte’s agreeing to marry him even more off-putting. This Mr. Collins is by no means the worst of the worst, and her extreme distaste to the union does in fact seem very judgy and snobby. The book definitely offers up this scene as an example of Elizabeth “not making allowances for differences in temper and situation” as Jane says, but *sigh* again this scene is way more dramatic than that small moment was in the book. It actually makes Lizzie quite unlikable, which is never a good thing for your heroine.

Fun facts – “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”

I wrote this section of the post last. This is important to note because you’ll have already read the part where I specifically mentioned the scene of Lizzie pacing in and out of the room when trying to deliver the news about Wickham and Lydia as one of my favorites. Turns out, Emma Thompson was brought in for a re-write of the script, and this was one of the specific scenes/directions that she gave. I knew I liked it for a reason, and it makes sense, then, that it stood out for me in this movie (one that I overall don’t particularly care for), given how much I liked Thompson’s script for “Sense and Sensibility.”

Also (again, just researching this bit after writing the rest of the post already), apparently the practice proposal scene was supposed to be much shorter and was lengthened because of how funny Simon Woods was. So…I think the takeaway is that I don’t really like the original writing/directing of this movie. And the parts that I did like came from other places!

Romola Garai auditioned for the role of Elizabeth. She was later cast as Emma in the 2008 version of “Emma.” She also played alongside Keira Knightley in “Atonement.” Keira Knightley also appears with Tom Hollander in the last two “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies in the original trilogy.

Best Movie Gif/Meme: “I dearly love a laugh.”

The one part of this movie that has stuck the most with me over the years is this delivery of lines by Tom Hollander as Mr. Collins. I find myself quoting it pretty regularly. Pretty much whenever we have potatoes for dinner. This, and the lines by Sam in “Lord of the Rings” also about potatoes. There’s something about the way both actors over-enunciate the word that makes both sets of lines immensely quotable.

In two weeks, I’ll review a modern adaptation, “Bridget Jones’s Diary.”

My Year with Jane Austen: “Pride and Prejudice” [1995]

mv5bmdm0mjflogytntg2zc00mmrkltg5otqtm2u5zjuyytgxzthixkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyntayodkwoq4040._v1_sy1000_sx706_al_Movie: “Pride and Prejudice”

Release Year: 1995

Actors: Elizabeth Bennett – Jennifer Ehle

Mr. Darcy – Colin Firth

Jane Bennett – Susannah Harker

Mr. Bingley – Crispin Bonham-Carter

Comparison – “Indulge your imagination in every possible flight.”

I am definitely in the camp of fans who believe that this version of “Pride and Prejudice” is the definitive, will-never-be-topped, adaptation of this book. Pretty  much everything is perfect, as far as I’m concerned. The casting in particular is so spot-on that I find it impossible to read the book now without picturing these people as the characters. There are stand-outs, of course, but I don’t have a single quibble with any of the choices. If I had to pick, I might say that I thought Matthew Goode’s Wickham in “Death Comes to Pemberley” might be a smidge better. But that’s only if I was forced to pick, as I have no complaints with Adrian Lukis’ take.

The fact that is a six part mini series allows this version to include not only all the big moments in the book (and many of the little ones to boot), but even add in some smaller, quieter moments that just help to flesh out characters even further. We see hints at Lizzy’s active, independent nature with scenes of her frolicking through the fields (of course making sure she’s not watched; she is a proper lady after all!) Bingley and Darcy have moments as friends, riding horses and viewing Netherfield; and in the end we get to actually see the scene where Darcy apologizes for meddling in his love affair with Jane. The camera drifts through the Bennett household through out the show, giving us small glimpses in the day-to-day ways each member of the household spends their time when not caught up in grand balls and the like. For the romance angle, we get lovely scenes like a recently bathed Darcy being entranced by Elizabeth as she play with a dog during her stay at Netherfield. And, of course, the lake scene, an added element that pretty much turned into the defining moment of this adaptation (so much so that it was listed All of these moments and more just add to the joy that is this story.

The one area in which is lacks, however, is the ending. A proposal while on a walk serves its purpose well enough on the page. But in a movie/mini series, the movement and inability for the actors to look directly at each other as they speak hurts the romance of the moment. And, for all of its length, much of the last few chapters of the book are cut out leaving us without some of the nicer moments of Darcy and Elizabeth while engaged and interacting with various family members. It’s really too bad as the inclusion of these post-proposal scenes was something that really stood out to me in this re-read as a strength of the book. Instead, this movie jumps almost directly from the proposal to the marriage (other than a nice scene between Jane and Lizzy, which, to be fair, if you’re only going to include only one, this was the right choice by far!).

I also love the light, bright score that makes up much of the music for this version. It fits so perfectly with the overall mood  as well as feeling

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

Jennifer Ehle is a treasure. Even more so than Firth’s Darcy, hers is the character that most perfectly fits how I imagined the book character and who now always serves as my mind’s image when I re-read the story. She perfectly balances the wit and vivacity of Elizabeth while never losing touch with the propriety of the times for which Elizabeth was also credited. She has a great ability to, I don’t quite know how to say it, but keep her face active? There’s a lot of sitting and talking in this story, but her face is always telling a story of its own, even if she’s not speaking and it adds to the sense of Elizabeth’s lively and playful nature. Even when she doesn’t laugh out loud (that would be improper!), it’s easy to see that she’s laughing on the inside. Her eyes even do sparkle, for heaven’s sake! I also liked that they really emphasized her independent nature by not only having her out walking about on her own (often used to indicate the passage of a season), but by setting several scenes around walks and being in out of doors settings.

Ehle also has great chemistry with Susannah Harker who plays Jane. The moments between the sisters at night in their bedroom are just the sort of scenes that ground this story in a realistic place that one still recognizes today: sisters sprawled out in their rooms talking about the hot gossip. Of course, they look much more refined while doing it than any of us do, I’m sure. Harker’s Jane is also pitch perfect. She is quiet, calm, and willing to go to great lengths to look for the good in people. But, like Bingley (who I’ll discuss next), Harker gives Jane enough earnestness and sense as to not come across as silly and foolish.

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

Of course, I love Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. He manages perfectly to be both highly unlikable in the first half of the movie, and then, practically on a dime, turn to being highly likable and heroic. He’s handsome the entire time, which doesn’t hurt. But the movie definitely doesn’t shy away from showing Darcy at his worst in the beginning. He’s rude in public and in private, snobby and insulting of those around him, and, worst of all, playing along with Caroline’s own disdain.

I will, say, however, that the one misstep in this willingness to show Darcy at his worst was the letter he wrote Elizabeth. In the book, there’s a long section in which he details not only his problems with Elizabeth’s family, but also goes on at length about how he was convinced Jane didn’t return Bingley’s affection. There’s a brief line or two about this in the letter in this movie, but there isn’t nearly the amount of explanation around this that we have in the book. There, while still pretty harsh, it is easy to understand that Darcy could really have been lead astray here and, like Elizabeth, begin to forgive him for even that. But in the movie, it’s left feeling still pretty bad on his part. Luckily the Wickham stuff comes next and that’s the part that sticks with you, but it still leaves Darcy kind a worse light than I think he was in in the book.

I do like how they added scenes showing Darcy’s search for Wickham. Not only did it give him more action, but we got to see his heroics in action and it was clearly more than just a rich guy paying someone off to fix it. He’s out there on the streets tracking Wickham down.

I really like Crispin Bonham-Carter’s Mr. Bingley, too. He’s sweet, charming, but, unlike some adaptations, not a buffoon. His romance with Jane is adorable, but his relationship with his sisters and Darcy also makes sense. I particularly enjoy one scene when they’re back at Netherfield and he keeps trying to get a word in only to be interrupted by Caroline. It’s funny and also just adds to the “love to hate” quality for Caroline. I also really enjoy having the scene where Darcy apologizes to Bingley included. It’s also another good moment for Bingley in that we see him angry at Darcy but, just as quickly, go back to wishing for his friend’s approval. But, again, Bonham-Carter manages to play this quick switch with a sense of sincerity and earnestness that doesn’t leave Bingley looking foolish.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

As I said above, Adrian Lukis would be my only tough call if I had to pick a character whose been done better elsewhere. But even then, I think it is context dependent. The Wickham in “Death Comes to Pemberley” has a very different story than the Wickham we see here. Most notably, he’s already a known villain, so much so that he’s suspected of murder. Here, however, Wickham must not only be an unknown, but immediately likeable enough to fool our beloved Elizabeth. And in this, Lukis excels. He is charming, easy-going, and completely believable as just an average, good kind of guy. And to contrast that, he’s also equally smarmy at the end of the movie when he attempts to continue ingratiating himself to Lizzy after his “elopement” with Lydia. It’s uncomfortable to watch and just excellent.

Catherine de Bourgh is also particularly good. She sneers with the best of them, and I love the image of her literally chasing Elizabeth through the yard shaking her cane at her as she tries to get her to promise not to marry Darcy. There’s a particular facial expression, a narrowing of the eyes at Elizabeth, that the actress does during the first meeting at Rosings Park that my mom says is a look that I give. To this day I can’t decide whether to be insulted or pleased.

I also enjoy Anna Chancellor’s Miss Bingley quite a lot. She entirely hateable in the most fun way. One particular moment that comes to mind is when she confronts Darcy early in the movie asking what he’s thinking about. He says fine eyes and Chancellor does a very distinct flick of her own eyes at just the right point in her line to make it clear that Caroline is expecting herself to be the answer. It’s great.

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

There are quite a few added moments that help build the romance. Of course, the lake scene where its implied that Darcy is so tormented by his love for Elizabeth that he literally has to cool down by diving into the nearest body of water. But there are several other goods ones too. I already mentioned the early moment when he spots Elizabeth playing with a dog outside (notably, another opportunity for the movie to show a drenched Colin Firth as the scene involves Darcy bathing). There’s also another great moment where we see Darcy in London practicing dueling. At the end of a bout, he exclaims to himself “I shall beat this, I shall.” What woman doesn’t  want a man to be so besotted with her that he tries to drive it out of himself physically?

And, of course, the coup de gras: the look of pure adoration that he gives Elizabeth while she plays piano during her visit to Pemberley. My mom, sister and I once put together a list of romantic moments from movies that when put together would make the perfect romantic hero. This look from Darcy to Elizabeth was always top of the list. Firth practically trademarked it, and it’s immediately recognizable when he pulls it out again in “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” a modern retelling of “Pride and Prejudice” where he once again plays Darcy. We’ll get to that movie in a few weeks!

Like I said above, the movie does cut out many scenes from the end of the book as well as one of the visits Darcy and Bingley make before Bingley and Jane’s engagement. The visit makes sense, but I do wish they had included a few more moments of Elizabeth and Darcy happy together. Mostly, we just get a kind of somber wedding scene at the end, before it closes with a few joyful minutes of the happy couples riding off into the sunset. Notably, I think this is the only time in the entire movie that we see Colin Firth smile with teeth.

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

Lydia really shines in this adaptation. In the book, she’s mentioned often enough as ridiculous, but we don’t really get to see her in action other than small snippets of dialogue here and there. But here, she really comes to life: all of the giggling, the running about, the forwardness. By the time she runs off with Wickham, it feels more like it was only a matter of time than a shock. There were a lot of great moments, probably best all around for comedy in general was the ball at Netherfield where we really feel how much of a challenge the elder miss Bennetts have at finding good husbands when surrounded by so much foolishness. But for Lydia in particular I really enjoyed the juxtaposition of her and Kitty coming to meet Elizabeth on her return trip from Rosings Park and Lydia saying how jolly a party they’ll make on the carriage ride home. The scene then immediately switches to the next day and we hear Lydia and Kitty squabbling as the carriage pulls away.

Mr. Collins is also excellent in all of his smarminess. The actor portrays him as hunched over in a false sense of humility and often has him out of breath when accompanying the ladies on walks. The book makes a brief reference to the fact that he doesn’t know all the steps to the dances at the Netherfield Ball, but here we actually get to witness it as he bumbles head first into another lady when dancing with poor Elizabeth.

And, of course, Mrs. Bennett is great, particularly with the actor’s portrayal of when Mrs. Bennett is taken to her room with nerves while Lydia is missing. She’s over-the-top, emotional, and irrational. Throughout the entire movie, this representation of Mrs. Bennett does nothing to excuse her ridiculous behavior as a worried mother figure going to extremes. And, given that so many of her lines are directly from the book, I feel that it’s a pretty honest take on what Austen had in mind.

Fun facts – “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”

Jennifer Ehle wanted the part so badly that she dyed her eyebrows a darker color and didn’t wash her hair the day before casting as she was worried that her naturally blonde color would be a mark against her.

Ehle was perhaps right to be concerned about hair color as Colin Firth was almost passed over for being “too ginger.” Andrew Davies, the showrunner, had to be talked into giving Firth a chance with hair dye as an option.

Joanna David (Mrs. Gardiner) and Emilia Fox (Georgianna Darcy) are  mother and daughter. David was cast first and when they were looking for a Georgianna (they went through 70 or so actresses) David’s daughter, Emilia was mentioned.

Susannah Harker, Jane, was pregnant while filming but the flowing outfits worked well enough for her to conceal it. She is also the daughter of Polly Adams who played Jane in the 1967 version of “Pride and Prejudice.”

Best Movie Gif/Meme: “I dearly love a laugh.”

This has been a favorite of mine for quite awhile:

In two weeks, I’ll review the 2005 version of “Pride and Prejudice.”