Costuming in the EMMA. Movie with Fashion Historian Hilary Davidson

Emma and Mr. Knightley dance at the Crown Inn, Focus Features © 2020

The new film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn opened in general release in the US on March 6th. This enchanting and visually stunning interpretation of Austen’s classic tale of Miss Emma Woodhouse as the misapplying matchmaker of Highbury has received raves from the press and viewers alike.

The costumes beautifully define the film, greatly adding to the characterization and the drama. Joining us here today is fashion historian Hilary Davidson who has generously contributed a guest blog to share her insights and impressions of the costumes made for the new film by Academy Award-winning designer Alexandra Byrne.

Welcome, Hilary. 

Emma. is the best-costumed screen adaptation of Austen ever made. Strong words but delighted ones from a dress historian who has recently written a book on Regency fashion and seen a lot of odd screen versions of the period’s dress. Costume designer Alexandra Byrne and her team studied many original garments in British historical collections and threw all their research into a gloriously realised vision of circa. 1815 dress.

Comfort (1796) colored etching from the nypl.digitalcollections

Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, The New York Public Library. “Comfort” The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Director Autumn de Wilde clearly adores the details of dress and pays them great attention. Throughout the film, we are shown the components of women’s dress and how they were arranged, from the knee-high stockings to the chemise and stays that helped create the illusion of a natural body. Emma demonstrates that Regency women didn’t wear underpants in a pose taken straight from Comfort [image]. Mr. Knightley is dressed from the skin to coat in a sequence I’m going to use in teaching fashion history. Continue reading

A Preview of Sanditon: A New Television Adaptation of Jane Austen’s Novel

Premiering Sunday, August 25 on ITV, Sanditon will be the first television series inspired by Jane Austen’s final, unfinished novel.

Jane Austen fans in the UK have much to celebrate. Austen’s seaside Regency drama is being given the red-carpet treatment by the co-production team of Red Planet Pictures in the UK and MASTERPIECE PBS in the US. Adapting and continuing the eight-part series will be veteran period drama screenwriter Andrew Davies (Pride and Prejudice (1995) and Sense and Sensibility (2008)), and a cast of accomplished and emerging British actors will portray the lively and diverse characters that Austen established in her novel, with a few additions to the roister as well. The new series will air on eight consecutive Sundays at 9:00pm August 25 through October 13, 2019.

Inset of the first page of the manuscript that would later be titled Sanditon: “A Gentleman & Lady travelling from Tun-bridge towards that part of the Sussex Coast which lies between Hastings & E. Bourne being induced by Business to quit the high road, and were overturned in half rock, half sand toiling up its long ascent.” Via Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts

Sanditon was written in 1817 when Austen was seriously ill. She was only able to finish twelve chapters and about 24,000 words before her poor health prevented her from completing it. Four months later she would die on July 18, 1817, of what is generally believed to be Addison’s disease. The manuscript was passed down through family members until it was donated in 1930 to King’s College in Cambridge where it now resides. The fragment of the novel is classified as one of her minor works. Continue reading

Giveaway Winner Announced for Love & Friendship Prize Pack

Love & Friendship (2016) poster 2016 x 200It’s time to announce the winner of the giveaway of the Love & Friendship prize pack offered in honor of the new movie release. The lucky winner was drawn at random and is:

  • Amanda Mauldin who left a comment on May 11, 2016

Congratulations Amanda! To claim your prize, please contact me with your full name and address by May 25, 2016, or you will forfeit your prize! Shipment is to US addresses only.

Thanks to all who left comments and to Roadside Attractions for the giveaway prize package.

Cover image courtesy of Roadside Attractions © 2016, text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2016,

Love & Friendship — Whit Stillman Brings Jane Austen’s Comic Gem Lady Susan to the Screen

Love & Friendship (2016) poster 2016 x 200The highly anticipated release of Love & Friendship, filmmaker Whit Stillman’s new adaptation of Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan, arrives this Friday, May 13 in Los Angeles, New York and Paris with national release set for May 27, 2016. Early praise for the film is more than encouraging: “FLAT-OUT-HILARIOUS. Jane Austen has never been funnier.” – The Telegraph; “Whit Stillman and English novelist Jane Austen make for a delightful pairing in this comedy of manners.” – The; “Kate Beckinsale magnetizes the screen.” – Variety.

We have long been a champion of Austen’s Lady Susan. So much so we dedicated an entire blog event to it in 2009, A Soiree with Lady Susan. For those who have not read this delightfully wicked novella by Austen written in the 1790’s and published posthumously in 1871, I highly recommend it. Besides changing the title to Love and Friendship, (also the title of one of Austen’s juvenilia), Stillman has added his movie magic and adapted the story into a screenplay.

Here is a description from the distributor Roadside Attractions:

Humorous and witty, devious and scheming, or Downton Abbey with laughs, LOVE & FRIENDSHIP is an adaptation of young Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan, believed to have been written in the mid 1790s but revised up to a fair copy prepared in 1805 and finally published by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, in 1871. Continue reading

Preview of Death Comes to Pemberley on Masterpiece Mystery PBS

Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell Martin in Death Comes to Pemberley

The long wait is almost over. The two part BBC/PBS mini-series of P. D. James’ bestselling novel, Death Comes to Pemberley, will premiere on Masterpiece Mystery in one week on Sunday, October 26 at 9pm (check your local listing) and concludes on the following Sunday, November 2.

To get you warmed up for this intriguing mystery that continues the story of Jane Austen’s characters from Pride and Prejudice, here is a brief synopsis of the first episode and a trailer from PBS: Continue reading

From Prada to Nada – Jane Austen Goes South of the Border

Mark your calendars Jane Austen fans. From Prada to Nada opens in the US on January 28, 2011. Here is the official movie poster. The story might spark some memories. Two privileged young ladies from Beverly Hills are left penniless after the death of their father and must depend on the kindness of an estranged aunt in East Los Angeles for a new home and social connections. Sound familiar Jane Austen fans? Yep – you guessed it. Shades of Marianne and Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility. Here’s the official studio synopsis:

It’s a whimsical fish-out-of-water story of two spoiled sisters: Nora (Camilla Belle), a law student, and Mary (Alexa Vega), an undergrad party girl, living with their father in a luxurious mansion in Beverly Hills. Mary has become so “90210” she refuses to admit she is of Mexican descent. When dad suddenly passes away, their posh lives are turned upside down. They discover they have been left penniless and are forced to move into their estranged aunt Aurelia’s (Adriana Barraza) modest but lively home in the Latino-centric Boyle Heights neighborhood of East LA. They are terrified to leave their world of privilege; neither Nora nor Mary speak Spanish or have ever had to take on actual responsibility. The girls gradually adapt to their new environment; their BMW and Prius are traded for the public bus and a used car. As they embrace the culture that for so long they refused to accept, they both discover romance, the true meaning of family, and they learn that the life of PRADA actually means NADA without love, family and community.

Here is the official movie trailer. Directed by Angel Gracia, the cast looks fresh faced and perky. I am really looking forward to seeing it.

Jane Austen Allusions in I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith (2003)I know of few novels – except Pride and Prejudice – that inspire as much fierce lifelong affection in their readers as I Capture the Castle. – Joanna Trollope

This fall, UK audiences will be treated to a new adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Emma, starring Romola Garai as the irrepressible handsome, clever and rich matchmaker of Highbury, Miss Emma Woodhouse. A joint BBC and PBS production, US audiences will have to wait until the winter of 2010 to enjoy the heroine that Austen jokingly warned her family “no-one but myself will much like.” We all love to hate Emma, at first, but fall for her in the end, just like her Mr. Knightley. I am quite pleased with the producers casting of Garai and fondly remember her excellent performance as one of my other beloved heroines, Cassandra Mortmain in the 2003 major film adaptation of one of my top ten favorite books (outside of Austen’s canon of course), I Capture the Castle.

I first read I Capture the Castle about ten years ago and was delighted with the story, characterizations, and Smith’s witty and adventuresome style. It had been highly recommended to me by a friend who knew I was an Anglophile and Jane Austen enthusiast. Like Jane Austen, author Dodie Smith has a passionate following of readers ready to promote her works. She beamed about the allusions to Austen and the story set in England of a young girl coming of age. I was intrigued. Published in 1948 in the US, the book was written as an antidote for her homesickness for her native England while she was living in the US with her husband. Amazingly, it was her first novel after being a successful playwright in England for several years. Most readers will identify with her popular children’s book 101 Dalmatians published in 1956 and adapted into the Disney animated movie in 1961. Who could ever forget her over-the-top characterization of villainess Cruella de Vil? – a whacked-out Lady Catherine de Bourgh with a fixation on a Dalmatian dog fur coat.

Romola Garai as Cassandra Mortmain in the 2003 movie adaptation of I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

“But some characters in books are really real – Jane Austen’s are; and I know those five Bennet’s at the opening of Pride and Prejudice, simply waiting to raven the young men at Netherfield Park, are not giving one thought to the real facts of marriage.” pp 55 

The story of I Capture the Castle is revealed through the eyes of its 17-year old heroine in the making Cassandra Mortmain, whose artistic and eccentric family is barely surviving in a crumbling castle in England. Her negligent father, bohemian step-mother Topaz, beautiful but shallow older sister Rose and precocious little brother Thomas are the center of her unconventional world that she is struggling to understand, and emerge from. The Mortmain’s are trapped in the run-down castle by a long-term lease originally obtained from the proceeds of her father’s first and only novel. Suffering from writers block, he has not written a word since, choosing instead to spend his time reading novels and avoiding his family. Seemingly living off air, the family has not paid their rent in years, and has long since sold the last of their belongings. An aspiring writer, Cassandra copes with her dire life by writing in her journal as catharsis, and an attempt to improve her skills as a ticket out of her circumstances.

Romola Garai and Henry Thomas in I Capture the Castle (2003)

‘I don’t intend to let myself become the kind of author who can only work in seclusion – after all, Jane Austen wrote in the sitting-room and merely covered up her work when a visitor called (though I bet she thought a thing or two) – but I am not quite Jane Austen yet and there are limits to what I can stand.’ Cassandra Mortmain pp 26

Her sister Rose will use other means to free herself from her parent’s neglect, hoping her beauty will snare a rich husband.  She laments woefully about their penurious condition and dreams about marrying a wealthy man until two arrive in the neighborhood in their new American landlord Simon Cotton and his brother Neil, fueling her fantasy to be a Jane Austen heroine.

Rose Byrne as Rose Mortmain in I Capture the Castle (2003)

“Did you think of anything when Miss Marcy said Scoatney Hall was being re-opened? I thought of the beginning of Pride and Prejudice – where Mrs. Bennet says ‘Netherfield Park is let at last.’ And then Mr. Bennet goes over to call on the rich new owner.” 

“Mr. Bennet didn’t owe him any rent,” I said.  

“Father wouldn’t go anyway. How I wished I lived in a Jane Austen novel!” 

I said I’d rather be Charlotte Bronte. Rose and Cassandra Mortmain pp 24

Even though she is repulsed by Simon, Rose sets her cap for him, and with Cassandra and Topaz’s help, she succeeds. Meanwhile, Cassandra is attracted to the other brother Neil and is hopeful for her own romance, much to the disappointment of Stephen, the Mortmain’s live-in friend who is infatuated with her. As the wedding plans proceed, Rose and Topaz travel to London to purchase her wedding trousseau. Rose’s vain and selfish nature blossoms with her new elevated social position and money. Cassandra, left out of the plans feels even more neglected and is thrown together with Simon who Rose is treating as an annoyance. As the two cast-offs are drawn together, romantic sparks ignite as they express their mutual attraction in a kiss. Rose on the other hand is drifting away from Simon and secretly into the arms of his brother Neil. An elopement will cause a family panic, a change of heart and an unusual ending.

On my first reading, I picked up on the allusions to Jane Austen throughout the novel. There are obvious ones: Cassandra and Rose can be compared to the two Bennet sisters whose family fortune and social position is impairing them from an advantageous marriage. Simon and Neil are two young unattached wealthy men that arrive in the neighborhood as possible suitors like Charles Bingley and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Rose is repulsed by Simon like Elizabeth is by Darcy. There is a negligent father, an eccentric mother, an elopement, and a pivital moment of truth by the heroine, but that is where any apparent resemblance ends. What really prompts the reader to reflect further on the similarities between Jane Austen’s works and I Capture the Castle is the language. Smith’s use of words, phrases, and rhythms is so subtly evocative of Austen that certain passages from the novel stirred my memory of what  Austen had also used. Here are several examples from I Capture the Castle with similar quotes from Austen.

“[T]here is something revolting about the way girls’ minds so often jump to marriage long before they jump to love.” Cassandra Mortmain,  pp 55

“A lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony, in a moment.” Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice Ch 6 

“Certain unique books seem to be without forerunners or successors as far as their authors are concerned. Even though they may profoundly influence the work of other writers, for their creator they’re complete, not leading anywhere.” Mr. Mortmain pp 59 

‘[I]n short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language.’ The Narrator, Northanger Abbey, Ch 5 

“Still, looking through the old volumes was soothing, because thinking of the past made the present seem a little less real.” Cassandra Mortmain pp 233 

“You must learn some of my philosophy. Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure.” Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice, Ch 58 

Cruel blows of fate call for extreme kindness in the family circle.” Pp 74 

“[W]e must stem the tide of malice, and pour into the wounded bosoms of each other the balm of sisterly consolation.” Mary Bennet, Pride and Prejudice, Ch 47 

“Truthfulness so often goes with ruthlessness.” Mr. Mortmain pp 228 

“Our pleasures I this world are always to be paid for.” Henry Tilney, Northanger Abbey, Ch 26  

“Contemplation seems to be about the only luxury that costs nothing.” Cassandra Mortmain, pp 25 

“[T]o sit in the shade on a fine day, and look upon verdure, is the most perfect refreshment.” Fanny Price, Mansfield Park, Ch 9 

“Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression.” Cassandra Mortmain, pp 38 

“A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of.” Mary Crawford, Mansfield Park, Ch 22 

First edition cover of I Capture the Castle (1948) by Dodie SmtihThe Austen allusions may have motivated me to read this novel, but that is not why it remains one of favorites. If I had to narrow it down to one reason, I would definitely say that it was Smith’s vivid and humorous characterizations. This motley cast of players runs the full gamut of human foibles and weakness that are both tragic and amusing. When an author connects with readers through perceptive observation played against dry wit, the results when skillfully combined, can resonate deeply filling our void to know and understand human nature and life.  It’s what makes for great literature, and what Austen is also valued for.

“Just to be in love seemed the most blissful luxury I had ever known. The thought came to me that perhaps it is the loving that counts, not the being loved in return — that perhaps true loving can never know anything but happiness. For a moment I felt that I had discovered a great truth.” Cassandra Mortmain  pp223

“I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.” Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice, Ch 36

Well done Dodie Smith. I recommend this novel highly. It is a perfect summer read.