Austenprose received a misdirected letter from Isabella Thorpe in the post this week intended for her dearest friend Catherine Tilney nee Morland. Since she discusses the two movie adaptations of Northanger Abbey, we thought it quite timely and decided to include it as a guest blog during Go Gothic with Northanger Abbey. Enjoy!
My dearest Catherine,
It is an age since I heard from you; I have received no reply to my last, but I suppose you are too happy with your Mr. Tilney to remember poor me. I saw the news of your marriage announced in the papers and I am sure you are amazingly lucky, for you were a girl as portionless as myself, and we all know what is the wealth of the General. My brother John (who still pines for you amazingly, you know, and would be charmed to wait upon you at Woodston at any time) has told me all the particulars he heard at Oxford, how the General threw you into the street, but that it was all made up in the end. Well, my dear, it may be a fine thing to be married into such amazing wealth, but I would not marry into that family, all eaten up with temper and pride as they are, for any consideration. The General is a perfect monster, as wicked as any we used to read about in our delightful horrid novels, do you remember those dear, long-ago days when we were such friends, Catherine? I swear I long to renew our friendship; you always were the sweetest girl, not another of your sort is to be seen in all the world, I can assure you.
I always read about weddings, having nothing else to do here in Putney, which is the most amazingly disagreeable place in the world. Picture to yourself the being confined with only my mother and sisters, who are insipid enough. My bloom is being thrown away, and unless we can go back to Bath next spring, I fear I will have no chances at all. Beauty does not last long, you know, and mine is of a peculiar sort that is not much admired by the villagers hereabouts, though in Bath, I admit, I had a certain amount of attention. I have never ceased to hate that odious Captain Tilney, whom I cannot call anything else, in all honesty, even if he is your brother-in-law now. Confess, Catherine, he is one of the worst of the fickle sex, and I have no doubt that he has made many a girl miserable since we parted. Not that he made me so; I would not wish him to think I was such a fool as to care whether he stayed in Bath or left. A coxcomb like that has no heart. Does Captain Tilney visit you at Woodston? I wonder that he and your Mr. Tilney can get along at all, they are so very different; but perhaps, being brothers, your beloved sometimes thinks it proper to invite him. Though if I were the Captain, I should rather spend my idle days with my sister the Viscountess, than visit your little parsonage, or worst of all, be driven to haunt Northanger Abbey.
Do write, my sweetest Catherine, and tell me all the news. Are you expecting a little one yet? I would suppose so, as that might be a reason why you have not written to me. I cannot bear to think that your affection might have diminished; mine certainly has not. Do you remember the frolics we had together, at the Play and the Rooms, and how we quizzed your Mr. Tilney and my brother and all our wicked beaux? Oh Catherine, I never before encountered such a heart as yours, and I never shall again. There was only one heart I ever met to match it – and that was the heart of your dear brother. Dear James! I have thought of him ten thousand times, and how I long to hear of him, you cannot conceive. I am in the most hideous agony, from my painful ignorance. I can only hope that your tenderness of heart will take pity on me and write a minute description of his health, and how he is occupying himself without poor me to tease him, and if he is married? I have seen nothing about it.
The fashions are more hideous than ever, this autumn, I collect from my reading, since I never see a fashionable creature from one end of Putney to the other. I have picked and torn apart all my turbans, in an effort to contrive some new bandeaux, in which I believe I have not been altogether unsuccessful; it is amazing how every other girl in town copies them, but they all do not have the knack of wearing them becomingly, as I have.
Do you know, Catherine, that even though horrid novels are impossible to obtain in this wretched town, some enterprising man has put up a Pan Opticon device, and I have seen two remarkably horrid picture shows! Oh, they were more dreadful than Udolpho, and The Monk, and Children of the Abbey, all together! And do you know what they were? Why, they were tales of girls in Bath, that were so amazingly close to our own selves and circumstances, you would swear the authoress was listening over our shoulders to our intimate conversations! Let me tell you about them.
Katherine Schlesinger as Catherine Morland
The first of these horrid pictures was painted, they say, in 1986, if you can believe such a thing. I was shocked speechless at my first sight of the heroine: she is the most hideous girl I ever saw, with popping eyes and a crooked nose, and I thought I had taken leave of my senses, that anyone could think that was my appearance. But no, for some strange, inexplicable reason, they have made you the heroine, and this remarkably plain girl, Katherine Schlesinger, is meant to represent you! You are certainly not flattered in the least, I can tell you. I cannot think how this actress has been chosen to portray you, in all your sweetness and prettiness; unless the maker of the piece took too seriously those lines of Miss Austen’s: “She had a thin awkward figure, a sallow skin without colour, dark lank hair, and strong features.” They do not seem to realize that was a description of you at ten, and that by seventeen you were quite a pretty girl. Sure Miss Schlesinger is not unpretty, but with those affected curls she looks like an Italian harlot. And with that nose and chin, she could play the young Queen Victoria, which is not a compliment.
Peter Firth as Henry Tilney
But worse is in store. Never could I have believed that an actor who is squat and plain, with blond balding locks, and a self-important air, seemingly about five and thirty years old, could ever be selected to portray your Henry, who is tall, and dark, and young, and altogether really very handsome. This fellow, Peter Firth, is a smug priss, old enough to be your father. It is such a vile piece of miscasting as to spoil the picture in every possible way.
Googie Withers as Mrs. Allen
Cassie Stuart as Isabella Thorpe
The other actors are better cast: Googie Withers is your Mrs. Allen to the life, and Robert Hardy is a most magnificent General. I had to hide my face, to be sure, when that Cassie Stuart was playing me. To be sure she is a pretty girl, as she would have to be, with a plentitude of golden curls; but she has always the same inane giggle, and that, you know, is not like myself at all.
Henry Tilney sings?!?
If you can ignore the casting of the lead parts (though to be sure that is not an easy thing to do), this is a very pretty Northanger Abbey. The Rooms look very natural, and the music and dancing are particularly good: Peter Firth, for all he looks like a Scottish butler, sings enchantingly (that must be why he was chosen, and a very poor reason too, since Henry Tilney does not sing in Miss Austen’s book, so why chuse an ugly, middle aged, songster to play him?). I never saw such graceful country dancing, but it does not last long enough. Every thing else lasts much too long, however, and when you, Catherine, or rather that thyroid-eyed girl with greasy curls was rummaging through the trunk at Northanger (in a night scene that was inexplicably brilliantly lit), I thought I would go to sleep, if she would not.
Catherine and Mrs. Allen take the Baths
There is one effect that I love in this picture, perhaps my favourite in any Austen panopticon performance (and I have seen them all, as there is nothing else to do here in Putney), and that is the scene with the ladies and gentlemen wandering like automatons chest deep in the steaming Roman Bath waters. It is a most magnificently surreal image, the fanciful hats, the wet gowns, the walking through water, though of course it is like nothing that ever happened on this earth. We never got our gowns wet in such a way, you remember, though some invalids were dipped; and the 2007 picture is far more realistic in the way its ladies and gentlemen merely sip the waters.
Elaine Ives-Cameron as the Marchoiness and Robert Hardy as General Tilney
Then I must mention another strange going-on at Northanger Abbey, that you would abhor: the General has his mistress there, a masked Venetian witch who seems to have wandered in from some other film, Casanova perhaps. She has a little black servant, too, who makes up to Catherine and does cartwheels. I have seen nothing like it these thousand ages. It puts me in mind of my own brother’s description of Camilla, as recounted by Miss Austen: “it is the horridest nonsense you can imagine; there is nothing in the world in it but an old man’s playing at see-saw and learning Latin; upon my soul there is not.” That is much the way I feel about this 1986 version of Northanger Abbey. There is nothing in the world in it but a Venetian masked pocked harlot in the same room with respectable ladies (which could never happen) and a little black boy turning cartwheels.
Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland
Now, my sweet Catherine, have patience, and I will tell you about the 2007 Northanger Abbey. This one is as your own Henry would describe it, “nice.” Just that. Maggie Wadey’s eccentric version, for all its bizarreness, yet uses more of Austen’s language, and has a more natural look. This one, the Andrew Davies version, is improved in only one important way: the casting. This new young Catherine, Felicity Jones, is all loveliness, with a real look of yourself, an ingenuous young thing, who conveys real feeling, just as you do, my sweet one.
JJ Feild as Henry Tilney
Her Henry is not your Henry, to be sure; he is strangely gangly, just made to play Mr. Abraham Lincoln; but JJ Feild is an unspeakable improvement over that hideous elderly chap in the other version. This Catherine and Henry manage to have some chemistry, as it is called, together, while the other pair looked all mutual aversion. In my opinion, however, the actress playing Eleanor Tilney, Catherine Walker, “stole the show,” as they say in the hideous twenty-first century. She exuded warm womanliness that informed the whole production, and filled up the chilly gaps. The General here, Liam Cunningham, was a cardboard ogre.
Carey Mulligan as Isabella Thorpe and Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland
I have left mention of the portrayal of myself by Carey Mulligan to the last, because it deserves no better. This Isabella is a stick, your eyes glide past her on the screen because she barely registers a presence. You cannot think why the gentlemen, such as Captain Tilney and James Morland, would be falling all over her, as they certainly did with me once, did they not, my Catherine? In short, I have never been properly represented yet, in either version; my odd character, I suppose, is very difficult to execute, but in short, I am not satisfied.
Catherine Morland in a fantasy bath scene cut from the US version
What more is there to say? The first film was a botch; the second is mighty insipid. There is little real, genuine Austen dialogue, and the tedious, metronome-like flashes of Gothic scenes, although pretty and operatic-looking, I found tiresome beyond measure, interrupting what little action there was.
Catherine Morland goes Gothic
And now, my dearest Catherine: I hope you appreciate my describing these amazingly horrid movies for you (and they were horrider than Udolpho, were they not? That wall-eyed troll who played my brother, William Beck, was certainly more terrifying than any skeleton of Laurentina’s could possibly be). In exchange for my telling you so much, in the goodness of your heart, do you not feel inclined to invite me to Woodston? Sure you would like a female companion to help you while away the tedium of your confinement, and your sisters are really too young for such an office. And if your brother, or your husband’s brother, should chance to visit while I was in residence, I should not be ashamed to see them.
Your most loving friend,
Many thanks to Miss Isabella Thorpe who was channeled by author Diana Birchall, whose creative Austen-esque stylings can be found in her highly acclaimed novels, Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma and Mrs. Elton in America available through SourceBooks. You can also catch her weekly column Mrs. Elton Sez at Jane Austen Today if you are in need of some sage and sardonic advice, or just a good laugh.
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