The BBC’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Katie Farr, Lancaster University

Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) addresses the issue of women’s freedom more directly than any of her more-famous sisters’ novels, making it worthy of being adapted, studied and remembered. May Sinclair said that “the slamming of Helen’s bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England” (Gérin, 7). However, in 1848 the book was criticised for its structure and its subject matter, with its unflinching depiction of alcoholism, and a heroine who criticises the marriage laws of the time. Even Charlotte Brontë said that “the choice of subject was an entire mistake” (Brontë, lxi). This criticism has resulted in a huge gap in popularity between Anne’s major work and those of her sisters. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre enjoyed both critical acclaim and popular success and has remained popular ever since, and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights became increasingly admired by critics from the late nineteenth century and experienced a meteoric rise in sales sparked by the 1939 film version. But Anne’s work remains underappreciated despite the appeal of its feminist message to a modern audience.

The difference is clear when comparing how often the sisters’ works have been adapted. The 1996 Mike Barker BBC television adaptation of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is one of very few adaptations made of Anne Brontë’s fiction, compared to the countless adaptations inspired by her sisters’ novels, Emily’s Wuthering Heights (1847) and Charlotte’s Jane Eyre (1847). The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) lists thirteen film and eleven television titles of Wuthering Heights, and twelve film and thirteen television adaptations of Jane Eyre, and many more shorts and works inspired by the texts, including adaptations under different titles. In contrast, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has just two listings, a television series from 1968 being its only other adaptation. 

Barker’s adaptation deals well with the criticism of the structure of Brontë’s novel, which is told through Gilbert’s letters and Helen’s diary. The critic George Moore complains, “the diary broke the story in halves” (Gérin, 14). The adaptation maintains the use of Gilbert’s perspective for the first episode, without resorting to the book’s contrived framing device of Gilbert’s letters to his brother-in-law. The second episode is from Helen’s perspective, with the use of flashbacks in the first episode creating a seamless transition to the extended sequence of Helen’s history, giving the audience previews of Helen’s past before it is fully revealed.

These flashbacks are one of several methods used to represent the psychological realism of the novel. They occur at times of stress for Helen, such as when Gilbert rescues Arthur from a tree, which triggers the flashback of the child Arthur surrounded by drunk, leering faces. The flashbacks are partial and symbolic: a wine glass dropped by an unseen hand, a dead bird held aloft. They are accompanied by music which interrupts the silent background of the surrounding scenes. Richard G. Mitchell’s score conveys character emotion rather than establishing the historical period of the narrative. Haunting women’s voices link Helen’s story to the sadness and struggle of oppressed women, reminding the audience that she represents generations of women subjected to the same laws and social expectations. These audio-visual methods represent Helen’s past trauma and internal emotions, which are directly narrated in the book.

The settings also carry symbolic resonances. Wildfell Hall is old and filled with dust, but as Helen rips a curtain from the window, she laughs, “At least the light is good”. Although it is a decrepit place compared to the grand setting of Grassdale Manor (shown in the second episode), Wildfell Hall is filled with natural light, while Grassdale Manor, from which she fled her abusive marriage, is mostly shown dimly lit with candles. Whilst the light in itself conveys happiness and escape from the darkness of her marriage, it also has a material purpose in giving Helen a space in which she can paint, allowing her financial independence. We see her walking and painting in the moors, which Carmen Pérez Ríu describes as the “characteristically Brontëan space for women’s self-disclosure and freedom” (56).

The adaptation’s use of flashbacks and the perspectives of both Gilbert and Helen creates a compelling drama whilst maintaining Anne’s realist style. Anne shares the use of gothic mansions and the wild moors as settings with her sisters, but there are no ghostly apparitions like in Wuthering Heights or voices calling mystically from afar as in Jane Eyre. Anne says, “the truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it” (29). In this way, the realism of the novel is designed to faithfully show the abuse and hardship faced by Victorian women, and appeal for their freedom.

Questions for Discussion:

In the novel, Helen’s story is related through her diary entries written at the time, whereas in the television adaptation, she is writing from memory years later. How does this change the way her story is presented? Take a look at the scenes where she discovers Arthur’s affair (Episode 2, 00:42:32-00:48:30), and compare them to the same events in Chapter 33 of the novel.

In 1848 writing about sex was strictly taboo, whereas sex scenes were commonplace on TV and in novels by the 1990s. The physical relationship between Arthur and Helen is made explicit in this adaptation, including both romantic scenes such as Arthur kissing Helen’s baby bump, and scenes of attempted rape. Is this imposing a contemporary perspective on a Victorian text, or more accurately portraying what Victorian life was like for women?

Some of the humour from the novel, such as Gilbert’s relationship with his brother Fergus (see Chapter 13), has been left out of the adaptation. What is the effect of the humour in the novel? Why might the writers have decided not to include it in the adaptation?

Helen says it is “better far that he [her son Arthur] should live in poverty and obscurity with a fugitive mother, than in luxury and affluence with such a father” (357). What do Helen’s disastrous first marriage to a wealthy man with a country seat, and her presumably happy second one to a yeoman farmer, indicate about class status? How might Victorian ideas of class inform contemporary discussions?

Further reading:

Birden, Lorene M. “Frank and Unconscious Humor and Narrative Structure in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.” Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, vol. 24, no. 3, 2011, pp.263-286.

Brontë, Anne. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, edited by G.D Hargreaves, Penguin Classics, 1988.

Brontë, Charlotte. “Biographical notice of Ellis and Acton Bell.” Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë, edited by Angeline Goreau, Penguin Classics, 1988, pp.lvii-lxiv.

Gérin, Winifred. “Introduction.” The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë, edited by G.D Hargreaves, Penguin Classics, 1988, pp.7-18.

Han, Catherine Paula. “The Myth of Anne Brontë.” Brontë Studies, vol. 42, no. 1, 2017, pp. 48–59.

Holland, Nick. In Search of Anne Brontë, The History Press, 2016.

James, Caryn. “Critic’s Notebook; As Cameras Whir, The BrontëNovels Come Into Focus.” The New York Times, 24 October 1997.

Pérez Ríu, Carmen. “‘Don’t Forget This Is How I Earn My Living’: Internal Focalization, Subjectivity and the Victorian Woman Artist in the Adaptation of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (BBC Miniseries, 1996).” Brontë Studies, Vol. 40, No.1, 2015, pp. 44-58.

Shaw, Marion. “Anne Brontë: A Quiet Feminist.” Brontë Studies, vol. 38, no. 4, 2013, pp. 330–338.

Thormählen, Marianne. “Standing Alone: Anne Brontë out of the Shadow.” Brontë Studies, vol. 39, no. 4, 2014, pp. 330–340.

Title Matching ‘Jane Eyre’, Feature Film/TV Movie/TV Series/TV Special/TV Mini-Series.” IMDb, Accessed 05 August 2019

Title Matching ‘the Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, Feature Film/TV Series/TV Mini-Series.” IMDb, Accessed 05 August 2019.

Title Matching ‘Wuthering Heights’, Feature Film/TV Movie/TV Series/TV Special/TV Mini-Series.” IMDb, Accessed 05 August 2019.

The BBC’s Dombey and Son

By Lydia Craig, Loyola University Chicago

Few film adaptations of Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son (1846) exist, possibly due to the novel’s heavy reliance on metonymy, the use of specific objects or distinctive physical attributes to represent characters’ hidden desires. As Robert Giddings notes, film resists lingering narrative focus on descriptive images and physical objects (306). Though it tries to faithfully represent Dickens’s metonymy, the 1983 BBC miniseries Dombey and Son — starring Julian Glover (Paul Dombey), Lysette Anthony (Florence Dombey), and Paul Darrow (Mr. Carker) — struggles to convey symbolic features such as Carker’s teeth. Verbal metaphor in a text, while producing vivid mental images in the reader’s mind, does not always translate accurately in accompanying illustrations, nor yet on screen, as the miniseries demonstrates.

Mr. Carker’s teeth in the BBC adaptation

In Dickens’s novel, Mr. Carker’s teeth metonymically represent his insidiousness. Though Darrow’s intonations expertly capture Carker’s understated menace, the actor lacks the oversized grin betraying the feral beast beneath Carker’s cultivated façade, an instance film critic Jonathan Miller describes in a review for The Sunday Times as illustrating the “logical difference” between the viewed physical reality of film and the intellectual meaning resulting from literature (Supplement, G.9). In order to comprehend Mr. Carker’s vicious character and seductive intentions, Dickens requires the reader to persistently recall his teeth, even when they are not mentioned in specific dental detail. When Florence’s dog Diogenes snaps at Mr. Toots but does not bite him, for example, Mr. Carker offers aid: “‘If the dog’s teeth have entered the leg, Sir -’ began Carker, with a display of his own” (317). The narrative’s initial comparison between Diogenes and Carker’s teeth undergoes a revision in imagery after the dog barks at him, accurately recognizing Carker’s cat-like predatory walk. Unlike a dog, who honestly displays his opinion of others, Carker conceals his true feelings and intentions, and is therefore cunning and untrustworthy.

Phiz’s illustration, “Mr. Carker in His Hour of Triumph”

Dombey and Son, like many of Dickens’s novels, was illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne (“Phiz”). Several illustrations of Carker depict him with an impossibly wide smile, while others attempt to depict it in a more “realistic” manner, demonstrating the difficulty of even illustrating Dickens’s metonymy. In some illustrations, Phiz relies on other visual aids. Carker’s teeth experience two final symbolic confrontations with “teeth” much sharper and more powerful than his own: the table knife Edith uses to defend her virtue and the train that fatally crushes Carker. Phiz’s ironic illustration “Mr. Carker in his Hour of Triumph” depicts a standing Edith extending a bared arm tauntingly towards a seated Carker, while he averts his face, closed, sullen mouth covered by a hand (759). The BBC version does not follow Phiz’s lead, and instead stages this scene on a boat where Edith clumsily presents the knife, physically struggles to escape Carker’s restraining grasp, and is released only after threatening him with her estranged husband’s approach (Bennett).

While escaping from Mr. Dombey, Carker slips onto a railway track and is killed in full view of his pursuer’s horrified gaze. The train engine is described as an iron-toothed beast with “red eyes,” “a jagged mill, that spun him round and round…and cast his mutilated fragments in the air” (Dickens 779). A desperate but resolute woman and an unthinking machine have twice mastered and bested the teeth, speaking to the ultimate fruitlessness of Carker’s twisted designs and cruel threats. Dogs are shooed away from the remains and men remove the body from the tracks. In the BBC adaptation this scene passes quickly, with Carker seeing and realizing that Dombey has traced him to the station and desperately jumping in front of the train. There is one shot of the wheels turning, while Dombey stares in shock.

Phiz’s illustration, “Coming Home from Church”

Though this miniseries generally remains faithful to Dickens’s novel, minimizing Edith’s agency by showing Carker as physically abusive represents a departure from how  menacing and then ineffectual he appears in the text and Phiz’s illustrations. What this film’s style does accomplish however, especially in its preservation of tense and lengthy drawing room conversations between Carker, Dombey, and Edith, is to emphasize the psychological drama of being trapped within domestic spaces and roles by more powerful individuals due to age and gender. While translating the metonymy of Dickens’s text to screen may present filmic challenges for realistic cinema, film can also use space and atmosphere to capture the novel’s suspenseful tone and illustrate its subtext for the viewer.

Questions for Discussion:

Andrew Davies (BBC Pride and Prejudice) expressed interest in doing an adaptation of Dombey and Son (Singh). Given his period style, how might he represent Dickens’s metonymy? Could the use of “knife” and “tooth” imagery such as close up shots of Carker and Diogenes’ growling teeth, Edith’s knife, the train’s wheels, convey the menace of Carker’s teeth?

Director Joss Whedon (Buffy, The Avengers) has also expressed interest in doing an adaptation of Dombey and Son (Plumb). Consider the style of Whedon’s other films. How might he represent Carker’s teeth? Would giving an actor an impossibly white and wide CGI-enhanced grin like that of the Cheshire Cat (Alice in Wonderland) help translate Dickens’ absurd textual characterization from text to screen?

Besides Carker’s teeth, other examples of Dickens’s metonymy appear throughout Dombey and Son’s text, as critics have noted. Which of the other characters are represented by items, features, or characteristics such as an unusual laugh or repeated phrase? How well do these other metonymic devices transfer from text to screen in the BBC version? Do they appear at all and if not, why were they excluded?

Works Cited:

Bennett, Rodney, director. Dombey and Son. Performed by Julian Glover, Lysette   Anthony, and Paul Darrow. BBC, 1983. Film.

Dickens, Charles. Dombey and Son. 1846. Oxford University Press, 1987.

Giddings, Robert. “Great misrepresentations: Dickens and film.” Critical Survey, vol. 3, no.3, 1991, pp. 305-312.

Miller, Jonathan. “The debate of the film of the book.” The Sunday Times. 12 February 1989. Factiva. Web. 17 July 2017.

Plumb, Ali. “Joss Whedon on Dombey and Son Movie Ambitions.” Movies. EmpireOnline. 18 June 2013. Web. 17 July 2017.

Singh, Anita. “BBC period drama has gone downmarket, says Andrew Davies.” The Telegraph. 28 September 2009. Web. 17 July 2017.

Further Reading:

Altick, Richard D. “Varieties of Readers’ Response: The Case of ‘Dombey and Son.’” The Yearbook of English Studies, vol. 10, 1980, pp. 70-94.

Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. “Emblems and Ecphrases in ‘Dombey and Son.’” Dickens Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 2, 2010, pp. 102-118.

Guida, Fred. “Some Thoughts on the BBC, British Silent Films, Dombey and Son, Rich Man’s Folly & The Changing World of Charles Dickens.” Fred Guida’s Charles    Dickens On Screen. 10 January 2012.

Reed, John R. Dickens’s Hyperrealism. Ohio State University Press, 2010.

Stewart, Garrett. “Dickens, Eisenstein, film.” Dickens on Screen. Edited by John Glavin. Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 122-144.

Stone, Harry. “Dickens and Leitmotif: Music-staircase Imagery in Dombey and Son.” College English, vol. 25, no. 3, 1963, pp. 217-220.

Watt, Kate Varnell and Kathleen C. Lonsdale. “Dickens Composed: film and television adaptations 1897-2001.” Dickens on Screen. Edited by John Glavin. Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 201-216.


“Coming Home from Church.” Illustration by Hablot Knight Brown, otherwise known as ‘Phiz.’ Dombey and Son. London, 1846.

“Dombey and Son frontispiece.” Illustration by Hablot Knight Brown, otherwise known as ‘Phiz.’ Dombey and Son. London, 1846.

“Mr. Carker in his Hour of Triumph.” Illustration by Hablot Knight Brown, otherwise known as ‘Phiz.’ Dombey and Son. London, 1846.

Andrew Davies and Sue Birtwistle’s Wives and Daughters

By Andrea Coldwell, Coker College

wivesanddaughtersThe final episode of Andrew Davies and Sue Birtwistle’s 1999 Wives and Daughters offered its viewers the happy ending that generations of Elizabeth Gaskell’s readers had missed. The adaptation garnered attention both as a new product by the team then famous for their wildly popular adaptation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1995) and as a venture into uncharted territory. Though Elizabeth Gaskell’s reputation has grown significantly since the release of the series, in 1999 television reviewers labeled the novelist “overlooked.” In spite of this, Wives and Daughters was the first of several popular adaptations that reworked Gaskell’s novels to address twenty-first-century issues with roots in Victorian culture.1 While Davies and Birtwistle’s miniseries addresses many areas of common ground between the nineteenth century and the present, it is their ending to Gaskell’s unfinished novel that most notably draws together the themes of scientific curiosity, social and biological evolution, and colonization that play a less central role in the novel.

Elizabeth Gaskell died before completing the final chapters of Wives and Daughters, which had been serialized monthly from 1864 to 1866. This lack of closure has posed a challenge for readers as well as for the screenwriters. Although claims that “Davies has supplied the lost denouement with surprise and style,” The Sunday Telegraph quotes Birtwistle as noting, “We had quite a debate about it. It was clear what Gaskell wanted to happen. We’ve had to come up with the ‘how.’” The pair chose an ending that is both “happy” in the traditional sense of Victorian novels—Molly Gibson and Roger Hamley marry—and unconventional as well—the pair picks up with Roger’s comparative osteology just where he left off, on the plains of Africa (where to the shock of some audiences, Molly is pictured wearing trousers).

These choices in turn shape audiences’ views of what goes before. Scholar Katherine Byrne points out that Molly’s activities throughout the series accentuate her interest in science and learning, playing up what Byrne sees as merely “potential” in the novel’s heroine. Indeed, in the novel, Mr. Gibson puts careful limits on Molly’s education and accomplishments; she must struggle for every lesson beyond basics. Byrne also notes that the screen Molly is healthier than her novelistic predecessor, a young woman who would be unlikely to survive an African safari. According to Gaskell’s editor, Frederic Greenwood, Gaskell intended that Roger return to Africa alone and that the couple be united afterwards in England where he would become a famous professor at a university. In the novel, Molly’s curiosity about science is largely limited to reading. In the film however, her active investigation of plants and insects joins with the intimacy of sharing a microscope with Roger to transition her from interested hobbyist to budding amateur scientist—precisely the sort of mate who might travel with him to Africa rather than tying him to an English lecture hall.

By foregrounding scientific investigation as a bond between Molly and Roger, the series conclusion cements its emphasis on Victorian scientific inquiry. The series is full of commentary on the nature versus nurture question. For example, it expands on Gaskell’s hints about both how various young people have been raised and their innate characteristics. How is it that the two Hamley brothers differ so greatly after growing up under similar conditions, and what in Molly’s and Cynthia’s childhoods and educations resulted in their very different approaches to people and social codes?  For example, on the surface, it might seem that Cynthia is the better educated of the pair. However, both the novel and the series make it clear that her education is largely for show and that she lacks the thoughtfulness and attentiveness that Molly has been trained in throughout her life.

Likewise, the series builds on Gaskell’s allusions to the debates that raged in the 1830s concerning appropriate scientific mindsets and methodologies. Where Gaskell gives a title or a brief comment, the miniseries builds in a conversation, essentially annotating for modern audiences what well-informed middle class Victorians might already know, if only by hearsay. One example of this expansion occurs when the Hamley brothers come to dine with the Gibsons. Mr. Gibson comments on Roger’s paper (in advance of its presence in the novel), and Mrs. Gibson is drawn to ask about comparative osteology. In the course of his brief explanation, Roger notes jokingly that “it shows that we’re more nearly related to the great apes than some of us might care to think.” With Cynthia’s response that “you wouldn’t need to be a scientist to come to that conclusion,” his light tone points to the currency of the debate, even amongst nonspecialists. In the novel, the conversation between Roger and Mr. Gibson separates them: “Roger, who ought to have made himself agreeable to one or the other of the young ladies, was exceedingly interested in what Mr Gibson was telling him of a paper on comparative osteology in some foreign journal of science” (chapter 24). By dramatizing this as a general conversation, the series implies that this is a common topic of conversation, rather than one confined to men or even to scientists. Molly has found scientific books interesting, and Cynthia can follow the spirit, if not the details, of the argument. Far from being earth shattering, the debate over details of what would become evolutionary theory is offered as simply the dinner table conversation of the day.

As important is the inclusion of African scenes in the series, not excepting the final images of the newlyweds isolated in a desert landscape. The novel gives little detail about Roger’s experiences abroad, simply summarizing a few aspects of his letters to demonstrate that Molly cares more deeply about his welfare than Cynthia does. In addition to these summaries, the series shows Molly tracking Roger’s progress across a map of Africa and moving between letters and texts to learn more about the places and species he describes. More significantly, Roger himself is frequently shown making his way across desolate landscapes, the only European in the shot and in his party. He gazes at novel species and is gazed at in return by a group of African women. When he is ill, he is carried by members of his group, and he is also shown sitting in camp with them. While these scenes bring Africa into the series more vividly than its depiction in the novel, it is worth noting that viewing audiences know little more than the novel’s readers about the where’s and when’s of Roger’s trip. The Africa of the miniseries is still a monolithic continent waiting for European exploration, even as the African scenes ask viewers to consider the roles that African and colonial settings play in Victorian fiction.

Finally, though, these issues are tangential to Gaskell’s novel, in which, as Birtwistle points out in her interview with the Los Angeles Times, Gaskell offers an “authoritative feeling of what it’s like to be alive for a wide range of people. Nothing’s forced about her writing. She has great confidence to write about what are pretty ordinary lives in some cases.” Although readers and viewers love Molly Gibson, characters repeatedly note that she is just an ordinary girl. She’s not as pretty or instantly attractive as Cynthia, and even Lady Harriet labels her only “my favorite young woman.”  Yet, in the end, viewers see her embarked on the final leg of an expedition of a type that changed scientific thinking in the nineteenth century and, with that thinking, many aspects of social life. As a result, one effect of Davies and Birtwistle’s choices is that the series demonstrates the complex ways by which the lives of “pretty ordinary” people come up against questions and issues that continue to perplex and stimulate readers and viewers more than a century later.

Discussion Questions:

In Wives and Daughters, Gaskell spends a significant portion of the novel narrating emotional and thought processes in response to events. How does switching to film, where these internal monologues are translated into conversation or shots of a character thinking, alter the audience’s perception of the characters?

For the miniseries, Davies and Birtwistle created an ending to Molly’s story, something Gaskell certainly intended to do before her death, though her publisher indicated that Gaskell planned for the pair to settle in London rather than travelling to Africa. How does Davies and Birtwistle’s ending help to emphasize their interest in the changing climate for scientific investigation during the early Victorian period?  What might these choices about how to end an unfinished work tell us about the roles of conclusions in literary works?

Education for both men and women plays an important role in both Gaskell’s novel and in the miniseries. For example, Cynthia and Osbourne seem both better educated and more polished than their siblings when they’re first introduced, but both the novel and the adaptation undermine this initial judgment by showing that Roger and Molly make better use of more limited resources. What trends emerge in these discussions of social, moral, and intellectual education?  How do those trends shift when we consider gender or class as an aspect of education?

In adapting Wives and Daughters for modern audiences, Davies and Birtwistle both increase the emphasis on the details of Roger’s scientific study and shift the emphasis of discussions about his travels from African people to science. They preserve, for example, little or none of Mr. Gibson’s talk about and mimicry of stereotypes of African people. What could these changes tell us about changes in audience?  How have our perceptions of Africa changed?  What about our perceptions of science (and particularly of evolutionary biology)?

Further Reading:

Boiko, Karen. “Reading and (Re)Writing Class: Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Wives and Daughters’.” Victorian Literature and Culture 33.1 (2005):85-106.

Byrne, Katherine. “Anxious Journey’s and Open Endings: Sexuality and the Family in the BBC’s Wives and Daughters (1999).” Adapting Gaskell: Screen and Stage Versions of

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Fiction. Ed. Loredana Salis. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013. 77-95.

Endersby, Jim. “Sympathetic Science: Charles Darwin, Joseph Hooker, and the Passions of Victorian Naturalists.” Victorian Studies 51.2 (Winter 2009): 299-320.

Greenwood, Frederic.”Wives and Daughters: Concluding Remarks.” The Victorian Web. Accessed 30 August 2016.

Gritten, David. Review of BBC Wives and Daughters, by Andrew Davies and Sue Birtwistle. The Telegraph Accessed 10 June 2016.

Gritten, David. “Will BBC’s Latest Literary Export Be the Next Jane Austen?” The Los Angeles Times, 12 August 2000, Accessed 10 June 2016.

Litvack, Leon. “Outposts of Empire: Scientific Discovery and Colonial Displacement in Gaskell’s ‘Wives and Daughters’.” The Review of English Studies 55.222 (July 2004): 727-758.

“Wives and Daughters.” Masterpiece Theatre. Web. 15 June 2016.

1.Both the miniseries North and South (2004), adapted by Sandy Welch, and the miniseries Cranford (2007), created by Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin, attracted wide audiences.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Great Expectations

By Chris Dickinson, Baylor University

Over shots of Florida’s Gulf Coast, an adult Finn (Alfonso Cuarón’s version of Pip, played by Ethan Hawke) tells us, “I won’t tell the story the way it happened. I’ll tell it the way I remember it” (Cuarón). Such a statement in the opening scene of Cuarón’s 1998 film lets viewers know that Mitch Glazer’s screenplay presents a fantasy about Great Expectations rather than a strict re-telling of Dickens’s novel. The changes to setting and narrative are immense: Florida’s impoverished pre-Katrina Gulf Coast (the opening shots of which are particularly striking) replaces England’s marshlands, New York replaces London, and a funded art exhibition by an unknown benefactor replaces Pip’s original “Expectations.” Despite all these “cosmetic” changes, the most profound changes in the film come in terms of character. For instance, Finn is an artist rather than a blacksmith’s apprentice, and Lustig (the Magwitch character, played by Robert DeNiro) is an Italian mobster.

Estella, played by the 26-year-old Gwyneth Paltrow, is particularly changed, though she retains the name. Cuarón believes that “it is impossible to make a contemporary film of a book about young people in love without sex” (Katz 97), and Estella is more sexualized in Cuarón’s film than in the Dickens original. Yet this focus on the sexualized body of Estella is not simply the result of setting the adaptation in 1990s America. To begin with, this focus is not just added to the narrative but replaces the original dynamic between Pip and Estella. As Pamela Katz states, “Glazer’s screenplay focused almost exclusively on the theme of unrequited love. Tugging quite forcefully on this single thematic thread, he transformed (or updated?) it into the very requited form of erotic obsession” (97). Pip’s unrequited yearning becomes, in Cuarón’s film, Finn’s psychological obsession to posses Estella’s body.

The focus on Estella’s physical body begins early in the film and continues throughout, from when the young Estella kisses Finn at the water-fountain in the decayed mansion belonging to Densmore (Cuarón’s Miss Havisham, played by Anne Bancroft), to when the teenaged Estella sexually teases Finn by allowing him to caress her leg after a formal dress dinner, to when their kiss is repeated once the two are in New York, to the afternoon in which Estella poses nude for Finn’s painting (a scene often mocked as campy), to the night in which the two finally experience sexual consummation.

The focus on Estella’s sexualized body comes at the cost of other narrative elements from Dickens’s original. Katz mentions that Cuarón wished to incorporate into the film the same class-consciousness that permeates Dickens’s novel. She is also surprised to find out that originally, Estella was meant to be a successful career-woman. Demands from the script and studio caused both of these elements to be removed from the final film.

Dickens is a product of the age in which he wrote. The attempt to bring Estella’s character into the 21st century is fraught with peril, and is the cause of much of the film’s disjointed feeling. Ultimately, the film brings the validity of “contemporizations” of classic texts as a whole into question, and because of this, challenges directors, screen-writers, and adaptation theorists to do the same.

Questions for Discussion:

Does this adaptation’s “sexualizing” of Estella harm the quality of the film as a whole, or does it help in situating the film in its contemporary setting and context? If the latter, how is this achieved?

Do you agree with Cuarón’s assertion that “it is impossible to make a contemporary film of a book about young people in love without sex”? If so, does this mean that any contemporization of a novel or play should sexualize its female characters as Cuarón’s film does? Why or why not?

Cuarón was unable to imbue this film with the same feeling of class-consciousness that is so powerfully evident in Dickens’s original novel. However, what are some ways in which a film set in 21st-century America might convey the same anxieties about class that were present in 19th-century England? What might a director do to illustrate these anxieties?

Further Reading:

Great Expectations. Dir. Alfonso Cuarón. Twentieth Century Fox, 1998. Film.

Katz, Pamela. “Directing Dickens: Alfonso Cuarón’s 1998 Great Expectations.” Dickens on Screen. Ed. John Glavin. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. 95-103. Print.

McFarlane, Brian. Screen Adaptations: Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations: The Relationship Between Text and Film. 2008. Ed. Imelda Whelehan. London: Methuen Drama, 2008. Print.


Polly Pen and Peggy Harmon’s Goblin Market

by Sharon Aronofsky Weltman, Louisiana State University

Though Christina Rossetti’s powerful 1859 narrative poem Goblin Market might seem an unlikely source for a Broadway hit, Polly Pen and Peggy Harmon’s Goblin Market opened at New York’s tiny Vineyard Theater on October 17, 1985, starring Terri Klausner and Ann Morrison, to such good reviews that six months later it moved to Circle in the Square (a larger venue in Manhattan) for a successful run. A chamber opera requiring only two singer-actresses and a four-piece orchestra, Goblin Market has enjoyed continual production in both regional and college theaters. Most of the lyrics come almost directly from Rossetti’s luscious and memorable verse. The result is a captivating entertainment that—depending on directorial choices—works for a range of ages. Rossetti’s poem has generated a wide variety of interpretations: a Victorian children’s fairy tale, a metaphor for sexual desire, a Christian allegory, a saga of addiction and recovery, a story of sisterly affection, a representation of incest, a portrayal of prostitution’s ruthless market economy, a psychological investigation into the divided self, a portrayal of anorexia, and a feminist glorification of Sisterhood (with a capital S). In addition to being a work of theater that succeeds on its own, Pen and Harmon’s adaptation to the musical stage provides yet another way to examine Rossetti’s work.

The play is framed by a flashback. Dressed in mourning, the adult Lizzie and Laura return to their girlhood home, entering their old nursery to remember what may be a childhood game or may be something more. Once the frame is established and they have removed their black crinolines to reveal white petticoats and pantaloons, the drama follows the poem’s plot closely: Laura succumbs to the goblins’ tempting fruits and nearly dies; virtuous Lizzie saves her sister by bravely tricking the goblins into yielding the antidote without actually eating the forbidden fruit. Each actress speaks or sings her poetic character’s lines. But because there are only two actresses, each girl also plays the goblins in turn.

The play eliminates most lines that are typically used to support lesbian interpretations of the poem, such as “eat me, drink me, suck my juices / squeezed from goblin fruits for you” (lines 468-9). Unlike the poem, Lizzie brings back the physical fruit to Laura so that no live actors lick juice from the skin of another. But the possibility of a homosexual reading is reinstated through cross-gender performance. When Lizzie plays the goblins, they seduce Laura. Laura in turn plays the goblins throughout their violent assault of Lizzie.

The show’s readily available cast album and libretto work well for class discussion. Among the selections most useful for teaching is “Here They Come,” which is Pen and Harmon’s rendering of the poem’s metaphorical rape scene (lines 340-446): the women chant in disorienting counterpoint, harshly repeating the word “bite” as they rise to a feverish crescendo for an intense experience of how music can fortify poetry. Another song is “The Sisters,” a cheerful tune by Rossetti’s contemporary Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). The duet supplies the poem’s sense of the girls’ striking similarity, replacing lines often cited to back a lesbian reading of the poem (“Golden head by golden head, / Like two pigeons in one nest /. . . Cheek to cheek and breast to breast / Locked together in one nest” (184-198)) with words translated from Brahms: they are “like as like can be, / As eggs are like each other, . . . / Or one star like another, / You can’t tell her from me.” For four verses of the song, the girls sing in harmonious thirds emphasizing their supportive relationship, with Lizzie taking the higher vocal line. In the last verse, the girls’ voices become progressively discordant as they sing new words, “Now who is the loveliest one? / I am, I am, I am, I am, I am!,” with Laura repeatedly trying to get the upper hand as she grabs the higher note. The concluding “I” is sung only one note apart, gratingly. Rossetti’s poem is not often interpreted as about sibling rivalry, but this song humorously helps us to consider that possibility.

Listening to cuts from the show pairs well with looking at illustrations of the poem (beginning with the original wood cuts by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti’s brother) to compare visual and musical adaptations with Rossetti’s words.

Discussion Questions:

What is effect of framing the fantasy of Rossetti’s poem in a realistic setting in which grown women return to their childhood home after a funeral? How does providing the sense of an adult world outside the magical nursery space where goblins sell fruit change the how we interpret the story?

In much of the show, Pen and Harmon set Rossetti’s poetry to music almost exactly as Rossetti wrote it, while manipulating the words through repetition, as in “Here They Come.” How does musical embellishment serve as an interpretation of the poem, affecting our understanding of the poetry? In what ways do performance and staging also operate as an interpretation?

Pen and Harmon have written or interpolated some songs that are not based on Rossetti’s poetry. One example is “The Sisters,” emphasizing the girls’ sibling rivalry. How does the addition of these lyrics change our understanding of Lizzie and Laura’s characters? How does it affect their relationship? In what ways does it alter the meaning of the whole poem/play?

Further Reading:

Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen. Christina Rossetti and Illustration: A Publishing History. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 2002.

Pen, Polly and Peggy Harmon. Goblin Market. Dramatists Play Service. 1985.

Rossetti, Christina. “Goblin Market.” Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems. Ed. Betty S. Flowers. London and New York: Penguin, 2001.

Weltman, Sharon Aronofsky. “Performing Goblin Market.” Essays on Transgressive Readings:  Reading over the Lines. Ed. Georgia Johnston. Lewiston, Queenston, Lampeter:  The Edwin Mellen Press, 1997: 121-143.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible

EligibleMary Bennet and the Difficulties of Narrating Spinsterhood

by Shannon Draucker, Boston University

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible is the latest retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It takes place in present-day Cincinnati and features Mrs. Bennet as a Women’s League busybody, Kitty and Lydia as CrossFit devotees, and Chip Bingley as a reality television star. Jane is a forty-year-old yoga instructor trying to get pregnant via IVF, and Liz engages in a ten-year affair with the married Jasper Wick (the counterpart to Austen’s Mr. Wickham). Eligible has already elicited impassioned responses from Michiko Kakutani, Ursula K. Le Guin, and other critics, and I focus here on a minor yet puzzling character from both novels: the plain, withdrawn, and bookish Bennet sister, Mary.

In Pride and Prejudice, Mary does little but study, read, and futilely attempt to impress unwitting audiences with her mediocre piano skills. As Alex Woloch has argued, Mary serves largely as a foil to Elizabeth in Austen’s novel (71). In Sittenfeld’s novel, on the other hand, Mary occupies an expanded role that exposes the enduring difficulties of narrating those who refuse traditional marriage plots. Sittenfeld’s Mary is a thirty-year-old misanthrope who lives at home and chronically pursues online master’s degrees. While her sisters all marry or enter serious relationships, Mary bitterly refuses to pursue marriage. Her rejection of the marriage plot is consistent with her feminist rhetoric about the sexism of reality television shows such as “Eligible” (a thinly-veiled reference to “The Bachelor”) and the silliness of her sisters’ “elaborate fitness rituals and fakely scented lotions,” but this resistance grants her an awkward presence in the novel (487). While Jane deals with a surprise pregnancy and Liz enjoys “hate sex” with Darcy, the narrative explicitly refuses Mary any such dramatic storyline. Her family members speculate about her sexual orientation (Kitty and Lydia repeatedly tease her about being a lesbian), but we soon learn that Mary prefers to avoid all relationships. Though readers are briefly enticed by the prospect that Mary has a “secret,” this plotline ends with a flagrantly mundane resolution: she’s merely participating in a weekly bowling league.

Yet, the very awkwardness of Mary’s storyline in Eligible renders it worthy of attention. The minor role of the spinster sister–relegated to the piano bench and destined to remain at home after her sisters marry–likely sits more comfortably with readers of Austen’s novel, which offers a bitter critique of the limited options available to unwedded women in the nineteenth century. Mary’s uncomfortable presence in Eligible is more jarring. Surely we could imagine a more robust storyline for an unmarried, intellectual woman in the twenty-first century? But the end of the novel—in which Sittenfeld surprises readers with an entire chapter devoted to Mary—leaves us with a frustratingly brief glimpse into the story of a woman with distinctive feminist views, sexual desires, and approaches to personal fulfillment. We learn that Mary cares little for relationships, prefers her own company, and is “capable of satisfying her own [sexual] desires” (487).  The final sentences of the novel depict Mary as she scores a strike in her bowling league: “All the pins fell.  And when they did it was so, so satisfying… Her sisters, she thought, could have their crushes and courtships, their histrionics and reconciliations. For Mary, this was heaven” (487). What Eligible ultimately reminds us, then, is that women like Mary exist and often have the most exciting subjectivities of all – but we must learn how to narrate them.

Questions for Discussion

How does Sittenfeld “modernize” the other relationships in the novel?  What can these changes tell us about our present cultural moment?  For example, students might consider Lydia’s marriage to the transgender CrossFit trainer Ham in conversation with contemporary debates about transgender rights

How does Sittenfeld absorb and adapt Austen’s tone?  How might we reconcile her simultaneous use of terms like “suitor” and “courtship” with her inclusion of modern-day colloquial language from text messages and emails (such as Liz’s SMS exclamation to Charlotte, “Cousin Willie just kissed me eek!!!!!!” (127)).

How do Sittenfeld’s frank discussions of sexuality in Eligible alter Austen’s storyline?  How does Austen, in comparison, figure passion and desire?

Can you think of other books, films, or shows that imagine a more robust storyline for an unmarried, intellectual woman in the twenty-first century?

Further Reading

Brown, Julia Prewitt. “Review: The Feminist Depreciation of Austen: A Polemical Reading.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 23:3 (Spring 1990): 303-313.

Burgan, Mary. “Heroines at the Piano: Women and Music in Nineteenth-Century Fiction.” Victorian Studies 30:1 (Autumn 1986): 51-76.

Corbett, Mary Jean. Family Likeness: Sex, Marriage, and Incest from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010.

Dow, Gillian and Clare Hanson, eds. Uses of Austen: Jane’s Afterlives. New York: Palgrave, 2012.

Horwitz, Barbara Jane. Jane Austen and the Question of Women’s Education. New York: Peter Lang, 1991.

Sadoff, Dianne F. Victorian Vogue: British Novels on Screen. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl.” Critical Inquiry 17 (Summer 1991): 818-837.

Troost, Linda and Sayre Greenfield, eds. Jane Austen in Hollywood. 1998. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

Wells, Juliette. Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination. London: Continuum, 2011.

Woloch, Alex. The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

April Lindner’s YA Bronte Novels

by Sara K. Day, Southern Arkansas University

Charlotte Brontё’s Jane Eyre and Emily Brontё’s Wuthering Heights, both originally published in 1847, offer readers strong-willed heroines, moody romantic heroes, and memorable settings. They Jane coverhave also become touchstones of the Victorian era for many readers, due at least in part to their frequent appearances on high school and college reading lists. April Lindner’s two recent young adult novels Jane (2010) and Catherine (2013) capitalize on the existing link between the Brontё sisters’ novels and adolescent readers by retelling these works set in modern-day America.

Jane opens on the struggles of college student Jane Moore as she struggles to regain her footing after the sudden death of her financially secure but emotionally bankrupt parents. Already distanced from her two older siblings—who stand in for the cruel cousins of Brontё’s tale—she must leave school and secure employment. She quickly finds herself employed as a governess by Nico Rathburn, a world-famous rock star. Though Jane considers herself plain and unlovable, Nico engages her in a whirlwind romance that soon culminates in a proposal, a series of tragic revelations, and an eventual happy ending.

Like Jane, Lindner’s Catherine puts a rock and roll spin on its Victorian source material: in this case, the title character grows up not in Wuthering Heights but in an apartment above The Underground, the famous rock club her father owns. Decades later, her teen daughter Chelsea travels to The Underground to search for her long-missing mother and finds Hence, a one-time rock star who had also been Catherine’s first and enduring love. In a narrative that pairs Chelsea’s modern-day story with diary entries from her mother’s adolescence, Lindner slowly unravels the mystery of Catherine’s disappearance.

Because many adolescent readers will encounter the original Brontё novels (either as class assignments or through other cultural references, such as Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga), Lindner’s works can act as accessible ways to engage with some of the major themes and conflicts of the source material. Notably, though, some of the most important discussions that might emerge from comparisons of these novels to the Brontёs’ texts should involve the portrayal of gender roles and attitudes towards romance, passion, and marriage, since Lindner’s modern adaptations might in many ways be understood as more “conventional” than their Victorian roots. These texts may also be a useful starting point for the differences between adaptation and fanfiction, as some readers have raised questions and debates about how Lindner’s novels might blur those boundaries.

Questions for Discussion:

The English moors in which both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are set have become important elements of the ongoing critical conversations about both novels. How does relocating these tales to modern-day America affect other textual elements such as mood, atmosphere, and characterization? Can New York City, in particular, be understood as an analog to the English moors?

The Brontёs’ novels begin with extended descriptions of their main characters’ early lives, from Jane’s time in the home of her uncaring aunt and as a student at Lowood to Catherine and Heathcliff’s wild childhoods on the moors. In her retellings, Lindner offers only a very brief consideration of her protagonists’ experiences as children; indeed, Catherine and Hence do not even meet until late adolescence. Why would Lindner omit or abridge her protagonists’ childhoods, and what impact does this have on our understanding of Jane, Catherine, and their respective romantic partners?

The Brontё sisters—including Anne, whose Tenant of Wildfell Hall has not (yet) inspired a retelling by Lindner—have all been credited with expressing protofeminist ideas in their personal and fictional writings. How do these YA retellings engage with the potential feminism of the original Jane and Catherine?

Both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights feature famous Byronic heroes in the form of Rochester and Heathcliff. How is the figure of the Byronic hero portrayed in Lindner’s novels, and how does their status as YA literature shape these portrayals?

Further Readings:

Franklin, Caroline. The Female Romantics: Nineteenth-Century Women Novelists and Byronism. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Kapurch, Katie. “‘Unconditionally and Irrevocably’: Theorizing the Melodramatic Impulse in Young Adult Literature through the Twilight Saga and Jane Eyre.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 37.2 (2012): 164-87. Print.

Rubik, Margarete, and Elke Mettinger-Schartmann. A Breath of Fresh Eyre: Intertextual and Intermedial Reworkings of Jane Eyre. New York: Rodopi, 2007. Print.

Stein, Atara. The Byronic Hero in Film, Fiction, and Television. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2004. Print.

Stoneman, Patsy. Brontё Transformations: The Cultural Dissemination of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. New York: Prentice Hall, 1996. Print.