fredag 11 maj 2018

Eurovision 2018 – another snooze

I had trouble with my lack of Eurovision enthusiasm last year, and I’m afraid the trend is still the same – what used to be a reliable guilty pleasure almost feels like a chore this time around. Is it me or is Eurovision becoming boring? All right, it’s still recognisably Eurovision. They still have the spectacles    like an opera singer from Estonia with a giant colour-changing dress   and hard-pressed commentators who try to put across forced jokes which even the most gifted comedian would have struggled with. But the tunes! As last year, they’re not bad, exactly, just forgettable. Earworms are conspicuously absent. C’mon, a good chorus and a good singer – is that so very hard to find? I watched the first semifinal and caught up with the second semifinal’s songs on Youtube, which is really not the ideal medium to hear them. Who knows, if they could bring back the Eurovision panel to Swedish TV, which reviewed ten songs or so at a time in a series of hour-long programmes scheduled on Tuesday nights when nothing else was on, then maybe I could start to view Eurovision-prep as worthwhile entertainment again. As it is, whenever I saw on Youtube that a song went on for more than three minutes, I got impatient in advance.

Enough complaining. These songs are the ones that I’ve found passable so far (I’m excluding songs that didn’t make it to the final):

Norway: Back in the day, I was actually not as impressed with Alexander Rybak’s “Fairytaleas everyone else. Now, because of its mildy prophetic content, it has risen in my estimation, and I often torture my neighbours by yowling “He’s a fairy-ta-a-a-le, yeah” (a change of pronoun being necessary in this case). Trust me, it is very hummable.

Rybak’s entry for this year is lively and upbeat, but the content is a little on the cutesy side – even I, who normally have a high tolerance level for cutesiness, thought it a bit much. The song is written as an answer to an eager young fan’s question about how to write a song. There’s something children’s-programme-like about it in consequence, and the chorus is consciously simple, like something you could throw together on a synthesizer. Not pure gold, then, but not straw either.

Denmark: It’s easy to mock the Ye Olde Nordic Pop-Tune Genre, where the songs sound like the kind of thing vikings might have sung if they’d had Karaoke. The over-earnestness of the Danish group of ancient warrior types made me smile, but the number did sound nice and melodic. I wouldn’t mind if our neighbours won with this one.

Austria: Again, not something you sing in the shower. Still, this was a solid, well-sung ballad, which builds towards some sort of crescendo.

Australia: Out of this year’s batch of “let’s make the world better” songs, this struck me as the most competent. The Aussies are taking pains to send radio-friendly ballads to Eurovision every year since they were allowed on board, which shows a nice spirit. Like Austria’s number, though, this is a little dull.

Moldova: it was because of ballad fatigue, but this uptempo number cheered me up. Granted, it sounds a lot like one of those Greek-dance-on-the-beach tunes – I’ve not seen the song performed live, but you almost expect a goat to show up on stage, along with enthusiastically clapping girls in colourful headscarves. We’ll see.

Aaand… that’s it, basically. Sweden’s entry this year sounds like something playing in the background of a commercial, or maybe something leather-clad guys might strip to. Germany’s song isn’t an embarrassment, thankfully, but I’d be surprised if it was a winner. Who knows, maybe next year we’ll get to hear a new “You’re The Only One”.

måndag 30 april 2018

Nobel-prize-awarded reading (yes, really)

2018 does seem to be shaping up to become a better book year for me  than 2017. The Austen Rereading Project, from which I’ve been taking a break the last couple of weeks (I’ll start it up again soon with Persuasion) has made sure that there were at least some books on my reading list which I was sure to like. What’s more, the project seems to have fulfilled its purpose of making me more keen on reading generally again.  I recently, to my immense self-satisfaction, finished Nobel Prize-winning Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and what’s more I did enjoy it.

Winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature – when they’re not a complete misfire (no names need be mentioned – the answer is blowing in the wind…)    tend to be too high-brow for my vulgar tastes. Never Let Me Go seemed a good choice, though, if you wanted to read something Nobel Prize-worthy which was neither too long, too involved or too earth-shatteringly depressing, and so I decided to give it a go. Granted, it’s not exactly a cheerful tale, but the premise isn’t as off-putting as, say, that of Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child (which I’m never going near as long as I live). I found on starting to read it, too, that the prose style was very clear and easy to follow – thankfully, no thorniness, long sentences or inexplicable wordplay. However, this  is not the only reason I liked the novel, though I’m always grateful to authors who don’t set out to make the readers feel like idiots.

To be honest, I had my doubts about the novel’s premise. When I first read the carefully worded reviews of Never Let Me Go, which implied that there was some sort of twist which the reviewers felt duty bound not to reveal, I thought: “Come on. It’s as clear as day. The characters in this novel are reared to be organ donors. That’s not even an original concept: isn’t it a staple of sci-fi dystopias?” That Never Let Me Go was not a sci-fi novel (though it does depict an alternative reality) did not, in my eyes, make the conceit automatically cleverer, nor did the fact that the protagonists are raised in surroundings that recall the idyllic picture of public school life you often find in classic children’s and young adult fiction. It looked like a forced contrast to me – “oh, look, poor innocent children growing up in a fool’s paradise, not knowing what horrible fate awaits them”.

Never Let Me Go did not turn out to be as crude as that. In fact, crude and polemic are the last things this novel is. It’s a book where the author has really thought through his idea and the different aspects of it, and before long I became gently fascinated by the ins and outs of the setup. So, the pupils of the Hailsham school are marked out to have their organs harvested in later life – after a spell as carers for other donors, they will keep giving donations until they “complete”, that is die. That  much is clear pretty early on. But where did they come from? Why are they encouraged to be “creative”, and why is so much effort put into their education seeing as they don’t have much of a future? As one key player formulates it at the end of the novel, “Why Hailsham at all?”. At one level, the novel reads like a literary thriller where you try to pick up the clues to what goes on in this world. The everyday life of the Hailsham pupils, during and after their time at the school, is rendered with believable detail. They’re not living in some vague thought experiment; their reality seems very real. Also, we sense the very human unease the outside world experiences in connection with them and others in their situation. In the sci-fi scenarios mentioned above, victims of forced organ donations and the like are treated with determined callousness, because it’s a dystopia where pretty much everyone is supposed to be horrible. In Never Let Me Go, people have a conscience, and this has an effect – sometimes good, sometimes bad – on how the donor question is handled.

Another point in the novel’s favour is that it’s narrated by its most likeable progatonist, Kathy H., a girl who may seem naïve but who is in fact very observant. Her closest friends are less interesting: Tommy, the boy she falls in love with, has a healthy curiosity about the reality of their situation, but he’s a blockhead in romantic matters. Ruth, Kathy’s friend and for a long time Tommy’s girlfriend, is a bit of a mean girl, who from the first expects her friends to go along with her self-deceptions in order for her to look better in the eyes of other pupils/students. The power play between the three, and how they’re affected by the presence of others outside of their circle, makes for an engaging read.

I wasn’t heart-broken over Kathy or the other characters, but their fate is affecting enough, and satisfyingly, answers to the questions you have been posing to yourself are provided towards the end. Ishiguro isn’t too fancy to tie up loose ends, for which I was thankful. If you feel up to reading something high-brow and gently melancholy, then Never Let Me Go is a good bet. The Swedish Academy did something right there (you knew that one was coming, right?).            

torsdag 19 april 2018

Victoria series two: I can readily believe it's not Downton

I don't know why I'm quite so dissatisfied with the second series of Victoria as I am, given that it's one of the few programmes that openly try to emulate Downton Abbey. Otherwise, even TV dramas clearly pitched at the Downton audience like The Halcyon tend to have a slightly sniffy attitude towards the show that put the costume drama genre back in fashion. It's as if they wanted to say: "Oh yes, I suppose we're a bit like Downton... only much better". Which makes it all the worse when they fail to measure up.

Now Victoria, on the other hand, wears its debt to Downton proudly on its sleeve. Downstairs storylines? Let's have that. Sensible housekeeper figure under pressure? By all means. Decent maid with a romantic interest in one of the other servants? Check. Cynical manservant? There he is. Dowager Countess quips? Let's age up one of Victoria's ladies a bit and make her a formidable battle-axe. And wait, didn't that gay storyline go down a treat? Let's try that too.

So I suppose I should be more grateful to Victoria for trying to find that magic Downton formula. The problem is, so far - after having seen six episodes out of eight in the second series - I really don't think they're making a very good job of it. The downstairs characters in Victoria are sketchy, and it's hard to care for any of them. I'm assuming that with a few exceptions, like Lehzen, these are made-up characters who have been tacked on to the main historic storyline in order to make it more Downton-y. But here's the thing: Downton took time over and invested in its downstairs characters. Thomas's unhappy crush on Jimmy was such a strong storyline because it mattered. He got his heart broken. It would still have been touching if he'd been pining for a girl, but the gay aspect made his situation all the more hopeless and thus added poignancy (and an element of danger: that idiot Alfred almost had him nicked). Having two fetching but personality-free guys look deep into each others' eyes every time they meet is not the same thing at all. And remember the Bateses? Bates was by far my least favourite main Downton character and annoying to the last degree with his villain-baiting, but his love story with Anna (Joanne Froggatt melted even my Bates-sceptic heart in their scenes together) felt like the real thing, unlike the lacklustre on-off almost-romance between Miss/Mrs Skerrett and Mr Francatelli in Victoria. The only "I can't believe it's not Downton" part of the plot that works OK in Victoria is the Dowager Countess surrogate the Duchess of Buccleugh as played by Diana Rigg. She is fun.

What of the main focus of the series, then, the private life - and occasionally the public duties - of Queen Victoria herself? The good news is that the series does take some time to flesh out the characters of Victoria and Albert. The bad news is, as with The Crown, this isn't exactly the most thrilling of reigns. Jenna Coleman is great as Victoria, and Tom Hughes does his best (and certainly looks the part) as handsome, humourless Albert. However, this can't disguise the fact that very little of interest happens. Also, the series plays fast and loose with history to such a degree that every time something does happen which seems a little extraordinary, my - perhaps unfair - reaction was "Oh, I'm sure they made that up". I'm not usually that strict when it comes to the historic veracity of costume dramas, seeing as I realise what a chore it is to read up on a subject. When the main character is an important historic personage like Victoria, though, it does become a drawback when you don't trust any part of the plot to be true.

The first series was so much taken up with the unfolding love story between Victoria and Albert that I didn't mind the plotlessness so much, although even back then I failed to become engaged in the downstairs storylines. By now, however, it bothers me. It's not as if the political questions the series touches on are handled with any great subtlety. For a royal not known for her strong involvement in government concerns, Queen Victoria does a lot of slapping down of foolish politicans in a way that seems fashioned to appeal to 21th-century viewers. The latest episode I watched, about the Irish Potato Famine, should have been affecting but was hampered by its many clichés. When a saintly clergyman, who wants to help the peasantry (unlike the monstrous English lord who rules the neighbourhood), visits a home where the mother has died of starvation, you can - true enough - hear coughing and a baby crying in the background, as in nine out of ten "privileged well-meaning person is faced with the harsh reality of the poor" scenes. In the end, the haunting Irish song about emigration which was played at the end was more moving than anything that had gone before it.

This is a well-acted, sumptuously produced series, but to be honest, I can't help finding it a bit... boring. What's more, I'm not sure I'm that much better acquainted with the personality of Queen Victoria now than I was before. I do like Robert Peel, though. 

torsdag 5 april 2018

Emma is still the best around

It is time to speak of Emma - not Swan this time, but Woodhouse. I recently finished rereading Jane Austen's Emma, and found to my satisfaction that it's still my favourite Jane Austen novel. We'll see if the rest of my Jane Austen Rereading Project changes that - I suspect that Persuasion will be a strong contender - but what I can say so far is that in my view, Emma actually beats Pride and Prejudice in terms of readability.

It's hard to explain why, though. The novel is by no means action-packed: there are long stretches where nothing much happens. The start is slower than Pride and Prejudice's, as more back-story is fitted in. But once the story got going, it held my interest, even though I knew exactly how the various intrigues were going to end. There are two main attractions with Emma as a novel: the joy of reading a great author at the very top of her game, and the heroine herself.

Austen's prose style is crips and crackling throughout, and her characterisation subtler than in both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Yes, there's still a certain amount of caricature, but the characters remain believable. You not only think it possible that you could encounter people like this in real life, it's not beyond the reaches of possibility that you could share their weaknesses yourself. I for my part could easily relate to Mrs Elton's shameless sense of entitlement, John Knightley's anti-social tendencies and Harriet Smith's habit of drifting from one intense crush to another, while completely discarding her yearnings for someone who was the star in her sky and the light of her life mere weeks before (that is, until she has reason to be reminded of him again). The characters interact credibly too. For instance, in one dialogue between Mr Weston and Mrs Elton, the former only wants to speak about his son while the latter only wants to speak about herself and her sister and brother-in-law at Maple Grove. How they still manage to hold a longish conversation, negotiating various social niceties more or less adroitly along the way, is fascinating in itself, although what they say isn't vitally important to the plot. This isn't to say that the novel isn't tightly plotted, though. One of the members of The Jane Austen Book Club claims that Austen "could plot like a son of a bitch", and Emma is the prime example of that. Hints about the characters' true feelings and relationships to each other - often misinterpreted by Emma - are skilfully woven into the dialogue, and the reader is given clues in the same way as in a whodunnit.

However, Emma never looks dense for not managing to pick up these clues, or not putting the right construction on them. Her mistakes are understandable ones. Austen famously said about Emma that she was a heroine "whom no-one but myself will like". This was an overstatement: there are quite a few of us who like Emma very well indeed. Not everyone sees the point of her, though. Emma has been unlucky when it comes to film and TV adaptations: they tend to take a critical view. Emma as played by Gwyneth Paltrow was elegant, but on the cold side. Kate Beckinsale was livelier, but hampered by the adapter Andew Davies's dislike of the character. Romola Garai in the latest BBC adaptation is a brilliant dramatic actress, and her despair in such scenes as the aftermath of the Box Hill excursion was spot on, but the lighter, comical register didn't come off equally well. Actually, from the Emmas I've seen, Doran Goodwin in the ancient TV adaptation from the Seventies came closest to conveying some of Emma's warmth and wit, though she was somewhat over-arch and (to be ungallant) plainly not twenty-one.

Most of the adaptations above tend to focus on the least enjoyable aspect of the novel: the notion that Emma needs to be humbled and seek self-improvement in order to deserve happiness. I never like a cautionary tale element in any story, and the misfortunes leading to Emma bitterly blaming herself - as well as being blamed by her friend and future husband Mr (George) Knightley, as likely as not - are a sore trial. I do sometimes wonder whether readers and adapters should really let Emma's self-reproaches (powerfully written as they are) and Mr Knightley's opinions of Emma's behaviour guide them to quite so such an extent as they are apt to do. Mr Knightley, though like Mr Darcy he shapes up towards the end of the book, is a most unsatisfactory love interest. At the beginning of the novel, he says to Emma's dear friend and former governess Mrs Weston that he would like to see Emma "in love, and in some doubt of a return; it would do her good". Does that sound even remotely like a man in love himself? Also, he likes to lecture her about the very things she feels most guilty about, such as not practising her music more and not becoming bosom friends with Jane Fairfax, whose qualities and accomplishments he is quick to praise to a perverse degree, which naturally does little to endear the girl to Emma. Mr Knightley's anger when he finds out that Emma has encouraged Harriet Smith to refuse the upright farmer Mr Martin's proposal is understandable: she does real mischief here, and could have cost two young, well-suited people their happiness. At other times, though, his lecturing is less self-interested. It's partly because he's jealous of Frank Churchill and resents Emma's flirtation with him that he comes down on her so severely at the end of the disastrous excursion to Box Hill.

The Box Hill incident - where Emma thoughtlessly insults the aimable chatterbox Miss Bates - is mostly made a meal of in adaptations. In fact, our perception of Emma's behaviour in this scene has a lot in common with our perception of Pip's behaviour towards Joe in Great Expectations. We mind it because the person behaving badly feels so wretched about it him/herself, because the person slighted is so thoroughly good-natured and because, in spite of their good nature, they do register and are hurt by the slight. When you look at what Emma and Pip actually do, though, it's not that horrible, and well within the scope of normal, selfish, somewhat gauche human behaviour. In Emma's case, I would say it's hardly unheard of to be tempted into a witticism at someone else's expense while imagining that they're unlikely to pick up on it anyway. Austen does a good job of making us care desperately that Emma should put things right with poor Miss Bates as soon as possible, but in terms of causing actual damage, her meddling in the Harriet-Martin affair is far worse. At any rate, there's no reason to tell her off at such length and with so much indignation as Mr Knightley does.           

At the same time, I suppose that Emma's flaws wouldn't seem so forgiveable if she were completely unaware of them herself. It's better that she should blame herself a little too much, and gain the reader's sympathy by doing so, than not blame herself at all when it is called for. We can trust Jane Austen to know what's best for her character. Mr Knightley, though - honestly.

onsdag 28 mars 2018

Problems with the comedy of failure

I was a bit apprehensive about reading The Understudy by David Nicholls: it was an impulse buy, and only afterwards did I realise that the same author wrote Starter for Ten. Now, I've not read Starter for Ten, but I did see the film, and lamented that what could have been an enjoyable, cosy romcom was ruined by one depressing plot element. Brian, the protagonist, has an obsession with the high-brow quiz programme University Challenge and is in the end given the chance to participate as part of his university's team. The outcome is the worst possible: Brian almost accidentally manages to besmirch his and his team's honour in a way that makes sure that he'll not be given kudos for his very real knowledgeability. It's painful to watch this happen. Losing honourably, or even losing because of human, understandable nerves, would have been much better - plus, Brian screws things up for his team mates (including Benedict Cumberbatch before he was famous) too. The hero himself - or antihero, rather: he's not always that likeable - bears the dashing of his childhood dreams remarkably well, and by the film's end has a fair chance getting the girl (not the blonde, glamorous one - the wry brunette who also happens to be gorgeous). But the viewer - or this viewer, at least - remains unsatisfied.

What bearing does this have on The Understudy, then? Well, this story too centers around a shambolic protagonist with a dream and very little luck - but some appeal for smart girls. Stephen C. McQueen (the C. is an Equity requirement, fot obvious reasons) is an English actor yearning for the big break. He believes he is really good, but mostly just manages to get roles playing corpses in TV crime dramas. His latest gig is as an understudy to Josh Harper, superstar voted "twelth sexiest man", who plays the lead in a star vehicle play about Byron at a London theatre. If Josh would only miss a few performances, Stephen is convinced his career would be made. And then, to boot, he falls for Josh's wife Nora.

The novel is funny and well written and manages to give you a certain comfort-reading feel, in spite of Stephen's constant mishaps. However, these mishaps really weigh the story down. I was never fond of comic tales where the comedy hinged on everything going wrong - I end up feeling too sorry for the characters involved (one comforting thing about P.G. Wodehouse's stories is that you can be pretty certain everything will turn out well in the end). There is another danger with the comedy of failure, though: after a certain point, a character who's always down on his luck stops being relateable and starts becoming slappable. At one time, Stephen reflects on "how he wasn't nearly as nice a person as he pretended to be", and you can't help thinking that he has a point. Like Brian, there's a lot of the anti-hero about him. Just because he's not spectacularly successful, it's not really an excuse for making quite such a hash of things as he does.

To the book's credit, it doesn't follow the Starter for Ten template completely, and is at times unpredictable. Some of the pickles Stephen gets in, which you calculate on coming back to scupper him when things seem to be looking up in time-honoured cheaters-never-prosper fashion, turn out to be no big deal. In one instance, though, The Understudy resembles Starter for Ten: getting the girl turns out to be more important for the protagonist than fulfilling his dreams, and I'm not sure I buy it. In one scene, Stephen's ex admits that she never thought he was much good as an actor. I found this irritating, as I was under the impression that I was reading a novel about the problems of a talented and able actor in a crowded professional field - but if he's not even that good at acting, then what's the point of the whole exercise? Of course, Stephen's ex may be wrong. And yet, when stardom hasn't come calling at the end of the book he is as philosophical about it as Brian was about messing up University Challenge. He's in with a chance with Nora after she's found out that Josh has cheated on her (the novel is delightfully scathing on the subject of the "sex addiction" of film stars), and that's the main thing. Die-hard romantic as I am, though, I do think life ought to be about more than just having half a chance with someone you fancy. Not knowing how you are going to earn your crust in the near future is something which should give a grown man pause for thought. And in the end, a novel called The Understudy which undervalues an actor's love of theatre can't help being a tad disappointing.                

torsdag 15 mars 2018

Is The Mouse running out of ideas?

I was counting on getting a blog post out of Coco, the latest Pixar film which I went to see at the cinema a couple of weeks back. But it's not that easy to find something to discuss about it. It's... good. Really good, solid quality work. I had the same feeling when I saw The Last Jedi. It wasn't disappointing, so I couldn't spend a blog post whining about it, but neither was it spectacularly groundbreaking. It was simply good, and pretty much what you'd expect from a Star Wars film, just as Coco is pretty much what you'd expect from a Pixar film.

Coco started slow, but the visuals are stunning, it uses the Mexican Day of the Dead imaginatively in its story, and it has a surprising, heartwarming moral about the importance of family, when at first you thought it would be all about self-fulfilment and the power of music (which is a pretty well-worn theme). Having said that, I saw one plot twist coming a mile off, and some other plot details made it into the film which we've seen a little too often in Pixar films by now. The surprise villain was mostly a surprise because you didn't expect the film to have a villain at all - after all the times Pixar and Disney animation films have used the trope in later days, you're unlikely to go "Oh, wow, X was bad all along?" The premise of the protagonist Miguel's family hating music is pretty forced, and how often haven't we seen the "villain unwittingly reveals his or her true nature publicly" scene? But the ending made me cry, the film is a whole lot better than The Good Dinosaur or Finding Dory and the message it peddles is something I can buy - unlike some hard sells which we've had from Pixar.

And even if some of the plot elements are familiar, the story itself is fresh with a touch of magic, which is what you want from an animated flick. But what exactly is Disney - including Pixar - up to next? The immediate future looks uninspiring. Pixar is releasing a sequel to The Incredibles, one of my least favourite Pixar films, and Disney animation is releasing a sequel to Wreck-It Ralph, which judging by the trailer looks mildly amusing but not in any way unmissable. The original Wreck-It Ralph may have been a celebration of video arcade games, but for those of us with little or no experience of these kind of games it also had a story to tell about friendship and finding your role in life - nothing astoundingly new, but sweetly handled. The premise of the sequel seems to be "what if we let our two lovable protagonists from film one loose in the Internet?", and that's not good enough. Where's the story? However, trailers are sometimes misleading, so I'll try to keep an open mind. And I do like Ralph.

So, on the animation front, two sequels, and... very little else. At the same time, there appears to be a slew of live-action remakes of Disney animation classics in the pipeline. I can't help thinking that this is the wrong way to go. I like live-action fairy-tale films when they flesh out or give a fresh spin on a familiar story. As I've mentioned more than a few times, Once Upon a Time is my current TV series obsession (unsurprisingly, given its solid villain focus), and I also really enjoy the old TV series The Storyteller which highlighted some lesser-known but juicy fairy tales. There's nothing wrong with the genre, then. However, you can't settle for simply reshooting the animated Disney version of a fairy-tale with a few added scenes and live actors instead of animation - that's just pointless. The live-action Disney Cinderella looked good, but didn't give you any new take on the story, and from what I've seen trailer- and review-wise of the live-action Beauty and the Beast, it's pretty much the same there. (To be fair, I haven't watched it yet, nor do I feel very inclined to do so at the moment. I think Once may have ruined me for other Beasts - the traditional "cursed prince" version seems pretty tame now.) And honestly, who needs a live-action Lion King? At least traditional fairy tales offer grand castles and pretty dresses. What could a computer-animated Scar add to the beautifully animated, Jeremy Irons-voiced version?

A while back, there was a buzz that Disney was working on an animated film based on Jack and the Beanstalk  (called Giant, I think), but I haven't heard anything about it lately. What happened to it? Animated fairy tales are what Disney does best, and each of its more successful animated eras - the Golden Age, the Renaissance, the Revival - sparked off with fairy-tale films (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Frog/Tangled). But OK, I could understand if they wanted to try something new - as long as it is new. Rehashing old material is unworthy of The Mouse.       

onsdag 28 februari 2018

Is Lizzy really prejudiced and Charlotte really wise?

I've now finished Pride and Prejudice, the second novel in my Jane Austen Rereading Project, and yes, I can see why it's a favourite with so many Austen fans. It feels like a much more assured work than Sense and Sensibility, and Elizabeth Bennet really is a charming heroine. One problem I had with the novel - and this is nothing that Austen could help - is that the plot is by now overfamiliar to me. If you have seen the BBC adaptation by Andrew Davies, then you already know pretty much everything that will happen plot-wise - there are no "deleted scenes", as it were. Davies even added some scenes in order to flesh out the depiction of domestic life at Longbourn. As Austen's novels are comparatively short (well, compared to the average Victorian novel at any rate) there isn't really much in the way of sub-plots to discover either.

Are there no surprises in store, then, for someone who clearly remembers the numerous TV and film adaptations but hasn't read the novel for quite some time (or for someone who hasn't read the novel at all)? Well, there were a few things that I'd forgotten since I last read it and that haven't been emphasised much by the various adaptations. My views on Mr Darcy remain pretty much the same as when I wrote about Darcymania, but two things did take me aback somewhat. Firstly, there is absolutely no indication for the first half of the book that Darcy is actually a good egg. On film and on TV, you tend to get the sense that Darcy is more gauche than proud, really, and his brusqueness a sign of insecurity. His initial rejection of Lizzy is the sign of a man "in denial", and their romance is foreshadowed with exchanged glances etc.: the "love story that starts with a fight" trope is set up clearly enough. This isn't really the case in the novel. I first read Pride and Prejudice in a Swedish translation when I was about twelve or thirteen, which incidentally was too young as I was rather bored by it, but I remember finding it a pleasant surprise that Darcy turned out to be Elizabeth's love interest. I don't know how I managed to be so completely ignorant as not to know about this famous pair, but it proved a boon to me that I didn't. Darcy proving himself in Elizabeth's eyes became a plot twist - the villain was suddenly the hero. It would interest me to know if the novel's first readers had the same experience. If for some reason you would stop reading Pride and Prejudice after 150 pages (not likely), you would come away from it convinced that Mr Darcy is nothing more than an arrogant, conceited and humourless young man, almost as unfit to be a husband to Lizzy Bennet as Mr Collins.

In fact, adaptations tend to play up the "prejudice" part of the novel's title and play down the "pride" part. Elizabeth is shown to be full of mortification over the vulgarity and inappropriate behaviour of her family, and it is implied that it was perfectly reasonable of Darcy not to want his friend Bingley mixed up with that kind of people. Furthermore you are more or less given to understand - in the Davies adaptation especially - that if Elizabeth hadn't been such a silly goose, she would have understood all along what a sterling chap Darcy is. In the novel, on the other hand, there's no way for Elizabeth to know anything of the sort. When she meets him at Pemberley and he is suddenly all politeness and charm to her and her uncle and aunt it is acknowledged that he's a changed man, who behaves completely differently than when he was at Netherfield. Elizabeth wasn't blinded by her partiality for Wickham and dislike for Darcy into not seeing his good qualities before - he just never displayed them before.

Secondly, I must admit to having wronged Darcy in one instance. I've claimed more than once that I didn't believe he ever truly apologised for separating Bingley from Jane, and that the scene where he asks his friend's forgiveness in the BBC adaptation is a pure fabrication on Davies's part. It turns out, however, that he does apologise for the Jane-Bingley affair, and for all his other failings, to Elizabeth in a most handsome manner towards the end of the novel. It's true we don't see him apologising to Bingley, but he tells Elizabeth of having confessed to his friend that he was in error, which made even the good-natured Bingley angry with him for about five minutes. The Darcy apology doesn't get much air-time when the novel is adapted, and I honestly wonder why. If it's anything that earns Mr Darcy his high standing as a romantic hero, then surely it's this - his ability to understand when he's been in the wrong, admit to it and change his behaviour accordingly.

Another thing I didn't remember from the novel is just how negatively Charlotte Lucas's decision to marry Mr Collins is depicted. From adaptations, you mostly get a sense of this being a sensible move on her behalf: she is not likely to get another offer, and Mr Collins's situation as a vicar under Lady Catherine De Bourgh's patronage provides solid material comfort. Moreover, he is the their to Longbourn. Later, when Elizabeth visits her friend, she finds that Charlotte has arranged things rather cosily for herself and seems contented.

However, her arrangements include seeing as little of her husband as possible. I used to believe that Charlotte thought rather better of Mr Collins than Elizabeth, and that this was one reason why she could face marrying him when Lizzy couldn't. From the book, though, we are left in little doubt that Charlotte has no high opinion of her intended. "Mr. Collins to be sure was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary." Not only does Charlotte not love him: she doesn't even esteem him or like him (those words that Marianne in Sense and Sensibility found so insipid). When Elizabeth leaves Charlotte at the end of her visit, "Her home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry, and all their dependent concerns, had not yet lost their charms". The "not yet" strikes a worrying note, and one wonders if such a marriage can prove happy to Charlotte - or, for that matter, to her husband - in the long run. For all her apparent sensibleness, I suspect that Austen is really too much of a romantic at heart to make a very convincing advocate for a marriage of convenience.