The Complicated Genius and the Lady Artist: Movies About Authors
I am easily disillusioned about artists. It’s why I only made it through three episodes of Work of Art (Search for the Next Great American Artist!) on Bravo. The competitors were given really interesting challenges and then—with a FEW exceptions—they responded to them in really average and uninspired ways. And when asked to discuss or interpret their art, they were superficial and vague. In my mind, artists are heady, theory-driven creatures. If you ask them why the timepiece is hanging limply over the branch, they’ll have a response for it that is mind-blowing in its ingenuity. Artists do visually what literary types do with words and in either case, there needs to be some artistry behind it, is what I’m saying—not just skill, but purpose.
OK, so when it comes to novelists whose work I really admire—whose work I know has been studied tirelessly for years—and a movie comes out, dramatizing the life of that novelist, and the artist as character is just sort of ordinary and all mired in petty, everyday concerns without any nod to the study and deliberation that IN MY MIND artists need to have devoted to their work, then I get annoyed. Not coincidentally, this happens much more often to women artists.
A few weeks ago, I watched a movie called Devotion; it’s the story of the Bronte siblings, Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell. The three women were novelists and the brother was a painter. The plot of the movie spun around their attachments to each other, and could have done only that, but it chose to also make two of the sisters have a conflict over a man. (WHY WHY WHY? Because Hollywood thinks that the only time women aren’t harmoniously the same is when they both want the attentions of the same guy? But I guess a movie where two sisters quarrel over having different writing processes is never going to get made.)
Anyway, in Devotion, there are a lot of things that bother me: the character of this contested man, who shares a name with the man that the real-life Charlotte Bronte would eventually marry, is extraneous to the plots that I care about (the development of the sisters’ careers) and central to the one I don’t like (ladies fightin’ over a man!). He is played quite ably by Paul Henreid (you might know him as the Guy in Casablanca who’s not Bogart), though, so he’s not entirely hateable.
Another bothersome development: the character of Anne Bronte is almost solely defined as the airhead sister. She’s the one that’s always kind of on the fringes of the conversation, and she makes stupid remarks to men, and dances. Of the three Bronte sisters, Anne is the one you’re least likely to have heard of; she didn’t write Jane Eyre (Charlotte did) and she didn’t write Wuthering Heights (Emily did). But she did write two novels that are still in print today, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (which I haven’t read) and Agnes Grey, which is utterly terrific. It’s maybe not approaching the level of the novels her sisters wrote, but damn, it’s not her fault that both of her sisters were geniuses. And the books certainly stand as testaments that Anne was well capable of understanding and insight, and not just of standing to the far left and smiling politely. She might have written more, but like her sister Emily she was dead before thirty. (Why did this family not move to a more forgiving climate? How many of them needed to die of tuberculosis before the hint was taken?)
But what this movie does to Charlotte is the worst. Charlotte is a confident, take-charge type, which I liked and found plausible, but she’s also shown to be sort of a philistine compared to her sister Emily. Emily is the one who stays up all night, scribbling away, while Charlotte and Anne put all their energy into earning money working as governesses. Charlotte blathers on about how she’s going to go out into the world to have something to write about, like she’s 19th century Yorkshire’s version of Jack Kerouac. Another character says dismissively of Charlotte, “She’ll be a success. She certainly works hard enough.” Later, Charlotte herself has an affair with a teacher of hers and says sluttily, “I don’t want to write now; I’m much too busy living.” Ick. Do you see how this compares to Emily, the wispish one who daydreams and writes so feverishly that she literally develops a fever? Charlotte is a technician and a fame whore; Emily is the artist, with poetry in her soul. And when their books get published, Emily just stays all hermitically sealed up in Yorkshire while Charlotte gallivants around London, seeing shows, attending book signings, and buying new hats. Blecchhhhhh. (It could be worse: Anne’s first novel gets published at the same time as her sisters’, but you’d never know that from this movie. No one talks about it at all.)
Finally, Charlotte has lunch with William Makepeace Thackeray and he tells her that Emily’s book is the best of the ones written by the three sisters, and he asks her what she thought of it. She admits that she’s not read the whole thing. Well, she wouldn’t have, would she? She’s not an intellectual, she’s not got any literary curiosity, she’s not even a good sister. But we’re supposed to believe that this woman crafted one of the greatest novels of her generation, a work that is sensitive and emotional and beautiful.
If Charlotte hadn’t been played by Olivia de Havilland, there might have been no sympathy to be had for her. Luckily, she is played by Olivia de Havilland. De Havilland was a big star, an ultra-traditional Hollywood leading woman. (For a modern day comparison, I’d go with Julia Roberts. Witty but wholesome, and she’d charm the pants off you before you could decide there was anything to dislike about her.) Emily, on the other hand, is played by Ida Lupino, a dark-haired, slant-eyed iconoclast who usually popped up in crime films and who defied convention by directing a few of her own in the 50s. The casting works for what the movie was trying to do, that’s for sure. Even if I don’t agree with it.
The experience of watching Devotion reminded me of Becoming Jane, from a couple years ago (that movie that spins an incomprehensible story out of Jane Austen’s alleged love affair with a guy called Tom Lefroy). I don’t like the reduction of a literary icon to a passive heroine, and never have, but that didn’t stop me from seeing it in the theater when it came out, and if it were to come on Oxygen some night (it probably will, knowing the frequency with which they show the Keira Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice) I would totally watch it just to grouse about how they got things wrong and imagine it better in my head.
Jane (played by Anne Hathaway in the film) is allowed to be sort of sharp and witty, at the start at least. It’s well-documented that the actual Jane was the Dorothy Parker of her day, the one you wanted to sit next to in the corner if for no other reason than that would dissuade her from making fun of you. Making her sweet and demure would have been just wrong. But the subsequent love story tames Jane in a way that makes her less fun and interesting than she was before. Not that this isn’t realistic (this happens to people all the time, it’s nicely called “settling down”) but there’s pretty good evidence to suggest that it’s exactly what the real Jane Austen didn’t want to happen in her life, and the real reason she never married. There was no broken engagement with Lefroy; Austen was engaged to another gentleman for about six hours but backed out, and ultimately died a contented spinster. (So runs the folklore.)
Why would she have made such a choice? Well, there’s literal considerations, of course—read A Room of One’s Own, where Virginia Woolf asks readers to really sit and think about how Jane Austen went about writing her masterpieces. She kept the pages underneath the ink blotter on the desk so no one would see them. She had to continually abandon the work to tend to her household responsibilities—visiting and receiving visitors and whatever else young women did back then. (In the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice the sisters are continually drying flowers and doing needlepoint.) Think if Austen had married. In a pre-birth control era. Of course she didn’t marry. She marries and the entire rest of her life is about children and serving her husband. It’s not because she couldn’t find anyone who’d take her and it’s not because she had one tragically-thwarted love story. It’s because she said to herself, I can do something different, and I want to. There’s something about that story that appeals to me. In the vernacular of today’s TV, she chose herself. Why can that be a story on Beverly Hills, 90210 but not in the Jane Austen movie?
It also bothers me that (in the movie) Lefroy needs to introduce Jane to a broader view of the world. He gives her Tom Jones to read and she blushes at the bawdiness. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Do not give him credit for what she knows, movie. Do not suggest that she only produced six of the greatest novels in the English language because first some swarthy Irishman filled her head with ideas that weren’t there before. She knew well enough to pick up Fielding before Lefroy came into the picture, she knew how to turn a plot and she knew how to sketch out the inhabitants of her little English villages because she did. Look at Shakespeare in Love—which is the reverse-gender version of this movie. Shakespeare is still Shakespeare before he falls in love. Why couldn’t Jane have been Jane?
Why so much this?
Why not more of this?
There are so many examples in the movies of women who just don’t get to be complicated geniuses. They stumble into their success and then are ambivalent about it because it means boys won’t like them as much. Haven’t we moved beyond this by now?