I think this is a good time to confess that I enjoyed Desperate Romantics’. I thought it was fun television - it looked good, was often funny, showed a lot of paintings (which appealed to me at least) and relied on source material which was if anything more salacious than the screen version, and it was new. It might have been the new bit which made it so much fun, or that it wasn’t very serious but whichever it was I wish they would make more like it.
This is what I was thinking when I watched the new BBC version of Emma on Sunday with increasingly mixed feelings. On the one hand the performances where excellent and it’s all but impossible to beat Jane Austen for humour and perception, on the other hand there’s hardly a shortage of high quality Austen adaptations, many of them from the last decade. Do we need or want more? Clearly the BBC thinks so but I’m wondering why. In some ways Emma has to be a safe choice, but for all the people who turn on to watch something comfortingly familiar their must be at least an equal number who turn off from something too familiar, and then of course there’s the large part of the audience (like myself) who will watch anything of sufficient quality in that slot.
I read Margaret Oliphant’s ‘Miss Marjoribanks’ earlier this summer and was reminded at the time of Emma, watching Emma on Sunday reminded me of Lucilla Marjoribanks. There are similarities between the domestic settings, the relationships and rivalries in small town life, and in the father daughter relationship. Lucilla’s stated aim in life after the loss of her mother is to be a comfort to her father (whether he wants it or not). Beyond this point the similarities become more superficial, but the characterisation is excellent, Lucilla’s ongoing failure to marry complete with a set of near misses with eligible bachelors, her energetic determination to bend society to her will, her good works – she could be infuriating, but Oliphant is so adept at mixing failure and tragedy with triumph and success that it works.
Miss Marjoribanks occupies a social scale a notch or two down from Emma in a firmly Victorian landscape. The resulting preoccupation with status is if anything even more obsessive then in Austen. The real strength of this book for me though is in the relatively long time we spend with Lucilla – a good ten years – and what that time means to her as a woman. Initially she takes control of her father’s house as a very young woman. It’s assumed she’ll marry soon but when an early offer comes it’s unattractive. At this point Lucilla is in the enviable position of already being in control of a household, wealthy, respected and on the cusp of leading local society – a husband would be no particular asset, but as she ages her position becomes more precarious. Her scope as an unmarried woman is limited especially when she’s threatened with financial distress.
Lucilla is a heroine who could and without doubt would go out and earn a living and do it well; it’s not pity for her situation which makes the reader long for an unqualified happy ending, but empathy. Lucilla and Emma must both be triumphant, they deserve nothing less but I feel more for Lucilla because her path is longer and harder. I would love to see what a decent actress made of her on film.