I’ve been visiting my family in Canberra, which is beautiful this time of year. And what a weak word beautiful seems to describe how the odd, purpose-built, overlooked capital of Australia embodies autumn. How still and quiet it is, except for those screaming cockatoos, and how blue the sky looks against the fire-and-plum-pudding leaves.
Well anyway, I’ve been visiting my family, and my sister and I decided to re-watch the 2009 adaptation of Emma (screenplay by the ever-marvellous Sandy Welch).
It’s a fabulous adaptation in so many ways. Emma’s father is hilarious and heartbreaking, and though her brother-in-law finds him impossible to deal with, it’s subtly suggested that he’s on his way to becoming the same neurotic, grumpy old man. And of course Emma and Knightly’s lifelong relationship is so real, and so much fun to watch. (And oh, that line, “Maybe if I loved you less, I could talk about it more.”)
But watching it this time round, it was Frank Churchill who caught my interest.
He’s awful. If I was Emma I would never have forgiven him so easily – and it grates on me, watching it, how he seems to get away with being an utter shit. But I also realised that he’s the Romance rake. He’s the difficult hero. Knightly, who’s good in every way (except that he likes to give patronising lectures) isn’t a very popular kind of hero in Romance.
And to be honest, I love the way Frank is mean about Jane to hide their relationship. It really tickles my id to have him explain away why he’s watching her by saying, “I was just thinking how poorly she has done her hair this evening.” At that point in the narrative she seems to be onside with it. She’ll be reserved and keep to herself; he’ll perpetuate the idea that he only visits her from obligation. It’s when he gets frustrated and genuinely mean that it stops being enjoyable.
But I think it’s a problem of perspective. We’re watching Frank as an antagonist within a romance that’s based on respect, moral judgement and kindness, so when he acts out it comes across as immature and thoughtless. If, on the other hand, we take his romance as the primary romance, he becomes what most heroes in Romance are: tortured by his feelings.
I think if I were reading that romance, I could enjoy how awful he is. I would revel in his lack of moral sense. He’s a man caught between what he owes to his manipulative family – and the fortune he’ll inherit from them – and love. I wouldn’t want to read about that as a simple moral choice.
It’s also a set-up that doesn’t discount the importance of money, which I like. We never get the sense he’s thinking about giving his fortune up to have Jane. In fact, he petulantly talks about running off to the Continent. He’s aware of the constraints love places on him – how it keeps him in this tiny, anonymous English town. He’s aware of the kind of life he could have – should have – were it not for love.
If Jane Austen were writing Frank and Jane as the primary romance, I can’t help but think that they would only be rewarded with happiness if they kept their feelings properly, achingly to themselves. I love that, as a secondary romance, she rewards them with happiness no matter how awful they’ve been. There’s no moral judgement on their feelings. As Knightly says, their happiness is just dumb luck: Frank’s aunt is in the way of their marriage – Frank’s aunt dies.
What redeems their romance in the adaptation (I can’t remember how it’s portrayed in the book) is the scene where we finally see them freely together. Frank waits in the village square, and Jane runs to him. When they meet they become – for the first time in four hours of TV – wholly, fully themselves (or wholly their best, brightest selves, anyway). All the fun and passion and impetuosity that has made Frank awful at times turns him into an irresistible man – a lover who will never let his love become bored, or feel unadored. All of Jane’s reserve and unhappiness fall away – though you feel what a frightening thing it must be to let them fall away – and she becomes the girl whose heart has been stolen, and is firm in the hands of her beloved.