the very problematic, the very romantic Mr Frank Churchill

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.


Comments 4 Responses

  1. AJH

    Ohhhh, I loved this post. How fascinating. I never thought of that way. Also, although I’m something of a costume drama nut, I don’t think I’ve seen this particular adaptation of Emma – I’ve seen the slightly depressing Hollywoodised one and the not entirely successful ITV version with … oh heavens … Selene from Underworld, you know the vampire, as Emma (I cannot for the life of me remember the actresses name).

    One of the things I love about a good adaptation is the way it can draw things out of the text that perhaps is only implied – like the meeting you describe between Frank and Jane. It reminds me a lot of the Wilson/Stephenson Jane Eyre. I find that book deeply ridiculous in many ways but I never believed it as a love story until I saw that mini-series – just because of the chemistry between the leads and they managed to play a lot of scenes that I read as deeply objectionable, for … err … laughs almost? Like when Rochester won’t give Jane any money so she has to come back to him, that’s a kind of weird flirtation.

    Sorry, I’ve wandered way off point. What I meant to say is that the thing that really kills Frank for me is his moral cowardice. I know as the romantic hero he’s flaws become entangled with his attractiveness, but he sacrifices his loved one over and over and over again for the sake of appearances. I mean how miserable must it have been for Jane to watch him flirting with Emma? He didn’t HAVE to do that to protect her. He CHOSE to do it. And I think he could have protected Jane’s reputation without mocking her publicly. That’s just plain mean, and not in a sexy badboy way. To me, anyway 😉

    1. anna cowan Post author

      How amazing is that adaptation of Jane Eyre? (And how much more amazing is it when you know he’s Maggie Smith’s son?) That screenplay was also by Sandy Welch, who can do no wrong. She wrote the North and South screenplay, too. She has this incredible ability to understand the characters in a way that isn’t counter to the text but is, as you say, possibly implied. Emma is full of those wonderful, non-verbal moments – especially in the Emma/Knightly relationship.

      I totally agree about Frank’s moral cowardice. He’s a little shit, really. But what struck me was that if it were a romance (by a modern author) from his POV, we could be made to feel it as angst. All his daddy issues would have to be completely exacerbated, of course :-). What always strikes me is that, good and moral as Jane appears, she’s also complicit in what they’re doing. Weirdly, that’s what makes me believe in their HEA – she’s a woman whose particular weakness is Frank Churchill.

      1. AJH

        Sorry, I’m holding you hostage on your own blog. But I completely LOVE that Jane Eyre adaptation. It is one of my favourites, like, ever. I think it’s because I don’t get Jane Eyre on any sort of personal level. I mean, I kind of intellectually get it, I like Jane a lot, I understand why it’s an empowerment fantasy but … I can’t see it as romantic in any way? Like I think the bit where Jane confronts Rochester over her right to feel shit is amazing (although the bit where he makes her his, err, personal Jesus is less than sexy) but … yeah … it’s too twisted and unbalanced and, well, Victorian for me to be able to interpret it as a love story (again, maybe it’s not really meant to be). But that adaptation helped me to see it completely differently – and Ruth Wilson is one of my favourite actresses, I think she’s sort of … luminous, somehow.

        Ohh, I’d never considered Jane as complicit in Frank’s moral cowardice and general bad behaviour – I always thought she as much a victim of it as anyone else (she seems so unhappy most of the time) but I can see the other side of it now you’ve mentioned it 🙂

        1. anna cowan Post author

          Don’t worry, I could talk costume dramas all day. Ruth Wilson is amazing. She has that ugly/beautiful X-factor that’s just completely magnetic. Mia Wasikowska played the restrained, Victorian emotions to perfection, but Ruth Wilson made Jane accessible and likeable. (And fall-in-loveable.)

          My English teacher gave me a double volume of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights for my 15th birthday, and I was a goner. I think 15 is kind of the perfect age to read them, and find them deeply romantic. Although interestingly, Wuthering Heights has become less enjoyable for me as a romance as I get older, where Jane Eyre has become even more wonderful.

          To me, the romance in Jane Eyre runs totally against the Victorian grain. Rochester might once have been a good man, but he isn’t any more. And much as he finds redemption in Jane, he never becomes really good. His best efforts are still pretty morally ambivalent. So the first thing I love is that she falls for a flawed man – in fact, way more than flawed, a married man who locks his mad wife in the attic and lures her into bigamy. (This could be me not fully understanding the Victorian ideal, but I’m pretty sure that sort of man isn’t generally rewarded with an HEA.)

          The second thing I love is that Jane is offered a life that perfectly reflects the selfless, giving woman of Victorian times (going to Africa as a sexless missionary). Instead, she chooses herself. I suppose you could also read it as reinforcing the nuclear family, and the importance of the woman in the home, but her decision doesn’t read that way. She says more or less that she knows she’s being selfish, but she would rather be loved by one deeply flawed man, for who she specifically is, than loved in a general way by a good god.

          A Buddhist boyfriend in my early 20s convinced me that a romantic relationship is not the place for universal love, but selfish love, so her decision is just perfect, as far as I’m concerned :-).

          There’s also something about Rochester – and I picked this up as a teen, too – that’s a bit pathetic. Even though he assumes the patronising, powerful role towards Jane, she understands him and sees through him in a way that gives her power over him. I think it’s this dynamic that comes through in Welch’s adaptation. And you can see it in the story when she decides to leave him – he has no actual power over her.

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