Monday, October 12, 2015

the making of an error

Rummaging around Netflix, came across a recent British TV movie called The Making of a Lady, adapted from a novel I'd never heard of by Frances Hodgson Burnett of Secret Garden and (more to the point) Little Lord Fauntleroy fame.

It's very strange. Setting: Victorian London. Young woman - not poor, exactly, but impoverished middle-class - is doing secretarial work for a haughty aristocrat (played by Joanna Lumley, the only cast member familiar to me) when suddenly Lumley's painfully reserved but occasionally fun-loving nephew proposes marriage to the young woman.

He's a catch, actually: a widowed marquess under pressure from his aunt to re-marry and father an heir, he likes our heroine a lot better than any of the drippy young heiresses the old lady is pressing on him. Like any good Austen heroine, she initially refuses this impetuous man she hardly knows; but instead of the story being about either her slow re-wooing by a good man or his eventual revelation as a cad, it jumps immediately to her acceptance.

Will it then be about her learning to act in her new aristocratic position, thawing and winning over her reticent husband and the dour and unfriendly staff on his isolated country estate? A few scenes hint that it's going in that direction, but no: the plot suddenly makes a left turn and becomes a psychological horror story.

A few comments here:

1) One review I read described it as being like Downton Abbey. This only proves that we've devolved to the point where any story about post-Renaissance British nobility is described as being like Downton Abbey, no matter how unlike they are in every other possible way, in much the same way that any medievalized setting with warriors and some magic is described as being like The Lord of the Rings, no matter how unlike they are in every other possible way. I'd describe this, at least the earlier parts, as being more "budget Merchant-Ivory". For one thing, notably unlike Downton Abbey, it has only one plot.

2. The reviewer also described the story as racist. I'm not going to say it's not, but not for the reasons given: the reviewer was not paying attention to the diffusion and location of the villainy.

3. However! The screenwriter, Kate Brooke, though herself English and of aristocratic descent - her grandfather was a political viscount and he in turn the younger son of an Anglo-Irish earl* - makes the mistake in titles that Americans always fall for. Though the marquess is usually correctly called "Lord Walderhurst" and often just "Walderhurst" by his intimates, at one point a news clipping about him is read that calls him "Lord James Walderhurst". That is wrong! In news stories he would be called "The Marquess of Walderhurst". He'd only be "Lord James" if he were the marquess's younger son. And any Victorian newspaper would know that.

Notably, Burnett does not make that mistake in the novel, although she does use the continental spelling marquis instead of the British marquess.

*She is also the first cousin of the author of How to Train Your Dragon, for what that's worth.

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