Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Costumes, housework and apple-carts

Nouse, the University of York's student website, talks to costume designer Amy Roberts, whose costumes for the latest Wuthering Heights are currently on display at the Brontë Parsonage Museum.

The Bafta-winner told MUSE that the new adaptation will feel more “like a western”, with “the wildness and rugged terrain of Yorkshire” acting as the haunting backdrop of the set. With period dramas as ubiquitous as they are, it is difficult to fathom exactly where any vein of originality emerges. Has the traditional image of whistling winds and uncontrollable spirits that preoccupies Wuthering Height’s reputation just been compounded by its recreation as a quasi-Western?
At a time when television dominates the novel, it seems that adaptations are never really for lovers of literature, but rather for the television addict desperate for a fusion of superficial passion and death in a short, satisfying shot. TV needs to add something more to the mix.
Perhaps the question of innovation is answered by the modern dynamic that is inevitably introduced when every new drama is produced. “Every historical period production I have ever done will involve a meeting with the producers who without fail will want a modern take on things. I like that, after all you are designing a production not creating a historically correct piece for a museum,” says Roberts. Inspiration for historical costumes seems sternly rooted in the modern day. Roberts continues, “as a designer I think you should be looking at fashion, street and high end, to inform your work in a contemporary way.”
A further source of improvisation is rooted in the actors themselves. Robert emphasizes that the actor’s imput is “vital” for they “after all are being that character”.
Although a modern perspective may prevent audience alienation, Roberts maintains that the themes of the novel remain prominent, and are well-reflected in her designs: “The cultural differences between the two houses was very important.” Roberts sought to emphasise the “delicacy” and “more refined look” of Edgar against the “slightly overdone dandyism of Hindley and his blowsy wife Frances.”
Roberts’ costumes certainly display elements of Cathy Earnshaw’s hardy recklessness, shown by the strong, berry colours, woollen jackets and stout boots that she wears in the first part of the adaptation, when living with Heathcliff at Wuthering Heights. Roberts sees her designs as representing a “wild” and “free” Cathy, until her enforced stay at Thrushcross Grange: “Here I dressed her in pale colours, dainty shoes, her hair is brushed and neat.” Remaining faithful to the literary elements of the book seems paramount to the development of her designs. She adds that Cathy’s “yearning and need for Heathcliff and that life is always there and so I kept elements of her real self by using violently coloured shawls with the delicate dresses.” She sought to emphasise the “pale, dainty elegance of Isabella against Cathy’s bolder look.”
The most challenging transition to display may not be Cathy’s, however, but Heathcliff’s. Just how difficult was it for Roberts to retain Heathcliff’s sinister and unruly nature when he is dressed as a gentleman? Roberts explains that an outfit may be gentlemanly in texture and colour but that Heathcliff “differs from the other characters: the shirt neck [is] often undone, the clothes creased and mud splattered… [he’s] not a man over interested in his appearance.”
From viewing Roberts’ exhibition- the adaption itself is to be aired in the new year - it’s easy to see the balance of historical and literary considerations she’s achieved, with “green figured silk riding coat over acid yellow cotton voile” ensembles as illustrating exactly what Roberts sees as Cathy’s “real self”.
Incorporated amongst the exquisite quaintness of the Brontë parsonage, these outfits present the new adaptation as both Brontë fan-friendly and appealing to a modern television audience. With Roberts admitting that she doesn’t look at any previous adaptations for inspiration, ITV may just have created a production which, unlike Heathcliff, isn’t necessary, but a visual delight nevertheless. (Laura Connor)
Wuthering Heights 2009 is supposed to be broadcast on this side of the Atlantic before the end of the year. What has already arrived is the British edition of A Literature of Their Own. British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing, by Elaine Showalter. Kathryn Hughes questions in the Guardian one of the basic statements made in the book, just like we did some time ago.
Where, she wants to know, is the Yankee Eliot, the Virginian Austen, the mid-western version of the Brontës?
In part answer to her own rhetorical question, Showalter suggests that it may come down to domestic arrangements. "While English women novelists, even those as poor as the Brontës, had servants, American women were expected to clean, cook and sew; even in the south, white women in slave-holding families were trained in domestic arts." In other words, while women in the New World collapsed into bed at night after a drudging 18-hour shift, their British counterparts were able to spend several leisured hours a day honing their literary skills.
This is to misunderstand what servant-keeping entailed for ordinary British households in the middle years of Victoria's reign, the decades that saw the publication of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Adam Bede. Put out of your mind any lingering memory of Upstairs, Downstairs, the 1970s television drama set in a wealthy Edwardian household. While the fictional Bellamy family enjoyed the services of a fleet of servants, from the omnipotent butler Hudson to the kitchen skivvy Ruby, the typical middle-class family of 50 years earlier muddled through with one, perhaps two maids-of-all-work. And, far from lolling in the drawing room whilst other, working-class, women did all the hard work, the mistress of the middle-class household was most likely to be cooking and cleaning alongside her servants. In the days before vacuum cleaners, washing machines and fridges, the daily battle against soot, bedbugs, candle grease and mouldy food was one that lasted pretty much all day and required every hand on deck.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of the Brontës. In 1839 Charlotte wrote wearily to an old schoolfriend, "I manage the ironing, and keep the rooms clean; Emily does the baking, and attends to the kitchen." True, there was an elderly female servant, Tabby Ackroyd, who had been at the parsonage for years, but her increasing frailty made her more of a hindrance than a help. Brontë's first biographer, Mrs Gaskell, describes one occasion when Charlotte was obliged to re-peel some potatoes that the nearly blind Tabby had left in a mangled state. The only Brontë who was excused domestic duties was Branwell, the feckless son who drank himself to an early death without managing to make a single mark on the literary or artistic world. [...]
Arguing away the differences between the daily experiences and expectations of American and British women won't, of course, get you any nearer to answering Showalter's excellent question. Just why did Victorian Britain produce so many great female novelists while their American sisters remained stuttering and even mute? Vague and reductive arguments about differences in national "character" won't do, as Showalter would be the first to admit. There must be something else. But what that is remains a mystery. One thing, though, is certain: it wasn't lack of housework.
Also in the Guardian - Books Blog section - Ben Myers wonders when the great British Gypsy novel will be written/published.
More often than not, though, the Gypsy appears as a dark, brooding force, as epitomised by Emily Brontë's portrayal of Heathcliff, the tempestuous and swarthy outsider in Wuthering Heights whose origins are unknown and whose looks are described as "gypsy". As the antagonist in the book, it is Heathcliff – "the black villain" – who upsets the proverbial apple-cart.
Author Victoria Hislop continues displaying openly - as it should be - her Brontëiteness. This time in the Daily Mail.
What book first gave you the reading bug?
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte — it was the first 'grown-up' book I read, at the age of 13, and I was completely captivated by it. I loved the sense of place, the extreme nature of their emotions, the general sense of wildness and the moral complexity of it all. It probably helped, too, that the characters are 'teenagers'.
Remember those Twitter summaries of books? It looks like a compilation is forthcoming (The Little Book of Twitter by Tim Collins) and it will include the following 'description' of Wuthering Heights, according to The Sun.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte is described as: “Catherine Earnshaw marries Edgar Lindon but really loves Heathcliff *sigh*.”
The list can be tweeted here.

If you're on Twitter, don't forget that you can also discuss Wuthering Heights here.

The curious mention of the day would be the following from the ExportLawBlog:
Also the contact point for the notice is a USPS [United States Postal Service] employee with a literary name: Jane Eyre. That’s pretty cool, but a contact named Clarissa Harlowe would have been even cooler on a USPS notice. (Clif Burns)
On the blogosphere today is a great day for Emily Brontë: Strangely Poetic and The Long Nineteenth Century discuss two of her poems (although the one posted on the latter, 'Often rebuked, yet always back returning', is also attributed to Charlotte - trying to pass it as Emily's - in some sources), and Kids Book Blog posts about Wuthering Heights.

And finally, Le journal de Fée Bourbonnaise reviews Jane Eyre in French.

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