Thursday, October 08, 2015

Thursday, October 08, 2015 12:30 am by M. in , , ,    No comments
Thanks to Ashgate for providing us with a review copy of this book.
The Art of Adapting Victorian Literature, 1848-1920
Dramatizing Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, and The Woman in White
Karen E. Laird
Illustrations: Includes 19 b&w illustrations
Published: August 2015
ISBN: 978-1-4724-2439-6
The Art of Adapting Victorian Literature 1848-1920 explores the dramatization of three milestones of Victorian literature which can be representative of three of the household names of the literature of the period: Charlotte Brontë with Jane Eyre, Charles Dickens with David Copperfield and Wilkie Collins with The Woman in White. Of course our review will focus on the Jane Eyre part of the book but not forgetting that Karin A. Laird's approach shares a common agenda both in the vindication of the long forgotten values of the adaptations as a genre and the adapter as a professional as well as the inclusion of the silent early movies adaptations not only as a side note to the Victorian melodramatic theatre adaptations but as a continuing epilogue and its unavoidable coda.

The concise, clear and illuminating introduction sets the main coordinates of Karen E. Laird's approach. Her work is not, and it doesn't want to be, a fully comprehensive exploration of the early adaptations of Jane Eyre (and neither of the novels by the other authors covered in the book). The aim is to explore some significant examples (sometimes chosen on purpose by the author as in the theatre pieces but other times forced by circumstances as with the silent movies (1)) in order to locate the common tropes, the defining elements which vertebrate the most popular adaptations of Charlotte Brontë's famous novel. Her modus operandi is interdisciplinary and even following the adaptation critical studies body of work it cannot be but exploratory as the regions in which she dares to go are mainly untraveled ones.

Karen E. Laird analyses the 1848 urgent adaptation by John Courtney, Jane Eyre, or The Secrets of Thornfield Manor (1848) and the first American dramatization, John Brougham's Jane Eyre (1849). Both pieces were included in Patsy Stoneman's essential Jane Eyre on Stage, 1848-1898 in 2007. The scope of the text, including also studies on David Copperfield and The Woman in White early adaptations, forbids more examples of the other Jane Eyre theatre adaptations of the period(2). Both adaptations are discussed (and their long forgotten authors vindicated) in terms of the way in which they shifted, highlighted and rewrote the original text to approach the very different audiences that they look for. John Courtney's surprisingly class-conscious adaptation where the text is almost a proto-Socialist vindication of the working classes (but following a kind of Marxism nearer to Groucho than Karl). Or Brougham's also upstairs/downstairs approach with an extra supernatural flair.

Both those adaptations also share a Melodramatic common ground very typical of the whole group of early (and not so early) adaptations of Victorian novels into theatre (which can also be explored in the other novels and authors studied in the book). The melodramatic context is also shared by the many silent film adaptations which are also Karen E. Laird's subject of study. Regrettably, no complete Jane Eyre adaptation of the period has survived(3) and this heavily constricts the kind of possible critical research that can be done. The author tries to somehow overcome the situation studying first-hand sources (like the script of the film, if it is available) or second-hand ones as reviews, press releases or plot summaries written for magazines. Needless to say these are, at best, partial glimpses of the real thing, but it is quite amazing and certainly the author of the book deserves credit for how many consistent, pertinent and fascinating information she is able to extract from such disperse sources.

Karen E. Laird's work on silent films is truly a seminal work. Not only her unearthing of deeply hidden information from long forgotten films but her transparent love for the material she is handling. She is not only documenting films but she firmly believes in what these adaptations tell us about the original novel and the moment where they were created. And she vindicates with conviction the value of the work of the vilified adapters that worked on them. Not an easy task in a world, the literary critics scholar world, which is sometimes a bit too self-absorbed and still under the highbrow/lowbrow obsolete categorizations.


(1) Let's not forget that 
only 14% of the 10,919 silent films released by major studios exist in their original 35mm or other format, according to the report, “The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929.” Another 11% survive in full-length foreign versions or on film formats of lesser image quality. (Variety)
(2) Some of them were included in the Patsy Stoneman book: Charlotte Birch-Pfeiffer's 1870 Jane Eyre, or The orphan of Lowood,  James Willing's 1878 Jane Eyre or T.H. Paul's 1879 Jane Eyre. It's a real pity as these adaptations (as was already pointed out by Stoneman) introduced complementary and contemporary readings of the novel. Once again, we have to regret the absence of any non English adaptation of the novel. It can be argued, of course, that this book only explores the English-spoken versions but the the discussion of the Italian film Le Memorie di una Istitutrice (1917) opens the path to an unexplored and we think fascinating path.
(3) The only partially remaining film is the Italian 1917 film, Le Memorie di una Istitutrice, directed by Riccardo Tolentino.The surviving copy of 38 minutes, held at the BFI, was exhibited at the Cinema Ritrovato Film Festival in Bologna (June-July 2015).


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