Thursday, August 30, 2012

Who's Afraid of Jane Austen?

Nobody, I suppose, if you just mean her books as books. Words on paper. But if you mean the whole cult, the museum in Bath, the Georgian Crescent, the O and A Level exams, the films based on sense, sensibility as well as on one's pride, plus powers of persuasion and prejudice, I guess. And when I met a woman called Emma, distant descendant of Jayne (spelt with a Y) Mansfield, she stared at me with steel-embedded eyes, she being a cut-throat film agent from America who wanted me to finance her husband's directorship of a recently discovered long-lost Austen novel called TRADING LACE...

I wondered if she'd got herself - and thus her pet dog of a husband - embroiled with sniffing out modern gold in old English Literature because her name and heritage were the obvious hybrid of two well-seasoned Austen novels that had no doubt already been filmed to death. Assuming Emma was the director proper and her husband the director in name only, I knew I was talking to the organ grinder, not to the, ahem, male dog who sat atop the barrel-organ laughing at itself for not being a monkey. The 'face of the film', yapping terrier-like not roaring as the MGM Lion once did. The cockerel of Pathe News having been deader than a dead parrot since the death of Sir Winston Churchill himself. Never a fan of Jane Austen, I'm told.

The searchlight beacons of Twentieth Century Fox started twirling in Emma's widening eyes when I said I would be pleased to invest in her husband's directorship of a new Jane Austen cinema package should she be able to get her nephew to star in it and we all know who that is, don't we? Tom Mansfield. *The* Tom Mansfield ... of the Passion Peak TV series. Her face fell faster than the time it took me to add the following brief contractual stipulation: the title TRADING LACE would need to change to HONITON HOUSE. You see, she knew that I knew that she and her husband had fallen out big time with Tom Mansfield ever since .... Well, that's another story.

As to the title change, I once persuaded Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to exercise their own art of persuasion with Edward Albee to switch Gertrude Stein to Virginia Woolf for the title of his play in which they were about to star. 'Who's afraid of Gertrude Stein?' didn't have the same ring. And nobody had heard of Gertrude Stein. A rose is a rose is a rose is .... There's always a better word for any word that nobody's yet thought of - that's my motto. Often a whim. But often right. And HONITON HOUSE rang right. Rang twice. Like the postman.

When I finally met the dog, the nephew Tom Mansfield was sewn up - how they persuaded him I shall never know - and HONITON HOUSE was agreed, with Jane Austen herself being exhumed, I was told, to rubber stamp it. TRADING LACE? Well, Jane Austen was never wedded to that title, she admitted, before being dug back into the churchyard where her fans often gather to hear the muffled voice, an imprecise sound that sometimes could be heard at unpredictable times.

The film? Like many films, it never even reached the cutting-room floor. But I still got my contractual kill-fee, of course. And some off-cuts of costume lace for my wife. She's always had great expectations, my wife. But these days she's easily consoled. If the first attempt fails, keep trying till the next one works.

The dog laughed. Despite having heard the 'There is Something Nasty in the Emma Woodshed' joke before.

Who's afraid of Stella Gibbons?

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