These Old Shades, from page to screen

There should be a film adaptation of These Old Shades, and frankly, I should be in charge of it. It’s a pity in itself that there is no Georgette Heyer movie to speak of, with all her Regency novels being a bonanza of material for beautiful films and mini series in the vein of our well-beloved Jane Austen adaptations. But These Old Shades, that’s a different matter altogether. It’s not gentle colours and dry wit, combined with romance and a dash of adventure, it’s far too 18th century, far too lavish and rich, too powdered and patched.

No, with new adaptations of beloved classics, made in different styles, being all the rage right now, we should be making a screen adaptation (whether an extra-length movie for the theatres or a mini-series made by one of our favourite public television broadcaster is of less importance) in a new playful interpretation of the characteristic style of classic period dramas.

The reader might not yet know what I mean, but I do. The problem with this book is that two possible things in a film adaptation could happen: 1., that the makers take the book too seriously and try to present all of it in a completely true manner (or, worse, try to fix what seems wrong!) and 2., that the makers look down on the source material as a silly vintage romance novel and make just a travesty of it, or try to make it modern.

But These Old Shades is a good book, and it’s a book to adapt into film respectfully, but it also sometimes a silly book, with some of its silliness being full intention, and some of it maybe just a sign of age, and both needs to be considered. A loving, respectful self-irony is what it needs, playing all what is meant seriously in a truly serious manner, but not forgetting the wonderful humour, and gently poking at all that is silly about it, showing the nonsensical class snobbery that is, already, called out in the book, and the strange whatnots of the time.

Many reviewers seem to think that the book stands for all that it shows, but that is not entirely true—a certain hypocrisy is exampled, and the protagonists are not always meant to be agreed with (or always agree with each other!), but the strange logics of innate desires…of farming, for example…make a good base for in-jokes that carry and light up parts of the film, and show a certain humorous view of what can be read in the novel, without deprecating it.

But some things need to be played straight. The page boy with the Titian hair, for example. No matter how obvious it might be to all the audience, there shall be no hints beyond what can already be read in the book, or, as we see him, even fewer. Play it straight, no matter how ridiculous it may appear. Play it straight, and reveal it in full glory. And the same goes for certain physical similarities…

And be careful of what you do with the main characters’ relationship. Show what is written, truthfully and with full understanding of context and situation, not wrong readings of others.

What brings me to another—show Avon and Léonie, and all the others, in their full light. Don’t try to make them any better or worse than they are, instead show how flawed and lovable they are, and how they, especially Avon, grow.

I want to see a Léonie who’s all energy and misbehaviour, loneliness and distraught, a strange and elegant boy at one time, and a rogue, yet sweet girl at another. Her eagerness to fight and use weapons, to bite and kick, and fence and shoot, should be shown in exactly the true, wild, chaotic way it is, and not polished to make her a Strong Female Character, devoid of all personality and originality. Her equal delight in her attire as a boy and her new-learned girlhood should be equally shown, and she should not be made into either a tomboy, who hates all feminine things she should wear or do, or into a girl who’s changing entirely through suddenly putting on a dress, leaving all what was behind her, because both would be a simplification of her character and sadly stereotypical. Léonie likes what she likes and does what she wants, whatever that may be.

But above all: show her maturity. And her sadness. Two things that are often told of and sometimes shown in the book, and which are important to her character, even more when we see her moving and talking than in a book which tells a great deal through narration, and through the eyes of Avon:

“A certain cynicism, born of the life she has led; a streak of strange wisdom; the wistfulness behind the gaiety; sometimes fear; and nearly always the memory of loneliness that hurts the soul.”

Léonie, though often called that, is not a child—or maybe she is, but then she is a small child, a true infant, as much as an ancient, and that has to be shown. Making her all cheerful and wild would be unjust, and I dare say, to make better use of modern times in a film adaptation of an old book, than to include pointless nude scenes or lessons in misunderstood feminism, show some of her past, of the cruelty she experienced, and the things she has seen, and not just the results, but the reasons of her having to be a boy for seven years. All this could only be allured to in the book, and while I don’t want anything overtly dark or explicit in a film, I think it would be good to take a tiny glimpse behind the surface.

As for Avon—show his growth. His desire to live up to Léonie’s expectations, or to what he thinks them to be. Let him grow tired of his old image, but don’t overdo it—show that there has always been kindness in him, and that he would never cease to be a dangerous men. Show also his reluctance towards his and Léonie’s relationship, and his fear not to be good enough.

But again with Avon, the matter of dress is important. It would be such a pity if he were to look in a way that would be appealing—and “manly”—today. He is powdered, he is patched, he has a fan, he’s wearing shades of lavender and pink, and ensembles in pure gold, and he is always holding his snuff box tight. He is also frightening and dangerous, nearly sinister, and he thinks himself to be a worse person that he is, or at least, than he becomes. And he is the leading man in a romance. These three must work together, despite the general reluctance of the film industry to make it work.

Which brings me to another thing—the 18th century costumes, and sets, and general aesthetics, must work in accordance to the ideals of the time, not to ours, or what we now deem pretty of that time. But a few decided anachronisms, of the type often found in old period dramas, might just work for the fun of it. I don’t really know right now how to describe what I mean, but it’s the sort of thing I would find just right.

All in all, it has to be grand—bright, rich colours, big costumes, lavish sets, gorgeous scenery, full music, plenty of historically appropriate, but extravagant whatnots, all the strange ideas and ideals of that time, have to be shown in full grandeur. No minimalism, very little realism, no reluctance and no shyness; it has to be bold! And the style, the overall vibe, should be more of something made in the mid of the last century, but with a certain whimsy unique to itself, and an intricacy often found nowadays, all while staying faithful to the book.

Small and silent scenes should be equal to loud and large ones, Léonie and Avon’s sweet moments of Pygmalion given as much importance as Léonie and Rupert saving each other and riding away.

The side characters and their relationships should be explored wholly, but of most importance shall be the relationship of the Duke, and of his Soul. In fact, making Léonie his Soul should be a continuous thread throughout the entire film (or series). Not too much, of course—not to the degree that it gets annoying in narration, and especially not so as though Avon thought of Léonie of a sort of device to become a better person, or any such thing. Only gentle subversion of a common literary theme—a character who has not sold his soul, but, through buying what can not be bought, and what became his, and yet not his property, found his way back to his own soul.

It would be a pity if their love story became one of a cheerful girl fixing a bad man. Léonie is sometimes worse than Avon, at times he is even concerned about her own outbursts, though she may have better, if one can call it that, reason to be so. They both grow through each other and save and protect each other, or at least mean to do so, and at times it even seems that the tables have turned and it is he, who has to make sure that she is not growing too dangerous—which she must not, any more, having him.

For personal reasons, the scene of the drive back from Versailles needs to be included, unshortened, maybe even prolonged. And Léonie’s letter has to be the most heartbreaking thing, naturally.

And as for something I have already mentioned vaguely, and now have to say more to: It is of importance that Léonie is made Avon’s ward so that he can work his scheme against Saint-Vire and so that she can be respectably and legally with him. He thinks that she would only look at him as a “grandparent”, whereas she thinks that he would never want her as for matters of class. He refused her to be his mistress, and both thought the other should not marry them for their respective better. These aspects are too often overlooked by people who want to make everything bad. Naturally, their relationship grows from master and (overjoyed) servant to platonic, even familial affection, to romantic love. This growth is important and more of an example of friends who become lovers, than of anything else.

Now I have to say one last thing: The loveliest ending would be a voice over, maybe of the Duke, or of Léonie, perhaps of Hugh, or even of Saint-Vire, or several together… no! I got it, of the Curé! of the quote from, or even the entire, Epilogue to Eighteenth Century Vignettes by Austin Dobson, from the beginning of the book. It embodies just what I want for the film—a warm and loving, yet critical and gently ironic view of the magnificence, extravagance, splendour, bigotry, concealment, arrogance, and humanity of a not quite so distant century, and of the people in this lovely, silly story, who represent it all so wonderfully.

‘WHAT is it then,’—some Reader asks,—
‘What is it that attaches
Your fancy so to fans and masks,—
To periwigs and patches?

‘Is Human Life to-day so poor,—
So bloodless,—you disdain it,
To ‘galvanize’ the Past once more?’
—Permit me. I’ll explain it.

This Age I grant (and grant with pride),
Is varied, rich, eventful;
But, if you touch its weaker side,
Deplorably resentful:

Belaud it, and it takes your praise
With air of calm conviction;
Condemn it, and at once you raise
A storm of contradiction.

Whereas with these old Shades of mine,
Their ways and dress delight me;
And should I trip by word or line,
They cannot well indict me.

Not that I think to err. I seek
To steer ‘twixt blame and blindness;
I strive (as some one said in Greek)
To speak the truth with kindness:

But—should I fail to render clear
Their title, rank, or station—
I still may sleep secure, nor fear
A suit for defamation.

Of Knights and Beadsmen

Reviews in the traditional sense will most likely remain a rarity on this blog—recommendations and personal thoughts regarding books that I am fond of or feel concerned about will appear more frequently. This post is probably somewhere between all those things—a little debut on this site, about a book that means a lot to me and that not many people know:

The Rosemary Tree by Elizabeth Goudge (1956)

HIS golden locks Time hath to silver turn’d;
  O Time too swift, O swiftness never ceasing!
His youth ‘gainst time and age hath ever spurn’d,
  But spurn’d in vain; youth waneth by increasing:
Beauty, strength, youth, are flowers but fading seen;
Duty, faith, love, are roots, and ever green.

His helmet now shall make a hive for bees;
  And, lovers’ sonnets turn’d to holy psalms,
A man-at-arms must now serve on his knees,
  And feed on prayers, which are Age his alms:
But though from court to cottage he depart,
His Saint is sure of his unspotted heart.

And when he saddest sits in homely cell,
  He’ll teach his swains this carol for a song,—
‘Blest be the hearts that wish my sovereign well,
  Curst be the souls that think her any wrong.’
Goddess, allow this aged man his right
To be your beadsman now that was your knight.

— George Peele, A Farewell to Arms or The Old Knight

It is this poem that stars the book, and moves like a thread through the entire book. Knights and beadsmen, and poetry, are as ever-present as trees and rosemary. The last two lines—Goddess, allow this aged man his right // To be your beadsman now that was your knight.—are the very ground that the Manor house and village of Belmaray are built on.

First of all, I’d like to mention, that while this book is many things that I adore, it’s also many things that reviewers often tend to dislike: it values people over plot, it can be slow and quiet and very descriptive, there’s not much physical action or suspense in the traditional sense, it’s full of literary references, and imbued by Elizabeth Goudge’s very particular sort of spirituality, that’s often found to be too deeply based on nature by Christians, and too Christian by everyone else, but that’s just right for me, personally. And it doesn’t fit in a defined genre either.

It is, essentially, about people who are, over the course of the book, growing much happier than before. That is, I think, the most simple way to describe it, and the most truthful, too. I’ve seen descriptions and reviews that said it was about a particular character, but there is no true central character. It is told from many perspectives, without anyone taking the lead. It has been classified as a romance, but it is only so much a romance, as that romantic love is one of many aspects of it. It is very much a story about love—about human love, whether romantic or platonic or familial, about God’s love, of course, about the love people have for nature and animals, and for their home, and for themselves.

But what’s truly the core of the story is that a really small event can have the greatest effects on many people’s lives, and that it’s often the seemingly small things that truly matter. It’s that people can be sad without anything obviously being wrong about their lives, because they don’t understand each other, or themselves, and sometimes because they cannot really bring up the courage and decide to be happer than before. It’s about the great change a kind word can make, about the immense effect of pure determination to be good to others and to onself, the power of attitude. The gentle and monumental butterfly effect of human kindness.

And I love what a conscious thing kindness is in this book, and goodness and niceness is. I love how being friendly and nice is not portayed as a sort of natural talent or gift, but a deliberate skill that is worth exercising—and never too late to learn. And I like the distinction she makes—because in this book (and others of her’s) there’s two sorts of, let’s call it performative goodness—one that is false and dishonest, almost sinister, and one that is actually a sign of a longing to be and act good, and a way to achieve it. Being kind to people, even if you don’t exactly feel like it, is not akin to fake friendliness, it is as good and true as anything. Actual dishonest friendliness is not having an unfriendy word and then saying something nice—it’s saying something nice to a person’s face and then betraying them in some way. Being nasty does not necessarily make a person more authentic, it’s not a sign of one’s honesty. But on the other hand—even the kindest person is mean or unfriendly or nasty at times, and that’s alright too.

The reasons for unhappiness are often small—or they appear small—but all the more realistic, heartfelt, genuine. These characters are very much people, and their worries at times silly and yet having a frightful effect on their lives, often through years of growing inside their minds. On the other hand, deeper issues are very much a matter, mental illness and trauma never being glossed over, or ridiculed. It’s written and set in the 50s, so the horrors of the war have not yet grown distant, not to mention other difficulties of this, and the previous decades.

I’ve said it is a character driven book, and must add that I love these characters. I love that they are people, each and every one of them so delightfully human. And I love the way Elizabeth Goudge wrote children. Children, in adult novels, are so often reduced to props or plot devices, and her children are people, as characters in all ways equal to her adult characters. The oldest point of view characters in this book are in their eighties, the youngest is five years old, with others of all age groups in between them, and all of them are written with equal care and dedication. The characters’ ages do however, greatly affect the way they are written, and how they think and what they do, in good and bad—although Goudge fortunately refrained from assigning a particular age group a particular view or way of life.

It is also of note that all characters are beautifully flawed, and steadily grow over the course of the book, though not with leaving every flaw or fault behind. One character, sadly, chooses not to grow, and though there is no villain in this book (just as there is no hero) this particular character is an unconventional choice for the only truly negative character, although a very good and convincing one.

There is, it seems, a book for almost everything. That is, of course, a good thing. But it often seems to me, that although all sorts of great ideas and experiences, all big and visible and obvious things can be found in literature rather easily, it’s the quiet and small things that are truly hard to find, and even harder to look for. I certainly did not look for the things I found in this book, but I found them and I am glad I did. I often found that some emotions, some little human interactions, fragments of something that lies halway between feeling and thought, are in a way omitted from the majority of literature and other sorts of stories, that the larger things—even the unusual and controversial things—are not. I often wondered whether these things were so normal that nobody thought them worth mentioning, or so strange that nobody else felt them or, if they felt them, dared to write them down. It was a sort of relief to read, all of a sudden, of such little, yet significant things that were so familiar to me, and so unusual to read on a page. It went further even—at times I found myself reading what I had felt myself, but never knew how to put into words. I’ve had this sort of experience with other books—and it’s one of the most beautiful things that can happen while reading a book—but throughout this one in particular, and it was at times rather confusing, even unsettling for a moment, but in the end always comforting.

“A book sometimes crosses ones path which is so like the sound of ones native language in a strange country that it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer.”

— C. S. Lewis

It’s that sort of book for me.

The Rosemary Tree is a Spring book. The air of the cold, sweet Spring, the sunlight and the morning dew, and smell of all things green and growing are what carries the story. The birdsong, most of all. It is a book about change, change for the better, even though not always in the originally desired way. Goudge’s gorgeous descriptions of nature and the changes it goes through in the Spring months work perfectly well with the developments in the characters lives. Birds, and trees, and flowers—everywhere, so vivid and colourful that the book could nearly burst, yet so gentle and elegant that, in the end, it won’t. Her prose is gorgeous, but never purple, though maybe a slight shade of lavender. That’s because her writing can be sweet, but never in a sticky, draining way. It’s fresh, full of cold morning air and the smell of herbs.

And of course, there’s one thing you can always rely on with Ms Goudge—there are always dogs.