Friday, March 28, 2014

Reflections on John Plumtre

Apparently in continuing with last Friday's theme, I have found another 19th century figure for which to I can lay my blame upon. His name is John Plumtre.

Who is John Plumtre, you ask?

This is he.

"But, that's Tom Hiddleston," you say.

Yes, the actor is Tom Hiddleston. The character he is acting, however, is John Plumptre, a character in the film Miss Austen Regrets. Please note that it is Mr. Plumtre I am cross with and not the actual, living actor portraying him. (Yes, I am angry with a fictional character who I claim has negatively affected my life. Roll with it.)

I first saw the film Miss Austen Regrets when it aired on PBS during a celebration of Jane Austen, in which they featured films of her works. This was probably around 2008 or so and I was a rather serious, sardonic, angsty teenager who was already infatuated with the story Jane Eyre and may or may not cared a great deal about Twilight (spoilers: I cared). I recall being very excited about Miss Austen Regrets because, unlike the other films being shown on PBS, this was actually about Ms. Austen and, as a young writer who adored Austen's wit and characterization, along with being interested in her life - given she wrote such great romances but never married - I was looking very forward to this film.

I wasn't disappointed. But I was greatly unprepared for the heartache that was about to ensue.

What I remembered from this film years later was that it was very sad, it had tormented me, and John Plumtre had really great hair. What I really remembered, which only resurfaced upon my rewatching this last Monday, was that it perfectly encompassed all my fears of becoming a writer and becoming an adult involved in relationships. I was worried that being someone who refused to put their writing aside to stereotypically wife-y things would automatically result in never getting married. I was worried that people wouldn't understand a certain writing style and, like Mr. Plumtre, be upset at the way certain matters are dealt with (in this case, Plumtre is upset that vicars are always portrayed as silly fools in Austen's writing).

Mostly I was tormented by the relationship between Plumtre and Austen's niece Fanny. Fanny likes Plumtre but is uncertain if he's "the one," if he's her Mr. Darcy. Jane assures her that she will do her best to not hold him against a fictional comparison and to be honest in her assessment of him. Plumtre seems to be a rather sweet, chivalrous fellow, even if he doesn't entirely care for Austen's assessment of vicars. He's kind, well-mannered, intellectual, and deeply cares about Fanny.

However, Fanny is upset by his dislike of dancing. She begins to wonder if she really likes him as much as she thinks she does but, when the idea of Plumtre proposing enters her mind, she knows she will say yes. However, when Plumtre is actually on the verge of proposing, in her excitement and earnestness, he believes she is mocking him. Thus, Plumtre walks off in an embarrassed, humiliated huff, Fanny is hurt and heartbroken, and the viewer is left sobbing and yelling at the screen, wondering why it's so hard for Regency Era people to talk about their feelings - and why it hasn't seemed to have gotten any easier two hundred years later. The most upsetting part of all of this is that while this story is about Jane Austen, it isn't written by Jane Austen and there is no "Darcy and Lizzie finally talk about their feelings and realize that they've both been fools and the beautiful couple is beautiful together." Plumtre and Fanny never make amends and Plumtre marries someone else, which Fanny reveals to Jane in a heated fight about Jane's views on men, marriage, and heartbreak. Jane previously believed that Fanny would easily get over Plumtre and only realizes her mistake when she has a moment of sympathy for Plumtre's situation and understands what it's like to care about someone who seems more flippant and flirtatious in their affections than sincere. However, she still doesn't see Fanny's real affection for Plumtre until the argument, when it is far too late for her to persuade Fanny to reconnect with Plumtre. This is not Pride and Prejudice in which Darcy can explain himself to you via a letter after saving your sister from an uncertain fate and you have the opportunity to run into him at his house. You can't show up at your love's house with a boombox blasting Peter Gabriel because it's the 19th century, boomboxes and Peter Gabriel don't exist yet, and this isn't a John Hughes film. So basically, the perfect couple troupe is made impossible, Fanny marries a widower, and the viewer is left feeling a bit confused. While the film may be based on actual events and may be a more realistic portrayal of relationships, a viewer yearning for a more Austen-esque tale can't help but feel dissatisfied. Why couldn't Fanny have more willing to work through the differences she had with Plumtre? How in the world did the proposal get so bungled? And dammit, Plumtre, why couldn't you just get yourself together, get over your pride and embarrassment and really tell Fanny how you felt?
My real anger with Plumtre lies on a level I was certainly aware of when I first saw the film but only truly recognized on the rewatch. I am upset with Plumtre because I am Plumtre. I am often more serious than is truly necessary about issues. I am afraid of being misunderstood or mocked when I am trying to tell express something I am sincere about. I am bad at telling whether someone is just flirting with me or whether they are really interested in me. While I absolutely love dancing, I until rather recently was rather embarrassed to do so because I was convinced I suck at it (I may still suck but I fortunately no longer care if my moves or impressive or not). I am not always as good at expressing myself in speech as I am in writing and I worry that in a situation like Plumtre's that I would act exactly as he did and bury my heart deep down rather than revealing it, even if it makes me look like a fool.
However, I'm also a bit like Fanny - I'm afraid that I am too young or naive to know what love really is, that I don't understand my own feelings - or believe that I won't and will be easily swayed by other people's opinions. I am worried that what people's judgements about love and relationships and my significant other would influence me rather than letting myself follow my own mind and heart. It's interesting I'm writing this post after having just seen Othello on Wednesday evening, a play which hinges on the destruction of a relationship because of the distortion, prejudicing, and lies told by one person. With no communication as to what's really going on in the relationship, assumptions about each other are made and it ultimately ends in tragedy. The story told in Miss Austen Regrets is certainly not dark at all, but it certainly plays with the ideas of pride and prejudice and leaves the question of why is communication and love so easy in stories but so hard in our lives?

This film terrified me as a young, single girl convinced by the suppositions made by those around her that she was going to be an old maid because she chose writing over marriage and was a romantic, daydreamy, awkward soul. I should have been reassured by this film, that it explored these fears and realized them, rather than denying them, but instead I saw it as my worst nightmares come true. Love was not as simple as the stories sometimes made it to be and those you think you or others should marry don't always end up together - and if they do, it may not go the way you dreamed it. Watching this film again doesn't really placate those concerns - they're concerns, not fears now, as I've mostly managed them and understood where they've come from and how they're not as frightening as society would like us to believe - but somehow understanding what makes this film heartbreaking for me is some gain as I attempt to clean up the rubble my adolescence left in my brain.

Given that I just wrote last week about how unrealistic romances have ruined me, it may be confusing to you how I could also be ruined by possibly realistic relationships. It's okay; I'm confused too. The issue is that unrealistic romances made impressions on me to provoke dreams of the impossible. Realistic romances make me nervous that life is pain, your highness, and anyone who says differently is selling something (Princess Bride fans, you're welcome). Either way I end up worried about having impossible expectations, but also worried that if get involved in a relationship and it doesn't end well, a broken heart will be my undoing. Because I have a lot of time to ruminate on such things (it seems slightly better to ruminate on this than on how much my job is turning me into a terrible human being), I end up thinking about this phenomenon more than it might appear (though based on the increasing number of posts on this topic, perhaps it's becoming obnoxiously obvious).

All in all, it's incorrect to lay my blame upon Plumtre when it's really the issues dealt with in the film that troubles me, but it's easier to point out the individual rather than saying it's Regency era romantic social politics and how they've carried over into the 21st century that's ruined my life. Because that's rather wordy.

Yet at the end of the day, it's wrong to say my life has been ruined or hurt by any such storytelling. While I have been influenced and persuaded by certain themes and ideas in the film, it's only led me to a deeper, more complicated understanding of romance and people and an appreciation of how the movie juggles themes from Austen's novels in a portrayal of her life. Love is about more than first impressions, as Pride and Prejudice tells us, love doesn't always go as we think it should (and thus matchmaking and shipping can lead to Emma-esque fiascoes), and life is what happens when we're busy making other plans (John Lennon, not Jane Austen, but it works). While our "ridiculous obsession with love" may not always be healthy, it certainly is powerful and pervasive, perhaps because love is bizarre and strange and lovely and complicated. It's been written about so much because it's worth writing about, in all its complicated, beautiful and tragic expressions and variations. And so, while I may have once be cross with Plumtre for being a beautifully flawed character, I can continue to regard his story as one of an important, personal realization for myself when I first heard it and now. I would like to apologize, Mr. Plumtre, for my previous crossness, and extend a hand of camaraderie, for we have more in common than I once thought.

As a sidenote, I would also like to remark that it's especially bizarre to watch a film you saw when you were younger that has an actor in it you now highly regard, and find that you have been a fan of his work far longer than you thought. It's very mind-bendy and timey-wimey.

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