BBC’s adaptation of Malory Towers reveals more about the period and its diversity than Blyton’s book

Bethany Layne, De Montfort University

While UK schools are closed for the majority of children, Malory Towers has opened its doors in a new adaptation on BBC iPlayer. Its source text, Enid Blyton’s First Term at Malory Towers (1946), was the first in a series of six, and very much a product of its time.

The clifftop setting was inspired by Benenden School, which Blyton’s daughters attended, and which temporarily relocated from Kent to a hotel in Cornwall during the Blitz. This idyllic landscape sets the mood for the novel, which is steeped in ginger beer and post-war optimism. Now, in a time of national emergency, the series promises both nostalgia and escapism, a welcome distraction from the pandemic.

The title sequence fulfils these promises: bathed in the rose-tinted glow of retrospect, it features a world of pillow-fights, lacrosse matches, and friendship. Yet this saccharine opening belies the series’ revisionist impulse, which is as concerned with diversity, neurodiversity and gender equality as it is with hoodwinking Matron for extra tuck.

It’s widely accepted that adaptations reveal as much about their contemporary contexts as their literary sources, but this is more than a simple updating. Rather, the BBC’s Malory Towers reveals aspects of the historical context that were glossed over in Blyton’s novel, finding its inspiration in the gaps and silences of the original.

Diversifying the cast

The first change is evident in the girls themselves. The first form is a mix of white and BAME (black and minority ethnic) girls. There is also body diversity, with girls of all sizes and one with facial disfigurement. This upholds the standard set by Emma Rice’s 2019 stage adaptation, which cast a non-binary trans actor and one with restricted growth, as well as two women of colour.

The first edition of the novel, illustrated by Stanley Lloyd.

The same year, a four-novel reboot, New Class at Malory Towers, introduced black, Asian, introverted and working-class characters to the school.

The illustrations to the first edition of Blyton’s novel, conversely, paint a blandly homogeneous picture. Given that children from the Commonwealth were often sent to English boarding schools, this seems like straightforward whitewashing.

The series puts that right, reflecting how, in the words of adaptor Sasha Hailes, 1940s “Britain [was] more diverse than it’s often accounted for”.

Learning differences

The book’s homogeneity also extends to learning differences, of which there are none: only girls who don’t try, and “stupid ones”. “If you are brainless and near the bottom, we shan’t blame you, of course,” says housemistress Miss Potts, in a pep talk bordering on disciplinary offence. “But if you’ve got good brains and are down at the bottom, I shall have a lot to say.”

Two girls fall into the latter category: governess-reared Gwendoline, who phones it in for half the term before discovering the existence of school reports, and heroine Darrell Rivers. Darrell is able but struggles with arithmetic. Being distracted by the class clown causes her to fall in the class order before she hoists her socks with military enthusiasm and finishes fifth from the top.

In the series, however, Darrell has a genuine struggle with spelling and presentation, rising hours before the others to make clean copies of her jumbled prep. Devastated when her class position fails to reflect her hard work, she volunteers to be put in the “dreaded remedial” class. There, tutor and head-girl Pamela diagnoses “word-blindness”, or modern-day dyslexia. As a representative of the countless children with learning differences throughout history, Darrell is a role model for neurodiverse viewers. Her coping strategies, and a renewed commitment to becoming a doctor, also model an admirable growth mindset.

Choice above all

Darrell’s interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects, and her belief that “girls [can] do everything boys can do”, shows how the series amplifies the feminism of the book. This is largely a product of its single-sex environment, which offers a safe space for the girls to develop, free from the need to conform. The book’s feminism is, however, offset by Blyton’s tendency to downplay academic achievement.

For Miss Potts, the most successful old girls are not “those who have won scholarships and passed exams” but those who have become, more nebulously, “good, sound women the world can lean on”. This bodes ill for “clever Irene”, who is “a marvel at maths. and music, usually top of the form – but oh, how stupid in the ordinary things of life”. Darrell, by contrast, is said to have “the makings of a first-rate person”, combining academics with games prowess and lashings of common sense.

The series inserts several narratives that champion academic achievement, the pursuit of a career and above all a girl’s right to choose her own path. Sally is sent to Malory Towers, not so her mother can focus on her delicate sister, as in the book, but to prevent her from becoming an unpaid carer and wasting her academic potential. Emily, whom Blyton describes as “a quiet studious girl”, has her education funded in the series by her mother’s work in the school’s sanatorium. Meanwhile Pamela chooses in a new storyline to debut in society, instead of pursuing a teaching career, in the hopes of safeguarding her family’s estate. “Maybe [teaching] isn’t my dream,” she tells an incredulous Darrell, “we can’t all be pioneers”. The message is confirmed by Miss Potts when Gwen suggests that she, too, would prefer society to college: “You’re lucky to have a choice”.

For fans of the adaptation, the series has now been novelised by Narinder Dhami as Malory Towers: Darrell and Friends. It is available to purchase alongside Blyton’s originals, Pamela Cox’s sequels, and New Class at Malory Towers, giving young girls, and boys, that most valuable of things: a choice.The Conversation

Bethany Layne, Senior Lecturer in English Literature, De Montfort University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Perfection comes at a price in latest adaptation of Austen’s ‘Emma’

Emma up front and center in new adaptation of classic novel.
Focus Features

Inger S. B. Brodey, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The latest film adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic “Emma” is a visual feast of color, pattern and texture.

It’s also a bit too perfect.

The colors are too vibrant, the skin too clear, the homes too opulent, the landscapes too gorgeous, the fabrics without any stain or wear. Every frame of director Autumn de Wilde’s version feels like a still-life painting or Instagram-ready photograph.

Perfection features explicitly in both de Wilde’s film, which has been given an early digital release as theaters close due to coronavirus concerns, and Austen’s novel. In making Emma too perfect, the film becomes Emma’s fantasy of her own life rather than Austen’s more balanced portrayal of her heroine’s many faults.

As an Austen scholar, I know that the author herself had a tense relationship with perfection. “Perfection,” she wrote in one of her letters, “makes me sick and wicked.” While writing Emma, Austen wrote that she was creating a heroine “whom no one but myself will much like.”

And, in truth, readers often find Emma’s general snobbery and cruel treatment of her friend Harriet difficult to forgive.

Trailer for Emma.

Fearful symmetry

Emma’s social superiority in de Wilde’s film is conveyed visually. Hardly a scene passes where Emma does not claim center stage. She is generally framed by perfectly symmetrical glittering candelabras or colorfully fringed symmetrical curtains, if not actually by the two halves of her name as in the opening titles.

Her perfect mastery of the family estate Hartfield expresses itself everywhere. Servants enter and leave in pairs, puppet-like, moving in choreographed synchrony. Emma’s invisible hand extends with tyrannical accuracy over the domestic scenes, and there is little relief from the perfection that she craves. Even her matchmaking stems from her own contrivances: “There is such symmetry between us,” she remarks about herself and potential suitor Frank, suggesting that her decisions are guided by aesthetics rather than feeling.

The perfection built up to surround Emma in the film is external. It evokes the worshipful, cowed sense that her friend Harriet feels on her first visit to Hartfield. The viewer of Emma remains an outsider, like Harriet, a spectator of the sumptuous visual displays.

An imperfect insult

In the novel, Emma’s failings are plentiful.

In one scene in both film and book, Emma insults her old and impoverished friend Miss Bates at a picnic. In the awkward moment after the insult, a fellow guest offers a riddle: What two letters spell perfection? The answer, as any Austen reader knows, is M.A. – pronounced “Emm-a” – an ill-timed compliment to the heroine, who has just demonstrated how imperfect she can be. The script stays remarkably true to the novel in this scene, but the response by Emma’s suitor, George Knightley is different. In the novel, he remarks that “perfection should not have come so soon.” In the film he says, “Who can improve upon perfection?” The distinction is subtle, but important: The film’s Mr. Knightley seems more disposed than Austen’s to attribute perfection to Emma.

Likewise de Wilde’s film minimizes Emma’s reckless toying with her friend’s heart. Emma still browbeats Harriet into rejecting the suitor she loves. Yet in the film, their friendship is stronger and persists in a way not possible in the novel. By the end, de Wilde’s Emma cares enough about Harriet to reject Mr. Knightley’s proposal. The novel’s Emma could not indulge in such “generosity run mad,” and the friendship subsequently subsides.

Morals or macaroons

The film constantly distracts us from moral lessons or deeper human connections, focusing instead on macaroons, hair ornaments, waistcoats and other tokens of superficial beauty. De Wilde’s Emma sacrifices complex personality and playfulness of spirit to the subtle tyranny of synchrony, symmetry and surface order, which Emma uses to her advantage.

Even when given the chance to explore Emma’s failings, the film version hesitates. The novel provides a potent rival for Emma in Jane Fairfax. In the book, when the two face off in dueling piano performances, Jane’s playing and singing are “infinitely superior” to Emma’s. Yet the film translates this superiority into harsh, virtuoso piano skills that startle the audience out of their pleasant somnolescence. Jane’s skill at Mozart’s Sonata in F shocks and amuses but isn’t pleasing enough in the film to mortify us on Emma’s account. De Wilde allows Emma to reign supreme.

Given the way Emma has been developed to embody soft tyranny and perfection, it is all the more striking when at the climax — the moment of Mr. Knightley’s proposal — de Wilde disrupts Emma’s visual and external perfection. When Mr. Knightley asks Emma to marry him, we all hold our breath. In the book, Austen doesn’t allow us to hear Emma’s acceptance. “What did she say?” taunts the narrator, “Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.” At the moment when we readers most crave sincerity and direct expression from Emma, when we want her to just be a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart, she remains “a lady” and seems to conform to social conventions in superficially perfect expressions.

De Wilde uses a striking visual choice to humanize this moment. We’re all curious – waiting to hear Emma say “just what she ought.” Instead, we’re greeted by an exceedingly ill-timed nosebleed.

Nosebleeds and nudity

The brilliance of the proposal scene nosebleed is that it highlights the relationship between Emma as “lady” and Emma as “woman.” In this key moment, Emma’s humanity bleeds through her perfectly coiffed, ironed and embroidered facade. The brilliant red trail of blood stands out in remarkable contrast to the virginal, delicate white fabrics and blossoms surrounding her and Mr. Knightley. Their intimacy does not advance through words but instead through physical contact. A closeup of a gloved hand gives way in a subsequent scene to a thinly laced glove and skin on skin at the marriage altar.

De Wilde’s other bold move is to include nudity in the film. Mr. Knightley is introduced in the buff, and we also see Emma’s bare bottom warming at the hearth. De Wilde uses nudity and nosebleeds to create chinks in Emma’s armor.

Austen informs us that Emma “was not loth to be first.” De Wilde indulges Emma in her wish for preeminence. The film begins as Emma, head lying on a silk-trimmed pillow, just opens her eyes; the film ends as her lace-covered eyes close upon the audience. Emma’s vision literally brackets the film itself.

As the period in the title suggests, Emma is a sentence unto herself. She is alpha and omega to this film adaptation. None may question her absolute dominion. And yet, perhaps, perfection should not have come quite so soon or quite as completely. With such perfections, only broad visual strokes, such as nosebleeds and nudity, can bring her down to human proportions.

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Inger S. B. Brodey, Associate Professor, English and Comparative Literature, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

David Copperfield on screen: Charles Dickens’ masterpiece is a celebration of everyday heroes

Image courtesy of Lionsgate

Beth Palmer, University of Surrey

Charles Dickens’ great masterpiece David Copperfield begins with uncertainty:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

With those few words the author gives us one of the most memorable lines to be found in 19th-century fiction and gets us thinking about who or what a hero might be.

A new film version of the novel is about to open in cinemas in the UK after being premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019 and opening the 63rd BFI London Film Festival the following month to glowing reviews. Written by Armando Ianucci and Simon Blackwell, the movie stars Dev Patel in the title role, who – as producer Kevin Loader told The Guardian, is one of those “actors who are capable of embodying the character as perfectly as possible, regardless of their ethnicity”.

The young Copperfield certainly shows some heroic promise: he’s an orphan – which is often a good start for a Victorian hero – and he manages to walk from London to Dover alone as a young boy to extricate himself from a life of dull labour. But he also lacks a certain amount of agency: Copperfield is buffeted around by chance and coincidence, relying on the hospitality and generosity of those he meets. So the strange and eccentric characters he encounters also operate as heroes to him.

We could argue, in fact, that the book meditates on the necessity of everyday heroism in a world that is often cruel and unfair. Copperfield witnesses these acts of generosity from early on in his life. When he visits Daniel Peggotty (his beloved nurse’s brother) Copperfield openly admires his heroism in offering a home to his orphaned nephew and niece and to the morbidly depressed widow, Mrs Gummidge.

Copperfield soon has cause to rely on this sort of heroism himself – when he too is orphaned, set to work, and then runs away to throw himself on the mercy of his aunt. His aunt, the eccentric Betsey Trotwood, adopts Copperfield, having already taken on the care of the troubled but amiable Mr Dick, who had been destined for life in an asylum when emotionally traumatised by an undisclosed event in his past.

Star-studded: Peter Capaldi as Mr Micawber.

And of course, we must admire the ultimate heroism shown by Ham who drowns attempting to rescue the shipwrecked Steerforth – seducer of Ham’s beloved Little Em’ly. Fostering children, prison visiting, care for the elderly, the homeless, and the mentally unwell, are the acts of heroism that make Copperfield’s life liveable. They are the stitches through which a 19th-century society, without the mechanisms of a modern welfare state, holds itself together.

Everyday evil

Of course, the novel also has plenty of antiheroes, most memorably the sadistic Edward Murdstone, who squelches Copperfield’s childhood freedoms, and the insidious Uriah Heep, who defrauds Copperfield’s family. At times the novel’s small individual acts of heroism seem to be overwhelmed by forces of wrongdoing, indifference and ignorance represented by characters such as those two.

But, of course, this is Dickens – and the way in which David Copperfield’s plotlines come together reveals Dickens’ vision of the world as interconnected. The handy coincidences of converging plots are not just a sop to satisfy mawkish readers, but an embodiment of Dickens’ philosophy.

In the preface to his magazine, Household Words, Dickens tells us that he wants literature to: “bring the greater and the lesser in degree, together … and mutually dispose them to a better acquaintance and a kinder understanding”. By inculcating sympathy with others in his fiction, Dickens thought he could encourage minor acts of heroism such as those that run through the plotlines of David Copperfield.

New vision

The new film version promises to give us an energetic and modern re-working and has received 11 British Independent Film Awards nominations, including best screenplay and best actor.

Dev Patel: one of those actors who can inhabit a character regardless of its ethnicity.

By all accounts it will entertain us with its fast-paced frolics through a diverse Victorian London and its cast of eccentrics played by Hollywood stars including Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood, Hugh Laurie as Mr Dick and Peter Capaldi as the incorrigible Mr Micawber. But it will also show us the poverty, child labour and homelessness that form the backdrop to Copperfield’s early life.

Ianucci’s film is part of a long succession of adaptations. As soon as the novel was published, adaptors began working on stage versions. It was actually the Little Em’ly fallen woman sub-plot that had most appeal for Victorian theatregoers who were already more than familiar with the poverty of industrial London.

More recent film versions of Dickens’ novels have had to make similar choices about which of Dickens’ multiple plotlines should be emphasised. David McGrath’s 2002 adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby favoured the joyful romp over the brutality of the novel’s early scenes. But McGrath’s Nickleby retains more of the Dickensian sentimentality than seems to be the case in the new David Copperfield.

The snappy trailer gives a curt but comic announcement of the death of Copperfield’s mother, whereas the novel narrates the deathbed scene in a chapter I defy anyone to read without crying. Even Dora, Copperfield’s young wife, apparently receives a reprieve from her untimely fate in the new film.

Screenwriters and directors have become wary of Dickensian sentimentality but I hope that this new version of Dickens’ own favourite novel retains those links of sympathy and acts of everyday heroism that bind the novel together. If it shows us a hero navigating his way through a difficult world aided by humour, eccentricity and kindness it will be an adaptation that sends us back to the novel to locate those elements once again in Dickens’ work.The Conversation

Beth Palmer, Senior Lecturer in English, University of Surrey

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Kindle: I Finally Have One

After a number of years of reading ebooks on my lap top and before that on my old computer, I have now got myself a Kindle – the Kindle 4. A little bit of trial and error – a bit of playing about with it and I think I now have it worked out (more or less). I’m thrilled with it I have to say. I’ll finally be able to read ebooks without having to set up the lap top – so much easier with the Kindle. So I have loaded a couple of books onto it with the USB connection to the lap top, so I’m set to go. Now I can take my reading with me wherever I go and not be worried about a bulky set up of any description.

I have also bought the Kindle cover for it, that way the screen will be protected and my investment won’t meet an unhappy and early death.

For more information on the Kindle visit: