How can Esther Summerson be Elizabeth Bennet?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that actors need to work. If you have ever lived with a jobbing thespian you’ll know there is no hesitation when a gig is offered. It is also a truth universally acknowledged that the BBC loves to do adaptations of classic novels and that the ABC relies heavily on filling its older demographic time-slots (Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights) with the re-imagined worlds of Austen, Dickens and Trollope.

The problem for those of us who are not that old, and who are also confined to our homes on these party nights – due, mainly, to the frustrating legal requirement to actually be in the house for our sleeping children – is how many of the same actors crop up in these adaptations, again and again.

Sometimes, I long for the faulty memory of the aged, so I wouldn’t be able to recall that the actor playing Elizabeth Bennet in Death Comes to Pemberley (Anna Maxwell Martin), currently playing on ABC on Friday nights at 8.30pm, was the same one who played Esther Summerson in Dickens’s Bleak House.

 Yes, it’s a First World problem, and we all know actors are supposed to be talented enough to erase the residue of their former roles. But Elizabeth and Esther? How can the same woman possibly embody such different temperaments?

Let’s go back to the original sources. In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is described as having ‘a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in any thing ridiculous’. When Darcy first begins to fall in love with her, it is for her ‘easy playfulness’ and her face ‘rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes’.

In Dickens’s Bleak House, Esther describes herself as ‘such a shy little thing that I seldom dared to open my lips, and never dared to open my heart, to anybody else.’ She is, by everyone’s definition, a mouse of a thing, admired for her stoic composure in the face of tragedy but without any kind of sparkle. She is about as far away from the light, dancing Elizabeth as it is possible to be.

But, of course, Death Comes to Pemberley is, in fact, not Austen’s world. It is PD James’s recreation of the world of Pride and Prejudice, six years after the marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy.

Does the casting imply, then, that Elizabeth has turned into Esther after only six years of wedded bliss to the best of men? Oh, Elizabeth, has your spirit really been so crushed?

While she does not, exactly, have her eyes downcast, Anna Maxwell Martin struggles to make Elizabeth seem truly happy and it is left to a rather dull Georgiana to state the situation of the house, rather than have it shown: ‘You’ve brought such laughter to Pemberley, Elizabeth’. Really? As played by Maxwell Martin, I can’t imagine a single snigger in the place. While Austen did produce a more-Esther-like heroine in her last novel, Persuasion, Anne Elliot is not an older Elizabeth Bennet. Getting older does not have to take away the sparkling wit of youth or give us the flat-footed dourness which Elizabeth has in this version.

And don’t even get me started on the difficulty of adjusting to Matthew Rhys as Darcy, not too long after seeing him as a cold-hearted Russian spy in The Americans.

The fairy-tale marriage between Elizabeth and Darcy envisioned by Austen we know to be just that. The whole point of ending the novel with getting hitched is to block out the realities of life after ‘happily ever after’. In many ways, it is unfair to continue the story, although this hasn’t stopped hundreds from doing so.

Yet in all my imaginings of Elizabeth’s life with Darcy (and most Austen-philes would probably admit to spending some time doing this), the couple never became as grim as they appear in Death Comes to Pemberley. Yes, the plotline centres round a murder, so there isn’t much room for light-hearted banter. Yet the two main characters just don’t gel as the famous couple. Or is this just because the ghosts of their former roles are hanging in the air?

Perhaps one of the reasons the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was so successful was because both the main actors, Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, were relative unknowns at the time.

When it comes to adaptations, I think the less we have seen of the actor, the better. Then you don’t have to spend your time trying to forget how “Darcy” once shot three Afghan dissidents in the head or “Elizabeth’s” face was covered in smallpox.

Can we get fresh, clean actors for every adaptation? Probably not. Perhaps I’ll have to develop dementia instead.

The Weary Mother/Artist

I have a dream I am standing with a knife in my hand, in front of my two daughters. I am protecting them from something: a threatening man, a presence, a wild beast. It is not clear exactly. All I know is I have become a wild beast myself, the lioness in front of her cubs, unwilling to let anyone, or anything, hurt them. I growl, the knife in my hand, ready to plunge it into flesh, ready to rent apart evil, ready to murder.

I wake up. The 18 month old is lying asleep beside me. In the bunk bed above, I hear the 4 year old turn, readjusting the doona which periodically makes her too hot. My lower back aches. There is a constant, dull pain from lifting – into the high chair, out of the highchair, onto the lap, off of the lap, into the bath, out of the bath – and I roll onto my back, hoping for relief.

I feel a  long way away from the primordial mother of my dream world. I know intimately how the next 2 hours of my life will play out. My daughter will ask “mum, can we wake up now?” and we will begin the ritual of putting on dressing gowns, eating breakfast, getting dressed, brushing teeth and all the other mundane elements which make up the morning. The 4 year old will ask questions, the 18 month old will laugh and then cry, my husband will stumble into the shower.

Where are the dramatic moments of enacting out the role of parent? Why can no piece of art capture the true tediousness of so much of looking after small children? Because we cannot admit to it? We need the cliche of joy and un-equalled love. Yes, those moments are there but, as my elder sister warned me so many years ago, more of it is just hard work.

As I often do when I’m searching for a feeling of connection, when I feel as if I might be the only one experiencing such negative thoughts, I think of books which might depict the – what shall I call her? – “tired mother”, “weary mother”, “guilty mother”? Ironically, it is a book written by a man which immediately jumps into my head: The Hours by Michael Cunningham. But Mrs Brown is the quintessential woman of the ’40s. She does not have the opportunities available to me, I am not stuck in the suburbs with nothing but parties to plan and her decision to leave her child is one most women could not contemplate.

Where are the characters with babies, with toddlers, with the 4 year olds who get so much into your head, you find yourself calling yourself by their name? I know I am not alone in this strange world of tedium, wonder, weariness and guilt (why can’t I enjoy this more? why can’t I forget about all the other things I’d rather be doing?) Suggestions welcome.



So, the second novel, The Heaven I Swallowed (info on the book at this link, has been launched. Author and Professor, Nicholas Jose, gave an amazingly flattering speech (video to come) and I was wonderfully supported by friends and family. The next day I did a radio interview on Radio Adelaide (podcast to come) and tried to talk coherently about the book. Sometimes it is a struggle, as my three-month-old has me up about three times a night.

Already I have received some wonderful feedback from readers of the book, so here’s hoping for the same from reviewers!