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[personal profile] nymeth posting in [community profile] ladybusiness
An Education

An Education is a 2009 film by Lone Scherfig based on the real story of journalist Lynn Barber: as a teenager in the 1960’s, she got romantically involved with an older man, and as a result considered giving up her plans to go to Oxford and getting married instead. Barber has published a memoir of the same title, but the film is not actually an adaptation of the book. Nick Hornby, who wrote the screenplay, based his research on an article by Lynn Barber, which was only expanded into a full-length book at the same time as the film was being produced. (Needless to say, I’m quite interested in reading it to see how the two compare.)

What I liked the most about An Education was the fact that it came close to being the sort of story I’m constantly on the lookout for: a story about a woman looking back on a relationship that ended badly without regretting that it happened to begin with, and fully and unapologetically acknowledging that her experiences mattered to her regardless of the break-up. This aspect of the film is more implied than explicit, and it’s possible that the fact that the script was penned by an author I love and trust influenced how I read it. But at the very least the story doesn’t disallow this interpretation, which is more than I can say of a lot of what is out there.

I don’t want to say too much about the end of Jenny and David’s relationship in case you haven’t watched An Education, so suffice to say that she goes through the kind of disappointment that could easily taint a person’s whole memories of someone who once mattered to them. And yet when all is said and done, she reclaims her experiences as her own. Despite everything that happens, she’s able to hold on to the bits of it that obviously changed her as a person.

Of course, there’s a lot more to An Education than the failure of Jenny and David’s relationship. The story is predominantly about, well, education, and life choices, and gender and opportunities, and most of all about someone struggling against the tiny confines of their world. Which brings me to favourite thing number two: Jenny is clearly an intelligent young woman, and the film never portrays her as anything but. This isn’t a “silly teen girl makes dumb decision and almost wrecks her life” kind of story, though it very easily could have been. Fortunately, the film never downplays the complexity of Jenny’s life circumstances, nor does it portray any of the characters with anything less than the full nuance of a real human being. The result is the vivid evocation of a social world where people and their relationships are intricate, and things happen for multiple and often messy reasons.

You can see what motivates Jenny, and why something that in retrospect wasn’t the best of decisions did in fact have a lot of appeal. Towards the end of the film, Jenny says that she has finally realised that there were no shortcuts to the kind of life she wanted – but the thing is, you can clearly see what made her believe there were. The question the story deals with most consistently is what an education meant for a girl in the 1960’s. Today we see an education as something to be got for its own sake – it may or may not open doors for you in the job market (I am not bitter about my soon-to-be three degrees and complete lack of prospects, nope, not at all), but it will change and challenge and enrich you as a person. I believe in this (though obviously traditional education is not the only valid path to said personal enrichment), but I understand why Jenny didn’t. This was very much not the idea being sold to her. Prestigious education or not, nobody but one of her teachers seemed to see her as anything other than a prop.

Jenny has a father who desperately wants her to go to Oxford: he monitors her extracurricular activities, controls her study time, and buys her Latin dictionaries for her birthday. As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that he doesn’t want her to go to Oxford for its own sake, but because it would increase her chances of being “settled” in life, i.e., of finding a rich and well-connected husband. Therefore, an early marriage to a well-off man will do just as well. To paraphrase Jenny, he saw Oxford as the 1960’s equivalent of the Victorian ballroom. This is the implicit attitude of most of the adults who surround her. Although the film is intelligent and generous enough to portray someone like Jenny’s father in a nuanced way, in these circumstances you can’t not respect her or fail to sympathise with her when she dismisses what education means or can achieve. This isn’t the result of stupidity, but of a mind constantly engaged that cannot help but ask why.

More than being a person, David represents excitement, possibility; a life that Jenny fears is forever beyond her reach. We know the dangers of relying on a single person to provide that for you, let alone a man with whom you can’t really have a relationship that stands on equal terms – the power gap is too wide. But in a story told as respectfully as this, we can also see what drove her to attempt a shortcut; what drove so many girls in her position over time: almost everyone around her communicated and reinforced the idea that she couldn’t be or do things for her own sake, that no other doors were open to her. Sadly it took heartbreak for her to learn otherwise, but still she was luckier than countless other girls.

Date: 2011-03-29 09:05 am (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
Fabulous film. I saw this with my mum and she remembered the attitudes pushed by Emma Thompson towards the end, that girls could have an education, or a husband (and later a career, or a husband). That must have been terribly restrictive to teenage girls like Jenny. They were growing up smart, but were still terrified of ending up as so many single women appeared to them (smart, but also rather estranged from normal ideas about femininity and passionate humanity). And then there's not only David (who values her as pretty and smart) but also Helen who is so glamorous and living the kind of passionate life everyone values as important.

I love the ending to it as well. The way she proves that having been in love with David and been to Paris with him, doesn't mean love and Paris are forever tarnished by bad associations.

Date: 2011-03-29 10:53 am (UTC)
renay: artist rendition of the center of a nebula (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay
Oh my god, how long are the two books in front of it?

Date: 2011-03-29 11:02 am (UTC)
renay: artist rendition of the center of a nebula (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay
Basically I am never going to catch up on my reading, is what you're telling me here.

Date: 2011-03-30 05:29 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
That author is on my list (and has been for at least 6 years). We are on top of things as long as we have a list!

PS I may or may not be one page away from having filled an entire notebook with my 'want to read' list. I officially already want to read more books than I will ever physically be able to.


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