This essay originally appeared in 1998.
Jane Austen, as they might say in Los Angeles, is suddenly hotter than Quentin Tarantino. But before we try to establish what the Austen phenomenon is, let us first establish what it is not.
About 18 months ago (in the summer of 1996) I went to see Four Weddings and a Funeral at a North London cineplex. Very soon I was filled with a yearning to be doing something else (for example, standing at a bus stop in the rain); and under normal circumstances I would have walked out after ten or fifteen minutes. But these weren’t normal circumstances. Beside me sat Salman Rushdie. For various reasons—various security reasons—we had to stay. Thus Ayatollah Khomeini had condemned me to sit through Four Weddings and a Funeral; and no Iranian torturer could have elicited a greater variety of winces and inches, of pleadings and whimperings. So one was obliged to submit, and to absorb a few social lessons.
It felt like a reversal of the Charles Addams cartoon: I sat there, thoroughly aghast, while everyone around me (save the author of The Satanic Verses) giggled and gurgled, positively hugging themselves with the deliciousness of it all. The only good bit came when you realized that the titular funeral would be dedicated to Simon Callow. I clenched my fist and said yes. No particular disrespect to Simon Callow—but at least one of them was going to die.
“Well,” I said, when it was over, “that was bottomlessly horrible. Why is it so popular?”
“Because,” said Salman, “the world has bad taste. Didn’t you know that?”
Still, “bad taste,” all by itself, won’t quite answer. I can see that the upper classes might enjoy watching the upper classes portrayed with such whimsical fondness. But why should it appeal to 400 plebs from Hendon? In any postwar decade other than the present one, Four Weddings would have provoked nothing but incredulous disgust. A 1960s audience would have wrecked the cinema. Yet now it seems that the old grievances have evaporated, and “the million,” as Hamlet called them, feel free to root for the (congenital) millionaires. They can lapse into a forgetful toadyism, and abase themselves before their historical oppressors.
Class is harmless, class is mildly cool; class is even felt to be . . . classy. Four Weddings is of course deeply “sentimental” in the colloquial sense: it displays a false and unworthy tenderness. But it is sentimental in the literary sense, too: an old form has been speciously revived. Houses, parties, house parties, amorous vicissitudes in opulent drawing rooms and landscaped gardens, do’s and don’ts, p’s and q’s, old money, and unlimited leisure. It is Jane Austen’s world, in a sense; but the invigorating intelligence is gone, to be supplanted by a simper of ingratiation. Here, the upper crust is playing cute. Dilemmas and entanglements are not admitted to Four Weddings. Nothing weighs anything at all.
Persuasion has recently been filmed, and so has Sense and Sensibility, and there are three versions of Emma in the works (not to mention Clueless), and no doubt someone will soon knock off the tartly mock-Gothic Northanger Abbey, and someone else will find the nerve to tackle the problematic austerities of Mansfield Park—and that will be that (except for the little-known fragment Lady Susan). Pride and Prejudice has been comprehensively taken care of in the BBC’s six-part, $9.5 million serial, which has been emptying the streets of England every Sunday night (and which will arrive on American screens in January 1998).
Austen fever, or more particularly Darcymania, is upon us. Features editors have been reduced to commissioning interviews with lorry drivers and insulation engineers who happen to be called Darcy. Tourist pilgrimages to Jane Austen’s house (in Chawton, Hampshire) were up about 250 percent in October, and sales of Austen tote bags, Austen crockery, Austen sweatshirts, Austen tea towels, and Austen aprons and pinafores were comparably brisk; while you’re listening to The Jane Austen Music Compact Disc (stuff she might have heard or played), you can rustle something up from The Jane Austen Cookbook (all ingredients have been modernized); and so on.
Much of this enthusiasm is, of course, collateral enthusiasm, or Heritage enthusiasm: a blend of disembodied snobbery and vague postimperial tristesse. No doubt, too, many of the serial’s 10 million viewers watched it in the same spirit as they watched Four Weddings—contentedly stupefied by all the eccentricity and luxe. But such wastage is inevitable, and even appropriate. Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion play at the art houses. Pride and Prejudice plays in your living room; and—true to the book—it comes at you with a broad embrace.
Some may be funnier than others, but all Jane Austen’s novels are classical comedies: they are about young couples finding their way to the festive conclusion, namely marriage. Furthermore, all Jane Austen’s comedies are structurally the same comedy. There is a Heroine, there is a Hero, and there is an Obstacle. The Obstacle is always money (not so much class—Mrs. Bennet’s origins are in “trade,” but so are Mr. Bingley’s). With the exception of Emma Woodhouse, all the Heroines are penniless and have no dependable prospect other than frugal spinsterhood.
As the Hero heaves into view, he will appear to be shadowed by a female Rival—schemer, heiress, or vamp. The Heroine, for her part, will be distracted, tempted, or merely pestered by a counterfeit hero, a Foil—seducer, opportunist, or fop. The Foil can be richer than the Hero (Persuasion, Mansfield Park) and, on the face of it, much better fun (Mansfield Park). The Hero can also be uglier than the Foil. In her adaptation of Sense and Sensibility (which has a double Heroine), Emma Thompson does what she can to spruce up Colonel Brandon—the part is given to Alan Rickman—but the novel makes it plain that he is an old wreck at thirty-five. Brandon represents authorial punishment for Marianne’s unrestrained infatuation with her Foil, John Willoughby (played in the film by the charmlessly handsome Greg Wise). The flaws of the Foil will highlight the Hero’s much solider merits. While the Heroines have their foibles, the Heroes are all near paragons. Two of them—Henry Tilney and Edmund Bertram, both well-born younger sons—are vicars of the Church of England.
In Pride and Prejudice Austen turned up the dial that controls the temperature of comedy, giving it some of the fever of what we would now call romance. Both Rival and Foil are almost melodramatically garish figures: the self-woundingly feline Caroline Bingley, the debauched and self-pitying George Wickham. They create logistical difficulties, but neither is capable of mounting a serious threat to the central attraction. For Elizabeth Bennet is the most frictionlessly adorable Heroine in the corpus—by some distance. And, as for the Hero, well, Miss Austen, for once in her short life, held nothing back: tall, dark, handsome, brooding, clever, noble, and profoundly rich. He has a vast estate, a house in town, a “clear” ten thousand per annum. His sister, Georgiana, has thirty thousand pounds (the same as Emma)—whereas Elizabeth’s dowry amounts to about a quid a week. No reader can resist the brazen wishfulness of Pride and Prejudice, but it is clear from internal evidence alone that Austen never fully forgave herself for it. Mansfield Park was her—and our—penance. As her own prospects weakened, dreams of romance paled into a modest hope for respectability (or a financial “competence”). Persuasion was her poem to the second chance. And then came death.
This autumn, as the new serial got into its stride, distressed viewers rang up the BBC in tears, pleading for the assurance that fate would smile on the star-crossed pair and that all would yet be well. I was not among these callers, but I sympathized. And I quite understood why the Pride and Prejudice video, released midway through the run, sold out in two hours. When I was introduced to the novel, at the age of 15, I read 20 pages and then besieged my stepmother’s study until she told me what I needed to know. I needed to know that Darcy married Elizabeth. (I needed to know that Bingley married Jane.) I needed this information as badly as I had ever needed anything.
Pride and Prejudice suckers you. Amazingly—and, I believe, uniquely—it goes on suckering you. Even now, as I open the book, I feel the same tizzy of unsatisfied expectation, despite five or six rereadings. How can this be, when the genre itself guarantees consummation? The simple answer is that these lovers really are “made for each other”—by their creator. They are constructed for each other: interlocked for wedlock. Their marriage has to be.
Andrew Davies, who adapted the novel for television, was shrewd enough to regard his function as largely obstetrical—to get the thing out of the page and onto the screen in as undamaged a state as possible. After all, he had before him the example of the Olivier-Garson version of 1940 (based on a script by Aldous Huxley, among others): cold proof that any tampering will reduce the original to the emollient and the inconsequential. Huxley’s reading is fatally winsome; even Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a good egg. Still, the adapter has to do what the adapter has to do. The pious and vigilant Janeite looks on, ever ready to be scandalized by the tiniest breach of decorum.
Very early on, we see Elizabeth in the bedroom she shares with Jane, saying, “If I could love a man who would love me enough to take me for a mere fifty pounds a year, I should be very well pleased.” This puts us in the financial picture (and we will soon be seeing Mr. Bennet sighing over his account book); but it commits Elizabeth to a predisposed mooniness quite at odds with her defiant self-sufficiency. Later, when the scandal of Lydia’s elopement breaks, and Darcy gauntly takes his leave of Elizabeth in the inn near Pemberley, Austen writes, “Elizabeth felt how improbable it was that they should ever see each other again on such terms of cordiality as had marked their several meetings in Derbyshire.” This translates as a one-line soliloquy: “I shall never see him again!” Austen’s lines show a brave face in social adversity, Davies’s an admission of a love Elizabeth does not yet feel. Each shifted brick threatens the whole building.
TV is TV, and TV demands visual equivalents for every “it,” for every “that.” And the visual is always literal, funnily enough. Any protracted passage of background explication is accorded a lavish collage. Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth, with its revelations about Wickham’s character, inspires a scene set in Cambridge: Darcy in his gown and mortarboard, striding through a colonnade, mounting the stairs—and surprising Wickham, who has a half-clad scullery maid on his lap. We see Lydia and Wickham’s midnight flit (how they cuddle in the carriage!), we see Darcy pacing the festering streets of London in search of them, and we see the runaways in their bedroom at the rude tavern. From the start, Elizabeth and Darcy don’t just think about each other, they have hallucinations about each other, thus unavoidably indicating romantic obsession. But he isn’t in love for quite awhile, and she isn’t in love till much later on. These two slow-built awakenings are the heart of the book.
Davies’s more minor interpolations are usually pretty deft and sometimes downright felicitous; he is an expert who has midwifed much of the British canon onto the screen. But every Janeite is like the Princess tormented by the Pea—we are so tender, so delicate. . . Elizabeth would never say (skeptically), “Astonish me!” Even the lascivious Lydia would not yearningly repeat the (invented) line “A whole campful of soldiers . . .” Nor did she or would she say, “We shall have some laughs!” When Elizabeth refuses Darcy’s first offer of marriage, he notes that she spurns him “with so little effort at civility,” whereas the book has the clearly superior “so little endeavour at civility.” A few pages earlier, a beguiling subjunctive is lost when “I expected at least that the pigs were got into the garden” becomes “the pigs had got into the garden.” I could go on.
And I would go on, indefinitely—but I’m loath to abuse the reader’s patience. A deep immersion in Jane Austen tends to transform me into something of a Regency purist. Indeed, I start to find that her rhythms are entirely displacing my own; normal social intercourse becomes increasingly strained and long-winded. If, for example, the editress had called, hoping for news of the near completion of this piece, I would have been like to reply, “Nay, madam, I find I get on exceedingly ill. I need more sequestration with Miss Jane. May I extort, therefore, the indulgence of a further se’nnight?” This is of course anachronistic of me. And Jane Austen is not—and will never be—an anachronism.
In David Lodge’s novel Changing Places (1975), a tweedy little British academic goes to teach at Euphoric State University in California, while a big brash American academic goes to teach at a rain-sodden redbrick called Rummidge. The American, Morris Zapp, wearily begins his seminar:
“What are you bursting to discuss this morning?” “Jane Austen,” mumbled the boy with the beard. . . . “Oh yeah. What was the topic?”
“I’ve done it on Jane Austen’s moral awareness.”
“That doesn’t sound like my style.”
“I couldn’t understand the title you gave me, Professor Zapp.” “Eros and Agape in the later novels, wasn’t it? What was the problem?” The student hung his head.
The immediate joke here is the contrast in literary-critical situations, the British still struggling in the ethical battlefields patrolled by F.R. Leavis, the Americans vaulting off into the architectonics of myth and structure. But Lodge’s deeper point is that Jane Austen is weirdly capable of keeping everybody busy. The moralists, the Eros-and-Agape contingent, the Marxists, the Freudians, the Jungians, the Semioticians, the Deconstructors—all find a happy home in six samey novels about middle-class provincials in early 19th-century England. The critics are kept at it because the readers are kept at it; with every generation Austen’s fiction effortlessly renews itself.
Each age will bring its peculiar emphasis, and in the current Austen festival our own anxieties stand fully revealed. Collectively, we love to wallow in the accents and accoutrements of Jane’s world; but for the closeted reader the response is predominantly somber. We notice, above all, the constriction of female opportunity: how brief was their nubility, and yet how slowly and deadeningly time passed within it. We notice how plentiful were the occasions for inflicting social pain, and how interested the powerful were in this in fiction. We see how little the powerless had to use against those who might hate them. And we wonder: who on earth will marry the poor girls—the poor girls? Poor men can’t, and rich men can’t (except in novels), so who can? We fret and writhe at the physical confinement (how understandably desperate these filmmakers are to get their cast out of doors). Of all virtues Jane Austen valued “candor”; but candor, as we understand it, has no social space in which to exercise itself. One honest exchange between Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth and Persuasion disappears. We long to give them our liberties. We wonder at their self-repression. And we are chilled by their circumambient boredom.
The BBC’s new serial has been touted in the press as revealing the latent “sensuality” of Jane Austen’s world; naturally it reveals much more about the blatant sensuality of our own. Austen, after all, is notoriously cerebral—a resolute niggard in her descriptive dealings with food, clothes, animals, children, weather, and landscape. But we in the 1990s will not have it so.
Thus at the outset, on our television screens, Darcy and Bingley thunder toward Netherfield Park on their snorting steeds, while Elizabeth enjoys a hearty tramp on a nearby hillside. Later, climbing from the bath, Darcy looks out of the window and sees Elizabeth romping with a dog. Lydia is surprised half-clad by Mr. Collins—and gigglingly confronts him with her cleavage. In the throes of his imprudent passion for Elizabeth, Darcy takes up fencing. “I shall conquer this,” he mutters. “I shall.” Returning to Pemberley, unshaven, with the hot horse between his thighs, he dismounts and impetuously plunges into a pond. Here, clearly, we are moving away from Jane Austen, toward D.H. Lawrence—and Ken Russell. “There is a lot of pent-up sexuality in Austen’s work,” Davies has said, “and I have let it out.” But why stop there? Why not give her a course of vitamin C and a back rub? Austen’s characters resist the ministrations of the therapy age, the “venting” age. As literary creations, they thrive on their inhibition. It is the source of all their thwarted energy.
Now for the performances, which are a testimony to great strength in depth and to the accuracy and inconspicuousness of Simon Langton’s direction. Jennifer Ehle is not quite the perfect Elizabeth, for such a creature could not exist; Elizabeth, simply, is Jane Austen with looks, and such a creature could never have created Elizabeth. Ehle, like Debra Winger, is one of those actresses whose presence floods the screen. She has the spirit and the warmth; she has a smile of almost orgasmic sweetness; she contrives to look voluptuous and vulnerable in the egg-cozy maternity outfits that “authenticity” has reduced her to; and she has the eyes; but she cannot quite inhabit the surrogate wit. Colin Firth is an insidiously persuasive Darcy, as he makes his journey from probity to democratic right feeling. To know her heart, all Elizabeth needs is the facts before her. Darcy has to complete two centuries of internal evolution.
The ensemble players are led by Alison Steadman. Some dull dogs have found her Mrs. Bennet too broad, too Dickensian, but in fact she establishes a miraculous equipoise between bitterness and boiling vulgarity (and this balance is stabilized by clear traces of her past allure). Susannah Harker makes a languid, comfortably ponderous Jane; Julia Sawalha gives us Lydia’s “high animal spirits”; David Bamber is a marvelously contorted and masochistic Mr. Collins; and Anna Chancellor locates an unexpected pathos behind Caroline Bingley’s expert taunts. The one important failure is Mr. Bennet. Benjamin Whitrow’s line readings are thoughtful and confident, but he is too quick to take refuge in wryness and twinkle. The most disillusioned character in all Jane Austen, Mr. Bennet is the dark backing behind the bright mirror. He, too, is very close to his creator, and Jane Austen feared his weakness in herself. Mr. Bennet sees the world as it is, and then makes sport of his own despair.
The sensualism imported by Davies and Langton brings one unarguable gain: all those creamy, dreamy scenes in the bedroom shared by Elizabeth and Jane, with the candles lit and the hair down, make us feel the crucial heaviness of their sisterly love. We are reminded that the emotional argument of the book is intimately bound up with this relationship; and we feel its weight without realizing why it weighs so much. Watching Marianne’s near-death scene (lovesickness, fever) in Sense and Sensibility, I wondered why I was so pierced, and so desolated, when Elinor addresses her sister as, simply, “My dearest.” We are moved because the soft words are literally true—and may well remain true, for life. With the unmarried, no reconfiguration awaits the pattern of their love; their nearest are their dearest, and that is the end of it. In Persuasion we sense Anne Elliot’s further privation as she probes for warmth in the humorless solipsism of her sister Mary. And we naïvely console ourselves that Jane Austen, whatever else she lacked, at least had Cassandra.
Apart from that very welcome interment, Four Weddings and a Funeral had something to be said for it: as a result of one typically embarrassing scene, an opportunist edition of “ten Auden poems” climbed into the bestseller lists. This book was called Tell Me the Truth About Love and had a photograph of Hugh Grant on its cover (and Grant, incidentally, makes a very creditable Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility). On Jane Austen, Auden was great but wrong:
You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle-class
Describe the amorous effects of “brass,”
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.
We of the 1990s would most certainly shock Jane Austen, with our vast array of slovenly and unexamined freedoms. Nonetheless, there is a suspicion of cant in Auden’s elegant lines. “Brass”—money, security—made Charlotte Lucas accept Mr. Collins (“disgracing herself” with a prudential marriage), but it didn’t make her love him. Elizabeth turned down Mr. Collins; and, with so little endeavor at civility, she turned down Mr. Darcy, too, with his ten thousand a year.
Writing about Gray’s “Elegy,” William Empson said that the poem presents the condition of provincial oblivion as pathetic without putting you in a mood in which you would want to change it. But “change” is the business of satire. Satire is militant irony. Irony is more long-suffering. It doesn’t incite you to transform society; it strengthens you to tolerate it. Jane Austen was indeed an English spinster of the middle class. She died in unrelieved pain at the age of 41 (and with the greatest “last words” of all time: asked what she needed, she said, “Nothing but death”). On the other hand, she has now survived for nearly 200 years. Her lovers are platonic lovers, but they form a multitude.
From The Rub of Time, by Martin Amis, courtesy Knopf. Copyright 2018, Martin Amis.