We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Sex in Austen films (but especially the 2nd BBC _P&P_ & Rozema's _MP_) · 4 June 05

My dear Fanny,

I feel a little self-conscious addressing you as last night Izzy and I watched Francis O’Connor playing someone with your name in the 1999 Miramax Mansfield Park, screenplay and director Patricia Rozema. It was such a popular name in your period and seems almost to have vanished as a nickname since the later 19th century.

Still, this past Monday Isabel and I finished our 6 part version of Pride and Prejudice, the 1995 A&E BBC (screenplay Andrew Davies, director Simon Langton), lavish and reverential production with Colin Firth as Darcy, Jennifer Ehle (in a dark wig) as Elizabeth Bennet, Benjamin Whitrow as Mr Bennet & Alison Steadman as Mrs B. As I’ve written essays in the form of postings to Austen-l and Janeites and C18-l (and all sorts of lists) on the individual novels (Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Northanger Abbey and put some of these postings online on my website about adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels, plus written review essays, whch were published, and where I again examine and discuss the films as a whole and individually, plus all my calendars and review essays of criticism of Austen’s novels and sketches of my trip to Bath, In Search of Austen, Burney and Radcliffe too, and analysis of the Austen criticism and biographical tradition, plus on Bath itself, to write again may be a work of supererogation, except I find I have changed my mind or have yet more things to add (says she smiling at the richness of Austen’s texts and all that has grown up around their aura).

First the BBC P&P is better than I thought. I watched it late at night over 2 nights and was not alert. I was also prejudiced in favor of the grave and emotion-picture tendency of the 1995 Miramax Sense and Sensibility (screenplay Emma Thompson with Emma as Elinor Dashwood) and the 1995 BBC Persuasion (screenplay Roger Dear, director Roger Michell with Ciarhan Hinds as Captain Wentworth). There is strong comedy in Austen and the 1995 P&P does it justice; it moves between melodrama and comic send-up and it works. The production often used Austen’s words felicitiously. The quarrel scenes between Elizabeth and Darcy and again Elizabeth and Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Barbara Leigh-Hunt is not tall, not regal enough but she was mean and tough) were effective. Yes it pandered to romance at the end.

I did think Colin Firth did much better with the role after Darcy has had a change of heart and encounters Elizabeth at Pemberly. I know this is heterodox but I’ve felt that the portrait of Darcy as it presently appears in the truncated (much cut down from a longer First Impressions) is not persuasively real. Firth looked embarrassed as he smoldered ever so proud. He began to come to life during the repartee of the dancing at Netherfield Park ball that Tuesday night. Firth managed the proposal scene by stark enunciation. He really came alive when his spirit bent and the vulnerable self could come forth at Pemberly. He was very moving in quest for the sister.

I did notice something which runs through many of these productions. I had not noticed this before: all the main characters we are supposed to like and to admire are not only continually put into activity (running, riding when the script allows, dancing), the actresses are made to look slightly plump, buxom, like ripe slender cows. All very wholesome sex is what is projected. You’d think the directors had read the critic who continually sees Austen as a business woman and her books as filled with "healthy sex." Females who deviate from this ripeness (say the actress playing Mary Bennet) are clearly not what we want to be. In this atmosphere it’s hard for Adrian Lukis to project the kinky sexed Wickham in quite the way he wanted to: he comes across merely as naughty and bored by Lydia (the ultimate healthy animal).

This is what Austen comes to in all the recent film adaptations. The actresses in Rozema’s MP—with the exception of the actress playing Mary Crawford (Embeth Davidtz) were dressed with corsets to make the eyes of the viewer dwell on their breasts so supermothers you see (you’d have thought any minute the milk would leak out of the Maria Bertram (Victoria Hamilton) so eager was she for Henry Crawford to come near. And that Mary Crawford was slender and oblique in her alluring looks is clearly a "sign" she’s no good. Her breasts were kept neatly away except when she was more overt and nasty or after Fanny. And then she was in elegant black lace. Susannah Harker as Jane in the BBC P&P is an enormous smooth fleshy type (all wide shoulders and height) who was made to radiate placidity and compliance. No wonder Crispin Bonham-Carter (Bingley) was all eager smiles, all brightness on the edge.

Nonetheless, the Rozema MP is as good as film as the others and resembles them in all the many ways these films resemble one another. I wrote about these resemblances for the Eighteenth Century Newsletter.

However, I have to change my mind here too. I had thought that the Rozema film MP departed no more from the original book than most of these adaptations, which is to say a good deal. Folk archetypes are put in place of the characters Austen conceived, and the plot-designs reshaped to modern benevolent romance. Yes the slavery part of the book is brought out sharply, and there is a much darker interpretation of the characters at times. But so is there adult pessimism in the other films.

What really distinguishes the MP is the open sex, and lesbian sex and the lack of wholesomeness in the attitudes towards the body. The scenes between Fanny (O’Connor) and Mary Crawford (Davidtz) visualize women desiring one another. Sir Thomas (Harold Pinter) grows livid with nightmarish anger and shame at Tom’s drawings of sex and violence wreaked on humiliated beaten slaves. Henry Crawford (the deliciously sexy Alessandro Nivola) is alluring in what feels like dangerous Sadean possibilities.

That is the difference and since that is the difference and this one film failed and all the others succeded—except for a similarly non-wholesome Northanger Abbey1, so we can see what offended the American general audience. Is not it ironic, dear Fanny? Austen who never married, who looked askance and with pity on women who have not a "chance of escape" (see below on her niece quickly exhausted and individually destroyed—Anna in a fit of despair burnt a manuscript one night), Austen whose books are filled with a sense of the evasiveness, danger and ugly competitions and triumphs of sex against which characters like Edmund and Elinor have learnt to protect themselves, and turn away, should have her heroines turned physically into sheer fleshiness. That’s why Kate Winslett was chosen for Marianne: her body epitomizes what’s wanted by respectable men with lineages and presentability to protect.

Austen wrote in a letter to Cassandra:

"Anna has not a chance of escape; her husband called here the other day, & said she was pretty well but not equal to "so long a walk; she must come in her "Donkey Carriage." Poor Animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty. I am very sorry for her. Mrs Clement too is in that way again. I am quite tired of so many Children. Mrs Benn has a 13th…" (Jane Austen’s Letters, ed. Le Faye 336, Letter dated Sunday 23- Tuesday 25 March 1817).

The question is how we are seen to be fucked. The issue (connected to the films as they visualize life), what’s at stake in these films, is what we are fucked for.

What is female pleasure? Where is it found? Dancing? All the films include dance sequences. Someone ought to analyse and compare these.

One more comment and I’ll have done: Isabel commented that the actor playing Edmund Bertram (Jonny Lee Miller) was actually
more like what we are to imagine Steven Maturin (from Patrick O’Brien’s books) than Paul Bettany. I agree. Miller has an intense nervous look, an elegance of muscularity and implicit disdain in his bearing (one which comes out of eschewing all baseness, not from caste arrogance), and it’s that Austen endows her Darcy, Edmund, and Wentworth with. S&S does not have enough in it of Colonel Brandon: he’s not realized sufficiently for us to see this in him, nor for that matter Edward Ferrars. Henry Tilney is a much gayer type altogether, though with the same vein of twitching sensitivity.

Isabel and I are listening to Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters read aloud by Maureen O’Brien as we drive in my car. I see so many parallels between the types in Gaskell’s novel and Austen’s MP and Emma. Fanny and Edmund lie behind Gaskell’s Molly and Roger Hamley; Roger Hamley is a young Mr Knightley, the village gossips kept harmless in Emma are shown to be malicious in the later book. One has to admit that Austen (whether we like this or not) has drawn much of the worst sting out of reality in Emma.

Well enough for today,


1 Marilyn Roberts’s “Adapting Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey: Catherine Morland as Gothic heroine," is an essay which discussed the one other failed film. Roberts praises the BBC/A&E 1995 film adaptation of Northanger Abbey for its “Lacanian and Freudian” understanding of Gothic romance, suggests it is an adaptation of Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho as well as Austen’s novel and failed commercially because it sexualizes Austen’s novel grotesquely. In fact, the film’s character functions and visualizations draw upon transgressive and depressive imagery from other gothic films, and the film failed because its departures from the conventions of women’s emotion pictures frustrated its target audience’s expectations. These expectations include conventional ever-so-healthy wholesome sex (heroines as burgeoning mothers, heroes as kind protectors).

Posted by: Ellen

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  1. Not 1991, but 1999 Mansfield Park (Miramax Hal Films, directed by Patricia Rozema)
    Beatrice Nearey    Jun 5, 3:02am    #
  2. I’ve corrected the typo.

    Chava    Jun 5, 8:24am    #
  3. not Samantha Walker, but Susannah Harker?
    robin    Jun 7, 10:44am    #
  4. Thank you. I’ve corrected it.

    Chava    Jun 7, 10:51am    #

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