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

4th decade of film adaptations of Austen · 21 March 07

Dear Harriet,

Another aspect of this fourth decade of films: film adaptations of high status novels are often justified by pointing to sales of the eponymous book. It’s said no matter how bad the film, how different from the original, it leads readers to read the book. In Austen’s case that’s no longer true. I have students in my class who tell me they own "all" the films (by which they mean the apparently faithful ones of the 1990s) and not one book by Austen; they haven’t read one.

Do they read anything having to do with or by Austen? Among the more demoralizing features of the Austen cult is the proliferation of sequels. It’s these the newest movie-goers turn to. Miss Schuster-Slatt been telling me about big print runs of Mr Darcy Presents His Bride (the old silver-fork novel is still with us), an Australian women’s pernicious drivel (I found a copy with no problem in a local discount chain bookstore) and how it’s selling big.

So in the case of Austen, the old argument that the movies at
least leads people to read the author is not germane. Here it leads the watcher to watch other films and read sequels. And here is another reason for the films’ increasing departure from Austen’s characters, stories, moods, tropes. The viewers only know previous films and say detective stories where the heroine’s name is Jane Austen.

The cult for other authors is no where as big, and there aren’t the
organizations or sets of neat books: Charlotte Bronte’s other books have no cult, just Jane Eyre is sold; I’ve read in more than one place that the original Wuthering Heights doesn’t sell, is not liked at all.

When I wrote this on EighteenthCenturyWords @ Yahoo, Luca, who is Italian and lives in Italy, replied:

I’ve seen in a bookstore the Italian edition of Pride and prescience, or, A truth universally acknowledged, a sort of thriller, with Darcy and Lizzie investigating probably in the way of Stephanie Powers and Robert Wagner in that old telefilm. Do you remember? The Italian title was Cuore e batticuore. I’ve bought it, but I’ve been able to read no more than two pages. An incredible density of common places and adjectives without a real meaning, just to create the "pathetic effect". Darcy is physically described and it is the perfect portrait of Colin Firth.


The reality is that often Austen’s texts are replaced by something quite different—not all the film adaptations and variants, but in many, and this distance increases as time goes on. The drivel alternatives are not only in the formulaic field of domestic and erotic romance, but in detective fiction too.

I sympathize with Firth in those interviews where he becomes
distinctively uncomfortable and somewhat aggressive because it’s
apparent the interviewer wants to de-humanize him, turn him into the icon of someone’s fantasy. That’s dangerous. Crazy people shoot to kill real individuals who become famous icons. We saw that tragically in the death of John Lennon. It must also interfere with their real lives.

In a novelization of Simon Raven’s 24 part film adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s 6 volume series (all fat), now called the Palliser novels, Trollope’s name was put on the text as its author. I’ve no doubt Austen’s name appears nowadays not just one the inane abridgements (which are often rewrites) but some of these sequels when translated into other languages.

Luca agreed:

It has been so here in Italy, in late XIX century, for many gothic novels written after Ann Radcliffe by minor authors: on the frontspiece they’ve been attributed to her.

By the way, about Firth: a couple of weeks ago he was at the Feltrinelli bookstore in Rome to read from a just published novel about Italian youth during the fascism (Feltrinelli has this habit: they require to the authors and publishers to bring with them a movie star to the presentation, otherwise nobody came to listen and buy). The room was filled with screaming ladies and girls, not one interested in the book and its contents (some of them admitted it). He was really, really embarassed and quite angry.


On WomenWritersthroughtheAges @ Yahoo, Nick pointed us to
Celia Brayfield’s
sarky essay on Austen, written in response to this new "Austen boom," and asked us what we thought about it.

I wrote as follows:

First Brayfield is responding to the popular cults surrounding Austen which are to the fore just now. Since 1880 (the time of the publication of Austen’s nephew’s memoir), intelligent readers of Austen whether they see her as finally optimistic or scathing and a critic of much in her society and satirist of human nature (Margaret Oliphant was among the first to write this way so it goes back well before D. W.Harding), and also with a deeply melancholy vein, they have all done all they could to stop this idea that Austen’s texts are brimming with estrogen for getting married, delightful miniatures oozing with advice on how to catch a man.

All to no purpose. It’s what the trivializers want to hear; it’s what
is not controversial (and is applied to Heyer’s books too—where
you rarely find someone willing to evaluate seriously), and supports what is. When I analyze and discuss the films, I do not say they are Austen, for they are not. They are interesting and can be entertaining in their own right, give insight into Austen’s texts, but they are very different.

Oodles of thrills and squeals over the two inches of ivory again.

One thing I’ve noticed is an increase of people on the Net talking
about Austen—in lots of places. It’s dismaying to see how it’s not
uncommon to find they’ve not read all six books (or even more than say 3) and pronounce away. They use language and attitudes inappropriate to Austen, have read nothing of her period, much less of her life—the film Becoming Jane attributes Austen’s inspiration to her brief romance with Tom Lefroy.

But of course they latch onto something real or lacking in Austen (as literal readers see this). Yes Austen offers only marginalized hints of the Napoleonic war and talks nothing of local politics for real. Well neither does Willa Cather and so she was dismissed by Kazin on Native Grounds. Many women’s novels are not grand and sweeping and remain about private life.

Brayfield is using Austen as an icon of the conservative agenda and arguing against how that works. This is to erase the texts of Austen and all the real issues she presents, many of which are proto-feminist and also their real disquiets—as in Fanny Price’s character.

It’s odd: why do you think Trollope or other male authors who dwell on private life are not used this way? After all Trollope, for exmaple, is an icon of the conservative agenda. When he’s brought up we don’t hear how he doesn’t bring in the lower classes as an essential objection to his texts. No. He’s even given slack.

So Austen doesn’t exist. She’s an icon of the conservatives and
fluff for the fools. And masses of money for film-makers to make
romance films which they can made a lot of noise about and in the
present atmosphere women will go.

I know Alison Light in her Forever England: Femininity, literature and conservatism between the wars did not envisage herself as
necessarily addressing the way Brayfield wants to frame Austen’s
texts, but today I was thinking she provides the answer which gets us beyond the tired and tiresome opposition.

Really it seems for over a century now there have been these two
parties. On the one hand, the Brayfield position (echoed by other
men and women at other women novelists) that this novelist, in this case Austen, is erasing the larger world and is thus minor, narrow, and deliberately obtuse, escapist, conservative (by implication, not wanting the world to change). The reply is if you want that sort of book, there are plenty of them around, you are ignoring the text that’s there with all its riches, and this typical women’s novel has as much insight into life as the big one, only from an angle which you don’t care about. It’s not escapist since to live in a private home can be traumatic, private experience with no outer eye on it can be worse than what goes on in public.

Light offers a way out of the impasse. In the book she studies the
women authors of the 1920s through 50s who are usually not mentioned in the same breath as the "great" male writers of this era (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Orwell, Greene). They are unworthy or lesser, just pop (because they sold widely), fodder for movies: Compton-Burnett is the most intellectual; there’s Christie, Allingham, DuMaurier, Lehmann, Sayers, &c&c

LIght’s argument is the private or local activities of the characters
of the above novelists (and Austen too—specifically mentioned) are seen as what activities informed and shaped by larger values and social practices. I can see this strongly in Carol Shields’s Unless and also Virginia Woolf’s novels.

I’m now listening to Mrs Dalloway read aloud by Virginia Leischman. I’ve been interested to realize there is more light comedy in this one than the others I’ve read since the summer, funny jokes at Hugh Whitbread’s expence for example. But I also see this novel which recounds one day in the life of a sheltered privileged woman, all the while weaving in the experiences of others she intersects with, is one which projects outward to encompass WW1 (and not just in the story of Septimus Smith).

Nick offered the following explication and defense of Brayfield:

"What she is also saying (and she bases this on a personal experience) is that women writers are forced into the one kind of text where men are not. In this case it is not really about the superiority of one kind of text over another (though I admit that she makes a crude attack on the ‘private’ text) but about gender expectations and stereotyping.

Now it is blatantly unfair to ascribe any of this to Austen as I have remarked before – Brayfield is just using Austen to advance a personal position. But that does not necessarily make the personal position wrong. In this case Trollope, or any other male writer’s position, is irrelevant since male writers are not so circumscribed and stereotyped.

It does seem to me that Brayfield’s position connects, albeit obliquely, to the recent thread about women being excluded from the reviews of non-fiction in, was it the NYRB?

Really I suppose it is an empirical matter and I have no idea as to the answer ; are women writers forced towards a certain kind of text and writing? I remarked before that there seem to me to be obvious exceptions (Lessing and Stead to mention a couple of current ones). And in another way the genre writers Light discusses. It may be that Brayfield is laying too much emphasis
on one personal experience? I don’t really feel competent to offer an opinion. I am just trying to outline her argument as I read it."

I responded: Well, are women forced to write these narrow novels? In a way yes. Why? Because they must write out of their own experience, and for most women their experience does not include violence and for many the centers of their existence have been the private. It’s the old argument of what came first the chicken or the egg.

I argued that norm is wrong too, and tried to suggest that in Light’s book we find a defense of understood ways of reading women’s books which make say Compton-Burnett & other women of the 1930s and 40s writing about the world as seriously morally as the much-vaunted men with their scenes of war and journalism (Orwell and Waugh). The experience of the private is as important and find Mrs Dalloway strongly about WW1 and more effectively than say Cather’s One of Ours with its direct war scenes that uphold patriotism and war (Cather herself never fought & so could make up this idealism she dramatizes). The war scenes in Mrs Dalloway are all indirect & through the madness of Septimus Smith—which (to my exhilaration) exposes the bullying coercive tactics of the medical establishment. So Woolf to my mind gets in more with her narrow book.

Are they forced to do this though. They long to do research and write about public events and today do experience them. Well, this is the argument at the heart of deconstructionism of femininity. Why do we see women so often so passive, so complicit, so sucking up to men, rivals with other men, dressing supersexily, starving themselves? We’re told this is forced on them by custom and the situation they’re in. I agree with that and also John Stuart Mill’s attempt to get beyond the argument they must be this way somewhere innately or they wouldn’t end up this way. He says the origin is the brutality of early modern man, the vulnerabilty of women, and that we can’t know what women would be because they are not permitted to be otherwise.

However, I do understand the conservative mock in response to Rousseau, that men is born free and everywhere in chains: ‘What does he mean? ... This mad pronouncement, man is born free[, but is everywhere in chains] ... Dire, les moutons sont nés carnivores, et partout ils mangent de l’herbe [To say sheep are born carnivorous but everywhere eat grass], serait aussi juste…"

If everywhere we see women like this how can we say they are actually utterly different?

My gut feeling is this: you can force someone to do something physically because the physical realm is not free. If you set up a society where the only way women can eat and have nice houses to live in is to sleep with a man as his wife and bear his children, they will. Once they are in bed with him, they are in his reach. They need not make love to their employment, but people are often stupid and try to please their masters and also sheep-like. So endless propaganda about breast-feeding works.

But our minds are free, especially when so few of us do write. No one forces a woman to write a novel like Mary Barton or Cranford. Both are taking the world from the inner domestic point of view, though one is about strikes and the other gentility. Yes Gaskell knew that would sell, but not because Jane Austen set the terms. The terms were set way back in the 17th century. If Gaskell couldn’t have writen intimately no one could have forced her as they could force her to go to bed with someone. Physical life is what can be forced, imposed, not our thoughts.

So I come to the conclusion that if Nick is right then Brayfield is saying something impossible or absurd. She is taking the deconstructionist arguments to an absurd conclusion. Not only has society forced women into marrying by keeping most of the good jobs for men, and forced them to try to do what they can physically to attract them, and also forced them to themselves try to support themselves, it can also force them to have ertain kinds of thoughts and write books out of these.

Those people who write manipulatively do write out of utter insincerity. They pollute the republic of letters. Brayfield is herself a woman who makes money writing books; she’s a popular
author. She knows of whereof she speaks when she talks about having thoughts that are not sincere.


Brayfield’s article hits out at women again. They are idiotic for going to see movies about pigs; they are pig-like in their complacency. She insists the novel about private life is inferior & since women write it, they are either idiots or forced to. (If anyone reads this, and has gotten this far, and has read Shields’s Unless: let us imagine Shields’s heroine, Rita Winters, writing Brayfield to explain why women are worthy writers and make good texts even if they prefer to write of private life.)

On Austen particularly: It’s not true that Austen never looked out her window to see the poor. In her letters she certainly is aware of the poor around Chawton, and one talks about how cold people around her are. That’s one statement, but (I have to fall back on this as it’s so), we have always to remember Cassandra is said to have destroyed the majority of Austen’s letters, what we have left is bowdlerized and there were 3 packets of letters to Frank Austen (possibly about war) that were destroyed totally.

This is not special pleading. Despite the meagre evidence we have
(and remember what we have is not representative) of her family’s ability to pressure her into not mentioning any thing that could possibly hurt their careers, we have enough to show they did. The cancelled chapters of Persuasion and Austen’s interpolations at their close, shows her mother read her book before published and objected it was bad morality. It seems that they did that. Perhaps she then changed it. She was utterly dependent on them. She wrote in great anxiety to Frank (one of the few letters from the 3 packets to have survived) worried lest he grow angry she used the name of his ship. She promised to change it.

Austen’s world is not dainty and circumscribed. The words are strong with negative connotations. She deals with the level of society she lived in but insofar as the women characters come into contact with hard rough mean stuff she tells it. Yes it’s in the margins, fleeting statements, occasional incidents (in Emma for example), but the books are not dainty. It’s clear in S&S the characters inherit based on the forced marriage, brutalizing, flight, death in childbirth in a sponging house of Eliza Williams. The section about Portsmouth brings the place for lower level retired heavily drinking officers before us.

I’m sorry Brayfield’s editor wanted her to remove her scenes, but will tell her that Susan Hill in Strange Meeting, Anne Tyler in Amateur Marriage have war scenes in their novels (Tyler shows how men in the same unit will get away with murdering one another when the "dogs of war are leashed"); Valerie Martin has violent slave revolts and also cruelty to a young woman who is promiscuous in her Great Divorce. Maybe Brayfield should switch to their editors.

I had an experience where an editor sneered at my desire to write a critical book about Ann Radcliffe; he did it because he was a narrow conservative who remarked he did not like feminism & thought no book would sell popularly about Ann Radcliffe. On the latter maybe he was correct, though it’s true he wasn’t going to try to risk his profit in beginning a marketplace. Still I don’t think Gothic is going out (I did try to say Radcliffe was a gothic novelist and not a feminist but this didn’t register as meaningful). I’m no one (no name), know no one any more, and don’t know how to sell at all.

I wrote a chapter on the
history of the biography
where I told of how impossible it is to write truthfully in the present atmosphere, and how Austen’s family and conservatives have done all they can to present her in ways that bolster their agenda. He would not publish it.

Brayfield takes what she knows of Austen from the conservatives who have controlled and continue to control the dissemination of the received biography as telling the truth.I know nothing of Brayfield’s life, not even if she has a degree from a prestigious university or who are her friends, what cliques she belongs to. She must have some connections since she gets to write for the Times Online. What she needs to do is to cultivate another set of people, say those who give out prestigious prizes (like the Booker). Then she’ll be able to keep her scenes in her novels.

But she’ll never read this blog or my website or any of my postings. They’re beneath her notice.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. From dearest Miss Schuster-Slatt:

    "Austen has definitely been left in the dust. She’s been traduced. We’ll wake up one day to find her all gone, ruined for us …"
    Miss Sylvia Drake    Mar 21, 3:52pm    #

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