By a Lady: Jane Austen's Female Archetypes in Fiction and Film
By Anke Werker.
Tilburg University Press, 1998. iii + 103 pages. Paperback, $18.
Reviewed by Michele M. Cooper.
When Jane Austen's first novel was published in 1811 (signed "By a Lady" to conceal the author's identity), no one could have predicted the longevity of her work. Her novels have never lost their popularity, and they continue to be adapted for stage, television, and film into the 21st Century.
By a Lady is based on a thesis by Anke Werker that won the Fokkelien van Dijk-Hemmes Award in 1998, and it explores the archetypes of Austen's heroines by juxtaposing Austen's portrayal of the position of women in the late 18th and early 19th Century with the situations and characters of contemporary film adaptations. Of 14 major film productions of Jane Austen's novels completed at the writing of her book, Werker focuses on three of the most recent: Sense and Sensibility directed by Ang Lee (1995), starring Emma Thompson as Elinor and Kate Winslet as Marianne; Persuasion directed by Roger Michell (1995), starring Amanda Root as Anne; and Emma directed by Douglas McGrath (1996), starring Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role.
Werker postulates that within Austen's body of work exist only a few archetypes--or models--of female characters which were only slightly modified for the different novels. She attempts to compare the manifestation of those archetypes in the novels with their film interpretations. With extensive references to psychology, art, and other literature, she identifies two Jungian archetypes to explore in Austen's works: female relational archetypes (mother, daughter, sister) and opposing character archetypes (romantic/realist, spinster/shrew).
The female relational archetypes show family connections: mothers, daughters and sisters. These connections are determined by specific, permanent familial relationships, resulting in a hierarchy of responsibility, duty, and dependency. Daughters and sisters have the most prominent roles, and are most often the heroines. The mother archetype includes not only the biological mother, but also someone who fills the role of a mother figure. Categories can overlap, creating very complex characters: Mary Musgrove of Persuasion falls into all three categories. The opposing character archetypes contrast two specific characteristics: the romantic and the realist (i.e. Marianne and Elinor) or the spinster and the shrew (Elinor and Fanny Dashwood). The presence of these types is not dependent on relationships, because they deal with specific human qualities.
Because Austen's novels were written nearly 200 years before their film interpretations, and because the novels and the films are two very different media in which to tell a story and develop characters, it is necessary for Werker to identify the archetypes as manifested in each medium. Although the numerous classifications eventually become tedious, each individual one is brief: Werker individually categorizes 28 of Austen's female characters from the three novels both in the original text and the film interpretations. Werker methodically compares the characters in the novels with their counterparts on the silver screen, and explains her comparisons in the context of technical discoveries and social and cultural developments. Underlying Werker's study is the idea that novels require the reader to employ imagination, which can lead to unlimited interpretations of a character, a setting, or an event where film creates certain indisputable images. For example, the film version of Sense and Sensibility is set in the same historical time period in which the novel was written, but the technology of film creates for the audience universal, concrete images of the characters--Emma Thompson, the actress portraying Elinor, fulfills the role with a more mature interpretation of the character than might be imagined by a reader of the novel, even though Austen explicitly says that Elinor is 19 at the beginning of the novel. The film concretely depicts the spinster archetype: the audience can plausibly think of Elinor as an old maid in the film because of Thompson's perceived age compared to that of Kate Winslet, who plays her sister Marianne. Werker fails, however, to explore Austen's manipulation of archetypes to achieve irony. For instance, Elinor's spinsterhood in the novel is ironic and illuminates Marianne's biased perspective. The casting of the film robs the story of its intended irony.
Werker's book is divided into six concise, well ordered chapters
with clearly titled sections and subsections. The technical format is peppered
with wit and subtle allusions to all Austen's works. Unfortunately, Werker's
argument can tend to get muddled in the overuse of information. The reader
could easily get lost in the text without Werker's use of simple tables
and charts to illustrate her argument. Excellently documented references,
footnotes, and two appendixes also help the reader navigate the web of
Jane Austen's characters. This book is a good springboard for further discussion
and study--an interesting resource for any enthusiast or Austen neophyte.
Michele Cooper is a lover of Shakespeare, Austen, and Blake. She lives, reads, cooks, and writes in Seattle, Washington.
JASNA News v.16, no. 2, Summer 2000, p. 22
See more book reviews
Return to Home Page