Persuasions #9, 1987                                                                                                                                            Pages 41-45


The Withering Eye, the Transmuting Hand, the Alchemies of Pride and Prejudice


531 Library West, University of Florida, Gainsville, Florida 32611

My rather frightening title is occasioned by a British Broadcasting Corporation adaptation for television of Jane Austen’s novel. That production seemed to me unpleasant, and that has been true of all the dramatic adaptations of Jane Austen that I have seen or read. On stage, her characters seem to me neither likable nor believable. When the BBC presents as entertainment the domestic doings of a below-average mother, a mess of fretfully nubile girls, and an unfatherly father, with an animated tombstone for a hero, I wonder why the people I love in the book are a pain in the neck on stage. I have no real answer, but I will offer a few thoughts about this mystery, and some random comments on Jane Austen and her characters.

What did the BBC add to the novel? Attractive scenery and costumes, but then they are inhabited by squabbling Bennets and the grim crew at Netherfield. Disaster arrives with Mr. Collins, who is introduced by a mocking tune on the tuba, as though he were on loan from a production of “Peter and the Wolf.” An interpolated action shot of a bee ravaging a blossom comments lewdly on his courtship. Worst of all, and of a vulgarity quite foreign to Jane Austen in print, are the roguish glances sent by Mr. Bennet to Elizabeth before Mr. Collins’s very face. These are climaxed by a full-screen wink, with which the actor playing Mr. Bennet steps completely out of character, and beyond the proscenium, to invite the audience to laugh with him at Mr. Bennet’s cousin, guest, and heir. Now the author has put in plenty of rudenesses (Lady Catherine de Bourgh makes Mr. Bennet look quite the gentleman), but these outlandish winks and nudges turn into farce Jane’s natural acidity and her carefully calculated contrast of her characters’ virtuous pretensions with their vicious longings. Thus the rest of the show shoved Mrs. Bennet firmly stage-centre, where the actress of the part milked laughs with great skill while fatally warping all the delicate balance of the story.

Dramatization throws some light on Jane Austen’s literary technique, however. That plot climaxes – Darcy’s proposal and subsequent self-justifying, Lydia’s elopement – are given in voice-over, rather than acted out, emphasizes Jane Austen’s old-fashioned construction, in which revelations and reversals are conveyed in letters, rather than personal confrontations. That this is more than a hold-over from the epistolary novels of her predecessors is shown by the weakness of climactic scenes that she does attempt to dramatize. I am always astonished on reading in Persuasion the account of Louisa’s fall on the Cobb. The telling of this emotional and stagey episode, one of the tightest knots in the plot, is so brief and so unaccented that a hasty reader might miss it altogether, and its importance to the story can hardly be appreciated. Then Jane’s uneasiness leads her to crack a joke at this inappropriate moment (the remark that two swooning ladies made an even richer scene than the gathering rustics had expected). This deadly flaw in tone calls into question the seriousness, not only of Louisa’s hurt, but of the emotions aroused in those around her. Her characters are flattened like pancakes as the author’s deprecating humour overwhelms her artistry. So in Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet is frightened by the prospect of being turned out of Longbourn with her daughters when Mr. Bennet’s death brings the entail to life. Her husband’s pretence of comforting her, in the form of a joke (that with luck she will go first), is not only cruel and irresponsible, but also, like the joke in Persuasion, diverts our sympathy from a woman who is facing with bravery and resolute action a threat to her children that leaves their father seemingly quite indifferent. I think seeing this situation, rather than being told about it in Jane Austen’s amused voice, causes us to respond in a way she did not foresee: in her theatre of the mind, Jane Austen set limits within which her characters can torment one another to their heart’s content, but dramatic imaging of that play, without the author’s voice to interpret, explain, and apologize, reduces her characters to hard and loveless puppets.

It is often said that Jane Austen’s comedy is dramatic, but that is true in only a limited sense.1 The novels are almost without descriptions of the scenery, costumes, expressions and actions that send so many signals from a stage. Gently slipping in and out of her characters’ minds, Jane relied on dialogue of the most exquisite finish to bring her puppets to life. They seem to describe themselves, unconsciously expressing in discourse their inmost meannesses and the self-delusions that enable them to live with their consciences. Mr. Bennet blames Lydia’s elopement on her mother, Lady Catherine perceives Elizabeth’s moral toughness as the armour of an adventuress, and Mr. Collins’s epistolary voice urges Mr. Bennet to forgive Lydia as a Christian father should, then throw her into outer darkness forever. With the greatest artfulness, the author makes these voices convincing, but heard from a stage, without her constant comment, they are rasping and unreal.

And who are the winners in this tale? Well, most of all, Mrs. Bennet, who, in addition to being the prime mover of the action (thrusting Jane on the Bingleys and Lydia on the militia, provoking Darcy’s introspection, and heightening, by threatening, his romance), is vindicated by the marriage of three daughters. At the end of the novel, as Douglas Bush remarked, she rises rejoicing, like Venus Anadyomene from the foam. Charlotte Lucas finds fulfillment as the wife of a clergyman with prospects and a rich patroness, and the author gives us Elizabeth’s thoughts – Jane Austen’s heroines never stop thinking themselves into opinions – from which she concludes that the clearness of Charlotte’s vision, the directness of her motives, and the solvency of Mr. Collins, give her a better chance of happiness than, for example, Lydia and her Wickham have – even were they morally entitled – as they are not – to happiness. And Charlotte’s justification to Elizabeth (“I am not romantic”) hints that the heroine and her Darcy may themselves have moments requiring forbearance, for Elizabeth is romantic (she would marry Darcy if he were as poor as Wickham). Jane and Mr. Bingley are protected by their invincible sweetness from nasty relatives on both sides, and Mr. Bennet himself acknowledges that he has won the most worthless scoundrel in England for a son-in-law – and deserved him. As to Elizabeth and Darcy, we may hope their contrasting personalities will wear down a provincial pertness on one side and an indifference to politeness on the other.

Speaking of which, I wonder about the really appalling manners of the characters in Jane Austen’s novels, including, more than any other, the rudenesses of Jane herself. I am inclined to believe that the bruising play among her characters (Mr, Bennet and his wife, the Bertram sisters and Fanny, Sir Walter Elliott and Anne, General Tilney and everybody) is integral to her comedy. Even characters whom we most admire unleash claws and tempers, as Fanny does vis-à-vis vile Mary Crawford. As we know from her letters, Jane Austen cast a cold and withering eye on her family and acquaintances, although her witty fictions transmute those dull and selfish sitters into the brightest stars in our comédie humaine.

Perhaps I may add that Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra appear to me to have fallen short of total agreeableness in real life. The Victorian conception of Jane Austen as all sugar (she said herself that pictures of perfection made her “sick and wicked”), prolonged to our time by the inaccurate and sentimental books of Lord David Cecil, Margaret Lane, R. W. Chapman, and others, is difficult to dispel. John Halperin, in his recent Life, quotes some of my published thoughts2 as he seeks to exorcise that cloying aunt, who was, according to Dr. Chapman, nothing but sunshine and sweetness. Well, she could not have written six novels devoted to the exposure of meanness and hypocrisy, and filled with a savage wit that ranges for its subject matter from sodomy in the British navy to the plundering of widows and seduction of innocents. Here is the real Jane Austen, describing a ball:

... Miss Iremonger did not look well, & Mrs. Blount was the only one much admired. She appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband, & fat neck. – The two Miss Coxes were there; I traced in one the remains of the vulgar broad featured girl who danced at Enham eight years ago … I looked at [Sir Thomas Champney’s] daughter and thought her a queer animal with a white neck. – Mrs. Warren, I was constrained to think a very fine young woman, which I must regret [italics mine]. She has got rid of some part of her child, & danced away with great activity, looking by no means large. – Her husband is ugly enough; uglier even than his cousin John … Miss Debary, Susan & Sally made their appearance, & I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow …3

Which is great fun, but it ain’t kind, and meaner remarks are everywhere in the letters.

Reading those letters – E. M. Forster heard in them the “whinnying of harpies” – between Jane and Cassandra leads me to think that Jane Austen’s rural upbringing, her spinsterhood, her person (she seems to have been overweight, with weak eyes), were of the kind that feed literature while starving emotional fulfillment. Let me take from the letters a scattering of social notes which suggest that these ladies were not always sought-after company:

Mr. Evelyn, who was indisposed yesterday, is worse today, and we are put off … She walked with me to call on Mrs. Brydges … [who] was dressing and could not see us … Mrs. Cooke regrets very much that she did not see you when you called, it was owing to some blunder among the servants, for she did not know of our visit till we were gone … Who should I meet but Mr. Moore, just come from Beckenham. I believe he would have passed me, if I had not made him stop … The D’Entraigues & Comte Julien cannot come to [our] Party … We met the Tilsons yesterday evening, but the singing Smiths sent an excuse … The Cookes have put off their visit to us …4

And so on, ad inifinitum.

The funniest account of a social call by these popular ladies is in a letter of Jane’s of April, 1805, when she and her mother sallied forth in pursuit of an earl. They flushed not only him, but his countess as well:

On receiving a message from Lord & Lady Leven thro’ the Mackays declaring their intention of waiting on us, we thought it right to go to them. I hope we have not done too much, but the friends & admirers of Charles must be attended to. – They seem very reasonable, good sort of people, very civil, & full of his praise. – We were shewn at first into an empty Drawing-room, & presently in came his Lordship, not knowing who we were, to apologise for the servant’s mistake, and tell a lie himself, that Lady Leven was not within. – He is a tall, gentlemanlike man, with spectacles, & rather deaf. – after sitting with him ten minutes we walked away; but Lady L. coming out of the Dining parlour as we passed the door, we were obliged to attend her back to it, & pay our visit over again. – She is a stout woman, with a very handsome face.5

The wonder is that Jane Austen is blind to the comedy in her own behaviour here: the ladies’ pretence that good form and loyalty to their brother constrained them to call, however reluctantly; their barging past the butler to bivouac in the drawing room; their surprise, both literal and figurative, of the earl (“rather deaf” to their country accents) and his fleeing countess; their relish in adding the seventh Earl of Leven and sixth Earl of Melville to what we may suspect was a one-sided visiting list. This episode leads me to wonder whether one of Jane Austen’s rewards in writing was the imaginative projection of herself, as heroine, into social equality with, and moral superiority to, members of the class above her. Her treatment of everybody except her heroines and their favoured suitors may remind us of the sentiment that Alice Roosevelt Longworth embroidered on a sofa cushion: “If you can’t say anything good about anybody, sit over here by me.”

Let us leave that dear old soul gossiping side-by-side with the demure lady who made the finest novels in the English language from bits of arsenic and pieces of old lace.


1 “Dramatic,” perhaps, as are plays for radio broadcast or the phonograph.

2 In The Trial of Mrs. Leigh Perrot [Jane Austen’s aunt], privately printed for the Club of Odd Volumes, and the Grolier Club, New York (Stinehour Press, 1980).

3 R. W. Chapman, ed., Jane Austen’s Letters to her Sister Cassandra and Others, second edition (London: Oxford University Press, 1952), pp. 91-92.

4 Letters, pp. 68, 193, 267, 271, 284.

5 Letters, p. 158.

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