From ‘Pride and Prejudice’ to ‘Persuasion’: Can Jane Austen Survive the Millennium?

The first time I saw Jane Austen described as a ‘prose Shakespeare’ it struck me as absolute perfection. It was George Henry Lewes, in the 19th century, that gave her the epithet, although he attributed it to Thomas Babington Macaulay, among others. Macaulay, in fact, wrote that ‘Shakespeare has had neither equal nor second’ but that Jane Austen was among the writers ‘who approached nearest to the manner of the great master’. Jane as ‘prose Shakespeare’, however, stuck throughout 19th century criticism and beyond,1 and with good reason. William Shakespeare and Jane Austen have been my own literary obsessions since I was a teen, when I was introduced to them. I was enraptured with Shakespeare’s verse, and besotted by Jane’s language, they were sheer beauty, otherworldly, pure poetry.

I grew up with their works. I read, and re-read, and watched performances of their work as an adult, and I began to really understand the texts, and connect with them, rather than just admire them. And each time I read them, I get more out of them. I consider the genius of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen’s to be equal. Both give us a deep insight into their own times, but both have transcended those times, and the prejudices that went with them. Jane, as I prefer to call her, didn’t have the same freedom that Shakespeare had with his pen, she wrote prose, not verse, and she was a woman who couldn’t even publish under her name. Jane’s works were also quite narrowly focused on her own social sphere. Yet, like Shakespeare’s, her stories are still beloved, enduring for centuries after her death. The connection I see between them is not just my love for their works, and their esteem in both literature and popular culture, but their similarities as artists. Their wit, humour and irony may be razor sharp, but both are capable of great empathy and humanity, always with social commentary underpinning the narratives, be it Jane’s ‘comedy of manners’ stories, or the disparate theatrical genres Shakespeare worked with. It because of this human quality that their works have not only endured, but remain adaptable.

Will and Jane action figures [Tony Cenicola/The New York Times]
It is true that Shakespeare was the more radical of the two. Themes such as religious doubt, even atheism, depression and suicide, racism, misogyny and attitudes towards disability keep his works as relevant as ever after 400 years. From the late 20th century onwards, popular misconceptions about Shakespeare’s works were increasingly challenged in both academia, and through performance. For example, James Shapiro notes that the anxiety Jewish audiences felt towards Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, and its unforgettable Jewish character Shylock, all but disappeared between his writing of Shakespeare and the Jews in 1996 and the 20th anniversary in 2016. Certainly, Michael Radford’s 2004 film changed the conversation about Shylock and anti-Semitism, it showed us a great deal of Shylock’s perspective, in a contemporary setting, and emphasised the discrimination he faced daily. The latest production of Merchant of Venice performed at the Globe featured a cast that was one-third Jewish, aiming to examine how ‘white Christian men use their power to pit minorities against each other’, turning the claims of the play being anti-Semitic on their head. Shakespeare’s plays have now been appropriated as our own, not just a commentary on Elizabethan society, but simply, life.

Perhaps it is time Jane Austen adaptations began to take the same direction. A vast amount of novels, continuations, rewrites and remakes penned by enthusiastic Janeites exist. Traditional continuations are often told from characters other than the leads’ point of view. Some remain traditional, some are modern, and tie those characters in to current genres, romance, cosies, mysteries and comedies. There have been modern screen adaptations of Jane’s works, but screen adaptations largely remain traditional. After the 70s and 80s era of slightly stagey BBC productions, the 90s brought forth some classics that are still beloved today, notably Andrew Davies’ Pride and Prejudice serial, Emma Thompson and Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, both 1990s adaptations of Emma, Patricia Rozema’s divisive Mansfield Park, and Roger Michell’s unsurpassed Persuasion. The 2000s saw ITV and the BBC produced a small handful of new adaptations. ITV gave us Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey, the former a stunning three-part serial penned by Andrew Davies, the latter three, enjoyable, but woefully short television films that barely skimmed the novels. The BBC gave us Sandy Welch and Jim O’Hanlon’s Emma, in 2009, in my opinion, the best adaptation to date, only slightly relegated to second by Davies’ Pride and Prejudice, the latter an exemplar in humanising Jane’s characters and bringing them as close to us as possible, while still maintaining the satirical qualities that make us love our heroines even more, as they navigate a society rife with fools.

Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride & Prejudice

But another 2000s adaptation has left an indelible effect. Joe Wright made his Pride and Prejudice, penned by Deborah Moggach, for the big screen in 2005, an adaptation that is so overwrought, it is clear, as my partner says, that what Joe Wright really wanted to make was Wuthering Heights. This adaptation, which sorely lacks the depth of the novel, is adored by many, critically acclaimed, and would have certainly introduced many a young person to Jane’s books. It is this film, however, that seems to have lent more weight to the idea that more traditional adaptations are ‘too reserved’. Besides the shabby, bohemian Bennets, in their dilapidated country house, rather undermining Elizabeth’s assertion she and Darcy are of equal social standing, the truly criminal aspect of Wright’s adaptation was his sidelining of important characters and narrative an focusing almost exclusively on the Great Romance. Both Charlotte Lucas and Wickham, and particularly Wickham’s appalling treatment of Georgiana, are hurriedly squeezed in, and thus, utterly lack significance. It’s obvious run time constraints contributed to this. But Wright’s need to ramp the romance up between Darcy and Elizabeth, two hours of misty-eyed perpetual longing interrupted by misunderstandings, rather than a more adult relationship that develops as both characters examine their own faults, really and truly diminishes the source material. Pride and Prejudice is largely about happiness, and the different ways people can find it, and the supporting characters’ narratives are integral to this. While Elizabeth and Darcy’s romance is famed, I doubt that any reader only reads Pride and Prejudice for one central romance, it offers so much more than that. The presence of so many continuations telling the story from other characters’ perspectives demonstrates this.

Johnny Flynn and Anya Taylor-Joy as Knightley and Emma. Photographed by director Autumn de Wilde, Vogue, February 2020

Still, most adaptations after Wright’s, like ITV’s 2007 series, were a return to form. The next film I want to discuss wasn’t made for another 15 years, in 2020. Autumn de Wilde’s Emma retained the period setting and language, but like Wright’s film, focused on the romance at the expense of other, far more interesting narrative threads. Admittedly, 2020 may not have been the best year for this release, which is no fault of the director. The beginning of the pandemic in 2020 placed modern day poverty in sharp relief, and George Floyd’s brutal murder by police sent shockwaves around the world, spurring international outrage I have not seen the likes of since Rodney King being beaten by police was captured on a video recorder thirty years ago. Society was fatigued by fear, and anger, and they were fed up. Was anyone really in the mood to giggle at millionaires? We may be reaching a point in time where we are going to stop finding the foibles of the wealthy amusing. It’s simply no longer diverting to laugh at servants, or those in the lower social classes, while we cheer on a rich and entitled heroine. Jane Austen herself said that Emma may be a heroine that no one but herself liked.

Jane’s ‘comedy of manners’ novels certainly satirised the landed gentry. But, like Shakespeare’s plays, this is merely a framework. There’s always a play within the play. Emma is a wonderfully complex novel, it navigates social class and constraints within a coming-of-age narrative, without a clear-cut heroine like Jane’s other novels. De Wilde’s offering was beautiful to look at, and depressingly pedestrian, a rom-com with a heroine that is very difficult to relate to, more of a Caroline Bingley than an Emma. The women are reduced to misogynistic tropes, then men are ineffectual. The use of servants recalls many Andrew Davies’ adaptations, particularly his adaptation of Emma (and the strawberry picking party) which elicited empathy from the viewer, but here, servants are merely in the way, just comic relief. Emma herself is decorative and useless, waited upon hand and foot, and certainly the Emma of the novel is bored, but she is not perpetually discontented. Emma’s sister Isabella is the polar opposite of her gentle novel counterpart, transforming her into an unpleasant, tantrum-throwing, shrilling snob, because, despite the presence of Augusta Hawkins, it was clearly perceived as needed for the farcical element. The Eltons are far too silly to be properly nasty. Then the romance between Emma and Knightlety begins halfway through the film, far too early, eclipsing everything else. Because Emma is cognisant of her feelings for Knightley, she doesn’t actually change for herself, but for him, undermining the small amount of maturity Emma gained in the novel, and the fact that Knightley wanted an equal for a partner.

Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot in Persuasion 2002 (and the bunny)

My opinions are, however, in the minority. Both Wright’s and De Wilde’s films earned rave reviews from critics and are hugely popular with fans. Which is why I found it slightly surprising that there was so much ire towards the trailer of Carrie Cracknell’s Persuasion prior to it being released. Neither of the two films I have just discussed had anything other than a tenuous and superficial connection to their novel counterparts. There have been plenty of fully modern adaptations of Jane’s novels thoroughly enjoyed by even traditional Janites. It’s obvious much of the backlash was directed at the unsuitability of the source material to be used in a comic adaptation. Persuasion is the least suited of Jane’s books to feature a self-deprecating and stereotypical rom-com heroine. I prefer to call Anne Elliot introspective, rather than introverted, and despite Persuasion being thought of as a melancholy novel, Jane’s sharp humour is still peppered throughout. I thought, for a moment, watching the trailer, that perhaps they might be able to pull it off. Sadly, they did not.

When the reviews began to roll in, and they were almost universally savage. ‘A dreadful film, never to be borne’, a ‘travesty’ and ‘tone-deaf’, ‘more wrong notes than an inebriated squadron of harpists, smug and misconceived and unpersuasive’ ‘one of the worst movies in years’  and “at no point during Carrie Cracknell’s directorial debut do you ever get the sense that anyone’s actually read Persuasion”. Now, to be fair, Persuasion is far from the worst film of the year, it’s certainly watchable, and I don’t doubt a lot of new fans will enjoy it. Fans have already taken to Rotten Tomatoes to defend the film against the critics (gaining a reasonable 66% against the 30% critic score). I also don’t doubt Cracknell’s reverence for the novel, in fact, it’s probably Cracknell’s reverence for Anne Elliot that held the movie back. The promises of anarchy and iconoclasm2 never materialised. Cracknell’s Persuasion started off with potential, I laughed out loud at Anne brandishing a fistful of sheet music, telling us it’s the playlist Wentworth made her. But about halfway through, the jokes started to dwindle, and the film began to struggle under the weight of its own self-consciousness. Rather than fully investing in a satirical or comic approach, the film tried to revert back to Austen-ish, and a more serious Anne, albeit with one last desperate attempt at humour with the face-sucking-octopus dream (and William Elliot’s hilarious deadpan response). Ultimately, Persuasion’s attempt at anarchy was a self-sabotage, an identity crisis that fulfilled its prophecised failure, a tragedy rather than a travesty.

Still, this Persuasion will be enjoyed by many, and like its predecessors, will bring new fans to Jane’s work. Following the blistering reviews, the obligatory half-dozen ‘why do we still read Jane Austen?’ articles followed, all superficially pondering on what we already know. Like Shakespeare, we read Jane Austen because she is a genius, and her brilliance has transcended time. And Jane’s novels, at least, will survive the millennium. If adaptations such as these keep floundering, however, it’s hard to say if fans will want to keep watching them. It’s obvious that film adaptations are always going to be stifled by run-time, and that a television serial has a clear advantage. But let’s return to Wright’s Pride and Prejudice and de Wilde’s Emma for a moment. Both of these films wanted to shake off the social constraint of the era in which they are set. Wright said that ‘I didn’t want to be too reverential to Jane Austen’s dialogue. I don’t believe people spoke like that then; it’s not natural.’ yet turned Darcy into an unrealistic romantic hero uttering words his character might never dream of. De Wilde, who called Knightley a ‘mansplainer’, had Knightley tearing off his clothes in a rage and flinging them to the floor in frustration over his feeling for Emma, because both directors’ best ways of conveying their leading mens’ feelings is overtly and demonstrably. Neither of these scenarios smack of realism or naturalness. In essence, the directors dumbed down the text to pander to an audience that doesn’t actually need pandering to. It’s condescending, it’s boring and and the lack of overall realism in the films is emphasised by all of those glossy photo shoots.

Sidney Parker ‘passionately’ threatening our heroine in Season 1 Episode 5. Fans should be pleased Charlotte escaped a life of domestic violence.

This perceived need for Big Emotion took a very unfortunate turn in the first season of the Andrew Davies’-penned Sanditon, a series based on Jane’s last fragment of unfinished work. This as made all the more tragic by the fact that the series was pleasing and progressive in every other way. I don’t know if it was a scripted or directorial decision, but Sidney Parker, Charlotte’s love interest, in the guise of being Very Passionate, after several episodes of insulting and degrading the heroine, finally turned to violence in the fifth episode. After screaming aggressively at her, Sidney closed the space between them and thrust his face and hand, clenching his hat, into Charlotte’s face, concluding by verbally threatening, in a menacing tone, that she would receive the blame for him losing his ward. Now, it’s very clear Sanditon was following an Elizabeth and Darcy thread, in which Many Misunderstandings take place, and they keep trying to hide and deny their feelings for each other. But this was a horribly misguided attempt at a similar narrative. Sadly, so many fans took to Sidney, there was an outcry over his not returning for season two. This is a deeply disturbing result of filmmakers thinking that fans need to see Big, but Masculine, Emotions from men. Consider the sort of emotion Colin Firth’s Darcy displayed when he saw his sister rescued by Elizabeth from an uncomfortable situation. Every drop of emotion brimmed from his eyes, and from a tiny smile, he radiated love, respect, and gratitude. Now compare that to Screamy Sidney and his frequent tantrums. Thankfully, we haven’t seen another violent male character since his departure.

There seems to be an idea that altering social behaviour closes the gap between Jane’s time and ours, but creating misunderstandings about the character’s experiences really widens that gap. How can we empathise when we don’t understand their true experience? If we can groan along with our heroines being trussed into corsets, then we can seethe at the constraints they had to navigate. It’s true that there are things in Jane’s works that may be completely unpalatable to a modern audience. I consider Emma one of the more difficult novels to adapt, even though it has been adapted so many times, because of its focus on class. Emma changes a little at the end of the novel, she learns to be a bit more responsible, and less silly, but her friendship with Harriet also lapses. It is a cold truth that Emma caused Harriet and Robert Martin a great deal of heartache, for very little gain on their part. As Emma tells Harriet after Mr. Martin’s first proposal, ‘I could not have visited Mrs. Robert Martin, of Abbey-Mill Farm’. And so she won’t. So, how to make a heroine such as Emma relatable?

Romola Garai and Michael Gambon and Emma and Mr Woodhouse, in Sandy Welch and Jim O’Hanlon’s ‘Emma’

Sandy Welch and Jim O’Hanlon’s Emma is a true exemplar of traditional adaptations. Rather than making great changes to the text, they simply looked within it to find a human aspect. The story of three motherless children opens the first episode, giving us an insight into not only Emma, Jane Fairfax, and Frank Churchill’s childhood, but into Mr. Woodhouse’s, Miss Bates’, and Mr. Weston’s losses. Emma is born into and exalts in her privilege, Frank is constrained by having privilege thrust upon him, and Jane has not the privilege to have any independence or real security. We are given a crucial glimpse at what the loss of Jane Fairfax meant to Mrs. Bates and Miss Bates, seeing them about to be forced to leave their grand house. Rather than initially allowing the viewer to establish that Miss Bates is a silly sort of comic relief character, until the picnic, when Knightley sets us straight, we establish empathy from the outset. The look at Emma’s struggles with her anxious father, as well, are important. Emma is stifled and sheltered by a father who suffers from real anxiety, and it is for this reason she becomes bored easily, and turns to less than ideal pursuits like match-making, once the guidance of her governess is removed. One of the most important points in this adaptation is Emma’s lack of reserve, and Romola Garai’s unabashed investment in making Emma very ugly when needed. The Box Hill picnic scene is not centred around Emma’s nasty dig at Miss Bates, but on Emma’s altogether inappropriate behaviour guided by Frank Churchill. This scene has almost always been softened in other adaptations, but here it was shown in all it’s ghastliness, where even the modern viewer feels uneasy at the foolish, giggling and insipid Emma and her utter impropriety. Welch and O’Hanlon give us a reason for empathy for so many of the characters, but also don’t hold back on Emma’s propensity for awfulness, which is what makes this the finest Emma to date, and one of the finest adaptations overall. It is not Big Emotions that bridge the gap between their time, and their culture, and ours, but shared humanity and experiences. Who hasn’t looked back on their younger self and cringed?

Where can we go, with Jane Austen adaptations from here? Can we give her works the Shakespeare treatment? Many Shakespeare productions are put on these days in modern settings, but retaining the original language. Picture Persuasion set at the beginning of the 20th century, when the British aristocracy were in serious decline. Here you could have done something creative with sightly modernising the language, the costumes and era but still telling the same story, because it would be just as relevant. You want humour? Imagine Anne Elliot turning to the screen at the conclusion of a film and telling us ‘Captain Went­worth, with five-and-twenty thousand pounds, and as high in his profes­sion as merit and activity could place him, was no longer nobody. He was now esteemed quite worthy to address the daughter of a foolish, spendthrift baronet’.

Ardent love and admiration done right.

Yes, we can give Jane the Shakespeare treatment. But we need to treat her texts as seriously as we treat Shakespeare’s. As Joanna Wilkes writes that Jane was ‘was regularly associated with Shakespeare without being considered entirely in his league.’3 Cracknell’s Persuasion at least made some strides with diverse casting, which is the very least we can be doing. Sanditon, as we have seen, features a culturally conscious narrative based on a character, Georgiana Lambe, that Jane created herself. Let’s begin to look a little deeper into Jane’s characters. There are things we can see now that Jane herself understood differently. Jane clearly knew a Fitzwilliam Darcy, but would not have known the cause of his guardedness and reserve, as we now know it. Darcy’s social awkwardness, his inability to catch people’s ‘tone of conversation’, his awful proposal, all demonstrate something more like neurodiversity than pride. Why not emphasise more of Darcy’s struggles, particularly being a quiet boy raised alongside an extrovert like Wickham?

What about Fanny Price, a heroine who is quite unfairly disliked for her morality, because we can’t live up to it, and her physical fragility? Why don’t we read Fanny through the lens of disability? What happens when we think about the repeated traumas she endures after being separated from her family, taken to live with strangers, and perpetually berated by an emotionally abusive aunt in an environment which often feels unsafe for her? What about those panic attacks? To be frank, many negative views of Fanny are steeped in misogyny and ableism. Jane certainly knew better, when she used Fanny’s experiences to heighten Fanny’s empathy towards others, even when they were unkind to her. It is certainly time for a fresh look at Mansfield Park. And, just like Welch and O’Hanlon’s Emma, which deeply emphasised loss, these issues can be explored in a period piece. Or they can also be completely modern. Look at how Fire Island, a modern comic adaptation of Pride and Prejudice featuring a group of gay friends vacationing in a popular spot, navigated stereotyping, discrimination, and racism amongst the hilarity. It’s the cleverest modern adaptation since Clueless.

Crystal Clarke, who plays Georgiana Lambe on ‘Sanditon’, has confirmed her character’s father owned a sugar plantation in Antigua, and her mother was a slave. Her story with her mother will be explored more in season three.

Its true that Jane’s own family was instrumental in maintaining the prim and proper picture many have of Jane, with her nephew writing, hilariously, that:

In the case of my aunt, it was not only that her course of life was unvaried, but that her own disposition was remarkably calm and even. There was in her nothing eccentric or angular; no ruggedness of temper; […] Hers was a mind well balanced on a basis of good sense, sweetened by an affectionate heart, and regulated by fixed principles; so that she was to be distinguished from many other amiable and sensible women only by that peculiar genius which shines out clearly enough in her works, but of which a biographer can make little use.

‘Eccentric’ and ‘angular’ are just the words to describe Jane and her heroines, qualities that we have gloried in for two centuries. And distinguished she has become, Jane remains one of the greatest writers in all of history. So let’s not reduce Jane’s works to mere romances when adapted to the screen, because these adaptations are simply not hitting the mark. As Jane herself wrote, after being urged to write a historical romance, ‘I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter.’4 We must stop trying to cram Jane into the beribboned little romantic box she would have despised, and set her free, celebrating the absolute brilliance of her work, her wit, her humour, and her empathy, and what that means to us, because that is how Jane Austen’s works live on.

 

 

  1. J. Wilkes, ‘Jane Austen as ‘Prose Shakespeare’: Early Comparisons’ in ed. Marina Cano & Rosa García-Periago, Jane Austen and William Shakespeare: A Love Affair in Literature, Film and Performance (Switzerland: Palgrave MacMillin, 2019).
  2. K. Erbland, ‘‘Persuasion’ Director Carrie Cracknell Talks That Trailer Response: Fans Have ‘Deep Feeling’ for Austen’, IndieWire, June 28th 2022.
  3. Wilkes, 44.
  4. E. Hugessen Knatchbull-Hugessen, ed., Letters of Jane Austen: Volume 2, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) 350.