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Sometime during the 1990s, when big-screen adaptations of Regency novels became a near-annual tradition, a strange thing happened: Jane Austen stopped being funny.
This isn’t to say that the novels had misplaced their immortal charms, or that a novelist whose biography remains so elliptical had suddenly become less interesting; far from it. But if Austen is one of the greatest comic writers in the history of the language (and I would say she is), then why did a glut of movies—Pride and Prejudice (1995), Sense and Sensibility (1995), Emma (1996), Mansfield Park (1999)—leave us with such a limited sense of her comic gifts? In part, we may blame the charms of rom-com scripting, which conditions a feeling of orthodox predictability. In these films the period costumes and performance of propriety flatten Austen’s grand comic instinct into something more slender, something that evokes the impersonal cool of irony.
To judge by these films, Austen’s famous subversions are primarily socio-sexual, with an emphasis on the sexual; on the page her comic energies are not so pat or categorical. In my opinion, there are few exceptions—David Bamber is a wonderfully ineligible Mr. Collins in the BBC’s six-hour adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, while Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfayden smolder in Joe Wright’s 2005 version of the same novel—but the renditions of Austen’s world that we see at the multiplex are inevitably less sportive than the novels, less surprising, less rich with a singular style of comedy that really has only tangential business with plot or action.
The root of this comedy is the narrator’s slippery, faux-magisterial voice, a voice that more often than not is playing on your literary or moral expectations. “It is a truth universally acknowledged,” begins Pride and Prejudice. Arguably Austen’s most famous sentence, it is at once authoritative and suspect, the first of many casual asides that make readers complicit in our “first impressions.” (Incidentally, the original title of Pride and Prejudice.) Austen’s knowing lightness of touch is what makes the novels so funny and rich. It’s why, as a professor of mine once said, you haven’t read Emma until you’ve read it twice.
In “Regulated Hatred” (1940), an essay which has influenced a generation of academics and lay-readers of Jane Austen, D.W. Harding declares that the author is “read and enjoyed by precisely the sort of people whom she disliked.” The ubiquity of this phrase in Austen studies remains a minor irritant — couldn’t we say the same about nearly any novelist? But the observation had unique relevance for Austen, especially in the years following the First World War, when the author had become a sort of mannequin for English virtue; Harding, meanwhile, offers a convincing study of the mechanisms by which the novelist upbraids hypocrisy and social puffery at every turn. Consider the second chapter of Sense and Sensibility, in which John and Mrs. Dashwood rationalize their horrible miserliness. The dying wish of Dashwood père is that John take care of his half-sisters Elinor and Marianne, and he proposes to do so by granting them a generous £3,000.
Mrs. John Dashwood did not at all approve...She begged him to think again on the subject. How could he answer it to himself to rob his child, and his only child too, of so large a sum?
“It is certainly an unpleasant thing,” replied Mr. Dashwood, “to have those kind of yearly drains on one’s income.”
“Undoubtedly; and, after all, you have no thanks for it. They think themselves secure, you do no more than what is expected, and it raises no gratitude at all...”
“I believe you are perfectly right. My father certainly could mean nothing more by his request to me than what you say...”
This argument was irresistible. It gave to his intentions whatever of decision was wanting before.
Jane Austen began her satiric apprenticeship around thirteen. Her early work, the Juvenilia, includes short parodic novels, letters, plays, and character sketches. Her fiction from these years experiments with a voice that illuminates the technique she would deploy in later novels; in terms of comedy, the characters in Austen’s Juvenilia share more with the demented narrators in Jonathan Swift than with the letter writers in Samuel Richardson’s virtuous fictions.
Austen once described her artistic range as a “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush.” The author is referring to miniatures, locket-sized portraits of loved ones, a metaphor for the ostensibly modest scope of her novels. Her earliest miniatures, though, are rather more like Hogarth on an especially saucy day. In the Juvenilia there is a parody of the handwringing over a young girl’s coming out, a letter describing the remarkably specific education of a female philosopher, a very brief (and very biased) history of the kings and queens of England (“I cannot say much for this monarch’s sense”), and other scraps of esoterica. There is a self-consciousness in Austen’s voice, even in her earliest artistic productions, that you’ll recognize in a visceral way whether you were raised on Monty Python or Arrested Development.
In parodying the tawdry novels of the earlier part of the eighteenth century, Austen began to ventriloquize her own audience, absorbing convention and expectation into a voice that belongs to an unthinking moral majority—the same sense of socially determined certainty that gives the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice its kick.
Consider Charles Dickens’ self-effacing pronouncement at the beginning of David Copperfield —“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show” —with the third-person introduction in Northanger Abbey: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine.” The quality of effacement is still present, but the embedded ironies are manifold. Implicit is the apparent truism that proper heroines are marked by the circumstances of their birth, their faces, and the characters of their parents, and that any reader worth her salt will accept such heroic prerequisites as a matter of course. “Thin” or “sallow” girls, we learn, are not usually destined for heroism. The sustained archness of this miniature biography contains snatches of the Juvenilia’s surrealism: the benign characteristics of Catherine’s father are enumerated and then undercut by a non sequitur, “a very respectable man, though his name was Richard.” The circularity of this mode of knowing narration culminates, of course, in tautology: “But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way.”
Heroines in the Juvenilia hew closely to these important guidelines. While the narrator of Northanger Abbey laments that “there was not one family among their acquaintance who had reared and supported a boy accidentally found at their door,” the neighborhood of “Henry and Eliza,” a short story from the Juvenilia, is far more fortunate:
As Sir George and Lady Harcourt were superintending the labours of their haymakers, rewarding the industry of some by smiles of approbation, and punishing the idleness of others by a cudgel, they perceived, lying closely concealed beneath the thick foliage of haycock, a beautiful little girl not more than three months old.
Touched with the enchanting graces of her face, and delighted with the infantine though sprightly answers she returned to their many questions, they resolved to take her home, and having no children of their own, to educate her with care and cost.
The barbarism of the first sentence, and the inane tableau of Sir George and his Lady seeking to converse with a babbling three-month-old, cannot diminish the young Eliza’s heroic destiny; expelled from the family seat for stealing a fifty-pound note, Eliza is unruffled, “happy in the conscious knowledge of her own excellence.” Elsewhere in the Juvenilia, heroism and nobility are flatly invoked and immediately undercut:
[Cassandra’s] father was of noble birth, being the near relation of the Duchess of —’s butler. (“The Beautiful Cassandra”)
“Our mothers could neither of them exactly ascertain who were our fathers; though it is generally believed that Philander is the son of one Philip Jones, a bricklayer, and that my father was Gregory Staves, a staymaker of Edinburgh. This is, however, of little consequence, for as our mothers were certainly never married to either of them, it reflects no dishonor on our blood, which is of a most ancient and unpolluted kind.” (“Love and Freindship” [sic])
These aspirational ironies tilt both at pretension in the real world, and at formulaic patrilineal assurances in novels of the period. There is a further element of corrosion: Austen is not merely setting on their heads the conventions of sentimental literature, but doing so according to the parodic rules of the early eighteenth century. The high satiric inversions of these assurances is redolent of the Scriblerian satirists (Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, et al.), as when Edward Lindsay feels compelled to reject the hand of his beloved, simply because his father approves:
“No, never!” exclaimed I. “Lady Dorothea is lovely and engaging; I prefer no woman to her; but know, sir, that I scorn to marry her in compliance with your wishes. No! never shall it be said that I obliged my father.” (“Love and Freindship” [sic])
The heroines of the Juvenilia are doomed to proceed from one grand posture to the next, fainting as often as possible and wreaking havoc on any sense of logic. In their foundational work of feminist criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar offer a crisp catalogue of the Juvenilia’s more fantastical blasphemies: “Austen’s adolescent fiction includes a larger ‘slice of life’ than we might at first expect: thievery and drunkenness, matricide and patricide, adultery and madness are common subjects.”
To these we might also add cannibalism. In “Henry and Eliza” the heroine hurls her children out of a prison window and finds herself suddenly peckish:
But scarcely was she provided with the above-mentioned necessaries, than she began to find herself rather hungry, and had reason to think, by their biting off two of her fingers, that her children were much in the same situation.
That Eliza’s fingers might have been spared had she bought food instead of a gold watch is a sound, if unimaginative, observation. Of greater interest is the dry reportage of Eliza’s thought process. The narrator delivers these lines in Swiftian deadpan, and indeed Swift is an important touchstone here, not only for his most famous cannibalistic satire but also for a memorable understatement from “A Digression Concerning the Original, the Use and Improvement of Madness in a Commonwealth.”
Last Week I saw a Woman flay’d, and you will hardly believe, how much it altered her Person for the worse.
Austen’s own cannibalistic vignette has only the slenderest narrative importance; the missing fingers are not referred to again, and a dimension of the comedy comes from the horror of an act that is promptly reduced to a plot device. It’s an exercise in high nonsense, an encapsulation of what Gilbert and Gubar call the “burdens of banality,” whereby the young Austen skewers the sentimental novel’s undue emphasis on “the most exasperatingly trivial events.”
Austen’s early experiments in mannered ventriloquism exploit and subvert conversational banalities; later, we can see the fruit of these experiments in Austen’s doltish secondary characters—Mrs. Bennett from Pride and Prejudice comes to mind, as well as the much-maligned Miss Bates in Emma.
In her “mature” novels Austen’s heroines must contend against similarly entrenched norms — think Lizzy Bennet dropping the mic on Lady Catherine’s insulting social call in Pride and Prejudice. In a sad bit of irony, Austen has become so associated with empire-waist dresses and arch table talk that for many she now represents a certain set of mindless norms, her novels mere wax museums of the sanitary foibles of the gentry.
But Austen’s mannered narration has always served the darker purpose of exploding social conventions that exist only to ensure the appearance of civility where none is felt. These mechanisms render everyone a hypocrite and sometimes precipitate the irresponsible (and unfashionable!) behavior they are meant to prevent. And yet (as poor Eliza may have reflected as her children gnawed at her fingers), without ritual, without community and the claustrophobia that comes with it, we are helpless against the ancient animal instincts. On screen Austen can feel so starchily familiar that one almost forgets her comic and brutal fixation on what lies beneath the starch.