The fire dances with hypnotic frenzy, shedding blaze and shadow across the room. Fevered palms fumble, shoulders tremble, and hearts heave. Do you truly love me?¯Trust me. But when will you come back?¯Soon, very soon. It is a steamy scene, a raging, romantic beginning. And if this is your cup of tea, thank public television, for you surely cant thank Jane Austen for this latest presentation of Sense and Sensibility .
This spring PBS, in conjunction with the BBC, offered a Sunday-night series, The Complete Jane Austen , for viewers like you. What is it about Jane Austen? Young women crammed in a dorm room, mooning over Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice and drinking microwaved tea; obsessive-compulsive Janeites with literary list-serves, online journals, and English-countryside pilgrimages; professors lecturing from behind thick glasses about the feminization of literature¯All hail her as one of the greatest novelists of all time.
A truth universally acknowledged, it seems fair to say. What woman has not fallen for Mr. Knightly or Mr. Darcy, secretly wishing for a Maserati post-chaise to appear in her neighborhood, driven by a single man in possession of a good fortune? Who has not sympathized with the morally upright and woefully slighted Fanny Price, stoically shared Anne Elliots autumnal remorse, or felt Marianne Dashwoods pangs of passion, lost and found?
One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other, observed Austen, and perhaps my romantic (feminine?) bias has just shown through. In her books, Jane Austen tells six good love stories, and the beautiful thing about her work is that, by the time you finish the last, you are ready to refill the teapot and begin all over again.
And yet, after watching the new series in its entirety, even a devotee like myself begins to feel miffed. The romance was there, true enough, but that was about all. It was like eating nonfat, sugar-free, calorie-less ice cream dressed up with Red Dye 40 and artificial strawberries. Not very satisfying.
Anne Elliot gasped and shambled¯a nervous woman fainting away without a man¯and her hair was quite dreadful, hardly the self-possessed, steady-spirited heroine from Austens Persuasion . The most serious of Austens novels, Mansfield Park , was stripped of its moral and specifically evangelical import, with smiley Fanny Price tripping around the grand gardens and palatial halls, trampling the books incisive wit and bittersweet wisdom.
Austen called Fanny one of her favorite characters, but the filmmakers seemed afraid to elevate a church mouse to the heroines seat. The BBC made a surprisingly good Pride and Prejudice back in 1995, and PBS recycled it for this series¯a prudent move, seeing that another recent version, from Hollywood in 2005, closed with a mushy scene that would have made Austen choke. (This part was cut from the British version¯a subtle commentary, alas, on American sensibilities.) I could go on, but it is really too painful.
Poor Jane Austen. And poor us. She produced novels that came nearer to artistic perfection than any others in the English language, wrote Oxford scholar Harold Child, but one wouldnt guess it from the ersatz film tributes. And indeed, in a cinematized culture, that means many wont guess it at all.
A ladys imagination is very rapid, observes the astute Darcy in Pride and Prejudice . It jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony, in a moment. Modern filmmakers have learned at least this lesson, and a flit-and-fly trajectory sums up their screenplays. As a result, the lady-author is doubly abused: dismissed by practical philistines and distorted by dreamy romantics. For the real Jane Austen, however, there is more to life than love.
If you missed the recent spate of PBS Janeolatry, rest assured that, although the films are now for sale, most are not worth the watching. But Sense and Sensibility promised and delivers more. It is an intriguing situation: Janeites and the filmmakers who serve them tend toward hyper-romanticization—cloud-castle building and wedding-bell clanging—which is precisely what this novel rails against.
Andrew Davies wrote the screenplay for Sense and Sensibility , and those who appreciated his 1995 Pride and Prejudice (of whom there are legion) will be largely satisfied. Running three hours, this new film was able to capture some of Austens textured characters and plot details, with satisfactory acting and gorgeous sets. And it began to do justice to the thematic subtleties of this elegant novel.
Theres more to life than love, says Sense and Sensibility ¯or, at least, theres more to love than romance. Common sense and sensitivity, one might rephrase the title, personified in the novels sister-heroines. Her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation, says Austen, introducing the lovely Marianne Dashwood. At not-quite-seventeen, she is everything we could desire a lady to be¯which is to say, she is everything but prudent. Fortunately, the elder sister Elinor is blessed with strength of understanding and coolness of judgment.
Forced, on their fathers death, to downgrade from their massive estate (thanks to gender-discriminatory eighteenth-century inheritance laws), the family moves to a quaint cottage. There, Marianne attracts an admirer, the staid Colonel Brandon. Her romantic heart is appalled, however; no matter that he dons boots and a cravat and gallops over the peaks on horseback. He has neither genius, taste, nor spirit, decrees the romantic maiden, and at thirty-five years he is decidedly infirm.
Enter Prince Charming: the dashing Mr. Willoughby, who literally sweeps Marianne off her feet and initiates a flowery, fanciful courtship. Elinor gently reproves, but what does she know of real romance? It is not until the gentlemans abrupt departure, however, that the elder sister starts to sound more rational than restrictive. Common sense should be balanced with emotional sensibility, Austen seems to be saying. The over-romantic woman loses the man, and the over-cautious woman never catches him to begin with.
We need, in short, a balance between Marianne and Elinor. This is the common conclusion, and it all seems very nice. Its just not very Jane Austen. Marianne, critic Marvin Mudrick once observed, is more than an object of irony; [she is] a very bad example! When Willoughby disappears into the sunset, barely to be seen or heard from again, Marianne develops a severe case of lovesickness. ( Melancholy is the poets verdict; clinical depression , the psychologists.) She was without any power, Austen explains dryly, because she was without any desire of command over herself.
Elinor serves as her emotional rudder, navigating the complex world of Regency propriety, despite her own emotional suffering. And when the grimy truth of Willoughby comes clear, Marianne overflows with remorse. Do you compare your conduct with his? asks the gentle Elinor, and the younger sister replies: No, I compare it with what it ought to have been! I compare it with yours.
Judging from the earliest reviews, the author intends for her audience to do likewise: to measure their conduct against the wise and restrained elder sister. Mariannes sensibilities are all in the extreme, wrote Englands Critical Review in 1812, the year after the novels publication. In the portraiture of Mariannes and Willoughbys attachment, the merit of the novel is principally displayed; and it furnishes a most excellent lesson to young ladies to curb that violent sensibility which too often leads to misery, and always to inconvenience and ridicule.
So it was, nearly two hundred years ago. Marianne is¯or at least was¯a very bad example . And here we return to the twenty-first century and its film adaptations. For the most part, the new PBS Sense and Sensibility rises above its cinematic sisters¯primarily because it is less adaptation than imitation, less twenty-first-century rewriting than incorporation of Austens own dialogue.
When so much of her genius, however, is captured in the gently irony of language¯in what is said and what is unsaid, in the narrators witty and wise asides¯no film version offers a perfect translation of the novels. One cannot be always laughing at a man without now and then stumbling on something witty, observed Elizabeth Bennet, and her creator would no doubt agree. Austen laughs at society¯men and women, her audience and herself¯dropping subtle but sharp insights into the quirks of humanity.
But it does the author no service to turn her novels into onions of ironic wit, with each layer masking yet another layer of sleek style and sarcasm, and never any discernable meaning. Wisdom is better than wit, she once counseled a precocious niece, and in the long run will certainly have the laugh on her side.
Wisdom may indeed be merry, but as the fallout of the Willoughby saga reminds, it can also be sobering. Willoughby is found guilty of seducing Colonel Brandons ward¯found guilty because the young Eliza is pregnant.
The recent film pulls this complicating incident to the forefront, opening with the fire-flickering seduction scene. And, as anyone familiar with the novel will guess, the sighs are breathed by Willoughby and Eliza. Sexed up, not dumbed down, praised Londons Evening Standard . Its an accurate assessment, yet in Jane Austens book it might not be such a compliment.
In my count (with thanks to the virtual Republic of Pemberley), the word kiss appears nineteen times in her novels¯typically describing the embraces between sisters, daughters, nieces, and mothers¯never between lovers. Sex is only used in the sense of gender. So it seems that Austen is not very romantic, if romantic means sexy.
Granted, the words marriage , marry , and matrimony appear nearly six hundred times, but we never actually see that anticipated event on her pages. Even the engagement accounts are delicately veiled: What did she say? quips the narrator of Emma . Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does. Details, as usual, are left delightfully to the imagination. Sexed up? Not as we know it.
Austens Sense and Sensibility never hides the ugly reality of sin, but, in contrast to the film, neither does it put scandal on display for spectacle and shock value. I could learn nothing but that she was gone; all the rest, for eight long months, was left to conjecture, says Colonel Brandon of Elizas disappearance. What I thought, what I feared, may be imagined . . . . He had left the girl whose youth and innocence he had seduced, in a situation of utmost distress. Elinor is duly aghast: This is beyond everything!
Beyond everything for Elinor but rather common fare for todays audiences, especially when we do not actually see anything scandalous onscreen. Marianne is fortunate enough to learn the dangers of unbridled romance¯the Wordsworthian spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings¯without suffering more than a wounded heart and battered pride. For in Jane Austens world, the personal and social consequences of lustful passion are real, and they are not pretty.
The recent film version rises above its moony PBS sisters, taking pains to comment on these social dilemmas¯specifically their origins. At one point, the precocious little sister Margaret pipes up: I wish I was a man! Girls can never do anything. Marianne feels the gender disparity, too, but with more asperity: What strange creatures men are. What do they want from us? Perhaps they see us not as people but as playthings. Both observations have truth, especially in Austens world of female oppression and repression; it is the fault of patriarchs and chauvinists who like to have their way in all things (but really are after only one thing). Fortunately, our PBS souls can sigh, we are moving beyond such sexist squalor, and women like Austen have paved the way.
Yet come back to Sense and Sensibility ¯the novel¯and see how it begins and ends. The more I know of the world, gushes Marianne early on, the more am I convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love. I require so much! Ironically, it is precisely in knowing more of the world that Marianne falls out of romance and into love.
The complications of Sense and Sensibility go far beyond the time-tied constraints of Regency England. While the novelist might feel some wistfulness for the romantic ideal, it is clear that she grasps its real-life impossibility. Marianne was born to an extraordinary fate, Austen declares. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, to counteract, by her conduct, her favorite maxims . . . . Instead of falling a sacrifice to an irresistible passion . . . [she found herself] submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties.
Jane Austen writes about men and women in society¯which is a fancy way of saying that she writes about marriage. And marriage, for Austen, is indeed about love: love as the joy of submitting to new attachments and the freedom to enter new duties. Love, one might go so far to say, as responsibility.
As usual, Jane Austen puts it best: And what are you reading, Miss¯? Oh! It is only a novel! replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame . . . . In short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.
It is only a novel. And it is only Jane Austen.
Amanda Shaw is a junior fellow at First Things .
Sense and Sensibility by PBS
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen