Books: Misconceptions About Jane Austen

Screenshot of Anya Taylor-Joy in ‘Emma’. Copyright goes to Focus Features and Universal Pictures.

Hi! It’s Annie!

Recently I’ve been attempting to read the entirety of Jane Austen’s works because I received a really fancy and adorable collection of the books for Christmas. It’s definitely one of my favorite gifts that I got and it now holds a special place of honor on my bookshelf. I have read both ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ very recently, so I decided to start on a shorter book that I haven’t read yet. I feel like reading a shorter novel in this language style helps me ease into the type of language, so picking up ‘Persuasion’ as my first read of this new collection felt like the perfect choice. And after I read it, I was thoroughly confused. Not because something that happened in the book confused me, but because I didn’t understand some of the harsh criticisms pointed at the Netflix adaptation of the novel. This is something that I’ve expressed before. While I am not going to claim that Netflix’s ‘Persuasion’ was the best Jane Austen adaptation that I’ve ever seen (because it wasn’t by a long shot), my review of the movie was a lot more positive than most people’s seemed to be. After watching more videos of people understandably talking about why they really disliked ‘Persuasion’, I felt that I was starting to pick up on what I at least perceive to be some misconceptions about the writings of Jane Austen. And the more I think about it, the more I feel that this definitely does not apply to just ‘Persuasion’. So I’m going to go through some popular arguments against Jane Austen adaptations and talk about why my opinion isn’t necessarily similar.

“It doesn’t follow the societal rules of the time period.”:

I’m going to start out with a big one because I feel that there’s a lot to tackle here. In many adaptations of Jane Austen novels, the characters will behave with every sense of propriety that they possibly can. To the point of more restrained emotions and more pointed conversation than most of us are used to because of the time period. Whenever an adaptation decides to deviate a conversation or a character’s action from these societal rules of the time, many critics will flock to accuse the adaptation of not being realistic. For example, in my absolute favorite Jane Austen adaptation, the 2005 ‘Pride and Prejudice’ starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfayden, critics were quick to pit it against the BBC series starring Colin Firth. People claimed that not only was the series more word for word like the book, but the 2005 version struggled with being too emotional. They claimed that the BBC version absolutely had to be better because it didn’t just portray the book so closely, it correctly and more historically represented the societal rules of the time. They particularly scrutinized Keira Knightley’s portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet as being too sassy, out there, modern, and didn’t like how much Elizabeth seemed to laugh in the movie. They felt that the more restrained version of Elizabeth in the BBC version correctly showed how Elizabeth was considered to be one of the few people of any actual sense in her family. The issue is that Elizabeth’s character is not described as emotionally repressed at all in the novel. Elizabeth’s main trait attributed to her is playfulness. In the novel, Austen described Elizabeth as laughing a lot and easily laughing her problems away. And while she does have sense, Lizzie also shares in her Father’s sense of humor which is partly what makes her his favorite child. Elizabeth speaks her mind several times in the book without emotional restraint, including being very blunt with Lady Catherine, Mr. Darcy, and Mr. Collins in a way that probably didn’t go along with societal approval. And I would argue that this is because Jane Austen did not write her fiction novels to operate completely on a set of societal rules that she often showed a dislike for. Jane Austen wanted her protagonists to be able to express their emotions in ways that women weren’t allowed to at that time. And I think it’s important to see the progressiveness in her writing rather than just looking at her writing as a window to the time period. Because in a way it is, but it’s also a window to how Jane Austen wished society could be.

“They never would have been allowed together like that.”:

This also lends itself to the societal rules point, but this is more about the relationships depicted than it is about how women act specifically. Usually someone has some sort of issue with the penultimate scene in a Jane Austen adaptation. Whether it’s because the main couple starts kissing after the proposal or they aren’t in a private enough place or even that they don’t have a chaperone. I think a lot of people will find it odd to remember that Jane Austen never wrote the endings and penultimate moments of her romances with much detail. Because at the time there was “much to be discussed” partly because it was pretty contractual back then. It was an exchanging of property from man to man. And just because that was how it was when Jane Austen wrote these novels, doesn’t mean that this is what I want from my romances in movies now (Hint: It’s not). Movies are allowed to modernize. That’s what adaptations are partly for. But that aside, Jane Austen also didn’t want her romances to be like this. Her writing was known for having radical opinions in it for the time. Such as the opinion that women should prioritize marrying for love over marrying for convenience. Or the opinion that men and women should see each other as equals in marriage. Or even that women should be given more opportunities by society. I feel like a lot of people take these ideas for granted because they feel like common sense in most places now, but they certainly weren’t when Jane Austen was writing. Without the detail of those scenes written, I think it makes sense for the main characters to show unrestrained emotion. I know that in the most recent version of ‘Persuasion’ the characters are outside and in semi-public when they kiss and then share their very adorable relieved hug at finally being together. But I don’t see why that should matter, when Jane Austen didn’t write many specifics for that herself and even showed a want for men and women to be able to express their feelings more freely to each other. I have no issues with adaptations using their imagination for these scenes.

“The character isn’t like that at all.”:

As more and more adaptations come out for Jane Austen’s novels, I’ve seen more and more people complain about the modernization of the characters or situations that they feel are out of character. I already talked a little about this with Elizabeth Bennet, but even though ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is more in the public eye, I feel like other characters get hit harder with this judgement. Anne from ‘Persuasion’ was accused of being too sassy, not kind enough, and not “homely” enough in the new movie. On the other hand actresses who have played Emma have been accused of not being the gorgeous woman Jane Austen described. Starting here with appearances, I want to say that calling any woman “homely” is a fancy way of calling them ugly and let’s get it out of our heads that any woman is ugly. Women are beautiful and beauty standards are bullshit. If you want to say that we see the exact same type of conventionally attractive white woman in every Jane Austen protagonist role, I would absolutely agree with you. We need more diversity. But the best way to say that is not to say that a woman playing one of the Austen characters is too pretty or ugly to be playing that character. On the other hand, there have been people who relate to a specific Austen character like Eleanor for being more introverted or Emma especially for being an obviously flawed but lovable character. When we relate to a character it’s easy to point at that character and say that they aren’t anything like we remember them, but it’s also good to recognize that people see the character differently. People were accusing Anne in the new movie of not being properly depressed but, as someone who has struggled with mental health, no two people experience depression the exact same way. It’s ok to hold our version of the character close to us, but we don’t have to dismiss every adaptation that has a differing portrayal than we’d like. For example, I relate quite a bit to Jane from ‘Pride and Prejudice’. My sister and I have often talked about how we are a little like Lizzie and Jane respectively. The first time I saw the BBC special, I wasn’t thrilled with the portrayal of Jane at all because it wasn’t pieces of her that I related to. But I still think that that version has a lot of merit! What I’m saying is, Jane Austen wrote these women to be modern in her time. She wanted women to relate to them. Not many writers wrote flawed and in depth female characters at the time. Unless the character is supremely out of character, which often isn’t the case, there’s probably a more suitable adaptation to your tastes out there! And if there isn’t yet there probably will be soon. There isn’t just one way to be feminist or feminine.

The short way of saying this is that modernizations don’t have to be scary. I mean they can be scary in some regards. (Like using modern slang randomly without warning.) But the thing with adaptations is that they are going to grow and change. If you don’t like an Austen adaptation, that’s fine. There have been plenty before and there will be plenty to come. And Austen wanted her women to be modern. In fact, she wrote women more modernly than women could act at the time because she was a progressive idealist. Instead of saying that Jane Austen would be rolling in her grave at an adaptation, you can accept that the adaptation just wasn’t for you but may be the exact Austen connection that another reader has always wanted or needed. These novels aren’t the type that are only ever going to get one shot to be made. Unless something comes out that uses Austen to be portrayed as extremely sexist or racist or something like that, it’s ok to shrug your shoulders and just go back to your favorites. And it’s also ok for your favorite to be something that everyone else proclaims to hate. It’s ok to criticize art, but it isn’t ok to shame or gang up on anyone who might like it. Everyone experiences Austen differently. So have fun with it!

See you across the pond!

Sincerely, Annie

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