I like to think my personality is more than a collection of English student stereotypes, but when it comes to Jane Austen adaptations, I’m not ashamed to say I’m an absolute sucker. To that end, it was only natural that when doing a module on Jane Austen in university last year, I decided to examine the enduring popularity of the Jane Austen adaptations that I and so many others devour and question their effect on the legacy of Austen’s work. I decided to share that essay here!
A quick google search for “most famous english writers” will yield a pantheon of literature’s greatest hits, topped by William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen. The two men have in common long, illustrious careers characterised by incredible breadth of range. Next to them, Austen seems a curious inclusion, her six completed novels and relatively short career making her seem almost an interloper by comparison. And yet there has never in living memory been any doubt cast upon Austen’s position as one of the “greats.” What is perhaps most striking is that her popularity stretches both to the realms of academia and literary criticism, and to that of popular enjoyment — Austen quotes printed on an assortment of mugs and t-shirts and tote bags are ever-popular souvenirs, and Cassandra Austen’s portrait of her sister is now as recognisable an image as the etching of Shakespeare that graces the first folio.
What is perhaps most striking about the popularity of Austen’s novels is that beyond simply having an affinity for each book or set of characters, the cult of Austenmania is built upon a widely-held understanding of the distinctive sense of place and mannerism that the novels represent. Limited as her main bibliography may be, the oeuvre represents a fundamental backdrop as sturdy in the imaginations of its readers as that of any fantasy franchise devoted to world-building. Works of parody such as Pride & Prejudice & Zombies function as they do because the understanding of the norms of Austen’s world are concrete enough to withstand interference from outlandish genres. The conceit of 2007 novel Austenland and its subsequent film adaptation hinges on the fact that Janeites buy into an overarching “world” of Jane Austen, one that exists independently of any one novels. Ironically, this freestanding sense of place is what ensures that some of her novels can, at their best, feel entirely self-contained. Emma, for example presents Highbury and its occupants as a microcosmic world unto itself, despite its relative proximity to London. The dinner party in chapters 34-36 encapsulates this sense of a microcosm very well. Before Austen, the events of a dinner party would likely have been consigned to a single page or two, quickly described and moved along (Whelan 54). In stretching a single party across three chapters, Austen uses the slowed pace of the novel’s plot to draw focus to the interactions between the characters. Something as domestic and small-town as a dinner party of local friends and acquaintances is given several yards of narrative space, so to speak, and allows the relatively small world contained in the novel to become expansive and immersive for the reader. Emma spends the opening pages of chapter 34 contemplating on her overall dislike of Mrs Elton, but when Harriet asks for her opinion, she declares otherwise.
“‘Is she not very charming?’
‘Oh! Yes — very — a very pleasing young woman.’
‘I think her beautiful, quite beautiful.’
‘Very nicely dressed, indeed; a remarkably elegant gown (271).’”
The interaction betrays Emma’s inherent dislike of Mrs Elton, both in the contrast between her words to Harriet and the inner thoughts to which we had been made privy a paragraph or so earlier, and also in Emma’s responding to Harriet’s praises of Mrs Elton with polite, but more patronising, insincere compliments: responding to comments with Mrs Elton’s beauty by attributing it to her “remarkably elegant gown” for instance. It is an incisive use of dialogue that demonstrates Austen’s distinctive ability to capture the intricacies of social interactions and politics — the dialogue is, above all, awkward, tangibly shaped by Emma’s discomfort and Harriet’s insecurity. It is an example of dialogue that reflects another trademark of Austen’s work: a distinct sense of realism. For all its lack of genuine plot or truly dramatic action, Emma as a novel is remarkably successful in its depiction of day-to-day life. The pivotal Box Hill picnic, in the most basic terms, consists of nothing more than Emma making a flippant joke at the expense of a hapless elderly friend of the family. The pathos of the scene comes from Emma facing genuine disappointment and admonishment from Mr Knightley rather than friendly wariness, and realising that her behaviour has been poor, and hurt others. The subject of the confrontation is commonplace, utterly believable, but Austen’s characters are compellingly enough rendered that the scene does function as an emotionally climactic one in context of the novel. Of all the scenes in Emma, it is perhaps one of the most cinematic.
The 2009 adaptation starring Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller allows Knightley’s declaration “Badly done, Emma!” to act as a thematic decrial of Emma’s often misguided actions throughout the story up to that point — the scene is simply staged and shot, but the visual of Knightley walking away, his back to a tearful Emma, is a sufficient display that this has been the inciting moment of Emma’s realisation of the error of her ways. It is a realism that works and is time and time again translated to the big screen because “according to A. C. Bradley, first occupant of the Chair of English at Liverpool (1882), in a Cambridge lecture of 1911, the strength of Jane Austen’s novels, like Shakespeare’s plays, is to be found in characters who exhibit a habit of life beyond the function of the plot (Sutherland 6).” This realism and vividness of characters does not always mean such faithfulness of adaptation as the Box Hill scene in 2009’s Emma — on the contrary, this sense of characters with lives and scopes beyond the boundaries laid down by Austen’s novels seems to present an opportunity for adaptations that delight in expanding or altering the frame of reference against which the characters exist. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies retains the regency setting and sensibilities of most of the characters, the Bennet sisters remain concerned with marriage and securing their futures — but they also hunt zombies. Lizzie and Darcy’s relationship is as fraught and peppered with misunderstandings as it is in the novel, but includes hand-to-hand combat. Death Comes to Pemberley, P.D. James’ murder mystery sequel to Pride and Prejudice and its subsequent televised adaptation, imagine Darcy acting quasi-detective while Wickham faces trial for murder. Opinion on the value of retellings such as these are largely divided, but the fact is that the understanding of what constitutes the world of Austen or of a specific novel is well enough defined in the minds of audiences that taking such extreme liberties can work without necessarily losing the original basis of the novel.
This concrete sense of realism that Austen writes with does not necessarily mean all her novels are automatically cinematic, however. Austen’s representation of “real life” stems largely from her use of characterisation and dialogue, not from the presence of attempts at photorealistic descriptions of settings and appearances. In fact, she often deliberately downplays such descriptions, to the extent that Claudia Johnson posits “when objects are made to stand out with specificity in Austen’s novels, something is wrong.” This philosophy must of course clash with film, which, unlike the novel, is a primarily visual medium, and “by this way of thinking, there will always be something wrong when film adapts an Austen novel, because film is necessarily intensely preoccupied with the surface, the contours and the space that objects occupy (Sutherland 4).” Where reading Austen’s novels leaves many of the intricacies up to the imaginations of the reader, putting them on screen automatically narrows these possibilities to a single vision. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley is certainly impressive, a seminal moment in the novel’s narrative and a shift in the relationship between Lizzie and Darcy. It’s exterior is described in more detail than Austen gives to Longbourn, as she describes it as “a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of woody hills (245).” For the most part, however, testaments to Pemberley’s splendour are delivered in Elizabeth’s reactions to the house: “at that moment, she felt that to be the mistress of Pemberley might be something!” More than any of her disputes with and judgements of Darcy previously, the visit to Pemberley works to change her opinion of him. Film and television adaptations of the novel however must confront the fact of demonstrating Pemberley’s beauty: the 2005 film starring Keira Knightley uses a real country house, Chatsworth, as the backdrop, and takes great pleasure in lingering over every detail of the scenery: the camera lingers on painted ceilings and carved marble walls. The scene in the novel where Lizzie comments on Darcy’s portrait — again, Austen never describes the portrait itself, our only assurance that it is a good likeness comes from Lizzie’s agreement that Darcy is “Yes, very handsome” — is instead transposed into one in which Lizzie comes face-to-face with a life-size white marble bust of Darcy, the centerpiece of a gallery filled with nude classical statues. The white bust stands out against the vivid colours of the ceilings and walls — the camera ensures it is the focal point of ours and Lizzie’s attention. She gazes upon it for far longer than can be deemed casual or appropriate, only to then in the very next scene be confronted by the man himself. The whole audience can see that the bust is indeed a very good likeness, and the ambiguity of relying only on Lizzie’s answer is stripped away. In so dramatising the encounter, the film assures us that Lizzie’s focus is solely on Darcy, that even in a house as brilliant and beautiful, Darcy is the greatest allure, the real focus of Lizzie’s attention. Romantic as this notion may be, it doesn’t exactly ring true to the novel when Austen offers no such assurance: while roaming Pemberley, it is not Darcy who occupies Lizzie’s thoughts, but the notion that “And of this place… I might have been mistress! With these rooms I might have been acquainted! Instead of viewing them a stranger, I might have rejoiced in them as my own (246).”
From the most accredited of literary critics to the ardent American fan, Jane Austen’s ability to inspire zealous devotion seems almost universal — so wide was her appeal that soldiers diagnosed with PTSD were sometimes given her novels as prescribed methods of calming them (Johnson 7). The glossy media image of Jane Austen has calcified the image of her novels as distillations of a well-regulated and charming bygone era that represents a comforting escapism to its readers. Ever since the boom of on-screen Austen adaptations in the 90s, her position as a cultural powerhouse and fixture of the zeitgeist has never waned. It seems, however, that her popularity comes at the expense of her complexity — a novelist famously concerned with restraint and realism sees her works more often recalled as rose-tinted escapist fantasies, intricate constructions of social commentary regarded as works of courtship above all else. There is also of course the issue that a career as short as Austen’s, yielding only six completed novels, seems doomed to surely run its course at some point, reach a point where that cannot possibly be room for anymore Mr Darcy’s or Emma Woodhouse’s. But as easy as it is to regard Austen’s media exposure as a source of reductiveness and oversaturation, it is impossible to discount the in many ways revolutionary notion that Austen is an author that can be celebrated as both a subject of critical acclaim and a writer of accessible work, whose work can be enjoyed and consumed simply for pleasure without discounting the skill behind constructing it. Perhaps the plethora of Austenmania-inspired films and TV serials and sequels and spinoffs fail to reproduce exactly the artistry of the original work, but they can surely be regarded as testaments to the fact that the original artistry is to this day well beloved.
Austen, Jane. Emma. Oxford University Press, 1989.
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Oxford University Press, 1933.
Austen, Jane, and R. W. Chapman. The Novels of Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice. Oxford University Press, 1988.
Harman, Claire. Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. Canongate, 2009.
Johnson, Claudia L. “Austen Cults and Cultures.” The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, edited by Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster, 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010, pp. 232–247. Cambridge Companions to Literature.
Looser, Devoney. The Making of Jane Austen. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.
Sutherland, Kathryn. “Jane Austen on Screen.” The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, edited by Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster, 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010, pp. 215–231. Cambridge Companions to Literature.Tanner, Tony. Jane Austen. Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
Let me know what you think — and do you love Austen adaptations as much as I do?