Austen and Authenticity

by Kerryn Goldsworthy

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In what is for Jane Austen an uncharacteristically direct intervention, the narrator of Northanger Abbey remarks near the end: “The anxiety, which in the state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine, and of all who loved either, as to its final event, can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.”

As far as I know this is the only overt reference Austen ever makes to the material nature of her medium, and the relationship of that materiality to generic conventions. She might as well have said “This is a romantic comedy I’m writing” as announce that the happy-ending conclusion was foregone. In terms of audience reception — surprise, suspense, narrative deferral — the advantage of writing film scripts (as distinct from TV, whose audience can tell when the end is nigh simply by looking at its collective watch) is that there is no ‘tell-tale compression of pages’; your viewers don’t know when the end is coming. If you’re writing scripts for, say, Blue Heelers, you make them forty-eight minutes long and no mucking about, and the imminence of narrative closure is obvious to everybody. The advantage of being a novelist is that you can decide where you want to stop.

One of the biggest differences between Austen’s novels and their current screen versions — two of which were written for TV — is that Emma Thompson’s screenplay for Sense and Sensibility, Nick Dear’s for Persuasion and Andrew Davies’ for Pride and Prejudice — unlike all of the originals — were circumscribed first and last by material constraints

For the six-part BBC Pride and Prejudice, Andrew ‘Let’s Put the Men Back in women’s Writing’ Davies, fresh form his triumphant masculinisation of Middlemarch in 1994, had five hours to play in; he could afford to be generous with leisurely conversation, period detail, and some free interpretation and development of the character of Mr Darcy. In Davies’ adaptation of Middlemarch, a book whose opening words are ‘Miss Brooke’, the opening scene is of a sexy and mysterious-looking male stranger arriving in town: the High Plains Drifter of Victorian England. In the Davies version of Pride and Prejudice, a book about five sisters and how they secured their futures is transformed into a script which begins with two men — one of whom is significantly more sexy and mysterious-looking than the other — mounted on handsome, powerful, snorting horses galloping flat-out across a field. (True, the camera then pans back to find them being watched from a hill by a pair of speculative and not especially friendly dark eyes under a bonnet, and there is an audible creak of shifting power as the view lines up with Elizabeth Bennet for the rest of the series.) Despite the relative freedom to improve on Austen that was granted by the five-hour time frame, Davies had a different if equally money-driven kind of problem; he was obliged, like the novelists writing in monthly instalments for the literary journals of the later nineteenth century, but unlike Austen herself, to rearrange the narrative so that it contained a series of regularly spaced, unresolved mini-climaxes, to leave the audience dangling and ensure that it would come back next time for more.

But with writing like Austen’s, where so much of the meaning resides in the sentence structure itself, these technical problems of plot compression and expression must have faded into insignificance beside the imaginative difficulties of translating irony and syntax into images and scenes. In Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice this problem is partly solved by the retention of as much of Austen’s dialogue as possible; the former also makes good use of complicated silences, shifting eye-lines and precision choreography of bodies and furniture in rooms, while the latter relies on lush and suggestive but often rather leaden imagery: languid nude statues, hidden ponds nestling in fertile gardens, phallic rock formations, quite a lot of wet hair, and several ghostly apparitions in Elizabeth’s candlelit mirror.

Emma Thompson’s more energetic departure from her text in Sense and Sensibility is brilliant and brave, and works precisely because she understands so well what is happening in Austen’s language and why (those who doubt this can’t have seen her acceptance speech at the Golden Globe awards, couched in the form of a letter from Miss Austen, the rightful claimant of the prize) that she has worked out how to re-cast it for the screen, where the units of narrative are visual rather than verbal: not sentences, but shots. One of Thompson’s major successes in this respect is her radical rewriting of the youngest Dashwood sister Margaret — barely mentioned in the novel and serving no apparent purpose there — as a charming if feral child whose early exchanges with Edward Ferrars make us understand why Elinor falls in love with him, which in the novel remains something of a mystery.

Many journalists and reviewers questioned or warned against trying to ‘explain’ the apparent Austen revival and then went on to do so at some length, though I should have thought that to regard the popularity of Austen as in any way abnormal or in need of explanation is to betray a fairly staggering ignorance of literary history…

The only ‘explanation’ that has given me any kind of aha -experience so far was the comment of Laura Jacobs, in an otherwise pretty frothy piece for Vanity Fair (January 1996), that ‘the current crop of Austen adaptations reflects our era’s interest in authenticity’. Persuasion in particular has been widely praised, and much of that praise has focused, as Jacobs says, on ‘crumbs on tables and weathered hems, chalk complexions and crow’s-feet creeping into view’. Persuasion also features Regency dentistry, ratty haircuts and realistic-looking piles of horse shit (Pride and Prejudice doesn’t flinch form this last period detail either, actually, but the hair is stylised if not styled and most of the teeth are visibly expenseive), while fashions, manners and landscape are all so carefully reproduced that it causes disproportionate pain to authenticity-lovers when the baronet’s daughter and the war hero, together at last, see fit to exchange an anachronistic smooch in the middle of the public street. As if .

The place where purists can really go wild in the making of period films, however, is the field of women’s fashions. Persuasion is set in 1814, the year before Waterloo. Lady Russell, the heroine’s guardian and mentor, has precipitated the ploy by preventing the heroine, eight years earlier, from marrying the man of her choice on the grounds that he has no money. Heroine has been pining ever since. Man of choice returns, now moneyed and upwardly mobile; Lady Russell — a nice women but limited — remains unmoved and wishes heroine to marry elsewhere. Now, Lady Russell first appears in this film wearing a rather becoming and sumptuous-looking turban, which reappears now and then in the course of the plot. Turbans became fashionable in England after Napoleon went to Egypt in 1802, precipitating an Oriental influence in French fashion which quickly spread across the Channel and beyond — ‘Ladies Bonnets and fashionable Turbans,’ were being advertised for sale in Sydney by halfway through 1804 — and the Oriental craze was superseded by a Spanish one, again politically inspired, two years later. That is, Lady Russell’s headgear is eight years out of date, having been still fashionable at the time she originally intervened to prevent the marriage. Is this an extremely subtle piece of characterisation, indicating a woman of the world who is nevertheless living in the past, dressed as in the days when her persuasive powers were at their height? Or did the film’s designer just make a fashion mistake?

The more I think about Lady Russell’s turban the more uncomfortable I get. It matters; but why, exactly? What’s at issue in our desire for ‘authenticity’, and where does it come from? When musicologists complained bitterly that the music in The Piano was nothing like what such a character would ‘really’ have played in that time and place, where they missing the point, and if so, what was the point? Nor are these questions the prerogative of thoroughly postmodern sophisticates; recently thirty-six middle-aged ex-VFL football champions took the field in caps and knickerbockers to celebrate the game’s centenary, while officials, journalists and fans in period costumes (mostly about forty years out, the ubiquitous crinoline doing duty as a blanket signifier of historical dress-ups) arrived at the gates of the MCG in variously anachronistic horse-drawn vehicles and vintage cars with Coke logos on them. But just how deep and wide the late twentieth century’s nostalgia for authenticity really goes, and just how problematic and paradoxical a notion it has become in its tendency to make us forget history rather than remember it was demonstrated in Tasmania on the afternoon of Sunday April 28, when many of the tourists at Port Arthur mistook present reality for a harmless facsimile of a deadly past — ‘one of those re-enactment things’ — and began hurrying towards the gunshots, instead of away.


Kerryn Goldsworthy is in the English Dept at Melbourne University.

This piece is extracted with permission from Arena Magazine.

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