I am not romantic you know

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Women in Society

Volume 1, Spring 2011 ISSN 2042-7220 (Print)

ISSN 2042-7239 (Online)



Lauren Hitchman, University of Exeter

Keywords: Jane Austen, Film and Television Adaptations, Feminism,


It seems a year cannot go by without a new television or film dramatisation of a Jane Austen novel appearing on our screens. These films can be extremely successful in Hollywood, for example, the 1995 Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee) won Emma Thompson an Oscar for the screenplay and was nominated in six other categories at the 1996 Oscars. Translating written texts to film often arouses criticism, as directors and screenplay writers seek to capture the essence of a favourite author in addition to incorporating their own artistic interpretation of the work. Characters on a screen are forced to behave differently to characters in a book, as the loss of the omniscient narrator means characters have to display what is usually kept between the narrator and the reader. Even when a screenwriter or director is committed to producing an adaptation as true to Austen, as the medium of film or TV allows, they are faced with audiences that cannot be expected to understand the precise historical context of what they are viewing, leading to messages being altered and over looked.

This paper will evaluate selected direct and indirect adaptations of Austen’s works; exploring how Austen’s texts and life have been interpreted for the screen. The paper will consider if Austen’s feminist viewpoints are diluted or entirely eradicated by the film / TV medium. It is important to note that, when evaluating Austen’s feminism, it will be in reference to the society in which she lived; an understanding of how women lived at that time and appreciating that Austen’s feminism must be restricted to her historical context and not compared to a modern day idea of feminism, is at the crux of this evaluation. As Kelly (1995) states ”if Austen were considered a feminist, it would be by her participating in a feminism conditioned by the circumstances of what has come to be called the Romantic period” (pg.17). In essence, this paper seeks to demonstrate that in the transference of Austen from written text to film what is often lost is the sense of a clever, single woman commenting on the position of women in her society.

Austen and Hollywood

An issue when evaluating film interpretations of Austen is the sheer volume and variety of works available for discussion. Austen stories have been modernised and altered as with Bridget Jones Diary (Fielding, 1996), but even direct interpretations of her books can vary greatly from the original text. A major difference is the medium for which the adaptation is made for, film or television, with television adaptations generally having a longer running time. For example, when the BBC (Davies,1995) produced an almost word for word adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, it was split into six parts and lasted approximately 300 minutes; whereas, the 2005 film (Wright) lasted only 129 minutes, less than half the running time of the series. Inevitably, film directors and screenplay writers are faced with the problem of what parts of the text to lose in order to stay within the time constraints of a feature film. That is not to say that lengthier screen adaptations will undoubtedly succeed more in delivering Austen’s message, watching the characters on screen cannot always show the sarcasm and social comment Austen inserts between her dialogues.

Furthermore, if the film production is for Hollywood then there are even more constraints on these adaptations, other than time, that can lead to Austen’s message being lost. For one, there is a wider audience to appeal to; it can be expected that those watching a television dramatisation over six weeks would have a greater interest in Austen, whereas those visiting the cinema are more likely to be looking for entertainment. Indeed, the advertisement of these Hollywood feature films suggests that they are marketed as romantic comedies set in a period setting. The tagline for the 1996 Emma (Mcgrath) is “Cupid is armed and dangerous”, suggesting that the main feature of this film will be Emma’s attempts at matchmaking but, as will later be discussed; this is not the main focus of the original story, but has been made so for comedic value and marketing purposes. Similarly, the poster for the Sense and Sensibility (1995) film shows Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson, the reincarnations of the Dashwood sisters, in an outdoor setting. Marianne’s (Winslet) handgrips onto a male hand, suggesting romance will be a part of this motion picture and the tagline “lose your heart and come to your senses” only reiterates this. Already, by the advertisement of these films it can be seen that delivering a feminist message is not their main objective and indeed the taglines could be seen as a barrier to any such message being incorporated.

Austen’s own life has also been the subject of a film, Becoming Jane (Jarrold, 2007) in which, as with her texts, Austen’s life undergoes the Hollywood treatment. The film depicts Austen enjoying her own thwarted love and although there are references to Austen’s struggle to become a writer, the film is ultimately a love story. When reading Austen’s letters it is difficult to imagine that her own romances were of so great an importance that they should take centre stage in the film of her life. That is not to say that Austen was not concerned with romance and marriage, just not her own. Jones (2004) in the introduction she wrote for Austen’s Selected Letters argues that Austen in letters to her sister “uses gossip about family and others to mediate and define their shared role as single women” (pg. XXVI). Indeed, in letters to her relatives Austen discusses the position of women and the choices they faced in her time frequently. She wrote to her niece Fanny Knight “anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection” whilst in her letters and novels she demonstrates the inevitability of this occurrence, as with Mr and Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, for example. It can be seen that Austen commented shrewdly on the evils in her society for women and did not focus on her own “heartache” as depicted in the film.

The Sexualisation of Austen

Despotopoulou (2006) claims that some modern Austen adaptations “merely lift a loosely accurate plot and embellish it with pleasing-to-the-eye outdoor scenes or sexual liaisons which have no purpose other than to attract the mass audience” ( p120). Sex and the outdoors are indeed made a focus of many adaptations, with sex being the most obviously damaging to Austen’s feminist cause. For example, Irvine (2005) comments that the 1995 adaptation of Persuasion (Jon Jones) “ends with a public kiss that, in its very impossibility for the period, draws our attention to film as 'a fantastic sort of spectacle'” (pg. 150). Films produced for entertainment value in Hollywood will often not pay heed to historical accuracy when revenue is at stake. While these films will employ historians to attempt to ensure that costume and setting is vaguely appropriate for the Regency period, the social mores of the time are sometimes forgotten to create drama and sexualise the film for the modern audience.

Even the longer, made for television adaptations use this device to attract audiences; Andrew Davies’ Pride and Prejudice shows Mr Darcy stripping to his shirt and diving into a lake and then accidentally meeting Elizabeth Bennett. This scene shows a man of high social standing disregarding social decorum in a place he is likely to be seen. His running into Elizabeth creates a sexually charged scene but, remembering that Pemberley is open to visitors, it is impossible that the owner of the house would be caught wandering the grounds in a damp shirt. A similar scene occurs when the camera shows Darcy bathing and then watching Elizabeth out of the window, thus sexualising Darcy and objectifying Elizabeth. Austen may use a third person narrator in Pride and Prejudice but it is not an omniscient one, Elizabeth is undoubtedly the protagonist and any events that take place outside of Lizzy’s knowledge are only learnt by the reader when Lizzy learns of them. Darcy’s watching of Elizabeth could not have taken place in the book and aside from heightening the romance it could also impact upon the feminist aspect - Lizzy framed by the window makes her similar to a piece of art, dehumanising her and subjecting her to the male gaze. In all Austen’s books the narrator follows only the female protagonist but these films allow the masculine objectification of women into the story, hence losing female control.

However, as has already been noted, the males in these films are sometimes depicted as sexual objects too. Even though, Irvine (2005) points out these sexual scenes would have been an impossibility in Austen’s era, he believes that “these films thus take a certain kind of feminine freedom with which we are now familiar, represent it as at least possible in Austen’s time, and use it to symbolise the social freedoms that Austen, it is implied, imagined as potential for her women characters” (pg. 150-1). However, the interpretation, that these sexual scenes are placed in films by directors and screenwriters in order to suggest that Austen in her writing imagined her characters would be able to participate in what was then considered highly inappropriate behaviour, has its flaws. When Austen discusses the position of women in her texts and letters, there is no evidence that she bemoans a lack of sexual freedom and indeed her treatment of characters such as the adulterous Maria Bertram, in Mansfield Park, is certainly not a sympathetic one. Therefore, there is a strong argument that these sexual scenes cannot be interpreted as Austen imagining a freedom that her characters did not have, but that they are there to attract today’s women who generally have that freedom.

Emotions, class and marriage

The need to demonstrate emotions in film is a necessity that has long plagued the translation from word to screen. The replacement of the third person narrator in Austen with a camera “demands that all characters become physically and transparently expressive in a way that only ‘problem cases’ such as Marianne Dashwood indulge in the novels” (Irvine 2005, pg. 151). Marianne Dashwood’s intensity causes her to be frowned upon by her society, whereas her sister Elinor’s reserve is portrayed as admirable in the text with her “strength of understanding, and coolness of judgement” (Austen, 1811, pg. 4) being utilised to support her family. Indeed, Sense and Sensibility could be considered Austen’s most feminist novel with the absence of a male figure in the immediate family. Four women are forced to make their own way in the world, managing their own money without a patriarch. Although each Austen adaptation must suffer from the loss of character interiority, it could be argued that Sense and Sensibility suffers from the largest loss of feminism due to it. Elinor Dashwood is a contradiction of the popular opinions of the day, that is of women being ruled by emotions. Elinor having to demonstrate her emotions on screen means she ceases to be a stereotype-challenging feminist character.

Within Austen’s feminist discourse also comes the discourse of class, there is an awareness amongst Austen’s heroines of how their class affects their positions in society. Jane Austen wrote to her niece Fanny that “single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor – which is one very strong argument in favour of Matrimony”. This candid analysis of the situation of women can best be seen in the novel Emma with Miss Bates as the poor single woman. When Harriet Smith asks Emma whether she fears to be similar to Miss Bates, Emma answers that “a single woman with a very narrow income must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid [...] but a single woman of good fortune is always respectable” (p 80). Through Emma’s criticisms of the situation of poor, unmarried women Austen censures the views of society as a whole, Emma claims that “a very narrow income has the tendency to contract the mind” (pg. 80), making a link between social class and quality of education and emphasising the importance of education for women. However, Emma claims that Miss Bates has not fallen into this category, she is only “too good-natured and too silly” (pg. 80) to suit Emma’s taste in acquaintances. Conversely, Miss Bates in Mcgrath’s 1996 film is depicted as a character of comedy, a caricature - she is not the character that Emma, in the text, learns to be kind to and is not portrayed sympathetically. Actually, it could be argued that in Mcgrath’s film Miss Bates seems so ridiculous that it is hard to see how an audience could understand that Emma was unjust in her comments towards her. Hudson (1995) states that Austen’s “novels unquestionably reflect her justified frustration with women’s economic dependence, the neglect of their education and the unfair inheritance laws of the day” (pg. 106).

Certainly, a prevailing theme in Pride and Prejudice is that of female inheritance. Mrs Bennett opens the novel by fretting over the fate of her five daughters, whom her husband’s estate is entailed away from. Aside from Pride and Prejudice being perhaps Austen’s most famous love story with Lizzy and Darcy’s hate-at-first-sight relationship being repeated in films and books again and again, it is a novel that closely looks at how women could deal with a society and laws heavily steeped against them. Austen’s mocking opening line of the book is also famed; “it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (pg.1). This sarcastic line directs the reader’s attention to the position of women as commodities that men can acquire; a theme that continues throughout the text. It must be remembered that three of the five daughters in Pride and Prejudice marry and before her sisters’ happy marriages to rich, worthy men, Lydia Bennet marries George Wickham in a small ceremony in London. It is Lydia’s marriage that most directly displays women as a commodity, when Mr Bennet says of Lydia “Wickham’s a fool, if he takes her for less than ten thousand pounds” (pg. 202) it shows how women, when compared to modern standards, were effectively bought and sold.

This theme continues with Charlotte Lucas, daughter of the Bennet’s family friends, who is older than Lizzy and Jane. At twenty-seven years old she is considered a spinster by her society. When Charlotte is proposed to by Mr Collins she accepts and her brothers “were relieved from their apprehension of Charlotte’s dying an old maid” (pg. 84), thus illustrating that women faced pressure from within their own families as well as from society in general. Charlotte “accepted him solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment, cared not how soon that establishment were gained” (pg. 84). The 2005 film does acknowledge Charlotte’s difficult situation as the character delivers an impassioned speech to her friend Elizabeth, declaring tearfully “don’t you dare judge me”. While the topic is raised, Charlotte’s fate is portrayed more as a miserable parallel of Lizzy’s happiness, rather than to help modern audiences understand the difficulty of Charlotte’s situation and decision. It is important to note that Austen’s representation of Charlotte’s behaviour is different entirely. It shows a measured woman evaluating her situation and making a logical decision. Austen writes of Charlotte that “without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want” (pg. 84). This one sentence summarises the lack of choice women in Charlotte’s situation faced and without it Austen’s feminist discussion of the options available to women in her society is lost.

Austen’s love stories were revolutionary in the way they depicted relationships between men and women. In Austen’s time, since women were treated as commodities, it would seem logical that men, the consumers, would have the power within the relationships. Hudson (1995) suggests that “instead of creating marriages in which power is associated with sex, Austen offers sibling-like unions that highlight moral and spiritual values. These unions profoundly alter the balance of power between men and women in her novels” (pg. 101). Perhaps the best example of this is Emma Woodhouse and Mr Knightly; he is a friend and the brother of her sister’s husband. Their relationship is built upon intellect and companionship and not sexual desire and has resonance in today’s society. The building blocks of their relationship are masked in the 1996 Emma, where Emma and Mr Knightly enjoy a film full of sexual tension in order to, perhaps, crudely display to the audience that they are the intended couple. At a party Emma and Knightly are sat together before Mr Elton, who is in love with Emma, awkwardly sits between them. This awkward exchange immediately sets Emma and Knightly up as intended lovers; losing the sibling-like, more equal, bond they share in the book in exchange for sexual tension to entertain the audience.

Austen and Education

Northanger Abbey is perhaps Austen’s most overtly satirical novel. Through Catherine Norland, Austen mocks the gothic novels popular in her day and with them their heroines, who conformed to particular ideas of femininity and had particular types of relationships with men. Hoeveler (1995) suggests that in Northanger Abbey Austen moves away from the traditional gothic heroine to imply that “all women [...] are born the heroines of their own inconspicuous lives, whether they look the part or not” (pg. 123). Austen uses the character of Catherine Morland to show how every woman can succeed. Catherine’s gothic dreams are all proved to be unfounded, suggesting that Austen disliked the damsel-in-distress, overly fantastical world of the gothic.

As well as criticising the gothic, Austen also discusses the issues of female education and the effects that a lack of education can have on women. Despotopoulou (2006) states that “Jane Austen’s novels satirised the superficiality with which some women approached those media of culture (music, reading, languages, etc) which had only one purpose: to ensure their marketability in a marriage-orientated society” (pg. 117) and Northanger Abbey is no exception, with the mocking of Catherine as she tries to understand the picturesque under Henry’s influence. Austen’s phrase “a woman, especially if she has the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can” (pg. 330) fully demonstrates the power of her wit. Austen emphasises the hardships women faced as they were expected to be “accomplished” but also uneducated and expected to remain that way when it came to more important issues. Hoeveler (1995) actually goes as far as to compare Northanger Abbey to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication Upon the Rights of Woman (1792), stating that “in many ways, Northanger Abbey fictionalises the major points in Wollstonecraft’s treatise, showing that women who are given inadequate educations will be victims of their own folly as well of masculine hubris, lust and greed” (pg. 120),

However, as with other dramatisations already discussed, the ITV adaptation of Northanger Abbey (2007) takes more liberties with the plot than small details such as the tumble-into-the-roses kiss between Catherine and Henry. The shortening of Catherine and Henry’s courtship in and around the Abbey itself loses Catherine’s embarrassment at her vivid imagination and her reflections upon the silliness of her behaviour and the dangers of being influenced by others. Similarly, Catherine’s friend Isabella Thorpe abandons Catherine’s brother but in the film Catherine’s anger upon this subject is lost. In the text, Catherine’s attitude towards Isabella’s actions demonstrates how Catherine has grown as a woman and begins to understand that superficiality is not a trait women should possess, but in the TV adaption, Catherine’s growth is overshadowed by romance.


It can be seen that some modern adaptations of Austen misplace Austen’s satirical comment on the society in which she lived. The adaptations become romantic comedies designed to appeal to mass audiences. Austen’s own brand of feminism seems to disappear more in film adaptations due to both the time factor and the need to appeal to a mass audience; although even longer adaptations that succeed in the never-ending struggle to be “true” to the original texts can lose their feminist messages merely by a twenty-first century audience not understanding the precise historical context of what they are viewing. It could be said that at times Austen’s views on women in society are deliberately edited out to leave only the frothy, romantic essence of her stories or perhaps the simple fact of the matter is that “no one writes Jane Austen so well as Jane Austen”? (Wright, 1975, pg. 423).


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Wright, J. (Director) 2005. Pride and Prejudice. Universal.


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