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April 02, 2007

As Becoming Jane shows once again, Jane Austen must be one of the most misunderstood novelists in the history of English literature - argues Lilian Pizzichini

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Lilian Pizzichini argues that Jane Austen is one of the most misunderstood novelists in the history of English literature. The film Becoming Jane is just the latest example of this.

Jane Austen must be one of the greatest misunderstood novelists in the history of English literature. Film-makers and legions of strangely obsessed readers called "Janeites" have been happily going about the business of misunderstanding her novels for years. The reason, I suppose, is simple. On the surface, she seems to be talking of romantic love. So the film-makers misconstrue her in order to make money out of the Janeite's yearnings. She is the 18th-century Helen Fielding (as opposed to Henry), and her heroines are bonneted Bridget Jones.

ITV's current series of adaptations continues the trend. The film, Becoming Jane, does something more insidious - it claims to present an interpretation of a writer's life. Neither the adaptations or the biopic do her any justice either as a writer or a woman.

Austen was not so much concerned with romance as the difficulties attendant to a sense of belonging and mutual understanding, especially as these concern a woman of some intellect. Her novels are great, not so much because they are well-crafted in terms of plot, but because they mislead, they take us away from the very thing that she is saying, thus illustrating the difficulties she makes her theme. She talks about people, but what is apparent when reading between the lines is how much she hated them.

At her most polite, Jane Austen was devastating. Her famous irony is a careful rationing of rage. She paces it with sublime verbal dexterity. The rhythms of her prose find their source in it. In her letters, she just let rip. Unfortunately, after her death, her sister Cassandra destroyed the letters that displayed Austen's moments of bitterness most clearly. In a letter that slipped past the censor, we see the real Jane talking about those daily constants in her life, the neighbours.

Mrs Hall of Sherbourne was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright - I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.
The neighbours from hell - they drove her mad, in the sense that they gave rise to occasional outbursts of mocking cruelty - such as Emma's against Miss Bates's garrulousness. Sometimes the faults of others, their anxieties, their lack of containment, press on us. But we have to be patient and understanding, or we'll get an ASBO, or become a hermit. These infuriating neighbours gave Jane Austen excellent material.

She wrote about the confinement of village life - especially for women. Her novels illustrate this again and again: the embarrassment caused by every single member of Elizabeth Bennett's family is acute, and the most obvious example of Jean Paul Sartre's dictum, "Hell is other people". Pride and Prejudice is also comic, which is why we return to it. Our delight in this comedy is an antidote to the frustrations and resentments we sometimes feel. Jane Austen understands us and she offers counselling in the form of prose. She renders our nightmares bearable, and because Elizabeth finds her rightful place - a home where she is understood and can breathe - we have the grace to find her tormentors loveable.

When Austen says that Elizabeth only really started loving Darcy once she saw his house (the majestic Pemberley) she was not joking. Pemberley is a metaphor for the space in which she can be herself, be understood, and accept the compromises any relationship brings. As for love, Jane came close to it at the age of 20. The year was 1796, and a young man from Ireland, Tom Lefroy, was visiting a neighbouring family. He was good-looking, lively and well-read. She was smitten. They danced together at a ball, and laughed together to such an extent that eyebrows were raised. Feelings had to be reined in where matters to do with love and the marketplace of marriage were concerned. Jane Austen had allowed her effervescence to bubble over. His visit to her family home the following day confirmed suspicions among Austen's closely knit family, friends, acquaintances and spies. The two young people liked each other. This did not bode well for him: she was poor.

There was no privacy in Austen's times. One finds her heroines constantly seeking out the privacy of their own rooms in order to process their emotions, to recover their public selves. The interiority of a novel can conjure this tension. It is a hard thing for films to do. They have to do that thing great novelists do: employ metaphors. In the visual field, this, as David Womersley explained in his review of Becoming Jane, can get clumsy.

The only thing the makers of Becoming Jane have got right was Austen's discussion with Lefroy of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones. Given the daring, frank treatment of sexuality in that novel, for two young people to discuss it at that time, was a risqué undertaking. The conversation would have taken on erotic undertones, at least suggesting a willingness to go beyond flirtation into an area of sensuous exploration. There is something poignant in the fact that Austen's closest experience of sex was mediated through a book - even if it was a classic. At the same time, however, given her vocation, it is entirely appropriate. Austen's great consolations in life were literature, the triumph of the human spirit, and nature. Ann Elliot in Persuasion recommends the reading of prose to a young man, Captain Benwick, grieving his dead fiancée and feverishly reading Lord Byron's Giaour. How right she was. The passion of Byron would only feed the young man's appetite for strong emotion. Austen writes,

he repeated, with such tremulous feeling, the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness, and looked so entirely as if he meant to be understood, that [Ann] ventured to hope he did not always read only poetry.
She is mocking and gentle at the same time. In a film or TV adaptation, it would be hard to convey this - Ann Elliot would appear, like Fanny Price, somewhat priggish. In the novel, Ann wonders how well she has taken her own advice. But this happens after the action is over, once she is in her own room, inside her head.

The actress who plays Jane in Becoming Jane, Ann Hathaway, is as pretty as Jane Austen would have liked to have been, but unfortunately wasn't. In an era when women's options depended on their looks and dowries, Austen was destined to remain single unless she could meet someone who understood her - a Darcy. It seems Lefroy did understand her, but his financial considerations carried more weight. He married an heiress. End of story.

Austen was sad, disappointed, and, at times, raged against her dependence on an unfeeling family and illiterate neighbours. But there was no great heartbreak, no Marianne Dashwood-style nervous breakdown, none of the stuff of great drama. There was disappointment, and that can only be conveyed through prose. Her letters, without the mediation of art, convey her bitterness. They refer to the drag of repetition - balls, family parties, social calls, and the discouragement of not being sought after. At one ball, she tells her sister,

There was one Gentleman, an officer of the Cheshire, a very good looking young Man, who I was told wanted very much to be introduced to me; - but he did not want it quite enough to take much trouble in effecting it.
The weight of each syllable is so evenly spread as to lull the reader into that delicious false sense of understanding, until we get to the end of the sentence and receive a shock. We have misunderstood what she said. There is a subtext of deeply felt emotion here, not dramatic, but deep, and it is deployed so as to subvert and entertain.

Critics have also misunderstood her. They have commented that, as well as the lack of sexual content, there is little spiritual content in her novels. But Austen was not given to overtness. The sex is there but she is pragmatic. She had to be. Effervescence has to be regulated - prose helps keep the heartbeat of great passion at a steady rhythm. There are meaningful glances, a hand on an elbow, but no heaving bosoms. The only breasts Austen refers to are in the singular and they belong to men. The sex is there but it comes in the shape of unsuitable men: the cavalier Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, the deceitful Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, the amoral Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park. They are dangerous, unsettling and very much to be avoided, but her heroines are attracted to them like moths to the flame. Austen seems to be commenting on an aspect of female sexuality that is too effervescent for its own good. The men her heroines eventually choose are the men who can offer them a space to grow, to come to their maturity, "become Jane", if you like.

Her spirituality is also there in the resurgence of the human spirit through laughter, the communion of a real and abiding love, and a delight in Nature. When these rare instances do occur, her spirit rises upwards like a lark in her prose.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.

To read Prof. David Womersley's take on Becoming Jane, see: If Becoming Jane did not purport to be about Jane Austen it would be an engaging film - as it is, it is breathtakingly stupid.

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"Film-makers and legions of strangely obsessed readers called "Janeites" have been happily going about the business of misunderstanding her novels for years."

I've certainly seen some sub-par adaptations of Austen's works on screen, but I'm rendered speechless by the sweeping inclusion of "strangely obsessessed readers called 'Janeites'" in the same category as those film makers.

Why on earth do you assume that the very people whom you categorize as "obsessed" with Austen's works don't understand them, or that they understand them less well than you? Because they haven't all published non-fiction, as you have?


Posted by: La BellaDonna at April 4, 2007 03:28 PM

"She talks about people, but what is apparent when reading between the lines is how much she hated them.

"At her most polite, Jane Austen was devastating. Her famous irony is a careful rationing of rage."

I most respectfully completely disagree. It is my suspicion that as a very religious woman Miss Austen was afflicted by the same affliction that Evelyn Waugh (a fellow sufferer) described of Malcolm Muggeridge : The "particularly English loneliness of a religiously minded man suddenly made alive to the fact that he is outside Christendom." She did not hate all people, in fact she was deeply attached to many. Her heroines are all very likeable young ladies who merit the earthly happiness she granted them. Miss Austen was a woman of disctinction guided by Christian precepts. But enough of what I think. Let us read what a much more qualified Austen expert, Lord David Cecil, thought of Miss Austen, her letters and Tom Lefroy:

"For her biographer, this year is even more of a landmark. 1796 is the date of her first surviving letters, that in we get the first installment of a lifelong correspondence with Cassandra [Jane's older sister]. This means that it gives us our first chance of hearing the voice of Jane Austen the author. It is a less expressive voice : Jane Austen, and when especially writing to Cassandra, is not one of the great letter-writers. She is too unpretentiously concerned just to retail the family news or give useful information, reporting that brother Charles has been promoted or noting that coquelicot is now the most fashionable colour at Bath. Further, the particular traditions of reserve Jane Austen was brought up in tended to inhibit her spontaneity. Her sense of fun bubbles forth easily enough but not her graver, tenderer sentiments, so that her letters lack variety of tone and mood. All the same, those to Cassandra do bring us closer to Jane Austen the woman than we get anywhere else: with no one was she so candid. Jane Austen later came to have a name among her friends - perhaps she always had it - for not speaking ill of other people. She was said never to 'quiz' people, that is to say make fun of them by way of being amusing. Her letters confirm this reputation - always excepting her letters to Cassandra. In these she is blithely and formidably outspoken to point out any faults or foibles she may note in others and gaily ready to make outrageous jokes about them; jokes that, more than anything in the novels, reveal her as a child of the high-spirited, unsqueamish eighteenth century. The effect of this has been to scandalize some later readers who, more in sorrow than in anger, have reproached her for making jokes in poor taste. These readers forget the period she lived in and misapprehend the nature of her relation to Cassandra. Any acute observer of his or her fellow men must often be critical of them; and, if he or she happens like Jane Austen to be a humorist, will make fun of them. But if also like Jane Austen, he or she is discreet and dislikes giving pain, they will reserve their criticism and jokes exclusively for the ears of the few people who are really in their confidence. For Jane, this meant Cassandra. Only with Cassandra did she really let herself be as frank and flippant as she felt inclined, say what she really thought about other people, sure that her remarks would be taken in the spirit in which they were intended and certain that they would not be repeated...

"But it is important to realize that they are eminently private documents and only rightly understood if read as such. Transmitted to the printed page and published, they can give a misleading impression: cool and sometimes trivial. Read in the right context they are not cool at all and no more trivial than are most family letters. Now and again they are very amusing indeed.

"This is especially true of the earlier letters written in Jane Austen's cheerful youth. but let her speak for herself : she does it better than I can speak for her. Here are some passages from letters written in January 1796 to Cassandra who was on a visit to her future husband's family near Newbury. Jane gives her the social news of Steventon with especial reference to another nephew of the Lefroys, young Tom Lefroy from Ireland, with whom Jane had been having a flirtation.

""You scold me so much in the nice long letter which I have this morning received from you that I am almost afraid to tell you about how my Irsih friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself, however only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the last three balls, I cannot say much; for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs. Lefroy a few days ago.""

"...The flirtation between Tom Lefroy continued to feature in Jane's life for the next year or so. At first it is clear from the tone of her letters that it was a light-harted affair.

""Tell Mary [she had written in January 1796] that I make over Mr. Hartley and all his society to her, for her sole use and benefit in future, and not only him, but all my other admirers into the bargain wherever she can find them, even the kiss which C. Powlett wanted to give me, as I mean to confine myself in future to Mr. Tom Lefroy, for whom I don't care a sixpence.""

"And then the day after:

""At length the day has come on which I am to flirt my last with Mr. Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over. My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea!""

"In fact the flirtation was not over: it lingered on into 1798 and it seems Jane's feelings became a little more serious. Certainly Tom Lefory's feelings for her did: and openly enough to worry his uncle and aunt, who thought him too young and too poor to think of marriage. To stop this, they immediately packed him off home to Ireland, Jane, it was thought, did suffer a twinge of disappointment, enough to keep her proudly silent when Mrs. Lefroy when Mrs. Lefroy happened to mention Tom's name, but not enough to disturb their friendship. This was just as well, for within a year Tom Lefroy had recovered enough to get engaged to another girl and one who had the advantage over Jane of possessing a considerable fortune. He lived on to become Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. As an old man, he recalled his love for Jane Austen, with a slight sense of guilt at the speed with which he got over it."'It was a boy's love,'" he explained apologetically."

Posted by: Mrs. Peperium at April 5, 2007 06:12 PM
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