The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - DIRK den HAR­TOG

EVEN while drown­ing in the dark depths of Anne Hath­away’s eyes as she was rather im­plau­si­bly Be­com­ing Jane , I still nag­gingly re­called how far I was from the nov­el­ist I en­joy and ad­mire.

Hath­away’s glam­orous biopic em­bod­i­ment of the not too phys­i­cally glam­orous au­thor, and the film’s in­flated ro­manc­ing of her mea­grely ro­man­tic life, seals the re­cent canon­i­sa­tion of Jane Austen as a uni­ver­sally ap­peal­ing nov­el­ist, the ul­ti­mate writer of love sto­ries, a favourite of learned pro­fes­sors and Brid­get Jone­ses alike.

She’s now pack­aged as a kind of Bar­bara Cart­land with class or, as Rose­mary Neill sug­gested in The Week­end Aus­tralian in March, ‘‘ the found­ing mother of chick lit, al­beit a very su­pe­rior kind of chick lit’’.

‘‘ Jane Austen with a mar­tini,’’ says the blurb on Sex in the City au­thor Can­dace Bush­nell’s re­cent Four Blondes.

Re­peated film adap­ta­tion is the main cause, es­pe­cially with at­trac­tions such as Colin Firth’s smoul­der­ingly erotic Darcy of the wet seethrough shirt and Keira Knight­ley’s and Jen­nifer Ehle’s re­spec­tive El­iz­a­beth Ben­nets.

Iron­i­cally, though, Austen’s writ­ing is not at all phys­i­cally sen­su­ous. Henry Til­ney, for in­stance, the hero of Northanger Abbey, is in­tro­duced as hav­ing ‘‘ a pleas­ing coun­te­nance’’ and ‘‘ a very lively and in­tel­li­gent eye’’, with­out ref­er­ence to shape, com­plex­ion or colour. And when that novel’s hero­ine, Catherine Mor­land, is asked by her ditsy friend Isabella to de­bate her pre­ferred com­plex­ion in a man, she replies that she ‘‘ hardly know[ s]’’ and has ‘‘ never thought much about it’’. When teach­ing Emma I used to ask the class what Mr Knight­ley and Frank Churchill looked like: all they could con­fi­dently say was that the for­mer was taller.

The true nov­el­is­tic fore­bear of Firth’s charis­matic smoul­der­ing is in fact Char­lotte Bronte’s Ed­ward Rochester, over whose ‘‘ gran­ite- hewn fea­tures’’ and fal­con- like ‘‘ great, dark eyes’’ Jane Eyre hov­ers de­fi­antly in fright­ened ado­ra­tion. Bronte is com­mit­ted to re­veal­ing the in­ner spirit and en­ergy of the per­son through the phys­i­cal pres­ence, which is why she makes her nar­ra­tor Jane also some­thing of a painter. But, among other things, this marks her ( postro­man­tic) dif­fer­ence from Austen.

Yet it’s the ab­sence of phys­i­cal­ity that clears a space for Austen’s real forte as a writer of love sto­ries and one that surely has wide­spread ap­peal. For rather than sen­su­ous­ness or dwelling on the feel­ings and fan­tasies of ro­man­tic long­ing, the ‘‘ wish­ing and hop­ing and think­ing and pray­ing’’, what fas­ci­nates her are the ac­ces­sories to feel­ing: the not­ing, in­ter­pret­ing and shar­ing the­o­ries with a close friend about the mean­ing of a look or a smile, the tacit im­port of some­thing said or not said, the sub­tex­tual point of some­one’s so­cial ma­noeu­vring.

What do Darcy’s oc­ca­sional smiles and at­ten­tive looks mean? ( A gen­uine puzzle to El­iz­a­beth and read­ers with­out Firth’s all too ob­vi­ously sup­pressed agony.) What does Cap­tain Went­worth’s en­thu­si­as­tic en­dorse­ment of a chance re­mark by Louisa Mus­grove im­ply for Anne El­liot’s hopes for him?

This fo­cus is why it suits Austen to have hero­ines such as El­iz­a­beth Ben­net and Emma Wood­house, who don’t know their deep­est feel­ings. Fanny Price ( Mansfield Park) does, of course, and is for­ever pin­ing on the mar­gin of things, stranded on a bench or left with­out a horse or in a mi­nor­ity of one on the pro­pri­ety of home theatri­cals, ru­ing her beloved Ed­mund’s en­thral­ment by the risque charm of Mary Craw­ford. Yet Austen never asks us to dwell on Fanny’s dis­tress but to keep our eyes on the main so­cial ac­tion, where that charm will even­tu­ally — af­ter we’ve had a good chance to en­joy its live­li­ness and wit — re­veal its mere­tri­cious­ness.

And in Per­sua­sion, while we soon know that Anne deeply re­grets her re­jec­tion of the now re­turned and still un­mar­ried Went­worth, we spend our time with her scan­ning the hori­zon of po­lite so­cia­bil­ity for tell­tale signs she may get a sec­ond chance. Austen, in­deed, is the Agatha Christie of the ro­man­tic com­edy of man­ners, and to read her is to join with the sym­pa­thetic char­ac­ters of her fic­tional worlds in their de­tec­tive- style ef­forts to read the of­ten puz­zling sur­faces of so­cial life. Th­ese, as Northanger Abbey shows, can be just as mys­te­ri­ous as gothic cas­tles. In do­ing this, of course, we read the fic­tional read­ers by see­ing what their read­ings and mis­read­ings re­veal about them, just as our own ef­forts with the texts show things about us.

Catherine Mor­land is a young ap­pren­tice reader, prone to ig­nore things she notes that dis­turb friend­ships she has formed through prox­im­ity and need rather than good judg­ment. Pride and Prej­u­dice con­trasts an as­tute but over­con­fi­dent reader, El­iz­a­beth, with her elder sis­ter, Jane, whose dog­matic in­sis­tence on think­ing ev­ery­body nice blinds her to nas­ti­ness. And in Emma the in­ge­niously adroit Frank Churchill weaves a cam­ou­flage over the true pur­pose be­hind his so­cial ma­noeu­vring that de­ceives not only the in­tel­li­gent but ego­is­ti­cally tun­nelvi­sioned Emma but also the deeply ob­ser­vant Mr Knight­ley, un­til his ef­fu­sive wit fi­nally lets a tell­tale clue slip. For many read­ers the sec­ond read­ing, where you trace the labyrinth of Churchill’s con­ceal­ments, is the most en­joy­able.

And for all the dif­fer­ence be­tween our man­ners and those of Austen’s day, the post­mortem ap­praisal of ro­man­tic prospects fol­low­ing a so­cial en­counter in which rel­e­vant ev­i­dence may or may not have been in­ti­mated can still be an es­sen­tial part of the whole busi­ness of whether cou­ples get to­gether. In their pris­tine, un­adapted form, Austen’s nov­els of­fer the reader a won­der­ful chance to ex­er­cise and re­fine the skills such ap­praisal re­quires, free of the fleshly dis­trac­tions added by film adap­ta­tion.

Dusty Spring­field’s al­ter­na­tive to ‘‘ wish­ing and hop­ing’’ was sim­ply to ‘‘ hold him and kiss him and squeeze him and love him / And show that you care’’. Not very use­ful ad­vice for an Austen hero­ine. Nor, if the truth be known, for many of her read­ers to­day in their own quest for Mr or Ms Right. Dirk den Har­tog is a res­i­dent tu­tor in English at Or­mond Col­lege, the Univer­sity of Melbourne.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jock Alexan­der

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