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.