Welcome to Jane’s Addiction, a monthly column on the ever-expanding canon of Austen-inspired art. From adaptations to critical works to re-releases of her novels, our Austenmania goes far, far deeper than Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy dove into that fish pond. You know what we’re talking about.
Jane Austen had a gift for delivering brutal assessments of her own characters. My favorite example of her acid-tipped pen can be found in Persuasion, when the middle-class Musgrove family, key members of the novel’s supporting cast, begin lamenting the loss of their son, “Poor Richard,” at sea. Here the narrator interjects with the truth:
The real circumstances of this pathetic piece of family history were, that the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year; that he had been sent to sea because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; that he had been very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved; seldom heard of, and scarcely at all regretted…
Austen goes on from there, delighting, it would seem, in savaging a dead character. This quote goes beyond just “Austen wasn’t as romantic as you think.” No, she’s brutally and lengthly mocking mourning parents in order to demonstrate their simple-minded solipsism. In this, the author’s final novel, we see the very same irreverent, cutting young woman who began writing racy and parodic stories aimed at one goal: making her family laugh. Indeed, Austen only layered in the moral and romantic complexity that made her works into masterpieces as she matured and began to flex her growing power as a writer and storyteller.
Lady Susan, the unfinished epistolary novella which inspired Whit Stillman’s recent Love and Friendship, is one of those saucy early works: “My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a man of his age! just old enough to be formal, ungovernable, and to have the gout; too old to be agreeable, too young to die,” writes the titular heroine, a line that Stillman barely had to amend for his witty script — so clever in its repartee that I watched the film twice and skimmed the companion novel just to take pleasure in all the Austen-inspired zingers and turns of phrase once again.
Austen, like her character Lizzy Bennet, delights in follies, whims and inconsistencies: her characters note each others’ ridiculous qualities, while the author subtly points out their hypocrisy in doing so. Categories of characters she handily cuts down to size include rakes like Wickham and Willoughby; supreme queens of snottiness such as Caroline Bingley, Mrs. Elton, and Elizabeth Elliot; awful parents like Mr. Elliot and Mrs. Bennet, and usually her heroines themselves, who get to deliver plenty of clever retorts but must grapple with their own blindnesses and flaws as well. No one is spared the novelist’s scrutiny, which is why her creations endure: not a Mary Sue among them, (and if you think Elizabeth Bennet is perfect, take a second look.)
It is refreshing to see artists today grappling with this aspect of her legacy as a writer, rather than focusing on the romantic yearning and misunderstanding that is the most easily accessible quality of her work. In the past few years, as several waves of lush, romantic (and often wonderful) screen adaptations of Austen receded, the caustic, even bitchy side of the author ascended thanks to the release and success of Love and Friendship, (out on DVD this week), which lacks a traditional love plot.
Instead, Stillman has us rooting for its scheming heroine while also feeling a bit bad for the abominable way she treats her poor daughter and really, everyone else around her including her friends. Love and Friendship felt different from other Austen movies because besides having no major romance, there was no clear sympathetic center, no family or heroine to adore despite their foibles. The nice people were often insipid, the smart ones wicked (this is a feature with Austen’s Mansfield Mark, which Stillman translated beautifully into his debut Metropolitan) — thus, it was possible to delight in Lady Susan making asses of her foes, “these pompous DeCourcys” but also enjoy that family’s rescue and embrace of her ill-treated daughter Frederica. If the film had tilted too much in either direction —toward valorizing either Lady Susan or her antagonists — it would have been less enjoyable and less quintessentially Austen. As it stands, Love and Friendship teases its audience, putting us in the place of Lady Susan’s admirers who allow her vivaciousness and smooth tongue to separate us temporarily from our own moral self-righteousness.
Around the same time as Love and Friendship hit screens, Austen’s less romantic side also found form in Curtis Sittenfeld’s modern update of Pride and Prejudice. Eligible sets the action in the author’s native St. Louis, brings in a Bachelor-style reality show, and includes an interval of “hate sex” between protagonists “Liz” and her surgeon nemesis Darcy, a narrative solution that is a refreshingly modern way to handle Austen’s smoldering tension. In addition, the Prep author includes characters of color, queer and trans characters, and of course, a major focus on real estate, thereby creating the potential for a juicy update with all kinds of cutting social commentary.
And yet something doesn’t quite gel. Ursula K. LeGuin savaged the novel in The Guardian by saying “The five Bennet sisters and their parents speak to one another only in this style: peevish and self-assertive, relentlessly striving for wit through mere insult.” It’s not a problem, per se, for the sisters to h spar constantly; on the contrary it’s a good reading of Austen who made no pretense of familial harmony. No, what’s lost in this novel is the way Austen plays on our sympathies, letting us side thoroughly with one set of characters before she reveals their blindnesses, too.
It would be hard to say that Austen, the originator of Lady Susan’s one-liners, could be interpreted too cruelly, but that’s what the novel does. In particular, it takes one of Austen’s ingeniously complex comic characters, Mrs. Bennet, and flattens her into such a nasty piece of work that the entire story almost collapses. Whereas Lady Susan’s manipulation and narcissism reads as intoxicating, in Eligible, Mrs. Bennet — Austen’s histrionic mother who tries to marry off her five daughters — is updated into a transphobic bigot, an upper-crusty racist snob fallen on hard times, who says things that are so outrageous the reading experience becomes a cringing one. In particular, Mrs. Bennet can’t handle her youngest daughter’s relationship with a trans man, and expresses disapproval of any non-heretosexual, non-WASPs she encounters.
Writer Sari Edelstein dispatches with the character’s transphobia handily at Avidly, noting that the narration does little to push back against Mrs. Bennet’s views (save making Liz into a limousine liberal who is sadly uneducated on gender issues and googles them on her smartphone), writing: “this stridently heterosexual novel poaches on a range of queer experiences and implications merely to buttress the central romance between Darcy and Liz.” She accurately summarizes the novel’s failed “critique” of transphobia by simply showing us what Sittenfeld does with her characters:
… when it is revealed that the youngest sister, Lydia, has fallen in love with Hamilton, a transgender man who runs a CrossFit gym, the family’s anxieties are fully realized. As one sister reveals to another via a frantic, sensational text: “Lydia and Ham eloped to Chicago. Turns out Ham transgender/born female!!!! M & D freaking out.” Mr. and Mrs. Bennet find the romance “strange and disgusting,” and suggest Ham has missed his chance to be “one of Barnum’s bearded ladies.” Mrs. Bennett promptly decides to cut Lydia out of the family, lamenting the grandchildren she will never have and the “waste” of Lydia’s beauty.
…the revelation of Ham as transgender replaces the exposure of the villain George Wickham… That is, the crime in Eligible is not illicit sex with a juvenile or extortion as in Austen’s version; rather, simply being transgender itself is the crime that lurks beneath Hamilton’s friendly façade.
It’s no sin to render characters bigoted; to deny these attributes would be to ignore the reality of human existence. The difficulty arises from adding “prejudice” without slicing that prejudice open to reveal its emptiness. Austen’s fundamental treatment of our “propensity to judge” goes beyond the concept of don’t judge a book by its cover to the idea that the cover of the book you’re seeing,— your impression of another person— is probably a mirror reflecting yourself, and your community. Indeed, many of her loathsome characters have some sense to them, which explains the entire appeal of Lady Susan herself, whose quips are often accurate without being self-aware. Lady Susan notes that “where there is a disposition to dislike, a motive will never be wanting.” She’s right, but the irony in the statement is that it applies to her own vehement dislike of her virtuous relatives.
In general, people tend to categorize others in broad social swaths as a way of reassuring themselves. An example from Pride and Prejudice, Eligible‘s source material arises Caroline Bingley warns Elizabeth about Mr. Wickham’s bad behavior, and punctuates it with some old-fashioned class snobbery.
“I pity you, Miss Eliza, for this discovery of your favourite’s guilt; but really, considering his descent, one could not expect much better.”
“His guilt and his descent appear by your account to be the same,” said Elizabeth angrily; “for I have heard you accuse him of nothing worse than of being the son of Mr. Darcy’s steward, and of that, I can assure you, he informed me himself.”
On the surface Caroline is being odious and Elizabeth, virtuous — and yet in this case, Caroline happens to be correct on the merits of Mr. Wickham. Meanwhile Lizzy, whom Wickham has flirted with, thinks she’s being a righteous crusader — but she’s partly motivated by vanity. In exchanges like this, Austen makes sure we can’t latch on to an easy moral truth: Wickham isn’t bad because he is poor, while Caroline isn’t bad because she is rich; in fact, they both have faulty characters marked by disregard for others. To Austen, it was crucially important to separate character from circumstance.
Similarly, throughout Austen’s original novel, Mrs. Bennet is obnoxious but not entirely wrong. As a matter of fact, she is the only person who loudly, and in a constant panic, states what is actually true about the social setup she lives in: if none of her daughters marries well, she and they will have nowhere to live. She is sort of a Cassandra figure shouting the unpleasant reality regardless of propriety: yet while her fear about being turned out of her house is accurate (Austen knew this; she and her female relatives were at the mercy of her relatives for a place to live and an income) her solution of blatantly parading her daughters out in the marriage market remains morally and socially problematic.
This is why Sittenfeld’s rendering a contemporary Mrs. Bennet as a simplistic bigot feels unsettling; the place of this character isn’t merely to be difficult, but to be so in a way that illuminates the reality of her world, and everyone else’s willful blindness to it.
Sittenfeld probably should have made another character trans, but if she insisted on making Mrs. Bennet engage with this kind of chauvinism, there were other ways to do so. What if Mrs. Bennet’s main problem with the transgender Ham was that he owned a gym rather than pursuing a career as a lawyer or doctor? Or what if she became fixated on the fact that other people’s prejudice against Ham would prevent her daughter from buying a house in a nearby neighborhood with a good school district? Or what if she embraced Ham as a “hero like Caitlyn Jenner,” but continued to attend fundraisers for transphobic local candidates? By making Mrs. Bennet a self-styled-enlightened woman who nonetheless harbored deep-seated, self-interested prejudices, Sittenfield might have actually provided the kind of uncomfortable insight into our social world that did done justice to her source material.