Over winter break, I’ve had the opportunity to fuel my Jane Austen obsession with Andrew Davies’ BBC adaptations of Sense and Sensibility (2008) and Pride and Prejudice (1995). I enjoyed them both! In my enthusiasm, I’ll follow up Caroline’s wonderful post on Alan Rickman’s Colonel Brandon and Cailey’s fascinating review of Feeding France with a few comments on the very different ways that Davies’ two miniseries represent the kind of solitary states that turn up all the time in Austen’s novels. I mean those moments in the narrative when a character’s (often the heroine’s) “privacy” is inflected with—or we might say invaded by—irrepressible thoughts and feelings for others. The tendency to doubt, judge, “(re)read” and generally speculate about other minds is one of the things that makes an Austen heroine the herione–this capacity distinguishes Elinor Dashwood from Anne Steele, Elizabeth from Mary Bennett. (There are shades of thinking and feeling for others, of course. Lucy Steele, for instance, is good at anticipating other people’s behavior but her cunning doesn’t enable her to transcend her immediate interests.) Frequently, a heroine’s thoughts and feelings about other characters come into relief when she is alone—i.e. temporarily free from the claims, misconstructions and physical proximity of others.
After reading Darcy’s letter exposing the ‘truth’ about Wickham, Elizabeth Bennet famously cries, “Till this moment I never knew myself.” The expression passes in just the kind of reflective solitude that I want to suggest is the special privilege of the Austenian heroine. We might equate Elizabeth’s urgent solitary exclamation with the sort of emotional content that Shakespeare’s soliloquies represent. Think, for instance, of Richard III’s despairing exclamation upon waking from a nightmare that, “There is no creature loves me; / And if I die, no soul shall pity me: / Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself / Find in myself no pity to myself?” For Richard as for Elizabeth, self-knowledge comes with a fresh and difficult (humiliating, haunting) perception of one’s relation to another (or others) . In general though, dialogic forms like drama and film evoke solitary movements of thought and feeling far less frequently than realist novels. For Frances Ferguson, “the limitation of theater is that it consists of almost nothing but direct quotation, so that drama must continually create an unfolding plot that motivates individual characters to present their views, to have thoughts that rise to the level of the expressible” (167). Theatre can’t, in other words, capture unvoiced thoughts and feelings like free indirect style.
Though their film consists of almost nothing but direct dialogue, screenwriter Andrew Davies and director Simon Langton manage to evoke the intense feelings of shame, regret and longing that accompany Elizabeth’s recognition that she has misjudged Darcy’s character. Nancy Yousef has observed that Elizabeth’s attachment to Darcy grows with self-abasing feelings of gratitude that are “largely described and situated in solitary meditations” (107). The BBC adaptation stays faithful to the spirit of Austen’s novel by showing us that Elizabeth’s romance with Darcy develops as much in private spaces of reflection as in face-to-face encounters. The filmmaker’s attempts to show that Elizabeth is a reflective character are respectable (she is frequently shot sitting in front of the mirror) but, in one instance, the visual representation of Elizabeth’s preoccupation with Darcy is semi-ludicrous. In the carriage ride from Rosings to Merryton, Elizabeth gazes pensively out of the window and, all of a sudden, a ghostly apparition of Darcy appears reflected before her. He rehashes a line from the proposal scene: “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” Although Elizabeth’s feelings of regret and self-loathing are conveyed in the bodily shudder with which she responds to and vanquishes Darcy’s specter, the whole bit has me thinking less about Elizabeth’s affective state (the scene leaves little to the imagination) and more about how unnatural it feels to know exactly what a character on screen is feeling. Movies may just be better off leaving us to wonder about the content of characters’ minds.
By not giving us full access to Elinor Dashwood’s thoughts, a montage towards the end of the BBC adaptation of Sense and Sensibility imagines new possibilities for Austen’s heroine. The montage is about as effective as any scene in Antonioni at generating ambiguity about a silent figure. Multiple shots dwell on Elinor after she has returned to Barton and learned (been misinformed) that Edward Ferrars has married. In this moment in the novel, psycho-narration follows Elinor’s thoughts as she conjures a vision of Edward settled in marriage and discovers that, “happy or unhappy,—nothing pleased her; she turned away her head from every sketch of him.” In the film, however, Elinor’s mood of frustrated desire saturates a series of strangely beautiful shots that picture her going through the solitary motions of everyday life. We watch her paint a landscape, hang a picture, buy a fish, gaze out the window and, finally, out at the sea. Though Antonioni would probably leave off the sad tune that acknowledges Elinor’s disappointment all too obviously, her contemplative activities suggest visually the kind of aimlessness that he became famous for representing on screen. Watching Elinor, we entertain the idea that she may be sad, bored, distracted or lonely but we are not certain that her feelings correspond to thoughts of Edward.
In the final shot, Elinor appears on a bench before the sea, with her back to the viewer. In an essay on Austen and Cavell, Eric Walker argues that this image represents Elinor’s self-sufficiency—“like Elinor herself in the image, Elinor’s desire, autocentric and allocentric, faces elsewhere, elusively”—and simultaneously anticipates her upcoming marriage—“the bench marks the grounded and settled spot where the marriage empire summons identity to take seated place, with room for one other.” Insofar as the shot suggests thoughts of an absent other, it evokes the typically intersubjective quality of solitude in Austen. But where the novel Sense and Sensibility gives us an incontestable description of the unpleasant thoughts about Edward that are running through Elinor’s head in this moment, the film, which can only suggest thoughts and emotions, leaves open the possibility that Elinor’s thoughts may tend, elusively and abstractly, towards a horizon that is hers alone to imagine.
Ferguson, Frances. “Jane Austen, Emma, and the Impact of Form.” MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 61, no. 1 (2000): 157–80.
Walker, Eric C. “Walker, Austen and Cavell,” July 1, 2014. http://www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/cavell/praxis.cavell.2014.walker.html.
Yousef, Nancy. Romantic Intimacy. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2013.