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Jane Austen: The Movie, Or Why We Watch Great Books

Admitting that money might determine our emotional lives, and that education might be a matter of class, would make Jane Austen's stories just a little too present-day for comfort.
Annalee Newitz

Issue #27, September 1996

it's educational

I was forced to read a novel called Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin when I was in the seventh grade. I hated it. The main characters spent all their time talking and trying to get married — the book had nothing to do with my life, or the lives of anyone I knew. My English teacher told the class to make "shadow boxes" of special scenes from our books for our book reports. I cut a woman out of cardboard, gave her a huge butcher paper dress, stuffed her in a shoebox and pasted bars across the opening to the box. "Elizabeth Bennett is walking behind a fence at her house," I wrote, "This is an important scene from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen."

Although I didn't know it at the time, I had learned something from Pride and Prejudice. Women in the past were, symbolically, kept behind bars. But all I felt while reading it was that I was behind bars, forced to read literature when I really wanted to be reading science fiction and horror. Flying dragons and ghosts were far more interesting to me than British manners and marriage. They still are. Pop culture continues to be my first and best love. So I guess, in the end, I learned nothing from Jane Austen. I still don't "appreciate" Great Books, even though I started reading them before I hit puberty, and later went to graduate school to get a Ph.D. in English.

Last year, all that changed. Jane Austen became the hippest pop writer to go Hollywood since John Grisham. First came the Alicia Silverstone vehicle Clueless, based on Austen's Emma; then came the academy award-winning Sense and Sensibility, followed rapidly by a British movie version of Persuasion and a 6-hour BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice. Just a few weeks ago, a big-budget Hollywood version of Emma was released, the second US version of the story to get made in the last two years. Like Clueless, Emma features a young, beautiful, up-and-coming actress, Gwyneth Paltrow, in the title role.

Dear readers, let me confess: I've seen them all. In fact, I saw Sense and Sensibility twice in as many weeks, and it made my cry both times. I have Pride and Prejudice and Clueless on videotape (which many of my friends have borrowed). As soon as Sense and Sensibility comes out on video, I'll probably buy it too. Like thousands of others in the United States, a nation of citizens who have notoriously bad taste in culture and a real fetish for violent entertainment, I have become smitten with a series of stories which are the epitome of high culture and refined taste. Why does a nation which flocked to Independence Day and Species suddenly develop a desire to see British historical romances? These are stories about manners, not monsters. They are just the kind of thing we were frustrated by reading in school.

For US audiences, I think, part of the thrill of watching these movies is the excitement of education, of thinking "I'm learning something," while having fun. Likewise, when cultural critic Janice Radway interviewed women who read "trashy" romance novels, one of their answers was, "It's educational." They learned something about history and political geography in books about English ladies or French marquises in love. The fact is, these women — like people going to Jane Austen movies — really are learning something. Even if history in Sense and Sensibility seems like a glamorous swirl of fashions and romantic vistas, for instance, one still comes away from the movie with a heightened awareness of how people's lives were restricted in the past, not just by gender, but by class and propriety. Integral to understanding the pain of a lost love in this movie is understanding how a gentleman of Jane Austen's period (the early nineteenth century) would have cared more for his class privilege, his money, than he would have about love. Willoughby breaks Marianne's heart because he ultimately cannot marry a woman who isn't rich. This, in itself, is a lesson about the way marriage worked in centuries before our own.

Perhaps the most unexpected lesson of all is that Jane Austen movies teach US audiences that learning can be entertaining. People in the US aren't the boorish idiots many commentators have claimed they are. After having been told for decades that they're the "lowest common denominator," and that their culture is trash, movie goers in the US should be pleased to discover that seeing Jane Austen movies will not get them called any degrading names. Jane Austen movies, unlike slasher or porn flicks, are not a guilty pleasure. Because education is associated with "bettering oneself," we can believe that watching Jane Austen movies will improve us in any number of ways. At the very least, it's certain that few would be ashamed to tell their friends they saw Emma last night. They learned about history, after all, and it was British history to boot.

it's timeless

We can say as much as we want about how valuable it is to learn history from Jane Austen movies, but it's probably true that an historical documentary about England during the Napoleanic Wars wouldn't garner even 2 percent of the audience that the Pride and Prejudice miniseries did on television. What's enjoyable about Pride and Prejudice isn't so much the historical background, but the soap opera of the characters' lives — who slept with whom, who has an illegitimate baby or a bad reputation, and of course, who wants to get married and for what reasons. Such concerns, many would say, are timeless. Indeed, many scholars would argue that we measure Great Literature by its timelessness, although I doubt they would interpret "timelessness" to mean that Jane Austen's masterpieces would translate well into a contemporary soap opera plot. A nation obsessed with commercials and sitcoms watched Pride and Prejudice, however, for just this reason.

The stuff of soaps — love, betrayal, secrets, sex, murder, blackmail — are the "timeless" issues that make literary hits like Shakespeare plays popular in the twentieth century, just as they make bits of Milton's Paradise Lost required reading in high school. Pride and Prejudice has all these issues too, and one might be tempted to say that regular people watch Jane Austen TV because anyone, at any time, can relate to falling in love. But "love," for Jane Austen, is very different than "love" for people living in the nineties. Elizabeth Bennett falls in love because it is proper, because Mr. Darcy is a socially appropriate choice for her, and because if she does not marry it is likely she will lead a socially and materially impoverished life. In short, she has very few other options besides what Austen would call "love," and what we in the nineties might very well call "gold digging."

Rich Mr. Darcy, after all, offers Elizabeth quite a bit more money than she is used to, and her love for him develops over time as she comes to understand how much her family will need that money, given the poor matches her sisters are likely to make. Pride and Prejudice isn't nearly as crass about this as I indicate that it is — we are invited to understand Elizabeth's growing appreciation of Mr. Darcy as a moral affair. She realizes she's been prejudiced against his character, thinking him cold and unfeeling, when really he's quite the ethical fellow after all. He just has a lot of personal problems which he keeps secret, because secrecy about personal matters is the decent thing.

So here we are, watching all this on TV, waiting until the delicious finale when all Mr. Darcy's secrets will be revealed and he and Elizabeth will get married. Then they'll go live at his sumptuous estate, saving Elizabeth and her family from having to depend upon a rude cousin, who has inherited their property, for a home. How timeless is this scene really? We still fall in love, of course, but at this point it is usually considered morally questionable, if not downright despicable, to let financial concerns determine one's "love." Yet there's only one reason why we care whether or not Elizabeth will learn to get over her distaste for Darcy: an alliance with him would allow her to "marry up" into a higher class than the one she was born in. These are the same values that had critics dubbing the movie Pretty Woman a substanceless, retrograde, sexist fairy tale. Without all the historical window dressing, however, Pride and Prejudice is basically Pretty Woman — in both, a lower class woman learns to love an upper class man (and vice versa), in spite of their mutual distrust and prejudice. Elizabeth is certainly not as "low class" as a prostitute, but she will be poor and have no property once her father dies, since she cannot inherit anything.

The importance of decent manners in Pride and Prejudice also makes Elizabeth and Darcy's love far from timeless. Things that they cannot say to one another about the sexual histories of people they know, and about their own romantic desires, are no longer taboo topics in the US at this point in history — especially on TV and in the movies. Yet their rigid manners do allow them to talk freely about class positions and money. Characters in Pride and Prejudice are well aware how much everyone else makes per year, and it is not at all a secret that people hope to marry into, and seek out the company of, people from their own economic class or higher. To bring up such topics in polite conversation today, however, would be nearly obscene — nobody chats about how much money they make, or how they married somebody so that they could pay off their student loans. Saying that you don't want to hang out with someone because they're of a different class just isn't done, although it is often undertaken covertly and without discussion. In the nineties, salaries, inheritances and class have taken the place of sex as the unspoken motivation for "love."

Given our current shame surrounding the economic dimensions of romance, one might call Pride and Prejudice, or Emma, financially pornographic. Both the TV show and movie overtly foreground class as perhaps the most important ingredient in love. We never see anyone having sex, but we do see them nakedly having and seeking out money. The version of Emma set in the contemporary US, Clueless, seems to tacitly acknowledge this romantic taboo — in this version, the Emma figure (named Cher) doesn't try to match her friend with a man of a higher economic class, but with a boy who is just "more popular." Implicitly, he may be richer, but we never know that for certain.

That feeling of timelessness, that sense we get watching these movies and TV that we can "relate" to characters across the ages, is perhaps more accurately a sensation of relief that somewhere, somebody got to admit that they married for money. What we hide in Hollywood movies about the present gets revealed in these Jane Austen movies that recreate the past. I'm suggesting that we are drawn to Pride and Prejudice, or Sense and Sensibility, for their temporal difference from us, the difference which allowed Jane Austen to acknowledge that love, and many other emotions, are often motivated by economics.

What is timeless about Jane Austen stories is their way of creating entertainment by hiding certain relevant bits of reality: where Austen hides the importance of sexuality, we hide the importance of class. Watching movies about class, however, does make it more difficult to pretend class doesn't exist in our lives today. People marry, fight, fall in love, and create art for money, even if they don't talk openly about it. Therefore one might say that when we watch Jane Austen movies, we are learning just as much about our own present as we are about "history." The difference is in what we edit out, and why.

it's beautiful

One thing that doesn't get edited out of any Jane Austen movie, most especially Emma and Clueless, are extremely beautiful women. Rave reviews about these movies, and about Sense and Sensibility too, praised the gorgeous costumes and the voluptuous (or "delicate," in the case of Gwyneth Paltrow) bodies of the women wearing them. Kate Winslet, the actress who played Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, grew tired of being talked about as the beautiful girl in historical dramas, remarking to Entertainment Weekly, "Hey, I'm not just a period babe." Clueless was followed by gossip that Alicia Silverstone had gotten fat and unappealing, making it clear that her acting abilities in the movie were dependent upon her maintaining top babe status. And Emma, as reviewers remarked, might prove that Gwyneth Paltrow can act as well as look fabulous. The point is, even the actors and gossip columnists knew these "educational" movies were less about substance (and substantive acting) than they were about style.

To be honest, however, most people did call Sense and Sensibility well-written and acted, just as they noted that Clueless is a fairly sophisticated comedy, like Emma. Somehow, the "beauty" of all these movies and their leading actresses goes hand in hand with their sophistication. After all, we can say Great Books are beautiful too. But what makes Alicia Silverstone's MTV-sexpot beauty seem somehow sanctified when she's part of a plot borrowed from literature? What's the difference between saying "it's beautiful" when we watch Pamela Anderson Lee on Baywatch, and saying that when we watch Paltrow in Emma? Finally, the difference is a matter of class.

Some kinds of beauty are considered classier than others. While there is literally no difference at all between the attractiveness of a Lee or a Paltrow, there is a difference in how they get packaged. Being part of a Jane Austen movie changes not just how female beauty looks (dressed in period costumes, perhaps), but also the context in which a woman gets to be beautiful. We can gawk at Winslet's breasts in Sense and Sensibility — and believe me, the camera offers us ample opportunity to do so — without the threat that we're engaging in some sort of vulgar activity like watching Porky's with the rest of the lowest common denominator. All that educational history in Jane Austen movies, and all that open talk about class, makes plain old T & A shots seem somehow uplifting and edifying. The idea, I think, is that a little gratuitous female body action is okay as long as we're getting it in the middle of some high class entertainment.

Nowadays, "high class entertainment" doesn't necessarily mean entertainment that's made by and for royalty and the upper classes, as it did in Jane Austen's day. Hollywood movies and BBC productions of Jane Austen stories are generally the culture of the middle-class. Such productions aren't going to be giant blockbusters that make multi-millionaires out of their directors and actors. Their "classiness" comes from within. Their plots and mannered exchanges revolve around the upper classes and those aspiring to them. More importantly, however, they recall an era when literature was a pleasure reserved only for the upper classes who could afford university educations. Those educated classes are the ones who, over time, refined an idea of beauty which isn't sullied by hard labor and physicality, a beauty which is essentially available to people who never have to engage in anything other than leisure activities.

This is exactly the kind of beauty that people in the US, with their democratic ways and kitschy culture, supposedly dislike and don't understand. We have never had nobles to patronize the arts; and we are a country full of people who get a high school education, complete with Jane Austen novels, for free. But suddenly we're flocking to movies and TV which educate us in the very values of class privilege and elitist beauty that democracy is designed to abolish. Really, though, what's to be surprised about? Just like Elizabeth Bennett, we're trying to marry up. We don't have a Mr. Darcy, though, so instead we consume high class culture for a little while to make ourselves feel like we're not so poor anymore.

We live in a nation where public education in universities is becoming prohibitively expensive, where the middle-class is disappearing into a gap between a vast majority of impoverished people and an elite group of wealthy ones. Even movies are so expensive ($7.50 a pop in the theater) that most of us can hardly afford to see as many as we'd like. Watching a Jane Austen movie, like any other Hollywood fantasy, gives us a fairy tale that we know isn't possible in real life: cheaper education, and upward mobility. We can pretend that Jane Austen's culture is our culture now — the culture of that lowest common denominator, also known as the lower classes.

The frank talk about class that makes Austen's work seem so "historical" could be our frank talk about class — it could even be a critical discussion of why class is an ongoing problem and source of social dysfunction. But admitting that money might determine our emotional lives, and that education might be a matter of class, would make Jane Austen's stories just a little too present-day for comfort. That's why we conceal our desire to grapple with the conflicts caused by wealth behind a desire for culture and beauty. Culture is not going to pay our bills, however, and Jane Austen movies will not supply the money for the bachelor's degree we need to get a high-paying job. Ironically, watching these movies for their educational value and beauty may obscure the very economic issues that we would do well to learn most about.

Annalee Newitz is co-director of Bad Subjects. She can be reached at

Copyright © 1996 by Annalee Newitz. All rights reserved.