What’s Not in Jane Austen

What’s Not in Jane Austen

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It can be hard to find the duel in Sense and Sensibility

After reading and watching countless Jane Austen adaptations, it can sometimes be difficult to separate what Austen actually wrote in those six published novels with what we think she wrote. (Full disclosure: I once embarrassed myself by conflating the events of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with the original.)

We’ve populated, expanded and explored the world of those novels so thoroughly that our confusion is understandable. Because of Austen, I’ve read many histories of the period. I know the Industrial Revolution was beginning to transform Britain, but unless you’re a knowledgeable reader and paid attention to John Dashwood enclosing the commons, you’d think it largely absent. I know the Napoleonic Wars were ongoing, but unless you asked yourself why there were all those red coats in Meryton, you’d think Austen had ignored it. Sometimes, though, I could swear there are more explicit references in Austen to these events and I’ve wasted a lot of time looking for what isn’t there. (Yes, there are some references to ship actions in Persuasion and Mansfield Park, but mostly in the context of gentlemanly bragging.)

Let’s look at some specific and then some general examples of what we think is in Austen’s novels, but isn’t.

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In the words of Basil Fawlty, “Don’t mention the war!” You can find the Napoleonic War in Austen’s novels, but you have to look.

The atlas
One of the easily understandable misconceptions, especially if you’re as fond of the Ang Lee/Emma Thompson adaptation of Sense and Sensibility as I am, is the atlas business with Edward Ferrars and Margaret Dashwood. It’s such a charming scene and does so much to make us like Edward, that’s it’s hard to remember it’s not in Austen’s story. This, of course, goes back to Dr. Joan Ray’s talk about Sense and Sensibility as the problem novel, inasmuch as Edward as hero doesn’t quite fit the bill. After all, the poor man hardly has a line of dialog in the first 15 chapters of the book, and yet because of various adaptations, we can conjure in our imagination all the conversations that attracted Elinor Dashwood to him. Unfortunately none of those conversations were written down.

The duel
Another thing that’s not in the book is the duel between Colonel Brandon and Willoughby. Sure there’s that line Brandon speaks: “…we met by appointment, he to defend, I to punish his conduct. We returned unwounded, and the meeting, therefore, never got abroad.” We can infer they met for the purpose of a duel, but it’s hardly clear that it was actually fought. I read Sense and Sensibility the first two times and somehow overlooked the duel and it wasn’t until I read an annotated edition that I recognized the five paragraphs that describe it. If you remember reading about the duel in any depth, I’m afraid you’re wrong.

Conversations between men
Most Janeites know that Austen never wrote conservations that happened solely among men. But we can take that further and say that even though Austen wrote in the third person, she rarely wrote of things outside the immediate experience of her protagonist, once that protagonist has been introduced. The conversation between Fanny and John Dashwood, when Fanny shortchanges her poor relations, happens before we meet Elinor. From that point on, we learn things at the same time as Elinor (although Austen often does draw back from the characters in the final chapter).

I’m pretty sure this is why the duel never gets written down in any detail. It would have happened outside the experience of Elinor and would have involved actions solely among men.

Kissing
There’s no kissing in baseball or Jane Austen, which goes against the expectations of those familiar with filmed adaptations (witness the recent poll in Austen Authors). Most of us feel rewarded when at the end of an Austen adaptation Elizabeth or Anne or Elinor have that one kiss that reminds us of William Goldman’s line from The Princess Bride: “Since the invention of the kiss, there have only been five kisses that were rated the most passionate, the most pure. This one left them all behind.” Good luck finding that in Austen. Kisses are for babies or locks of hair; they’re not the stuff of passion. (By the way, I think Sharon Lathan will have a more in-depth exploration of kissing in Austen in an upcoming post.)

Church service
For all the clergymen in Austen’s life and all the clergymen in the novels, I cannot recall any church service that occurs in the novels and the only services that I can recall from any filmed adaptation would be the marriage service. Yes, there are conversations in Mansfield Park about Edmund Bertram’s first sermon, but we don’t get to hear it. I swear I’ve seen or read of shy glances exchanged as the congregation turns to the Book of Common Prayer or sings praise to God, but it’s all in my imagination. Touring the chapel at Sotherton is the only time I can recall her characters being in a place of worship.

Death
Although so much of Austen’s novels are propelled by death and inheritance, there are no examples of major characters dying “on screen.” Despite all the speculation of Mr. Bennet’s impending death, he survives hale and hearty in Pride and Prejudice. A Mr. Dashwood dies at the beginning of Sense and Sensibility, and his death puts in motion the entire story, but we are not invested in him. Similarly, the death of Mrs. Churchill in Emma saddens no one (her husband finally gets to visit a friend!) and certainly not the reader. Mr. Woodhouse, who we do care about, also makes it to the end, despite his fear of chills and cake. Consider what the body count would be had Elizabeth Gaskell written Pride and Prejudice (although again my perceptions are colored by filmed adaptations of Gaskell’s novels).

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Fanny Price’s Portsmouth family provides a rare glimpse of children

Children
Children don’t play much of a role in the novels. Margaret Dashwood only has a few lines of dialog in Sense and Sensibility. She does propel the plot, however, when she mentions the lock of hair. Most children are stage props, something for Emma to dandle on her knee.

The Price children in Mansfield Park do have important roles in making Fanny realize just how different she is from her Portsmouth relatives, but except for Susan, I put them on a par with the unnamed Cratchit children. Considering the large number of children in Austen’s life, this is pretty odd and perhaps may be a reaction to the large number of children in her life. Austen may have practiced family planning in her novels, with the Bennets and the Prices being the only sizable families I can recall. None of these families come close to the progeny of the Austen clan.

Tropes
There are few plot tropes in Austen as we modern-day readers might define them. In Northanger Abbey, you will recall, she makes fun of tropes like ruined castles and the mysterious death of the first Mrs. De Winter, I mean Tilney. There are no McGuffins, like letters of transit, a second will or missing family jewels.

There are a number of misconceptions and some false accusations, but I never get the sense that Austen is trying to put something over on the reader. Austen’s plots are not complicated. Only Emma, I think, is somewhat complicated, which is why it is sometimes compared to mysteries or detective fiction.

Character generally rise above, ignore or flout the few tropes that do exist. Henry Tilney ignores his father’s wishes. Edward Ferrars forgoes his status as first born son. The Bennet entail still looms and seems regarded as moot by the end of the book.

Comeuppance
There’s little consequence to being evil (or just plain mean) in Austen’s novels. Her, in my opinion, worst villain, Fanny Dashwood, is untouched by the events of Sense and Sensibility, except perhaps in her disappointment that she has Elinor Dashwood as a sister-in-law — again. Lucy Steele makes out like a bandit. General Tilney is not harmed when he casts Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is definitely pissed off not to marry her daughter to her nephew, but let’s face it, that’s probably a good thing for the gene pool and it puts her daughter into play for so many adaptations. William Elliot in Persuasion is thwarted when Anne reunites with Captain Wentworth, but we suspect he has a backup scheme.

The one exception to this might be John Willoughby, who seems to genuinely pine for Marianne Dashwood — just before he returns to his rich wife and no doubt current mistress. Compare this to Charles Dickens, who often gives his villains their just deserts. Austen is amazingly non judgmental.

Do these omissions matter to the story?
No, of course not. Austen’s genius is that she gives us so much, without having to hit the reader over the head. We don’t care that she really gives only the barest description of any character. Somehow, “fine eyes” is all we need to recognize Elizabeth Bennet.

Recognizing these omissions, however, does give us an idea what is important to her. As much as the church was part of the warp and woof of her life, she was no moralizer. As much as her fortunes were affected by her father’s death, she doesn’t really employ it as plot device. (Yes, Dickens, I’m looking at you.) As much as she must have feared for her nautical brothers and would have prayed for her safety, she doesn’t dwell on the war with France. Fanny Price, after all, is most worried about her brother William’s prospects, even though I’m sure Austen knew her heroine would also have prayed for brother’s safety.

She was a remarkably canny author. She knew her limitations and she knew what she was good at. She knew to reveal Edward Ferrars to the reader only through the conversations between Elinor and Margaret.And that’s why what’s not there is sometimes as important as what is.

33 Responses to What’s Not in Jane Austen

  1. Most interesting. The only point I’m not sure about is the one about children. In Persuasion, children are not involved throughout the novel, but do have some significant action at Upper Cross (especially the nephew that Captain Wentworth pulls off Anne’s back as she is caring for the other one). The duel we don’t actually see is one of the things I love about Colonel Brandon, a true hero under that flannel waistcoat.

  2. Wonderfully insightful piece. When I first started reading JAFF, and esp after seeing the video versions of the various stories, I used to re-read the original stories periodically just to make sure I could separate the JAFF from the canon. Haven’t re-read them in some time now and probably should. This will surely spur me on to do so. Many thanks.

  3. The men’s conversation is often brought up, because Austen rarely had men alone. But there was a conversation between Edmund Bertram and Sir Thomas in Mansfield Park. On the other hand, hedgerows, dowries and bewitched were never mentioned in P&P.

  4. In the ‘Comeuppance’ section, you don’t mention Mrs Norris and Henry Crawford. Henry presumably pays a penalty when Rushworth sues for divorce, but other than that, Henry doesn’t seem to suffer. Mrs Norris – for all her cruelty to Fanny – gets her dream, to live with her favorite niece Maria. What do you think Jane Austen would make of us – her readers – wanting bloodshed and retribution on her nasty characters?

    • Actually that’s a good point about Mrs Norris and Maria. Sir Thomas does banish them from Mansfield Park, although it’s hardly living on the street. I always like to compare this to Pride and Prejudice, when Mr. Bennet wants to take a heavy hand to Lydia and ultimately doesn’t. I wonder if Mr. Bennet is more forgiving or just too lazy to dish out the punishment.

  5. Funny you should mention this…As I’ve been reading the JAFF novels, I’ve reflected back on how little character development and details Jane really gave us in her classic works. So much was left to the imagination and our own prejudices. Perhaps that is the genius of her work. Everyone reading her writings puts so much of their on persona on the characters that they feel closer to the story themselves. Just a thought as I start another new book to treat myself to some Jane Time this Saturday morning. Happy Easter to all and may you all be exceedingly blessed.

  6. This is such a fascinating article. I think a little more kissing in the books would have been welcome, but I can understand how that just wasn’t done during that time (nor does it appear to be a subject that Jane was very familiar with considering her nonmarried status). But it’s fun to use our imaginations when reading the books!

  7. This was really insightful, thank you so much! I am going to go back and reread my annotated Persuasion to see what I thought was there but wasn’t. That will be my excuse for reading it yet again anyway, purely for research purposes and not for fun. 🙂

  8. Even though we were living overseas during the time my ex was in the military and was deployed more than once, daily life still reigned in our thoughts. I think it is how it is now. There are wars our country is involved in, but they pale in comparison to all the drama happening in the news around us.

    this was a very fun post! I do the same thing. It’s actually one of my favorite “games” to see all the licensing other writers and directors have added to the original works. It’s fascinating to see the different takes on it as I’m watching them for the first time. 🙂

    • Yes, it’s important to remember that even during the Blitz, I’m sure many were still going to theaters and restaurants. Life does go on.

  9. Very insightful post! When I first saw the scene in a S&S adaptation with the duel, I thought they were injecting something in the story that wasn’t there, and had to track down whether or not it was there. The mention of it is so subtle as to constitute not much more than a hint.

    The only other church scene in an Austen adaptation I can recall is in the 2005 P&P, when Elizabeth is sitting next to Colonel Fitzwilliam in the pew and he drops the bomb about Darcy “helping his friend” on her, while Collins is pontificating from the pulpit and makes a Freudian slip by referring to “intercourse” and hastily amending it to “social intercourse”. I have my suspicions about that – there were several scenes in that film where they injected hints that Collins was a bit of a pervert.

  10. Yes! Kissing in Jane Austen! Bring it on!!! Indeed I shall have to write a post on the topic, especially once we finish with the “Best Movie Kiss” polls. LOL!

    One of the great things about movie adaptations of books is the chance to SEE the action, see the characters come to life. Even if not exactly as a reader imagines, it is always cool (I think) to enjoy a live action vision of a beloved book. But the flip side is having those vivid images interfere with what is written on the page. I’ve read The Lord of the Rings more times than I can count, yet now after watching the movies so often, I have to consciously remember what wasn’t in the novels!

    Fun post, Jennifer.

  11. Wonderful insight Jennifer. I have to say that Jane’s forte was saying so much with so few words. 🙂 My favorite authors do not explain everything.

  12. Love this! I hadn’t even thought about the lack of comeuppance before, and considering it now makes me rethink some of my previous semi-academic thoughts about Austen…hmmmmmmmmm :):)

  13. Well like they say “LESS IS MORE.” But hey, why not? It leaves more to our imagination and gets our detective hats on. Thanks for a fun post. ~Jen Red~

  14. A great post! And it serves to remind authors they can have entire scenes happen “off-stage” and the reader will accept that. 🙂 We readers are a smart bunch, our minds are brimming with imagination, too! Mention a duel, and our minds see it. No need to worry about the duel, then have the duel, then talk about the duel later. 🙂 I think this is one of the reasons Jane Austen’s books endure to this day . . . they never annoy the reader with too much, too much.

  15. The only church service I can think of is in the Romola Garai version of Emma, when Mrs. Elton first walks in and Mr. Elton makes a speech pointedly directed towards Emma.

    • And how he pointedly delayed the start of the service to allow his wife to make her grand entrance!…in that movie version.

  16. This was excellent, Jennifer…very insightful. I think it quite ironic that Austen chooses very “Whig”-like names for many of her characters (Fitzwilliam, Wentworth, Willoughby, etc.) when she was very much a Tory daughter. Politics of the time are avoided at all costs in her stories. Many criticize “Persuasion” for ignoring the slave trade prominent at the time.

    • Thanks, Regina. Very good point. We’ve seen what happens when someone tries to shoehorn addressing the slave trade into Austen with that Rozema version of Mansfield Park. It just doesn’t work. I think Austen did her bit do improve the world by writing believable, intelligent people who acted in thoughtful, loving ways. It’s like criticizing J.K. Rowling for not addressing the issue of blood diamonds or child sex trafficking in the Harry Potter books.

  17. Lovely post! You’re a fun, clever writer! How did I miss the (possible) duel between Colonel Brandon and Willoughby? Admittedly, I’ve not read S&S anywhere near as many times as P&P but I’m surprised I missed it. I recall being rather scandalized at the situation of the Elizas when I first read it. I’ll add that the Morlands had 10 kids *and* the mother lived. Austen even has a clever line about it, avoiding the trope of the mother dying in childbirth or as a means of effecting the “heroine in training’s” character. Additionally, Catherine even bemoans having so many siblings who are then educated by her mother, and presumably she helps some, and therefore what we know of them is not exactly the best.

    • Thanks, Rose, I forgot about the Morland troop. It did look like an orphanage on screen. I probably ignored it because it didn’t quite fit in with my argument. The Morlands seem like a happy family and not suffering from the burden of so many children, despite their relative poverty. And you’re right, it would have been a trope to have the mother die in childbirth.

      • I think the Morland bunch is pretty forgettable. I’ve just recently read NA and watched the latest adaptation again is all. But I think it does fit in with your argument. Austen does list they have a big family but we don’t get their names. I don’t recall in the book Catherine having an actual scene with any of them but James until the end when Henry shows up and one of them says that Catherine doesn’t need to show Henry how to get to the Allens’ house. I think they had more “screen” time in the adaptation than they do in the book. I hope this makes sense. All I can think about now is JJ Field as Henry Tilney, LOL!

  18. I should reread the actual books again. No doubt my recollection of these stories is really a combination of adaptations and what ifs.

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