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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.