Jane Said: Feminist Resistance in Jane Austen’s Conservative Literature
Despite the fact that Jane Austen has become what Julian North describes as a “conservative icon in popular culture” signified by her depictions of “traditional class and gender hierarchies, sexual propriety and Christian values,” the novel _Sense and Sensibility_ provides, if not a feminist perspective, a feminist discourse lacking in Emma Thompson’s film version (North 38). In this essay, I attempt to argue briefly that the novel, which initially seems to uphold cultural norms of sexuality and does little to question women’s subaltern position, can be read to undermine the patriarchy and especially male-controlled courtship rituals. Next I seek to demonstrate how the film’s adaptation by Emma Thompson undermines its own feminist intentions to become another late 20th-century romantic-comedy prescribing a happy marriage to an attractive and wealthy man as a cure-all for the single woman’s woes (Giddings 11). Ironically the novel _Sense and Sensibility_, which many critics consider embodying the paradigm of conservative Georgian literature, appears staunchly, if graciously, countercultural in comparison to its 20th-century film adaptation.
Two features of the novel can clearly be identified as providing a feminist perspective: the discourse between sense and sensibility which presents contrasting but complementary strands of female temperament and the sisterly bond that provides the Dashwood women with a self-sustaining, if only temporary, method of resistance to an ineluctably encroaching patriarchy. Often linked to post-revolutionary ideological tumult, the triumph of sense over sensibility in the novel has spurred critics to identify it both as a reactionary victory for the conservative ethos and as a feminist demonstration of resistance to masculinist conventions. Julian North, noting that critics have often read Elinor’s triumphant sense as validating an anti-individualist reactionary viewpoint in which “the self must submit to the moral and religious order of society,” offers a contrasting opinion (39). Other critics “read adherence to conservative ideology as a ‘cover story’…for the ‘implicitly rebellious vision’…of a writer acutely conscious of the confinements of patriarchy” (North 39). This feminist reading of _Sense_ is most cogent when the reader is privileged to Elinor’s own thoughts. Elinor’s sense, manifested in her stoic silence and inner thoughts, contrasts with Marianne’s sensibility, notably with her emotive soliloquies and dialogues, to offer a verbal resistance to their mutual misfortune. The discourse between sense and sensibility in the book offers a means to combat the misfortune the women in the novel suffer, and each temperament leads its possessor to ultimate happiness, even if sense is clearly favored.
Similarly, the sisterly bond of the Dashwoods offers an alternative narrative to the traditional courtship romance. Deborah Kaplan acknowledges that several critics that “the friendships of the women characters with one another are at least as important as their relationships with male characters” and that these relationships “sometimes seem to overshadow Sense and Sensibility’s courtship plot” (184). Perhaps the most noticeable deviation from the two courtship plots in the novel is Marianne’s illness. Elinor’s concerns are focused wholly on her sister during this crisis. More generally, the novel conveys to the reader the idea that Elinor and Marianne, like sense and sensibility themselves, are variations of the same theme, rather than opposites thrown together by fate. As the illness wanes, Marianne pitifully seeks Elinor’s pardon, “and Elinor, impatient to soothe, though too honest to flatter, gave her instantly that praise and support which her frankness and her contrition so well deserved. Marianne pressed her hand” (Austen 323). Their joint forays into the world of men present a sisterly feminism of sorts that is able to withstand the torment brought at the hands of male characters.
Without access to Elinor’s thoughts and without the time necessary to show every small example of sisterly cooperation, Thompson’s attempts to present the basic plot of the novel as a feminist text are supplemented with additional dialogue and scenes. In one addition, for example, Elinor, played by Thompson, comments to Edward Ferrars that women who find themselves suddenly without income are barred from earning anything. While perhaps true for women of a certain class, this quip seems unlikely coming from the reserved mouth of Elinor and, in fact, seems trite compared to the novel’s presentation of the pitifully few options even the most intelligent, articulate, and educated women have when a father dies and a brother abandons them. In a more striking addition to the novel, Fannie Ferrars verbally and physically assaults Lucy Steele when the latter confesses her love for Fannie’s brother. What is meant to be simply a mockery of one particularly vile character ends up being a parody of women in general.
The parody of women and the trite references to a mid-20th-century equal-pay-for-equal-work brand of feminism attempt to mediate what Kaplan refers to as the “harlequinization” of the novel in Thompson’s adaptation (178). Kaplan explains that in the typical Harlequin romance novel, “the focus is on a hero and heroine’s courtship at the expense of other characters and other experiences, which are sketchily represented” (178). Most obviously the film excises marginal characters, even female ones, such as Sir John’s wife, who, while ancillary to the general plot of the novel, presents an alternative to the unattractive garrulousness of Mrs. Jennings. Another feature of the romance novel is its “attention to physical appearances” where “hero and heroine should be both good-looking and sexy” (Kaplan 178). Edward Ferrars goes from being a dour and charmless man in Austen’s novel to a dapper and humorous, if diffident, one in Thompson’s film. Willoughby and Colonel Brandon are depicted more similarly to their literary antecedents, but their appearances are greatly exaggerated to be either strikingly handsome or mysteriously frightening. Not only do the actors on screen look sexier than they do in the reader’s imagination, but sexuality itself is openly presented in the film as much as it was eschewed from the novel entirely. In the novel, Willoughby never requests permission to “ascertain” the condition of Marianne’s leg after she has fallen, and thus sexual tension is avoided. Similarly no mention is made in the novel of Willoughby’s steed, representative of his overpowering masculinity, nearly running Margaret over.
Kaplan surmises that these changes occurred “in the service…of broad commercial appeal.” While I question whether one can call an art-house release like _Sense and Sensibility_ broad in its appeal, her critique has merit when one considers the study by M. Casey Diana. Diana’s anecdotal evidence reveals that viewers of the film, most likely a broad spectrum of commercial filmgoers, who had never read the novel, were seduced by its romantic-comedic images and particularly identified with “a desire for love and romance” that permeated the film (145). Students commented that they wished to return to a time when “‘men respected women more in a dating situation’” and that “‘the idea of true love…is practically ridiculed in our culture’” (Diana 146). The harlequinization of the film posited by Kaplan affected the viewing by these modern students. Instead of the compromised love between regular looking people Austen provides and instead of the sisterly bonding in the novel, viewers of the film see only modern-day idealized lovers wearing waistcoats and Empire-waist gowns. Perhaps most poignantly, one student said after viewing the film, that ‘“the game of love has always been a struggle between the heart and the mind”’ (Diana 146). What the student missed was that the game of love was a serious battle forced upon women by a patriarchal society indifferent to their suffering as Austen demonstrates.
Without suggesting that _Sense and Sensibility_ is unquestionably a feminist text, it clearly can be read as such. At the very least, it depicts the lives of women sustained by their mutual affection who, even and especially without a paterfamilias, live at the whims of men who only intermittently care for them. Thompson’s film version, which some critics have identified as feminist (as Wheelehan does for example), undermines the limited subversion found in Austen’s text through its reliance on commercial romance novels’ conventions and its addition of scenes which ultimately parody women. The sheer beauty of the characters, the setting, and the language of the film is perhaps simply too intoxicating for modern-day viewers to want to subvert anything after experiencing, if only fleetingly, the pleasure of a sunny afternoon in Devonshire in silk gowns and velvet coats.
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