A Posting on
The Best Country Dancer in a Filmed
Version of a Jane Austen Novel

December 16, 1997

"There must have been more dancing throughout the country in those days than there is now: and it seems to have sprung up more spontaneously, as if it were a natural production, with less fastidiousness as to the quality of music, lights, and floor. ... There can be little doubt Jane herself enjoyed dancing, for she attributes this taste to her favorite heroines; in most of her works, a ball or a private dance is mentioned and made of importance. ... Addison observes 'women are armed with fans, as men with swords, and sometimes do more execution with them'. ... Hornpipes, cotillions, and reels, were occasionally danced; but the chief occupation of the evening was the interminable country dance, in which all could join. ... The Ladies and Gentlemen were ranged apart from each other in opposite rows, so that the facilities for flirtation, or interesting intercourse were not so great as might have been desired by both parties."

James Edward Austen
(Jane Austen's nephew)
Memoir of Jane Austen, 1871

Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma Woodhouse

Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma Woodhouse

Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet

Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet

Before I began the research for this award, I naturally expected that Jennifer Ehle would be the Male Voices nominee, but that turned out not to be the case. In fact, the clear winner is Gwyneth Paltrow. Ms. Paltrow has a light musical step, a graceful presence, and projects a strong sense of fun.

prize-winning dance

After the Harvest Supper

Well, Ms. Paltrow may deserve the individual honors, but the Best-Team Award goes to Kate Beckinsale, Mark Strong, and fellow cast members for a final dance sequence in a version of Emma recently produced on the A&E network. The runner-up in that category is Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth et al for their dance (and battle) at the Netherfield ball.

Kate Beckinsale

Kate Beckinsale
(Emma) by Candlelight

By the way, that same dance is performed by Gwyneth Paltrow and company, and so there is something you may want to compare.

Everyone that makes a film based upon a Jane Austen novel senses that the "country dance" must be portrayed. And how that is done is a measure of the scholarship and mind-set of the film-maker. In some films, these dances appear awkward and silly. In the recent filmed version of Sense and Sensibility (1995), the dance is played for laughs, as if we should consider the dance of those times as awkwardly contorted and foolish. I, on the other hand, find the dances, when they are properly portrayed, to be beautiful and fun. Think of it, everyone knew all the steps and the idea was to dance—well—together! Dance in step with your partner and, in fact, in step with the entire community of dancers. It was expected that every well-educated person could and would dance, and he would dance elegantly, and he would dance all night. Darcy and Elton did behave very badly, indeed.

This is a good place to begin our discussions of the filmed versions of Jane Austen novels. Indeed, if you have accepted the Male Voices reason-for-being—the illumination of Jane Austen's vision—there can be no higher activity than the study of such films. In particular, I want to discuss the following list to which I append links and abbreviations for ease of reference.

[Emma-BBC] Emma Starring Doran Godwin and John Carson. Produced by Martin Lisemore, screenplay by Denis Constanduros. (1972)
[Emma-A&E] Emma Starring Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong. Produced by Sue Birtwistle, screenplay by Andrew Davies. (1996)
[Emma-96] Emma Starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam. Produced by Patrick Cassavetti, Donna Gigliotti, Donna Grey, Steven Haft, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein; dramatized by Douglas McGrath. (1996)
[MP-BBC] Mansfield Park Starring Sylvestra Le Touzel and Nicholas Farrell. Produced by Betty Willingale; Dramatized by Ken Taylor (1983)
[MP-99] Mansfield Park Direction and original screenplay by Patricia Rozema; produced by Elinor Day (1999)
[NA-BBC] Northanger Abbey Starring Katharine Schlesinger and Peter Firth. Produced by Louis Marks, screenplay by Maggie Wadey (1986)
[P-BBC] Persuasion Starring Ann Firbank and Bryan Marshall. Produced and directed by Howard Baker; dramatized by Julian Mitchell. (1971)
[P-95] Persuasion Starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds. Produced by Rebecca Eaton, George Faber, and Fiona Finlay; screenplay by Nick Dear. (1995)
[P&P-40] Pride and Prejudice Starring Greer Garson and Lawrence Olivier. Produced by Hunt Stromberg, screenplay by Aldus Huxley and Jane Murfin. (1940)
[P&P-79] Pride and Prejudice Starring Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul. Produced by Jonathan Powell, screenplay by Fay Weldon. (1979)
[P&P-A&E] Pride and Prejudice Starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. Produced by Sue Birtwistle, screenplay by Andrew Davies. (1995)
[S&S-95] Sense and Sensibility Starring Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant. Produced by Laurie Borg, Lindsay Doran, Sydney Pollack, James Schamus; screenplay by Emma Thompson. (1995)

You can obtain a great deal of interesting data and a more comprehensive list at another site on the web.

Why are so many films currently being made based upon Jane Austen novels? The facetious answer is "for the sex and violence". The deadly serious answer is "because of all the sex and violence".

The first thing to notice is that Jane Austen's novels can carry over very nicely to the screen. The pitfall is that the screenwriter must not modify too much, unless, of course, she is a better writer or a more cognizant human being than Jane Austen. I don't know—will never know—who that could be. When the screenwriter crosses the line, the result is always a failure—always! In some cases, the failure is merely aggravating as in [Emma-96]. In other cases, the failure is a crime against humanity as in [P&P-40], [S&S-95] and, most especially, in [MP-99].

Pride and
Prejudice

Of course, some things must be added to a filmed version; for example, dialog must be substituted for narration. Also, film is a different medium than print and the difference can be and should be exploited. This has often been done with the addition of beautiful casts, beautiful sets, and beautiful scenery. (But, it is always done with beauty is it not?) There are many fine examples of such a thing in [P&P-A&E]; there is Darcy's swim before entering Pemberley, the frequent brief sights of Elizabeth posing before the mirror, those wonderfully cinematic walks of Elizabeth in the countryside, Elizabeth's curtsies and lack of same, etc. All of these things have a cinematic impact consistent with Jane Austen's vision and, they are just plain fun.

Sue Birtwistle [P&P-A&E, Emma-A&E] knows exactly how these things should be done, and has set the standard for all would-be producers of such films. For one thing she chose Andrew Davies as her screenwriter on both occasions. (He also wrote the script for that recent production of Middlemarch for Masterpiece Theatre, and all fans of George Eliot must be singing his praises.) Ms. Birtwistle also brought Jennifer Ehle [P&P-A&E] and Kate Beckinsale [Emma-A&E] to the attention of a grateful public. She cast Colin Firth as Fitzwilliam Darcy and, as far as I know, Firth's is only plausible interpretation now on film. In many parts of the production, his interpretation is excellent. I am speaking here of his interpretations of Jane Austen's intent. Surely, Firth's portrayal of Darcy's state during his first proposal to Elizabeth will never be improved upon.

Jane Austen

An Idealized Version of
Jane Austen's Portrait

It was brilliant of the producers of [P&P-A&E] to cast Julia Sawalha, against type, as Lydia Bennet, a choice that paid high dividends. You may know of Ms. Sawalha as the strait-laced daughter in the Brit TV series Absolutely Fabulous. They may have made some other clever choices, as I attempt to illustrate with the next four images. The first is a nineteenth century re-interpretation of Jane Austen's portrait and is shown to the left. (Such re-interpretations were common, some sanctioned by the family and some not, and all were based upon that water-color portrait by sister Cassandra.) The second image is of the inimitable Jennifer Ehle. My understanding is that Ms Ehle wore a wig during production. (I know you're disappointed, you wanted her to have naturally dark, curly hair didn't you?) These images, which I downloaded off the web, may indicate why that choice was made.

Did Ms. Birtwistle and Mr. Davies realize just how explosive a mixture they were concocting, with their ten parts of Jane Austen, to two parts of Jennifer Ehle, to one part of "empire" fashions? In this way, the producers created a flash that was seen all around the English-speaking world, and one that lit a path back thousands of miles and back two hundred years to Chawton cottage.

Jennifer IS Elizabeth Bennet

Jennifer Ehle as
Elizabeth Bennet

I can reinforce this suggestion of mine with two other images, also downloaded off the web. The first is a well-known image of Cassandra Austen and is shown to the right. She must have been very beautiful, absolutely exquisite. But compare this with the next image of Susannah Harker [P&P-A&E]. A rather striking comparison don't you think? I mean, don't you agree that the likeness is intentional?

Notice the crosses that the Bennet sisters are wearing. It is well known that Austen sisters wore crosses like these. A gift from brother Charles, purchased out his "prize" money (the bounty from the capture of an enemy ship). Jane Austen was ecstatic about both the prize and the gifts and immortalized the gift in Mansfield Park.

I must confess that with all the criteria that must come into play when selecting a cast member, this kind of resemblance cannot be a very high priority. Perhaps all this is merely a coincidence or a product of my wishful imagination.

Incidentally, Cassandra's silhouette is ascribed to John Meir and, it is said, she was in her late thirties at the time. Also, the process of silhouette taking is illustrated in [S&S-95].

Cassie

A Silhouette of Jane Austen's
Sister Cassandra

Susannah Harker

Susannah Harker as
Jane Bennet

I sometimes try to understand why Jennifer Ehle's interpretation of Elizabeth Bennet is so perfect. Ms. Ehle's intelligence and talent are the main ingredients—that's obvious. However, all great performances have fine points: Let me give a single example of what I mean. In the novel, Elizabeth Bennet is much embarrassed by her chance meeting with Darcy at Pemberley and very quickly attempts to remove her party from the estate. Darcy can't bear to see her go and hits upon the strategy of engaging her Uncle Gardiner in a conversation about fishing, and then prevails upon the party to take a short walk by his lake before it leaves. He and Mr. Gardiner take the lead while Elizabeth follows in the company of her aunt. At the lake, the aunt leaves Elizabeth and coolly takes her husband's arm while the group admires the scene. This, of course, forces Darcy to escort Elizabeth when the party returns to the carriage (I love Aunt Gardiner!). Andrew Davies downloaded the scene with perfect fidelity into his script. Play that scene and watch what Jennifer Ehle does when her character's aunt leaves her side to approach her uncle's. It is a very slight thing and happens very quickly, so you will have to be alert. It's perfect! a Jennifer Ehle nuance within a Jane Austen subtlety.

Jennifer Ehle was born in the United States and her father might be an American (I'm not sure about that). While her heart and her career are English, Ms Ehle spent at least part of her youth in the U.S. and I think the cultural influence helped in her performance. I mean that I think that Elizabeth Bennet's personality is a little bit American.

My brother will testify that, occasionally, I will announce that Joe Montana's choice of a receiver could have been better, or, perhaps less frequently, that Michael Jordan looks lethargic. That is the kind of guy I am. So, why should I let Andrew Davies off the hook? I must announce that he could have made better choices on occasion. It would have been better if Davies had not chosen to put that extra edge on Darcy. He does that, for example, in Darcy's letter to Elizabeth. In Jane Austen's version, Darcy begins the section on Bingley and Jane Bennet with a conciliatory remark: "If you have not been mistaken here, I must have been in error. Your superior knowledge of your sister must make the latter probable.—If it be so, if I have been misled by such an error, to inflict pain on her, your resentment has not been unreasonable." Davies deletes that remark. Also, Jane Austen's Darcy concludes the letter with a wonderful adieu: "... I will only add, God bless you. Fitzwilliam Darcy" So simple and yet it struck me and it affected Elizabeth as well—I know because she remarks upon it during her conciliation with Darcy. Andrew Davies deletes the adieu. There are no small things in a Jane Austen novel. The result of these seemingly small deletions is to create a harsher Darcy and that was not Jane Austen's intent.

The most severe complaint, in this regard, is that Davies makes Darcy seem rather rude in the early scenes. In the novel Elizabeth claims this for Darcy, but only because of her mistaken first impression. In this way, Davies makes the same mistake as many modern readers who carry along that misinterpretation long after Elizabeth has given it up—very curious. For example, Davies's Darcy often walks away from people to look out the window.

However, Davies's most serious error, in this regard, is the way in which he adapts the first meeting at the assembly. In the screenplay, Darcy is actually introduced to Elizabeth and rudely refuses to dance with her when that suggestion is made—nonsense. In the novel, Darcy has no contact with her whatsoever and notices only Jane Bennet because she "is the handsomest woman in the room". Elizabeth was brought to Darcy's attention by Bingley who tried, in a most undiplomatic manner, to convince Darcy to dance with her. Darcy then reacted angrily to Bingley's tactless approach and said something rather boorish, a something not intended for Elizabeth's ear. Darcy would never have been so rude as to intentionally say something so mean in her hearing. The very worst transgression is Davies's handling of this conversation where he deletes a crucial sentence of Darcy's: "You know how I detest [dancing], unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner". This smashes what I have termed "Jane Austen's kaleidoscope". In this way, Davies deletes Jane Austen's first glimpse into the true nature of her Darcy.

Another thing, Jane Austen's Darcy does not leave Elizabeth quite so abruptly in the Inn at Lambton, he first makes an encouraging remark or two. To be sure, Elizabeth thinks that she is being abandoned, but we must not think that. Also, I would complain about the second proposal; in the creation of that scene, everyone except Jennifer Ehle must have been suffering from lethargy. The consummate Ehle strives to make some sense out of what was going on, to save the scene somehow, and nearly succeeds—but not quite.

My final complaint will fall on deaf ears: The character of Mr. Collins is overdone in [P&P-A&E]. I say "deaf ears" because the temptation for screenwriters is too great and the appreciation of the viewing audience too readily offered to expect some restraint in regard to this character. You must recognize the simple fact that Mr. Collins had no motive to marry a Bennet daughter other than to make some amends for the entailment. The Miss Bennets are attractive—to be sure—but he had never met them before he arrived at Longbourn and so he did not know of their beauty. Mr. Collins is unlovely and unlovable, but can we not honor his motives? I can't help but muse over Jane Austen's placement of this character in a book devoted to the consequences of over-reliance on first impressions: Is this a trick she plays on her reader? My more serious complaint, in this regard, is a scene that Davies invents for the film in which Collins arrives at Longbourn in order to deliver a spiteful lecture to the Bennet daughters after Lydia's elopement. The words that he uses in this scene were indeed written for Collins by Jane Austen; however, in the novel, the words were sent in a private letter to Mr. Bennet! Davies's change in the nature of the audience made an unwelcome change in the impact of this communication upon us. Also, Davies edited Jane Austen's words and the result of that was to make Collins's character even less worthy. Incidentally, it is really quite improbable that Collins would take that troublesome, expensive fifty-mile trip to deliver a two-minute speech—Jane Austen's writing is never improbable.

There is far more to admire than to worry about in this production. There are all those perfect cinematic interpretations of Jane Austen scenes. A partial list is Darcy's boorish behavior at the first assembly, the numerous skirmishes between Elizabeth and Darcy, Mr Collins' proposal, Darcy's train-wreck-like proposal at the Hunsford parish, Elizabeth's epiphany at the reading of Darcy's letter, the chance meeting at Pemberley, and - one of my favorites - the confrontation between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine in that "prettyish kind of wilderness at one end of your lawn". The cast is perfect, the direction is superb, the scenery and costumes are great fun, and Jennifer Ehle and Susannah Harker are gorgeous.


Links


Pride & Prejudice, The Novel


The Passionate, Evocative Passages
of Pride & Prejudice


Vote Today! Vote for an All-Star team
of film actors
selected from
various versions of Emma

Local Links


Was Charlotte Grandison
a prototype for Elizabeth?


Films of Other Novels


Links to Other Web Sites

Filmed Versions of
Pride & Prejudice starring
Jennifer Ehle,
or Elizabeth Garvie

Filmed Version of Northanger Abbey
starring Katharine Schlesinger & Peter Firth