May Jane Austen’s Good Sense Persuade Us

Susan Orr

February 1, 1996

It is difficult to watch a movie based on a good book and not find it wanting. Such films are reflections of reflections: The director’s image replaces the writer’s vision. Film is necessarily inferior to writing. Yet, because of this art’s lesser status, on should not be hypercritical of faithful attempts to bring great works to film, especially in an age where fewer and fewer read great books with any care, much less at all.

We are fortunate enough to find two of Jane Austen’s novels on the screen in the new year (three, if you count A&E mini-series, Pride and Prejudice) that are worth seeing. Each has its charms and each, few weaknesses.

If I were to recommend an order, it would be to see Sense and Sensibility first, then Persuasion. Sense and Sensibility is the most accessible because of the sheer loveliness of Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s film. But Persuasion is the deeper of the two, and it takes some getting used to it.

The steadfast character of Persuasion’s Miss Anne Elliot is difficult to appreciate in our modern and vulgar age. How can we admire something so different from ourselves? Her virtues are not often imitated, much less admired today. Nor does she have the immediate charm of Sense and Sensibility’s Dashwood women. Her beauty goes unnoticed at first: Only towards the end of the movie does the director let us see that she is lovely to behold, her face finally reflecting her true character. It would be too easy to be appalled that Anne would forsake her chance at happiness with Captain Wentworth on the advice of her mother’s friend, unless we have first been schooled in the error of Marianne Dashwood’s ways.

We live in an age that trumpets such slogans as Nike’s “Just do it!” We think little of indulging ourselves; indeed aren’t we told we deserve it? Our age is riddled with nothing but a more vulgar version of Marianne Dashwood’s “sensibilities” (or what we today would call passions). We are all filled with inappropriate romantic longing and it takes an Austen to show us what harm it causes. We are too much like Marianne–passionate, headstrong, capable of forming unsuitable attachments.

It is a tribute to the movie that we find Marianne’s sister, Elinor, the far more compelling character, for she keeps herself in check, does not indulge her whims, and always places her obligations to others first. In contrast, Marianne’s willingness to flout convention and good manners by chasing after Willoughby causes her family embarrassment, and her own shame is magnified when she is spurned. Marianne is saved, but not without enduring public humiliation and suffering at the hands of her false love. Only then can she see that Colonel Brandon is the more honorable man and a truly worthy match. Only then is she a suitable match for him.

Much of the action in the film hangs upon good manners. Manners are a prerequisite to virtue; they are the appearance of little virtues. It seems a little thing that Marianne should not write Willoughby and poor out her longing to him. But the film shows us that manners serve a purpose: We are made to see that she would have saved herself and her family some embarrassment by observing the rules of etiquette. Moreover, if she had not allowed emotions to overtake her, she might have seen a certain callowness in him, for example, his lack of manners when he speaks ill of others in front of her family.

Elinor’s virtue serves as a foil to Marianne. Her stoicism in the face of losing her beloved appeals to us as worth imitating. But Marianne cannot appreciate her sister’s virtue. She cannot imagine that anyone could have deep emotions and not betray them in speech if it was inappropriate to do so. In one of the most dramatic moments in the film, she is shocked, when Elinor can finally confide in her sister, to discover that she, too, loves.

Once we have schooled our sensibilities to see that restraint is something to admire, we are capable of seeing the virtue of Anne Elliot more clearly, only then can we appreciate Anne’s patience and long-suffering calmness in the face ungrateful and utterly awful family. As Persuasion opens, we are again presented with a family in turmoil due to the father’s inability to provide for them. We soon see that he is utterly shallow. Neither he nor her sisters see Anne’s worth. Anne endures much needless suffering from her family, yet she never speaks ill or harshly to them, nor does she desert them. Anne shows us that love is not an emotional fancy, but giving for the good of the other. By the end of the movie, we appreciate her goodness.

You need not have read Jane Austen before seeing these movies, but it is a tribute to the directors that you will want to read her after seeing them. These reflections of reflections may be paler images of her novels, but they do not distort the heroines’ virtues.

Susan Orr is the author of Jerusalem and Athens: Reason and Revelation in the Work of Leo Strauss.