Austen’s Bodies

Walking back from seeing Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman’s new film adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished epistolary novella Lady Susan, I passed a bus stop with a Fiat advertisement on it: ...

Walking back from seeing Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman’s new film adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished epistolary novella Lady Susan, I passed a bus stop with a Fiat advertisement on it: “All Pride; No Prejudice,” it read. I was confused. What did it mean?

Anyone who has read Pride and Prejudice knows Austen’s titular terms can’t be separated, although perhaps Austen readers aren’t the audience for an advertisement that sounds smart but doesn’t mean much. The ad is a missive from Austenland, a world where Austen references have lots of prestige but very little content.

Austenland is also the territory claimed by Whit Stillman’s most recent film and novel, both titled Love & Friendship, and Curtis Sittenfeld’s modernization of Pride and Prejudice, Eligible. Austenland depends on a set of ideas: that heroines should be quick-witted as well as attractive; that money is kind of a big deal in securing a mate even though it’s important to dissemble on this point and argue for Big-L Love instead; that natural intelligence is a virtue, although it’s not always clear what counts as intelligence, but it certainly doesn’t come from academic study. One needn’t have read Austen’s novels to fully absorb these principles; a movie version or modernization will do just as well, now that Austen’s stories are in the Anglo-American DNA.

Curtis Sittenfeld, the author of four other novels, has shown herself to be a stylist particularly interested in voice. Both Prep (2005) and American Wife (2008) demonstrate an especially keen ear for credible internal monologue and fluid dialogue. In Prep, for example, Sittenfeld’s protagonist worries about a potential date with a cafeteria worker with the borderline-obsessive anxiety familiar to most teenage girls:

I was afraid of how even though I would put on lotion before I left the dorm, I’d feel like the skin around my mouth was peeling, and this suspicion would be another conversation under the one we were having, a continuous murmur that would rise in volume as we sat there. It would be demanding more of my attention, most of my attention, then almost all of it, and just before I went to the bathroom to check for sure (as if, thirty seconds after I came out of the bathroom, I wouldn’t start wondering about the peeling all over again), I’d be tilting my head and shifting my chin to prevent him from looking at me straight on. It was so hard to feel comfortable with another person was the problem, and what guarantee was there that it would be worth it?

The precise attention here—to the physical consequences of a casual, even banal, anxiety—is finely drawn; it’s the kind of attention that makes Sittenfeld’s other novels feel more whole, more completely realized than Eligible. The new book’s task is different, and its effects work differently on the reader. It is one in a series of modernizations commissioned by The Borough Press, each pairing a contemporary writer with an Austen novel she or he was asked to adapt.

In Sittenfeld’s version of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is a magazine writer, her sister Jane a doe-like yoga instructor yearning for a family, with the Bennets’ entailed estate reimagined as a somewhat neglected “Tudor” house in Cincinnati, and Pemberley reimagined as a Silicon Valley mansion. The central conceit of the novel is that its 21st-century Bingley, Jane Bennet’s love interest, has already been the love interest of millions as the former star of a Bachelor-style television program called Eligible. When he moves to Cincinnati to take up a residency at a hospital there (of course he’s a Harvard-educated doctor as well), Eligible’s plot gets rolling. His friend Darcy, another ambitious doctor, is, well, Darcy. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is reimagined as a second-wave feminist (although we never get to see Sittenfeld’s Elizabeth take this de Bourgh down a notch—a scene I sorely missed). And Mr. Wickham, the rakish love interest who goes bad, is split into two characters, Elizabeth’s caddish New York friend Jasper Wick and the menschy Hamilton Ryan, a CrossFit instructor with (no spoilers here) a secret.

Austen’s stories are in the Anglo-American DNA.

There’s an astuteness to the modern world Sittenfeld has created for her Bennets. Exercise regimens and eating habits are of central importance to these women. We have descriptions of hairstyles and clothing, and lots of careful consideration of bodies—Charlotte Lucas has been plumped up, and Kitty Bennet has a keen eye for a pedicure. These decisions are unsurprising. Eligible is clearly being marketed to a summertime reading audience, with references at once up-to-date and likely to age quickly.

With these topical, up-to-the-minute references, Sittenfeld does what the literary critic Frances Ferguson calls “hailing,” the kind of brief, but deeply locating, reference or structural device that situates a text for its reader.1 Throughout Eligible, Sittenfeld combines contemporary, real-world references to places like Cincinnati and Palo Alto with literary references to Austen’s characters and plot. The pop culture and high culture allusions combine to fit Sittenfeld’s novel into a neat groove between the summer beach read and the reverential adaptation—think Bridget Jones meets The Hours. The knowledgeable Austen reader will likely thrill to the inclusion of a line like, “She didn’t consciously yearn to be the mistress of a place like Pemberley, but the wealth it implied was astonishing indeed,” but the overly formal word choice of “mistress” (Austen’s line is: “to be the mistress of Pemberley might be something!”) sounds off in this aggressively contemporary adaptation. Sittenfeld’s sentence is even more formal than Austen’s—notice Austen’s (uncharacteristic) exclamation point—so this explicitly Austenian reference has a forced, “Austenian” feel to it. It must be said that Sittenfeld rarely indulges in this kind of overly arch, overtly formal writing, so that when she does, it’s noticeable.

I’m not sure that a person without any experience of Cincinnati would be as absorbed by the references to Skyline Chili or Graeter’s ice cream as most readers will be by Sittenfeld’s recognizable Austenian allusions, but I’ll admit that Sittenfeld’s mentions of these institutions gave me, someone who spent four childhood years in the greater Cincinnati area, a mild delight. The problem with this kind of topicality, though, is that it can feel like the kind of name-check one might find in a “36 Hours” essay in the New York Times, as when Sittenfeld sets a scene at the Palo Alto Creamery, one of the least offensively expensive dining options in downtown Palo Alto, but not exactly a place that makes the heart sing with deep recognition.

In a slightly different example of the aesthetic rockiness that topical description reveals, when we see Darcy at his Atherton house, he’s wearing a bizarrely featureless, but carefully contoured, outfit: “Darcy wore high-quality flip-flops, khaki pants, and a white oxford cloth shirt rolled up to the elbows and plain save for a monogram on the left breast pocket.” The basics of this outfit—the precisely rolled-up shirt sleeves and the well-cut khakis—are the uniform of popular romance’s heroes. Christian Grey wore this outfit. So did Doctors Dreamy and McSteamy. The feature that’s meant to be a nod to the Northern California climate, the “high-quality flip-flops,” does nothing to extend any specificity to this description. What is “high-quality,” anyway? Made of leather? Expensive? And let’s admit it, there’s something slightly sickening about the unseemly zone between an almost bare, flip-flopped foot and the ironed hem of a rich man’s khakis.

In other words, the frisson of recognition I got when thinking about the enormous chocolate chip bars nestled in each scoop of Graeter’s ice cream has its limit. Any deeper knowledge of a place or experience will make these references jarring, narrow, almost pandering. Take, for example, Sittenfeld’s references to Lydia and Kitty’s CrossFit obsession, perhaps the best example of a reference that seems designed to connect Eligible squarely to the 2010s. While this plot point allows Sittenfeld to introduce the most intriguing story-level adjustment of this version of Pride and Prejudice, the split character of Wickham, it also shows the restrictions that come from this kind of topical reference. CrossFit is, of course, quite popular. I even believe that Sittenfeld visited a CrossFit gym, and researched the blend of puritanical self-care and evangelical vim that CrossFitters routinely demonstrate. But if there’s something that screams “fitness fad,” it’s CrossFit. If Eligible had been published in the 1990s, perhaps the sisters would have been into their Bowflex gyms? Maybe Tae Bo?

The way CrossFit is worked into the novel demonstrates the clear investment Sittenfeld, and her publishers, have in making this version of Austen’s novel au courant. It’s not that topicality is a problem for novel writing—on the contrary, it’s one of the main features of many contemporary novels—but it is a peculiar aspect of the adaptations of Austen, a writer, it must be said, strangely uninterested in topicality. Think, for a moment, of how few physical descriptions we get in Austen; how rarely we “see” a dress, an object, even a room. One aspect that unites Sittenfeld’s and Stillman’s versions is an insistence on embodying—on materializing—Austen’s world.

<i>Lady Catherine and Elisabeth</i>. Illustration by C. E. Brock for the 1895 edition of <i>Pride and Prejudice</i>

Lady Catherine and Elisabeth. Illustration by C. E. Brock for the 1895 edition of Pride and Prejudice

In terms of embodied delight, Stillman’s film Love & Friendship offers some potent pleasures, the first of which might be Chloë Sevigny in deep period costume. Her Mrs. Johnson, primarily an epistolary addressee in Austen’s novella, is pleasingly downbeat, with slightly sluggish American mannerisms that highlight Lady Susan’s British tartness. But it is a different pleasure entirely to see an actress I have always associated with the perfect 1990s slouch—insouciant and unconcerned—standing ramrod straight in stays and sporting a blue velvet mob cap. As Lady Susan, Kate Beckinsale is remarkable. Her energy, the power with which she ploughs through Stillman’s dialogue, keeps the movie afloat, and she wears her costumes exquisitely. She lets the audience know just how dangerous a creature Lady Susan is while also endearing herself to us. Hers is a genuinely funny, spirited performance. But the brilliant performances in Stillman’s film underscore the limitations of his novel, and his perspective on Austen. Part of the reason the film is so successful is that it takes Austen’s text and transmits it into a form that requires bodies to be present. The pleasure of watching the actors navigate the dialogue, delivered at a breakneck pace, provides an embodied equivalent for Austen’s stylish narration.2, p. 59). ]

On the other hand, Stillman’s novel falls flat because he rests too heavily on the film script, translating the movements of the characters into static stage directions. He also relies too much on the novel form, taking up Austen’s unfinished epistolary novella as though it’s been written by a partisan (“the spinster Authoress,” aka Austen herself), who wants to malign Sir James Martin and Lady Susan. In Stillman’s hands, the slights that the original novella’s characters suffer at the hand of the spinster Authoress are a sign of the latter’s strategic misrepresentation of a happy couple. But the narrator who makes that point, Sir James’s nephew Rufus, is as much of a boob as his uncle, and the aim of including a doltish Victorian narrator is, convolutedly, to draw attention to Austen’s deep pleasure in Lady Susan’s cynicism.

This is accomplished by describing the action from the perspective of a character unable to perceive cynicism in its full flower. But the narrative sleight of hand doesn’t work. Rufus’s clumsy pleas to the reader to ignore the “spinster Authoress’s” perspective on Lady Susan’s machinations, meant to be presented roguishly, with tongue firmly in cheek, are too leaden to support the joke. The electricity of the film’s performances disappears in Stillman’s stolid prose version. Gestures that, in the film, are delicate bits of actorly business or visual jokes become prose details without clear content or purpose: “Lady Susan carried carefully in her hand a small, neatly-wrapped package,” or “Sir James, not wanting to intrude on [Lady Susan’s] privacy, politely stood outside the partly open door to her rooms when discussing the loan’s final details.”

Austen’s novels have survived so well in part because they fit a comfortable romantic mold and because her novels seem to offer narratives of self-awareness and personal development: her heroines aren’t marriageable at their novel’s openings, but they develop. They change. And they change because her perceptive comic narrators have so much control. In fact, Austen’s narrators force characters through changes with a variety of narrative tools, one of which is free indirect discourse. Free indirect discourse is a technique in which a narrator’s omniscient, third-person perspective periodically aligns with, and blends into, a character’s point of view. Austen is perhaps its most influential British practitioner. Pride and Prejudice’s opening line is a good example of this technique: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” While the sentence begins with a claim to a truth, if we read further, we understand all too well that this perspective aligns with a specific person: Mrs. Bennet.

Sometimes, as in this opening sentence, Austen uses free indirect discourse mockingly, to mimic a character whose patterns of speech mark him or her as a comic foil. Think, for example, about another moment when Mrs. Bennet’s querulousness creeps into the narrative voice early in Pride and Prejudice, when she complains about “the cruelty of settling an estate away from a family of five daughters in favour of a man whom nobody cared anything about” (my emphasis). More powerfully, however, Austen uses free indirect discourse to blend her ironically distanced perspective with the more limited one of a protagonist. Think of the way Austen manages both Emma Woodhouse’s early failures in self-awareness and her eventual characterological revelations in Emma.

In a particularly striking instance of the technique, Austen repeats a phrase, “Emma could not forgive her,” over a chapter break; in the first iteration, criticism of Jane Fairfax seems to be lodged squarely in Emma Woodhouse’s mind and perceptions; in the second, the narrator, omniscient and critical, makes the observation that Emma is unforgiving. Free indirect discourse, in other words, draws attention not only to the narrator’s capacity to look into characters’ minds, but also to the narrator’s supreme authority—her (if it is a her) power to watch over and manipulate her creations.

The narrative theorist Dorrit Cohn calls these moments “narrated monologues,” while Casey Finch and Peter Bowen imagine free indirect discourse working in Austen somewhat like gossip—a gentle, but insidious, form of surveillance, “an authority that is everywhere apparent but whose source is nowhere to be found.”3 But the thing about free indirect discourse is that while it seems to offer the illusion of entry into the “minds” of characters, what it does is reinforce the falsity of those same minds. In a novel full of free indirect discourse, the only character, truly, is the narrator, a figure who—however featureless or impersonal he or she may be—is the stage manager of the entire production.


If we think of Austen’s worlds this way, Stillman’s film version of Love & Friendship makes more sense as an adaptation than Eligible or other modernizations of late Austen because it “improves” on Austen before she became Austen, before she developed her clinical, authoritative narrators. A novella based entirely on letters, Lady Susan does not use free indirect discourse. And as Stillman’s novel helps us see, the resulting cynicism is heavy-handed and lacks the clarification that ironic narrative distance produces in Austen’s later fiction. At least the film allows audiences the pleasure that Austen’s “Lady Susan” likely always offered its readers: that of watching a very beautiful woman behave very, very badly.

Eligible works differently because it is narrated, and perhaps because it’s developed from a novel that is also narrated. In many ways, it’s an enjoyable read, but for all of the careful connections that Sittenfeld forges, it produces a strangely unrecognizable version of Austen’s world. It’s not just that the novel focuses too much on the material world and bodies that its characters inhabit. It’s that her narrator isn’t as cruel, isn’t as hard-bitten, as Austen’s. Sittenfeld’s narrator, given insight only into Elizabeth’s mind and thus predisposed to commiserate with Elizabeth’s choices, mistakes, and foibles, is not particularly critical of her failings. In this Pride and Prejudice, everyone but Elizabeth bears the brunt of the narrator’s acid observations and critical eye. Elizabeth has been perfect—even if she gets a little drunk, even if she sleeps around, even if she has professional setbacks, even if she makes the sincere mistakes all modern women make—all along. But Austen’s heroines were never modern, and their mistakes were never ignored. In Austen, mistakes are held up in the bright, unforgiving, ironic light the narrator shines on them.

True, Austen’s characters sometimes blush, but they never sweat or eat or fuck. They were always thin, minimal homunculi with which Austen’s narrator played out her fictions—constellations of fine eyes and pink cheeks, patterns written in blank, inhuman space, made legible as people through the narrator’s willful world-making alone. icon

  1. See Ferguson, “Now It’s Personal: D. A. Miller and Too-Close Reading,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 41, no. 3 (Spring 2015), pp. 521–540.
  2. D. A. Miller draws attention to the strange intimacy of Austen’s narrative style, writing, “Narration comes as near to a character’s psychic and linguistic reality as it can get without collapsing into it, and the character does as much of the work of narration as she may without acquiring its authority” (Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style [Princeton University Press, 2003
  3. Cohn, Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction (Princeton University Press, 1978), pp. 101–142; Finch and Bowen, “‘The Tittle-Tattle of Highbury’: Gossip and Free Indirect Style in Emma,” Representations, vol. 31 (Summer 1990), p. 15.