Kindness and Cruelty in Jane Austen

25597577Mr Bennett and Eliza Bennett love to see the absurdities in their neighbors, friends, and acquaintances. This makes for very entertaining reading: Mr Bennett egging Mrs Bennett on creates one of the most famous scenes in Western literature. Sir Elliot complaining about how ugly people in Bath are is perfectly ridiculous. Mrs Norris in her endless miserliness sometimes verges into becoming a satire of herself.

Though this makes for very lively and entertaining reading, there is a times an edge of cruelty to Austen’s depictions of absurdity. Both of Anne Elliot’s sisters say that “Anne is nothing.” Elizabeth Bennett, provoked by Mr Collins, allows him to humiliate himself and her family.

Austen clearly loves the society she writes about, but she also has no illusions about them. Fielding, in his interminable “Tom Jones,” says that people with great understanding need to learn forgiveness as well, because those who recognize the faults and limitations of others and that those others will never change can easily become cynics and disgusted with the entire human race. Austen balanced her cruelty–her cutting observations and uncaring villains–with a delicate and heartfelt kindness.

18619998This is one of those things that I learned by watching other people’s interpretations of Austen. In the two different versions of “Persuasion,” the first embraced Austen’s kindness, the second her cruelty. Characters who are pathetic and unfeeling in the earlier versions are cutting and nasty later. Sir Elliot is bumbling and careless in the ’90s version, angry and calculating in the ’07 version.

I have developed the opinion that it is probably impossible for anyone to fully bring to life this aspect of an Austen novel. The comic scenes can be comic, but to show cruel edges risks alienating viewers from characters–risks which Austen, with her freedom and talent, could take and overcome with apparent effortlessness. Elizabeth Bennett does not seriously consider marriage to Mr Darcy as attractive until she sees his beautiful property. Later, she actually spots this in her behavior and mocks it to Jane. But in the film versions, such a thing would make her seem too mercenary, too worldly. No one, truly, can match Jane Austen.

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