Jane Austen and Reader Perspective

thHow soon should the protagonist turn up? For Austen the answer was “right away” only with Emma Wodehouse. Fanny Price and Lizzy Bennett don’t appear in the first chapter of their novels. Anne enters only after her family is described in some detail. The situation of the family in Sense and Sensibility is the first thing to be described.

I didn’t realize how important this was until I had watched a few adaptations of Austen novels and noticed something interesting: when a film opens with a shot of the heroine, it is likely to be less “purist” than not. When it opens with the direct perspective of the heroine (see 1999’s Mansfield Park and 2007’s Persuasion) it takes even more liberties. But when it opens with the family, the community, it is more likely to take as many cues as possible from the book.

Until I had made this connection, I didn’t fully understand how important the setting is to Austen novels. The are not about a heroine; they are about how a heroine is functioning in a particular world. Establishing that world, be it the interaction of Mr and Mrs Bennett or the genealogy of Sir Elliot, is of central importance to an adaptation that wishes to capture some part of the soul of an Austen novel.

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