Occasional Papers, NO.3 (Fall 1999)
Robbing the Roost: Reinventing Socialism in Diarmuid Lawrence’s Emma

Sally Palmer (email: is Assistant Professor of humanities at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, where she teaches British literature and specializes in the British Aunt.

One of the hallmarks of Jane Austen's fiction is the sense of supreme rightness and order that permeates the beginning and end of each novel. Marilyn Butler comments that Austen's literary style and arrangement, as well as her characters, settings, and plots, all suggest an ideal order (2). This order extends to family relationships, political government, economics, social class and behavior, religious observance, and gender roles. A modern-day nostalgia for this kind of settled order, in fact, has been suggested as one of the reasons for the renaissance of Austen's novels in the frenzied and chaotic 1990s.

Yet the Diarmuid Lawrence film version of Emma deliberately contradicts this Austenian convention of order by both beginning and ending the screenplay with a scene of disorder, violence, and lawlessness. Viewers see the noise and confusion of a henhouse being invaded by thieves in the night, as well as a distraught householder appearing in a nightshirt and actually brandishing a gun. The Hollywood Miramax version of Emma, by contrast, opens with the wedding of Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston, all harmony, beauty, happiness, goodwill, and the promise of continuation. Austen herself begins Emma with a description of blissful stasis: "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her" (5).

What can Lawrence mean by this most un-Austenian thematic frame of disturbance and disorder? I suggest that this film version seeks to congratulate 20th-century viewers on their own century's superior political and social environment by foregrounding the inequities and unrest Austen passes over in her own century. In an attempt to highlight the need for today's socialist Labour government, the filmmakers have annexed Austen's socially conservative novel, but invented for it additional scenes and dialogue to make a democratic rhetorical point of their own. Indeed, viewers of this film, unfamiliar with Austen's novel or the other film versions, might well leave the theater convinced that Emma is a social-problem novel like Gaskell's Mary Barton or North and South, written by an author bent on effecting social change.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. In Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, Butler tells us that Austen was far from a sentimental liberal, but in fact an anti-Jacobin conservative who wrote during a revolutionary period to uphold reason, experience, Christianity and intellectual orthodoxy (3-5). This is not to suggest that she endorsed the status quo in its entirety. Numerous readers over the years have pointed out elements in the Austen novels that suggest more enlightened attitudes towards women than were common in the early 1800's, and certainly Austen was not blind to aristocratic folly or the inequities of male primogeniture, either. But the Lawrence attempt to show Emma as a populist tract succeeds only in confusing viewers by presenting contradictory messages that obscure Austen's main thrust in the novel. Emma's plot underscores the need for proper conduct and noblesse oblige, not abolition of the ruling class or widespread social reform.

In Jane Austen in Hollywood, Carol Dole mentions the "doubleness" of the Austen novels toward class. She suggests that this doubleness matches contradictory American attitudes combining the rhetoric of equality with the practice of social stratification (67). It is true that Austen personally decried the false sense of class superiority that made Emma Woodhouse such a snob, and opined in a well-known letter that no readers would like her as a result. But it is not the wide financial and social gap between Emma and the other inhabitants of Highbury to which Austen objects. In fact, she validates such stratification in marrying Emma to Mr. Knightley, the only suitor equal to her in birth and situation. She also points out the folly of trying to elevate persons beyond their natural rank, in the Harriet matchmaking fiasco. Austen's problem is only with Emma's lack of finesse in addressing the existing social class distinctions. As a proper high-born lady, Emma should be generous and kind to those beneath her, such as the Bates women and Jane Fairfax, but not try to meddle in the social affairs of such as Harriet Smith and Robert Martin.

The laissez-faire Austen social attitude does not coincide with modern tastes for equalization and glorification of the underclass. However, this presents no obstacle for Lawrence and the others working to make the 1996 film more politically up-to-date. Twenty-five years after Austen's death, Elizabeth Gaskell would ascribe upper-class sensibilities and virtues to the working poor in her novels, in an attempt to elicit middle-class reader sympathy for the plight of the servant class. Along with turning Mr. Knightley into a populist crusader for democratization, this is one ploy that Lawrence uses in Emma. It is important, though, to remember that this technique, this attitude, is a departure from the spirit of Austen's writing.

As Dole mentions, the Lawrence version of Emma shows more servants than either the Hollywood film or the 1972 version. This is manifestly the case, and goes along with the rhetorical purpose of trying to turn Austen into a populist. Having so many servants in evidence during the events of the film has two effects. First, it shows how many people's labor is required to support the Hartfield lifestyle, prompting an awareness of the disproportionate outlay of money and energy necessary so that Emma and her friends may follow their whims. Viewers are meant to become appalled at this excess, and decry the political system that makes such arrangements possible. And secondly, keeping an abundance of servants in view, always neat and polite and hardworking, has the effect of arousing sympathy for their plight. Audiences continually confronted by scenes of lower-class toil respond less fully to the light airiness, the archness that characterize Emma and her relations with her peers. The Lawrence film, then, has less humor and gaity than the American versions. Its political subtext gives it a darker feel than its counterparts.

One specific example of this darker, more serious vein occurs in the character of Robert Martin. In the novel, we never meet Martin directly. Although our narrator tells us about him and his conversations with Harriet and with Mr. Knightley, we don't hear or see him directly. We have only Emma's opinion that his appearance is as a neat and sensible young man (31). In the film versions, however, we have the opportunity to both see and hear him, and draw our own conclusions about him, both as to his suitability for Harriet, and his unsuitability to associate with Emma as a representative of the working class. While in both films the character is always scrupulously clean and well-mannered, giving the lie to Emma's cruel comment that he is "clownish" and "totally without air" (32), the McGrath film shows Martin as a happy young man, affable, smiling, and eager to please as he discusses borrowing Harriet's novel from the library. But Lawrence’s Martin is serious and sober. We catch a resentful glance from him aimed at Emma in her carriage as she waits for Harriet to complete her visit to his mother. We see him again looking on at Jane Fairfax as she trudges, weeping, through the fields after her Box Hill quarrel with Frank Churchill. The juxtaposition of these two characters' misery reminds us of how easily the lives of the decent working poor can be disrupted and their happiness blighted by the thoughtless actions of the idle rich. Even at the movie's end, during the fabricated harvest supper scene when Emma asks Harriet to introduce her to Martin, Lawrence's character shows dignity but no delight at the condescension offered him. As a representative and symbol of the wronged lower classes, then, Martin brings a sober and didactic note to the Lawrence film.

A second character role adding to the Lawrence version's darker tone is Mark Strong's interpretation of Mr. Knightley. Strong's Knightley differs from that of Hollywood's Jeremy Northam, and both are different from John Carson's Knightley in the 1972 version. In the 1972 film, Mr. Knightley, with his sidewhiskers, is genial and avuncular. His criticism of Emma is kind and instructive. Northam's Knightley is more intense than Carson's; he is younger, and seems more personally involved, more vulnerable to Emma's moods and responses. But Mark Strong's Knightley is always irate, and energetically so. He does not smile or laugh in social situations, but is invariably serious. When he castigates Emma, Mr. Elton, or Frank Churchill, one feels genuinely threatened by the force of his anger. The gloom that the omnipresent threat of Mr. Knightley's ill feeling spreads over the film detracts significantly from its comedy, and makes audiences feel that Emma's faults of snobbery are not merely pecadillos, but serious matters indeed. Every time he gets angry, it is because Emma is not treating the lower-class as equals, or not succeeding in his project of training her to be a democrat like himself. In addition to Strong's anger, we have the addition of scenes and dialogue specifically designed to show that Mr. Knightley's object is to socialize Emma's political views. The very first words we hear from him are a greeting, "Hello, John," addressed not to the Woodhouses but to one of the Hartfield servants. And the last scene is a party, a harvest supper, that he has organized for the benefit of the servants.

Part of the populist message of the 1996 film is that servants and their labor are not less important than the upper-class characters with their movements. Despite the lack of subjectivity that keeps us from entering the servants' world, many elements in the film's frequent scenes of servant activity make this subtle point. One of these elements is the association of servants with light. In the 1972 version of Emma, light is always present, but appears to have no source. The later Miramax film includes candles and lamps, but these are not often associated with servants. However, the Lawrence film shows servants lighting and carrying the candles and lamps. For example, in the scene where Emma's friends are admiring her drawing of Harriet, a servant is holding a candelabra in front of the drawing so that everyone can see it. In the scene where the Hartfield party is going to the Westons' Christmas celebration, servants go in front of the guests, carrying the lights to illuminate their way. These scenes are subtle but symbolic reminders that Emma and her gentry class, by census count less than 5% of English society, only see what is shown them by the vastly larger working class. In a certain sense, the gentry are "in the dark" as to the real workings of the majority of humanity, on whose labor they depend for what illumination they receive. Emma's drawing attempts to show Harriet, her poor counterpart, as Emma sees her. But does Emma really "see" her friend as Harriet and her circumstances actually exist? Manifestly not. As the other characters observing the drawing point out, Emma has seen her as too tall, or too disproportionate, or too thinly clothed. In a less literal sense, Emma also sees Harriet as more genteel than she really is. But none of the characters can even make out Emma's distorted facsimile of Harriet except as they are enabled by one of Harriet's own class, who is holding up the light. The message is that it takes one to know one: only someone in Harriet's own situation in life can truly understand her. Austen makes this clear at the novel's end by showing the folly of raising Harriet's expectations too high, and by matching her at last with Robert Martin. In turn, Lawrence highlights the folly of Harriet's social superiors by showing that the underclass holds the candles.

Although Lawrence’s film is less egregious than the Hollywood one in displaying only what is beautiful, Lawrence still underscores the virtues of the working class by showing its many representatives in faultless appearance and behavior. Viewers see servants silently, efficiently, and politely doing laundry in a washtub for the wedding, carrying luggage for the visit of the John Knightleys, rushing out into the snow with rugs for the carriage passengers en route to Westons', and standing in the storm to hold the door open. Servants ladle drinks and lift lids from dishes for the guests at dinner parties, unload wagons and lead and hold horses in the street, stand at attention in the great houses, and lay tables in less affluent households such as the Bates'. A young man washing windows at Ford's in Highbury runs to open the door for Frank Churchill. A group of furniture movers hoists the gift piano for Jane Fairfax up to the Bates' second-floor window. Maids dress Emma's and Harriet's hair. A manservant in livery obsequiously moves a cushion for Mrs. Elton to kneel upon while picking strawberries at Donwell Abbey. Nowhere in all this do we see a servant complaining, frowning, lagging, or even sweating. All are clean and well groomed, in snowy linen; all do excellent, prompt, and unobtrusive work. The effect is viewer admiration and sympathy, untinged by disapproval of the less savory behaviors, qualities, and views we all know existed below stairs. But in order for us to agree with Lawrence's point that these citizens deserve political equality, they must be seen to be equal to the upper classes in conscientiousness, in cleanliness, and in proper behavior. And in the film, they are: what we see is working-class servants with upper-class manners. Austen invariably conflates class with manners: the implication is that these people deserve to be in a higher class.

In the film, servants are always used to announce and to "bow in" visitors and entering characters. Lawrence opens almost every scene with a shot of servant activities, and shows servants standing at attention around the walls during all the group dinner and dancing scenes. In addition to the "roost-robbing" opening and closing sequences of the movie, these tactics have the effect of literally framing every shot, every scene, with members of the underprivileged or working class. Viewers thus see all Austen's action and dialogue as occurring within this lower-class framework. We can only access her characters and their lives from the perspective of another kind of existence, one that supports, encloses, and interprets Austen's world for us. The effect is a story within a story, where Austen's story is subsumed within, and thus secondary to, another, closer reality. It is a clever tactic that subtly places Austen's plot at a remove from the audience and emphasizes the political point of the film's makers.

Another populist ploy used in Lawrence's version is the downplaying of the menace in the gypsies scene. The gypsy attack on Harriet stands alone in Austen, in showing the intrusion of crime and the indigent class upon the lives of her characters. Indeed, this upsetting and order-disrupting event might well show the necessity of a firm upper-class control of the reins of power. While Austen refers to the attack by "half a dozen children, headed by a stout woman, and a great boy," the Lawrence film shows two women not joining in the attack, but only permitting it and observing it from a distance. Only a handful of children, then, accost Harriet, which is considerably less threatening than if they had been joined by a pair of adults. Eliminating all males also eliminates the threat of any possible sexual affront to her person. The effect is to show the underclass as more innocent and harmless, and thus promote sympathy with their political plight.

The Box Hill scene in the Lawrence film deserves special attention for its symbolic qualities. The first point that is made is the unseemliness, the unnaturalness of the whole endeavor. This is not something that should be taking place in the normal and right scheme of things. We see an army of servants laboring up the hill in wagons, loading and unloading chairs, tents, tables, umbrellas, barrels of china, linen, and hampers of food for the picnic. One of the wagons threatens to capsize with its outsize load. Knowing as we do that the Box Hill scheme is nothing but an idle fancy on the part of a group of bored young people, one which yields only discontent and wounded feelings, it is appalling to view the immense amount of toil necessary to bring the outing about. The symbolism is not lost on us that it requires many lower-class laborers to carry a few elite to an elevated spot, in an artificial state of luxury, from which they can look down on those they deem inferior. And in the jockeying for supremacy of the Eltons, the quarrelling of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, and the insulting of Miss Bates by Emma, looking down on others is exactly what takes place on Box Hill. The size and elegance of the picnic spread, out of all proportion to the amount that can possibly be consumed, also represents a level of decadent luxury created and supported by the many for the consumption of the few that can only suggest the excesses of the French court prior to the Revolution. We get a brief glimpse, before the labor of boxing everything up and packing it onto the wagons for the return trip, of the servants relaxing in the sunshine amid the horses and vehicles, sitting on blankets and eating. Although it is not lost on us that the upper-class characters are in the shade, this one scene when the servants are not at work humanizes them for us, and suggests that they, too, deserve an outing once in a while. They seem cohesive in their enjoyment, contrasting with the ill feelings and snobbery being displayed by their counterparts higher up on the geographical and social hill. The effect, then, of the Box Hill episode is to demonstrate the folly of one set of people's climbing the social hill at the expense of the other.

The principal innovation of Lawrence's Emma is, of course, the hay-harvest idyll and the harvest celebration supper that follows it. This scene, wholly invented by the screenwriters, occurs after the events of Austen's plot have ended, and seeks to interpret and place these events in perspective for viewers. The harvest scene, of workers bringing in the hay and joyfully reporting their success to Mr. Knightley, features pastoral images that evoke Merry Olde England and the feudal ideal. Everyone shown is clean, happy, and polite. But then we have the bringing together of the lord and his peasants in a cross-class dinner and dance. That this kind of populist social mingling is Mr. Knightley's idea is made clear by Mrs. Elton's referring to his "eccentricity" as she arrives for the festivities, and expressing her dismay at the presence of the workers or "hobbledehoys." Also, Mrs. Elton's disapproval of the goings-on automatically places the event in the realm of viewer approval. We then see Mr. Knightley addressing his "subjects" from the first table. This speech places him in the position of a pastor addressing his flock, for he gives thanks for the harvest, speaks of being "blessed," and promises "stability and continuation" as he announces his impending removal to Hartfield. The most symbolic event of the harvest supper, amid scenes of washing dishes and serving of food, occurs when Emma crosses the room to introduce herself to Robert Martin, shake his hand, and invite him and Harriet to visit her. Although she is clearly acting as the lady of the manor, this scene, followed by a dance where both upper- and lower-class couples participate, emphasizes the letting-down of class barriers where those who work for a living are given equal standing with those for whom they work. It signals the final triumph of Mr. Knightley in changing Emma into a socialist. In the penultimate scene, we see everyone, the great and the small, moving together to the traditional rhythms of the dance. This seems to be Lawrence's statement: that all depend on one another; that if mutual respect and amiability are shown, all can move in harmony to the traditional seasonal rhythms of rural life.

The closing and contrasting scene of the film, however, brings us abruptly back to the violent frame within which the movie began. A rooster crows, and amid great commotion, we see chicken thieves breaking into the poultry house and stealing the turkeys. This is Lawrence's answer to Mr. Woodhouse's plaintive question, "Why can we not go on as we did before?" Not only is it inevitable that the Mr. Westons and Mr. Knightleys will appear to steal away Mr. Woodhouse's "hens" in marriage, but the have-nots are destined to seize the goods of the haves. This final note overturns Mr. Knightley's promise of "stability" in the feudal order, and shows his inability to control history.

Where Jane Austen's Emma, then, ends with "the perfect happiness of the union" (484), Diarmuid Lawrence's Emma adds a "but" clause. The 1996 film does not allow viewers to bask in a false nostalgia for Austen's peace and felicity, but insists upon placing the perfect little piece of carved ivory behind a disclaimer sign that says, "this is only art, not history." It insists upon the priority of its own political interpretation of the plot.

In return for providing moviegoers the delight of another version of Austen's beloved novel, the filmmakers are entitled to their own interpretation. Lawrence's film is a lovely one, and the political point is well taken. But Austen readers might take exception to its insertion into the text, simply because they do not read novels like Emma for political instruction. While they applaud and appreciate all modern attempts to bring Austen's novels back into the public eye, the project of appending one's socialist political agenda to an Austen film version may strike some as just a bit presumptuous, as not quite the elegant thing to do. It may even suggest a form of lower-class thievery: robbing the literary roost, so to speak. As Mrs. Elton put it, "Some people don't seem to understand proper decorum." Exactly so.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933. Emma. Adapted by Denis Canstanduros. Director John Glenister. With Doran Godwin and John Carson. BBC TV, 1972.
Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. London: Oxford UP, 1975. Emma. Writer Andrew Davies. Director Diarmuid Lawrence. With Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong. Meridian-ITV/A&E, 1996.
Dole, Carol M. "Austen, Class, and the American Market." Troost and Greenfield, eds. Jane Austen in Hollywood. Lexington, KY: University Press, 1998. Emma. Writer and director Douglas McGrath. With Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam. Miramax, 1996.

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