It is difficult to imagine a more provocative opening sequence than the sexual seduction introducing the 2008 Masterpiece adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. Bare shoulders, goose-pimpled arms, and fingers caressing flesh move between shadow and light as the camera pulls in uncomfortably close to the couple’s intimacy. We watch Willoughby seduce Eliza—and we bear witness to his insincere promise to return as he prods his horse to a full gallop. Eliza’s fragile “But when?” still rings in our ears as we are abruptly hurried to Henry Dashwood’s deathbed. The camera angle mimics Henry’s point of view as the lens moves in and out of focus capturing gauzy profiles of Mary Dashwood and her three broken-hearted daughters. John Dashwood promises his dying father not to abandon his step-mother and sisters, a promise that we know, like Willoughby’s to Eliza, will go unfulfilled. In exchanging Eliza’s quivering for Henry Dashwood’s labored last breaths, the filmmakers use these opening scenes to frame how desire, abandonment, and perspective underscore the subtleties of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility nearly two hundred years after its first publication.1
Such a steamy opening scene is bound to make waves among Austen purists. But before critics and fans alike launch into objections about such a scene’s fidelity to the source text, we should pause to acknowledge that the seduction has an (albeit muted) textual precedent. Colonel Brandon’s clipped recitation of Eliza’s situation to Elinor in the novel spells out his ward’s dilemma: “‘He [Willoughby] had left the girl whose youth and innocence he had seduced, in a situation of the utmost distress . . .’” (209). Brandon’s gloss of Eliza’s situation is reminiscent of the free indirect discourse that muffles the emotional tenor of Henry Dashwood’s dying plea to his son: “His son was sent for, . . . and to him Mr. Dashwood recommended, with all the strength and urgency which illness could command, the interest of his mother-in-law and sisters” (5). The Masterpiece adaptation of the novel reformulates these sequences with details that elaborate upon what free indirect discourse can leave at a frustrating distance in an Austen novel.2 We see Eliza’s “utmost distress” play out in devastating detail, and we feel the “strength and urgency” of Henry Dashwood’s plea to his son in this adaptation. As a result, these scenes do more than just foreground issues important to the film’s vision of the novel; they rehearse an “adaptation as elaboration” cinematic work ethic that directs how we should connect the film’s creative gestures to the integrity of Austen’s original narrative.3
But what happens to the integrity of a theory of “adaptation as elaboration” when the film incorporates scenes with no direct textual precedent? During such moments, what exactly does the film elaborate upon? To test the utility of an “adaptation as elaboration” theory of the Masterpiece Sense and Sensibility, I will focus on a single scene built into this recent adaptation that has no direct point of reference in the source text: when Elinor Dashwood physically acts out the emotions the text stridently insists she keeps to herself. I want to forge a place for the Masterpiece Sense and Sensibility within larger discussions of how we approximate Elinor’s capacity for emotional response in the novel. This resounding cinematic departure from Austen’s novel may not elaborate upon a specific moment in the text per se, but it feeds into our general appreciation of the delicate negotiation between what characters say and what they actually feel in Sense and Sensibility.
The Elinor Dashwood from Austen’s novel is the voice of “sense” and propriety in her family, and the Masterpiece filmmakers maintain this characterization. Austen never denies Elinor a capacity for emotional response in the novel, only that her tendency to control her emotions overrides any emotional display:
Elinor . . . possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment. . . . She had an excellent heart;—her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn, and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught. (6)
However much Austen may assure us of the warmth of Elinor’s feelings, her “coolness of judgment” is the dominant characteristic performed in the day-to-day life of the novel. Elinor’s “sense” bounces off Marianne’s “sensibility,” and as a result, Elinor’s potential for emotional response gets subsumed by Marianne’s unbridled and dramatic emotional demonstrations. In the novel, when Elinor soberly confesses to Marianne that she “‘esteem[s]’” Edward, Marianne erupts, “‘Esteem him! Like him! Cold-hearted Elinor! Oh! worse than cold-hearted! Ashamed of being otherwise’” (21). Elinor laughs off Marianne’s accusations of cold-heartedness (and brushes aside the excess of Marianne/Austen’s five successive exclamation points) by admitting that she purposefully understates her own affections for Edward. But even with this admission, can the reader really shrug off the force of Marianne’s accusations as easily as Elinor does? After all, Austen may tell us of Elinor’s strong feelings, but we hardly see them for ourselves throughout the entire narrative. My interest in the Masterpiece Sense and Sensibility comes out of a reading of the novel that treats Elinor’s strong feelings as mere rumor in the text—just another piece of gossip to be whispered about and passed around in Sense and Sensibility.
Elinor’s perceived “cold-heartedness” underscores much of how we position her “sense” against Marianne’s “sensibility.” As John Halperin suggests, “Somewhere between sense and sensibility lies what is just plain sensible,” and to realize this compromise between the two, “Marianne learns to govern her emotions, Elinor to express hers” (91, original emphasis). The Masterpiece adaptation short-circuits this textual eventuality by incorporating a new scene early in the narrative that provides Elinor a chance to express her emotions, quickly taking some of the chill out of the “cold-hearted” classification. In the film, Elinor confronts a servant who has hung carpets from low-lying tree branches and begun beating them clean. The servant tells Elinor that newly-arrived Fanny Dashwood has ordered the carpets cleaned anew in preparation for Edward Ferrars’s imminent arrival. Elinor, in an exasperated but kindly tone, declares that “those carpets are clean.” She takes the carpet-beater from the servant and dismisses her to other duties. While Elinor stands alone, shielded from the house by the hanging carpets, she lets out a frustrated sigh. She turns her head from the camera, visibly struggling to maintain her composure and come to grips with the hardships on the horizon for herself and her family. Her resolve momentarily fails her, and in a moment deeply uncharacteristic of the “self-governing” Elinor we know from the novel, she eyes a carpet slung over a branch, steps up to it, reels back with the carpet-beater and delivers a resounding “thwack” strong enough to frighten birds out of the tree. The famous “coolness of judgment” and knowledge of “how to govern [her emotions]” defined in the novel has abandoned Elinor, and the Masterpiece adaptation actually starts to substantiate at least one rumor in Austen’s text: we have now seen for ourselves Elinor’s capacity for emotion, what these emotions look like, and what kinds of provocations can draw them to the surface.
Immediately after Elinor strikes the carpet, she turns to discover that Edward Ferrars has watched the scene unfold.4 In many ways, Edward’s spectatorship matches our own as he silently observes Elinor’s frustrated emotions boil to the surface. This scene not only revises our appreciation of Elinor’s restraint in the novel and the film, but it also stands as the precise moment the tortured relationship between Edward and Elinor begins. When Edward returns to Barton Cottage at the end of the film to ask forgiveness and propose to Elinor, he twice makes reference to the carpet-beating scene as the origin of his love for her: “I loved you at Norland, almost from our first encounter. . . . Every day since I first saw you, my love for you has grown. And I know I have no right to hope, but I must ask: can you forgive me? Can you love me? Will you marry me?” (my emphasis). Edward traces his affections for Elinor to the precise moment when she acts out her own affections. When Elinor strikes the hanging carpet, not only does Edward begin to fall in love with her, but the viewer sees first-hand how Elinor’s trademark “sense” can be threatened by her own flashes of “sensibility.”
Elinor’s uncharacteristic demonstration of emotion, though it operates in a measured and responsible way, undoubtedly constitutes a clear departure from the narrative framework of the novel. As Elinor delivers a single cathartic blow to the carpet, her action is not laced with a furious invective against Fanny, she does not visibly color as she strikes the hanging carpet, and she does not bludgeon the carpet with repeated blows in an uncontrolled rage (as we might expect of Marianne in a similar situation). Elinor strikes the carpet once, gives a satisfied exhalation and slight nod, and turns to walk away. Elinor may uncharacteristically expose her emotions in the film, but she does so in a typically controlled, thoroughly Elinor sort of way.
Elinor’s momentary, deliberate emotional display remains privileged information for the remainder of the film; only Elinor, Edward, and the viewer are privy to this moment. But what kind of interpretive cues develop out of this cinematic departure into first-hand presentation of Elinor’s emotion? The important point at stake in this scene is how much the Masterpiece filmmakers take it upon themselves to up-end our anticipation of Elinor’s behavior for the remainder of the film. Instead of being the one in the novel who calmly absorbs insulting behavior or incessant teasing, in the film Elinor stages an attack. This change places her in a relatively vulnerable situation since she is at such variance from the novel and our own readerly expectations. For viewers prepared to defend this cinematic departure, the interpretive payoff is deeply rewarding for the remainder of the film (as well as in our subsequent re-readings of the novel): when Elinor swings that carpet-beater, she jars us out of any static interpretive expectations we bring to Sense and Sensibility. Elinor’s capacity for strong emotional response becomes crystal clear in this scene, and it doubles back to elaborate upon our overall appreciation of the psychological effort that goes into manufacturing, managing, and mastering her remarkable composure—be it in the novel or in the Masterpiece adaptation.5
The result of this departure is an unpredictable Elinor Dashwood, if only until she retreats back into her accustomed narrative role as film and novel dovetail. But if we linger a little longer on this scene, we see that Elinor not only exposes her emotions but is on the cusp of actually explaining those passions. When she strikes the carpet and is surprised to see Edward standing there, she quickly cocks her head back to the carpet and stammers, “I was just . . . ,” in tacit acknowledgment that her behavior requires some explanation. Fortunately for Elinor, Edward interrupts her and good-naturedly renders any explanation unnecessary. But how would she explain what just has happened had he not cut her off? How does Elinor Dashwood finish that sentence and explain her burst of emotion in this, her first introduction to Edward Ferrars? Elinor never gets the chance to explain herself in this scene—perhaps because it would depart too unrealistically from the novel to have Elinor both demonstrate and rationalize her emotions. As it is, the scene alters our expectations of Elinor just enough without overselling the legitimacy of her emotion within the reality of the moment. To watch Elinor fumble around for an excuse might denigrate this scene into simple irreverence as opposed to a sincere and important expression of strong repressed emotion.
Oddly enough, the filmmakers seem determined to finish Elinor’s sentence one way or another. In a parallel scene (and another departure from Austen’s novel), Edward chops logs in the rain while on a brief visit to Barton Cottage. As he chops, the camera becomes preoccupied by his exertion as he raises, swings, and splits logs with a single chop—reminiscent of Elinor’s single blow to the hanging carpet. In a reversal from the carpet-beating scene, Elinor spies Edward chopping the logs and as she begins to question him, he snaps, “I enjoy this work. A man can relieve his feelings.” Of course, these words could have easily come straight out of Elinor’s mouth during the carpet-beating scene.
Edward’s wood-chopping clearly strives to elaborate upon Elinor’s carpet-beating—though such a gesture is entirely unnecessary. Edward’s scene as an elaboration of Elinor’s is too heavy-handed: the sturm und drang layering oversells the moment as Edward’s drenched clothes speak of the supersaturation of his emotional state. On the one hand, the scene demonstrates the filmmakers’ consistency in deploying an “adaptation as elaboration” framework—the film not only elaborates upon the novel and how we interpret anew the strength and complexity of Elinor’s emotional restraint, but the Masterpiece Sense and Sensibility actually elaborates upon itself. On the other hand, Edward chopping the logs and declaring “A man can relieve his feelings” is utterly gratuitous. The film elaborates needlessly and loses the subtlety and spontaneity of Elinor’s scene and her emotional display. As a result, “adaptation as elaboration” succeeds in that departures from the text elaborate upon how we appreciate Elinor’s overall capacity for emotional response in light of her calm restraint. When the film elaborates upon itself, however, it overexposes the emotions that make the departures so intriguing in the first place.
The benefit of zooming in on the carpet-beating scene in the Masterpiece Sense and Sensibility is that we begin to disentangle Elinor from the strictness of restrictive categories like “sense” and “sensibility.” When we take this scene back into a re-reading of the novel—as we inevitably will—we are better prepared to visualize Elinor’s capacity for passionate response. In the novel, when Elinor learns of Lucy Steele’s secret engagement to Edward, Austen asks, “What felt Elinor at that moment?” (129). Even Austen seems reluctant to hazard a guess as to what Elinor feels, but the Masterpiece Sense and Sensibility equips us with imagery that helps us to see beyond Elinor’s calm reserve. Flashes of her emotional display from the film help us to better interrogate the nuances of what Elinor Dashwood says and what she actually feels in Sense and Sensibility.
1. I use the general term “filmmakers” throughout this article as opposed to attributing specific decisions to the director, screenwriter, actors, or any of the supporting crew. Cinematic adaptation is collaborative by nature, and I mean to embody this sense of combined effort in addressing the choices the Masterpiece Sense and Sensibility makes.
2. Roger Gard argues the opposite point: cinematic adaptation is incapable of maintaining the psychological nuance free indirect discourse brings to an Austen novel. He uses an example from Emma to make his point about what is lost in the jump from the page to the screen: “‘It darted through her with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!’—how do you film that?” (10). His point is a good one, and his frustration is palpable. I don’t think Gard’s skepticism means completely to disqualify the notion of a successful transposition of free indirect discourse onto film, only to provide the kind of warning to readers that points out that cinematic adaptation may not be capable of capturing the narrative voice that has endeared Austen to generations of readers.
3. My theory of “adaptation as elaboration” builds on John Wiltshire’s explanation of how “transcoding” clarifies the relationship between Austen’s original text and a subsequent literary or cinematic adaptation. He uses Bridget Jones’s Diary to explain “transcoding” as “a kind of borrowing that plays fast and loose with the original but is, it might be argued, redeemed by its lightness of touch” (2). One could surely argue that Sense and Sensibility’s opening seduction scene, Elinor’s carpet-beating outside Norland, and Edward’s log-chopping at Barton Cottage all “play fast and loose” with Austen’s original text. Instead of passing over these cinematic decisions because of their “lightness of touch,” however, this article makes the case for considering departures from the source text as important elaborations upon aspects of the novel that translate awkwardly from page to screen because of the inherent differences between the two media.
4. While anything resembling an extensive comparison between the Masterpiece Sense and Sensibility and Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s 1995 Mirage adaptation is beyond my attention in this article, it is important to at least note that Emma Thompson’s published screenplay also places Edward in close proximity to Elinor’s emotions early in the film. Scene 27 finds Edward silently watching Elinor as she listens to Marianne play a melancholy strain on the piano-forte: “ELINOR stands in a graceful, rather sad attitude, her back to us. Suddenly she senses EDWARD behind her and turns. He is about to turn away, embarrassed to have been caught admiring her, when he sees she has been weeping” (45, original emphasis).
5. What I classify as the “interpretive payoff” of embracing this departure comes about because the film’s elaborations are so rooted in the spirit of the text. As James Griffith notes, however, “Masterpiece Theatre” has become a pejorative term in some critical circles because of its ardent faithfulness to source texts: “When faithful adaptations appear, some critics describe the works as exhibiting a ‘slavish’ fidelity; or other dismissive terms—‘Masterpiece-Theatre treatment’ or ‘Ivoryesque’—serve the same purpose: to demonstrate that films, which supposedly cannot be faithful to novels, fail when they nevertheless remain faithful to the novel” (229). The nuanced elaborations of the Masterpiece adaptation upon the novel should make us rethink the ways filmmakers can remain faithful to the source text while also establishing new creative contributions that help us return to such a beloved novel as Sense and Sensibility.
Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. Ed. R. W. Chapman. Oxford: OUP, 1933.
Gard, Roger. “A Few Skeptical Thoughts on Jane Austen and Film.” Jane Austen on Screen. Ed. Gina Macdonald and Andrew F. Macdonald. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. 10-12.
Griffith, James John. Adaptations as Imitations: Films from Novels. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1997.
Halperin, John. The Life of Jane Austen. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1984.
Sense and Sensibility. Screenplay by Andrew Davies. Dir. John Alexander. Perf. Hattie Morahan, Charity Wakefield, and Dan Stevens. Masterpiece, 2008.
Thompson, Emma. The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay & Diaries. New York: Newmarket P, 1995.
Wiltshire, John. Recreating Jane Austen. New York: Cambridge UP, 2001.