Issue 195 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1996 Copyright Socialist Review

Jane Austen


Fine brush on ivory

The latest rewrite of the English national curriculum, with its heavily restrictive lists of approved authors, recently reaffirmed Jane Austen's place in the official literary canon. Almost simultaneously Austen fever has hit the film and television industries: the BBC's production of Persuasion was followed by the serialisation last autumn of probably her most popular novel, Pride and Prejudice, and the American made film of Sense and Sensibility is now showing in Britain. Another novel, Emma, is currently being made for television.
Jane Austen famously described her novels as operating with 'the little bit (two inches) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush'. She lived and wrote within a time (1775 to 1817) which encompassed some of the most decisive events in modern history: the French Revolution and its aftermath; the Napoleonic Wars, the growth of industrialisation and the emergence of the working class. It also saw, beyond this, the beginnings of empire in the slave colonies such as Antigua, visited by Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park. Yet her work focuses, as she admits, on 'three or four families in a country village', and barely reaches beyond London and select spots such as Bath or Derbyshire. Is this enthusiasm for her work not yet another example of the endless nostalgia and prettified history of the heritage industry, which fits in so well with the desire of government curriculum advisers like Nick Tate to emphasise patriotism and traditional values, besides providing a profitable market for the media? In part, yes: government intentions, in a rewrite of the curriculum disliked by an overwhelming majority of English teachers, were clear. At her best, however, Austen's irony and satire are inimitable, and her heroines, with their attempts--within very restricted circumstances--to seek some kind of control over their own lives, continue to attract readers.
For women of the gentry and aristocracy at this time there was little alternative other than marriage if they were to find any security. This is stressed in the smooth ironies of the openings to Mansfield Park and, famously, Pride and Prejudice: 'It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.'
Like Austen herself, characters such as Elizabeth Bennett have no idea of overturning or rebelling against this. Indeed the fate of her sister Lydia, disgraced by elopement and condemned to a life of debt, offers a terrible lesson. At the same time, unlike her friend Charlotte, she refuses to endure the snobbishness and servility of a Mr Collins, or indeed his sexual repulsiveness which was so well brought out in the BBC production recently. Even as we laugh at the embarrassment she and Jane suffer from their family at Bingley's ball, we cringe at her predicament. Later she refuses Mr Darcy because of his arrogance, and her own prejudices, despite his high standing.
In a lower key, Anne Elliot in Persuasion quietly defies the vicious snobbery and lack of compassion of her father, Sir Walter Elliot, and insists on visiting her friend, an abandoned widow, despite his comment that 'everything that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations, are inviting to you.'
Beneath the surface politeness all manner of snobbery and malice are exposed, from the almost knockabout comedy of the confrontation of Elizabeth Bennett and Lady Catherine De Burgh, to the vanity of Sir Walter Elliot, 'a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage', and the repulsive and parasitical Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park. The continual undercutting of social pretension, hypocrisy and self delusion are central to our enjoyment of Austen's comedy, and her continuing relevance in our own society.
Indeed the society that Austen constructs is complex, behind the apparently small provincial world she depicts. We sense that there is more out there, nowhere more so perhaps than in Mansfield Park. Edward Said, in Culture and Imperialism, has explored the significance of the Bertrams' plantations in Antigua. He points out that when Fanny Price asks her uncle about the slave trade 'there was such a dead silence', and argues that there was literally no common language for connecting the two worlds. Readers in the late 20th century are able to fill in some of those gaps.
The point, however, is not that Mansfield Park is about the slave trade, any more than Persuasion is about visits to Bath or Lyme Regis. They clearly aren't. They are about money, marriage, status and the ways individuals negotiate their personal and social destinies. They are, however, densely, vitally imagined societies we can believe in and relate to. The worst thing putting Austen on official reading lists can do is to relegate her work to a world of supposedly timeless values peopled by unimaginably prim personages obsessed with trivia and manners.
One virtue of the recent BBC productions has been to avoid pale, asexual heroines and manly, characterless heroes. And if the price for the students I teach wanting to read Pride and Prejudice is Mr Darcy leaping, fully clothed, into the lake at Pemberly, should we not at least consider the possibilities offered by such imaginative extensions of the text?
Jane Bassett

Sharon Stone playing to win

High stakes all round

Dir: Martin Scorsese

Scorsese's latest film offers a view of the ultimate city of the American dream, Las Vegas and its casinos, over a decade. Beginning in the early 1970s, De Niro stars as Sam 'Ace' Rothstein, a gambler from Kansas who has worked his way from the streets to front the Mafia's operations in the Tangiers casino. His job, based on the true story of the rise and fall of a casino boss, is to get as much money as possible to the Mafia, paying off politicians and the local police, keeping the tax men and the FBI at bay. For Ace, 'running a casino is like robbing a bank with no cops around. For guys like me, Las Vegas washes away your sins. It's like a morality car wash.'
Casino is excellently made, with superb camera work and editing, and overall a stylish, detailed production. However, if you go along expecting a ground breaking movie like Scorsese's previous Goodfellas, which set a new standard in its genre, then you will be disappointed. That film offers a context for its characters and plot, which is lacking in Casino. And, in general, the main characters are somewhat one dimensional, unlike the flawed heroes like Jake La Motta or Rupert Pupkin in earlier Scorsese films. Joe Pesci, playing Nicky Santo, Ace's lifelong friend, is little more than a Mafia heavy trying to carve a niche in Las Vegas. Sharon Stone is the only surprise of the film, offering her best ever performance as Ginger, Ace's wife, a casino hustler driven by a love of money and jewellery, but prevented from having any independence in, or control over, her life by De Niro.
Part of the frustration with the lead characters undoubtedly comes from the first two hours of the film being predominantly voiceover rather than dialogue. This makes it difficult to get any sense, for instance, of the way Ace responds to the multimillion dollar gambling industry and its development of corporate casinos in a 'family resort' environment.
Scorsese says that his 'desire as a film director is to provoke the audience' and that Casino is 'not really a mob film'. Unfortunately he has ended up with a film that, although brilliantly made, funny in parts and delving into areas of political sleaze, never really provokes, and ultimately is still a 'mob film'. Compared to some of the great De Niro/Scorsese collaborations, Casino does not match up, but nevertheless this would be a good film by any other director's standards--worth a visit--and Sharon Stone deserves her Oscar nomination.
Liz Wheatley

Return to
Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page