Given the centrality of this scene to the novel—and the commentary it offers on the power of visual media to “arrest” the viewer and provoke different social feelings—it is useful to observe how screen adaptations have handled Elizabeth’s encounter with Darcy’s image. Joe Wright’s 2005 film includes the tour of the Pemberley gallery, but replaces Darcy’s portrait with a plaster bust. Although it seizes Elizabeth’s attention, the three-dimensional object is more lifelike and thus less akin to the “flat” representations that characterize our current virtual environments. [open endnotes in new window] Another striking difference from Austen’s original—in which Elizabeth takes a patient, sensible account of her feelings towards the portrait—is the scene’s amatory mood: Wright has Elizabeth make her way through a series of partial nudes before encountering the bust, which prompts a crescendo in the film’s score.
The 1995 BBC miniseries is more or less faithful to the text, but the arresting image of Darcy for which this adaptation is known was wholly invented. Just after the gallery tour, Darcy emerges from a lake on his grounds wearing only undergarments, a moment that has become a signal example of the inverted male gaze and something of a career highlight for Colin Firth, who played the romantic lead. If both adaptations include the portrait scene, they also seem to convey the encounter as a primarily intimate—even sensual—experience, instead of one that also enlarges Elizabeth’s social horizons and sense of moral “gratitude.”
|.... places it among sculpted nudes, and brings up the score, accentuating what Jillian Heydt-Stevenson describes as Austen’s awareness of “the pleasures that a woman can take in visualizing the male body” (332).||This scene in the BBC Pride and Prejudice (1995) is more sober....|
|.... .but it is followed by the notorious “wet shirt” sequence ....||..... where Darcy emerges from a pond on his grounds.|
There are a few ways we can get students to recognize the richer social feeling that Austen conveys in this scene and others. I suspect most wouldn’t have to be convinced that images can be targets of judgment and substitutes for interpersonal connection. The current popularity of apps such as Instagram and TikTok have shown younger social media users to be even more committed to navigating series of representations rather than text-based exchange, which is the major format for Facebook and Twitter, whose users now seem to skew older. Instead, the challenge may be to induce students to see the social media image—or the virtual persona or avatar—as a rich field of inquiry rather than as a consumable object or a momentary aesthetic stimulant. This isn’t to say that students don’t recognize social media’s profound impact on their lives, but they do not often consider how its influence is so pervasive that, like any institution, it seems to fade into the background of experience.
One approach would be to have them rewrite this scene using contemporary social media. Undergraduate members of a virtual Jane Austen class could be assigned roles—Darcy, Elizabeth, Darcy’s housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, and Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle, the Gardiners—akin to the original “manners” activity, where students perform one of the novel’s party sequences. After a classroom discussion about the relevance of the portrait in the novel and the idea of “socially distanced connection,” students could vote on the most appropriate digital space to represent the interaction, a detail that keeps the exercise current with online trends. While those who have taken on principal roles would create the visual content for their character—a virtual footprint of activities created through photos and video clips—others might be tasked with building each profile, either by setting up the principle accounts and adding key details, or by playing other, tertiary characters who respond in public or through private DMs and, thus, produce a backstory.
The space on which the assignment is developed would matter, too. Perhaps, because of the exclusivity and opulence of Darcy’s manor where the portrait encounter takes place, students would choose to situate his avatar behind a paywall or within a subscription site (for which the Gardiners had access). Additionally, students who ascertain the class registers of the various cliques in Austen’s world—the upwardly mobile professionals, landed gentry, and title-holders—would attach status to certain social media sites. Such an approach would be supported by the increasing capacity of these spaces to interface with one another—of course, not without the subtle indication of their original domains, another socioeconomic signal for which students would have to account.
Larger classes might expand the activity to include different scenes from the novel. Elizabeth’s careful parsing of Darcy’s letter could become an exercise in text-message scrutiny, with other friends weighing-in on the language and medium used to transmit them. The “off-screen” report of Mr. Bennet’s actions to track down his daughter Lydia—who has fled to Scotland to elope with the rakish Mr. Wickham—could be assembled through updates and peripheral sightings posted on various internet apps, as a chorus of voices weigh-in on their whereabouts. This activity enhance students’ awareness of the kind of Austenian codes of manners and behavioral norms that exist in today’s digital realms. In addition, their intentional construction of these exchanges could lead students to better theorize the process of judgment and public feeling that apply to their own social media engagements.
An advanced group of undergraduates allowed significantly more time could create their own Austen adaptations by filming these virtual encounters. Acting as a small film and television production, students could rewrite a scene and shoot it using a combination of live action and social media elements. I anticipate that, for today’s undergraduates, the synthesis of these two forms would be familiar. A bonanza of streaming shows created for young adults—such as Riverdale (2017-), American Vandal (2017-8), and On My Block (2018-)—have naturalized the use of Internet devices and applications, integrating them into the flow of narrative. Filming a social media adaptation of a scene from Austen would also mean reckoning with three “layers” of mediated interaction, three examples of personal connections made through aesthetic objects over 200 years. Students attend to the portraits, letters, and rumors in Austen’s novel, the image-based composition of film and television, and the complex lattice of information and iconography that comprise hypermedia.
One could even integrate this assignment into a graduate course, prompting grads to develop their pedagogy while familiarizing them with theoretical approaches to the novel, art and media, or the sociology of literature. Because of Austen’s applicability to literary periods and scholarly modes, college instructors often teach one of her novels in an undergraduate and graduate offering simultaneously. This presents a unique opportunity—even in a virtual setting—to have grad students advise and collaborate with undergrads on the same text. Each class could be arranged into units (perhaps “households” is the more appropriate Austenian term) comprised of several undergraduates and a grad adviser, who suggest adaptations of a scene’s subtle details, facilitate group interaction across digital platforms, and eventually situate their experience within a growing body of research on Austen and social networks. (I can imagine grads making cameos in the production as, say, town elders or important figures only referenced occasionally by the narrator.) The result is a shift away from the traditional TA discussion section and towards collaborative experience, one that reflects the expansive media environment through which today’s students access—and assess—culture.
For Austen scholars, whether they are new or experienced, this activity presents an opportunity to rethink the very concept of media and aesthetic encounter within the novels and broader life in the Regency. One way to begin linking the novels to what media scholars call the “common cultural currency” of spectatorship would be to revisit the long affiliation between Austen and the philosophy of sociality. In the novels, encounters with art objects—or experiences with art that creates some sort of social cohesion—have been considered generally through two theories related to the construction of public consciousness. These moments may indicate examples of cultural capital, or a character’s participation in a definitive aesthetic regime that signals their place in the social hierarchy. Or scholars may see them as gestures to Kantian disinterestedness, an ability to step outside of the self momentarily and render a universal judgment about the beautiful that will hold true for everyone—no small thing in Austen, given her use of free indirect discourse and its formal mesh of subjectivity, voices that often seem to be totally encased within their own perspective. Of course, various other approaches to art and spectatorship in Austen criticism are premised on historical contexts, like the concept of the picturesque, a ubiquitous style of composition and “mode of seeing” made popular in late-eighteenth-century essays and guidebooks or the fashionable practice of the gallery visit.
To exemplify these first two approaches—and a third one reflecting our contemporary media ecosystem—let’s return to the portrait scene in Emma. Just before Emma decides to draw Harriet—in the hopes that this will nurture the infatuation that Emma believes Mr. Elton has for her friend—she reflects on the “merit in every [one of her] drawing[s]” (27). Although she is self-aware enough to recognize that “her reputation for accomplishment [was] often higher than it deserved,” Emma realizes that her acquaintances will respond to all of her portraits optimistically. “A likeness pleases everybody,” says the narrator, adopting Emma’s inner perspective (27). Initially, this comment could be read as an indication of how Emma understands cultural capital. A skill practiced by “proper ladies,” painting and drawing demonstrated cultivated taste and were meant in part to please those whose approbation could mean acceptance into a certain class. However, because Emma is, for the most part, the chief arbiter of taste in her village, the comment is deliciously recursive, an indictment of the very structure of social classification: not even as the most admired arbiter of taste can she depart from the codes of judgment foisted upon her.
Another way of reading the comment is to see it as a Kantian gesture. This momentary suspension of personal self-interest leads Emma to recognize the universal judgment that art inspires, that likenesses “[please] everybody” (27). Again, such a reading may be undercut by other contextualizing remarks. Just before this axiom, Emma’s companions are said to be “in ecstasies” viewing her other work, not the kind of sober disinterestedness usually affiliated with Kantian judgment (27).
However, in light of her attempt to encourage “raptures for Harriet's face” through a portrait exchange with Mr. Elton, Emma’s commentary here could evoke a more contemporary interpretation of the media object as a parasocial device. Consider that, like the amorous miniatures occasionally carried by Austen’s characters, the portrait acts as a stand-in, or avatar, for Harriet. But, unlike those miniatures, the portrait does not validate any real bond between Mr. Elton and Harriet. On the contrary, Elton wants the portrait because Emma has created it. And because Emma is unaware of Mr. Elton’s “raptures” for her, his desire for the object she has created becomes a one-sided interaction, an unreciprocated connection to a content designer, one of the definitive qualities in contemporary parasocial relationships. In fact, Mr. Elton even offers to go to London to have the portrait framed, improving the hardware on which the image will be displayed.
In other words, Harriet’s image is not just a focal point for the misplaced intimacy that permeates the novel, but a representation of a virtual self that, when circulated among a public, encodes within it a range of possible outcomes, not least of which is the adoration for its creator, who, like the social media influencer, is a kind of village celebrity. Another analogy for Mr. Elton here would be someone who appreciates a film because of its director, not necessarily because of its technical or narrative qualities.The comment that “a likeness pleases everybody” could thus stand as Emma’s insight, however unintentional, that virtual personas—“likeness[es]” of faces—circulate among a public whose social ties are derived chiefly through mediating representations, the portrait, the letter, or the word game (27). That those devices do not guarantee a felicitous connection between creator and consumer has confirmed for some critics Austen’s place as a proto-linguistic philosopher, someone whose fiction dramatizes the misunderstandings and misplaced intentions that define so much human interaction. But it may also show her to be an early theorist of screen-based media and the bonds we form through them.
|Despite Emma’s mediocre representation, in all of these examples we see the media form of, perhaps, what Claudia Johnson calls the novel’s “positive versions of female power,” as Emma is responsible for the production, not just exhibition, of desirable images (404).|
In her 2015 study on the affective connections that people make with their books, Deidre Lynch claims that the
“emergence of fictional literature bec[ame] available to readers first and foremost as private, passional persons, rather than as members of a rational, civic-minded public.”
Austen appears in Lynch’s argument as a central figure, someone whose characters (and whose own reading habits) reveal books to be personal, therapeutic items, quiet friends with whom one commiserates on the regular. However, as our moment makes all too clear, Austen additionally uncovers the social necessity of a whole range of silent media objects—from images, still or sequential, to virtual applications, those techne that may come to characterize adaptations of her novels in the twenty-first century. In so doing, Austen registers the intimacy that audiences continue to feel for mass cultural phenomena. Her novels inculcate “passable empathy for others,” even as objects of pop culture allure. As my afternoon escape to De Wilde’s Emma. confirms, our ardent dedication to the Austen industry continues to be one of the best illustrations of that modern experience. But, at times like these, the novelist also accounts for the vital and very public infrastructure built on these mediating platforms, the avatars and images that produce a world at a distance, in whose light we have all attempted to remain close.