Jane Austen broke the fourth wall.
She deploys distractions, decoys and asides that are wildly absurd, wickedly sarcastic and consciously subversive and inventive, challenging our ideas of story and belief.
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Our peaceful Austen-land community has quite nearly been wrecked and ravished in the last two days by the release of the trailer for the upcoming film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, starring Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot, Cosmo Jarvis as Frederick Wentworth, and Henry Golding as the dashing William Elliot.
Division, dissent, disarray and all the disses and dissing you can think of!
What can we do?
Many of us are deciding it’s OK to not have a take, and are waiting to see what we think of the actual film.
Others are at various decibel levels expressing disappointment. They are not finding in this latest trailer the soulfulness, pining, and quiet stoicism that rightly seem to embody Austen’s beautiful characterization of Anne Elliot. Anne Elliot is absolutely the Austen heroine that most perfectly combines quiet strength, fortitude and selfless love with a steely resolve, all of which is really hard to depict on screen.
But Persuasion of course like all of Austen’s novels also contains some gut-punching satire, absurdity, and hilarity - most of it aimed squarely at the protocols and powers that Austen’s Regency world held most dear. That’s all there too!
So, let us just say that whatever you are feeling right now about the film version of our beloved Anne Elliot is OK. Feel all the feels. Try to take on Austen’s advice and look for that place where truth and civility, as she said, can intersect.
But the very fact that one film trailer can cause so much discussion, debate, division and all the Ds just shows us all how very relevant Austen’s stories are to us all today. As we are always saying, right?!
So debate away.
And meanwhile let’s keep in mind that all of this discussion - about the playfulness and satire, about those screen glances that break the fourth wall - calls to mind some of the innovations deployed by Austen herself.
Anne Elliot is absolutely the Austen heroine that most perfectly combines quiet strength, fortitude and selfless love with a steely resolve, all of which is really hard to depict on screen.
The Fourth Wall refers to the theatrical and cinematic suspension of disbelief that we all have when watching a story and its actions unfold on stage or screen: It’s the ability to forget that we’re watching something fake; that our presence in the audience doesn’t exist and what is happening is unfolding like real life, without an audience. Our presence, the audience, is the Fourth Wall.
To break that wall and have an actor or artist halt the action and address the audience directly requires highly self-assured storytelling because it’s storytelling that breaks that imaginative spell and calls attention to itself.
Recent examples that come to mind right away (and share others with us, from the classics to the contemporary, friends!) include scenes from the Phoebe Waller-Bridge comedy series Fleabag, where Waller-Bridge looks directly at the camera; also interestingly enough we have this breakthrough with Gentleman Jack, where actor Suranne Jones frequently looks to the viewer, sometimes directly reading sections of Anne Lister’s diaries, on which the series is based; also the 2018 series Vanity Fair series, where actor Olivia Cooke, playing Becky Sharp, gives the viewer knowing glances. (Interesting connection: Composer Isobel Waller-Bridge, sister of Phoebe, provides music for Fleabag, Vanity Fair, and the unruly Emma 2020 adaptation.)
In each of these examples, the glance itself can be quite funny.
And in the upcoming Persuasion, the trailer reveals Dakota Johnson glancing at the camera and drawing our attention to the absurdity of her situation and of those around her.
So what is all this glancing and tearing down of the fourth wall deriving from?
Scholars and critics among us, please weigh in with more information and context on this. And to get this party started, let’s check out some examples of breaking the fourth wall that go right back to the Greek playwright Aeschylus, and include Shakespeare and his soliloquies, wherein characters stop the action of the play and talk to the audience directly, and also of course include Austen’s own work.
Sometimes these asides appear as hallucinations, as in Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” or a character might appear to speak both to themself and the audience, as in Hamlet’s anguished “To be, or not to be, that is the question”.
William Makepeace Thackeray, author of the epic Vanity Fair, set in the Regency period of Jane Austen’s novels, tears down the fourth wall frequently to address the reader about greed, voyeurism, and the immorality of his own characters, throughout that novel. And so Olivia Cooke’s bold glances during the action of the 2018 series seem to reflect that spirit.
Charlotte Bronte perhaps qualifies as breaking the fourth wall with one of the most famous lines in classic literature: “Reader, I married him.”
What breaking the fourth wall does is to suspend the magic of the story and to draw attention to the storytelling process. It also creates an intimacy with the reader and invites them in to a character’s, or a narrator’s, feelings about the way the story is unfolding. Most importantly, in Austen’s case these glances or asides to the reader/audience can challenge us to examine and become aware of our very expectations about the conventions of story.
An assured creator like Shakespeare and Austen can use the device of self-reference to create an intimacy with the reader and to call attention to the artistic process itself.
And most importantly for our discussions and debates on Persuasion is the fact that Jane Austen broke down the fourth wall in key passages. And with these breaks in format Austen was being playful, absurd, and also often commenting not only on the artistic process and our engagement with it, but was also challenging us to recognize and examine those conventions. Boldly and subversively!
So in other words, Austen knew that - just like TV viewers of today - her novel-reading audiences were coming to the story with certain expectations and she took the liberty to toy with those expectations. Yes, this week it’s not only subversive trailers but it is a subversive Austen who is toying with our emotions, friends.
The critic Claudia Johnson points out that Austen’s juvenilia, in stories like Love & Friendship and The Watsons, frequently draws attention to the artistic process in absurd ways - with confusing family histories, unreliable dates, and confounding logic that showcased and gently ridiculed novelistic conventions, as she pointed out, and also, I would point out, our belief in them. Which shows us that Austen was experimenting with breaking down those novel-writing conventions right away as a young writer, and she continued to experiment through novels that - and this is easy for Austen fans to forget - were highly innovative and contemporary in her time.
Austen knew that - just like TV viewers of today - her novel-reading audiences were coming to the story with certain expectations, and she took the liberty to toy with those expectations. Yes, this week it’s not only subversive trailers but it is a subversive Austen who is toying with our emotions, friends.
When we say it’s easy to forget this, it’s because we love the settings and the conventions and rituals of Austen’s Regency world. But often, especially in our screen adaptations, we leave out the psychological realism, the sarcastic humor, and the subversive undertones, not to mention the artistic innovations, that Austen constantly deployed in her writing of novels - an art form that was not particularly well respected when she began.
So let’s take a look at a few of the instances where Jane Austen tears down the wall and actually points us to her own artistry as well as showcasing the absurdity of her own characters, their actions, and the conventions of storytelling we are expecting.
Hold on tight, here we go!
Jane and the ‘most charming young man in the world’
Did you remember that in one of her Happily Ever Afters, Jane Austen actually interrupts the narrative to talk about her own feelings about it?!
In what is most likely the first written of her published novels, Northanger Abbey, Austen calls attention to her authorship, her techniques, and the plot conventions her audience is expecting in its crucial, final, happily-ever-after pages.
[W]e love the settings and the conventions and rituals of Austen’s Regency world, but often, especially in our screen adaptations, we leave out the psychological realism, the sarcastic humor, and the subversive undertones, not to mention the artistic innovations, that Austen constantly deployed in her writing of novels …
And not only that, Austen through her narrator deftly calls attention to the fact that the reader can see that this book is running out of pages, so the reader must not be “anxious” about the ending. And then she interrupts the proceedings to actually shift into the first-person point of view and discuss her own “joy” at her own ending!
Here it is:
“The anxiety … as to its final event, can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.”
And a paragraph later, talking of Eleanor Tilney’s marriage to her previoussly-banished suitor, Austen through her narrator calls upon us to use our own imaginations, as we presumably have been doing for hundreds of pages:
“My own joy on the occasion is very sincere. I know no one more entitled … to receive and enjoy felicity. … Her husband was really deserving of her; independent of his peerage, his wealth, and his attachment, being to a precision the most charming young man in the world. Any further definition of his merits must be unnecessary; the most charming young man in the world is instantly before the imagination of us all.”
So there, reader, Austen says: You have the precise (not) likeness of Eleanor’s wronged suitor and worthy husband before you in your imagination already; you don’t need me to write a description for you.
And possibly the most alarming and distracting instance in this same passage is where Austen ties Catherine’s found laundry list, formerly associated with Gothic evils in her imagination, to this charming young man in a way that draws attention to the writing process:
“Concerning the one in question therefore I have only to add—(aware that the rules of composition forbid the introduction of a character not connected with my fable)—that this was the very gentleman whose negligent servant left behind him that collection of washing bills resulting from a long visit at Northanger, for which my heroine was involved in one of her most alarming adventures.”
Did you catch that, reader? We’d tell you more, but we’re not allowed to introduce a character at this late stage even if he is the most charming man in the world.
So in what pretends to take the form of a classic ending and a tying up of a narrative, Austen’s narrator actually distracts her audience and challenges us to examine novelistic conventions and our own beliefs about stories, and about everything.
Emma’s non-answer. Thanks, Jane.
Another instance that will be a favorite among many of us here is the near-ending of Emma, when our narrator describes Mr. Knightley’s proposal. Here Austen’s narrator does not go into the first person, but she does ever-so-briefly interrupt the flow of the proceedings at a crucial moment: That proposal scene, containing Mr. Knightley’s beautiful entreaty, “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”
And what is Emma’s answer? What indeed!
Here is what the narrator tells us:
“Her way was clear, though not quite smooth.—she spoke then, on being so entreated.—What did she say?—Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.—She said enough to show there need not be despair—and to invite him to say more himself.”
Had you even noticed that there is no clear answer from Emma to match Mr. Knightley’s eloquent speech, in this ending? Perhaps this is why Autumn de Wilde’s Emma 2020 version enacts a nose bleed on this occasion. It is indeed an absurd interruption of the narrative. But Austen did it first.
So many things and none of what we want at Mansfield
And that brings us here to beautiful (not) Mansfield Park, where the patriarchy, the aristocracy, and this landed estate have been metaphorically reduced to rubble by our intrepid narrator delivering for us the story of a Fanny Price who begins as mousy and ends as monstrous in the most galvanizing way.
And by the end of it all, our narrator is simply exhausted.
And she weighs in, friends.
She weighs in to tell us, as she does in Emma, but in a more exhausted tone: You figure it out. You have the imagination; it’s taken you this far. Use it or lose it, and help me out here with the ending of this traumatic story.
After delivering the endings for the immoral, hapless Maria Rushworth and her sister Julia Bertram, and the scheming, sad siblings Mary and Henry Crawford, our narrator finally gets to the protagonist Fanny Price and her beloved Edmund Bertram. And while laying out how these two finally, mercifully, come together and make their ultimate connection, the narration there gets interrupted with this tepid, distracting passage:
“I purposefully abstain from dates on this occasion, that every one may be at liberty to fix their own, aware that the cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments, must vary much as to time in different people.—I only intreat every body to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny, as Fanny herself could desire.”
So much going on in this aside to the reader! So many things and none of it what we want. Austen is here at the crucial moments we’ve waited for through hundreds of pages of pining, and mishaps, and passions, and misapprehension. And now our narrator is stepping back and interrupting the magic to give us a healthy dose of realism: She mentions the conventional novel’s “unconquerable passions” but declines to answer them, instead boiling it down to dates, as if dates are what matters in this history, and invoking what’s “quite natural” but also invoking anxiety and even the name of Mary Crawford where we just don’t want to hear it. (And in fact the narrator here merely gestures at dates, while insisting that we fix our own and that it will be precisely that date “and not a week earlier” lol - an absurdity that not only interrupts her own narrative, but then also interrupts and undermines the interruption itself!)
Austen is here at the crucial moments we’ve waited for, through hundreds of pages of pining, and mishaps, and passions, and misapprehensions. And now our narrator is now stepping back and at the same time stepping in and interrupting the magic to give us a healthy dose of realism:
But she’s giving it to us anyway - giving us what we don’t want, an interrupted narrative to talk about exact dates (which no one is asking for) and anxiety, and taking away what we do want, her orchestration of a profound, romantic coming together: Something Edmund and Fanny never do get.
Instead Fanny and Edmund in their HEA get realism and a compromised, nuanced ending, with a dose of frustration, anxiety, and absurdity in the mix. The same mix we get more often than not in life itself.
So, friends, we see that in each of these instances of Austen’s directly addressing the reader occurs at the end of her novels - just when we are most invested in our Happily Ever After. She has us by the throat, and she chooses to step in and say something. Or often to decline to give us what our imaginations are desperate for.
Why is that?
The answers are found perhaps in many places: in Austen’s psychological realism, in her subversive, artistic upendings of established powers of her early 19th century world; in her experimentations as an artist; in her examinations of artistic forms and her call to readers and audiences to examine those conventions along with her. And another possible reason is that Austen herself might well have been personally ambivalent, as we have suggested before, about the very idea of an HEA.
Her happy endings are qualified - perhaps because even while writing within the form of a Courtship Plot that she herself almost certainly found joy in, she was nevertheless dedicated as an artist to integrity, innovation, and the portrayal of a nuanced vision of life itself.
But let’s not go there today, friends. We’re traumatized enough already!
And at the end of the day, it’s just fine to like what you like and enjoy what you enjoy in Austen’s stories and in the screen adaptations when they get it right and get it wrong; and to step back and examine the stories and the adaptations when you have the energy - and not when not!
Meanwhile, let us know: We’d love to hear your views on what Austen is doing with these asides to the reader. Also, feel free to weigh in with your thoughts on the obvious, after all: What do you think of the Persuasion trailer?
Whatever you are feeling, we’re here for you, friends. We’ll get through this! And in the end we might even enjoy it - the discussion, the dialogue, and the Dakota Johnson!
Have a wonderful week, with as few distractions and decoys and dissension as you can manage.
We’re currently reading Claudia Johnson’s Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel, published by University of Chicago Press
Also, the passages quoted come from the Norton Critical edition of Mansfield Park, edited by Claudia Johnson; Northanger Abbey, edited by Susan Fraiman; and the Penguin Classics 2015 edition of Emma.
More on Persuasion - here at the Austen Connection, we spent the month of January diving deep into the story of Persuasion with four posts: Anne Elliot and the Conversation, Badass Sophy Croft, The Choice, and Being Anne Elliot.
Here’s the trailer, from Netflix:
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