31 March, 2014Issue 24.6FictionLiterature

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Jane Austen and Satire

Paula Byrne


Ang Lee’s (1995) film of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility was greeted with critical acclaim, and is still considered to be one of the most successful adaptions of a Jane Austen novel. “I want to break people’s hearts so badly that they’ll still be recovering from it two months later”, he told the producer and screenwriter when they approached him about directing the film (i). They were delighted with this response. Jane Austen, one suspects, would be turning in her grave. As a supreme social satirist, whose first two novels, Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, deliberately set out to undermine the popular novels of her day, Austen would have been horrified to discover that the film celebrates the very sentiment that she was trying so hard to ironize (ii).

Lee missed the most crucial point of the novel: that Sense and Sensibility is a satire of sensibility, not an endorsement of it. Austen set out to deflate the conventions of the 18th century novel: she is defiantly anti-romantic, realistic, and clear-eyed, parodying the absurd excesses of the popular sentimental fiction of the day.

Though Austen was a great advocate of the novel as a literary form, she was well aware of its limitations. Sentimentalism is a slippery concept, not least because what was first a term of approbation became increasingly pejorative. The cult of sensibility or sentimentalism was acted out in a code of conduct which placed emphasis on the feelings rather than on reason. A heightened sensitivity to emotional experience and an acute responsiveness to nature were perceived as the marks of the person of sensibility. Medical writers of the era connected sensibility to madness, over-taxed nerves, and hysteria.

Sensibility had its origins in philosophy, but it became a literary movement, particularly in the emerging genre of the novel. Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey and Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield were exemplars of the genre, which emphasized ‘feeling’ and aimed to elicit an emotional response from the reader. The most notorious of all sentimental novels was Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, which depicted a highly sensitive hero who kills himself because of unrequited love. The flip-side of this popular sentimental craze was the contention that such extreme behavior was mere narcissism and self-indulgent histrionics. Jane Austen belonged firmly to the camp of anti-sensibility.


Jane Austen’s roots were in literary parody. From her juvenilia, to her first full-length satire of the sentimental and Gothic novel, Northanger Abbey, to her final uncompleted novel, ‘Sanditon’, she continued to use satire as a literary tool.

Her juvenilia, written not for publication but chiefly to amuse her family, show her exposure to 18th-century satire both in the drama and the novel. From a very early age, she was an avid reader of those masters of satire, Henry Fielding and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. She was particularly familiar with Fielding’s political plays, which repeatedly satirized the Whig government, plays such as The Author’s Farce, Tom Thumb, Pasquin and The Historical Register. The success of the latter play finally provoked the government into passing the Theatre Licensing Act of 1737, whose long-term repercussions were to include the growth of closet drama and the transfer of creative energy from the theatre to the novel (iii).

One of Austen’s favourite novelists was Samuel Richardson, the author of Pamela, Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison. But she also knew and admired Fielding’s pitch-perfect satire of Pamela, Shamela, which ruthlessly lampooned Richardson’s heroine. Pamela is a lowly maidservant who refused the sexual advances of her master, Mr B, and tames him by her virtue and religious principles into making her an offer of marriage. Fielding loathed the hypocrisy of the idea that the reward for virtue should be so patently material: marriage to a wealthy man with a large house. In Shamela, the heroine is playing a long and sly game of sexual conquest:

He took me by the Hand, and I pretended to be shy: Laud, says I, Sir, I hope you don’t intend to be rude; no, says he, My Dear, and then he kissed me, ’till he took my away my Breath and I pretended to be Angry, and to get away.

Jane Austen loved to make her family laugh out loud when reading her lampoons, but she also approved of satire and burlesque as a literary medium for exposing moral and social hypocrisy. And also, like Fielding, she had a sharp eye for the absurdities and limitations of much of the fiction of her age. She shared Fielding’s irreverence for literary and artistic convention. Her characters are far from heroic, they are flawed and make mistakes. She is the pioneer of the imperfect heroine: “Pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked,” she said when writing about her own art of fiction (iv).

The young Jane Austen was a comic writer first and foremost. But she also was aware that satire acts as a form of criticism, a way of elucidating the absurdities and limitations of a particular art form. In one of her early works, ‘A Beautiful description of the different effects of Sensibility on different minds’, the heroine, Melissa, is suffering a self-induced fit of excessive sensibility, which makes her bed-ridden and close to death (shades of Marianne Dashwood). A doctor asks her whether she is thinking of dying, to which the reply is that “She has not strength to think at all”. “Nay, then”, replies the witty doctor, “She cannot think to have Strength”.

An early version of Sense and Sensibility called ‘Love and Freindship’ [sic] is a brilliant, fast-moving sustained satire on the novel of sensibility. Emotional excess—the indulgence of luxuriance in feeling for its own sake—was the particular target of her satire. Many sentimental novels contained clichés such as lost orphans, swooning heroines, emotional reunions, improbable chance meetings. ‘Love and Freindship’ mocks all of these clichés with a ruthless brilliance.

Above all, Austen shows how bad moral conduct, selfishness, and hypocrisy can be disguised behind the façade of sensibility. Her immoral, though highly amusing, heroine, Sophia, is caught stealing money, but responds in the injured tones of a virtuous heroine: “The dignity of Sophia was wounded; ‘Wretch (exclaimed she, hastily replacing the Bank-note in the drawer) how darest thou accuse me of an Act, of which the bare idea makes me blush?’” Her heroines in ‘Love and Freindship’ cheat, lie, and steal, all in the name of sensibility.

In Sense and Sensibility, the satire is more refined, but more stinging and acute. Austen satirizes the bullying egotism that is implicit in Marianne Dashwood’s excessive sensibility: “She expected from other people the same opinions and feelings as her own, and she judged of their motives by the immediate effect of their actions on herself”. Marianne’s romantic notions are frequently punctured by Austen. So, for example, one of her impassioned outbursts about autumnal leaves elicits the dry response: “It is not everyone who has your passion for dead leaves”.

Marianne Dashwood’s romantic ideas are derived from the books she reads. Austen gains much comic mileage from her heroine’s faith in her own originality, although, ironically, her conduct places her as a rather conventional type.

Jane Austen was a supreme social satirist. Wit was valued highly in her family. The focus of her satire in Pride and Prejudice is social class and social standing. The later novels, Emma, Persuasion, and ‘Sanditon’, all register social and economic change and enact social mobility. But in Pride and Prejudice, Austen presents her most upwardly mobile heroine in Elizabeth Bennet and mocks the anachronistic social pride of Mr Darcy.

Elizabeth’s most damming condemnation of Mr Darcy is that he has failed to behave like a gentleman. Her stout refusal to equate high social status with intrinsic gentility sweeps away rigid class boundaries, and her marriage with Darcy heralds a more inclusive society. The final words of the novel reveal Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s fear that old money will mingle with new, that gentility will mix with trade: “she condescended to wait on them in Pemberley, in spite of that pollution which its woods had received, not merely from the presence of such a mistress, but the visits of her uncle and aunt from the city”.

Darcy learns to abandon the social pride that is manifested in his superciliousness towards trade. His reformation forces a re-evaluation of his social prejudices: “When she saw him thus seeking the acquaintance, and courting the good opinion of people, with whom any intercourse a few months ago would have been a disgrace; when she saw him thus civil, not only to herself, but to the very relations whom he had so openly disdained…the difference, the change was so great”. He later confesses that Elizabeth alone has effected the change: “By you, I was properly humbled”.

Elizabeth’s stand off with Lady Catherine at Longbourn is one of the great ‘set-pieces’ in fiction, the triumph of the new order over the old. Elizabeth’s moral defeat of Lady Catherine reveals the shallowness and ignorance of the social distinctions to which the high-born woman is so desperate to cling. Lady Catherine’s insistence that the union between Elizabeth and Darcy would “ruin him in the opinion of all his friends and make him the contempt of the world” is crushed by Elizabeth’s cool and rational response: “With regard to the resentment of his family, or the indignation of the world, if the former were excited by his marrying me, it would not give me one moment’s concern—and the world in general would have too much sense to join in the scorn”.

One of the reasons why Austen’s novels adapt so well to screen is due to such great ‘set-pieces’, chapters or episodes that are often analogous in shape and length to a scene in a play.

Because the novels themselves rely on quasi-theatrical techniques, such as scenic construction, intricate plot-lines, razor-sharp dialogue, ‘set-piece’ encounters, and strong sustained characterizations, they are natural candidates for ‘revisioning’ in the modern dramatic medium of film. What the film adaptations find less easy to render is Austen’s irony, satire, and pioneering use of free-indirect speech. The exception is the dazzling update of Emma, Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, which transposes the world of Highbury to that of Beverly Hills, sustaining the wit and irony of the original, whilst sticking tightly to the plot.

The interest in updating Austen shows no sign of waning, in fictions as well as film adaptations. The ‘Austen Project’ is an enterprise in which six contemporary writers rewrite Jane Austen’s novels. So far, Joanna Trollope has updated Sense and Sensibility, followed by crime writer, Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey. Both writers have had fun with modernizing Austen, but, despite the quality of the writing, they cannot do justice to their subject because they fail to capture the satire of the originals.

Prequels, sequels, and updates of Austen rarely work. P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley fails in its attempt to combine Pride and Prejudice with the conventions of the murder mystery. By contrast, Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a brilliant parody that brings Elizabeth and Darcy into new company. Ben H. Winters’ Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is another in this genre. Both novels rely on the comedy of incongruity, which creates the risk that the book will seem like a one-trick pony. Once the initial gimmick is established, how is the satire to be sustained?

Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies depicts the five Bennet sisters as accomplished martial arts warriors engaged in combat with a plague of zombies which has descended upon Meryton. Grahame-Smith’s novel is a tour de force, the satire is pitch-perfect, and he captures the wit, and stylistic traits of Austen with aplomb. He knows, as Fielding did with Shamela, that parody depends upon brevity, so each chapter is short and well-formed, the joke never laboured. His blending of Austen’s prose and his own is seamless, his ear for Austen’s rhythms, cadences, and verbal intricacies equally impressive. Furthermore, Zombies succeeds because it satirizes the absurdities and limitations of the zombie novel, whilst simultaneously elucidating the brilliance of Austen’s narrative art.

Grahame-Smith’s Elizabeth Bennet is a skilled warrior, killing zombies with skill and precision:

The creature advanced, and Elizabeth landed a devastating chop across its thigh. The limbs broke off, and the unmentionable fell to the ground, helpless. She retrieved her dagger and beheaded the last of her opponents, lifting its head by the hair and letting her battle cry be known for a mile in every direction.
Elizabeth found herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise. (v)

The juxtaposition of the parody of the zombie novel with Austen’s elegant prose is masterly.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies remains truthful to the spirit of Austen’s satire and is a mocking tribute to the darkly comic but uproarious excesses of Austen’s juvenilia. Black humour and violence abound in Austen’s early fiction, where a hungry child bites off her mother’s fingers, a beautiful young heroine’s legs are fractured by a steel mantrap in the grounds of the gentleman she is pursuing, and a jealous sister poisons her siblings. Her heroes and heroines are characterized by their unheroic qualities: they are drunkards, gamblers, thieves, and murderers. So why not make them zombies?

Consider this sentence: “From this period, the intimacy between the families grew to such a pitch, that they did not scruple to kick one another out of the window on the slightest provocation”. Absurdity of language is coupled with farcical action to achieve the maximum comic effect, but the real joke is the satire on the formal rhetoric of the 18th-century novel. Jane Austen would have loved Zombies because, like her heroine Elizabeth Bennet, she “dearly loved a laugh”.


(i) Quoted, Sarah Kerr, ‘Sense and Sensitivity’, New York magazine, 1 April 1996.
(ii) Northanger Abbey was sold to a Bath publisher in 1803 and should have been her first published novel, but the publisher decided against publishing and it was sold back to Austen several years later.
(iii) See Paula Byrne, Jane Austen and the Theatre (2002), 72.
(iv) Jane Austen’s Letters, ed Deirdre Le Faye (1995), 335.
(v) Seth Grahame, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), 28.

Paula Byrne is a writer and biographer. She is the author of The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things (2013).