Published on March 7, 2021
The following is the text of EPPC Resident Scholar James Bowman’s lecture on “Jane Austen on Film” for the Center for Constructive Alternatives at Hillsdale College on March 7, 2021. A video recording of the lecture itself is available here.
There’s no knowing for sure, of course. I may be wrong. But I doubt that Jane Austen would quite have approved of the movies. We know from Penny Gay’s Jane Austen and the Theatre that she was a keen theatre goer whenever she had the chance and was even quite undiscriminating in her taste, which ranged from Edmund Kean’s Shylock at Drury Lane in 1814 to the lurid melodramas of which we find several parodies among her juvenilia. But there is and always has been titillating, voyeuristic quality to the movies, a sense of the camera’s inevitable intrusion into personal and domestic privacy, that must have made moving pictures more like the amateur dramatics and amateur actors of which we know, from their treatment in Mansfield Park, that she disapproved. There, in arguing against the amateur performance of Lover’s Vows — a play about extra-marital sex and illegitimacy — Edmund Bertram pleads against his brother Tom’s contention that their absent father would approve of it because he approved of their declaiming Shakespeare when they were boys: “My father wished us, as school-boys, to speak well,” says Edmund, “but he would never wish his grown up daughters to be acting plays. His sense of decorum is strict.”
So was Jane Austen’s sense of decorum strict, like that of her alter ego, Fanny Price in the novel, who adamantly refuses to take part in the play. Lionel Trilling thought this had to do with Fanny’s, and probably also her creator’s, horror at the insincerity of anyone, like the temperamentally inclined actor Henry Crawford, who could relish pretending to be someone he was not. It is the actor in him, examples of which we see off the stage as well as on, as when he imagines himself to be a naval hero or a spellbinding preacher, that makes Fanny mistrust him. And of course females on the stage were widely and not always wrongly suspected of unchastity for as long as there had been females on the English stage — which was for just over a century before Jane Austen was born. But I think there is another reason why she might not have approved of the movies, or of television.
This lies in what I believe to be the central paradox of Jane Austen’s novels. It’s certainly true that she prized sincerity. “My Emma,” says Mr Knightley to the eponymous heroine of that novel, “does not every thing serve to prove more and more the beauty of truth and sincerity in all our dealings with each other?” But there was another virtue that she prized even more highly and that, from one point of view at least, is the very antithesis of sincerity, and that is the virtue of what she calls self-command. “Oh that my dear mother had more command over herself!” laments Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice when her “dear mother” keeps giving her painful reminders of her having been forsaken, as she supposes, by Mr Bingley.
Self-command was particularly important for women because the inability to suppress her feelings of “regard” or “attachment” for a man — at least until he was prepared to offer her his hand and fortune in marriage — was likely to lead a woman into unchastity and consequent ruin, as it does Maria Bertram in Mansfield Park and Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey and almost does Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility and Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. It may seem hard for us to das beste online casino reconcile such suppression of one’s feelings with the “truth and sincerity in all our dealings” recommended by Mr Knightley, but I don’t think it was hard for Jane Austen or her contemporaries. Our first requirement for appreciating her, therefore, either on the page or on the screen, is for ourselves to try to understand the importance for the kind of moral seriousness of which Jane Austen is always an advocate of what we would nowadays call the “repression” of powerful emotion.
The first time I was asked to compare the various cinematic or televisual versions of her works was in the millennium year of 2000, before many of you were born, and was at the request of something called the Independent Women’s Quarterly, a publication now no longer in existence, I’m sorry to say. Of the screen versions of her novels then existing, I chose the 1993 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility written by Emma Thompson and directed by Ang Lee as the best. You’ll have a chance to see it on Tuesday, and I think I can promise you a treat in store, including fine performances by Kate Winslet as Marianne Dashwood, the late Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon, Imelda Staunton as Mrs Palmer, Hugh Laurie as Mr Palmer, Imogen Stubbs as Lucy Steele and Greg Wise as Willoughby. Even Hugh Grant as Edward Ferrars, who you would think would be all wrong for the part, manages to make the blockish Edward seem almost plausibly lovable by poor Elinor, who is played by Emma Thompson herself.
It was her performance, however, more than anyone else’s which was the making of the film, in my opinion. Her heroic self-command in the face of the twin calamities of her sister’s indiscretions with Willoughby and Lucy Steele’s entrusting her with the unrevealable secret that the man she loves is engaged to another literally keeps her family together. And it is rewarded at the end in a scene which, as I wrote at the time, it is impossible to watch unmoved, when a diffident, po-faced Edward reveals that he is not, as everyone had supposed, married to Lucy Steele. Didn’t she know that Lucy had married his brother instead? Didn’t everyone know it? At this point, the hitherto impassive Elinor, rigid with self-command, suddenly bursts into convulsive sobs that continue as her mother and sisters hurry out of the room, leaving her alone with Edward and Edward’s long despaired-of proposal. The whole movie, the whole struggle between Elinor’s sense and Marianne’s sensibility, the whole of Jane Austen, in a way, is present in that moment of epiphany, when self-command, like a dam breaking, finally gives way, because it can give way, to the pent-up emotion behind it.
I remember reading somewhere — alas, I can no longer remember where — that in Jane Austen’s day, the English were looked on by the rest of Europe the way the Italians were later to be: as typically emotionally incontinent, wearing their hearts on their sleeves (as my father used to call it) and unashamed to weep in public. It was supposedly only in the Victorian era that the famous British “stiff upper lip” came into being, especially for men, and the ability to suppress one’s feelings became a marker of manhood, as well as politesse. I’m not sure this is true. At the first meeting in several months of the brothers Knightley in Emma, we read that “‘How d’ye do, George’ and ‘John, how are you?’ succeeded in the true English style, burying under a calmness that seemed all but indifference, the real attachment which would have led either of them, if requisite, to do every thing for the good of the other.”
Self-command is as important for men as for women, in other words, as a mark of good breeding and good manners. You may have noticed something of this kind of emotional restraint, which was still typical of the English within living memory, in the version of Pride and Prejudice that was shown this afternoon, which was made during the Second World War when British upper lips had to be at their stiffest. The film’s emotional reticence is particularly noticeable if you compare it with such more recent versions as the 1995 six-part BBC adaptation by Andrew Davies or the feature film of ten years later by Joe Wright with Keira Knightley as a feisty, post-feminist Elizabeth Bennet and Matthew Macfadyen as a lummoxy, hang-dog Darcy.
Laurence Olivier, the Darcy in the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice, was thought at the time to represent something of a break with the old, declamatory style of acting more appropriate to the stage, in favor of the more realistic manner demanded by the movies. But his Darcy seems to me to be an example not so much of emotional suppression as of emotional absence. More generally, the film skates over all the novel’s emotional depths (as we have since learned to see them) and treats it instead as nothing but a rollicking comedy of manners — something also evident in the extreme liberties the Hollywood of that period took with the text, the most shocking of which, in my view, is its making the visit of Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Edna Mae Oliver) to Greer Garson’s Elizabeth on the eve of her engagement to Darcy as a put-up job between the old lady and her nephew, to test the younger woman for any mercenary motives she might have in accepting him.
This doesn’t even make sense from the point of view of the plot, since her earlier refusal of Darcy’s proposal should have put to rest any suspicions of that sort. My own suspicion is that the screenwriter, Aldous Huxley, raised in stiff-upper-lip Britain and working on a dramatization of the novel by the Australian transplant, Helen Jerome, simply took its theme of emotional restraint and reserve for granted. The same is true, though to a lesser extent, if you go back and look at the BBC’s adaptations of Persuasion and Emma from 1971 and 1972, respectively, in which the staginess of early television drama, especially in such period pieces or costume dramas as these, combined with what one can only suppose to be the congenital stiffness of the actors, make them almost unwatchable by present-day standards — though they do have the virtue, if it is a virtue, of being generally more faithful to the text than later versions.
Yet in their stiffness and formality of manner, and apparent lack of feeling, these 1970s versions of Jane Austen must be closer to the way she herself would have envisaged her characters than later versions. The more important way in which they go astray, in my opinion, is that they treat the novels as being satirical in a way that Jane Austen was not, or not in the sense that we now understand the term. In other words, they see her as a satirist of social class distinctions and snobbery, things that were of greater concern in the last century than they were in Jane Austen’s time or than they are now. Now our political attention has turned to more interesting classes of the self-identified oppressed — including women merely as women — than those who only lack leisure, social prestige, or money.
But Jane Austen, I think, has no political axes to grind. She takes distinctions of social class for granted, and it would never occur to her to ridicule others who do the same — though some may give too much importance to social standing — like Lady Russell in Persuasion, who is said to have “had a value for rank and consequence, which blinded her a little to the faults of those who possessed them.” Corin Redgrave, of the Socialist Workers Party and the famously radical Redgrave family, hamming it up as the snobbish Sir Walter Elliot in the 1995 Persuasion, so much that he is allowed almost to overshadow the love story of Anne and Captain Wentworth, may have been the last gasp of this mid-century view of Jane Austen as social satirist. But the sudden spate of cinematic adaptations of her novels in the 1990s, after the 20th century’s obsession with social class had largely spent itself, was the result, I believe, of a renewed interest in Jane Austen the moralist, which is also how she was seen in her own time. This is important because there has never been a time in the English-speaking world when we have been more in need of moral guidance, now that we have a new, ideologically-based morality every day further displacing the traditional kind, the Jane Austen kind, and assuming cultural dominance over us. The linguist and social philosopher John McWhorter does not scruple to call this so-called “woke” consciousness a new religion.
I would prefer to call it an ideology, and the intellectual attraction of ideology, unlike that of religion — which, as you may remember, used to tell us that we were all sinners — is that, if you only believe, you can never be wrong. The ideologue will allow you to speak of yourself as being “on the right side of history” because you may assume that you already know how history will come out. Your ideology informs you of this in advance, and you can use your supposed knowledge, your supposed rightness about everything, to shame those who are still among the doubters. You can tell them, as the actor Sean Penn did at the Oscars a few years ago, that their grandchildren will be ashamed of them for having resisted the tide of moral certainty that must, certainly, carry all before it in the future.
In other words our ideologically-dominated society is as morally primitive as it is scientifically advanced. Even non-ideologues tend to take the view — as who would not who had never been told that there was anything to stop them? — that both morality and, now, science itself are all about being right, when both are much, much more about being wrong. We pull our morality, like our science, around us as if they were a cloak of invulnerability for our opinions when, properly understood, both are instead the instruments of those opinions’ dissection and, very often, destruction. Some years ago the journalist Kathryn Schulz wrote a book called Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, in which she invented a new science of wrong-ology. I recommend it to you as one of the most important books of our century. But Jane Austen was there ahead of her.
As I see them, and as I hope you will, her novels all focus on a moral moment that can only be called dramatic, which is why her novels seem to have taken on a new relevance and cogency to so many of us in the very, very different world of two centuries later. This is what I call the I-was-wrong moment. All of her heroines and most of her heroes have to suffer through the mortification of an I-was-wrong moment. Fanny Price and Anne Elliot are partial exceptions, but only partial. Although Fanny is never far from self-doubt, she is only ever wrong about being wrong — which is to say she’s wrong about her occasional, doubtful I-was-wrong moments and right about the Crawfords when everyone else is telling her she’s wrong. She’s right, too, about Maria’s and Julia’s faults of immodesty and right about who Edmund really loves, though she tries hardest to talk herself into being wrong about this. It is Edmund who has to pass through the I-was-wrong fire most scorchingly — and that, I think, robs this novel of some of the poignancy of the others, wherein female wrongness seems to me, by contrast, to carry with it the conviction of personal experience.
Anne Elliot’s I-was-wrong moment takes place before the action of the novel begins, when she realizes that she was wrong to have yielded to Lady Russell’s persuasion in breaking off her engagement to Captain Wentworth — which means that it is Wentworth who experiences Persuasion’s main I-was-wrong moment in realizing, after Louisa Musgrove’s accident, that the “firmness of purpose” which Louisa has and Anne is supposed to lack, is not, after all and unleavened by prudence, the most desirable quality in a woman, and that it is only his own pride which has kept him from returning to his first love. Here, as in Mansfield Park, the main I-was-wrong moment’s being predicated of her principal male characters makes the dramatizations of both novels, compared with the others, less successful in my view — perhaps because it is less unexpected when a man turns out to be wrong. Or at least when he admits to it.
This may also be why Patricia Rozema, in her 1999 version of Mansfield Park, felt she had to jazz up Jane with a completely gratuitous polemic against slavery on Sir Thomas Bertram’s plantations in Antigua, something about which her Fanny, played by Frances O’Connor, obviously finds it as easy to be right as we do in retrospect. And the same goes for the many little feminist applause lines that even the best of the movie and TV adaptations can’t resist adding, occasionally, to the original. I have already mentioned the mistake, as I see it, in the 1995 version of Persuasion’s implied self-congratulation by concentrating too much on the obvious but never acknowledged wrongness of Sir Walter as opposed to the less obvious but more painfully realized wrongness of Captain Wentworth.
Sir Walter is just one of the many characters in the novels who serve as foils to the I-was-wrong characters by being, like today’s ideologues, incapable of seeing themselves in the wrong no matter how wrong they are. Not all these characters are villains, like Sir Walter or General Tilney or William Elliot or the Crawfords. Some only come in for more or less gentle ridicule, like Mr Collins or Mrs Elton or Mrs Bennet. But what they all have in common is self-assurance. Self-assurance is self-command without that other great Austenian virtue of self-knowledge. Unaware of itself, self-assurance takes its own mannerly insincerity for the warmest sympathy or even, as in Henry Crawford’s case, love. Therefore it is immune to the self-doubt that is the trial through which all Jane Austen’s heroines have to pass.
Nowadays, we might call such self-assurance “cool.” Henry Crawford is certainly a very cool guy. So is Mr William Elliot in Persuasion. John Thorpe of Northanger Abbey is a mere buffoon, like so many Oxford men, trying without success to be a cool guy. But all of them share what Jane Austen herself most often refers to as “self-conceit” or “vanity” — not, that is, Sir Walter’s vanity of personal appearance so much as that which she attributes to Henry Crawford when he is said to have “had all the disposition to persevere that Sir Thomas could wish him. He had vanity, which strongly inclined him, in the first place, to think [Fanny] did love him, though she might not know it herself.”
This kind of vanity is the salient characteristic of all her villains and her objects of ridicule — both the cool and the uncool, like Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice or Mr Elton in Emma, the two latter being clergymen, interestingly, rather than actors. Frank Churchill of Emma is also a very cool guy and so, as Mr Knightley points out, is not to be trusted, but he escapes absolute villainy by sufficient self-knowledge to be always aware of his putting on an act, and of having a very particular object in doing so. And also by knowing, even as he does so, that putting on an act is wrong. He may be the only character in the Jane Austen corpus who is both culpably self-assured and capable of a sincerely penitential I-was-wrong moment of at least partial self-redemption. Darcy might be another candidate, except that his self-assurance is less culpable and less calculating and his confession of error more sincere.
Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility is an interesting case in this respect. In a scene from the novel which was, for understandable reasons, omitted from the movie, he visits Elinor as a penitent, pleading wth her for a measure of forgiveness for his treatment of Marianne. He is obviously sincere in his feelings of regret, but he has not the self-knowledge of Claudius in Hamlet who, in his penitential prayer scene asks himself: “May one be pardoned and retain the offense?” But he has already answered his own question:
My fault is past. But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? “Forgive me my foul murder”?
That cannot be; since I am still possessed
Of those effects for which I did the murder:
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
Willoughby, too, is still possessed of those effects — a rich wife and an end to indebtedness as well as a reconciliation with his aunt — for which he jilted Marianne. His regret at what he had to give up for them, having been insufficient to prevent him from taking the moral course, has become something he will have to live with for the rest of his life. His crime, as Elinor observes, carries wih it its own punishment. All this, the movie reduces to a single shot at the very end of Willoughby, all alone on horseback, looking sadly down from a nearby hill on the scene of the double wedding of Brandon with Marianne and Elinor with Edward.
Just as self-assurance is characteristic of all the bad or ridiculous people in her novels, so is self-doubt and self-correction characteristic of all her heroes and, especially, her heroines. Her portrayal of, her unerring instinct for, what the Greeks called the peripeteia or reversal in the dramatic I-was-wrong moment is what makes the novels, as well as the best of the movies or mini-series based on them, peculiarly relevant to our time.
I think it no coincidence that the two most often and most successfully adapted novels, Pride and Prejudice and Emma, are also the two with the most, and the most affecting I-was-wrong moments. The final chapters of Pride and Prejudice, are a positive riot of wrongness, beginning with Jane’s being wrong about Bingley’s continuing, and constant, regard for her, and Bingley’s being wrong about her lack of same for him. But this is nothing next to Elizabeth’s constantly trying to talk herself into being wrong, for the second time but in the opposite direction, about Darcy’s feelings for her — until she discovers that she was wrong about being wrong from Darcy’s confession to her about all the ways he was wrong until she herself put him right. Then, when both daughters and their fiancés have sorted the right from the wrong, they have to put their family — father, mother, sisters — right about all the ways they have been wrong about Lizzy’s supposed hatred of Darcy.
All this without mentioning the superlative wrongness of Caroline Bingley, Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Mr Collins, none of whom has the capacity to recognize his or her own wrongness. Not a character escapes the pitfalls of wrongness of one sort or another — except, perhaps, for Charlotte Lucas who is presumed to have gone into her marriage with Mr Collins with her eyes open to his many and varied wrongnesses — and closed to them thereafter. And all the characters are defined for us by their reaction to being wrong — even when, as in the cases of Mrs Bennet, Lydia and Wickham, they can never be got to acknowledge it. Mrs B. simply ignores her own mistakes when they are revealed to her and assumes she’s always thought of Bingley and Darcy as she does now. In this she is like Mrs Allen in Northanger Abbey and Mr Weston in Emma, both of whom keep saying, “I knew it would be so,” when everything they had said would be so turns out to be wrong.
Mr Bennet is a particularly interesting case in this respect, as he is unusually ready to admit to being wrong but at the same time feels it less, or less lastingly, than anyone else in the novel with that capacity. In confessing to his own fault in the laxity of parental control which resulted in Lydia’s elopement with Wickham he says to Elizabeth: “Who should suffer but myself? It has been my own doing, and I ought to feel it.”
“You must not be too severe upon yourself,” she replies.
“You may well warn me against such an evil,” he says. “Human nature is so prone to fall into it! No, Lizzy, let me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame. I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression. It will pass away soon enough.”
The comedy of interlacing wrongnesses in these final chapters and the almost farcical quality of our delight in Miss Austen’s unraveling of them to make everything turn out — incredibly — right must be why this has always been the most popular of her novels and why its various adaptations have been, on the whole the most successful. The best of these has still got to be that 1995 BBC version in six parts with Colin Firth as Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth — not to mention the great Allison Steadman as the Mrs Bennet to end all Mrs Bennets. But the connoisseur of wrongness, which I hope you are all beginning to be by now, must always have a special place in his heart for Emma, since Emma Woodhouse is by far the wrongest of her heroines — more wrong even than the hopelessly naive and four years’ younger Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, at least half of whose wrongness passes unnoticed by her and remains a private joke between the author and her readers.
Emma hasn’t Catherine’s excuse for going wrong, which may be why Jane Austen thought that nobody would much like her but herself. The number of adaptations of the novel in recent years suggests that she was wrong about this, but is that because we like her in spite of her numerous errors of because of them? Let’s try to count them up. First, as Mr Knightley points out to her in Chapter One, she’s wrong to think that she has arranged the match between Mr Weston and Miss Taylor. Then she’s wrong about Harriet and Robert Martin, wrong about Harriet and Mr Elton, wrong about Harriet and Frank Churchill, wrong, finally, about Harriet and Mr Knightley. And each of these major errors comprises numerous lesser ones, like all those instances of what she is so eager to mistake for Mr Elton’s little attentions to Harriet before her eyes are opened as to their real object.
And then there are her mistakes about Frank Churchill and herself, about Jane Fairfax and Mr Dixon, Jane Fairfax and the mysterious present of the pianoforte and, most momentously but like everybody else in Highbury, her being wrong about Jane and Frank Churchill — part of what leads her to be wrong in her insult to Miss Bates, a mistake also pointed out to her by Mr Knightley. His and the Westons’ being wrong about her and Frank Churchill appears a mere trifle next to the number of Emma’s wrong thoughts and deeds, every one of which she has to face up to sooner or later, though her final mistake, about Mr Knightley’s feelings for her are as happily wrong as Lizzy Bennet’s about Mr Darcy’s feelings for her.
Actually, there is one species of error that she is not shown facing up to, though it may be that we are meant to understand she does. As it takes place in private, perhaps her self-correction is allowed to take place off the page, but when she rages to herself about Mr Elton’s misdirected proposal, she abuses him to herself for exactly the fault of aspiring to rise above his social “level” that he had abused Harriet Smith for, so much to her annoyance. This in turn reminds us of her snobbery towards Mr Martin, though it does not so remind her. She still thinks she was right to break off that match. The failure here is one of self-awareness, of not being able to see when she is blaming others for her own faults.
The dawning of self-awareness is the rarest and most spiritually significant of all I-was-wrong moments, but in Emma it takes its most benign form when, after Harriet confesses what she takes to be (wrongly, of course) an attachment to Mr Knightley, “it darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr Knightley must marry no one but herself!” Here, at last, we are told, is the beginning of that “knowledge of herself” that can only come with the recognition that she had been “totally ignorant of her own heart.”
So which is the best screen version of Emma? There is much to be said for Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma in Douglas McGrath’s movie version of 1996, which you may see tomorrow but it goes badly wrong itself in taking one of Emma’s wrongnesses away from her and giving it to Frank Churchill instead. This is the suspicion about Jane Fairfax and Mr Dixon which should arise naturally from Emma’s love of intrigue and dislike of Jane but is instead made into a suggestion, a lie in other words, by Frank Churchill.
More seriously, Miss Paltrow’s I-was-wrong moments are almost as anodyne as those of her alter ego in Amy Heckerling’s Clueless which came out at about the same time. There, the Emma character, called Cher and played by Alicia Silverstone, makes only comic errors, while her very brief I-was-wrong moment is soothed away and rendered unimportant by the emollient words of a very implausible Mr Knightly character, played by the young Paul Rudd. Ms Paltrow’s Emma may say that she is wrong, but we never really see anything that looks very much like a dart of self-knowledge hitting her with the speed of an arrow.
On the plus side, Ewan McGregor makes a very plausibly caddish Frank Churchill, Alan Cumming is the most comically unctuous of all possible Mr Eltons and Jeremy Northam the most Mr Knightley-like Mr Knightley I have seen. Toni Collette is in some ways the most interesting Harriet, too, but she’s too much over-the-top, like an embryo Mrs Bennet, and not a plausible love interest for any of the suitors to whom Emma would assign her — or even the allegedly “sensible” Robert Martin. The most beautiful (as Harriet is described in the novel) as well as the most charmingly dim Harriet I have seen is Louise Dylan in the 2009 BBC mini-series, which also has by far the best Mr Woodhouse in Michael Gambon, and a very decent Emma and Knightley in Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller. Like all mini-series, it also has room to squeeze in far more of the novel and all its riches than a feature film can do.
As for last year’s film of Emma, directed by Autumn de Wilde, I hated almost everything about it, beginning with the wide-eyed, gamine-like, almost baby-doll look of Anya Taylor-Joy’s Emma. Indeed, I hated the looks of all the main characters except for Miranda Hart’s Miss Bates, who was, perhaps, the best in the role that I have seen. I also hated the way Bill Nighy’s Mr Woodhouse enters leaping, as if to stick a thumb in the eye of every other portrayal of him as valetudinarian — as in, you know, the novel. I hated the way the supposedly manly Mr Knightley, aged thirty-seven, played by thirty-seven year old Johnny Flynn, acts like a lovesick teenager, pumping his fist in the air and showing his apparent lack of self-command in every emotion he openly feels — not at all, in other words, in “the true English style” as described by Jane Austen; I hated the self-conscious exaggeration of every comic effect and the obtrusive musical pointing with a jumble of Irish-sounding folk music, choral church music and bits of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.
But when it comes to the wrongology of Emma’s various self-epiphanies, especially when she responds to Mr Knightley’s proposal with the look of one absolutely pole-axed with dawning self-awareness — her almost comically wide-set eyes finally come into their own. Moreover, a spontaneous nosebleed on the occasion seems no more than an appropriate reminder of the wounding, death and rebirth that the penitential process mimics, not to mention the arrow of self-awareness darting through her, as mentioned earlier. This, the greatest of the cinematic I-was-wrong moments, is good enough to make me think that all those other things that I disliked about the movie might be deliberate exercises in wrong-ology themselves. There’s no doubt, at any rate, that I, too, can be wrong.
James Bowman is resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.