I’ve been thinking about wit lately, partly because Bag&Baggage Theatre is about to open the Oregon premiere of Michael Frye’s stage adaptation of Emma, two hundred years after Jane Austen’s comedy of manners first met the printing press. Using just five actors, Frye’s adaptation presents the story as if it were a “private theatrical” in the Austen family home, an approach that in itself seems at least a sly conceit. The production opens Friday and continues through May 29 at the Venetian Theatre in Hillsboro.
Like Rossini‘s splendidly whimsical opera buffa The Barber of Seville, which also made its debut in 1816, Austen’s novel was technically part of the 19th century. But both feel more like products of the 18th century (as the Edwardian years seem an extension of the 19th century, which could be said to have ended in 1914).
Certainly Rossini’s opera, with its libretto by Cesare Sterbini adapted from a 1775 comedy by Pierre Beaumarchais, is fully in the spirit of the Age of Reason, embellished by a happy nod back to the 17th century theatrical glories of English Restoration comedy and the French satires of Moliere. And Austen’s class comedies seem slung somewhere between classic Enlightenment intellectual balance (Haydn, Swift, Mozart, Gibbon, Pope) and the surge of Romanticism that would engulf the 19th century (Beethoven, Byron, Mary Shelley, Harriet Beecher Stowe, on down to Wagner).
Austen’s comedies may be the most precise and practical romances ever written. Obsessed with the often foolishly claustrophobic concerns of a narrow slice of self-satisfied society, they’re also worldly. Within the confines of that small society she discovers a measured universe of human possibility, from the perfidious to the noble. And she does it with one of the slyest, keenest raised eyebrows in all of literature.
Entering Austen’s world takes a certain amount of patience (it spins at the speed of a barouche carriage, not a supersonic transport; you must make peace with its rhythm) and some very smart people simply never make the transition. “Why do you like Miss Austen so very much?” Charlotte Bronte queried the philosopher and critic (and George Eliot’s live-in lover) G.H. Lewes in a letter from 1848. “I am puzzled on that point … I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses … Miss Austen is only shrewd and observant.”
The letter is quoted in Bill Henderson’s slim and delightful 1986 volume Rotten Reviews, which also quotes Mary Russell Mitford on Austen, from 1815: “Mama says that she was then the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers.” (In his followup volume, Rotten Reviews II, from 1987, Henderson quotes a submission letter from Jessica Mitford: “I adore the first edition of Rotten Reviews and see therein that my collateral forebear Mary Russell Mitford slanged Jane Austen — that was a pretty silly thing for her to have done.”)
Charlotte Bronte did have a point: It would have been hard to live with a lot of Austen’s characters. But then, Jane wasn’t asking you to live with them, only meet them, think and learn about them, be amused and sometimes even moved by them. And Emma in particular can seem a bit much as a heroine. She’s such a snob, and behaves so badly so much of the time, that you really want to turn her over your knee and give her a good sound spanking (in a prim and properly corrective Austenian manner, of course). It’s an audacious novelistic undertaking, to try to make us root for a young woman whose blundering vanity so nearly messes up so many innocent lives. But, Charlotte: “only” shrewd and observant? That shrewdness and observance led to some of the most pointed, arch and affectionate social satire we have. Miss Austen managed to be both a part of the gentry and a withering witness to its follies. She makes us laugh both at and with them, and there is nothing “only” about that. (And if indeed Miss Austen was, as Mary Russell Mitford’s mother avers, “the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly” — well, what better training for the novelist that Austen became?)
In a word, this is a world of wit — not the actual world that Austen described, but the knowing, bemused, sharply critical yet accepting literary world she made of it.
Wit isn’t an especially American cultural trait: We are perhaps too young and earnest (maybe even too Protestant) a nation for that. So we tend to borrow it from the Brits. We have a genuine wit here and there, and our own populist strain of humor we sometimes call frontier wit, the kind that ranges from our tall tales of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill to the sometimes savage satire of Mark Twain (you could probably throw Al Capp’s Li’l Abner and Walt Kelly’s Pogo into the frontier stewpot, too). Wit is rarely on our stages in native form, so we adopt Noel Coward. The Great American Songbook often has it; so does country music, when it’s not drenched in cheap sentiment.
We have, of course, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, David Sedaris. But unlike them, Austen isn’t an avowed humorist. She wrote comic novels, and there’s a difference: Wit is integral to the outlook, but it isn’t the purpose of her books. Their purpose is deeper: a reconciliation of the romantic and practical in life.
Her heroines tend to be precariously placed economically, intensely aware that one false move could topple them off the ledge of privilege and into the great cesspool of want and hard labor. If their definition of poverty can seem absurd (and it can; we should all settle, as Charlotte Ford does in Pride and Prejudice, for a “modest” country parsonage and attached garden, although doing so without the dweeby husband and autocratic patroness would be nice) readers can easily identify with the process — especially now, in our financially perilous times. Psychologically, these privileged characters’ problems echo our own: How do we find happiness and stability? When is emotion a siren call, and when is it a true marriage of heart and mind? Like Shakespeare, Austen is also deeply interested in the responsibilities of the ruling class (and, by extension, of our own characters, which tend to run wild and wayward if not properly trained and pruned). What characteristics (in Shakespeare’s case) make a wise and powerful king? What characteristics (in Austen’s case) make a gentleman or gentlewoman at once humble and properly proud, generous and responsible, a good bet for the long haul? These are not trivial questions. Strip away the mask of money and we all face them.
But we were talking about wit. Something about style makes us often underestimate the sophistication of the past, which seems to us like an old-model automobile, and little matter whether it’s a Yugo or a Deusenberg. But especially from the 17th through the 19th centuries a collusion existed between author and reader (or performer and audience) that is all too often missing from our contemporary cultural conversation. We belittle those works (ample in those centuries, and on today’s television situation comedies) in which the happy ending is pre-supposed, or in which the impossible tangles of a situation are swiftly and belatedly unraveled by the hand of God or machine, as in the stage’s infamous deus ex machina. Gentle reader, the audience was not being cheated or condescended to. It was in on the joke. It knew that the quick fix did not correspond to reality. Much of the humor lay in the recognition of the artifice and the acknowledgment that it represented a fantasy. The joke was layered, and it took a sophisticated, active audience to appreciate it.
Austen’s novels don’t resort to such tricks. In the end, everyone gets pretty much what she or he deserves. Still, something theatrical rattles around in her writing: She sets you inside easy-to-envision scenes. As Rossini/Beaumarchais/Sterbini create vivid tiny portraits of supporting characters in The Barber of Seville (the maid Berta has little narrative purpose in the play except to steal the spotlight with some ample belly laughs in one gem of a “superfluous” scene) so does Austen revel in the artfully rendered sideshow.
One of the glories of her novels is the way their supporting characters glitter with astutely observed caricature and familiar foibles. Who among us doesn’t recognize the anxious hypochondriac who is Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse? And who can resist the ruthless mischievousness of some of her quick character sketches, such as the intemperately chatty Miss Bates in Emma? I think a good place to close this conversation is simply to quote this passage from the novel, in which Emma and her friend Miss Smith are trapped in the torrent of Miss Bates’s incessant trivialities, which range from a new piano to a baked apple. Miss Bates is no wit. Miss Austen assuredly is:
“I hope Mrs. Bates and Miss Fairfax are –”
“Very well, I am much obliged to you. My mother is delightfully well; and Jane caught no cold last night. How is Mr. Woodhouse? I am so glad to hear such a good account. Mrs. Weston told me you were here. ‘Oh, then,’ said I, ‘I must run across; I am sure Miss Woodhouse will allow me just to run across and entreat her to come in: my mother will be so very happy to see her; and now we are such a nice party, she cannot refuse.’ ‘Aye, pray do,’ said Mr. Frank Churchill, ‘Miss Woodhouse’s opinion of the instrument will be worth having.’ ‘But,’ said I, ‘wait half a minute, till I have finished my job;’ for, would you believe it, Miss Woodhouse, there he is, in the most obliging manner in the world, fastening in the rivet of my mother’s spectacles. The rivet came out, you know, this morning; so very obliging! For my mother had no use of her spectacles — could not put them on. And, by-the-bye, everybody ought to have two pair of spectacles; they should indeed. Jane said so. I meant to take them over to John Saunders the first thing I did, but something or other hindered me all the morning; first one thing, then another, there is no saying what: you know. At one point Patty came to say she thought the kitchen chimney wanted sweeping. ‘Oh,’ said I, ‘Patty, do not come with your bad news to me. Here is the rivet of your mistress’s spectacles out.’ Then the baked apples came home; Mrs. Wallis sent them by her boy; they are extremely civil and obliging to us, the Wallises, always. I have heard some people say that Mrs. Wallis can be uncivil and give a very rude answer; but we have never known anything but the greatest attention from them. And it cannot be for the value of our custom now, for what is our consumption of bread, you know? only three of us. Besides, dear Jane at present — and she really eats nothing — makes such a shocking breakfast, you would be quite frightened if you saw it. I dare not let my mother know how little she eats; so I say one thing, and then I say another, and it passes off. But about the middle of the day she gets hungry, and there is nothing she likes so well as those baked apples, and they are extremely wholesome; for I took the opportunity the other day of asking Mr. Perry; I happened to meet him in the street. Not that I had any doubt before. I have so often heard Mr. Woodhouse recommend a baked apple. I believe it is the only way that Mr. Woodhouse thinks the fruit thoroughly wholesome. We have apple dumplings, however, very often. Patty makes an excellent apple dumpling. Well, Mrs. Weston, you have prevailed, I hope, and these ladies will oblige us.”
Emma would be “very happy to wait on Mrs. Bates,” etc., and they did at last move out of the shop, with no further delay from Miss Bates than:
“How do you do, Mrs. Ford? I beg your pardon; I did not see you before. I hear you have a charming collection of new ribbons from town. Jane came back delighted yesterday. Thank ye, the gloves do very well — only a little too large about the wrist; but Jane is taking them in.”
“What was I talking of?” said she, beginning again when they were all in the street.
Emma wondered on what, of all the medley, she would fix.
These are country manners, as Joseph Addison had it in the pages of The Spectator: a little prolix, a little effusive, a little foolish, a lot drawn out. But, ah, the ear of the observer who listens so keenly and transforms such prattle to paper via pen! It is Miss Austen’s singular sensation. It is the soul of wit.
This essay is updated and adapted from one that ran originally on May 12, 2010 on the cultural blog Art Scatter.