“‘We’ll start with Emma. . . . Because no one has ever read it and wished to be married’” (2). So says Jocelyn in Karen Joy Fowler’s 2004 novel The Jane Austen Book Club. But Emma, like all Austen’s novels, is a celebration of marriage and a blueprint for courtship. Austen cleverly emphasizes the concept of courtship in Mr. Elton’s charade in Volume One—a charade that highlights Emma’s arrogant but misguided matchmaking. Emma tries to play God: she attempts to be the choreographer, or novelist, but fails miserably. Jane Austen, of course, demonstrates with consummate skill how it should be done.
Austen choreographs courtship literally by employing dancing as both a metaphor and a model for marriage, as dance partners become marriage partners—as we see in Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice, as well as in Emma. She employs the same terminology for dancing as for marriage: a man “offers his hand,” “engaging” the woman as his “partner” in the parlance of the period, suggesting that this mating dance may be a prelude to matrimony. Therefore, Austen includes dances in her novels to catalyze courtship, and she choreographs her ballroom scenes skillfully to prefigure her proposals of marriage.
“‘Fine dancing, I believe, like virtue, must be its own reward’” (258), says Mr. George Knightley to Emma Woodhouse. But he soon discovers that dancing with the right partner can also be rewarded by marriage. Austen choreographs the Crown Inn ball cleverly to prophesy the proposal of marriage that concludes the novel, so Emma and Mr. Knightley literally dance to the altar. 1 In this essay I will demonstrate the parallels between the ball and proposal scenes and compare the two 1996 film adaptations—the Hollywood version directed by Douglas McGrath, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, and the ITV/A&E production directed by Diarmuid Lawrence, starring Kate Beckinsale—as they adapt these scenes vividly.2
In Northanger Abbey Henry Tilney explains to Catherine Morland the parallel between dancing and marriage: “‘I consider a country-dance as an emblem of marriage. Fidelity and complaisance are the principal duties of both; and those men who do not chuse to dance or marry themselves, have no business with the partners or wives of their neighbours’” (76). His “‘definition of matrimony and dancing’” defines the following parallels:
“that in both, it is an engagement between man and woman, formed for the advantage of each; and that when once entered into, they belong exclusively to each other till the moment of its dissolution; that it is their duty, each to endeavour to give the other no cause for wishing that he or she had bestowed themselves elsewhere, and their best interest to keep their own imaginations from wandering towards the perfections of their neighbours, or fancying that they should have been better off with any one else.” (77)
As Jacqueline Reid-Walsh observes, “Tilney’s witty comparison of the country dance to marriage expresses the notion of dancing as being a form of trial marriage” (115). Tilney’s parallel is apt, because the country-dances of Austen’s era—such as “Follow Your Lover,” “Haste to the Wedding,” “Cuckolds All in a Row,” and the Boulanger, which is danced at the Netherfield Ball in Pride and Prejudice—clearly replicated mating dances, albeit in a formal manner. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu extends the model of the country dance to life, as she writes to Lady Mar in 1721, “I suppose we shall all come right in Heaven, as in a Country Dance, tho hands are strangly [sic] given and taken while they are in motion, at last all meet their partners when the Jig is done” (11). Henry Tilney demonstrates the truth of his parallel by dancing with Catherine Morland and then proposing marriage to her.3
In the 1987 BBC/A&E film adaptation of Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney explains, as he does in the novel, “‘You will allow, that in both, man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal’” (77). The film’s Catherine responds sagely, “Do not underestimate the power of refusal”—a power that Elizabeth Bennet wields emphatically in Pride and Prejudice. Indeed, many of Austen’s heroines, including Fanny Price and Anne Elliot, exercise their power of refusal, but most lack the power of choice. This is where Emma is different, I suggest. A more modern heroine than her Austen sisters, Emma, “handsome, clever, and rich” (5), does not wait to be asked. She takes the initiative. Her adopting the more assertive male role may be due to her superior position in Highbury society and to her indulgence by her doting father and governess. Emma’s technique in deliberately instigating Mr. Knightley’s invitation to dance prefigures her unintentionally instigating his proposal of marriage.
Jane Austen enjoyed dancing and excelled in the art, as we know from letters. Carol Shields writes in Jane Austen, “As a young woman she loved to dance, and must have felt that the movement of dance brought her alive physically” (177). Austen’s heroines enjoy dancing too, and dancing figures in her courtship narratives. In Emma, she writes:
It may be possible to do without dancing entirely. Instances have been known of young people passing many, many months successively, without being at any ball of any description, and no material injury accrue either to body or mind;—but when a beginning is made—when the felicities of rapid motion have once been, though slightly, felt—it must be a very heavy set that does not ask for more. (247)
Emma, of course, is just as fond of dancing as her creator: at the impromptu dance at the Coles’s, Emma “led off the dance with genuine spirit and enjoyment” (230).
“Fine dancing, I believe, like virtue, must be its own reward.”
Lawrence’s ball scene: Emma and Mr. Knightley
“To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love” (9), writes Austen at the outset of Pride and Prejudice. But this step proves a problem in Emma, for Mr. Knightley is not fond of dancing. Indeed, Mr. Knightley does not even care for dance as a spectator sport: “‘Pleasure in seeing dancing!—not I, indeed—I never look at it—I do not know who does.—Fine dancing, I believe, like virtue, must be its own reward’” (257-58). How does Emma, or Austen, succeed in changing his mind? Harriet Smith is the unlikely catalyst that brings Emma and Mr. Knightley together, first in the dance, and eventually in marriage.
Tilney’s country-dance metaphor is clearly enacted in Emma, where the climax of the dance motif occurs at the Crown Inn ball, when a crucial exchange of partners is effected. Emma, who enjoys dancing, wishes Mr. Knightley “could love a ballroom better” (326):
She was more disturbed by Mr. Knightley’s not dancing, than by any thing else.—There he was, among the standers-by, where he ought not to be; he ought to be dancing,—not classing himself with the husbands, and fathers, and whist-players . . . ,—so young as he looked! . . . His tall, firm, upright figure . . . was such as Emma felt must draw every body’s eyes; and, excepting her own partner, there was not one among the whole row of young men who could be compared with him.—He moved a few steps nearer, and those few steps were enough to prove in how gentlemanlike a manner, with what natural grace, he must have danced, would he but take the trouble. (325-26)
As Austen draws Mr. Knightley into the dance, Langdon Elsbree’s principle is validated: “Dancing [is] a test of a character’s sense . . . ; the individual’s reasons for dancing, his attitude towards a particular partner, and his success in pleasing a discriminating partner are indices of his competence in judging others accurately and in conducting himself decorously” (115)—a test that Mr. Elton fails and Mr. Knightley passes spectacularly. Jacqueline Reid-Walsh argues, “Ballroom scenes are central to Jane Austen’s novels for they provide public arenas where the characters reveal their degree of accomplishment in surface manners and their inner courtesy or vulgarity” (115). Allison Thompson writes, “the skill of a person’s dancing expressed the quality of his or her soul or spirit,” for “one measure of determining whether a man was truly a gentleman was by his ability to dance.”
Mr. Knightley demonstates both virtue and fine dancing at the Crown Inn ball. As soon as she sees how well he dances, Emma is quick to attach him to herself, inviting him to “engage” her to dance. The exchange between Emma and Mr. Knightley—who has just nobly rescued Harriet Smith from a social snub on the dance floor by Mr. Elton that is not unlike Darcy’s initial snub of Elizabeth at the Meryton Assembly—is pivotal. Mr. Elton has declined Mrs. Weston’s invitation to dance with Harriet, claiming, as “‘an old married man, . . . my dancing days are over’” (327), thus reinforcing the parallel between dancing and courtship. Mr. Knightley delights the observant Emma by “leading Harriet to the set,” where “[h]is dancing proved to be just what she had believed it, extremely good” (328).
When subsequently urged by Mr. Weston to set the example by leading the dance as the most eligible lady present, Emma responds obligingly:
“I am ready,” said Emma, “whenever I am wanted.”
“Whom are you going to dance with?” asked Mr. Knightley.
She hesitated a moment, and then replied, “With you, if you will ask me.”
“Will you?” said he, offering his hand.
“Indeed I will. You have shown that you can dance, and you know we are not really so much brother and sister as to make it at all improper.”
“Brother and sister! no, indeed.” (331)
By drawing him into the dance, Austen also draws Mr. Knightley into the marriage market, for the introduction of dancing indicates the instigation of courtship, and the astute reader gets a hint of potential partnership in Mr. Knightley’s emphatic response to Emma’s comment on their relationship. Although Adams claims an Austen heroine “cannot choose her own partner, but must wait passively to be chosen” (56), Emma’s prompting Mr. Knightley to invite her to dance prefigures her inadvertently prompting him to propose marriage. Moreover, it is she who states there is no bond of blood to prevent a bond of marriage.4
Clearly, dance and ballroom scenes are crucial to courtship in Jane Austen’s novels. As Vivien Jones writes, “Scenes set at balls and assemblies are an important structural feature of all Austen’s novels. In such scenes, she subtly explores the pleasures and pains of dancing, and of the matchmaking and social mixing ritualized in its elaborate rules of polite behaviour” (389). Sue Birtwistle, the producer of the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, states in her chapter on “Dancing” in The Making of Pride and Prejudice, “In Jane Austen’s time dancing was an integral part of social life. Given her own love of dancing and the crucial role it played in courtship, it is no surprise that she set many key scenes in the book at dances or balls” (67). And Cheryl Wilson, writing about Persuasion, suggests, “Austen concentrates on the nature of the dance itself and lets its character inform her novel, which moves like the kaleidoscopic patterns of a country-dance.” The ballroom constituted a refined type of marriage market. Allison Thompson says, “an assembly was more than just a dance; it was a prime area for young ladies and gentlemen to get to know each other.” Molly Engelhardt points out that it was at the ball, “within the disciplined realm of courtship, that young people could experiment with the romance plot before ultimately determining it” (239).
Ball scenes also render Austen novels highly cinematic, as recent films can verify. So it is no surprise that film directors make the most of Austen’s dance scenes, for they, in turn, render the movie adaptations scintillating. As Linda Wolfe states, “For many film-goers and television watchers, the stately dancing in the recent spate of Jane Austen dramatizations stirred a touch of culture envy: a longing for a presumably lost Eden of elegance, for forms of social intercourse less brash and brazen than our own.”
“To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love.”
McGrath’s ball scene: Emma and Mr. Knightley
The Crown Inn ball scene, which unites the predestined couples and serves as a public and private prophecy of their ultimate union, is rendered brilliantly, but differently, in the film adaptations of Emma.5 Translating from page to screen involves subtle adaptation, for verbal description must be rendered through visual nuance. Lawrence’s adaptation is clearly more faithful to Austen’s novel, but McGrath’s is, arguably, more imaginative. For example, McGrath directs his Emma to intercede on Harriet’s behalf in her typically managerial puppet-mastering mode, as she points out to Mrs. Weston that Harriet is not dancing, but is literally side-lined or marginalized as the dreaded wallflower. Comedic actor Toni Collette, strangely cast as Harriet, puts her hand to her forehead and cheek as if to cool the blushes caused by Mr. Elton’s callous rudeness. Suspense is interjected as Emma strains to see who has so gallantly invited Harriet to dance, and the music swells when a full orchestra enters as Harriet comes into Emma’s (and the viewer’s) sight, galloping up the set with Mr. Knightley. As he escorts Harriet back to her seat, he casts a glance back at Emma, suggesting that he has done this knightly deed as much for her sake as for Harriet’s. What Shields calls “the ballet of glances” in Austen’s fiction (Jane Austen 169) is well rendered in these cinematic adaptations of Emma.
Steven Prince explains the techniques of using camera angles to convey various perspectives:
Filmmakers . . . find it more effective to employ third person camera positions but to use light, color, sound, performance, and composition to imply the emotional and psychological points of view of characters in a scene. Taken together, these elements of structure help create the cinema’s distinctive narrative point of view: explicit third-person narration with implied first-person components. (233)
In Lawrence’s Emma, third-person point of view dominates, with an establishing shot panning the ballroom. Such an overview allows us to see more than the characters can and so creates dramatic irony. Lawrence interjects interludes of implicit first-person narrative, manipulating the viewers’ connection with various characters, including minor characters: Harriet Smith’s emotions as exquisitely conveyed by the talented Samantha Morton, Miss Bates’s comments to anyone within earshot, and conspiratorial glances between the Eltons. Lawrence, by focusing on more minor characters, emphasizes the social context of the principal couple. Visual clues prophesy the novel’s conclusion, such as Mr. Knightley’s jealous frown at Emma as she dances with Frank Churchill, and Frank’s holding the hand of Jane Fairfax. McGrath, more than Lawrence, focuses his camera to suggest Emma’s implicit first-person point of view. He focuses his close-ups on the central couple, emphasizing the main narrative. McGrath prophesies Emma’s dancing with Mr. Knightley as we see them paired together briefly during the interweaving of couples in the country-dance to which he has escorted Harriet.
Both directors heighten the importance of Mr. Knightley’s rescue of Harriet by moving directly from the dance to Emma’s conversation with Mr. Knightley about the Eltons’ hostility. McGrath’s version is more creative, as it has the pair move outdoors for this moonlit scene. They are framed against a window through which the ballroom is visible, suggesting the connection between private and public realms, the potential lovers’ intimacy and their social context. In the case of both adaptations, the crucial rejoinder, “‘Brother and sister! No, indeed!’” is delivered quite suggestively.
“Brother and sister! No, indeed.”
McGrath’s ball scene: Emma and Mr. Knightley before window
Both film adaptations conclude the ball with a stately, but sensual, dance as the pair move gracefully together, suggesting their mutual attraction and physical compatibility. Both directors use the same music—“Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot,” from Playford’s English Dancing Master—employed for Elizabeth Bennet’s dance with Mr. Darcy at the Netherfield Ball in the 1995 BBC/A&E version of Pride and Prejudice. As Steven Prince observes, “Movie music emphasizes emotional effects most often by direct symbolization: the music embodies and symbolizes an emotion appropriate to the screen action” (188). The appeal of this ravishing melody represents the romantic impact of the pair’s first dance together.
But “‘the course of true love never did run smooth—A Hartfield edition of Shakespeare would have a long note on that passage’” (75), Emma reflects, and she is correct, for this romantic dance scene is followed by the Box Hill fiasco, creating a hiatus in the courtship. Before Emma and Mr. Knightley can be united, Emma must “‘correct herself’” (461)—that is, emerge from her chrysalis of complacency and learn to be less arrogant and selfish. Her cruel remark to the garrulous Miss Bates earns Mr. Knightley’s censure and prompts his departure to London. When he learns that Emma has called on the Bateses, however, he softens towards her. She may take the initiative once again in offering her hand—just as, on an earlier occasion when she has earned his displeasure by urging Harriet to refuse Robert Martin’s proposal, she stage-manages a scene where Mr. Knightley witnesses her holding little Emma in her arms (98).6 Whereas in the novel Emma reflects, “she might, perhaps, have rather offered it” (386), the film adaptations portray Emma deliberately offering her hand to Mr. Knightley.
Once again, it is Harriet who catalyzes Mr. Knightley’s proposal. In recreating Harriet in her own image, Emma has created a monster. Just as Lady Catherine de Bourgh parodies Darcy’s pride and Elizabeth’s prejudice, exorcising their vanity and freeing them to become humble, as I have argued elsewhere (“Famous Last Words”), so, by becoming uppity herself, Harriet exorcises Emma’s arrogance and frees her to become grateful. Earlier, Emma has thought, “‘[H]appy the man who changes Emma for Harriet’” (269), but she finally realizes, “Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!” (408). Emma feels no regret at disinheriting poor little Henry. After eating Mr. Knightley’s strawberries, Emma might have thought, “To be mistress of Donwell Abbey might be something!”
Just as courtship is the key word in Volume One, so blunder is the key word of Volumes Two and Three, and heart the key word of the novel’s conclusion. Though Harriet believes Emma “‘can see into everybody’s heart’” (404), Emma is “‘doomed to blindness’” (425) and cannot even see into her own. Mr. Knightley’s censure triggers as dramatic a turning point in her self-knowledge as does Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth. Thereafter, the word heart, attributed to Emma’s thoughts, is repeated frequently—and appropriately for a denizen of Hartfield. One could argue that, just as Elizabeth Bennet has been in love with Mr. Darcy from the outset, so Emma has been, unbeknownst to herself, in love with Mr. Knightley.
The proposal scene involves a dance of comic misunderstanding that is resolved when Emma overcomes her egotism and becomes a true friend to Mr. Knightley. As Bruce Stovel observes, “Emma’s repeated use of the word ‘friend’ . . . signifies her new determination to be selfless, her awakened gratitude for his friendship” (65). Believing Mr. Knightley to be about to confess his love for Harriet, Emma silences him but then reverses herself and, proposing another turn in the garden, offers to hear him. Just as she invited him to ask her to dance, she invites him to ask her to marry him, albeit unwittingly. But is it unwitting, or is it witting? Remember, Emma has just assured him that she has never loved Frank Churchill. Is that so different from Elizabeth’s thanking Darcy for aiding Lydia, thus prompting the renewal of his proposals? Certainly, Emma takes the initiative, although Paltrow and Beckinsale both play the scene to suggest that Emma invites Mr. Knightley’s proposal inadvertently.
“Tell me, then, have I no chance of ever succeeding?”
Lawrence’s proposal scene
Both actresses convey severe distress as Mr. Knightley attempts to confess his love. Where Lawrence, intent on concision, has Beckinsale reverse herself immediately and offer to hear his confession, McGrath has Jeremy Northam stride off, slashing viciously at an innocent plant with his riding-crop to convey his frustration, compelling Paltrow to run after him. Both conclude the scene, unsurprisingly, with an embrace and lingering kiss. Thus, the pair pick up the romance where they left off at the end of the Crown Inn ball. “‘There does seem to be a something in the air of Hartfield which gives love exactly the right direction, and sends it into the very channel where it ought to flow’” (75), reflects Emma. Although Austen is loathe to recount her lovers’ words, writing simply, “What did she say?—Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does” (431), this cinematic visualization of the lovers’ kiss is indeed worth a thousand words.
“What did she say?—Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.”
McGrath’s proposal scene
Emma has attempted to usurp the novelist’s role as choreographer and matchmaker—imagining Mr. Elton entranced by Harriet Smith, and Frank Churchill captivated by herself—but the true choreographer, Jane Austen, sorts out the couples, and everyone gets the partner he or she deserves—just as in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s figure, for “at last all meet their partners when the Jig is done.” Frank Churchill weds Jane Fairfax, Charles Elton marries Augusta Hawkins, Harriet Smith weds Robert Martin, and Emma Woodhouse marries George Knightley. As Darrell Mansell states, “There is nothing that could be called ‘suspense’ concerning the final disposition of the couples who began; only a gentle tension as they threaten to deviate from traditional patterns, but finally do not. The destined couples thread their way through an intricate design, to be united at the close” (8-9). “‘It is such a happiness when good people get together—and they always do’” (175). Of the marriage of her hero and heroine, Austen writes: “the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union” (484).
But screenwriter Andrew Davis was not satisfied with that. He concludes with a harvest-home country-dance scene that recalls the wedding dances that conclude Shakespearean comedies. Mr. Knightley, who has just announced his marriage to the assembled company, invites Emma to dance, saying, “We are not so much brother and sister as to make it at all improper,” and she replies, in a nice reflection of the mirroring employed throughout the novel, “Brother and sister! No, indeed!” Lawrence shows the three central couples—Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, Harriet Smith and Robert Martin, and Emma and Mr. Knightley—observed by the supporting cast of Westons and Eltons in the background, interweaving in intricately choreographed patterns that reflect the agrarian context, the social community, and the cosmic dance of the planets, as they dance their way to the altar.
Lawrence’s harvest-home country dance
Shields believes Austen’s novels show that “the real dance of life lies in language and in understanding” (Jane Austen 182), but actual dance is her method of conveying such compatibility. Austen choreographs Emma cleverly, using an invitation to dance in the Crown Inn ball to prophesy Mr. Knightley’s proposal of marriage. As Adams concludes, “When we realize how frequently dancing and courtship are connected in the novels, we begin to see the terrible importance of getting a partner both for the dance and for life” (57). McGrath and Lawrence make the most of Austen’s brilliant Crown Inn ballroom scene to prophesy the proposal scene, and so their film adaptations of Emma do full justice to Austen’s choreography, both literal and figurative, for dramatizing courtship.
1. I would like to dedicate this essay to the memory of my husband, Bruce Stovel, who always supported everything I did, especially if it involved Jane Austen.
2. For a consideration of the way dance partners prophesy marriage partners in all Austen’s novels and in film adaptations of all the novels, see my essay “From Page to Screen: Dancing to the Altar in Recent Film Adaptations of Jane Austen’s Novels.”
3. For a fuller comparison of courtship and country-dance patterns, see my essay “‘Every Savage Can Dance’: Choreographing Courtship in the Novels of Jane Austen.”
4. Austen’s drawing Mr. Knightley into the dance reveals him as a physical being. Carol Shields writes in her biography, Jane Austen, “George Knightley is finally given his body when he dances at the local ball” (177). In her essay, “Jane Austen Images of the Body: No Fingers, No Toes,” she writes, “George Knightley does manifest physicality when he participates in a dance—it is as though in that scene he has been given his body” (136).
5. When this paper was presented at the JASNA AGM, brief video clips of the Crown Inn ball scenes and the proposal scenes from both versions were shown, as well as Lawrence’s concluding country-dance scene. In the discussion that followed, members of the audience spoke enthusiastically in favor of one or the other adaptations. Thanks to Amy Stafford for her technical assistance.
6. In fact, Emma’s marriage to Mr. Knightley is actually prophesied in her namesake, little Emma Knightley. Indeed, names are carefully calculated in this novel: just as Jane is anything but plain, so Frank is anything but. And Mr. Knightley deserves his name: his knightly rescue of Harriet from the Eltons’ malice recalls St. George rescuing the maiden from the dragon.
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