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Memory and Austen

  • 14 July 2022
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. George Santayana, The Life of Reason Vol 1: Reason in Common Sense (1905-1906).  Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Winston Churchill, speech to the House of Commons (1948). ‘Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been re-written, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.’ George Orwell, 1984, (1949). History is on my mind at the moment, all because of yet another awful Austen adaptation. The latest cinematic mud-pie thrown at her in the new Persuasion movie may even be the worst one yet, which is something, because there’s a lot of competition. Who can forget Gwyneth Paltrow in the 1995 Emma driving a carriage in a yellow ball gown as though she were doing the time trial in Top Gear? So much was wrong with that film, epitomised by the lavishness and wrongness of Paltrow’s clothes (Austen took care to tell us that Emma always wore white; a small but important clue to her character).

By comparison Clueless, a contemporary comedy based on Emma, was a little masterpiece: also made in the ‘90s, it was a sprightly, intelligent reimagining of Austen in the same way that the Beatles used all the musical influences of their past to craft something new and vibrant. When Austen tributes are creative, they’re all the better: Lost in Austen was a little gem of a series that riffed outrageously on Pride and Prejudice – all about early 21st century senses colliding with early 19th century sensibilities, great fun. And the 1995 BBC film of Persuasion with Amanda Root and Ciaràn Hinds, was perhaps the best adaptation of them all; the clothes and manners so credible that the important matter of the story and characters went unimpeded to our hearts. The effort to get the look and the direction in harmony with Austen’s own insights paid off. Bringing the past into the present, whether with creative flourishes like those in Clueless and Lost in Austen or with faithful attention to history, as in the BBC Persuasion, is a good and useful thing. Forcing anachronisms into the past is cultural appropriation