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Memory and Austen

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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 of a subtle and dangerous kind.

At least there was nothing subtle in the newest assault on Persuasion: I won’t be able to relate every howler committed by the vandals who made Persuasion because watching three trailers of it has scarred my psyche and I have my mental health to preserve. So, sorry, but I’m definitely not going to watch the whole damn thing. The family are already complaining that I’ve been shouting at the telly again, so I have to think of them.

Obviously I need to explain why three trailers of this Persuasion sufficed for me to pass judgement on it. They were enough for me to see that the adapters have transmogrified the main character (played by Dakota Johnson, of 50 Shades of Grey fame) into some sort of Labradoodle version of Anne Elliot, Bridget Jones and Fleabag.

Judging from her arch asides (actually more full-face selfies than asides) to the camera, the fourth wall never existed – along with any sense of what it meant to be an Englishwoman living in the times of the Napoleonic wars, trying desperately and vulnerably not to lose her status and still keep some moral integrity and emotional stability. I witnessed Dakota/Bridget/Fleabag saying of Wentworth ‘we were exes’, getting sloppy drunk on a bottle of red wine in her bedroom, wandering around outside with her hair down and generally not being anything like Anne Elliot; and it was enough for me to say that it’s a Bridgertonised mess.


'It’s what we learn from our past that makes us what we are.  Memory isn’t enough.'


One of the cardinal sins committed by terrible adapters of great novels is that they invariably get the costumes wrong. How often do we see an Elizabeth Bennet wandering around outdoors without a hat? (I’m looking at you, Keira Knightley.) There is no excuse for this anymore: paradoxically, at a time when there are fantastic historical resources on the net, we can often get better costumes at the local Halloween hiring place than we see from movie costume designers, despite their huge budgets. For anyone with a bit of time to kill, watch Bernadette Banner’s YouTube channel about historical clothes: she is witty, and her stuff is soundly researched. Her critiques of movie costumes are good for my blood pressure. Her respect for the crafts and styles of the past reminds me of all good scholars, keen and honest. And now I have a clear memory of my father (born in 1905, the year of the Santayana quotation above) telling me that when he was a little child, he remembered how the hems of women’s dresses were often stiff with dried mud: if you had to walk to Mass through rainy wet streets and lanes, that was unavoidable. No wonder museums can’t find ancient clothes of ordinary people; they were worn till they fell to bits.

Why is this important? I think it’s because the past is fragile in the hands of those whose job it is to pass culture on to people. It’s so easy to melt into the constant present. We are deluged 24/7 with contemporary creations – news, chat shows, cooking shows, reality shows, panel shows, current affairs, films, series etc., etc. During lockdown, we all streamed so much of current culture that Netflix and its rivals are now slumping; people have binged too much of everything and yet we still want something, anything of substance to fill the emptiness that threatens when we stop and think. That’s why, I think, the abuse of history annoys me so much: as Orwell showed us, it’s all too easy to distort – or destroy.

For the past, whatever we might think of it, forms us all. Santayana, mentor of such as T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein and Robert Frost, warned against societal backsliding into barbarity, believing as he did in the march of enlightenment (with a spot of racist eugenics). But Winston Churchill’s paraphrase was important: Santayana spoke of remembering the past, but Churchill knew that it’s what we learn from our past that makes us what we are.  Memory isn’t enough.

And so now I remember chanting from our catechisms in primary school as Mother Columcille fiercely reminded us (with the stick for dozy boys, never the girls) that the soul consisted of ‘my memory, my understanding and my will’. Years ago I had an argument with a dearly loved Jesuit pal about whether that meant that robots could have souls if they acquired those three essentials. He said no. I’d just watched Bladerunner and thought ‘maybe’. (We’re close to needing to deal with that conundrum, I think, in the near future.)

So if Santayana wanted to remember the past, it was Churchill and Orwell who knew that simply remembering is never enough: the understanding and the will, and how different understandings and wills operate on our present – these are the essential next steps after memory, to keeping us human, as functioning souls.

Postscript: there is a treasure trove of nearly a hundred free podcasts, complete with full transcripts, from Doug Metzger’s website https://literatureandhistory.com . It’s nothing less than a real effort to trace all the roots of Western thought from the first cuneiform writings onward.





Juliette Hughes is a freelance writer. 

Main image: Dakota Johnson in Persuasion. (Netflix)

Topic tags: Juliette Hughes, Book, Review, Austen, Memory, History



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Existing comments

' . . . when we stop to think.'
The contemporary oversaturation with unsolicited, dubiously sourced information renders this very activity well-nigh impossible for many.
As Aldous Huxley foresaw in his dystopian novel Brave New World (that in several ways bears more direct relevance today than Orwell's 1984), the human mind itself in uber-technologized society is effectively becoming for many the sum total of the stimuli bombarded at it.
The capacity and ability for reflection, contemplation and silent prayer, however, still reside primarily with us. Pressure is inevitable: we, individually and communally, need to exercise due control over it and its effects.
The late Ray Bradbury's short stories "The Veld", "The Pedestrian" and "The Murderer" all succinctly and satirically address a pathological and alienating dependency on superfluous and gadgetry, the intrusive access it facilitates, and the stultifying results it produces.
As I understand Juliette Hughes to be suggesting, we need to resist - through engagement with authors of the calibre exhibited by those identified favourably in her article - anachronistic revisionings of the past, just as we need to ensure significant writers of our literary tradition remain accessible to and recommended for students in today' classrooms.

John RD | 14 July 2022  

For those who are serious about Austen’s exquisite and interesting novels, the seemingly endless adaptations of her work are probably best avoided. Most especially the ones where the story is basically about young men and women in the prime of their lives with lots of hormones pounding around (Andrew Davies, Welsh screenwriter and novelist).

Pam | 14 July 2022  

Film adaptions can fail for a variety of reasons. The makers of “Persuasion” may have been dullards. But “the past is fragile” and many entrusted with passing “culture on to people” really are “vandals” intent on rewriting history. “Who controls the present controls the past” and “who controls the past controls the future.” (“1984”)
Museums “are major teachers of history” wrote British historian Robert Tombs. A project being undertaken by the British Museum was an attempt to manufacture “a guilt-laden” history by making “slavery and empire” the dominant themes to feed the narrative of “systemic racism.”
This follows the USA. In 2020, cultural critic James Panero wrote, “There has never been a moment of lower confidence in American museums than now.”
Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, is now a fountain of woke propaganda where visitors complain that employees “go out of their way to belittle Jefferson” and “every video slandered his name.” The debunked 1619 Project also sought to reframe the country as founded on slavery.
The goal is to make Americans hate their country and overhaul its political system and society in general. The Marxist Herbert Marcuse wrote that radicals now work “against the established institutions while working within them.”

Ross Howard | 17 July 2022  

“the soul consisted of ‘my memory, my understanding and my will’.”

Which shoots down the claim that you don’t need an institutional Church to conserve Faith. The Catholic Left and the Protestant idea that we are all self-regulating by the Holy Spirit living within us is, of course, plain voodoo. Two thousand Christian denominations, Joe Biden/Nancy Pelosi, and even Father James Martin SJ are all manifestations of the voodoo.

roy chen yee | 18 July 2022  

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