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Autumn de Wilde’s “EMMA.”: A Roundtable

In our  “Romanticism Beyond the Academy” series, we invite literature-lovers to reflect on the significance of Romantic-era writers and ideas in the contemporary world and/or in their own lives.

In the first roundtable for this series, Jane Austen scholars consider director Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 adaptation of Austen’s Emma, which she entitles EMMA.. Examining the film’s visual culture, feminist and racial politics, and multimedia influences, the contributors analyze EMMA. both in relation to Austen’s novel and historical moment, and within the context of a twenty-first-century media ecology. For more entries from this series, click here

Edited by Mariam Wassif

  1. Madeleine Pelling: Visual Culture
  2. Andrew McInnes: “I have to Celebrate You Baby”: Choreography and Authenticity
  3. Rita J. Dashwood: “No, not that one”: Emma as Disney Villain
  4. Amy Wilcockson: It’s a Woman’s World
  5. Mariam Wassif: EMMA. in the Age of Color-Blind and Color-Conscious Casting

 

1. Madeleine Pelling: Visual Culture

Emma has long been my favorite of Austen’s novels (with the exception, perhaps, of Persuasion) and a text most readily open to adaptation. From Michael Barry’s live BBC broadcast in 1948 to its modern reimagining in 1990s America in Clueless, from Rajshree Ojha’s Aisha (2010) to the YouTube series Emma Approved (2013), the trembling hierarchies, hot summers, and gossiping residents of Highbury have rarely been off our screens. Consequently, the eponymous heroine, famously “handsome, clever and rich,” has provided ample fodder for actresses including Romola Garai, Kate Beckinsale, Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, Gwyneth Paltrow and, most recently, Anya Taylor-Joy.

Autumn de Wilde’s hotly anticipated EMMA. is the latest in a long line of cinematic and televisual iterations, and the last film I saw in the cinema before the pandemic hit in early 2020. On this initial viewing, I came away less than enchanted by its sickly-sweet palette and apparent prioritising of style over substance, which left me with the impression of a luscious but ultimately vacuous production. In the months since, I have been thinking about the visual and material cultures of adaptation and, specifically, what happens when the long eighteenth century is translated to the twenty-first-century screen. The pandemic has given ample opportunity for many of us to revisit similar works. Most recently, I have written a chapter on canonistic disruption in Sanditon (2019) and Austenland (2013), as well as work on Outlander (2014-), Bridgerton (2020-) and Céline Sciamma’s stunning 2019 Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Now, in revisiting EMMA., I find de Wilde’s rendition of Austen’s novel an intriguing text within an increasingly creative, playful and intertextual landscape of period drama; one that regularly asks questions about our responsibilities in representing the past, the abilities of the cinematic screen to reinvent canon, and the visual literacies of its audience.

EMMA. is, of course, not the first Austen adaptation to receive playful treatment. As David Monaghan has it, long gone are the days of pre-1990 “unobtrusive and conservative camera and editing techniques” and an “unwillingness to rethink Austen’s novels in visual terms.”[1]

We might think of Sally Hawkins’s Anne Elliot looking directly into the camera in Persuasion (2007) or, most recently, Theo James’ Sidney Parker emerging naked from the sea in Sanditon (2019). Perhaps the most striking element of EMMA., beyond the gratuitous period in the title, is its distinctive aesthetic; the bright colours, the remarkable costuming and the soft, tiny details (Emma’s ringlets, the minute decoration on her lace collars). Its genealogy is clearly traceable to Sofia Coppola’s 2006 Marie Antoinette, famed for its vibrant look, its subversion of portraiture of the French queen by contemporary artist Jenna Gribbon and, of course, those anachronistic Converse sneakers. Indeed, EMMA.’s production designer Kave Quinn (who, like its director de Wilde, has previously worked on music videos and commercials) cited the text as a major influence when making design choices.

De Wilde’s construction of a filmic visual culture is distinctly intertextual and intermedial. The director, for example, reportedly drew her comedy inspiration from 1930s Hollywood comedies like His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby alongside eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century print culture, specifically her own private collection which she shared with designer Quinn in the earliest stages of production. Aside from the levels of historical verisimilitude sought by other productions, this is a film for the modern, social-media-saturated age, in which visual culture—itself a commodity—is consumed at a phenomenal rate. While certainly present in Austen’s original text, in the hands of de Wilde questions of self-presentation and the material and visual forms of sociability gesture explicitly to our own cultural and technological moment. Many of the film’s most striking scenes combine the accoutrements of a supposed-authentic Georgian world with joltingly modern visual coding in which the traditional is deliciously subverted to humorous effect, and where looking itself becomes a mode of consumption both within and beyond the plot. We first encounter Mr. Knightley, for example, during an extended undressing and re-dressing montage, in which a fop chain hangs suggestively from his trousers before a servant carefully removes them and his stockings, briefly exposing Knightley’s lower half before dressing him again. This intimate de/construction of a Georgian gentleman—and Austen hero—is surprising but not wholly familiar, calling to mind less Colin Firth’s wet shirt at Pemberley and instead, perhaps, Instagram reels in which influencers unpackage, assemble and model outfits.

Images and their voyeuristic consumption are central throughout EMMA., both within the internal world of Highbury and in terms of the filmmaker-audience relationship. Early on, a servant leaves Emma in her bedroom, seemingly alone but for the cinematic viewer. As the servant exits, Emma promptly lifts her skirts to warm her bare bottom by the fire in a moment that reminds us of our own culpable gaze as well as de Wilde’s broader project to reimagine adaptational and tonal canon. Looking is similarly central to intercharacter relationships. From Emma’s sensual consumption of a strawberry under Knightley’s gaze to the furtive looks exchanged between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, de Wilde presents these deeply pleasurable lines of visuality as themselves visible evidence of the otherwise obscure and sometimes farcical connections that bubble beneath the surface in Austen’s story.

Figure 1: Mr. Elton reveals Emma’s framed sketch of Harriet Smith. Still from EMMA. (2020), dir. Autumn de Wilde

But, of course, Austen’s novel is equally concerned with what happens when characters misread the actions before them, when the truth is hidden in plain sight and behaviours on display misinterpreted. This is not wasted in EMMA., and indeed the film deals with—and even conflates—visual and social illiteracy. When Emma sketches Harriet Smith in the company of Mr. Elton, de Wilde draws on long established cinematic tropes in which the artist-sitter dynamic is used to explore a range of characters’ social and sexual motivations. But the ways in which characters view this process and its resultant image vary enormously and provide a pivotal moment in the story in which conflicting motivations and desires are brought to the surface. Produced under the Reverend’s ambitious eye, Emma’s drawing becomes, she assumes, the material and visual form of a blossoming courtship between Elton and her friend. When Elton sends the drawing to London to be framed (a task undertaken in the belief he is courting Emma herself), the result is gaudy and excessive; a literal mis-framing of a visual product after which Elton’s true motivations are revealed to both comic and unpleasant effect.

In contrast, the extent to which de Wilde intends her cinematic audience to read, or misread, images in her work is difficult to gauge. Take, for example, the red capes worn by Harriet and the other boarders at Mrs. Goddard’s school and which bear striking resemblance to those in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, adapted for Hulu in 2017. These sartorial items have since entered a popular imagination and were reproduced by women protesting the health care bill outside the Capitol Building in the same year as the television series aired, since becoming a symbol of feminist resistance. As a visual cue, the capes sit strangely in de Wilde’s text, an uncanny reminder in an otherwise light, even silly text of the lack of economic, social and sexual freedom afforded the orphaned and socially ostracised girls of Highbury compared with Emma herself.

We might think of Autumn de Wilde’s EMMA. as existing in an intertextual and digital space, a film whose aesthetic owes as much to Pinterest and Instagram as it does to Rowlandson or Cruikshank. In a story centered on Emma’s attempts to manipulate those around her, it is de Wilde’s hand and not that of her heroine that is most legible; a level of auteurism and an investment in self-reflexive cinematic form reminiscent of Coppola. But, more broadly, we might read this film as part of a wider, shifting landscape of increasingly visually and materially dynamic period drama, in which genre parameters are being expanded in new and interesting ways. While de Wilde’s style might seem, in some ways, derivative of earlier works, I think we can read EMMA. as part of this ongoing conversation, one concerned as much with our own modern sensibilities as it is with portraying the past.

Dr. Madeleine Pelling is Research Associate at the Centre for Eighteenth-Century Studies, University of York. She is preparing her monograph, The Duchess’s Museum: Collecting, Craft and Conversation, for publication and is editing, with Dr. Emrys Jones, Pop Enlightenments: The Eighteenth Century Now.

2. Andrew McInnes: “I have to Celebrate You Baby”: Choreography and Authenticity

Some of my favourite videos are music videos: the one-shot solitary march of Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Sympathy” (dir. Baillie Walsh); the amateur flash mob in Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” (dir. Spike Jonze); teenage high-jinks in The Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979” (dir. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris). Each of them strives to combine authenticity with choreography, with results spanning from the sublime—Shara Nelson striding through Los Angeles in Walsh’s single continuous shot—to the ridiculous: Jonze’s deliberately shonky camerawork capturing the beguiling earnestness of the Torrance Community Dance Group. Former music video director Autumn de Wilde similarly plays with the boundaries of the authentic and the choreographed, the sublime and the ridiculous, in her adaptation of Austen’s novel, the 2020 film EMMA..

Figure 2: Still from Fatboy Slim’s music video “Praise You” (1998), dir. Spike Jonze

The elegantly circumscribed movements of the Hartfield servants are the most obviously choreographed element of EMMA.. Whether circling swanlike to replenish drinks or rearranging furniture to protect Mr. Woodhouse from possibly imaginary draughts, the footmen move with unspeaking grace. Perhaps because I recognised the actor who plays one of the servants, Bartholomew, but couldn’t place him (he is Angus Imrie, and plays the young [or old?] Merlin in Edgar Wright’s The Kid Who Would Be King with gangly energy), I found the servants’ movements in the film utterly compelling. My favorite moment is when Bartholomew and his fellow servant have to open the extravagant frame Mr. Elton has provided for Emma’s amateurish drawing of Harriet: they somehow manage to combine their trademark grace with utter contempt (see Figure 1 above).

Anya Taylor-Joy plays Emma Woodhouse with choreographed poise, at least at first. From selecting flowers for her servants to cut to opening a carriage window with one dismissive finger to answer the enthusiastic Miss Bates, Taylor-Joy’s movements are precise and composed, wasting no energy. When Mr Knightley tells Mrs Weston he “should like to see Emma in love, and in some doubt of a return; it would do her good,” he is expressing a wish to see a less choreographed, more authentic Emma. We see this more authentic Emma in close-ups of Taylor-Joy’s expressive face, a record of emotions that are often not to Emma’s credit: boredom, condescension, disdain, impatience, revulsion, horror. All of these flicker across her face throughout the film, when forced to speak to the garrulous Miss Bates or bear the company of the seemingly imperturbable Jane Fairfax, but they all combine in Emma’s reaction to Mr. Elton’s proposal in the carriage ride home from the Westons’ Christmas party, as her pupils ping pong in a panic over her past misunderstanding of Elton’s imagined feelings for Harriet.

Panic also characterises her reaction to Mr. Knightley’s later proposal. Under the mistaken, and preposterous, belief that Knightley might reciprocate Harriet’s feelings for him, Emma’s stress manifests in a nosebleed. The first time I watched EMMA., I disliked Emma’s lack of composure here, in comparison with her swift thinking during the corresponding scene in Austen’s novel. Watching the film a second time, I enjoyed it more, and even wonder if the nosebleed might represent Emma’s recognition darting “through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr Knightley must marry no one but herself!” In any case, the nosebleed does represent de Wilde’s fascination with physicality in the film, a comic counterbalance to its otherwise careful choreography, emphasizing bodily failure or excess: from Emma’s nosebleed here to her sister’s farting baby and beyond.

Figure 3: Emma’s nosebleed. Still from EMMA. (2020), dir. Autumn de Wilde

Mia Goth’s Harriet Smith and Miranda Hart’s Miss Bates embody this alternative aspect of the film, both actresses playing up their physical differences to the petite Taylor-Joy. Goth’s stilted delivery, shuffling walk, gawky run, giggling, gasping, and snorting differentiate her from Taylor-Joy’s composure. This is nowhere more obvious than when Emma visits Harriet just as the latter triumphantly rises from a mound of sugar with a coin in her mouth from a parlour game in her boarding school. The single shot of Emma, elegantly attired, standing separate from Harriet, face coated in sugar, drab, and surrounded by similarly dowdy girls, emphasizes the massive gulf between these unlikely friends. Shots of Taylor-Joy standing next to the much taller Miranda Hart similarly highlight the social as well as the physical differences between the women. Perhaps because I recognised Tanya Reynolds from Sex Education (Connor Swindells who plays Robert Martin is also an alumni of the Netflix show), I loved her preening, pretentious, peacock-like Mrs Elton (sidenote: if you have not witnessed the erotic sci-fi adaptation of Romeo and Juliet which Reynold’s Lily puts on as a school play at the end of the second season of Sex Education, you should absolutely drop everything and binge the series now!).

Although the film works as a surprisingly faithful adaptation as far as lifting dialogue from the novel to the screen goes, the comedy of the film EMMA. resides in the tensions it explores between choreography and authenticity. “Tensions” because the film accentuates how its choreography mirrors the social mores and proscriptions of the Regency world it strives to emulate, reflecting on this doubleness for both comic and more serious effect. A final example: I absolutely adore Bill Nighy’s Mr. Woodhouse, whose sprightliness seems like a betrayal of the feeble hypochondriac in Austen’s novel. However, Nighy repurposes Mr. Woodhouse’s hypochondria as an act of care for his lonely daughter, with the final scene of the film revealing how he manages the choreographed movement of various screens to offer Emma and Mr. Knightley some much needed privacy in what will be their marital home: a manoeuvre treading the line between the comic and the moving. To misquote Emma’s description of Miss Bates: what is good and what is ridiculous are most fortunately blended in EMMA..

Dr. Andrew McInnes is Reader of Romanticisms in the Department of English, History, and Creative Writing at Edge Hill University. He is currently an AHRC ECR Leadership Fellow on “The Romantic Ridiculous” project.

3. Rita J. Dashwood: “No, not that one”: Emma as Disney Villain

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich.” So begins Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma, and also Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 adaptation EMMA. This opening immediately warns readers that this is not your typical Austen novel. With Emma, Austen was venturing where she had never gone before by making a privileged, wealthy woman the center of her narrative. Unlike the precariously positioned Austen heroines that came before and after her, Emma is not just the possessor of a stupendous fortune, but also the future co-inheritor of an estate. In fact, Emma holds far less in common with her fellow protagonists than she does with a very different kind of Austen character: her villainous wealthy women (think Lady Catherine). Despite having access to many more opportunities than the other women in Austen’s novels, these great ladies are not interested in becoming the accomplished, charitable, charming hostesses they are expected to be. Instead, they relish any opportunity to remind others of their superior standing in society and entertain themselves by forming matches between them. Remind you of anyone?

With Emma, Austen was setting herself a challenge: how do you make a character who is self-centered, egotistical and borderline tyrannical compelling? While this was a formidable task, the challenge de Wilde sets herself, that of making the experiences of such a character seem of relevance to the lives of people today, is no less so.

De Wilde’s stunning Highbury streets and house interiors, which look like a Disneyland version of Regency England, would, much like Disneyland itself, inevitably be loved by some and derided by others. But what this choice of set design and costumes—described by critics as a “decadent, fondant-swaddled delight” and “a tower of exquisitely rendered petits fours”— accomplishes is a striking, visual representation of the incredible privilege of Emma and (most of) the people with whom she surrounds herself. (It is no coincidence, for example, that the interior of Miss Bates’s house is almost as dark and monochromatic as in any of the previous adaptations of the novel. The exception is a leafy green wallpaper that nevertheless remains obfuscated, as a way of contrasting the dimness in this humble cottage with the brightness of Emma and Mr. Knightley’s homes).

It is not accidental, therefore, that when we are first introduced to Emma she is in a greenhouse (a clear sign of wealth) at the crack of dawn, ordering her servants around, pointing at the flowers she wants picked and admonishing them when they get it wrong (“No, not that one” is, tellingly, Emma’s first line in the movie). The flowers turn out to be for Emma’s governess, who is leaving that same day to get married, and whom, as the scene demonstrates, Emma loves like a mother. This is not a governess’s usual position in a household; we need only remember Anne Brontë’s novels, inspired by her own experiences as a governess, to understand that. Emma is full of contradictions, and this is what makes her interesting: she is capable both of relinquishing her snobbery enough to treat her governess as a member of the family, and of furiously clinging to it so as to avoid the company of others, whether this is the kindly but exhausting Miss Bates or Emma’s nemesis Jane Fairfax. “This is a somewhat harsh, unappealing introduction to the character” comments a critic. Except that that is precisely the point.

Fig 4: Emma instructing her servants to pick flowers in the greenhouse. Still from EMMA. (2020), dir. Autumn de Wilde

It is not accidental either than Mr. Knightley is first introduced to us in a way that emphasises his privilege. The first scene shows him getting undressed and dressed with the help of a servant. De Wilde, a music video as well as a film director, adds a spellbinding theatricality to the well-rehearsed choreography that was the etiquette of a Regency estate. This act of undressing and dressing tells us much about Mr. Knightley: his clothes are impractical, which means that any manual labour on his estate is done by others. And if his erotization in the undressing part of the scene is a clear nod to Colin Firth’s wet-shirt scene in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, it works simultaneously as a reminder of Emma’s privilege. Emma is no Charlotte Lucas, forced by precarity to marry the unappealing Mr. Collins. She gets to choose, and naturally she chooses well.

Much like in the original, and despite his age, Mr. Knightley is no patriarch sent out by Austen to reform Emma and force her into submission. They are equals, both intellectually and socially. When they argue, they argue in front of a dining table bursting with expensive silverware, yet another mark of their privilege. And if we cringe at Emma’s cruel humiliation of Miss Bates during the picnic scene—brilliantly played by both Anya Taylor-Joy and Miranda Hart—we also laugh at the haughtiness with which Emma opens the door to the carriage Miss Bates has been excitedly knocking on with a single finger. Emma is not behaving as we would expect a heroine to—she is more Disney villain than Disney princess—which makes her more complex, certainly less likeable, but in the end much more enjoyable to watch.

The Emma whom de Wilde and Anya Taylor-Joy give us is true to Austen’s original radical depiction of unchecked female power. Emma, as she says herself, does not need to get married, and loses none of her power when she does. As a married woman, she remains the center of her universe, as the post-proposal scene between Emma and Mr. Knightley in the drawing-room at Hartfield so brilliantly demonstrates. “You would quit the Abbey?” she asks him, “Sacrifice your independence?” Emma herself loses nothing and sacrifices nothing. It is the ultimate happy ending.

Dr. Rita J. Dashwood is Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the “Romantic Ridiculous” at Edge Hill University. She is reviewing her monograph, Women and Property Ownership in Jane Austen, for publication.

4. Amy Wilcockson: It’s a Woman’s World

A former model, a folk-rock singer, a comedian, Prince Charles from The Crown, and Bill Nighy are sitting round a dinner table. If you think this sounds like the start of a very strange joke, you would be wrong (although the result is profoundly comic). This is, in fact, a description of the perfectly chosen main cast of the 2020 period drama, EMMA. The film’s director, Autumn de Wilde, stated in a promotional interview that she wanted to bring together a cast that “intoxicated the audience.” And intoxicate they certainly do, as the audience member is swept along with them on a pastel-drenched tour through this stylized and evocative rendition of Austen’s finest, funniest novel.

From the off, we have arrived in a woman’s world. The film’s palette is composed of shades of lemon yellow, blush pink and baby blue, with the interiors of the great houses a Robert Adamesque feast for the eyes. Emma, also a vision in delicate hues, is mistress of her father’s house, Hartfield, due to the death of her mother and marriage of her elder sister. The film’s most important scenes are conducted variously while drinking tea in the intimacy of Harriet or Emma’s bedrooms, or at the local haberdashers, that quintessential female domain where ribbons, gloves, gossip, and secrets are exchanged in equal measure. The men of Highbury are seemingly secondary to the women— Knightley’s Donwell Abbey is shut up and neglected, apparently due to the lack of a Mrs. Knightley; Mr. Elton, the village’s slightly lecherous vicar is firmly under his obnoxious wife’s thumb; and Knightley’s younger brother, Mr. John Knightley, is the picture of a downtrodden husband, a constant slave to the medical foibles of his hypochondriac wife. Even the dashing Frank Churchill is famously bound to answer his valetudinarian aunt’s every whim.

 

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It is no surprise then, that the relationship that struck me as the most powerful within the film was that of Emma (a luminescent Anya Taylor-Joy) and Harriet (played with naïve wonder by Mia Goth). The audience see the two girls change and grow throughout the various romantic misunderstandings of the film. Initially Harriet is Emma’s shadow, her clothes a slightly-less-pastel imitation of Emma’s, her tiny-ringleted hair mimicking her richer friend’s. For Anya Taylor Joy, her “most tender” moments on set were with Goth. The two knew each other beforehand after working together on the Spanish horror mystery Marrowbone (2017). The real-life friendship between the two young women simply adds to the touching nature of the scenes near the film’s denouement, as Harriet comes to reveal to Emma her true parentage. Here, Harriet and Emma are no longer giggling girls but women: Harriet is bolder and proud of her tradesman father, while Emma is humbled and willing to welcome him to Hartfield. In one of the few diversions from Austen’s novel, it is implied that Harriet and Emma will remain close after their respective marriages, adding weight to their friendship as the film’s core relationship and disregarding the more rigid class boundaries of the source text.

 

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Overall, de Wilde’s EMMA. adheres fairly consistently to the plot of the book—down to the line even, with much of the dialogue taken directly from Austen. The only aspect of this otherwise perfect adaptation that disappointed slightly was the rushed conclusion of the Frank Churchill/Jane Fairfax romance. Secretly engaged at Weymouth, the beleaguered lovers descend upon Highbury separately. Their engagement is only revealed when Aunt Churchill dies, thus leaving Frank free to marry whom he chooses (not Emma, despite much flirting on both sides!). An odd scene between Jane and Emma at Donwell Abbey, and a few choice glances between Jane and Frank that are flung at each other across a crowded room are the most the audience get of this plotline. After the Westons, Frank’s father and stepmother, break the news of the romance to Emma, the lovers are next seen at Emma’s wedding to Knightley, after they are presumably also married. Where are the scenes (as in the book) of Jane’s dismay at Mrs. Elton’s interference in her situation, or of Frank Churchill visiting Jane at her small family home? The answer (if you have the film on DVD or Blu-ray) is in the film’s deleted scenes. Pretty much the entirety of the Churchill/Fairfax relationship was consigned to the cutting room floor. A real shame—particularly as a well-done scene that clears the air between Emma, Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), and Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) got the chop.

As we all know, Austen adaptations are perhaps the most overdone of period dramas, but EMMA. is joyous, full of fun, and certainly worth a watch. Incidentally, the age of Austen is not yet over—audiences are lucky enough to have two Persuasions on the way, with Sarah Snook and Dakota Johnson respectively set to play Anne Elliot, and a modern-day spin (in the style of Clueless) on Pride and Prejudice, to be called The Netherfield Girls. It is clear the public’s fascination with Austen lives on, although I would like to remind filmmakers that other novels of the Romantic period are also available. Perhaps Ivanhoe will be the next big hit?

Amy Wilcockson is an AHRC-funded PhD Candidate in English Literature at the University of Nottingham. She has been published in the Times Literary Supplement and History Today, and has work forthcoming in Romanticism and Studies in Scottish Literature. With thanks to Ruby Hawley-Sibbett for our many conversations about this film.

5. Mariam Wassif: EMMA. in the Age of Color-Blind and Color-Conscious Casting

Of the three most popular Regency adaptations of 2020, two—ITV’s Sanditon and Netflix’s Bridgerton series—have practiced color-blind or color-conscious casting. The third is Autumn de Wilde’s EMMA.. Sanditon cast Black actress Crystal Clarke in the role of Austen’s “half Mulatto” character Miss Georgiana Lambe, while Bridgerton hovered between color-blindness and color-consciousness. The first three episodes of Bridgerton depict Black and white people socializing in Regency high society with surprising disregard for skin color, until Lady Danbury (Adjoah Andoh) offers an explanation in episode four: racial prejudice had divided the kingdom until the king fell in love with and married a Black woman, who became Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel), based on the historical queen believed by some to have had African ancestry. Apart from Black aristocrats, Bridgerton also features the “mulatta” figure of Marina, whose uneasy integration into the white Featherington household recalls Fanny Price’s adoption by the Bertrams in Mansfield Park. More such adaptations are in the works, with British-Malaysian actor Henry Golding set to play Mr. Elliot in the 2022 Persuasion. These experiments in color-blind and color-conscious casting have generated debate both as to whether such practices truly advance racial justice in the case of Bridgerton, and as to the historical accuracy of depicting a multiracial England profoundly shaped by empire and enslavement. The latter point, however, is a red herring: if Regency England did not quite resemble the worlds of Bridgerton and Sanditon, scholars like Gretchen Gerzina have demonstrated that Black people had a significant presence in eighteenth-century England, just as others like Patricia A. Matthew and Gabrielle D.V. White have shown that debates about slavery and abolition saturated Austen’s world and novels.

Figure 5: Golda Rosheuvel as Queen Charlotte, Promotional image for Bridgerton (2020), prod. Shonda Rhimes et. al.

Yet any sense that a world exists beyond an unproblematic white Englishness is missing from de Wilde’s EMMA.. If Bridgerton stumbles in depicting an idealized post-racial Regency, Emma attempts to solve the problem of race by pretending it doesn’t exist. Jane Fairfax and Mrs. Weston’s conversation about the slave trade disappears, and Harriet’s encounter with the gypsies occurs offscreen, presumably to avoid a racist representation of travelers such as that in the 1996 Douglas McGrath adaptation. Beyond such omissions of detail, the film dampens much of Austen’s critique of Emma herself, and thus Austen’s critique of power.

De Wilde’s EMMA. clings more closely to the heroine’s consciousness than Austen’s novel. Its aesthetic depicts Highbury as the perfectly orderly place Emma desires, from the pastel color scheme to the cheerful music and picturesque images of Mrs. Goddard’s girls marching in straight lines wearing identical red hooded cloaks (although, as Madeleine Pelling writes above, those red cloaks have some sinister connotations). This aesthetic satirizes Emma to some extent, but the film also ties up loose ends to eliminate ambiguity. In the novel, Emma averts disaster thanks to sheer good luck when Mr. Martin proposes to Harriet after the two regain their former intimacy. Through that artifice, Austen keeps in view the possibility that Emma’s meddling could have produced a very different outcome if not for the demands of the comic genre. In the de Wilde adaptation, meanwhile, Mr. Martin proposes to Harriet after Emma visits him at the farm, confesses, and asks him to reconsider. This development both completes Emma’s reform from snobbery, and allows her to maintain control over events. In other words, the film sustains Emma’s images of perfection, with the final wedding scene sealing this idealized vision. Where Austen’s statement of the “perfect happiness of the union” in the novel’s final line leaves room for ironic readings, de Wilde’s EMMA. (aptly produced by “Perfect World Pictures”) depicts a union that is perfect indeed. It unites the entire village: as Emma and her father, a surprisingly sprightly Mr. Woodhouse, walk up the aisle, the other characters turn to smile at them. Everyone Emma has wronged—Harriet, Robert Martin, Miss Bates—appears delighted and admiring; Mr. Elton benevolently officiates; and even Mrs. Elton appears to have relinquished her rancor. Where Austen leaves room for ambiguity and ongoing tension, de Wilde’s film fully redeems the heroine and depicts Highbury as a model of harmonious coexistence.

That perfection depends on excluding unpleasant realities such as class, the stigma of illegitimacy (Harriet’s father is even invited to Hartfield), and race or slavery. Highbury is sealed off from such problems and appears to exist in a universe of its own. Take, for example, the visit to Donwell Abbey for strawberry picking. As the group take in a magnificent room, Miss Bates exclaims, “do you not feel transported? I can hardly believe that we remain in England!”. Miss Bates is transported not to a world beyond England (such as the outer reaches of empire), but to ancient Greece as reflected in the neoclassical décor: she is transported to an idealized other England projected onto the antique past. Later, a solitary Emma gazes up at a milk-white Grecian statue in a long hall of white statues, while she is wearing a version of the fashionable “little white dress” that was meant to transform the Englishwoman into a replica of these marble figures.[2] These dresses were designed to suggest neoclassical values of truth and beauty, of adornment perfectly in harmony with nature and the idealized female body, a presumed white body whose pale skin will blend with the faux-translucent fabric to give an impression of near-undress. In fact, in spite of eighteenth-century fetishizations of these white statues, modern technologies show that they have simply faded from their original polychromy. In the case of de Wilde’s Emma, the pink shawl and details of the dress seem to flow as the natural extensions of the pink-and-white English beauty. The scene captures the neoclassical aesthetic of Austen’s world, but without the framing of the imperial context and without Austen’s symbolic language of black and white, such scenes lose their critical potential and become instead fetishizations of a white aesthetic.

Figure 6: Emma and the statue at Donwell Abbey. Still from EMMA. (2020), dir. Autumn de Wilde

The contrast between de Wilde’s EMMA. and adaptations like Bridgerton or Sanditon raises the question of whether it’s time for a color-blind or color-conscious adaptation of Emma (it is well past time for more period adaptations of other women novelists, including those of color). One way to engage Emma’s imperial context would be to depict Harriet as a woman of color, given her marginalized status and the symbolic language of black and white through which Austen’s Emma thinks about her friend’s parentage (“the stain of illegitimacy, unbleached by nobility…”). Such an adaptation would not be anachronistic, as women of color like the fictional Olivia Fairfield, the protagonist of the anonymously authored The Woman of Colour (1808), did live in Europe. In fact, we don’t have to look far for a story that closely mirrors Austen’s Emma but with a Black woman as the protégée: this is the plot of Claire de Duras’s Ourika (1824), a French novella inspired by actual events whose titular Black protagonist compares herself to a tragic Galatea (the statue brought to life in the myth of Pygmalion) unwillingly “rescued” by her white benefactress.[3] A color-blind or color-conscious adaptation of Emma informed by works like Ourika would require careful effort to foreground the stories of women of color in Europe without depicting post-racial utopias or repeating the omissions, evasions, and appropriations of the source material. Supported by the growing body of research on people of color in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, new reading spaces such as the digisphere, heritage institutions, and screen adaptations can invite more capacious understandings of Austen that respond to the needs of our times.

Dr. Mariam Wassif is Research and Teaching Fellow at the University of Paris 1- Panthéon-Sorbonne. She is preparing her monograph entitled “Poisoned Vestments”: Rhetoric and Material Culture in England and France, 1660-1820 for publication. This contribution is adapted from her essay “Emma, Empire, and the Classics,” which is forthcoming in Austen After 200: New Reading Spaces (Palgrave 2021), edited by Annika Bautz, Daniel Cook, and Kerry Sinanan.

Notes

[1] David Monaghan, “Emma and the Art of Adaptation,” in Gina Macdonald and Andrew F. Macdonald eds., Jane Austen on Screen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003),  p.197.

[2] Hilary Davidson, Dress in the Age of Jane Austen (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), 33.

[3] For more on the historical Ourika, see Robin Mitchell, Venus Noire: Black Women and Colonial Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century France (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2020).  For a discussion of problems with how Duras, who was white, depicts Ourika, see also Mitchell’s “‘Ourika Mania’: Interrogating Race, Class, Space and Place in Early Nineteenth-Century France,” African and African Diaspora: An International Journal 10, no.1 (2017): 85-95.