One must show a great deal of sensitivity in how one films a Jane Austen heroine accepting a marriage proposal. That’s because the author never shows us the acceptances directly. Although I am generally not a great fan of filmed versions of Jane Austen novels, I have to tip my hat to how some of them film these scenes.
But first a word on Austen’s reticence. She generally limits herself to saying something like (as you’ll see below), “In what manner he expressed himself, and how he was received, need not be particularly told.” Or, “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.”
Why does the most emotional moment in the book “need not be particularly told”? I don’t think Austen is being coy in these scenes. Rather, it’s that she doesn’t trust herself, or trust language, to do justice to the moment. As she writes of the heroine receiving the proposal in Mansfield Park, “But there was happiness . . . which no description can reach.”
A word of warning before I continue on. I am going to be discussing the marriage proposals in all six novels and then concluding with my two favorite filmed proposals, which are to be found in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility and the 1995 BBC Persuasion. So if you don’t want to find out what happens in a particular novel, skip the section dealing with it. I provide subheads as warning.
Tilney and Catherine have the coldest of all the marriage proposals, probably because Austen never entirely shakes the comic parody that shapes the book. Austen seems suspicious of deep emotion here:
Some explanation on his father’s account he had to give; but his first purpose was to explain himself, and before they reached Mr. Allen’s grounds he had done it so well that Catherine did not think it could ever be repeated too often. She was assured of his affection; and that heart in return was solicited, which, perhaps, they pretty equally knew was already entirely his own; for, though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of an heroine’s dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own.
Sense and Sensibility
. . . in what manner he expressed himself, and how he was received, need not be particularly told. This only need be said;–that when they all sat down to table at four o’clock, about three hours after his arrival, he had secured his lady, engaged her mother’s consent, and was to only in the rapturous profession of the lover, but in the reality of reason and truth, one of the happiest of men.
Both Edward and Elinor are more romantic than the novel originally gives them credit for. In fact, it’s a deliberate ironic twist that the pragmatic sister gets the romantic marriage and the romantic sister the practical one. But it’s easier for Austen to tell us that Edward and Elinor are “rapturous” than showing it.
Pride and Prejudice
Okay, here’s our first directly quoted marriage proposal (of those that are successful), even though we aren’t given the heroine’s direct answer. In fact, Elizabeth’s response is reported in so circuitous a manner that I sometimes have students missing t altogether. We’re so used to seeing Elizabeth in control of language that it’s hard to imagine her talking “not very fluently.”
“You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever.”
Elizabeth feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand, that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances.
If it’s hard enough to describe Elinor and Elizabeth overwhelmed with emotions, it may be really hard to imagine Fanny Price. Jane Austen doesn’t “presume” to try:
His happiness in knowing himself to have been so long the beloved of such a heart, must have been great enough to warrant any strength of language in which he could cloathe it ot her or to himself; it must have been a delightful happiness! But there was happiness elsewhere which no description can reach. Let no one presume to give the feelings of a young woman on receiving the assurance of that affection of which she has scarcely allowed herself to entertain a hope.
Could anyone have guessed that Knightley would be given the most passionate proposal (and the only one besides Darcy’s that is directly quoted)? Notice, however, that, as with Darcy’s, the proposal is indirect. Darcy, remember, asks Elizabeth if she has a different answer than the first time he proposed. Knightley, noting that he “cannot make speeches” (another allusion to language’s inadequacies) wonders whether Emma understands what he is hinting at. But at least he uses the words “love” and “lover.”
“I cannot make speeches, Emma,” he soon resumed; and in a tone of such sincere, decided, intelligible tenderness as was tolerably convincing. “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am. You hear nothing but truth from me. I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it. Bear with the truths I would tell you now, dearest Emma, as well as you have borne with them. The manner, perhaps, may have as little to recommend them. God knows, I have been a very indifferent lover. But you understand me. Yes, you see, you understand my feelings — and will return them if you can. At present, I ask only to hear, once to hear your voice.”
She spoke then, on being so entreated. What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does. She said enough to show there need not be despair — and to invite him to say more himself.
And finally Persuasion. We didn’t see Wentworth’s first marriage proposal years before (which Anne first accepts and then declines). Then, when we see the second one, we are told that it was a repeat of the first one (which, as I said, we didn’t see). Talk about being indirect! We have to pay close attention to make it out:
…soon words enough had passed between them to decide their direction towards the comparatively quiet and retired gravel-walk, where the power of conversation would make the present hour a blessing indeed; and prepare for it all the immortality which the happiest recollections of their own future lives could bestow. There they exchanged again those feelings and those promises which had once before seemed to secure every thing, but which had been followed by so many, many years of division and estrangement.
Film versions of Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion
My runner-up for best filmed proposal scene is the one in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. We don’t see Edward proposing or Elinor accepting. Instead, we are taken into the tree house of their little sister Margaret and hear her describe it to Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood as she watches it through a telescope. The scene is not in the book but it captures the spirit.
Even better is the scene in the BBC Persuasion. Wentworth and Anne, having the conversation where the proposal will be made and accepted, turn off a Bath main street. Rather than follow them, the camera stays to watch a carnival parade. The music swells with excitement and then trails off as the troupe moves on, after which Wentworth and Anne reemerge from the side street. The carnival has just given us a picture of what they are feeling:exploding happiness followed by a quiet content.
Jane Austen was more classicist than romantic. Rather than attempt to directly describe intense emotions (as, say, the Bronte sisters do), she sets up the moment and lets our imaginations do the rest. The films are to be commended for recognizing this and for honoring it.
Note: I wasn’t able to go back and review other Austen films for this column. I invite readers to write in with descriptions of other filmed Austen proposals they remember.