Adaptations and Accuracy: Literary Favorites from Page to Screen

“If, however, your feelings have changed, I will have to tell you, you have bewitched me body and soul, and I love…I love….I love you.”
(Pride and Prejudice, 2005.)

 Photograph: Focus Features.
Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfadyen as Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, 2005.
Photograph: Focus Features.

If you are a serious, literary-minded Jane Austen fan, it may raise your blood pressure a bit to learn that there are many people who believe the above quote was actually said by Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.  Similarly, there are those who are convinced that the famous scene where Darcy leaps into the lake at Pemberley is an accurate depiction of something that Austen wrote on the page.  In fact, as most of you reading this will know, the above lines are said by actor Matthew Macfadyen in the 2005 movie version of Pride and Prejudice and the scene with Darcy in the lake is enacted by Colin Firth in the 1995 BBC miniseries.  Neither scene is in the book.

Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, 1995. Photograph: BBC.
Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, 1995.
Photograph: BBC.

Such is the power of a major motion picture or well made television miniseries.  It not only influences how people picture a character or a setting, it can change their impression of the book entirely.  In time, the events of the movie and of the book bleed together and the general public begins to take for granted that what they have seen on the screen is an accurate depiction of a famous novel which, perhaps, they have never had the time or inclination to read.

The Reluctant Widow, 1950 film adaptation. Based on the Novel by Georgette Heyer.
The Reluctant Widow, 1950 film adaptation. Based on the Novel by Georgette Heyer.
The Reluctant Widow, 1950.
The Reluctant Widow, 1950.

In 1950, The Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer was made into a movie starring Jean Kent and Guy Rolfe.  Amongst other changes made to the original story, the heroine was transformed from British Elinor Rochdale to Helena, the French governess.  The movie was not a success and, for the most part, has slipped into obscurity.  I wonder how much of its failure at the box office can be attributed to deviations from Heyer’s original material?  If you are a curious Georgette Heyer fan who has an hour or two to kill, you can watch it for free HERE and then decide for yourself.

In 1955, Heyer’s popular Regency romance, Arabella, was made into a German film titled Bezaubernde Arabella (Enchanting Arabella).  Starring Johanna Von Koczian and Carlos Murphy, it takes place in 20th century Germany instead of Regency England.  Arabella’s father (who is alive and well in the book) has died and the family is in debt.  As a result, she must make a wealthy marriage.  This movie was also largely unsuccessful, with some calling it pointless and others a mere attempt at social comedy.  Again, it is hard to tell how much of this reaction can be attributed to changes made by the filmmakers.  Would an accurate depiction of Heyer’s novel have fared better?  I would like to think so.

Johanna Von Koczian and Carlos Murphy as Arabella and Robert Beaumaris in Bezaubernde Arabella (Enchanting Arabella), 1955.
Johanna Von Koczian and Carlos Murphy as Arabella and Robert Beaumaris in
Bezaubernde Arabella (Enchanting Arabella), 1955.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel North and South introduced us to the love story of John Thornton and Margaret Hale.  It has been adapted twice for the small screen – once in 1975 and once in 2004.  The 2004 BBC miniseries version was not as blatantly inaccurate as some adaptations of novels, but it did begin with Mr. Thornton beating a man senseless for smoking in his factory and end with a smoldering kiss on a train platform.  Naturally, neither of those things are present in the novel.

Unlike the Heyer films, however, the North and South miniseries was hugely successful.  I have often wondered if this was a result of keeping the bulk of the story true to the book and changing – or adding – only those elements necessary to make it translate well to the screen.  Or perhaps its success was simply a result of excellent casting.  After all, what miniseries would not strike ratings gold with Richard Armitage playing the romantic lead?

Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe as John Thornton and Margaret Hale in North and South, 2004.
Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe as John Thornton and Margaret Hale
in North and South, 2004.

One of the most well known novels adapted to the screen is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  The number of movies, television shows, and miniseries based on Stoker’s 1897 classic are too numerous to list.  Yet, how many people who know the story of Count Dracula, Van Helsing, Mina Murray, and Jonathan Harker have ever read the book?  And how many imagine the title character as anything other than a caped, fanged, campy Bela Lugosi?

Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula in Dracula, 1931.
Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula in the Universal Pictures adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1931.

Dracula is an epistolary novel.  As such, the first image we get of the Count is one recorded in the journal of Jonathan Harker upon arrival at Dracula’s castle.  I include it here so that you can make your own comparison between the author’s version of Count Dracula’s appearance and the popular film version.

“…a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere…His face was a strong—a very strong—aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils; with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere.  His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion.  The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth; these protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years.  For the rest, his ears were pale, and at the tops extremely pointed; the chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin.  The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.”

Esmé Bianco as Ros in Game of Thrones, 2011-2013. Ros is a character who is not in the books.
Esmé Bianco as Ros in the HBO adaptation of Game of Thrones, 2011-2013. Ros is a character who is not in the books.

One of the more recent outcries over the discrepancies between the book and screen version of a popular novel is that over the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series by George R.R. Martin and the HBO television series Game of Thrones.  For those of us who have been reading Martin’s series for years, the alterations made to plot, setting, and characters can be disappointing, to say the least.  But despite the pervasive grumbling from fans of the books (myself included, I admit), Game of Thrones is one of the most watched series on television.

A filmmaker often has a vision all their own, as do the actors portraying the roles.  As a result, we are encouraged to look at film and television adaptations as something wholly separate from the books on which they are based or inspired.  Fair enough.  But what about those people who have never read the novels?  Do inaccurate adaptations perpetuate their ignorance?  Fill their head with plotlines, quotes, and characters that never existed in the mind of the original author?  Or do the film and television adaptations provoke a curiosity in the viewer – a desire to seek out the original source material and enlighten themselves?

Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in the Alfred Hitchcock adaptation of Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca, 1940.
The Alfred Hitchcock adaptation of Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, 1940.

I don’t have the answer to this.  What I do know is that some of the adaptations, though inaccurate, are beautifully done and thoroughly entertaining to watch.  Alfred Hitchcock’s version of Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca comes to mind.  As does the Granada adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisted.  Accuracy is, of course ideal, but having said that, I would no more give up the image of Mr. Darcy rising from that lake in the 1995 version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice than I would the image of John and Margaret on the train platform in the 2004 version of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South.  Would you?

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

Austen, Jane.  Pride and Prejudice.  Ed. Donald Gray.  Norton Critical Editions.  3rd ed.  New York: Norton, 2002.

Gaskell, Elizabeth.  North and South.  1855.  Project Gutenberg.  Web.

Heyer, Georgette.  Arabella.  Chicago: Sourcebooks, 2009.

Heyer, Georgette.  The Reluctant Widow.  Chicago: Sourcebooks, 2008.

Martin, George R.R.  Game of Thrones.  New York: Bantam, 1996.

Stoker, Bram.  Dracula.  Nina Auerbach.  Norton Critical Editions.  1st ed.  New York: Norton, 1996


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54 Comments on "Adaptations and Accuracy: Literary Favorites from Page to Screen"

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Sarah Waldock
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I dislike adaptations that are either blatantly anachronistic in historical drama or don’t stick to the spirit of the book. Take Lord of the Rings [director’s cut; the missing 17 seconds with Isildur at the beginning of the movie house version does make a difference if you haven’t read the book]. No Tom Bombadil and the hobbits get their swords from the elves not the barrow wights, but! it keeps the main plot in mind. And increasing Arwen’s part arguably redresses the lack of female leads. However, in the second film, all spirit of the book is lost in the… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks for commenting, Sarah! I’m in two minds about adaptations as well for pretty much the same reasons you stated. I do want more people to be exposed to literature and some of the adaptations are beautiful (even though ranging from mildly inaccurate to blatantly anachronistic), but part of me will always consider the film and television versions of books to be inferior. I did really enjoy North and South, however, and the 1995 Pride and Prejudice.

Sarah Waldock
Guest
I do have a friend, whom I met through the fanfiction fora, who came to Austen via the ‘Emma’ miniseries and then read the book. English is her second language and she has used writing fanfiction to improve it – and really, can there be a better exemplar for English use than Jane Austen! I am tremendously impressed by my friend’s achievements, and for helping her, and for others who are encouraged to read, I think that I have to come down on the side of adaptation. So long as they are not too slapdash. And the BBC is generally… Read more »
Judith Laik
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Sarah, that seeing the film might actually lower the likelihood of reading the book was a different perspective for me. When I was younger, I frequently read a book because of seeing the film. If I saw a movie I loved, I sought out “more” of the same, and I relished that the book was usually a fuller experience. These days I don’t see many films, even TV adaptations, which means I’ve gone in the other direction from most of the population, in which the multitude of entertainment options has reduced the number of readers of books. I think that’s… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest
Thanks for commenting, Judith! I am like you in that when I was younger, seeing a film would make me curious and I would read and research, both the novel on which the movie was based and other source material. As an adult, I don’t watch adaptations unless I’ve read the book first. Otherwise, I tend to have the filmmakers picture of characters/events in my mind and it inhibits my enjoyment of the novel. I know many people who feel the opposite, especially with big intimidating books in arcane language. Sometimes the movie version is all that they will ever… Read more »
nmayer2015
Guest
I have never seen a film that made me want to read the book. I have usually already read the book. When the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice movie came out, we had a bunch of people applying for membership in our local chapter. One or two stayed with us but most left after a few meetings when they learned that we didn’t sit around enthusing over the film. Usually the interest in Austen’s novels is fleeting for the majority of those who see a movie before ever reading a book. Those who do read her novels often stick with… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Very interesting, Nancy! I would have thought after the 1995 P&P that people would have been interested in reading the real Jane Austen. It’s disappointing to think that it was the opposite!

Sarah Waldock
Guest
I think it’s sad too. I grew up without TV, and we didn’t have much spare cash to go to the cinema. In fact, I think I saw only three movies in my childhood; ‘Young Winston’, which my father took me to see by mistake as we were supposed to see ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ so we went to see that the next week; ‘Young Winston’ made the deeper impression on me though. I was 7, and way too young for it really! The other film, a couple of years later, was ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’ which fascinated me, and probably… Read more »
Gillo
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‘Brideshead’ was Granada, not BBC. In other respects this is interesting and well-written. I dislike the over-Romanticised 2005 P&P, which is almost Bronte at times, but Colin Firth in the wet shirt ‘sells’ the acute embarrassment of the moment in a way that communicates to modern viewers who are not (yet) Austen fans.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thank you for posting to correct that error, Gillo! The irony is, that last bit about Rebecca and Brideshead were last minute additions to my article. Serves me right!

Angela Elliott
Guest
As both a scriptwriter and a novelist I can see it from both sides of the equation. My novelist’s head says don’t mess with the plot or characters. I wrote them that way for a reason. My scriptwriter’s head says that I want to do justice to the story and show it in its best light for screen. Sometimes, things that are written in novels are best brought out in a different way for the screen. That said, there are plenty of scriptwriters who don’t care a fig for the actual book. They think they can do so much better.… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

I’m so glad to get the perspective of someone who works in both worlds, Angela. Thank you so much for commenting!

nmayer2015
Guest
I have yet to find any screen adaptation that was better than the book except for From Here to Eternity when they cut all the profanity for the film. The screenwriters say they want a better dramatic presentation but they do it by doing violence to the author’s intents and purposes. In some cases the theme of a book or its ending is completely changed in the movie. Jane Austen’s Mansfield park has been subjected to the most abuse because the directors and screen writers think they can improve on Fanny price. . I have never understood why film makers… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks for commenting, Nancy! In that same vein, you would think that George R. R. Martin’s series of books had plenty of sex and violence, but the television show adds even more where there was none before. It perplexes me because they’re a pretty graphic series of books to begin with. I would far prefer that adaptations stayed closer to the books and only made such changes as were necessary, rather than totally rewriting the original story.

Angelyn
Guest

I enjoyed the commentary almost as much as the post.

I’m off to watch the Heyer movie–I shouldn’t, but there it is.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I love the comments on my articles! There are so many thoughtful opinions and everyone is so knowledgeable about romance, literature, & history. Enjoy that awful movie, Angelyn. It’s almost required watching for Heyer lovers ;) Thanks for commenting!

Judith Laik
Guest

Mimi, a fascinating topic for discussion! Thanks for posting this. My own take on it is that one has to appreciate books and film as totally different ways of communicating. I’m speaking of film adaptations that are done with some respect for the author’s intent. They are entirely different ways of telling a story, and frequently what we as authors struggle to put into words can be conveyed with a look by the character, or a sweeping landscape, or — something visual that calls to the viewer’s emotions.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I’m so glad you think so, Judith! I love some of the adaptations and I think, despite the discrepancies, they can be credited with reigniting interest in a few of the older books. One thing to take into account, is that filmmakers are artists in their own right and, just like writers, have their own vision for how to tell a story. It makes for some interesting adaptations!

avriltremayne
Guest

I don’t care if adaptations slavishly follow the books, as long as the spirit of the characters is there. In some cases, I have preferred adaptations that are less true to the original text than adaptations that are perhaps more accurate representations. When it comes to the screen, it’s about action and pacing for me. And casting, of course. I mean, Richard Armitage in just about anything? Bring it on.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks so much for commenting, Avril! I love a really good movie or miniseries adaptation as well. And I agree whole-heartedly on the value of Richard Armitage. As far as I’m concerned, he could star as the hero in every adaptation – John Thornton, Darcy, Heathcliff, Mr. Rochester, you name it. :)

Sarah Waldock
Guest

Definitely it’s the spirit of the book over the wording, because some things DO work better on screen than on the page. And I’ve been thinking over what I think it was Mimi says, that the wet shirt thing displays graphically the whole embarrassment and awkwardness, so actually I largely withdraw my objections to it because I hadn’t thought of that.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I think it was Judith who mentioned how a single glance or gesture could convey all the emotion on the page. And there was a lot going on beneath the surface in that scene in the novel when Darcy runs into Elizabeth at Pemberley. I agree that the 1995 version of P&P managed to captured the awkwardness pretty well. Thanks for commenting, Sarah!

nmayer2015
Guest

Though I usually deplore screen adaptations, I also find some scenes well done in the movie. I do not gush over Colin Firth and his wet shirt but acknowledge that it is a graphic depiction of smoldering emotion. Other scenes in other movies do help elucidate emotions.
BTW Now that I think on the subject, I can think of a few movies I thought as good as or better than the book: Ton Jones and Around the World in Eighty Days come to mind. .

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I think what I liked best about Colin Firth and the wet shirt was when he encountered Elizabeth and there was just so much awkwardness between the two of them. Perhaps one reason it works so well is because the encounter truly happens in the book and is described with a lot of deep blushes (though no wet shirt!).

Laura T
Guest

Yes!! I love this and you both said it much better than I could. I feel like this happened in North and South. Especially with Dixon and Margaret. They left out some of their relationship in the boo, but the two of them worked it so well into the movie with their actions.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

So true about Dixon & Margaret, Laura. Without too many scenes or too much dialogue, the actors managed to convey everything to us about their relationship.

bevieann61
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Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks for the reblog, Bevieann!

bevieann61
Guest

You always have the cool stuff on your blog!!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Aw, thanks :) I’m so glad you enjoy my posts.

trudystattle
Guest
I’ve been in countless discussions over Gaskell’s “North and South” and the 2004 BBC adaptation’s success. The ability of the screenwriter to capture the essence and basic integrity of the novel is paramount. Sandy Welch, who did the screenplay for N&S (as well as the 2006 Jane Eyre adaptation), is fantastic at bringing all the passion out from the Victorian prose and making the story appealing, vibrant, and understandable to the modern audience. The train station kiss is an anachronism any romance film lover must be willing to forgive. That scene has to be one of the most romantically beautiful… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

I agree 100% Trudy. I came late to the adaptation of North and South (literally only the last year or two – I don’t know how I missed it!) and when I saw it, I was really impressed. It seemed like one of those rare adaptations where – though there were inaccuracies and anachronisms – it hit all the right notes. When so much goes right, the parts that aren’t true to the book are a bit more forgivable, don’t you think? Thanks so much for commenting!

karma2015
Guest
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks for the reblog, Karma!

Sarah M. Fredericks
Guest

Dear Mimi,
I would dearly love to see a decent movie adaptation of WUTHERING HEIGHTS by Emily Brontë. Most versions are missing key scenes, and they do not relate the story from the second half of the book. Very exasperating! Result? I infinitely prefer reading the book. Thank you for a great post😊.
Sarah

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I totally agree with you about Wuthering Heights, Sarah. It is one of my favorite books of all time and I have never seen an adaptation that does it justice. I have a sneaking suspicion that no adaptation ever could. Thanks for your comment :)

nmayer2015
Guest

They tried to put elements of Wuthering heights into the Keira Knightley P &P. I do not like WH and disliked it even more in P &P

Mimi Matthews
Guest

In my experience, Wuthering Heights is a pretty polarizing novel. I can understand why. Though it is an intense love story, it is also violent and filled with selfish, cruel people – one of the reasons I think it will never be adapted accurately. What parts of the 2005 P&P do you think were like WH, Nancy?

nmayer2015
Guest

More atmospheric than actual, probably. Heathcliffe is usually shown with his cloak in the mist and that is how the Darcy was shown. Others of our Jane Austen group agreed we me. We just felt that the atmosphere was more suited to WH than P & P which wa light and sparkling.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I never looked at it that way before, but I think you’re right, Nancy. I didn’t care for the ’05 P&P. It wasn’t only the inaccuracy. Something was just off for me. Perhaps it was that loss of sparkle and, in its place, too much brooding, WH imagery, as you say.

Sarah Waldock
Guest
I dislike Wuthering Heights, though I did have to do it as a school book which is never conducive to endearing a book to its force-fed readers. I didn’t find any of the characters convivial; and about the best I could say in summation [I did NOT get a good mark for it] was that they deserved each other and it was a good thing they were so isolated, and with luck would be struck by a meteor which would at least liven things up. I don’t like Jane Eyre either; a hero who is a liar and a fraud… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Sarah, the last line of your comment made me laugh out loud. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are definitely darker than Austen and Heyer. But I believe it is that very darkness that makes them so compelling.

Sarah Waldock
Guest
Not, however, very salubrious to aim at 13 year olds… I have re-read Jane Eyre but I have not found any redeeming features in Mr Rochester that can make me think he is in any way a suitable hero. Though at least he provides for his love-child, if not very affectionately. I haven’t tried ‘Shirley’ to see if the third sister was not influenced by the remarkably dark and scary cast of local villagers the other girls seem to have experienced to draw such true to life, and yet revolting characters [Jane’s relatives are hardly any better than the crew… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest
There aren’t many redeeming qualities in Rochestor and he is not, perhaps, the best example of a hero. But think about the trend of heroes since Jane Eyre. We went through a pretty bleak period for a while with awful, cruel, vicious, and sometimes physically abusive heroes (especially during the era of the bodice ripper). It’s a bigger discussion, but just briefly I’ll say that there seem to be a lot of historical romance authors who equate very bad/abusive behavior with masculinity. And, even more disturbing, there are female readers who feel the same way. I think that is starting… Read more »
Sarah Waldock
Guest

Those are very disturbing attitudes indeed, especially in an age where all the work of those fighting for equal rights for women seem to be being spurned for sexualisation and objectivisation of women, with the emphasis being on superficiality. Someone has missed the point, that only weak people are bullies. The strong don’t have to…

Laura T
Guest
Hi Mimi! I could talk about North and South all day long. I thought the decisions they made for the screen were great! There was more to the story of Fredrick and I loved how Gaskell dug deep into his feelings on his new life in Spain. I also would have enjoyed more Margaret/Thornton conversations to make it to the screen. Just to see more of that fabulous chemistry! Now, I thought the on screen ending was 100 times better than the book ending. I loved where it was going in the book… but that last page.. I was bereft.… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks for commenting, Laura! I agree completely about the North and South adaptation. It was one of those television/movie versions that seemed to get everything right. As for the most recent version of P&P, it was not my cup of tea at all. Considering some of the cornier moments (like that awful ending), I feel it might have been made with a younger audience in mind. The “Mrs. Darcy” lines felt very teenager-ish to me and not at all like something the real Elizabeth and Darcy would say.

trudystattle
Guest

Laura, if you love discussing N&S then you may want to visit C19 or our N&S Goodreads group: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/120502-north-south
Oh, and I adore the last few pages of Gaskell’s book. I can argue almost endlessly why it’s more passionate and fulfilling than the train scene ending which I also love. If you read it line by line and really feel the tension behind every action and word, it’s incredible. Others agree (see comment #14 and on): https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/978525-are-you-obsessed-with-north-and-south

Mimi Matthews
Guest

The Armitage Author’s Network. I love it :) Thanks for commenting, Trudy & providing links to further discussion of North and South.

Renée Reynolds
Guest
Reblogged this on Obstinate Headstrong Girl ~ author Renée Reynolds and commented: During my 9th grade year, I was assigned to read and report on Pride and Prejudice over Christmas break. I procrastinated until the final weekend of the holiday, and frantically ran to the city library. While checking out the book, the kindly librarian asked if I’d ever seen the 1940 Laurence Olivier/Greer Garson adaptation of the novel. Thinking I had just scored an easy way out of my assignment, I grabbed the movie as well. One trip home, a bowl of popcorn, and ninety minutes later, I was… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks for the reblog, Renee, and the great comment! I’ll bet you’re not the only student who relied on a movie for their report only to realize later how little it matched the book. And Pride and Prejudice with Laurence Olivier is a perfect example of an adaptation that went in a completely different direction. Even the costumes were from a different era!

Noirfifre
Guest

I always credit the film adaptations for making Jane Austen works severely romantic. I do like it for some adaptation but based on her letters, I do not think JA set out to make her work romantic.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Very true. Austen’s work, when published, would not have been categorized as romance. In fact, I recently found an 1815 review of Emma which called it an exhibition of life and manners that was “more natural than romantic.”

Noirfifre
Guest

Yes! Emma is definitely a depiction on manners of th era. I can’t stand Emma, hehe.

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