• Sun, 23, Feb, 2020 - 5:00:AM

Eleanor Catton, Jane Austen and feminine villainy

Emma. Official Trailer / Screenshot / YouTube

If the world never produced another Jane Austen adaptation, we’d be fine. There are at least 15 Pride and Prejudices out there, in various forms. There are four Sense and Sensibilities, a work perfected by the remarkable Emma Thompson. And, if you include 1995’s Clueless, which you should, there are at least five Emmas. But who wants to live in a world without Austen? Effervescent as they may be, there’s something comforting about a well-trodden work, slightly reshaped by modern aesthetics.

The latest Emma. (yes, full stop and all) marks Eleanor Catton’s first major work since The Luminaries, a book that sits atop every New Zealander’s bookshelf (whether or not it’s been read is another story). Catton wrote the screenplay and has several other films and television productions in the works – making Emma. as a first choice all the more conspicuous. What is it about Austen that we keep coming back to, even when, for instance, the Brontës’ collective output is more thrilling in an obvious sense?

I think it’s that Austen’s world makes for the perfect feminine escapism. Whether Jane Austen can be considered feminist is a debate I’ll leave to the scholars, but there’s certainly no question that her works are feminine. Her heroines are female, her villains are female, and while her storylines usually hang around a loose framework of ‘finding a husband’ the interiority of her characters is deep, and concerned with autonomy. What’s interesting about Emma Woodhouse, in particular, is that she embodies the qualities of a heroine and a villain simultaneously. Said Austen, before she wrote her, ‘I’m going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like’. 

Austen imbues the character with a type of feminine villainy that can very easily be overdone (and by lesser writers, often is). But Emma never veers into unlikeabilty (despite Jane Austen assuming she would) because the reader roots for her, despite themselves. She’s charming, if pig-headed – a quality male characters (Harry Potter comes to mind) have been getting away with forever. Eleanor Catton, and the remarkable Anya Taylor-Joy who plays the character, both seem to understand this line implicitly.

Of course, Catton embodied this feminine villainy for a time, when she said of the Canadian, Australian and New Zealand governments,"[They are] neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture... They care about short-term gains. They would destroy the planet in order to be able to have the life they want. I feel very angry with my Government."

From that came the ultimate, infamous pejorative: ungrateful hua.

I could imagine detractors saying the same of Emma Woodhouse. And yet her popularity reigns on.

Time and again, I find myself drawn to female villains. In a world that isn’t made for your comfort, isn’t made for your freedom, isn’t made with you in mind at all – there’s something delicious in breaking all the rules. Even the name of this website speaks to that.

Emma. is playing in New Zealand cinemas now.


  • Jane Austen /
  • Film /
  • Feminism /
  • Characters /
  • Difficult Women /
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